You decided to develop a presence on the Internet. So now what?

Is your Web site a "star performer" or an "extra?" A properly designed and maintained site can move your Internet presence to "center stage." To do this, you need a flexible plan for leveraging the strengths of other sites; as well as your own. These tips should help your site reach the next level.

Tip 1: Focus. Your site must satisfy the needs of your target market. Who are your customers? What is your niche; that place where your distinctive competence shines? That's where you must center your Web site.

You also must limit your Web site's scope. What market are you most able to serve effectively? Stay within your ability to make the site useful, up to date, and worth visiting. A common mistake is building a site wide instead of deep. In your off-line business, don't you specialize in some areas and simply not tackle others? So it must be with your online business.

When EC&M past author Ed Rafter developed www.powerengineer.com, he considered adding unrelated links (to build popularity), banner exchanges, and affiliate programs. But he asked, "What will my visitors want from a site with a URL like that?" He decided to exclude things that don't have a direct relation to power engineering. Sure, he has less traffic. But, the traffic he does have is his target market. That includes major players who wouldn't take an unfocused site seriously.

Tip 2: Sell the benefits. Does your site give a clear message about why it's worth visiting or bookmarking? Each page must answer the question "Does this site offer me something valuable I can't find elsewhere?"

You can hire a competent ad copywriter; perhaps from your local newspaper; to compose compelling text that draws people deeper into your site. Forego a long-winded introduction. Don't ask people to pour a cup of coffee and stay a while, because they won't. They don't have time. And "about us" sites don't appeal to most visitors.

People want business sites to solve problems. Capitalize on this. For example, suppose you do power quality surveys. Explain what one is, what it does for the buyer, how much it costs, and how to get one.

Tip 3: Make strategic alliances. If you specialize in industrial electrical services, have reciprocal links with firms that do commercial work. Form strategic alliances with civil engineers, service firms, trade organizations, and supply houses. Thus, someone who needs related services you don't provide will go to sites that share links and traffic with you. Consider reciprocal links with Chambers of Commerce and other information centers.

Make alliances with your visitors by explicitly asking them to give others your URL. According to Internet behavior data compiled over the past year, personal referrals generate more traffic than search engines. To see how this principle affects you, look at your own customer history. Compare referrals from yellow pages (analogous to search engines) to referrals from customers. Satisfied customers talk about you and send you new customers. The Internet is an electronic environment where the same thing happens.

Banner exchanges can be useful, but they can backfire if you aren't careful. An unscreened advertiser can post ads that offend your core visitors. You must hold banner advertisers to the same criteria to which you hold your own site.

Tip 4: Make navigation easy. Be careful how you organize information: Make finding it intuitive, not frustrating. IEEE.org does it right. The amount of information on that site is enormous, yet you can easily find what you want. If you serve multiple niches, don't make everyone wade through the same pages.

Capital Electric (www.capitalelectric.com) treats its home page like a lobby, with doors taking people to the division that meets their needs.

Do you have a site search feature? Many companies provide good site searches free. If you don't mind advertising for the company that hosts your search on their server, you can have this visitor-friendly feature at no cost. But, you may want to pursue a less-intrusive method. Either way, it's now essential: People expect a search box if they can't find something quickly. Be careful here. Don't use a search feature as a crutch. Use it to complement good site navigation tools. Visit other sites to see how they help you get around, and apply what you learn to your own site.

Tip 5: Check for browser compatibility. The various browsers interpret scripts, colors, tables, animations, and plug-ins differently. Keep things simple. You can expect more than 80% of your visitors to have Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 (or higher) or Netscape 4 (or higher); simply because of demographics. Always review your site in these browsers.

Related to browser compatibility is screen size compatibility. The standard today is a 600-pixel-wide page. Most people, regardless of monitor size, set their screen resolutions to 8002600. Laptops usually hit the upper limit with this size. Pages wider than 600 pixels force the typical visitor to scroll constantly. This irritation causes some visitors to leave.

Tip 6: Watch those graphics. Do they look good, load fast, and accent (not dominate) your pages? Some people, with no time to wait, turn graphics off. A big, slow-loading logo may not appeal to everyone. Reduce images and break tables into smaller tables. This gives visitors something to read while the page keeps loading. If all else fails, break the page up into smaller pages and link them together. Do not use graphics for navigation; those "hover" buttons and Java applet "navbars" don't perform reliably.

Tip 7: Get links. Do other sites link to yours? The best way to get such links is to ask for them. If you link to someone else, ask for a reciprocal link. However, don't link to unrelated sites or vice versa.

The more your site ties to related sites, the better. However, beware linking to and from sites that may tarnish your image. Check often for dead links. Microsoft FrontPage has arguably the best utility for checking links; which is appropriate because FrontPage is notorious for corrupting code (especially links with ampersand extensions). The links on your site will amass; you can easily add 5,000 in a year. You can't afford to check these manually.

Limit your links to sites in your industry. If, however, many of your customers follow a particular sports team, you could build a page just for fun; and populate it with links that deal with that theme.

You might build a mini site within your site, and devote it to this theme. This mini site would be full of information about that team. However, be careful not to get carried away and lose focus.

Also, don't link to your fun page from your home page; link the other direction only.

Tip 8: Make the search engines happy. Search engines exist to help people find what they want; not to trick them into going to an unrelated site. Most search engine secrets and placement tricks boomerang. To keep from being blacklisted, don't try to fool search engines by adding mindless repetition of keywords, using the same color text and background, or spamming your metatags.

A good site gets traffic from referrals. Most search engines recognize good sites and reward you. Those people who want to charge you $499 for their alleged ability to get you a "number one rating" may do you more harm than good.

Tip 9: Promote your site. Your site's Uniform Resource Locator (URL) should appear on your business cards, stationery, and promotional materials. Use your site as an information depot. When a customer calls for information, walk that customer though your Web site over the telephone. Use your site to complement, if not replace, other forms of information distribution.

Tip 10: Control quality. Visit your site with a critical eye. How easily can you get to and from the most mission-critical and/or appealing portions of your site? Is the site aesthetically pleasing? Is the text devoid of fluff? Does the site offer solid value for the time the visitor invests? Don't just put a page up and forget it. Establish a site auditing schedule; review each page at least twice a year. Think about how you can update each page to make it more useful and easier to read.

Create a site quality checklist. If you limit your checklist to the 10 most important considerations, you're likely to do a good job with the pages you compare against it. You can always change your checklist. You might start with such items as download speed, grammar, links to other sites, conformity to the way the rest of the site looks, navigation ease, relevance of content to your overall mission, and possibly three items from your personal "Web site gripe list."

You have more to consider than just these tips. However, you now have a foundation to go center stage with your Internet presence. Yes, you should learn from what others are saying and doing, but don't blindly copy someone else's formula. One size doesn't fit all. Read what others say, then take a long hard look at what you must do to keep your visitors coming back; that may be the best tip of all.