A very special thanks to Greg Zimmerman for writing this!
Seems like everyone has a website but you. Why not? Create a website and the world will find you.
Chapter 1: Why and How, Planning Overall Strategy
Chapter 2: Layout & Design – Execution, Site Considerations
Chapter 3: Promote and Update your Website, Follow Through and Promotion
This guide book is written for the Christmas light enthusiast who wants to build a website for their residential display. There is no right way or wrong way of building a website. However there are certain aspects that you want to include and certain elements that you want to avoid. This guide is written to cover the latter set of topics.
The individual topics are presented with bullets so that you can easily identify the specific topics that are of interest to you. Information contained in this guide book is written with the intention of covering many topics. Some topics intentionally scratch the surface of the subject matter and let you the designer, research the different design possibilities specific to your website goals.
Advantages of having your own Christmas light website are to help you make great memories, direct and inform in-person visitors and web viewers to enjoy your displays, assist the media to spread the word and make a great history of all your work through written descriptions, photographs and videos.
Lastly, your website helps to demonstrate that you are passionate about what you do!
Prepared by Greg Zimmerman, www.ZimChristmas.com
Why and How – Planning
Start small and grow. Chuck Smith says: Crawl, Walk then Run.
- Think about what you like and dislike when you surf the web. Research other Christmas light websites. Visit http://www.ZimChristmas.com/links.php for an extensive list of up-to-date links to other Christmas light enthusiasts sites.
- Christmas light websites are a multi media presentation. Use color, graphics, music and photos. Your front page should be designed to catch the attention of your viewer and make them want to find out more about your display by clicking on a link of their choice.
- Stay focused on your display. Keep your Christmas Light website, Christmas Lights only. No mater how intriguing a web element, story, photo, etc. is, if it is not directly related to your Christmas Lights, save it for another website related to that topic.
- Identify your audience. Your likely website audience will be, in the following order: web surfers, in-person visitors, fellow enthusiasts and the news media. At all times, focus your efforts on this audience. Keep in mind that there will be considerably more “non enthusiasts” viewing your site than fellow “enthusiasts.” Your average audience will understand: quantity of light bulbs, community awards, lengths of extension cords, motif descriptions, etc. Don’t assume that viewers automatically know about things like DIY, PLUS, megatrees, amps, computer controls, wire frames, rope lights, etc.
- One very important point frequently overlooked by website designers is that your audience is looking at your website to obtain content. There must be plenty of quality information available and it must be organized for clarity and ease of navigation. This is where buttons for photographs, directions, links, etc. come in very handily.
- Your average viewer is likely to view only two to three pages and spend up to a maximum of two minutes viewing. Make sure you deliver your message within these parameters. This is where ease of website navigation is very important. While delivering your message, you want to: Keep it simple, easy to understand, easy to navigate, exciting and interesting.
- Structure your website so that your viewer can pick and choose what they are interested in seeing.
- Do you want to allow commercial links? Commercial links for stores are not directly related to your display and stores will not link back to you so they should not be on your display.
- Place a Link button on your home page to fellow enthusiasts. There are several reasons for this explained later in this guide. Tip: If you see a website with a list of links you like, consider emailing the owner and ask permission to copy them.
Layout & Design – Execution
- Always include your city and state in the masthead on your home page. Web visitors come from literally every country on earth, so the city and state are very helpful for viewers to quickly determine if they can come by and see in person and graphically orient themselves as to where you are on the planet.
- Include quality content: photos, videos, an interesting and well-written description of your display, days and hours of display operation, directions, display history, future plans, etc. This is the reason viewers come to your website.
- AT ALL COSTS, AVOID BLURRY PHOTOS. Blurry photos negate the purpose of having photos in the first place and are just frustrating to the viewer. If you have the luxury, try using different cameras to be able to select the best photos. Take many photos and select only the sharpest and most interesting ones.
- Your photos page should always include at least one high quality comprehensive photo showing your entire display in one frame. The following photos can show individual motifs or portions of your display. Visitors want to see the big picture.
- Make the home page Christmas cheery, use bright Red, bright Green & White colors.
- Limit motion (animations). A small amount is O.K.. Much more motion is distracting.
- Your website is a promotional piece, not a technical data sheet that has page after page of raw (boring) data. Some data is good, and it helps to reinforce what the viewer is seeing. Too much data is deadly.
- For viewers and search engine web crawlers, design your site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.
- For website design, program monitors using 800 x 600 pixels. This setting allows for the maximum number of monitors to be able to view your website, from widescreens to mobile devices.
- Optimize all photographs so they load quickly. For a free, quick and easy program use: http://www.download.com/Interactive-JPEG-Optimizer/3000-2192_4-10442953.html for “Interactive JPEG Optimizer 7.01″. Depending on the individual photograph, optimizers can shrink the gross photo file size 30% to 90% without loss of quality. Additionally, the physical size of the photographs can be reduced using Adobe Photo Shop or an equivalent program to further cut file size also without compromising quality.
- Interactive-JPEG-Optimizer installs a small amount of popup type advertising. Just run your Ad-ware software once to get rid of it.
- You can use canned page formats (templates) but they tend to look stiff and less interesting to your viewers. Templates can be found at: www.templatemonster.com, http://freesitetemplates.com/templates/browse/holidays/more-1.html Many web hosts provide templates and the necessary html encoder.
- For web hosting, PlanetChristmas bulletin board members appear to overwhelmingly recommend www.1and1.com stating cost is very low, customer service is excellent, virtually no problems with the most “up time.” www.1and1.com does offer free templates, instructions and the software to upload to them. Other website hosts recommended by fellow enthusiasts are: www.BlueHost.com, www.godaddy.com, www.mister.net/. If you decide on 1and1, do your fellow enthusiasts a favor and order it through a Planet Christmas member. That member will get a small rebate for referring you. One source of free web hosting and templates can be found at www.officelive.com.
- For people not using a template, you can use programs to assist you in creating your web site. Following are some website design tools for encoding HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language): MS Front Page, NVU & Dreamweaver. Investigate each as there is much discussion as to each having many pros and cons. Most web hosts also provide their own templates and encoders.
- After templates and encoding programs, the third option is to hand code your website if you are familiar with programming in html.
- Domain registration for your web address (URL) will cost a small fee, and will be necessary regardless of which host is used.
- Consider adding a different Christmas midi file to play on each page, with an on/off control at the bottom of the page. A wide selection of more than 140 Christmas midi files is available for no cost downloading at http://www.ZimChristmas.com/songs.php Midi files are preferred for websites because of their extremely small size. mp3, wav files, etc. have considerably larger file sizes making them time consuming to load for the web viewer and thus not practical.
- Include a hit counter at the bottom of the front page. As the counter number grows over time, this will add validity to your website and help you gauge traffic. An interesting format is: X,XXX visitors since January 2008.
- On your home page, the masthead should contain references to: Your site name, Christmas Lights, Your City & State.
- On all subsequent pages, always have a “Home” button, preferably in the upper left corner.
- Layout your pages so they are easy to graphically navigate. White space is a wonderful thing.
- Do not allow your pages to look cluttered with either direct content, too much content or complex background images.
- TMI – Do not have TOO MUCH INFORMATION on any page, especially the home page. The home page is only a sales pitch to hook the viewers to look further at the following pages. Because computers will let us show an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica on one page, does not mean we should.
- For your display description, try using the third person when writing. “I did . . .” gets boring about the second occurrence that it is read.
- Write your display description like you are writing for a national TV advertisement telling people why you are excited about your display and why your viewer should be excited too. You are trying to set yourself apart from the competition, even if you really don’t have any.
- If you include a map to your display, always include your address, city and state directly on the map. Links to mapping websites are less desirable because they are additional clicks away from what the viewer wants. It is much easier and efficient for your viewer to just hit the print button.
- In your written description, write something about yourself and why Christmas lights are your passion. Include your name, how or why you became interested in decorating and include yourself in at least one photo to show that you are a real person. Your viewers are interested to see that you are a real person.
- No matter how excited you are about the technical aspects of your display, do not use too many photos of circuit boards, cashes of wires, extension cords, connection boxes, boxes of light bulbs, etc. (you get the picture) The general public isn’t too interested and fellow Planet Christmas members already know what they look like.
- Limit your use of different type fonts or colors. San serif fonts such as Arial, Avant Guard, Futura, etc. are easier to read than roman faces. Over complication, clutter or too many graphics make pages hard to read when everything is screaming “Read Me.”
- Don’t make the backgrounds stand out. They should be faint (other than black for night simulation), and not too busy a pattern. Backgrounds are meant to be just that, a background. A background is kind of like applying a tiny amount of candy sprinkles on a finished birthday cake.
- Include your email address. Occasionally, viewers or the media want to contact you. If you are worried about spam, you may want a separate email address for the website. A separate address will allow you to easily change to a new address if spammers harvest your existing address. There are other techniques and means of slowing down the spammers, such as using text in sentence format ie: “greg at hotmail.com” or having the email address open in a new Outlook Express window. A telephone number is not necessary.
- Buttons to consider including on your home page: Photos, Videos, Hours, Location, Description, FAQ, Links, Technical Info and Contact Information. This format allows the website viewer to quickly pick and choose what information they will look at.
- Great looking buttons can be custom made at: http://www.buttongenerator.com/
- Use descriptive names for your photographs. Search engine web crawlers will pick up these names and catalog them in their “images” search. You will actually receive hits from web viewers via the photographs doing this.
- Create your own custom Bookmark (Favorites) Icon. See http://www.favicon.cc. For an example, add www.ZimChristmas.com to your favorites list and see the Christmas tree in the left side of your list.
- In regards to videos: Use a “3 Chip” video camera. These cameras are much more sensitive to small colored lights at night. These recorders are available for rental from local camera shops, sometimes at a discount over the weekends. Host your videos on YouTube, keeping a back up copy for yourself, for when the inevitable crash happens. Remember computer crashes are a matter of when, not if.
- When posting videos in YouTube, provide a description and list your website prominently and add “tags” so searchers can find you. Common search tags are: Holiday, Christmas, Lights, Xmas, Show, (Your City), etc. The category should be set to: Entertainment. Always prominently include your URL in your brief write up.
- Use a count down clock for days until Christmas and / or days until lights come on. Counters can be found at: http://www.7is7.com/otto/countdclock.html and http://siggiez.com/countdownz/ch/index2.cgi
- If you want some opinions or have specific questions, post a link to your site at whatever stage it is in and ask for comments at the PlanetChristmas bulletin board, “Web Sites for Christmas and building them”: http://forums.PlanetChristmas.com
- USE A SPELL CHECKER ON ALL TEXT, ALL OF THE TIME. Enough said.
- Do your best to arrange the home page elements to fit on one screen ie. without scrolling down. All subsequent pages by their very nature can scroll as much as needed.
- Make your website name interesting and easy (ie: www.EasyToRemember.com). Use your theme, name, or the name of something in or around your display. Look at a link list to get ideas of what works well and what doesn’t.
- Use thumbnails over your photographs. This speeds loading time.
- Don’t use splash screens, they keep your audience away from your content and search engine webcrawlers cannot get past them. At a very minimum, splash screens are annoying.
- Don’t use cursors with trailing images. Also don’t use scripts (moving banners, etc.) they consume CPU resources and can be distracting to viewers too. Using moving objects straddles the fence between interesting and distracting.
- Plan your debut. The following graph shows typical hit patterns leading up to the Christmas season. Allow two months for web crawlers (search engines) to find, index and rate your site. Therefore, an ideal debut time would be between January 1 through August 31.
- Try not to use free web hosts (hosting with advertising in lieu of fees). These sites really aren’t free, because they consume precious screen space with distracting ads. Ads are not related to your display regardless if they are Christmas stores or not.
- Search engines largely ignore websites with free hosting. In the eyes of search engines, free webs are not considered serious sites.
- Be aware that paid web hosting services that work this year, may or may not be appropriate to your needs in a few years, many factors change over time (usage patterns, technology, hosting plans, etc.). At a minimum, review your hosting usage every couple of years and compare that with current programs your host has in place.
- Use a commercial web host, not your personal computer. Web hosts (servers) are set to upload at high speeds, while viewer’s computers are set to download at high speeds. You can’t have both unless you have a very expensive T1 connection or the like.
Promote and Update your Website
Follow Through and PROMOTION
- Do report any media attention you receive with copies of the stories, photographs or TV coverage. This gives validity to what you are doing. Keep in mind that over time, external links will expire, if the segment is important, capture or scan it and host it. www.YouTube.com works well for hosting videos.
- Once your website is complete, submit it to the major search engines. Once your site is ready, you can submit as follows:
- Google (includes AOL and others) at http://www.google.com/addurl.html.
- Yahoo can be submitted to https://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/submit.
- MSN can be submitted to http://search.msn.com/docs/submit.aspx
- Submittal of your URL (Uniform Resource Locator, commonly know as your website address) to the above search engines, will automatically enter your site in many other search engine results not listed here.
- Be patient while the search engines crawl (locate and index) your website. The process normally takes one to two months for your website to first appear in the rankings. Only submit ONCE to each engine, search engines penalize for multiple submittals. NEVER pay a company for submittal or placement. Search engines recommend against paid link mills and actually penalize websites that use these services. You can read more background on web crawlers by visiting http://www.robotstxt.org/wc/faq.html to learn how to instruct robots. Design your web page for your viewer, not looking for “loopholes” with search engines. Web crawlers are designed to detect websites trying to trick them. See www.google.com/webmasters/tools/ for additional information.
- Following are the top five search engines with the percentage of the share of total searches. These are for June 2006, so the results may be somewhat different by now: Google – 49.4%, Yahoo! – 23.0%, MSN – 10.3%, AOL – 6.9%, Ask.com – 2.3%
- Clearly, Google is the most important search engine to submit to. But submitting to the top three will cover 82.7%. AOL actually uses Google’s results, so submitting to just the top three will actually cover 89.6% of the searches done on the internet. And once your site is picked up by those search engines, the others will follow automatically.
- While you are waiting to be listed in the search engines, ask fellow enthusiasts to add your link to their site. Then watch your search engine placement gradually improve. Links on other websites pointing to your website are called “Back Links.” This is how search engines determine how popular your site is and rank it accordingly. The bottom line is the higher up in search results, the more traffic you will receive. There is much discussion on the internet about how search engines use “Back Links,” just Google the subject.
- If you have the ability, add a meta file to your home page. Metafiles are legitimate text files imbedded in your home page that are hidden from viewers sight, but the search engines specifically look for them. You place key words in this file that you want the search engines to pick up on when viewers are searching for your display (ie: your city & state, the words Christmas Lights, name of your display, your name, etc.).
- Search engines also analyze the “viewable” front page content of your site for determining the relevance of your site. On your first page, use key words that are viewable to your audience that additionally includes, the same key words in the meta file. Text incorporated into graphics and photographs are O.K. to use, they just cannot be read by search engines.
- Submit your display photo to PlanetChristmas with a description that contains your web link. PlanetChristmas Showing Off As always, in your description prominently include your URL.
- Join Tim Fischer’s webring http://v.webring.com/hub?ring=christmaslightin. This will help give you excellent exposure.
- Have a “Links” button on your front page. Visitors who are interested in Christmas lights will appreciate your recommendations to fellow enthusiasts. This also enables your fellow enthusiasts to benefit from back links the same way you do.
- Enter your URL at the following free websites:
- (Tips: Never pay anyone to submit your link and always include your website address in the descriptive write up!)
- http://www.dmoz.org/ (Search on “Christmas Lights”)
- http://www.portalbrain.com/christmas/ (Select “Displays and Lights”)
- http://www.lorsequences.com/ (Select “Links”)
- http://add.yahoo.com/fast/add?7089894 (Standard = Free)
- Additionally upload your videos to: http://www.videosoflights.com/
- Print business cards to hand out in-person. People you meet are impressed and think that you must have a great display if you are this thorough. High quality, inexpensive cards can be purchased at http://www.overnightprints.com/
- Watch your local newspapers in November when they ask for you to list your home as a “home to come and see.” This is a great source of in-person viewers.
- Use a statistics package. Review and analyze your viewers and site usage to see where your visitors are being referred from. You’ll additionally discover that web surfers come from almost every country on planet earth.
- Once your website is established for a few months, go to http://wholinkstome.com/ to see who has “Back Links” to your website.
- Now that you have expended valuable time and energy, backup all of your website files so you don’t lose them. Trust me on this one. Some day your backup data will come in very handy. Even commercial web hosts can and do shut down abruptly. You can add a backup routine to put all files in one convenient zip file. Keep a FULL back up of your ENTIRE WEBSITE at all times. All computers fail and ultimately loose data. The question is “When.” If this recommendation seems trivial or a waste of time, just ask someone who has lost their files.
- When you are notified that your URL is up for renewal, pay the registration fee promptly! If you miss the deadline, squatters will immediately take over your URL with their advertising having nothing to do with your display. Then comes the worst of the bad news, the squatters will offer to sell you your own URL back at a very high price.
- Email me your new link to be included to my Link List. Email to Greg Zimmerman at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Include a prominent link to PlanetChristmas on your links page. PlanetChristmas logos are a nice touch and are available, for free, at: PlanetChristmas Logos or PlanetChristmas Spreading the Word
- Update your website as events occur. The Media and viewers want to see it as it is now, not last year. Especially check your link list for non functioning links, viewers do not appreciate wasting time going to a dead links.
- When writing to tell the media about your display and website, write in a “News Release” format. By writing a News Release, you are in essence writing the story for the media. Many sample formats are available be Googling “Press Release.” The main point to remember here is that press releases are different from telling a normal story. In a press release, important information is listed first, second importance information next, etc. This way an editor can cut the end of the article if there are printed space constraints. Include a sharp high quality photograph, you website address and location of your display before the end of the release. Magazines editors and ad agency staff like 10 megapixel photos.
- SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1 SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Guestbooks are a nice touch. Some visitors feel passionate about Christmas too. In person and virtual viewers will give you some good feedback. However it is imperative that you have some sort of anti spamming guard. Spammers will destroy guestbooks with commercial advertisements which are not guarded by a human interface such as “copy the distorted code.” Following is a sample code: http://www.phpjunkyard.com/tutorials/guestbook-spam.php Another good explanation can be found at: http://www.phpjunkyard.com/tutorials/guestbook-spam.php Alternately Google “Guestbook Spam” for more resources. Additionally you might want a mechanism to remove occasional “non applicable” comments placed by individuals.
- DON’T WAIT TO BE FOUND. Go get the attention you deserve!