Developing an Online Visibility Strategy
By Peter Shikli

1. Overview

If your website can't be found on the internet, what good is it? Many million-dollar-managers have deployed million-dollar websites under the popular premise, "Build it and they will come." But how exactly will anyone find their website in a pile of several million?

The disappointment to follow is so prevalent that Microsoft launched a nationwide ad campaign that showed a nervous manager hearing, "Customers will find us on the web; these things just take time".

As the lack of a visibility strategy grows embarrassing, managers often look for the quick fix of the submittal services, "We'll submit your URL to 1,000 search engines for $49." Although visitation does jump in response to this, managers may soon learn they have discovered the only thing worse than being invisible — being visible to the wrong visitors. Thousands of e-mail messages pour in from unqualified prospects, quota-conscious salespeople disregard their own website, and operating costs exceed budget as the website scales up to the useless new traffic.

Meta tags, bridge pages, banner ads — my company gets calls almost daily from frantic managers and even web developers looking for the silver bullet to make their website visible. The bad news is that online visibility has passed the trick phase where clever designers secure solid positioning regardless of their client's visibility strategy.

The good news is that there is a great deal of room to be found where your qualified customers are looking. You can prove this to yourself: the last time you used a Web directory to search for a product or service — how well matched were the URL listings? Did you search over and over to see lists of what you were not looking for? Either you (and the rest of the world) are bad searchers, or the companies you sought were bad listers. In the online visibility problems my company has solved since 1995, it has always been the latter.

What follows is an outline of how to be well listed. The format is a checklist we give our new employees, with a brief explanation for the reader's benefit. The focus is on strategy rather than on tactics and techniques, which would make for several books.

2. Startup
a. Identify demographics

Ever since Eve sold Adam an apple, marketing began with an understanding of customer demographics. The how and why are covered by many other marketing books, but online visibility has to begin with a clear, accurate, and detailed description of the target visitors. Most companies already have customer demographic information, and many online resources can help map that to internet behavior in a general sense.

i. Keywords

Keywords determine much of where you will target your visibility strategy to follow. Begin by recognizing that you are looking for keywords that define a buying platform, a listing on the web where people select product, service, or idea vendors. Most people confuse their yellow page category with a keyword. The keyword "spas," for example, does not define a buying platform for a spa manufacturer, spa retailer, or most anyone else. The reason is that the list returned by primitive search engines contains a hodgepodge of spa manufacturers, retailers, designers, as well as spa resorts. Most cybernauts will hit the back button and refine their search to "spa, something." Your job is to know what that "something" is when they're looking for you. To a search for "spa," modern search engines return a list of subcategories such as "spa manufacturers," "spa retailers," etc., anticipating the need to provide a valid buying platform. Put in some serious online time pretending to be the customer you defined in the demographics above and see what keywords search directories suggest to you. Using your demographics that spas are purchased locally, for example, you may discover that someone in L.A. often searches "spa, Los Angeles," telling you that your buying platforms are the many regional subdirectories. Take the surprise turns to find what your keywords really are.

The selection of appropriate keywords can take days and will be an ongoing affair. Survey your best customers. If you make hand tools, don't shy away from making a keyword for each of your tools. If your customers look for a hammer, screwdriver, etc. — be there. Include trade and brand names, popular misspellings, and your competitors' names if they are well known (see usage tips on that in my previous articles).

b. Establish visibility targets
i. Web directories

Most people know of the major web directories from AltaVista through Yahoo. Places like and provide tips on placement with the majors.

ii. Portals

Because of the magnitude of the job of cataloging the world's information as represented by millions of websites, specialized portals are emerging that do a better job in each of their areas than the majors. Sometimes they are the arm of a membership organization or publication such as EE Times' for electronic engineering. Sometimes they are a new dot-com with an angle to attracting the attention of your customers. Visibility on specialized portals that match your demographics are likely to grow to be even more important than the major search directories.

iii. Synergistic websites

No company is an island. Look to your vendors, government regulators, team members, user groups, retailers, etc. — your entire business network — and see what they have on the web. If your blood analyzer has chips from Intel, make sure you get visibility on Intel's website. It's a win-win if someone goes to Intel's site looking for a blood analyzer using Intel chips.

c. Define visibility metrics

Expect resistance from web developers on this one. No one wants to be held to metrics they are not sure they can measure or control. The key is not to abandon the metrics, but to learn to measure and control them.

i. Page/Keyword match

If you did your keyword homework well, you may have a keyword list that goes around the block. Don't squash them into a gigantic meta tag on your home page as is the common approach. Even the search engines that use meta tags will dilute your relevancy to the bottom of the pile — your page will be on a thousand lists, at the bottom of each. Produce instead a table with keywords in one column and the web pages you target to command that keyword in a matching column. There is no penalty to having your page describing your hammers listed on AltaVista under hammers — visitors can always click on the home button to see all your tools.

ii. Competitive positioning

Add a column showing where your competitors list under each target keyword. In a fragmented buying platform, you may not get near the top, but if you get ahead of your competitors, you win. Remember what one camper said to the other, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."

iii. Comprehensive reporting

Use commercial traffic reporting software like WebTrends to understand your visitation. Don't leave it at hit counts. Look for patterns.

iv. Calls to action

The internet gives us a way to measure the effectiveness of our marketing far beyond other media. Beyond counting eyeballs, we can go all the way to measuring an ad's contribution to profits. Begin by determining what the effective calls to action should be on your website. A call to action is what website visitors should do on your behalf as part of their visit. Asking people to call an 800 number or deluging a "mailto" address with unqualified messages is hardly effective. Minolta's products are reasonable well positioned on many Web directories, and provides a simple and effective presentation of product and benefits. Visitors convinced to buy, however, are referred to customer support phone numbers where harried humans shuffle papers to refer to a local dealer. A true example of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.

What if instead Minolta had an online referral system, or online inquiry forms funneled to local dealers for a response? What if they counted such calls to action in their visibility metrics? What if they even kept data on the sales generated by such calls to action, even the profit from matching sales? Unlike other media, the Internet has the technology today to tell managers exactly how much bang they got for their visibility buck.

d. Current website enhancements

Having a strategy, demographics, keywords, etc., the web developer is now ready to maximize web pages for visibility. Techniques can range from the ubiquitous meta tags to simply making sure the keyword is mentioned in header tags. Analysis tools exist that try to simulate the relevancy formulas of the major search engines so the designer can estimate effective positioning during design as long as the visibility target is clearly defined.

This is where cute designs involving frames, dynamically generated pages, volumes of Javascript headers, and other techniques preventing a page from being listed are reworked to maximize visibility. This can be traumatic for creative geniuses, but I suggest considering it simply a new creativity challenge — to be effective while being cool.

e. Develop new pages
i. Neglected keywords
ii. Bridge pages

Don't cram an unrelated keyword into a page simply because the keyword needs a home. If the page doesn't deal with the keyword, no one gets fooled, least of all the constantly evolving search engines. Build a page tuned to dominate the keyword. There is no need to rearrange your website to include the page. Toss it out there as an orphan, picking up strays, and funneling them into your website. For keywords where there is a lot of competition, learn how to design bridge pages. If a competitor lists well, reverse engineer the techniques their page used.

f. Fee-based visibility

Look to fee-based advertising on web directories after you have achieved solid positioning in their editorial content, the URL lists they produce. Even if they are slipping in popularity, banner ads are effective to reinforce brand recognition, particularly on a page that lists you in the editorial content as well. Just don't use it as a crutch to avoid learning to be visible in the editorial content. Throwing ad money at the problem just puts you behind your competitors who have solved the problem.

g. Submit URLs

This is where SubmitIt! and their legions of clones come in to automate the submittal of what should be many web URLs. Check the submittal targets and cull the inappropriate, particularly if yours is a business-to-business site. Yahoo and many of the most valuable destinations require more than automatic submittals to succeed in their listing process.

h. Verify position
i. Resubmit/redesign

Web directories work for searchers, not for listers, hence the confusion and flat-out incompetence dealing with your listing is straight out of a Dilbert cartoon. There is no court of appeal when your URL is listed incorrectly or not at all. Often you simply resubmit, sometimes you redesign, but you never just submit and hope for the best.

i. Contact management

No one embarks on a marketing career without a contact management system. Whether Act!, Telemagic, or just a Rolodex with a forest of Post-It notes, we begin with a way to track our contacts. Online visibility is a contact sport and begins the same way. Find the best tool to suit your needs and use it from the startup phase onward. Track which pages are targeted to which keyword, what you did to get it listed well, how it fared over time, what tweaks worked when, etc.

j. Summary Visibility Plan

Marketing works better with a Marketing Plan, and online visibility works better with a written Visibility Plan. Summarize each of the above elements as it applies to you, perhaps even post it in a password-protected collaboration site so everyone on your team leverages it, and then update it even if the pace of change is frantic.

3. Monthly Maintenance

Many web designers figure their job is done when their website is up and running without errors. Like a brochure that comes off the presses slick and engaging, the job is done. But of course it isn't until it's in the hands of a customer. In the conventional world, that requires consistent effort, usually lots of effort. Even though I didn't dedicate as many words to monthly maintenance as setup, it is what makes or breaks a visibility campaign.

a. Visibility metrics reporting
i. Positioning
ii. Visitation

You set up the tools and techniques in the startup phase — don't let the press of emerging priorities keep you from using them. The most common reaction after the launch of a successful visibility campaign is apathy. "Don't fix it," I always hear, "it's not broken." Sometimes, the better the visibility job we do, the harder it is to convince management to keep doing it. Unfortunately, marketing is not a perpetual energy machine, and every day you visit the web, it's a different place.

b. Online marketing
c. Contact management reporting
d. Emerging visibility targets
e. Fee-based recommendations
f. Threat/Opportunity Summary

Require salespeople to put in at least 10 percent of their marketing time online, and budget time and money for it. Have them pretend to be a customer and see what new portals, buying platforms, or other synergistic websites appear. Fill out the submittal forms to list your URLs on them, have pages designed to target new communities. Keep track of it all in the contact management system you set up, or you will be overwhelmed. Require salespeople to provide a Threat/Opportunity Summary Report to management and review it as much as their Sales Forecast Reports.

4. Closing

In closing, remember that a bad website in front of a unqualified customer will yield better results than a good website in front of no one. If you conclude that a website's visibility requires just as much money and effort as its design, you will have a good website in front of qualified customers.

5. Contact

Peter Shikli is a graduate of UCLA's School of Engineering and obtained an MBA from Loyola. He is founder of Bizware Online Applications (, which specializes in business-to-business websites and internet marketing. He can be reached at or (949) 369-1638, ext 77.

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