Search Engine Spotlight
If there's a truism in the camp business it's that the Internet has unleashed a swarm of hits on camp websites as parents and kids use it to find the perfect camp.
For a lot of camps those hits translate into more campers from a wider geographical area. It is the World Wide Web, and camps are even seeing more international flavor listed on their rolls.
Listing your Web address in traditional media, like newspapers and magazines, will certainly drive traffic to your site, particularly if it's focused. But not everybody has the budget to run a bevy of ads in various media to beef up registration.
In order to reach the Net-savvy camper your camp needs to show up on search engines.
Andrew Ackerman and Ari Ackerman of Bunk1.com, which offers Web services to camps, offer this advice when you initially register on a search engine…
"Fortunately, it's not too difficult to register your site. Go to the search engine or directory and look for a link that says register your web site or submit a page, or words to that effect. Click on that link. At a minimum, you will be asked to enter your camp's website address.
"You may also be asked to supply an email address (in case the search engine or directory needs to contact you), to choose a category (like summer camps), to enter a short description, etc.
"Each search engine and directory is different, but the instructions are usually pretty clear. Some quick rules of thumb:
1. Fill in all the optional information requested. It only helps your site get listed.
2. Only submit your home page and only do that once per site. Drowning a search engine or directory with multiple registrations will not improve your ranking one bit and will make them mad. They will blackball your site. Bad idea.
3. Check back each month. If your camp's site is not coming up or stops coming up in a search engine or directory's search results, resubmit your web site. (Tip: Don't search on summer camp to test a search engine or directory -– try searching for your camp's full name. If it doesn't come up for that, it's not in their database)."
DRIVING THE ENGINES
Once listed it's a good idea, time permitting, to stay in regular contact with the search engines you register with. Develop a relationship. After all, that's their job, and they have entire departments devoted to website registration.
"It took our Web master quite a bit of time, calling these guys and staying on top of them to get us out there," says Vince Jordan, a founder of NovaZen/Solant, an interactive Internet-based customer care and electronic bill presentment company based in Boulder, Colo. "Initially when Novazen and Solant went live we never came up in the search engines, then we came up way down the page, then we came up way up front. That was our Web master continually talking with the search engines and working with them. Squeaky wheel gets the grease."
The squeaky wheel may well get the grease, but if you don't have a well-designed, easily navigated and dynamic site, you could hurt your rating -- which is how quickly you come up on a search engine.
Also, the number of links back to other pages, particularly those you deem important for people to view, helps content-oriented search engines like Metacrawler, Google and AltaVista. These search engines crawl the Web, collecting data from website content. You normally don't register for these search engines, as much as they search for you.
"Typically, these sites go through and look for domain names they haven't seen before; they'll follow all the links through the site and index the site based on what they find," says David Hahn, owner of TechAngle, a computer hardware, software, consulting and Internet company based in Aurora, Colo. "As the person requesting the website you are the expert in your own content. The best thing to do is when you're looking at the layout of the website, make sure it's cross-referenced so that this piece of information points to this piece of information.
If you have some pages that are hardly ever referenced the crawlers won't give it as much weight, even if the information is important to you. Some of it's careful content and design -- tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them again and then tell them that you told them."
Hahn also recommends building a Web ring with sites that have related content; not necessarily other camps, but sites that tie into what your camp offers or any specialties that are included within your program.
For example, if you own a horse camp it's not a bad idea to offer reciprocal links to other horse-related sites. Sports camps could even consider linking to sports equipment manufacturers, professional teams or sports leagues.
"The more references to your website the better; the cross-marketing helps with the search engine, but also through visitor numbers from other sites," adds Hahn. "Also, updating your site more regularly helps with search engines and also helps people visit more repetitively. You should constantly change something, and it can be little things that give people a reason to come back."
Some camps already do this with photos of the week, where are they now? sections and links to other sources of information related to the camp, as mentioned above.
To ensure that your information and presentation is pertinent, know who your market is. Most of the traditional marketing theories still work in a virtual environment. That may mean registering with search engines that focus on local or regional areas, like sidewalk.com and citysearch.com, if that's where the bulk of your campers come from.
When you mention search engines, your initial reaction is Yahoo or GoTo, or some of the other better-advertised sites. However, there are literally hundreds of search engines, including those that often come with Internet software packages, like AOL and MSN.
Jordan has found an Internet search tool that he says is indispensable for returning quality searches called Copernick.
"You can download a free version at copernick.com, but I bought the professional version for only about $79," says Jordan. "You can put all kinds of filters on it, and it hits about 15 different search engines -- ones I've never heard of. It does a lot better job of filtering the information it returns to me than the search engines do. It rates them itself and you can archive your searches and the information you get. If I'm doing something serious I don't even use the search engines."
Let's face it, most camp directors are also searchers, looking for the right equipment for their camp, or information that will help all the different facets of camp management.
Beyond that, buying a search engine filter like Copernick helps research and narrow the field of which search engines to concentrate on.
Bunk1.com's Ackerman offers this short list as a good place to start when you begin your search for search engines…
• Alta Vista
• Open Directory
Remember that some search engines look for meta tags, that is hidden key words embedded in the site that the browser at your site can't see.
In addition to compiling key words that should be used in full view in the website, which includes just about anything and everything to do with your camp, have your Web designer embed the same key words in your meta tags. That way, a search engine like Metacrawler will find those tags (that's where the meta in Metacrawler comes from), which will contribute to a higher rating for your site.
When compiling a key word list, stick to the subject because search engines monitor key word lists, and they've been known to call people on using words that are totally unrelated. That hurts the relationship you should be trying to build with the search engines.
It sounds like a lot of work and it can be. It can also be very time-consuming -- finagling with search engines to get a higher rating, regularly checking the engines to see where you come up and maintaining the site.
"One of the best things you can do that is low investment is hire a search engine submission company that will take information from your website and submit it to a lot of different search engines," says Hahn.
You still have to keep track of it, but you're probably spending time surfing anyway, so enjoy the ride.