Climbing the 6-Tier Fansite Ladder
Last updated October 20, 2009
This article is officially out of date. It will be updated in the future.
Hello, webmaster, and welcome to my article on driving traffic to your fan website. As this is a Pokémon website, this article is targeted towards other Pokémon sites, but it can work with any type of game, TV, movie, or music fansite. First, you should know that there are typically six tiers (which I call the Fansite Traffic Tiers, or FTT) in fansites, which are simply numbered from one to six, with six being the most popular and one being the least. Without further ado, let's get to the actual listing, starting with the most basic.
These are the brand new sites, often just released on the web and given absolutely no advertising or backlinks. Sites on this tier may have a couple articles, some borrowed content (with credit, of course), and possibly a basic cheat code list. They typically have a template-based layout or a very basic one built by the webmaster. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these sites exist, most of which published by owners who simply want visitors. The site may also have a forum, but it's probably devoid of posts.
But how do you get visitors, you ask? The first key is content. The quote goes, "content is king", and it really is. Write up some impressive articles, analyze different aspects of the subject your site is about, and even compare it to similar media. Those are typically the easiest way to increase content, but it also helps to create video tutorials and some original music. Sites like YouTube and Revver work best for hosting tutorial videos.
While advertising is important as well, if your site is still in Tier 1, you should focus on delivering fresh content before one-shotting users in being bored within 10 minutes. Lay off affiliation for now. Instead, you should just focus on getting some friends to check it out and look around, making sure the site works.
This would also be a good time to start up a forum, but be sure just to create a few boards (maybe about 5). Some examples would be [Site's Subject], Support, Current Events, and Forum Games. Tell a couple friends to join. Those you trust can be instantly promoted to moderators; your site will need a staff. Have these friends start making a few posts and to providing feedback to your site. (When you finally do get to the point where you can advertise, you'll have a community you can use to show others are interested.) At least get a few dozen posts, if not a hundred. In addition, start up a game topic or two, such as Word Association or The One Above. These can draw up connections and debate without a whole lot of work. As for forum software, opt for something free that you can host yourself. You'll want to be able to backup and manipulate that database. If you pick something like Forumer or ProBoards, it will be the only part of your site that you can't just move when their service goes bad or you want mods. Instead, take a look at these two pieces of software: phpBB and Simple Machines Forum (SMF). Both are quite powerful and have many features, all at no cost.
These are the sites that have a good amount of content and look presentable to others. They have a few people that know about it and may even have a site or two giving them a link in. They have been online for a couple weeks or months, have at least 100 posts on a forum or just have good friends on the "inside".
Now that the site has content, it's time to get others to notice this content. If you've got a social networking profile, like MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter, try posting links to your site every now and then. If you post videos on YouTube or another video sharing site, stick your site's name at the end of the video saying "For more, visit ____"; also put a link in the video description. If you periodically post on related forums, leave your site name in your signature. If you have an article closely related to a topic, don't be afraid to mention that article with a link.
Another tip is to find groups that are working on a project, such as a video game hack. If you join the development team or support the project, offer to host files or provide your own media on your site. As long as it is directly related to the project, people will actually praise you for posting. Be sure that your hosting service has a nice layout and allows simplicity to download, otherwise another user may steal your thunder and provide a better service. Also make sure you have plenty of bandwidth, as music and imagery can be very straining on your server. People will start looking for a new host at any prolonged signs of downtime.
Visit the major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, and Bing) and locate the page to add a site to their crawl listing. Within a week, your site should at least have presence on the search engines. Also try to get it listed in Alexa rankings and SiteAdvisor security reviews. These can take a few months to get listed, so be patient. These measures can typically get your site a solid stream of about 10 visitors per day, more if you have unique content.
Start to seek out what are known as affiliates or link exchanges. What happens is that you find another webmaster with a site on a tier similar to yours and request for them to swap links with you. If they already have a few, look through them. Do these sites appear like they have about as much content as you? Do some of them have less content than you? This is the type of site you will want to affiliate with. Find their affiliates page and fire off an e-mail. Be sure to be nice in the e-mail. (The Affiliation page on Floatzel.Net has some basic guidelines to help you with knowing how to properly ask another site owner and to tell if your site is worth it.)
If the webmaster accepts your offer, oblige by placing a link to their site on every page of your site, as they'll do the same for you. Don't be distraught if they decline, though. You may have simply aimed too high. Look for other fledgeling sites instead of the big ones.
At this point, try to get your own site domain and a host that can link it. As tempting as a .tk or .co.cc extension may be, you should try for something more recognizable, like .com, .org, .net (or your country's equivalents like .co.uk or .or.jp). The shorter, more memorable, and easier to spell names work best. For your hosting, make sure you can get a bit of bandwidth (at least 50 GB per month) and storage space (at least a gigabyte). You'll want all of your content on one server, especially your images. The exception are videos, which you can get through sites like YouTube.
As for your site's forum, continue to monitor it. You may have already received a spammer by this point. Be sure to give this person proper warnings and bannings, if necessary. Don't just start over-moderating and blocking users that flare up debate; that can be a very healthy thing for your site. Just don't let it turn into a flame war. While you're at it, shift around your staff until you find who works well. Try to build up a thousand non-spammy posts.
Now is also a good time to check your copyrights. Make sure nothing on your site (severely at least) infringest on copyrights owned by the creators. That means no anime videos (keep it a few seconds at most), no copyrighted music (use MIDIs or legal remixes instead), no content from other sites (unless used under permission or license), no concert photography (unless the band and concert venue explicitly allow it) and absolutely nothing that would make your host look bad. You do not want to be taken to court over stealing media. You also don't want your site yanked offline.
Now this is where the sites start having content. These types of sites have fairly high presence on Google, get many incoming links from other fansites, and have a dozen affiliates. If the site has a forum (which it should), it will have anywhere between a thousand and 10,000 posts. The site will also have a nice following, with 100 or more people visiting daily. The content on these sites is usually updated weekly, sometimes more.
As before, continue advertising and linking up affiliation with bigger and better sites. Also continue to keep your news pages up to date with new topical information. Around this point, you should start trying to get at least one new piece of information daily.
In addition to regular advertising, try to focus on getting your site notice. This tier is a very difficult position, because you can easily fall back down to Tier 2, but you'll have to work hard to get up to Tier 4. Focus hard on things like search engine optimization (SEO) and getting links pointing inward. This is where your affiliates can really help your PageRank on Google, which will help put you higher on search results.
Try focusing on writing articles and lists (like this one) and getting them on social bookmarking sites. Some examples include Digg, StumbleUpon, Delicious, Reddit, and even Fark. If you get lucky, one of these could literally drive thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people to your site for a day or two. Make sure to keep all of your important links visible, such as the forum and any well-written articles. The word "free" can also help a lot in driving eyes. This may also significantly boost your prominence in search engines and other sites may give you a few links in.
Friends are another big help for traffic. Ask friends and forum-goers to request that their friends join. Word of mouth can still be quite powerful, even at this tier. If you go to school/college, get permission (if necessary) to post a flier on bulletin boards. Get creative with its design and be sure to use colors that contrast with nearby fliers. If you have a job, it may be more difficult to post it on a news baord, but if you work somewhere with an e-mail system, send an e-mail to the rest of the network. (Be very careful with this strategy, however, and make sure it's fine with your boss! You wouldn't want to be suspended or fired from this.)
Next, take a stronger look into design and the coding that runs the show. Ask your affiliates and friends what they think of its look. Is it unique? Do the colors not match? Does the header scroll off the right side in Internet Explorer and the menu jump around in Firefox? These types of design flaws can hold your site back. Spend a week or so testing different designs. Remember that the text should be very easily legible in every major browser (Internet Explorer 7/8, Firefox 3/3.5, Opera 9/10, Safari 3/4, and Chrome), not just the ones you feel like testing. Around this time, you might want to start working on plans for a mobile stylesheet, unless your site works pretty well with even the cheapest cellphones.
Finally, look around the forum. Does its features support your users well or is something lacking? If not, check around the web and the forum software sites for modifications that help both you and your members. If you have $200 burning a hole in your pocket, or someone rich joins your staff, look into upgrading your site to vBulletin. It's quite powerful, but you must really have a good forum going before you upgrade.
Sites on this tier have a good mass of content, usually including extensive details on main subject, along with numerous bonus articles. These sites receive hundreds of visitors daily and have frequently-updated content, often daily. If these sites have subscriptions or feeds, they may have thousands of subscribers. These sites' associated forums typically have anywhere from ten to 100 thousand posts and more than a thousand members, at least a quarter being active. These names of these sites may be well known, at least to a large chunk of the niche.
Tier 4 bottoms out with a sharp cliff down to Tier 3. In other words, once you hit this point, your site's difficulty with maintaining will be easier than before. Now, you don't need to focus quite as much on site mechanics as you'll need to focus on news and features.
Now that you're gaining poularity, work harder on the news and get a few new pieces up per week. Start linking social networking accounts with their free widgets and APIs. Place a list of your recent tweets and blog entries on the side. Give links to the pages on the services that have Follow, Subscribe, and Add Friend buttons. The more people that click those, the more people you can draw to your site with a quick "check this out".
The next step is your own choice, but try selling advertising. Google AdSense is simple and free. While it's certainly not the only advertiser out there, it's the easiest I've seen. Start with a basic text ad and place it in a section of your border (the menus and stuff) that looks empty. Try to avoid selling out to any kind of pop-ups, annoying flashing banners, or those ads that rest on top of your important content.
Your site's forum is probably starting to pick up the real spammers at an annoying rate. Start hiring more staff (moderators) to watch for them. The more respected users tend to work best at this and it could be like giving them an early birthday present. You'll also have a lot of fans that would be greatly disappointed if anything negative happened to your site. Be sure to keep them pleased and continuously provide them with new fun stuff. If you are really trusting, promote some of your older moderators to full-time administrators. As these people hold a lot of power, make sure they do their work right, or you'll be forced to demote them.
Sites on this tier are few and far between. Those that have reached this tier have done so through a great volume of blood, sweat, and tears. These webmasters are dedicated to the development of the website, devoting much of their free time to debugging, writing articles, and reporting on news. These sites receive an innumerable number of visitors, most of which came simply because they know the name. Nearly all sites in this tier have a forum, with numbers of posts often reaching into the millions. The staff is well trained and deals with spam instantly. These sites also have a continuous supply of content and users, and moderation is running nearly 24 hours a day.
Congratulations! If your site is this high, you are one of the primary sources of information for your site's subject. You really don't need to worry about climbing up, but instead falling back down. If your site goes on hiatus for a week, be sure to get your assistant staff working on the new content. People will stop coming for a while if you don't make updates. If possible, go to press events and expos. If allowed, record video and take pictures and notes. If you're one of the first sites to get this information up, your site could be one of the hottest on the web for the couple hours after!
As for a forum, be sure to keep a strong staff. Hourly spammers will be joining, and it's your job to make sure that they don't ruin everyone else's experience.
These sites are known by nearly everybody, but typically the only sites that could qualify to fit in Tier 6 are the official sites (if they qualified). Even if they don't have a lot of content or contain only infrequent news updates, they are still the most well known.
Don't expect your site to achieve this ranking, well, ever. It's nearly impossible and almost no fansites receive this level of recognition. To get this, you would probably have to pay royalties to get licenses from the corporations. (But at least you could be "The official...", right?)