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The Jedi Master Speaks

No. 9

Web surfers are fickle

September 19, 1999

To say that Web surfers are fickle is a real understatement. When we first went online in January, 1995, there were about 250,000 competing HTML pages. Currently, there are about 2,000,000,000, with the number doubling every four months. The short story is that with so many places to visit, so much to see, the average viewer spends as little time as possible on any single page. Should he or she be "grabbed" by something on the home page, the visit may be extended while the surfer investigates the entire site. On sites where content is constantly being added and/or updated (such as CNN or our very own How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?) and where almost everything ever posted is archived, you may be able to "hold" the visitor longer, even enticing him or her to return another time or two to check everything out. But, chances are, after a couple of hours, or days at most, the guest is lost in the maze of information glut.

So, measures need to be taken to "remind" previous callers that you are still there and that your content has been enhanced. One way of doing this transparently, is to deposit a "cookie" in the visitor's browser. A cookie is a chunk of data that is written to a special cache in the browser which expires (vanishes) within a fixed period of time, usually about a month. That way, should that guest return, the server can read the cookie and determine what he or she has seen as well as when it was seen, so that new additions can be immediately brought to his or her attention.

This method, though simple and not dependent upon any particular action of the surfer, has the disadvantage that it is only useful if that person voluntarily returns to your site without prompting. What about promotion? How can people be urged to take another look, or, better yet, keep coming back regularly?

One method widely used is to advertise, usually in other media than the Web. The URL, those long unique addresses that identify the virtual location of each Web page, has saturated TV advertising. No company worth its salt posts a television ad without mentioning its site URL. Similarly, newspapers post URL's not only of the sites of advertisers, but also routinely mention them in articles concerning the company or an unusual Web offering.

However, not all Web sites have offline presence. So, it is important for the site owners to constantly remind people both of its presence and about any "hot" content it may contain. Advertising in the offline media tends to be quite expensive and of marginal utility unless the site is already "branded" (like Yahoo!, for example). That is, it already has become a household term. The vast majority of Web sites do not enjoy the advantage of either branding or large sums of disposable wealth. Here are some other ways to get and hold attention.

The bottom line is that you MUST endeavor to constantly promote your site in order to encourage people to come often and stay a long time. No Web host can afford to simply use the Field of Dreams metaphor ("Build it and they will come..."). Competition will keep this axiom important for a long time to come, perhaps forever.

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