It was way too late on a Wednesday night and I was holed up at the House of Donuts, trying to duck a few of my ‘clients’ who’s ‘projects’ had slipped a little too far past their deadlines.
It was a quiet night in the grimiest donut shack in the city. A couple of punks were trying to wire the pay-phone to the VirtualFighter game. An old-timer in the corner kept rummaging around in an old Comdex bag and compulsively folding the pages of a three-month-old issue of Toronto Computes. The proprietor was in the back, fiddling with an ultrasound box that was supposed to drive away rats and roaches. Other than that, the place was empty.
The fog rolling up against the big plate glass windows was almost as thick as the fog in my head. I’d chosen the most obscure spot possible for my repose, slumped over the old Galaga table in the far back nook of the dimly lit parlor. I’d run out of quarters hours ago, but nobody else seemed interested in playing. I drained the last of my fifth coffee and called to the garcon for a fritter and a refill.
The House of Donuts is not a hang-out for the fainthearted. A yellow plastic box floating on a sea of asphalt in the middle of an industrial wasteland, the only things worse than the neighborhood are the clientele and the coffee. Television news crews and AOLers are eaten alive here.
She walked in like she owned the place and vectored straight over to me like I had a big neon GEEK sign hanging over my head. She had a wicked smile, an “InterNIC Must Explode” T-shirt and a body that had repetitive strain injury written all over it. I knew right away this was going to be a distraction I didn’t need.
“Been looking for you,” she said, sitting down.
“Well, take a number sister.” I said, sipping burnt coffee. “I’m trying to get over a bad relationship here.”
“Incompatibilities?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.
“You betcha. Teach me to install a pre-beta browser. Preview Release, yeah sure. Six hours of download time and the bastard crashes my hard drive. Had to completely reinstall the OS. Lost almost half a gig of data. My William Gibson Alien 3 script, my Lara Croft nudie gifs…”
I looked down at the marauding alien invaders which suddenly reminded me of a certain large software company. I cursed my lack of quarters and dug my fingernails into the foam cup.
“Well cry me a river, baby,” she said. “I’ve got problems of my own. Listen, I’m just not getting any action.”
I looked up, blew a cloud of ginseng smoke in her direction and squinted at her through the haze, thinking maybe I did need this distraction after all.
“It’s my new e-zine,” she said, spinning her laptop across the scuffed plastic tabletop to me. “The Journal of Improbable Lifestyles. My hit counts are pathetic. I put my life, my soul and every PhotoShop filter I have into this thing and absolutely nobody is reading it.” She snatched my foam cup and crushed it, eyes blazing.
I stubbed out my smoke and punched View Source, not trying particularly hard to hide my disappointment.
“Well, for one thing,” I said, “you gotta start working some META tags.”
“I’m hitting F1, but I’m not getting any help,” she said.
“Goes like this, babe. You put these META tags in the headers of your HTML files. They do all kinds of neat shit, but if you’re looking for hits you wanna use ’em from two angles. One angle you use to hide a nice appetizing description of your site in the code for the page. The other angle you use to hide a list of keywords that also describe your site.”
I fished a patch cable out of the junk on the floor and hotwired the laptop’s video port to the Galaga screen. She swept my fritter off the table and leaned forward into the screen.
“If you want the full spec, check out the W3 Consortium, but they generally look like this,” I said, typing:
<meta name="description" content="A field guide to stupid things people do when they're desperate to break out of their meaningless, mediocre lives."> <meta name="keywords" content="lifestyles alternative guide donuts bubble-wrap houseplants autoerotic asphyxiation">
“Obviously, you’ll have to fine-tune those,” I said.
“Not as much as you might think,” she said, shooting me a sideways glance. “But what’s the point if they’re hidden?”
“Hidden from the human eye,” I said, “but displayed in plus-six blinking text to the Spider Army.”
“I like spiders,” she said. “Put spiders in the keyword list too. What do spiders have to do with it?”
“Search engines live and die by their spiders. They’re little programs that walk around the Web all day every day indexing the websites they find. They do the META tags first, if you’ve got them. If someone enters one of your keywords into a search engine, your site has a better chance of turning up somewhere near the top of the list. When your site does turn up in a search, the search engine will show the description that you specified. Its a question of control and manipulation, really. Hundreds of new sites get thrown up and indexed every day, but only those that can be found survive.”
“Typical male attitude,” she said. “I’ll bet you like the Robot Wars too. What else have you got?”
“The META tags are useless unless you get yourself in as many search engines as possible. Try an automatic submission service that files notice of your existence with ten or twenty search engines at once. Submit It is an oldie but a goodie,” I said.
“Yeah yeah,” she said. “Expansion. Domination of the field. What else?”
“Couple of easy ones,” I said. “First up, make a list of everyone who runs a website you like and email them. Ask if they feel like exchanging links. Its like, you get some of my traffic and I get some of yours. Second, don’t forget to announce yourself in as many relevant Usenet newsgroups and email discussion lists as you can find, but make it short and make it polite. I’m not sure if alt.lifestyles.improbable exists, but there’s probably a few that are close. Check DejaNews for good newsgroups and Liszt for the email side.”
“I’m liking it,” she said. “What else?”
“Well,” I said, lighting up another ginseng spliff, “you could try a Web ring. That’s where you get a bunch of websites together that all cover the same subject and they all agree to put links on their sites that will take visitors to the next site on the ring when they’ve had enough of where they are. You click around the ring long enough and eventually you get back to where you started. Its another traffic-sharing scheme.”
“Good,” she said. “Any other tricks?”
“From here on out you either have to start getting creative or you have to start spending money. You could buy some ad banners…”
She had the stun gun out so fast I thought her fingernails had caught fire. I leaned back a bit and shrugged.
“Just another option,” I said. “Commercial-types like it. There are banner exchange systems out there that don’t even cost you. You agree to display whatever banner they serve up to your site, and your banner goes into the rotation pool to be displayed on a bunch of other sites. Its like a more annoying and intrusive Web ring. If your resolve weakens, try something like LinkExchange.”
She put the stunner away, but she still didn’t look happy.
“Finally,” I said, “You can break out the Net entirely and promote your site in the real life world. I once heard the head Web-dude from Molson say he got more traffic from one 15-second radio ad than six months of online promos and link exchanges. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? But that costs cash. I dunno, try posters, fliers, business cards, hack the JumboTron at SkyDome. Get your URL in front of eyeballs.”
“Okay,” she said, putting the laptop into sleep mode. “I feel better now.” She reached back and scratched a small square bandage on the back of her head.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Tattoo removal,” she said. “I’m trying to get over a bad relationship.”
“Incompatibilities?” I asked.
“You betcha,” she said, with the wicked smile. I signalled the garcon for two more coffees and yanked the Galaga’s power cord out of the socket.