Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Portals and Malls

April 1999

By Mike Gould

Here is the second in a two-part series of articles discussing how businesses can best take advantage of advertising aspects of the WWW. For those of you tuning in late, I started out last month speaking with David Bloom of Fac·totem (, a web development consultancy that specializes in Online Content, Commerce, and Community. I was responding to inquiries from readers of this column (both of them) regarding the best way to advertise on the Web. (If you send me an inquiry, you too can have answers from experts; is this a great magazine, or what?)

Mike: We used to call them "Directories"; now we call them "Portals"; the Yahoo, Lycos, HotBot, et al companies who enable us to search the Internet for ThingsToBuy. For those of us with ThingsToSell, the question is: how do I finesse it so that my business comes up first in portal searches? I have read of companies with sure-fire means to elevate you in such searches; are these legit? How important are codings in my web pages (meta tags)?

David: "Portal Taxes" are like drugs: easy to get hooked, hard to quit. Portal Taxes are fees to the Portals themselves, or to agencies claiming they can boost your Portal placement. Remember that the Portals are out to maximize their traffic, and thus the money they can charge for ad (and content) placements. Elevating your Portal standing is a constant crapshoot - like Wall Street (more like NASDAQ) - if there were an easy to win, everyone would do it, and it wouldn't work! The ranking rules change often, and are deliberately inscrutable. More times than not, trying to "beat" the system penalizes your standing.

Directories (like Yahoo!) and Search Engines (like AltaVista) are in important part of an online marketing campaign. The best way to garner a slice of the high traffic they attract is simply to build an exemplary website, and to dutifully submit it to those Portal sites for indexing. An exemplary website uses HTML properly (using title, alt, and meta tags); it is navigable (pages linked to one another effectively), parse-able (easy to find what you're looking for on each web page), and relevant (topical content, sensibly laid-out). Each Search Engine tells you how it looks at web pages, and each one is a little different. The best webmasters develop search engine-friendly pages as a matter of course.

Mike: So your advice is to ignore the constant come-ons from vendors promising high listings in portals, and to concentrate on proper website construction from the git-go. I've heard you can increase your standing by periodically re-registering with the portals, especially after updating your site; comments?

David: Yes, do it right and ignore the hype. This means really taking a step back to consider what keywords to embed in your meta tags, and to develop a cogent 25-word short description that you use in every website registration. But don't re-register your website too often, as certain search engines will actually penalize you for "spamming" them. Once every three months is pushing it. Once every six months is fine.

(Mike: Folks; the meta and tag jazz David talks about above refers to how your pages are encoded by whoever designs your site. Knowledgeable web designers place information about your site into your pages via coding that is invisible to your browser, but visible to search engines. If you are designing your own site, make sure you are up to speed on this; it is VERY important.)

Mike: As with the rest of the retail world, we are seeing an aggregation of businesses; a clustering of Web retail outposts into a fortified bastion of WebCommerce: the Virtual Mall. Should a small businessman join up with a mall, or does it make more sense to go it alone? What if the mall also has your competitors in it; does it make sense to set up shop next to your rivals?

David: Physical malls (Briarwood, e.g.) provide brick-and-mortar retailers with a geographic and commercial context in which to hawk their wares, creating that "fortified bastion". The web breaks down these barriers: context is largely irrelevant, since surfers can easily click around from content-related websites, to online communities, or honest-to-goodness commercial websites. And the Internet makes geography largely irrelevant.

Online Marketing Research shows that shoppers go online first and foremost for product information. If you're considering joining some e-Commerce aggregation, make sure you provide better, more complete, and digestible product information than your fellow commercial competitors. But weigh the costs carefully before signing up: how much traffic can the mall provide - measured not as aggregate traffic (visitors to other mall tenants), but as impressions, pageviews, or unique visitors to the mall webpages on which you are linked? How qualified is this traffic: If you're selling Frisbees or bells, does the mall cater to books and cookware? And how serious are mall visitors - specifically, how apt are they to "click through" to your website? The industry standard clickthrough rate is 1-2%.

Mike: Thanks, David. Folks; the clickthrough rate referred to above is the number of users who will click on your button in an online mall as a fraction of the total number of visitors to that mall index page. In other words, for every 100 visitors to a mall 1 or 2 of them will actually visit your site because you are a member of that mall. A brick-and-mortar retailer in a physical mall gets walk-in traffic in much the same way.

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