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Driving Traffic to Your Web Site

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Marketing

SOFTWARE MARKETING

Driving Traffic to Your Web Site

by Dave Woolridge

Online Publicity for Your Software

Last month, we explored how to turn your web site into a powerful marketing tool for your software. While those techniques will help improve your site's effectiveness, you still face the task of getting consumers to visit your site. Some developers are under the false impression that if they launch a web site, then a flood of business will automatically come their way. In truth, the World Wide Web gives people access to any connected web site, but in order for them to find your site, they first need to know that it exists. A web site is no different than an isolated retail store. Sure, you may get some occasional foot traffic from people who accidentally stumble upon your storefront while on their way to another destination, but you're certainly not going to break any sales records relying on that method alone.

Getting your site listed in the major search engines (such as Google and Yahoo!) is definitely a move in the right direction, but is that enough? If a consumer searches for the right related keyword, your site may be listed in the results, but will it rank in the top ten? Will it even appear on the first page of search results? Improving your ranking status in the search engines is a science in itself (which we will examine later in this article), but luckily for software developers, it's not the only avenue for reaching potential customers online.

Targeting Your Message

Not everyone is going to be interested in your software. As we've discussed in previous issues, your objective is to focus your marketing efforts on the select group of people who you consider to be potential customers. This is your product's target market. These people would have a need or interest in your software product. Your next task is to figure out how to reach this target market online. How do they find software on the Web? What sites do they visit? Once you figure out this important equation, you'll have a clear picture of how and where to best spend your Internet-based publicity efforts and advertising budget.

Why is this important? Knowing your audience allows you to tailor your marketing message to address their specific needs. Plus, this targeted campaign enables you to speak directly to potential customers, so that your time and money are not wasted promoting your product to the wrong audience.

Let's use our fictional software product, CodeQuiver, as an example. CodeQuiver is a handy Mac utility for storing and organizing code snippets. Since the new version 1.5 would primarily benefit software developers and web designers, our goal should be to reach as much of this target market as possible. With this in mind, we would want to send our CodeQuiver 1.5 press release to any site or mailing list that announces Mac-related developer news such as MacTech.com, MacNN.com, MacInTouch.com, MacMinute.com, Apple Developer Connection News (http://developer.apple.com/devnews/) and the dozens of other popular Mac sites.


Figure 1. A fictional e-mail press release for CodeQuiver, with Items 1-11 representing the essential elements.

Anatomy of an Email Press Release

With e-mail being a convenient delivery mechanism, most magazines and web sites prefer to receive press releases via e-mail. Usually, they have dedicated e-mail addresses for collecting press releases, although finding them often requires a little online research. If these e-mail addresses are not listed in the obvious places, then you can usually find the right contact information and submission instructions on either their staff pages or writers kit pages. MacTech's e-mail address for press release submissions is press_releases@mactech.com.

Even though e-mail is often viewed as a very informal medium, there are rules on how to properly write and format e-mail press releases. Figure 1 represents a typical software press release, formatted for e-mail delivery. Since many sites have automated scripts that convert e-mail press releases into web pages or RSS/XML feeds, be sure to always use Plain Text with standard ASCII characters. Never e-mail a press release to a web site in Rich Text or HTML format. Avoid using non-standard characters such as long dashes and curly quotation marks, which may get incorrectly converted into garbled text, making your press release look unprofessional (not to mention unreadable) when viewed on these news sites. Always e-mail yourself a test copy of your press release so that you can proof read it for any odd character conversions or typos (and don't forget to run it through a spell checker).

1 - E-mail Subject. The subject line is usually the same as your press release's headline, with the exception that the subject line is not all capital letters (see Figure 1, Item 1). Some newsgroups and mailing lists require press releases and announcements to use an indicator such as [ANN], so check the submission instructions of each site or group before e-mailing your press release.

2 - First Line. The words "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" in all capital letters should be the first line of your press release (see Figure 1, Item 2).

3 - Headline. When viewed in print, the press release headline is usually a bolded, larger font, so capitalizing the letters is often viewed as optional. Plain Text e-mails do not feature bold styles or variable font sizes, so headlines are emphasized in e-mail with all capital letters (see Figure 1, Item 3). This headline is usually the title that appears on the news sites as a text link to your press release (see Figure 2), so take special care when writing your headline (and matching subject line) to ensure that it includes your company name, product name, version, and the key words that describe your announcement. Software companies that produce shrink-wrapped products often use the word "ships" (as in "Electric Butterfly Ships CodeQuiver 1.5"), instead of the default verb "releases" which encompasses all software, including download-only shareware.


Figure 2. The wording of your Headline and Email Subject line are very important since news sites often post your press release using that title phrase as the listed hyperlink text.

4 - Secondary Headline. Some press releases include a secondary caption beneath the main headline that provides an expanded, one-sentence synopsis of the announcement (see Figure 1, Item 4). This line is optional, but is strongly recommended for online viewing. The first ten to fifteen words of a press release are usually considered the most important. If a reader does not find anything of interest in the first paragraph, then they are typically not inclined to read the rest of the release. Viewing paragraphs on a computer monitor is even more tedious, so motivate people to read the rest of your press release by enticing them with a summarized caption.

5 - Lead Paragraph. The first phrase should list your company's city and state (or country when located outside of the U.S.), followed by the date. The formatting of this phrase varies - some people display the city in all capital letters, while others place the date within parentheses. This paragraph is usually quite brief, consisting of only a few sentences, but it should communicate the five essential W's of your message: who, when, where, what and why (see Figure 1, Item 5). For a product announcement, this paragraph usually describes how your company is announcing the immediate availability of your new software version and the related platforms it supports.

6 - Main Text. The next one to three paragraphs after the lead paragraph reveal product details and key features that relate to this release (see Figure 1, Item 6). Even though your description should effectively promote the benefits of your software, try to avoid hyped marketing language that makes your announcement sound like an infomercial. Subjective adjectives like "ultimate" do nothing but consume valuable space. With hundreds of new software announcements vying for attention every day, a good press release is concise and to the point, fitting on one or two printed pages (but never exceeding two).

7 - Availability and Pricing. This paragraph should reiterate any specific new product features or updates while stating exactly how and where the product can be purchased. This includes your web site URL, sales phone number (if applicable), pricing and any upgrade offers that are available for existing customers (see Figure 1, Item 7). If your software requires any unique system requirements, you should also include that information in this paragraph. If you are sending your press release to a mailing list, some e-mail programs only display URLs as clickable hyperlinks if they are surrounded with "<" and ">" tags. For example, write the URL "http://www.codequiver.com" as "<http://www.codequiver.com/>" for best results in e-mail viewers. Consumers can't buy your software if they don't know where to find it, and yet the accidental omission of the software site URL is the most common mistake shareware developers make when writing press releases.

8 - About Your Company. After the main body of your announcement, you should include a brief paragraph about your company (see Figure 1, Item 8). How long have you been in business? Does your company specialize in a specific kind of software? Are you well known for a particular product? Have you won any awards? This not only familiarizes readers and news editors with your company name, but if your company has achieved any kind of industry recognition, it lends credibility to your software announcement. It's important to draw attention to the notion of credibility because it has a powerful effect on consumer perception of your software. Claiming that you're "a one-person virtual company (if you don't count the three cats who occupy your home office) who enjoys playing Unreal Tournament in your spare time" is probably not cute or endearing to the general public. It merely diminishes your credibility, making your company seem like a small, garage operation.

9 - Legal Disclaimer. This line is optional, but recommended. You are announcing your product to the world, so protecting yourself is never a bad idea. State not only your own trademarks (see Figure 1, Item 9), but also safeguard yourself by recognizing the third-party trademarks of unaffiliated products that you reference in your press release. Many Mac developers list Apple's trademarks in their press releases. Java developers usually include a reference to Sun Microsystem's Java trademarks.

10 - Contact Information. Hopefully, your press release will be read not only by consumers, but also news editors and software reviewers. If these professionals decide to write an article or review on your software and require additional information, make it very easy for them to contact you. Since your press release is posted on news sites as well, you should think carefully about what information you include. If you're a shareware developer working at home, you may not want to list your phone number (unless you enjoy being awakened at 3:00 AM by an unknown caller from Germany with a software question). Simply include your name and a direct e-mail address (see Figure 1, Item 10). If your company has a dedicated press contact, then include that person's job title as well.

11 - End Indicator. Placing three pound symbols "# # #' on a separate line is a standard indicator marking the end of your press release.

Even though the focus of this article is on driving traffic to your web site, do not abuse the power of press releases. Only send out an announcement when you have something newsworthy to say, such as a new product release, a major version update, a strategic alliance or partnership deal, etc. The cool new buttons you designed for your home page are not newsworthy. If you flood news editors' inboxes with frivolous press releases, they will start treating you like the boy who cried wolf, ignoring everything with your company name on it. Then you will find getting their attention quite difficult when you finally do have something important to announce.

An Online Press Room

Put your press releases to work on your own web site. Create a dedicated "Press Room" or "News" page where you can list links to all your press releases in both HTML and PDF formats. These additional HTML pages (chock full of vital keywords) will get indexed by search engines and should improve your search result rankings, which in turn helps media professionals and potential software customers discover your web site. Providing alternative PDF versions allows journalists to download the press releases for offline reference. If you're running Mac OS X, you can produce PDF versions of your press releases from literally any application (such as Microsoft Word or TextEdit) by choosing "Print" and then clicking the "Save as PDF" button.

Software Web Directories

While some dedicated software sites like MacUpdate.com still accept e-mail press releases for listing submissions, most of these online software directories require you to manually complete a web form for each new product you want listed. Since a large percentage of Mac users frequently visit sites like VersionTracker.com, MacUpdate.com, MacOSXApps.com, Download.com, Tucows.com, Jumbo.com and Apple's Macintosh Products Guide (http://guide.apple.com) to find software solutions and updates, it's in your best interest to take the time to list your product with each and every one of these popular sites.

While the information that these web forms require is roughly the same as what you included in your press release, one key difference is the addition of a short description field. This field usually holds a short phrase that describes your product in ten words or less. This phrase will accompany your product name and version number when line listed on the software directories' home page or category pages (see Figure 3). You may have a cool product, but the only way site visitors will ever know this is if they click on your product listing for more information. Since most consumers quickly scan these lists for interesting software, your short description just became the most important element of your software listing because it needs to entice a user to click on your product link.


Figure 3. Your product listing's short, one-sentence description on software web directories like VersionTracker.com and MacUpdate.com needs to motivate users to click the link.

Think of it as the "single sentence sell." If you built an accounting program, don't just list it with a short description of "Accounting Application for Mac." Since there are dozens of accounting applications available for the Mac platform, that generic description simply does not do your product justice. What makes your product unique from the rest? This phrase should include the keywords and features that will attract your target audience in ten words or less. For example, our fictional product, CodeQuiver, is a code snippets organizer for developers. Why would developers want to use it? Because it's designed to save them precious time and effort. Using the phrase "Time-Saving Code Snippets Organizer for Developers" accomplishes this goal in only seven words.

Search Engine Strategies

Many of the major search engines have resorted to paid listings to generate revenue. While paid listings will guarantee placement and drive targeted traffic to your web site, budget-conscious developers can still find search engines that accept free submissions. Of all the major search engines, Yahoo.com and Google.com are arguably the most important to your software business. Other popular search engines include LookSmart.com, Search.AOL.com, MSN.com, AltaVista.com, Ask.com (Ask Jeeves), Lycos.com, Excite.com, AllTheWeb.com, About.com, DMOZ.org (Open Directory Project), etc.

The list of sites may seem a little overwhelming, but the truth is that many of them utilize the same search technology under the hood, so if you're listed in one of them, chances are you're listed in many of the others as well. Overture and Inktomi (which are owned by Yahoo!) power the search results for dozens of sites such as AltaVista.com, AllTheWeb.com, About.com and MSN.com. Many sites such as Search.AOL.com also provide additional content from DMOZ.org (Open Directory Project). Yahoo.com and Search.AOL.com both utilize Google's search results, and hundreds of affiliate sites display Google's sponsored AdWords links (http://adwords.google.com).

To navigate through the confusing landscape of search engine marketing, it's best to devise two strategies: one for purchasing paid placement and one for free submissions. While it might seem like a no-brainer to focus only on the free submissions, none of the search engines guarantee placement, and even if your free site listing is accepted, it could take weeks (or even months) for the listing to appear online. Paid placement not only guarantees your listing (with fast, priority processing), but some sites will not accept free submissions from commercial entities (such as a software company), so paid placement is often your only option.

For those developers with limited marketing budgets, a good starting point is to submit your site URL to as many search engines as possible that accept free submissions. There are several software tools available for submitting your site to dozens of search engines from a single form, but the major search sites have become very savvy at recognizing spam and automated submissions and often reject those listings. Manually submitting your site to each individual search engine requires a lot of time and patience, but it often yields the best results and fine-tuned control over selected keywords and directory categories. Most search engines such as Google provide links named "Add a URL" or "Suggest a Site." Follow their posted instructions and see what kind of results you get in the months to come. If you're not happy with your search ranking in Google and other search sites, then you can always invest in paid placement campaigns.

Yahoo! accepts free submissions for non-commercial sites, but all commercial sites are now required to sign up for Yahoo! Express for US$299 per year. Yahoo! can still decline your site listing, but your Express submission is quickly evaluated within seven working days. A frequently overlooked benefit of paid placement in human-compiled web directories like Yahoo! and LookSmart is that it often influences your search ranking in other search sites like Google. If you do purchase paid placement on various search engines, make sure you read the fine print. Some plans require you to pay per click on top of the initial service fee, and although the cost per click is usually very low, it definitely can add up quickly. If your listing garners a lot of click-throughs, your "pay for play" campaign may prove to be both successful and expensive.

There are companies for hire that specialize in search engine placement and optimization. At one time or another, we've all received spam e-mails with special offers that guarantee "top ten" placement in hundreds of search engines for only US$39.95 or less per month. If you decide to hire one of these firms, be very careful who you choose. There are many reputable experts who produce stellar results, but there are even more scam artists who will take your money and run. Do your homework and research the milestones they've achieved for other clients before signing on the dotted line.

Optimizing Your Site for Search Engines

Internet marketing gurus often talk about foolproof web page optimization solutions for improving your site's rankings in the search engines, but the plain truth is that there is no one "magic bullet" technique that works across the board. All the search engines have their own unique indexing and ranking algorithms, so your level of success will be in employing several optimization tricks in an attempt to cover all your bases. Optimize your web pages BEFORE submitting your URL to search engines. Keep in mind that human-compiled web directories like Yahoo! rely on your submitted site description and keywords for proper category placement, so changing your web pages will not increase your ranking in those web directories. Modifying your web pages will only affect your ranking in "crawler" sites like Google that visit and index web sites.

Search engines used to look for specific META tags in your HTML code to help categorize and index your web pages. Over the years, many of the major search engines have stopped looking at META tags since so many web marketers have abused the technology by inserting hundreds of unrelated keywords in an attempt to trick these systems into granting higher search rankings. While only a handful of search engines still look at META tags, you should still include them anyway since many experts believe that the presence of these extra keywords can still influence your overall placement.

<HEAD> 
<TITLE>CodeQuiver: Time-Saving Code Snippets Organizer for Software Developers 
   and Web Designers</TITLE> 
<META NAME="description" CONTENT="CodeQuiver is the time-saving code snippets 
   organizer for software developers and web designers."> 
<META NAME="keywords" CONTENT="code, snippets, syntax coloring, source code, 
   Mac, programming, development, software, library, organizer"> 
</HEAD> 

The Description META tag and the Keywords META tag should both be placed within the HEAD tags of your web pages. An effective description is one that avoids hyped marketing jargon and is usually limited to 20-30 words, no longer than 200-250 characters. Don't go overboard with too many keywords (try 40 or less) and don't repeat keywords. Many search engines reject site submissions that hide hundreds of repeated keywords in META tags, invisible comment tags, image ALT tags, etc.

So if META tags are not as effective as they once were, what are the primary elements that search engines currently do analyze? Here's a quick list of several site optimizations that should help improve your status with the major search engines.

TITLE Tag. This is often the phrase that is used as the hyperlink text when your site appears in search results, so including the right keywords will not only improve your ranking, but also entice consumers to click on the link.

Text Placement. Search engines will scan the top half of your web pages for relevant keyword patterns in your text headlines and paragraphs. Unfortunately, lots of HTML table tags or JavaScript code that push your text paragraphs further down the page can negatively affect your search rankings. Search engines cannot read text embedded in Flash or images.

HTML Hyperlinks. "Crawler" sites like Google index your site by following HTML links from your home page. The more links that interconnect all of your web pages, the more indexed pages that can appear listed in search results. Search engines cannot follow links embedded in Flash, imagemaps or dynamic JavaScript code.

Avoid Frames. Most search engines have trouble following links to frame pages. Since the home page is usually the main frameset page with little to no text, search rankings would surely plummet when frames are involved.

Moving Forward

While there are certainly other creative avenues for driving traffic to your web site, the methods illustrated in this article should give you a solid head start in promoting your software products online. In future installments of this column, we'll explore other web traffic building techniques such as online advertising, link exchanges and revenue-sharing affiliate programs.


Dave Wooldridge is the founder of Electric Butterfly (www.ebutterfly.com), the web design and software company responsible for Stimulus, HelpLogic, UniHelp, and the popular developer site, RBGarage.com.

 
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