The Power of Words on the Early Web

 by Richard Seltzer,

Abstract -

The early web was dominated by static text.  Graphics, video, audio, and text generated by scripts and from data bases could be displayed, but such content could not be indexed by search engines like AltaVista and Google.  Enriched content made web sites more attractive and useful, but if you wanted to be found, to attract search-engine-based traffic, you needed static text, and the more of  it the better.

That meant that amateurs with little resources and little technical skill could compete for attention with large corporations.  Of course, those corporations had the advantage of brand recognition -- with many users searching by brand name and simply going to the URL that was the brand name.  But detailed and specific searches would take users to small text-rich sites with the information that they wanted.

In the beginning, the Internet was the exclusive playground of researchers -- commerce was outlawed.  There was no Internet advertising.  There were no viruses, no cookies, no popups, and no search engines.  Spam had yet to be invented.

Then, soon after the first web browser (Mosaic) went public in October 1993, allowing point-and-click navigation, the first Internet Service Providers (ISPs) ofered metered high-priced Internet access to the general public, over dialup modems. (9600 buad was the standard then.  It took an hour to download a book the size of Tom Sawyer).

Businesses started to show interest, but with a misguided interest in glitzsy graphics when personal access was by dial-up and large graphics made web-pages painfully slow to display. 

AltaVista the first successful search engine, went public in the spring of 1995.  It sent out a single search bot ("Scooter") to discover, by following links, all the public content on the Web, and created an index of all that text.  In 1995 the entire text of the public Web amounted to about a quarter of a terbyte, a small fraction of the capacity that you have today in a typical PC or on a hundred-dollar external drive.  Searching that index made it possible to quickly find  information published in web pages.  You no longer needed to painstakingly build a database, with fixed categories, in order to retrieve what you wanted.  You could find a needle in a haystack, without organizing the haystack, without in any way disturbing the haystack.  And you could find information on random web pages anywhere, published by anyone.

AltaVista and its eventual successor, Google, were amazing at dealing with static text.  But they couldn't index the other kinds of content on the Web.  Graphics, video, audio, and text generated by scripts and from data bases could be displayed, but such content could not be indexed.  Enriched content made web sites more attractive and useful for those lucky enough to have better than dialup access (typically from work).  But if you wanted to be found, to attract search-engine-based traffic, you needed static text, and the more of  it the better.

That meant that amateurs with little resources and little technical skill could compete for attention with large corporations.  Of course, those corporations had the advantage of brand recognition -- with many users searching by brand name and simply going to the URL that was the brand name.  But detailed and specific searches would take users to small text-rich sites with the information that they wanted.

In that era, before the Web had become an integral part of our lives, it was a challenge to convince corporations that the Internet had business potential and then to point them toward strategies that could immediately benefit them.  Among those who forged ahead, even highly placed managers and well-financed entrepreneurs often got the uncomfortable feeling that they were at the mercy of their "experts," like the emperor was at the mercy of his tailors -- that they were paying top dollar for magical cloth, when cotton would do just fine.  At that time, my role at Digital Equipment (a pioneer in Internet-based commerce) was to spread the gospel of the Internet.  I worked in the Internet Business Group, and my business card read "Internet Evangelist"

Here's a sample of that gospel of yesteryear --

Imagine that someone asked you, "What's the most important design element of a Web page?" You'd start thinking of all the techno buzz words you've heard and read about, and you'd have no way to sort them out. 3D graphics? Animation? Audio? Video? Java applets? Frames? Database access?

But the answer is words -- just words. Nothing matters more than the words on your pages.

How can you get people to return to your site, repeatedly, and perhaps become part of a "community" of visitors? Rewards programs? Dynamic personalized experiences? Quick and easy secure transactions? Auctions? Games?

All of those might help, but so could words -- just words.

You can build effective Internet businesses simply and at low cost. Expensive design approaches should be used only when there is a direct benefit to be gained. The key question is not "What can technology do?" but rather "What makes sense for your business?"

For instance, do all your potential customers already know you and have business relationships with you? If that's the case, then your approach to business on the Internet would indeed be very different than if you need to attract and interact with unknown prospects. When you already know your customers, you can talk to them and work with them to provide just the information and experiences that they want, and remind them regularly when there's new material they can benefit from.

Dealing with the unknown -- trying to draw likely prospects to your site -- can be far trickier. That's where you often go astray, trying to mimic familiar tactics in this new environment.

You might, for instance, think of a Web site as if it were a magazine, and a "home page" as if it were the magazine's cover. Consumer magazines invest heavily in photos and other graphical elements for their cover because that's what attract buyers at news stands. But, on the Internet, people don't see your "home page" before they get there. Images and fancy effects don't attract visitors, rather they make your page slower to load; and no matter how eye-pleasing and exciting the visual experience, it loses its novelty on the second visit and the third, and the slowness becomes increasingly, painfully evident.

So how and why do people find your Web site?

If your company's name is a household word, and if you spend heavily in mass-market advertising through traditional media, you'll probably get plenty of traffic by people just typing and hence going straight to your home page. Of course, the large companies that have such a luxury face another problem -- often they have diverse product lines, but their brand advertising focuses on one small part of all that they do. Brand probably hurts those off-brand products. Even business-to-business customers would not know or immediately recall that that company makes many of the things that they do.

If your name is not a household word or if it's your job to market the off-brand products of a branded company, what's the most effective and least expensive way to build traffic to your Web site? Traditional advertising? Banner advertising? Games? Sweepstakes? Offers of free products and special deals? Link exchanges? Affiliate programs?

Once again, the answer is words -- just words.

On the Internet, people often navigate using hyperlinks and search engines. Hyperlinks are convenient pointers from one page to another, often included because the creator of one page believes the content of another is useful or interesting. Search engines match query words and phrases with the content which they have indexed from all over the Web and, ideally, point the visitor to the most relevant pages. Home pages have no special significance and graphic effects are irrelevant. To search engines, all pages are equal in importance, and their most important element is their searchable text.

On the Web, text content can be of value to you in a variety of ways -- selling discrete chunks of it, selling by subscription, and also turning it into a marketing asset. In some cases, the marketing value of posting content for free can far exceed what you might hope to get through online sales of the same content. This is especially true of content related to Internet business and technology, which seems to have a useful half-life of less than a year.

Search engines (like AltaVista) index every single word on every page they find -- including the order of the words. Hence the more text you have on the Web -- in simple, search-engine-friendly form -- the more likely your pages will be found. Those who find your pages and like what they see are likely to bookmark them and tell others about them and/or create links to your pages. Hence the marketing value of such content increases over time, as it becomes more ingrained in the search and link structure of the Web, even though its information value decreases over time.

From these observations, we can derive the basic principles of content-based marketing:

For example, when you discontinue a product, your first inclination is to remove all mention of it from your Web site, to make sure all your content is current. If you go out of your way to update search engines with all the pages you have changed and to remove dead pages from their indexes, a potential customer interested in that product will get no results at all from these search engines. And if you update your site without updating the search engines, that customer will click on dead search engine links, and may give up in frustration. You would be much better off keeping the old pages and the old mentions of the discontinued products and adding to those pages explanations and links to your latest and greatest products. That way you help would-be customers rather than slamming the door in their face.

Also, since old content is valuable for attracting traffic, consider adopting business models that move content as it ages from a closed paid area to an open public searchable area, deriving revenue from it until its marketing value is greater than its value as an information asset.

Basically, content-based marketing takes advantage of the full text of every document you are willing to make public, and gives new life to old pages. In contrast, "search engine optimization" focuses narrowly on raising you higher in the results lists for searches for specific "key words."

This is an application of my "fly-paper" principle for drawing traffic to a Web site..

When old friends who I hadn't been in touch with for 10-30 years started sending me email -- about half a dozen of them each month -- at first I was flattered. Isn't it amazing that all those people would be looking for me?

Then it dawned on me -- why should they look for me?

With a few quick queries I soon established that they weren't looking for me at all. They were looking for themselves. They had gone to search engines and had entered their own name as the query. And since I have a lot of content at my Web site -- including lots of my writing -- many of my old friends are mentioned there. Searching for themselves, they chanced on me; and wound up sending me email.

If I had wanted to find them, I could have spent a lot of time looking and might never have succeeded. But because I had my own Web pages and, by chance, those pages had the right kind of content, and that content was indexed by search engines, the old friends found me instead.

The developers of search engines intended to allow people to find answers to questions and to locate specific information that they need. But instead, it turns out that many people look first for themselves -- satisfying their curiosity about how often they, and others with the same name, are mentioned and what's said about them. Next they look for particular things that are near and dear to them -- often just out of curiosity, rather than need. It was this behavior and the fact that I had my own personal Web pages that led to me getting so many email messages from old friends -- them finding me by looking for themselves.

I soon realized that what I had done by accident, others could do deliberately -- setting out "flypaper" rather than going hunting with a "fly swatter." While hyperlinks are a way to point people away from your Web pages to other resources on the Internet, "flypaper" provides a way to draw people to your pages and encourage them to get in touch with you directly.

It's a neat flip of your usual expectations -- you connect with the people you want to by making their names and their subjects of interest findable at your site.

You can create Web pages and organize the content on those pages specifically for the purpose of drawing particular people and particular kinds of people to your Web site and hence getting in touch with them.

So how could a business use the flypaper approach? If you want to connect with a particular person, and your phone calls and email are going unanswered, create a Web page that mentions that person and topics that that individual is interested in. Say, on that page, all the good things you've been meaning to say about how you could both benefit from working together.

Be sure to put the person's name and the company's name in the HTML title and in the first line of text, so the ranking algorithms at AltaVista and other search engines will put your page high in the list of matches when people search for those words and phrases.

You needn't have hyperlinks from anywhere to your "flypaper" pages. Just be sure to submit the individual URLs to search engines which are good about quickly adding material to their indexes. 

The next time the target person does a search for him or herself, your page is likely to appear at the top of the list. When that happens, that person may get in touch with you, and suddenly your position in the upcoming dialogue is greatly improved because they contacted you instead of you contacting them. There are no guarantees, but it's certainly worth a try; and the odds are getting better all the time as more people use the Internet regularly.

That's what I call targeted flypaper -- where you are trying to get in touch with one particular individual.

You also could try general flypaper.

For example, at my Web site I have a list of every book I've read for the last 41 years. It's just a list. When I posted it, I doubted that anyone would be interested. I posted it as a lark, for the fun of it. But because of search engines like AltaVista that Web page draws lots of traffic to my site. I've gotten email from authors, agents, editors and others who like the same books.

How can you apply this concept? Say you work for a school. Create a Web page that lists every alum and the year of graduation and other public info about them. Add URL at the search engines and you'll get email from some of them. As you begin to draw audience to your site with flypaper of this kind, you might give these people reasons for coming back, becoming a loyal audience -- part of a new on-line community.

However you decide to use flypaper, be open to the unanticipated value of saving, recording, and posting information of all kinds.


Sidebars --

"A Glimpse of the Future," is a three-minute video tape showcaseing pioneering web sites available to the public in January 1994.  Richard Seltzer and Berthold Langer produced this video for Digital Equipment.  Then  NCSA (creators of Mosaic, the first Web browser) and dozens of other organizations, including Digital's competitors. distributed thousands of copies of this video, using it to help spread the word about the business potential of the Web. Here is the script. The original video is now online at YouTube


by Richard Seltzer

From Georgia to Palo Alto,

from Oslo to Singapore,

from the Vatican Library to dinosaurs in Hawaii,

from Talk Radio to missing children,

from Bio-Informatics to the World Bank,

from Wired Magazine to Mother Jones,

from current weather maps to the latest supreme court decisions,

a vast array of information is being made available in attractive,

easy to use form, and for free over the Internet.

A global electronic mall is under construction.

People congregate here, interact here, find the information they want here.

And here, too, they are beginning to conduct business.

Here the smallest of companies can search and shop on a global scale

for the best resources and products at the best prices.

Here those same small companies can market their own abilities and

products in a global marketplace.

This means a new array of risks and opportunities.

In the future, you will be forced to compete with distant companies you never encountered before,

and you will be able to expand to new markets at low cost.

Here new business models will evolve quickly, with new kinds of partnership and collaboration,

new ways of working together and serving customers

and making money.

Digital is here already as a leader in the field.

Today, customers and partners who are on the Internet can access press releases, info sheets, software product descriptions, Systems and Options Catalog, white papers, performance reports and customer-oriented publications. They can read them on-line, or download them and print them.

We also make it easy for customers and partners to connect directly to Alpha machines on the Internet, and to test dirve them, at no cost.

And, with our Electronic Store, we are beginning to sell over the Internet as well.

With this capability, we serve those customers and partners who are on the Internet already,

and we gain the experience to better serve them in the future.

What's ours is yours. What we learn, you learn.

Come take a look at the future we can build together.


In June 1994, Berthold Langer and Richard Seltzer received the first Internet Marketing Award at Internet World in San Jose, for that video. Richard used that occasion to make a statement of his deeply held, personal beliefs regarding the nature and potential of the Internet --

I'm honored to be here with people who helped make the Internet what it is today and who will shape its future.

My videotape is a quick look at what is happening today with Mosaic and the Worldwide Web. It avoids talk about highways and distance, and tries to show the immediacy of a user's experience.

Mosaic brings the world to your desktop. It makes the resources of the Internet feel like an extension of your own mind.

And if you have something to say or show, the Worldwide Web lets you open up and invite a global audience to share your creations and follow the threads of your thought.

This environment feels like the grand concourse of a global mall, where millions congregate to learn and share experiences and to do business.

The Internet has long been a great way to meet people -- to hear all views and to have your say. It has been a pioneer environment of sharing and caring, where strangers often help one another, with no expectation of payment or reward.

Today, some people on the Internet are frightened by the rapid growth and change and the coming of commerce. They talk about a land rush, and barbed wire, and the end of the open range.

But the Internet is not a limited, fixed space to be carved up by competing commercial interests.

Rather, it is a different dimension, where you can be everywhere at once, without moving. Every individual and every company that connects to the Internet expands and enriches it, and at the same time becomes part of the Internet and is changed by it.

Let's welcome the growth and grow with it. Let's help shape a future that continues to amaze and inspire us all.


In 1995, Richard self-published on the Web a book entitled "The Way of the Web".  Here is the epigraph to that book --

Who owns the Internet? -- No one.

Who controls the Internet? -- No one.

Where is the Internet? -- Everywhere.

Can you understand all and penetrate all with the click of a mouse?

To produce things and to make them well,

but not to sell them,

rather to give them away freely to all,

and by giving to become known and valued;

To act, but not to rely on one's own abilty,

to build on the works and lessons of others,

and to let others do likewise --

this is called the Way of the Web.

The best is like water.

Water benefits all things and does not compete with them.

Water dissolves barriers.

Water reaches out and covers the earth.

This is called the Way of the Web.  privacy statement