Pull into a new town while you're on the road, and the first thing you're likely to look for is a Visitor Information Center. There, you'll be able to pick up maps of the area, learn about special attractions, and otherwise find ways to get the most from your visit.

To a first-time visitor, an online publication is at least as unfamiliar as any new town. In addition, longstanding Web sites offer many times the number of "attractions" as any small town — so many, in fact, that the site's producers might have lost track of all of them. For example, just a few months after going online, the Washington Post's Web site included more than 90,000 pages of material, much of which took serious digging to uncover — a problem acknowledged in a recent site redesign.

Online publishers hope that visitors spend some time with them and return often. To make sure that happens, publishers should offer a "Visitors Information Center" to help ensure that the first and subsequent visits are pleasurable ones. But before that, publishers need to make sure potential visitors can find them in the first place.

Getting Noticed

With thousands of publications online, there's no guarantee that anyone will find your site unless you promote it. You can — and should — promote it in the following ways:

  • Include your Web site address in all materials. Begin by letting your traditional readers know you have a Web site. When you advertise or promote your print publication, include the site address. Publishers starting Web sites might want to place short features about their sites in the printed publications to let people know what's on them and how to get to them.

  • Register your site. One way many people will get to your site is through searches. Some search engines snake their way through the Web without any prodding from site producers, but others need to be told that your site is out there. Some of the most frequently used search engines are Hotbot, Altavista, Infoseek, and Lycos.

  • Give your pages strong and unique titles. Titles that use specific keywords will help searchers find what they're after.

  • Use the META DESCRIPTION and KEYWORD tags. Those tags rest in the <HEAD> section of an HTML page and give you more visibility in search-engine result listings. The text entered into the DESCRIPTION section is what will show up in the search engine results, rather than just the first 50 or so words on the page; words entered in the KEYWORD section help potential visitors who are looking for specific information track it down. For example: <META NAME="DESCRIPTION" CONTENT="A journal dedicated to the latest research on the effects of mass media on American society."> <META NAME="KEYWORDS" CONTENT="Mass media effects entertainment violence cultural studies">

  • Announce your site to discussion and news groups. Online discussion groups detest attempts at free advertising. But if your site ties in with the topic of discussion, then by all means get the word out on the list. For example, anyone starting an online journal focusing on journalism would be foolish not to alert the members of the online-news discussion group. Specific articles and features also can be promoted that way.

  • Send traditional and e-mail news releases. A well-targeted news release is as good a tool for promoting an online journal as it is for promoting a new product or service. Let the appropriate media folks know that you're up and running so they can let their readers know.

Onsite Searching

Maybe it's just an admission that I've fallen into the stereotype of the absentminded professor, but as my personal Web site has grown over the years, I've lost track of where I put certain information. If I have trouble keeping track, I'm sure my visitors sometimes have to scratch their heads. Now expand my measly 50 or so pages to the size of an established online publication, and the need for onsite search engines becomes clear. The publication you are reading has just come to grips with this problem and, effective this issue, is introducing a search engine.

The importance of search capabilities cannot be overstated. Usability studies conducted by Web expert Jakob Nielsen found that about 50 percent of all Web users are "search-dominant": that is, they "will usually go straight for the search button when they enter a website; they are not interested in looking around the site; they are task-focused and want to find specific information as fast as possible." (For the record, Nielsen found that about 20 percent of users are "link-dominant" and will try to get what they're after by following links; the remaining 30 percent of Web users exhibit mixed behavior.) [1]

"Why would anyone come to an online publication except to find specific information?"

I would guess that for visitors to online publications, that 50 percent figure is very conservative: Why would anyone come to an online publication except to find specific information?

Based on his findings, Nielsen recommends that any site with more than 200 pages (or the equivalent, for database-driven sites that build pages on the fly) should offer search capabilities. Further, he recommends that the search function be available from every page, because even non-search-dominant users will become lost from time to time. [2]

Nielsen also warns against "scoped" searches: searches that cover only part of a site. Unless the user has a clear sense of site structure (you can help with a site map, but more about that in a minute), he or she may try looking for information in the wrong place, then give up when it appears that the information is not available. [3] I had that happen to me recently when I was trying to get information on a kitchen appliance from an online shopping service; I had to try several searches from different pages before I found what I was after. A full-site search would have taken far less time.

An online publisher can make a search engine even more valuable by making it tolerant of spelling errors. That way, when users mistype a letter or two, they'll still get results. The Barnes & Noble search engine offers that feature, but it doesn't work consistently.[4]

One last note on searching: It's a good idea for online publishers to keep an eye on XML (Extensible Markup Language), which promises to add power to searches. Information can be found at the World Wide Web Consortium's site.

Other Features

Most online publications also can benefit from one or more of the following features available as the equivalent of their online Visitor Information Centers:

  • Site Maps: For smaller sites, a Table of Contents — with a link from each page — goes a long way toward helping visitors get around. Larger sites with content branching off in many directions are better served by site maps that let readers see the entire site structure at a glance. The map of the Washington Post Web site is a good example.

  • FAQs: Good site designers try to anticipate questions that visitors might have and offer the answers in a readily available Frequently Asked Questions page. As other questions become common, answers to them should be added to the FAQ list. One good example can be found at the Project Muse Web site, home to several online journals.

  • User Guides: Sometimes a list of FAQs doesn't go far enough. In those cases, it's the User Guide to the rescue. The Washington Post's User Guide not only offers information about the site itself, but also provides information about how to contact the staff, how to search the site, and so on. Even individual parts of a site can benefit from having a User Guide. When the Seattle Times put a comprehensive High School Guide online, it offered a User Guide just for that feature, explaining what's in it, how to use it and how to follow up on the information in the feature. A User Guide also can serve as a good place to let visitors know about required plug-ins and other technical aspects of the site.

Never Too Early

Some of those features might seem like overkill for many online journals, which offer a limited number of articles and features. But sites have a way of growing much more quickly than anticipated. Taking the time now to set up your Visitor Information Center ensures that new visitors will become repeat visitors, and that your Visitor Information Center will be as useful to your readers as its roadside equivalent is to drivers.

Thom Lieb is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Baltimore. Among his courses is Writing for the Web. He is the author of Editing for Clear Communication and has written and edited for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and online publication. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and a master's of science in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University. You may contact him by e-mail at lieb@towson.edu.


1. Jakob Nielsen, "Search and You May Find," 15 July 1997.return to text

2. Nielsen, "Search."return to text

3. Nielsen, "Search."return to text

4. Jakob Nielsen, "Impact of Data Quality on the Web User Experience," 12 July 1998.return to text

Links from this article

Altavista, http://www.altavista.com/

Barnes & Noble, http://www.barnesandnoble.com

Hotbot, http://hotbot.lycos.com/

Infoseek, http://www.infoseek.com

Lycos, http://www.lycos.com

Online-news discussion group, http://www.planetarynews.com/o-n.html

Project Muse FAQ, http://muse.jhu.edu/proj_descrip/index.html

Seattle Times High School Guide user's guide, http://www.seattletimes.com/schoolguide/about.html

Washington Post's User Guide, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/guide/front.htm

Washington Post Web site map, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/guide/detail.htm

XML on the World Wide Web Consortium, http://www.w3.org/XML/

The author wishes to thank Suzanne Bourdess of Towson University for editorial review.