Why Have A Website?

It may seem like a strange question to come from someone who creates websites, but I believe the question, “Why have a website?” is perhaps the most important are least frequently asked question by people setting up websites. The answer to that question is crucial in understanding what software should be used to support a website, what the website should look like, how it should be promoted, whether or not a website is really needed, and a host of other decisions.

This came up in several discussions on Thursday as I visited various social media gatherings, so I thought I would explore this a little bit here. The broader, underlying question is, what sort of online presence does a person or organization want. In some cases, it may be better for an organization to simply have a Facebook Fan page, a twitter page, or a page on some site oriented towards an organization’s niche.

Perhaps, the most common response to the “why have a website” is, “because everyone else does”. This is fine if you want to be like everyone else, and if you can enunciate what it really is that everyone else is doing.

On the simplest level, it may well be that people are looking for the twenty first century version of a business card or a brochure; something that looks like that lends credibility. Business cards, brochures, and what I like to call brochure websites all have a few common characteristics. They are static. They change rarely. They need to look nice. They provide almost no interaction. Also, significantly, they are something given out, instead of being something found. Yes, there are occasions when a business card or brochure is posted to a community bulletin board somewhere, but mostly people who receive the business cards or brochures already know about the organization they are dealing with, and they are looking for a small amount of additional information.

Often, however, people are looking for a website as more than just a business card. They want it to be found, something like a Yellow Pages listing. With the Yellow Pages, you needed to choose which category you want your advertisement to appear in. Websites are similar, but a little more complicated. You need to optimize your website so that people will be most likely to find it when they search on certain terms. This leads us into the realm of search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).

There are lots of tricks that can be done to get your website to appear higher in search engine rankings. The more links you have coming in, the higher you are likely to appear. There are a lot of people that provide SEO services, but it has often seemed like many of them are similar to snake oil salesmen. The first thing you need to think about when optimizing your search terms is, what terms do you want to rank high in. If I’m a lawyer, I am hoping people will find my site searching on ‘attorney’ and perhaps something related to my specialty, instead of by searching on ‘shyster’. If I rank really high in the search engines under ‘shyster’ that may hurt my business more than it helps it.

So, the first thing that you need to do is determine what sort of searches you want to rank highly on. Ideally, you should end up with a list of around twenty search terms. These terms should be specific enough so that you have a chance of standing out in the crowd. For example, there are nearly ten million webpages that show up under the search terms ‘Connecticut Lawyer’. Living in Woodbridge, I did a search on ‘Woodbridge Connecticut Lawyer’. This narrowed the results down to just eighty-three thousand pages, or over nine webpages per person in Woodbridge. On the other hand, you also want to make sure that you don’t too narrowly define your business.

Once you have your keywords, you want to get the search engines to recognize them. Search companies generally won’t tell you how to get your keywords recognized, out of concern that some people will try to take unfair advantage. However, there are certain things that appear to make a big difference: having a keyword in your URL, the title of your web page, and the links people provide to your webpage. As an example, having a page entitled Real Estate Law, with a URL like http://www.example.com/real-estate-law and a friend creating a link like:

My friend is a <a href=http://www.example.com/real-estate-law>Real Estate Lawyer</a>

is going to help much more than having a page about your practice entitled “what I do”, with the URL http://www.example.com/index2.html and a friend creating a link like:

My friend is a Real Estate Lawyer. Here is his <a href=http://www.example.com/real-estate-law>webpage</a>

Another thing that can help is to use Meta tags in your website. This is information that regular people normally don’t see, but that some search engines use. One meta tag is ‘Description’ and another is ‘Keywords’.


<meta name="Description" content="This is a description of the website " />
<meta name="Keywords" content="Woodbridge,Blogger,Aldon,Hynes,Connecticut,Other,examples" />

One last meta tag that I’ve always liked to use to help people find me, which I suspect will become more important as more people use location aware browsing is geotagging my webpages. There are two old, and competing standards for geotagging a website. I use both of them. e.g.

<meta name="ICBM" content="41.33183, -72.98823">
<meta name="geo.position" content="41.33183;-72.98823">

The Meta tags need to go in the top section of the website. If you are using some sort of blogging or content management software, there may be tools to automatically add these, or you may want to put the information in your theme, template, skin, or whatever your system calls the general layout files for your website. Otherwise, you may have to enter them manually.

All of this said, there are a lot of people competing for top search locations. To get around this, some people place advertisements based on the search terms that are important to them. Advertising on sites like Google or Facebook can provide additional traffic that simply SEO does not. Personally, unless I was serving a population that is distinctly non-technical, I would cut my advertising budget for Yellow Pages, and similar services and place a bit of that money into online advertising with search engines and similar sites.

Finally, having frequently updated quality content greatly increases the chance that your web pages will be ranked highly and will be easier to find. Yet this leads to other aspects of a website. Do you want to use the website to promote community around your brand, product or service? Do you want to use the website for customer service and interaction? Do you want to list events? Do you want to provide access to special information? Do you want to sell stuff from the website? All of these ideas get more complicated and I’ll save them for another blog post.