Free Ways to Promote Your Website
Not every web site has a massive advertising budget with which to let the world know about it, but you need to advertise if you want your site to do more than simply gather electronic dust. It doesn't matter whether you run a commercial site or a if it's just for kicks, the techniques listed below will help to increase awareness of your site and draw targeted visitors to it.
Something you must remember is that these techniques aren't a fire and forget approach. If you truly want your web site to blossom, you need to keep revisiting these techniques, keep refining your approach, and do so regularly.
Creating your own site newsletter or e-zine is excellent for promotion on several levels. Firstly, it allows you keep your existing visitors/customers up-to-date on your latest products, services, promotions, site updates or anything else. Secondly, your subscribers will be people who are interested in what you're offering and that makes them targeted customers. You'll find I go on about targeted customers, this is because they're the best kind. You can have the best product in your industry, have the most dedicated customer service and shout about your services 'till your blue in the face, but if you're audience doesn't want it, you'll be wasting your time. With targeted customers, you know they want your product, selling to them is much easier because of it and you'll have a much better hit rate.
A newsletter not only allows you to grab people's contact details, but you could use it to capture other things. It could help you find out your site's demographic, or any other information about the people who sign up, such as their hobbies and pastimes. This could be useful if you want to branch out, sell specialised products, set up a joint venture or simply want to appeal to your customers more. If you have a lot of customers with similar hobbies then you could set a special offer venture with a company providing services linked to that area.
Selling ad space in your newsletter could generate some extra income for your site. This is really only viable if you top 1000 subscribers. I would recommend keeping the ads to a minimum though. If your newsletter looks more like the classifieds section of a newspaper, people will leave. It never hurts to have an additional income stream, and if some of the products mentioned have affiliate programs, it could become a nice little earner.
Lastly, newsletters can also help make your site 'sticky.' What I mean is, you can happily have links to further articles or information on your site, encouraging people to visit more often. This increases the chances of them buying something and improves the number of opportunities you have to hit them with your marketing ploys.
Articles and E-books
Using articles and e-books to market your online business can help to overcome some of the problems you face making an impact in a busy marketplace such as the web. The vast number of web sites currently available cause two major problems for any online business. The first is that you are unlikely to be offering a unique product or service free from competitors, and second, that the number of competing sites overwhelm customers when deciding which one to use. Writing an article or an e-book can increase recognition of you and your company, build brand awareness and boost the public's perception of your expertise.
Obviously it would be nice if we could all get our articles published in a newspaper or magazine, but very few of us will and, to be honest, the time between submission and it appearing in print is prohibitively long for advertising purposes. Printed publications also offer a limited way of advertising your business, but are much better for establishing you as an expert. We will be focusing on the online distribution of articles, for free. That's right, I said you give them away. Distributing articles for use on web sites and in e-zines/newsletters has now become widely established, and with the number of sites offering one or other increasing, the demand continues to grow.
I did say you give your articles away, but what I meant was you give them in return for advertising, think of it more as an exchange. The web masters who run sites and e-zines that publish articles can rarely do it by themselves, they need help to produce the content. They may also want content in an area of expertise they know little or nothing about. In exchange, they're more than happy to include what's known as a resource box. A resource box is a polite way of saying the author can stick an advert about them and their business at the bottom of the article, disguised as background information, in exchange for letting other people use their article. The webmasters get content, you get a free advert for no outlay and little effort.
Obviously it's best to try and submit articles to sites with large numbers of visitors, partly because more people will see it, partly because being published on a bigger site will help your credentials. Bigger, more professional sites often have defined publishing requirements and won't publish any old rubbish. This can help to make people aware of your expertise in the field and will mean some of the site's reputation will rub off on you. The better known you are, the more people will want to use your articles and, in turn, the more people will see them. All the while your name gets spread about in the communities you serve.
To make best use of your articles, draw attention to any published articles on your site (in your news section for example), and use your articles if they're relevant. People are more likely to buy from you if they have read one of your articles while they were searching for advice or because they can see you have published. It gives you added credibility.
To increase the potential distribution of your article you need to advertise it (yet more advertising, crazy I know). One way to do this is to add your article to sites such as www.ezinearticles.com and www.goarticles.com which act as a repository for articles. It allows web masters to visit when looking for articles rather than you doing all the hard work.
E-books can be used in exactly the same way, they can be advertised via services such as www.ebookdirectory.com or offered from your own site. You could also include them as a special bonus when a customer buys something or signs up for a service (such as your newsletter). Be sure to add an 'About the author' page where you can detail a bit about you and your business.
Exploited properly, articles and e-books can not only increase your standing within a community, they can help build trust with your customers and boost the visibility of your business. Your articles must be more than thinly disguised adverts if they're to succeed though, so leave the sales pitch out. People like getting something for nothing and giving away articles and e-books appears to be just that, but you and I know that's not the case. Under the surface an advert lurks, waiting to secure its next target, make sure it secures them for you.
The use of bulletin boards and forums has been fairly significant for some time, but the software was either costly or difficult to configure. Now, these services are offered as standard on most hosting accounts and if they don't come pre-installed there are a plethora of free and easy to configure options around. This has seen a boom in boards and they now appear on a vast number of web sites.
There are two ways to exploit them for the benefit of your site: You can post to other people's forums or you can host your own. As I said, there are thousands, possibly millions, of forums and bulletin boards scattered across the net. It's highly unlikely that there isn't one that relates to your site or business (even if you have to think laterally or look for one that services a broader range of topics than just yours). Finding forums isn't always the easiest thing, they're usually attached to specific sites, but a search on decent search engine should pull something up.
Once you find a board, register and spend a little time looking over the topics to find where you fit in best. It's important you don't rush in and start advertising your service from day one, or post advertisements, unless there is a specific topic where this is allowed. Most forums have an anti-spam policy, partly to protect their members (which means they stay) and partly to stop people registering, posting one post and then leaving. If you post spam to a forum, all you're likely to receive is a flaming (i.e. nasty remarks) and an administrator will simply remove your post. If there's a topic concerned with advertising your business or service, by all means give it the full spiel, but not in the main topics.
The best way to advertise on a forum is to participate for a while. Don't say anything about your business, simply add it to your signature (most forums will allow you to create your own signature which will be attached to posts automatically, if it doesn't, just sign every post with a signature manually). To start with I'd recommend a simple signature along the lines of "Visit my site www.mydomain.com," rather than a full-blown "Moe's hardware, the best hardware online."
Spend a little bit of time adding advice or answers to any questions, queries or general posts you find. If it's a busy forum, pop back in every day or two, you don't need to stay too long. Take a quick look, add advice where you can and leave. If it's a slow forum, or you're busy, once a week should be more than enough. Slowly, the forum members will get to know you, they'll see your signature and appraise your posts. As your post count rises you can make your signature a little more descriptive, with a small sales pitch, but keep it to a line or two. You may find that there are opportunities to offer your product or services (if someone asks for recommendations on where to find them for example), don't do the full PR job on your posts, just make it sound like you're genuinely trying to help.
The benefit to going slow and holding back is that people will begin to know and trust you and your knowledge. They may start using your service, and if they do, they'll post about it to others on the site, even when you're not there. Other members tend to do this even if they haven't used your service, especially if you've been laid back about advertising it and your advice is good. You could even offer forum members a special discount (you can add it to your signature), this can definitely increase sales. Forums also help spread brand awareness and word of mouth, and don't forget, as long as you pick your boards well, they'll be targeted customers. I've seen companies literally live off forums and the recommendations they get from other members. And don't forget that these people are involved in your business area, possibly at a professional level, and when asked about companies with services such as yours, they'll recommend the nice guy/girl on the forum with a company who really knows their stuff!
Another way to exploit forums is to add one to your own site to help create a community. This is harder than you think. Creating a forum is getting easier and easier but getting people to post on it is not so easy (see http://www.sitepoint.com/article/turn-lurkers-posters for tips on increasing forum posts). The benefits of having a successful forum are excellent though. Not only do you improve your standing amongst your customers by proving your commitment to them, you can also prove your expertise by offering advice on the forums for all to see. It has the added bonus of letting your customers help each other out, which can reduce your support costs and it helps your company appear community minded and customer focused. All the while it allows you to sell to those people who use it (discreetly is best though) and it can also help bring repeat traffic to your site. A forum could also provide you with topics for a newsletter, or content for your main site by providing answers to queries raised, or producing articles or a how-to on often repeated topics. All of these are benefits that are hard or expensive to create any other way.
So forums can be used in two different capacities, and for a number of reasons, all of which should benefit your business. How you choose to use forums is up to you, you could use one or many of the methods I've outlined, but across all of them I would suggest you stay away from out and out advertising posts, especially if you're new to a forum. This is something that will certainly not benefit your business, and will simply enrage other members (I've seen it first hand, though not directed at me thankfully). Tread carefully and forums should provide a happy hunting ground for customers and an excellent source for spreading brand awareness and word of mouth about your business.
Reciprocal links are in widespread use across both the commercial and non-commercial web communities. All it involves is getting links from other sites, usually in exchange for a link from your site. It's a simple idea with numerous benefits for both parties.
For starters, it can help increase your search engine placement via your Page Rank (PR). Many search engines use a ranking system so they can assess sites and list them by relevancy when a search term is entered. Perhaps the most documented of these systems is Google's ranking system, though most engines operate along similar lines, especially with regards to page links. You can use the Google toolbar (http://toolbar.google.com) to see your sites PR, the higher it is, the better.
The number and quality of links to and from your site can have a significant impact on how and where your page is listed in a search engine. Any pages that link to you (and to a lesser extent the pages you link to) are checked for their relevancy to your site, and their PR noted, this is then used as part of the calculation to determine your PR. Having a site with a high PR link to you can boost your placement, but links from any relevant site will help. The bigger their PR is the bigger the boost will be.
Swapping links is easy, and most webmasters are happy to do so assuming your site is up to scratch and relevant to theirs. Just drop them a polite email (using their name, if you can find it) explaining that you like their site, already have a link to it (put one up before emailing) and could they link to you and you're usually guaranteed success. It really is that simple. The biggest benefits, as I have explained, come from the quality of your links, so make sure you find sites which relate to your topic and, ideally, have a good PR (check this with the Google toolbar). Depending on the size of the site, you should see a nice boost in targeted traffic into the bargain.
Another way to not only generate more traffic and a higher PR, but also increase brand awareness, is to swap advertising with other sites. This can take the form of banner ads, button ads or e-zine/newsletter ads. It costs each party nothing but the time to create a catchy banner (see advice link) and can help drive up traffic, your PR and get your name/brand known quickly. Banners stand out past the content and grab visitor's eyes. Even though most visitors have grown to ignore them, a banner ad will still have an impact, and will put your name in their minds. For the biggest possible impact you need to create a zany or alluring banner that will grab even the most hardened surfer's attention. Don't forget that this is still completely free, unlike paying for banner ads, so you loose nothing.
Swapping links or ads is an easy and free way to promote your site, don't take my word for it, try it today, I promise you won't be disappointed. Just remember that no site is too big, or small, and that you loose nothing by asking. Just don't create those annoying, flashing YOU'VE WON banners or even I will come to hate you.
Search engine optimisation
Search engines account for the bulk of traffic to most web sites. The reason for this is simple; the web is a research tool. Most people use it to search for answers to their questions. These questions could be anything from "Where can I buy CDs?" to "What year did Shakespeare die?" Obviously some will visit sites they know and use regularly, or they may have been prompted to visit a particular site, usually for a specific reason. In either instance it is impossible to affect that decision (online at least) as they will not be interacting with any other site. That said, most people's first port of call will be a search engine to help them locate an answer to their question.
Making sure your web site is well placed in a search engine is very important to the success of your business. You can do this by purchasing key words from more major search engines and directories, but this article is only interested in free ways to promote your site. There are a number of completely free ways you can optimise your site to enhance your ranking. Reciprocal linking is one such method, but as I have already covered it in detail in this article, I will not be discussing it here.
In the good old days META tags were the way to go, but these were so easy to abuse that many search engines have abandoned using them all together. They are still useful and important, so don't forget to include them though. The two main META tags, certainly for promotion purposes, are the keywords and description tags. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but these allow you to put a list of relevant keywords and a brief site description in the header of your HTML documents. There are a number of tools that will automatically generate META tags based on the page you submit, check out www.link.com for example. As I said, many have stopped using them, but some search engines still do and most still use your description when listing your site, so don't forget them.
More important is the page title. This is located in the same area of an HTML document as the META tags, but controls what appears in the titlebar at the top of your browser. This is something the search engines look at and make note of, and so should you. Obviously having your site name is useful, and a page title to help accessibility, but you can also add keywords too. Drop the tagline most people store in it and add a few choice keywords and the search engines will begin to look at your page favourably.
It's also important to include as many of the keywords used in your title and description in the main body of your text. The earlier the better too. The first paragraph has great impact on your visitors as well as search engines, so make sure you squeeze in as many keywords as possible, without overdoing it. The number of times a keyword is used also has an affect, so try and repeat them wherever you can.
Search engines can't read the text in images, so these are completely useless unless accompanied by a descriptive ALT tag. Wherever possible, use CSS image replacement techniques so you can still have the words in the HTML, even if they don't show on screen (see link here for more information).
Something else you need to think about are your links. You can use the TITLE attribute of a link tag to add extra meaning in the same way ALT tags do for images. Something else you might need to think about is rationalising your links and giving them sensible names. This mainly affects dynamic sites which often have difficult links with ? and & characters in them. Some search engines find these impossible to follow and index. Talk to a web developer about how to convert these into a friendlier format without changing your entire site. The same goes if your site uses session ids for security or tracking purposes. The solutions are relatively well documented and will be easy for any developer to instigate.
Naming your files and links appropriately can also help your listing as search engines will register these along with your site keywords. For example, use web-development-article.html instead of article1.html.
Don't underestimate the impact a good search engine ranking can have. Many businesses were up in arms when recent changes to Google (currently the most popular search engine) caused them to drop off the listings completely. They all suffered a significant drop in business as a result. Even if you follow all of the steps outlined above I can't guarantee you a top listing in every search engine, no one can (unless you pay more than anyone else for a keyword anyway). You should, however, see significant increases to your placement and be better prepared for any future changes to page ranking systems.
Although not every site has one, and their appeal may be waning, guestbooks are still widespread and many webmasters like to use them to get feedback from their visitors. I'd be surprised if you found one on a commercial site to be honest, though some use guest comments in the form of testimonials or submit a picture systems instead. Guestbooks still prevail on personal and non-corporate sites though, and they can be a useful way of getting a few extra links, directly or indirectly.
Many webmasters actively encourage you to fill out their guestbooks, partly for feedback, partly to help their site look busy and popular. They can, however, be used to help promote your site. To start with you need to find some that are relevant to your subject matter, if you have reciprocal links with related sites they would be a good place to start, if not, try your search engine of choice and finally try a link:www.domainname.com search in Google to see which sites link to your competitor's sites and see if they have guestbooks. When you find suitable examples, fill it out.
A nice complementary comment about the site is always good, mention anything you found particularly good (a quick perusal before hand helps, better still if you've made use of something on the site), then simply sign it with your name, company and web site address and possibly your email address. It's also worth trying to work in something about the content of your site (especially if your URL doesn't make it obvious). Most guestbooks will have options to leave you name, email address and possibly a web address, but it's always a good idea to get them in the comment as these are far more visible and requires no effort for other visitors to see. Just make sure you don't overdo the sales pitch or spend too much time on selling your site as it'll probably be removed.
Invariably the webmaster will get an email to tell them you have posted, and may well take a look at your site, customer number one. This could easily lead to a link or a mention on the site, and if you have something free to offer (such as an e-book or article) you may find they'll use it on their site, which you name and site mentioned again.
That's just one visitor though, but of course other people see the guestbook, some will post to it, others will simply look at it. This is where the benefit of putting your URL and company name in the post comes into it's own. It makes your details far more visible to the casual observer (most people are only interested in what is written, not who wrote it) and so catches those people who normally wouldn't bother finding out about a postee.
It helps to find a popular site to increase the number of people seeing your post. It's also an idea to pick relevant sites so that you target your details and increase the chances of someone visiting your site (because they already have an interest in it). Randomly posting to guestbooks will achieve little but to waste your time. What are the chances, for example, that someone wants to buy sportswear on a site about cooking? Find a site about the Olympics, or fitness, or athletics, or even a specific athlete however, and you're laughing. Remember to think laterally when it comes to finding sites, your product or service may be linked to a wider range of subjects than you're aware of. A hardware store, for example, could obviously look at all of the DIY and home help sites, but what about craft sites where people use tools that you stock (glue guns are a favourite for example) or other leisure activities where tools or equipment are used regularly (camping, fishing, etc).
Guestbooks may not provide a deluge of links and prospects, but if you target them right and think openly enough, you should be able to bring in a range of targeted customers who may not have thought of using your product before. You comments will also provide an ongoing promotion as guestbooks tend to stay up for some time and it may even increase the number of links to your site that a search engine registers, which may help boost your search engine ranking. Overall then, guestbooks provide a free, easy and possibly lucrative way of driving more traffic to your site. It's also a reasonably untapped resource, so why not give them a try?
Comments on Blogs and Product Reviews
Blogs, short for web logs, can be any number of things, from online diaries to technical columns. Essentially they are pages or sites of regularly published articles. Some are subject specific, others are more a personal perspective on life, the universe and everything. Product comments are those little reviews that are appearing on more and more to allow customers to express their opinion about the goods they bought. These can both be turned to advertising for your product or services.
Start of by finding a relevant site. For blogs try searching links for relevant columns or sites, don't forget to think a little more laterally on this so you include sites that have some connection you can exploit. Product reviews are a little harder to find. You could start with big, general purpose review sites like links, but don't forget to check out any big sites that sell products related to those you offer (if you want to be really cheeky, use a competitors site). Search for products that have some direct relation to yours.
For blogs, have a look through their recent articles (don't bother with anything over a few months) and see if you can either add useful hints or tips, a clarification or a simple statement of the article benefitted you.
Word of Mouth through good Customer Service
Marketeers have long known that word of mouth is the most powerful form of advertising, and probably the only one you can't buy or generate. Personal recommendations carry more weight than any advertising campaign ever could. It works in both ways though, someone saying a firm or product was terrible can have an equally strong negative effect. Finding some way to harness it could, however, have massive benefits for your site or business.
When I said you couldn't generate good word of mouth, I wasn't being entirely accurate. What I meant was that you couldn't generate good word of mouth from an advertising campaign, but there is another way, and it's fairly simple: good customer service. That's right, I said it, all you need is good customer service. Well, a good product would be useful too, but if you're in a market where the products are basically all the same (and that's most of them these days), your level of customer service could well be the difference between being the market leader and going under. "Why?" you ask. Well, it's simple, with more and more people online, good word of mouth can become a massive marketing strategy.
Aside from your customers telling their friends, neighbours and anyone else about your service when they're asked for a recommendation, they also recommend you to people in chat rooms, forums and mailing lists too. I know several web hosts who have never advertised and get all of their clients from customer recommendations, and these guys are experiencing rapid, continual growth of the kind that most companies would kill for.
I recommend companies all the time, I frequent a number of forums and sites and not only will I suggest companies when the question is posed, I'll ask for recommendations for services or products I need. I see this happening all the time online, and for a web business this has several benefits. Obviously there is the driving of targeted business to your site, which should help sales, but it will also increase your brand awareness and provide more links to your site.
Brand awareness comes from people who may not need your service at the time of the suggestion, but who have looked at the post and have seen your name. Down the line when they do need your service, your company or web site will spring to mind. Downstream word of mouth is an additional benefit. This means that when someone asks this person, who has never used your service, for a recommendation, you're name will come to mind and they'll suggest you! And all because they saw someone, from a community they trust, recommend you.
Additional links to your site have the added benefit of increasing your ranking in most search engines. This all depends on where the link is, by that I mean which site and if it's in a searchable area (I've noticed that many forums don't get included in searches). If the site's related to yours, or just a popular site, you should get a nice boost to your page ranking and hence your position on searches. As most people find sites via search engines, this is definitely not to be overlooked.
These things may not happen solely because of good customer service, some people may recommend you for other reasons (good prices for example) but the number of recommendations you get will grow exponentially if customers feel you've gone out of your way to ensure their satisfaction.