Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Directing Traffic to Your Website

Mark Harden, The Artchive, USA


My co-panelists have presented valuable information regarding the marketing of your museum web site. Being associated with museum institutions, they have offered you inside experience and insight into specific methods of enhancing a museum's presence on the web. I am an outsider, not associated with any institution. I hope to offer an additional perspective on directing traffic to your web site that will be based on more commercial experiences, yet still provide useful tips for the successful marketing of your institutional site.


Content is King. Content is what makes people want to come to your site. Content is what will bring them back again and again. It is paramount, primary, principal.

Nevertheless, there are some wonderful web sites which will be seen by only a small number of people, solely because they do not effectively market themselves. So while Content may be King, it can sometimes be the master of a very limited domain.

But Content IS King, and content sets the parameters within which you can realistically work to publicize your web site. I am speaking of Content not only in the sense of quality information presented in an entertaining and aesthetically appealing manner, but in the subject itself. The Museum of Modern Art is going to receive more traffic than the Museum of Insignificant and Obscure Art, regardless of what a great web site MoIOA has, and regardless of how well they market it. I developed a web site that serves more than 2 million pages each month…I also developed a web site that, I am not ashamed to admit, has been a complete failure at attracting traffic. The difference? Content.

Our goal is to learn how to maximize the potential traffic of our site, given those parameters enforced by Content. Content is King, and that fact lies in the background of everything we will be discussing this afternoon.

The Power of Reputation

As institutions, you have a huge advantage in the rush to the web. You already exist in the real world. Rather than trying to carve out a niche for yourself from scratch in cyberspace, you can leverage your existing reputation to establish your presence on the web. The initial opportunity to take advantage of this lies in the establishment of a meaningful domain name. In this era of bloated search engine results, more and more people are relying on a sensible domain name to find the site of a company they know from the real world, and the same applies to museums. The latest browser developments even take this into account: Netscape 4.5 offers the capability for the user to type keywords such as "Museum of Modern Art" into the location field and be taken automatically to MoMA's site. The functionality of this is entirely dependent on the domain name, so take that into account when establishing your domain.

I imagine most of you are associated with institutions that already have established domain names. But some museums exist as subdirectories under umbrella sites featuring many museums. If so, you should insist on establishing a separate and unique identity for your institution on the web…and make sure the new domain name is adequate to identify or describe your institution to the masses.

Once you have an established domain name, use your institutional advantage to make the URL known offline. Plaster it on everything from your letterhead to business cards to promotional and advertising material. Make sure that each member of your museum and each visitor to your museum is aware of the fact that you have a web site and can be visited online. To encourage them to actually visit your site, the offline publicity should, when possible, include an indication that the web site has more to offer than simply the operating hours and admission fees. If your site doesn't offer more than that, then return to Step One, "Content is King".

One offline method of advertising your site is by using bookmarks. Literal bookmarks, a stack of them freely available at cash registers or other strategic locations in your museum. Besides the utility they provide to your presumably literate visitors, they offer plenty of space for your URL and web site description. They also manifest an elegant metaphor for the cyber-bookmark of a web browser.

Other Online Marketing Approaches


Establishing links with other sites would seem to be in the spirit of the World Wide Web, but it is only advantageous in a limited number of situations. Some search engines use the number of times that a site is linked as a criterion, figuring that if you have the most links to your site, it must be worth visiting. In this case, you might be able to improve on your search match ranking. But, overall, "reciprocal links" (the practice of exchanging links with another site, sort of a "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours" proposition) impart a sense of amateurism to your site that should be avoided at all costs. In any case, reciprocal links are usually an imbalanced proposition; a site with little traffic approaches a major site, hat in hand, hoping for a link handout.

Recently, the concept of "web rings" has appeared. In web rings, a group of sites with similar content are linked together in a linear online tour of sorts. The participants are expected to progress from one site to the next due to their interest in the subject at hand. Again, for an institutional site, participation in a web ring could reduce your status to the level of the poorest site that participates in the ring. This sort of approach is more appropriate for an individual home page that exists solely on the Web.

Better than reciprocal links or web rings is to develop and improve the content of your own site. An excellent web site will encourage people to voluntarily link to your site in any case.


USENET consists of over 30,000 Internet news groups, sort of a gigantic bulletin board whose denizens can post and respond to messages. The groups cover an incredibly wide range of topics, so if you find the right newsgroup, you have isolated a highly targeted audience for your site. The drawback is that USENET types tend to be the most unreconstructed libertarians on the Internet, and are highly sensitive to spam. Any publicity efforts made in USENET must therefore be done with great care. The most effective approach is to participate in an ongoing discussion, enhancing the dialog by recommending your site as an online resource for those interested. Simply posting unilateral messages about your web site is more likely to draw negative publicity about your organization than to drive traffic to your site.

Considering Search Engines and Directories

It is a well-documented fact that people only bother to look at the first two screens of search engine results. I entered some terms into a popular search engine:

  • "art" received 20,194,362 matches
  • "art museum" received 76,805 matches
  • "rembrandt" received 57,500 matches
Obviously, appearing in the first couple of pages of the results for these search keywords is problematic at best. But what about a much more specific search phrase, such as "New Orleans Museum of Art"?

  • "new orleans museum of art" received 1,235 matches!
The lesson here is that, while you should take search engines into account when working to publicize your web site, you could end up investing a lot of time and expense into something that offers little tangible return.

Nevertheless, making your site as search engine friendly as possible is always a good policy, providing you do so efficiently. Maximizing the possibilities for good search engine placement begins at the HTML code level of your pages:


Start by developing appropriate keywords. Create up to 20 keywords and rank them in descending importance. Always use lower case, and include both singular and plural forms ("museum" AND "museums"). Use a different set of core and additional keywords for each page in your site hierarchy. Some keywords will apply to every page, others only to certain pages or sections of the site. Search engines will index each page of a site unless you specifically let them know there are areas you do NOT want to have indexed. Do not waste keywords on common words. For example, using the keyword "art" will guarantee you a place among the first 20,000,000 or so matches…since most search engines recognize a maximum number of keywords, using such a common keyword is a complete waste. Focus on specific and, if possible, unique keywords for inclusion in your list.

These keywords should be included in the META KEYWORDS tag of your pages, where they will be most readily accessible to the search engines. They should also be used in the site description and throughout the document. Some search engines rank sites based on the number of times a keyword appears in the document. A devious webmaster repeated his keyword hundreds of times in white text on a white background. Visitors to his site could not see the keywords, but the search engine people did - they banished every page of his site from their database. Lesson: don't cheat. Content is King. If your site is truly relevant to a certain keyword, it will be ranked highly by the search engines. For more information on working with the META tag in your HTML, see AltaVista's

Site Description

Another important attribute of the META tag is DESCRIPTION. This is where you place a concise, one-sentence summary of what your web site has to offer. As noted above, including keywords in this description is always a good policy. When displaying results, search engines will display this description if the META tag has been properly coded. If not, the search result will be displayed with the first few lines of text from the body of the page. In most cases, this body text will not be the most concise or accurate description of your page. You need to stand out from among the other search results by offering the searcher a well-defined description of your site, giving him the confidence that clicking on your link will lead him directly to the information he is seeking.

In the context of defining your site properly, be sure to choose the TITLE of your pages very carefully. Some search engines use the TITLE as a primary criterion for matches. One good approach is to hierarchize the titles throughout the site: for example, top level pages will be titled "Museum of Insignificant and Obscure Art". Below that level, pages will be titled "Museum of Insignificant and Obscure Art: Exhibitions", and further down "Museum of Insignificant and Obscure Art: Exhibitions: The Art of the Paper Clip".

Javascript and Frames

A search engine agent, commonly known as a "spider", will only penetrate into the first x number of words in your page. For this reason, you should use the keywords and description terms heavily in the beginning of your pages. Javascript normally appears at the top of a page's HTML code, and can count against the word count of the spiders. Be sure your Javascript does not make your body text inaccessible to the search engines.

Frames can also be problematic for maximizing the ability of a search engine to index your page. Most search engines do not deal well with FRAMESETs, because they cannot follow the links…your pages will not be indexed automatically by the spider. If you use frames, remember to include a <NOFRAMES> tag with all of your keywords included.

Submitting Your Site

Now that you have your keywords and site description developed, you can sit back and wait for the spiders to arrive and index your site's pages. But why wait when the search engine people offer the possibility to manually submit your site to their database? This is another place where you can efficiently allocate your resources: there are hundreds of search engines out there…but only nine of them matter. Don't waste your time submitting to any search engines other than Yahoo, AltaVista, Excite, Magellan, Lycos, HotBot, Infoseek, Webcrawler and Inktomi.

Despite the ubiquitous spam offering to submit your site to 10,000 search engines for $19.95, it is a good policy to submit the site yourself. We have limited ourselves to nine search engines, plus we have well-developed keywords and site description to paste into the search engine forms, but most important, we care the most about proper placement of our site. Why leave this critical aspect of web site marketing to strangers who know nothing about your site but what you tell them?

There is software available on the web that will facilitate the submission of your site to multiple search engines without your having to repeat the inputs each time. There are even web sites that accomplish this time-saving functionality, such as Submit It!, which offers a limited free service as well as enhanced submission capability for a small fee.

Most search engines request you submit only your home page, and let their spider follow the links to index the rest of your site. While the spiders should automatically follow links in this manner, it is a good idea to separately submit any secondary pages that are not linked directly from your home page. Since you are likely to be restricted in the number of submissions allowed at a given time, be sure to prioritize your pages, submitting the most important first.

After you have submitted your site, your work is not finished. It's important to follow up to make sure your submission went smoothly. If any typographical errors were entered; if the host server was down when the search engine visited your submitted site; if your site was submitted too many times, or was rejected because you exceeded the number of allowable keywords…your site will not be indexed. Keep a log of your submission for each search engine, including the date you originally submitted your site, along with later checkpoints. Compare your ranking at different points in time to ensure you are showing up in the search engines. It is also interesting to compare your rankings at the same date in different search engines…the widely ranged rankings are an indication of the differing criteria used by each of the search engines.

"The Search Engine is Dead": Directories

Our example above, displaying more than 20,000,000 search matches for "art", is cited by web pundits who proclaim that search engines are now obsolete. What is now needed is a means of structuring the immensity of data to provide only the most relevant sites. Directories are listings of sites grouped into categories, often accompanied by reviews or other evaluations of the worthiness of a site. The popularity of such web portals is growing rapidly.

Yahoo! was the first and remains the most important directory on the World Wide Web. The quality of their listings is ensured by a human filtered submission process. Each submission is followed up by one of the Yahoo! surfers to determine if the site is worthy of inclusion in the directory. Because of this manual process, getting listed in Yahoo! normally takes quite some time after submission. It is important to make the surfer's job as easy as possible, starting with submitting your site under the appropriate category. For most museum institutions, that category would be Simply click on the "Suggest a Site" text link at the bottom of the page and follow the instructions. Since you already have your keywords and site description, submission is simple.

It is impossible to exaggerate the value of a Yahoo! link (or more than one if possible, from different categories) to directing traffic to your web site. Let me illustrate by an extreme example from my recent personal experience. The following numbers depict the growth of traffic at Masters of Photography, a new site I launched on February 1st, 1999:

growth of traffic at Masters of Photography

The first couple of days were slow, then things picked up quite a bit on February 3rd which represents traffic driven from publicity banners at my flagship site, The Artchive Then, on February 4th and 5th, the traffic literally doubles as a result of eight separate links established at Yahoo! On February 8th, the traffic doubles yet again as a result of the new site being named as a Yahoo! Pick of the Week.

There are two additional points to be made with this chart. First, notice the reduction in traffic over the weekend. The Internet is still primarily a school and workplace phenomenon. Weekend traffic can be predicted to run at only 50-60% of the weekday rate. Second, note the term "page impressions". This is the proper measure of web site traffic. "Hits" is more commonly used, but this tells you nothing about how many visitors your site had. "Hits" is a measure important only to web server geeks, which represents the number of times a server has been called upon to deliver a file, whether an HTML file or an image file. A web page with twenty thumbnails will receive credit for 21 "hits" each time someone looks at it, one for the HTML and 20 for the images. Another page with only a single image receives credit for only two "hits". "Page Impressions", on the other hand, counts one person viewing one page of a site, and is an accurate measure of the popularity of your web site.

Measuring and Tracking Site Traffic

From the above discussion you can see that the Internet offers something television and radio producers (and advertisers) would die for: detailed access statistics. Information regarding how many people visit your web site, where they went within the site, where they came from, and a myriad of other details are limited only by the capability of your service provider's log tracking and your scruples in regard to online privacy. This information is critical to evaluation of your ongoing web site marketing efforts. It can help you allocate your limited resources to the places where they will pay off the most.

Every time someone visits your site, they leave behind a thick cyber-trail that is recorded in an access log. Internet service providers (ISPs) offer you insight into these statistics, but all ISPs are not equal in this regard. Some offer a wonderful array of tools to use for analysis of your traffic, while others offer little more than a page counter. If your ISP offers useful statistics, be sure to analyze the results on a monthly basis; if the statistical offering is limited, consider using an access log analysis software tool such as "Web Trends" or the more economical "FastStats"

Traffic statistics will tell you not only how many people visited your site, but which sections of the site are the most popular. Then you can either play to that strength by allocating more resources to development of those areas, or target publicity to some of the sections that are not drawing as much traffic. Perhaps this is an indication that the navigation is inadequate, or the design of that section is for some reason keeping people away. Or, maybe, not many people are interested in the content of that section and you should consider removing it. Content is King.

Another critical statistic tells you how people reached your site. The "referring URL" indicates the site a visitor was browsing just prior to coming to yours. Presumably, he arrived via a link from that site, and you can use this to assess the relative importance of your various links in driving traffic to your site. Access statistics can also provide the exact keywords used by someone who used a search engine to get to your site. While this obviously does not tell you what keywords are being used that do NOT bring people to your site, it can still be an indication of the effectiveness of your search engine ranking.

Satisfying the Customer

The most effective way to increase traffic at your site is to entice those who have found it in the first place to RETURN. In this case, while content remains king, there is a temporal corollary: content must be fresh as well. Even an excellent site, if static, will not bring a visitor back again once he has exhausted the content. The key is to provide an indication to your visitors that the information currently displayed is subject to change, and encourage them to bookmark the site for a return visit. Rule of thumb is that if the site content changes only monthly, the site may as well never change. New content must be available weekly, or preferably daily, to encourage a substantial quantity of return traffic.

Of course, no one will be interested in returning if the site is not entertaining and informative in the first place: Content is King. Long Live Content!


Site Announcement and Promotion

Site Promotion Software

Search Engines

Using META Tags

Log File Analysis