The internet is what gives the indie musician a chance, let's make sure you make the most of it.
The World Wide Web is the single tool that allows the independent artist to put their music on the world stage for relatively little money, if one chooses to do it themselves. If you choose to hire a web designer and developer it can cost more, but it is something that the average person can learn, it's not that difficult at the basic levels.
I have no intention of making this article into any HTML tutorial, teaching you how to FTP files or anything like that, there are already loads of resources on the internet about those topics, it just takes a little Google-wackin'. Instead, I am going to use this time to let you in on some tips, tricks and basic knowledge I have picked up over the years in my career on the internet. I have worked for many companies, and with many marketing people, technical people and sales people, and have learned some cool ideas of what to do, but more importantly, I have at times witnessed first hand what not to do. That can sometimes be the greater lesson.
Domains and Hosting
Before you begin your venture on the internet you need web space on which to host your web site, then you also should have a domain for your web site, though it's not 100% necessary, as you can have subdomains or subdirectories of free web hosts and such as well. When picking a web host there are a few things to consider:
If you are planning to use any database driven tools, you need to check what type of support they need from the server. They will all need some sort of server side scripting support for PHP, ASP, CGI or something like that. I personally recommend sticking with PHP with a MySQL database because they are both open source freeware, very stable and very powerful. Plus it runs well on Linux which is also open source and free. This makes hosting a lot cheaper since the huge costs for operating system, database and scripting interpreter are not involved from the host, it's strictly hardware, maintainence and support costs.
The range of costs for hosting is big. As is well known here at HRC, I strongly endorse Host PC. They offer a lot of disk space, a good chunk of bandwidth, a great range of features for users such as easy to install scripts and online web editors, and most importantly, great friendly and fast support. All the things you really need in a host.
Web Design and Usability Basics
There is much debate, as there is in any industry, regarding what is good design and bad design. Design on the internet isn't like design for print ads or magazine layouts; it's a different platform, because it's interactive. With that interactivity comes a user interface to think about, which makes design as much about usability as it is about appearance. If a user finds your web site difficult to get around in or hard on the eyes, they will go elsewhere.
Obviously, I could fill many articles covering the subject of design, but this will take more of a fly-over view of best practices for a web site. I have covered much of this, however, in a previous article, which can be read here. That said, I will briefly touch on some other topics.
That being said, most web sites consist of a few components:
Some good practices to get into with your web site are just good, basic usability practices:
Two decent books that are available cover creating web sites and redesigning sites. Web Design Before & After and Web Design For Dummies, 2nd Edition can give you a ton of great information regarding color usage, layout, font styles and much more.
In short, don't use them...splash pages, for those that don't know, are a front page to your site that has some image or Flash movie and maybe a "enter here" link under it...if even that, many put it in the flash movie.
There are many things wrong with this technique. First, I know I speak for me, and based on user studies many others, when I come to a site, if the front page doesn't give me something to read, learn, or otherwise entice me to click in, I don't bother... Anything on the front, teasers, latest news headline, or some small mission statement or "about us" type thing is enough sometimes.
On the technical side, the search engine bots may never roam past that page, they don't follow Flash links, and when it sees a link and reads "enter here" it tells the bot nothing about what lies beyond. If you feel you must have a splash page because your site somehow has to rise above conventional wisdom, be sure not to make assumptions regarding what plugins the user has such as Flash, media players or the like.
Your home page is the single most important page of your site. Not using this for some effective messaging, rather than pretty pictures is a waste, and according to a user study from 2002, the user often felt that the splash pages actually reduced the credibility of the company/web site in their minds.
Images and Optimization
Almost every web site has images on it, all text makes a boring, hard to read site. The trick is finding the balance so the web site is not all images. Too many images make a web site slow to load for users on lower bandwidth connections and is quite frustrating for them.
Any images that are used need to be optimized. Optimizing images is essentially shrinking the file size as much as possible while still retaining the quality of the image. With line art type images, typically saved as .gif files, this involves cutting down the color table as much as possible. Why save an image that only uses 16 colors with a 128 colors if all but 16 go unused in the actual image. Photos, most often saved as .jpg or .jpeg files optimize differently but has the same impact on file sizes. Quite often, on the web, you can take a raw, uncompressed jpg and knock it down to at least 70% quality and not even be able to tell the difference.
Resizing is important too, as I have seen many sites take a 400x400 image, but they only want to use it in a 200x200 space so they use the 400 pixel image and just set the size params in the image html tags smaller. This is a bad practice it often distorts the image, and the user is still downloading the full size image.
These simple functions can be done quite easily in applications like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Elements. To some people these programs seem quite daunting, but there are some books out there to make it easier. Photoshop CS2 for Dummies and Photoshop Elements 4 for Dummies are two good books that cover these applications very well, I have read them both, and use both programs quite extensively. Photoshop CS2 is a full featured image creation and photo editing application for most any use. It's a big program that takes a long time to master, after years using it myself Photoshop CS2 for Dummies taught me some cool things I didn't know. Photoshop Elements is mostly for digital photo editing and managing your photo gallery. It's a very powerful app for that purpose and Photoshop Elements 4 for Dummies has been a big help. In getting it I figured it would be much like Photoshop, I was wrong, and the book helped a great deal.
These books cover everything from resizing to recoloring to applying visual effects. They are full of great tips and tricks that are not exactly documented in the manual, but totally possible with clever use of the tools these great programs provide.
If spending money on software isn't really your thing, there is always the graphic editing program The Gimp, which is a total freeware application and very powerful. I personally find it hard to use and somewhat convoluted, but I do have to say, if you can get over that, it is a very powerful and quite useful graphic creation and editing app. For photo editing and manipulation for free check out Google's Picasa which is a very impressive application as well. Not what Photoshop Elements is, but for free it's quite an app.
Make Nice with the Search Engines
No article about web marketing would be complete without mentioning search engines. This topic has also been covered before in two previous articles, read So, you built a web site, now what? and Another Look at Search Engines to get up to speed before continuing on, I will elaborate a little bit beyond those articles, and possibly revisit some topics from those moving ahead.
Search engines are an absolutely necessary component of any web marketing campaign because, if done properly, it's free advertising, and who likes anything more than free anything?
It seems that in the web business there are two kinds of people, web designers, and web developers. Designers tend to focus more on making something look cool, damned be the consequences. Then there are the developers, the people that make it function well, who cares if something is a few pixels off center, or light blue instead of blue. I really try to stay centered between the two. Obviously, different projects have different goals and focuses, so things vary from project to project, but any good web person has to have an open mind and make allowable sacrifices for the overall success of the site. Some design ideas should be scraped for usability and search engine placement (splash pages come to mind) and sometimes certain functionality may need to be shelved to increase performance of a site...its give and take, and a good web master will have to be capable of handling such things when they prevent themselves. Have an open enough mind to listen to ideas and reasoning, and be analytical enough to determine the best compromise when conflicts do arise.
An application called Web CEO is available online that I have been using for years to monitor my search engine rankings. They have a feature-limited free version available and very feature rich pay versions available as well. It not only reports your rankings but gives optimization advice, can check rankings of the competition, do keyword analysis and much more. I have found it to be an invaluable tool.
Content Management Systems
A "Content Management System" is a database driven web site that has included administration functions to control the content of the web site dynamically through a web base interface. There are many available, I even have my own. These can be extremely useful, though, for a newbie or somebody unfamiliar with database driven sites, can be daunting to install...some are easier than others.
I won't go in depth into this subject other than to say that they exist. Also, if you do shose to use one, make sure it allows you to change browser titlebar text and meta descriptions on a page-by-page level, and not just have global settings for it. Those two components are very important to search engine optimization and if it does not allow that, don't use it.
There are many available in almost any supported scripting language ASP, PHP, .Net, Java, Perl, etc. many can be found at script repositories like HotScripts.com.
Roles of MySpace, HRC and Other Communities
While the web site for your band might look awesome, be decent on search engines, have decent traffic, etc, you could always use a little bit of extra exposure, right? Well, that is where communities like this come in handy. Places like HRC, MySpace, NoWhereRadio and other large online communities can help spread the word of your band farther, and to people that may never stumble across your band web site if they don't know you exist as a band.
Such promotion can be relatively easy by getting active in the communities, the more active you are on forums, chats, friend networks and such the more often people will click through to your profile in that community and possibly through that profile to your bands web site.
The other possible affect of this is that it may increase search engine rankings by adding to your main web site's incoming link count. Some search engines, most notably Google, weigh the number of incoming links a site has into the sites value, and therefore, a lot of links can raise you ranking position.
You may notice that this article, much like others I write, often links to "for Dummies" books. This is not because I think you are all dummies. I have found through the years that these books seem to be best for a wide range of users as they cover the topics in layman's terms, often explaining terminology better than other book series', but in doing so also cover very advanced topics. I have found they strike a great balance in their coverage of the topics.
Given that the internet has become such a huge part of indie promotion, I will hopefully be covering these topics in more details in coming articles in order to provide my fellow musicians with the best tools possible to promote themselves.
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