Building an Audience

Mass Marketing, Online and Off

lthough you should devote most of your resources to building your audience in a focused way that relies on identifiable communities, you should also try to reach visitors in much larger aggregates, including through the mass media of newspapers, radio, and television. If you succeed, it can dramatically expand your audience. For example, on August 19, 2002, the Associated Press ran a story on our September 11 Digital Archive that was picked up across the country and featured on the CNN.com home page. That day, the number of visitors to our site jumped almost ten-fold, from 3,700 to 36,000. Other history website operators have similarly reported that a story in the New York Times or on National Public Radio suddenly sent their web traffic through the roof. Timothy Messer-Kruse, a professor of history at the University of Toledo who created Toledo’s Attic: A Virtual Museum of Toledo, Ohio notes that whenever the local public television station plugs his site, traffic goes up so much that it threatens to crash their modestly powered server.9

Although we had spent months seeking publicity for our September 11 Digital Archive, only in the weeks leading up to the first anniversary of the attacks did we suddenly find ourselves the subject of stories in USA Today, the Washington Post, Le Monde, the BBC, and NPR. Few stories are that big, but connecting your site to current anniversaries can attract attention. So can other current events, sometimes unexpectedly. The Cuneiform Digital Library, an electronic database of ancient tablets, might normally only attract the interest of specialized scholars. But in the aftermath of the destruction of Iraqi historical treasures in 2003, its digital preservation of the record of Mesopotamian civilization became news. Similarly, reporters suddenly began calling University of Chicago history professor James Sparrow about his site on the New York City blackouts of 1965 and 1977 when a power outage plunged the Northeast into darkness in the summer of 2003. Traffic to the site jumped an astonishing 280-fold in two days.

Even if you are not the beneficiary of a catastrophe, you should still try to attract press attention to your site by thinking about it from the perspective of a reporter. What is the “news” in your site? Are you the first to make some body of historical materials available online? Have you developed an innovative way to teach history or present the past online? That news should be the headline in a press release that you write whenever you launch a site. In some cases, you may be part of an institution—a college or a museum–with a press office that will help you write the press release. If not, get some samples from colleagues and write it on your own. Send the release to newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets as well as friends and colleagues.

You should also pay attention to the new and increasingly influential world of blogs. These frequently updated sites often review or highlight new and useful websites and link to other blogs in their community. “Bloggers on History News Network link to other bloggers,” notes editor Rick Shenkman about his site’s eight blogs, “which helps drive up our numbers. In addition, each blogger includes a blog roll of favorite blogs. Other bloggers reciprocate and include our blogs in their blog lists, thereby using the power of networking to increase the number of readers who consult their sites and ours.”10

Mass marketing online generally relies on search engines, which will likely provide the most important source of visitors to your site. Almost 60 percent of those who come to History Matters arrive via a search engine, especially the currently dominant search engine, Google, which gives us about three-fifths of that traffic. Thus you need to understand how your site gets listed and ranked in Google. Steer clear of people trying to sell you access or to “optimize” your site for the search engines; instead spend some of your own time learning the fundamentals of how they work.11

Unfortunately Google works in somewhat mysterious ways. It protects its formula for how it ranks sites on its search page as closely as Coca-Cola guards its secret recipe. A cottage industry has arisen to figure out how Google ranks websites, but it is more of an art than a science, and the formula undoubtedly changes from time to time as Google’s engineers try to keep up with the web’s changes (and the attempts of “search engine optimizers” to crack its formula for commercial gain). Yet some basic ingredients will likely remain strongly correlated with a high ranking in Google because they explain the rise of this search engine in the first place.

Indeed, perhaps the best way for historians to understand Google (and the efforts of major companies that are trying to catch up to it, including Yahoo and Microsoft) is to understand the short, tumultuous history of search engines. Unlike most of the top sites on the web, Google appeared quite late (1998), at a time when everyone thought that the search wars had ended and those with the biggest brand names (e.g., AltaVista, HotBot, and Excite) would forever be the first stops for web searchers. The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had several clever insights about the web, however, that allowed them to develop far superior technology than these earlier search engines.

First, they noticed (as many users of AltaVista, HotBot, and Excite did) that machines are often terrible at finding the best sites through keywords. A poorly written site that mentions “Thomas Jefferson” twenty times might be mechanically ranked more “relevant” than an authoritative site from the Library of Congress that happens to mention his name only twice on its home page. Page and Brin also realized that the creators of the web were na´ve to think that “meta” tags, or hidden tags describing the contents of a web page (and written by the page’s author), would provide assistance to search engines; no one anticipated the deviousness of online pornography purveyors and other unsavory types who quickly added bogus keywords to their sites’ meta tags so they would show up in a wide variety of more innocent searches. Finally, though meta tags seemed unreliable, Page and Brin noticed that certain other features of web pages provided better measures of which sites were most relevant to a specific search, including the presence of keywords in the title and URL. You can’t fudge these one-liners as readily as the potentially endless contents of a web page or meta tag. But most important was an element unique to the medium of the web: links. Page and Brin envisioned the web as consisting of billions of “votes” for websites in the form of links from one page to another. A site on Jefferson with twenty links to it from other sites was probably better than one with two links to it, they surmised. If in turn some of those other sites were “authoritative” (i.e., they also had lots of links to them), so much the better for the first site’s ranking. In short, Google found a way to measure reputation on the web through a recursive analysis of the interconnectedness of the medium itself.12

Although this brief recounting of Google’s innovations likely ignores many smaller factors in its complicated ranking system, it does reveal some of the best ways to make your site more visible through the dominant search engine as well as others that follow its methodology. In an ideal world, a valuable and well-regarded site will naturally end up with numerous, authoritative links to it, but it cannot hurt to accelerate this process by asking related sites to add a link from their web outpost to yours. In particular, try to get links from respected or prominent sites. Your site’s ranking will benefit much more from a link provided by the highly linked (and highly ranked) Library of Congress website than from your cousin’s personal home page. Web directories are by nature highly linked, and it is worth trying to get your site into them. Google appears to put particular weight on listings in the directories from Yahoo, Looksmart, and especially the Open Directory Project , which is the basis of Google’s own web directory.

Make sure your web page title includes the keywords by which people would search for your site, avoiding vague labels such as “page one” or “home page.” An additional benefit of this practice is that the title is what appears on the search results page as a clickable link, further attracting potential visitors who glance quickly at these highlighted words. The keywords important to your site should obviously also be in the page text, preferably near the top and not confined to a graphic. In addition, try to get keywords into the main URL for your site, as in www.mayanhistory.org or www.college.edu/~user/mayanhistory. Because Google’s relentless spiders will probably find most sites with external links to them pretty quickly, submitting your site to the major search engines may be less useful than you imagine, though it can’t hurt. On the other hand, don’t waste a second creating meta tags for your website. The importance of Google and other search engines in attracting visitors means a successful website is one that is surrounded by and part of strong communities of interest, practically represented by links, and clearly marked with identifying keywords in several locations, not just in the bodies of the web pages.13

One obvious other avenue of online promotion is advertising. Most readers of this book will not have a budget that would cover the cost of banner ads on major portals such as Yahoo, where an ad campaign typically costs $10,000 or more per month. More recently, however, a form of highly targeted advertising–popularized again by Google–has emerged that might interest developers of history sites. Google sells “search words” and places an ad on the side of its results page linking to a site that has paid to be associated with that word or phrase. (Overture, a subsidiary of Yahoo, has a similar system.) For example, if you enter the word “historians” in Google’s search, you get a “sponsored link” for History Associates Inc., which offers historical research, writing, and archival services. If you enter “American Civil War,” you get a link for Ancestry.com, which sells access to enlistment rosters, regimental histories, and other genealogical records. What’s appealing about this system is that you only pay when someone clicks on your link, and an auction involving others interested in buying the same search words sets the price. Not surprisingly, then, “French Revolution” (6 cents per click) costs considerably less than “sex” (45 cents) or “flowers” ($3.13). “Historians” (22 cents) can be had for much less than “dentists” ($2.33). But those clicks can add up, and so even advertising unsexy (or unflowery) history topics requires a hefty budget and should not be undertaken before you seriously consider whether it will bring you the audience you are seeking.14 In most cases, your time and money will be better spent on community-building efforts and other forms of free publicity.

9 Timothy Messer-Kruse, interview, 9 June 2004.

10 Richard Shenkman, email to Emily Bliss, 10 June 2004.

11 For registering your website with major search engines, see Adam Shannon, Building an Effective Website: A Guide for Nonprofit Organizations (Washington, D.C.: Oxygen Communications, 2000), 29-32. See also “Search Engine Submission Tips,” SearchEngineWatch, ↪link 5.11.

12 For the basic principles, see Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” (proceedings of the Seventh International World Wide Web Conference, Brisbane, Australia, 14-18 April 1998), ↪link 5.12.

13 Jill Whalen, “All About Title Tags,” High Rankings Advisor, 96 (28 April 2004); David Callan, “Google Ranking Tips,” PowerHomeBiz.Com; Ralph F. Wilson, “The Web Marketing Checklist: 29 Ways to Promote Your Site,” Web Marketing Today, 125 (4 June 2003); Shannon, Building an Effective Website, 29-32.

14 Alice Sheehy, email to Emily Bliss, 16 June 2004. Google ad prices are estimates for getting your ad at or near the top of the listings.