A look back with Web Informant (1996): Lessons Learned From Web Publishing

Nearly 19 years ago, I began writing a weekly column called Web Informant that was first exclusively distributed via email, then via various other technologies including a blog, push technology, and syndication to a Japanese print newspaper. It has been a wonderful journey, and hard to believe that it has lasted all this time. I first wanted to thank all of you readers who have stuck with me, sent me comments and encouragements over the years.

Over the next year and leading up to the big 20th birthday celebration, I thought I would resurrect a few of my favorite stories and see how well they have held up over time. This first piece was published by John December in a journal called Computer Mediated Communications back in May of 1996. My current commentary is in brackets so you can distinguish between the original me and the current me.

After writing and editing print publications, I threw caution to the winds last fall and put up my own website. I’m glad I did and have learned a few lessons along the way that I’d like to share with you. Here goes.

  1. Print still matters: it has the vast majority of advertising and is where the attention in our industry still lies. The industry still defines itself and pays attention to what these trade publications print. [Back in 1996, I mentioned one story that the online press did a better job than print in covering, that is still true today.]
  2. You may think otherwise, but the best way to get the word out about your site is for others to provide links on their Web sites back to yours, what I call inbound links. [With all the SEO expertise out there, this is still true today.]
  3. It is a good idea to review your access logs regularly to determine frequently-accessed pages, broken links, who is visiting, and when you have your peak periods. These logs are your best sources for measurements of success and a good way to figure out who your audience is.
  4. Community counts. If you are going to start a successful Web publishing venture, make sure you have a good idea whom your community is. By community I don’t just mean reader/viewers–I mean the entire life-cycle of information consumers, providers, and relay points along the way. Who creates the information? Who sends/interprets/messes it up? Who needs this information? The more you know this cycle, the better a Web publisher you’ll be. The more focused your publication, the better off you are.
  5. Just like running a “real” print magazine, you need to develop a production system and stick to it, and resist any temptations to fiddle with it. Online, the best feedback loop you have is when your reader/viewers drop you a note on email saying something doesn’t look right or a link is broken.
  6. Don’t get too enamored with the graphical look and feel of your publication: many reader/viewers will never see these efforts and they ultimately don’t matter as much as you think. While you are developing your production systems, don’t forget that many reader/viewers are running text-based browsers or turn their images off because they are coming in from dial-up connections. [Well, that has changed since 1996, but still lots of sites are filled with useless graphical junk and pop-ups that are annoying at any bandwidth.]
  7. The best Web publications make use of email as an effective marketing tool for the Web content, notifying reader/viewers when something is new on a regular basis. [This was in the days before blogs, RSS, social media, Twitter, and other notification mechanisms, all of which are great tools to complement the web.]

Overall, am I glad I am in the Web-publishing business? Yes, most definitely: it has given me a greater feel for my community, it has helped increase my understanding of the technologies involved, and I have had a great deal of fun too.

Has it been easy? Nope: Web technologies are changing so fast sometimes you can’t keep up no matter how hard you try. Setting up a Web publication will take more time and energy than you’ve planned, and keeping it fresh and alive is almost a daily responsibility. You need lots of skills: programming, publishing, library science, graphic design, and on top of this a good dose of understanding the nature and structure and culture of the Internet helps too. And a sense of humor and a thick skin come in handy from time to time too.

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