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PREVIOUSLY: Looking for web traffic in all the wrong places
So that led me to coming up with my own ideas. Ideas which seemed to do at least as well as any third-party SEO concepts I'd tried in the past-- and sometimes much better!
But perhaps the most pregnant with potential idea is to simply use what's proven to work for organizations both large and small, rich and poor, my whole life: trivia contests.
But not for general 'everyone knows it' trivia. No, more targeted trivia-- regarding my own site. Specifically (in my first trial effort), my on-site stories.
In theory, if the contest sounded enticing enough, links from contest sites would send all new traffic my way. New visitors, who'd have to read at least one of my stories to find the answer to the trivia question posed.
And (in theory once again) if they found that story sufficiently intriguing or entertaining, they might decide to read another-- and another-- and another. Maybe even to the point of forgetting about the contest altogether.
This same phenomenon could also take place with visitors merely happening upon one of my higher traffic pages from a search engine, and discovering a contest link on that page, which set them onto a voyage of deeper exploration that way.
Like many other web site creators, I'm not into creating content for fun, but for profit. I need money to live: it's that plain and simple.
So how will people getting into reading my stories profit me? Well, they might recommend my site to others, and increase my traffic still more. Or link to my site from their own, helping my search engine ranking, and so boosting traffic that way.
The more of that small-time traffic I get, the better my chances of getting some big traffic to go with it. Like a link from a major web site like StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit, the New York Times, or others.
The more total traffic I get, the more likely it is some of it will click on a pay-per-click ad, such as I have on many pages. And the more likely I'll sell a T-shirt or mousepad, or page sponsorship, or site cameo, etc., etc, etc.
At the very pinnacle of traffic potential exists contracts for big-time advertising deals, or book deals, or movie deals for some of my stories. Or maybe a very interesting and lucrative job offer from some unexpected quarter.
Or at least all that's some of the possibilities involved in traffic boosts.
There's a surprising number of rules and laws governing contests and sweepstakes, mainly because so many evil-doers have in the past tried to use such devices to fleece or fool people in various ways. So now you might actually have to get a license or permission from a government agency somewhere if you offer a prize above a certain value. Yikes! Fortunately for us pip squeaks, we won't usually have the wherewithal to offer such magnificent prizes, and so won't have to concern ourselves with that aspect.
(But DO check the legal limits if your prize is going to be of substantial value, to make sure you're not unwittingly going outlaw there)
However, we do have to watch out about doing some things which might seem like naturals for contests, and we even see big corporations apparently doing on a regular basis. Like making it necessary for people to pay us a fee-- or buy something from us-- in order to enter.
All us little guys in the USA appear to be expressly forbidden from doing things like that, unless we get into the bigger paperwork required for running a lottery, or a sweepstakes, etc.
So trivia contests and random drawings where NO PURCHASE IS NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN usually have to be the choice of small fry like us.
Plan a Successful, Legal Sweepstakes Advertising law expert D. Reed Freeman explains the finer points of the fine print.
SWEEPSTAKES DO'S and DON'TS FOR MARKETERS A "Plain Language" Guide to the Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act of 1999
State of California RULES FOR OPERATION OF CONTESTS AND SWEEPSTAKES July 2008
But creating a contest from scratch turned out to be more work than I expected. Sheesh! I had to do tons of research before I even had an inkling of where to start!
The more I learned, the more I realized why the vast majority of small web sites never attempt to do more than a little kid's type of contest or giveaway. For a serious contest can easily require some substantial resources to get implemented.
The crucial entry form
No, there's no absolute need for an actual entry form. You could get by with merely having people email you the particular details required for entry. But lord, would that be messy! Many such emails would likely include much extra text not really conducive to the contest, or else lack some important information needed. So real entry forms can save you from those sorts of problems.
A true entry form backed by a form processor/auto-responder will also automate things for you like a verification email to the entrant showing you got their entry, plus collecting the form info into a convenient database or list for you to run the contest by.
So a true entry form can save you TONS of work! The more people enter your contest, the more work it saves you. Indeed, it's entirely possible NOT having a working entry form could lead to disaster, if more people enter than your own manual efforts can handle, regarding all the chores required in the absence of a form.
But above and beyond all that, a real entry form makes your contest look more credible, as well. And so should help encourage more people to play, as well as help reduce complaints and other problems.
After spending weeks off and on researching various aspects of the thing, I finally decided it best to work on the part of it likely to be the most difficult: the entry form/data collection itself.
I found I needed a combination of things for this, which some call an auto-responder, and some a forms processor.
I have more than one web site host, and both offer somewhat different options in their packages. After learning what I could about what was required, I examined the alternatives each host offered, and finally selected the one I considered easiest to understand and work with. In my site control panel I installed or activated the thing for the first time ever.
Fortunately my host offered some cursory instructions on making it work in an automatic email, as well as a 'demo' form automatically generated on my site by activation of the feature.
Despite having no prior experience with php, using the materials supplied by my host, plus Googling some items, and performing some plain old trial and error finally gave me a functional entry form and data collection method, plus auto-reponses to entrants.
When I was initially fiddling around with all this, I'd created a new email address on one of my site servers (and added the necessary settings to my personal PC email program to utilize it) to serve exclusively for contest use. That was relatively easy and straightforward compared to everything else (though some trial and error testing was necessary there too, to make sure I satisfied all the geeky details of the different software apps involved).
So that email address (along with other custom messages and variables) went into my form.
Note that what info you collect in your form will depend on the type of contest you're running, what sorts of prizes, and what the goal(s) of your contest are.
In my case I only needed an entrant's name, street address, email address, and brief answer to the trivia question.
Tests of the php forms processor at my host showed I'd get an email notification every time someone entered, which included a password-protected web link to my database results. The emails were time and date-stamped, and included the email address supplied by the entrant.
The database results were also time and date-stamped, plus listed all the data input by each entrant, as well as that entrant's IP address. All in all, a pretty complete compilation for my needs.
After I'd successfully created my own working entry form on-site, I deleted the demo form my host had supplied when I installed the forms processor. For it occured to me that if someone happened upon that demo form and submitted some junk info with it during the contest, it might screw with my intended data compilation from my official form.
My entry form can be seen here (at least prior to March 31, 2009).
If you check the source HTML, you'll see I tell search engine bots not to index the page or follow its links (with a metatag of META NAME="ROBOTS" CONTENT="NOINDEX, NOFOLLOW").
I don't want the entry form indexed because I don't want it to be the first page visitors see entering my site. Plus, it may vanish after the contest ends. And making it too widely available via search engine to random hackers probably isn't a good idea either.
The 'splash' page described later on is my preferred entry way for people to be introduced to the contest. In addition, there's a chance the splash page may be around indefinitely-- if I decide to run more contests of this kind after this one. So having it in the search engines could actually be beneficial to those later competitions.
The successful entry submission (confirmation) form
This is the page you want your entry form to send a player after they've submitted their info to you. This page can be a very simple HTML page listing whatever text and web links you deem appropriate. If you want to see mine as an example, CLICK HERE.
If you check the source HTML, you'll see I tell search engine bots not to index the page or follow its links, just as I did for the entry form above.
The official rules form
To make sure you cover all your bases, I recommend you look over quite a few random official contest rules from big corporations before you begin drafting your own. After all, those companies have million dollar lawyers covering their butts.
Here's a Google search for such documents.
Keep in mind you don't necessarily have to include all the points the mega-corporations do. Because your contest might vary widely from theirs in several key ways. But you might notice and emulate the key elements all the different rules pages have in common, and use the gist of that to write up your own page-- while tweaking it here and there to better fit your own circumstances.
In the source of my own rules page, in metatags I instruct indexing bots not to index, and not to follow the page's links.
The terms of service form
If you do pretty much any sort of serious business with your web site (or have ambitions for same) you probably should have a terms of service page there, for legal reasons.
Me, I ignored that detail until I wanted to throw this contest, at which time a check of the net showed a terms of service page to be practically mandatory for contest throwers.
There's two ways to write up a terms of service page: the first is to pay a fat fee to a lawyer to do it. The second is to get an idea of the basic principles such a page should involve from checking out a sampling of the thousands of them already populating the net, via Google search, and then write your own based on those elements in others you feel apply to your own web site situation.
In that page's metatags too I instruct search engine bots NOT to index or follow the links of that page.
This page is a similar animal to the terms of service page above, and can be dealt with in like manner. Here's a Google search for such pages.
This page as well I don't want indexed, or its links followed, by bots.
Why do I warn off all the bots from exploring these pages? For one thing, most of these pages would be awfully crappy ways for new visitors to enter your site. With all their legalese and dense text, etc. For another, newcomers could be confused running into these pages out of context. And for yet one more thing, some of these pages (like the entry form) may become obsolete and broken links after contest's end. So why ever get them into the search engine database at all?
There's a surprising number of criticial decisions necessary to putting together your own contest. Perhaps one of the top handful involves what prizes you'll be offering.
My own first instinct was I needed to offer the biggest possible prize I could: like maybe $1000.00 cold cash for top prize. In order to get sufficient interest in the contest.
I thought this because I knew I personally wouldn't be attracted to a contest unless significant money were involved.
But of course, I'm a somewhat unusual person, it seems. For instance: I can't abide any sort of video game. I mean it: absolutely none. And very very few feature films or TV shows can lure me into going out of my way to watch them these days. Pretty much only House MD and Lost accomplish that, circa mid-February 2009.
As a reality-check for the prize and various other aspects of the idea, I ran my early notions past some other web site running friends of mine, who'd fiddled just a bit with some contests of their own in the past (much more casual and informal affairs than what I planned, with somewhat less in the way of prizes, too; or at least that's my impression).
They urged me to make several changes to my concept. Chastened by this, I did more research on the net regarding my ideas, and found many agreed with the assessment of my friends. So my contest concept went from being possibly a year and a half long affair with ten different trivia questions and a $1000 grand prize to something closer to a month and a half competition with one question, and a $100 grand prize.
For one thing, since this was to be my first contest (and a pretty big experiment on my part) it only made sense to shorten the span of the contest, and reduce the prize value. Plus make it easier and more straightforward with a single question to answer.
Lots of third party internet opinions regarding contests also recommended such moves as being more attractive to potential players, than things like the year and a half long duration, or combination of ten different questions to be answered.
But just how difficult is a trivia question regarding searchable online content these days?
That was a question I had to ask myself in the lead up to my contest.
You see, I have programming experience. And am aware that there's plenty of potential for someone to 'game' or 'hack' the system regarding attaining the answer to a particular trivia question online-- and do it in a way that it'd be difficult for you to prove they did it that way.
Of course, such system gaming would ruin my aim for players to have to read my stories to find the answer. But maybe there's ways to make such gaming be a little harder than perpetrators might expect....
But keep in mind you must make sure the trivia question answer will be available to anyone using your site to get it as you intend. Or in my case, by reading my stories.
In fact, this is so important that I urge you to verify such information is available on your site before opening your contest to the public. In my own preparation, I looked it up and made a note of the story/page where it was to be found.
The next-to-final component I created for the contest was the 'splash' page: a colorful and hopefully interesting introduction to the contest, complete with its own imagery. From that visitors could reach the entry form and the official rules page, as well as an illustrated index to all my stories possibly relevant to finding the answer required to win.
In an effort to squeeze still more benefit from the 'splash' page, I made all the imagery there clickable. When clicked, the visitor is usually taken to the specific story from which the image is drawn.
Lastly, I also include links on the splash page which allow people to directly buy some of the merchandise products offered as prizes (rather than having to win them). There's also a link to other products/services onsite.
Once I had all the online parts in place, I tested them in all the ways I could think of, plus proofed the text, tweaking and polishing where necessary.
After that, I Googled up a list of contest and sweepstakes portals on the web, seeking out their 'add-a-site' or 'link submission' pages and requirements. I bookmarked those which appeared most potentially useful. This process took much of a whole day by itself.
Here's a Google search for contests and sweepstakes which lists several portals for same.
The next day I began systematically going down the list from top to bottom, completing forms or writing emails as necessary to contact the portals about my contest. Most seemed to require reciprocal links from either my contest page or another page on my site, so there was some repeated editing and uploading of pages involved there to help make sure I got listed. Quite a few of the portals also require you to become a registered member of their site to submit links. Registration may create some glitches in regards to submissions though-- when you try to submit immediately after registration. For apparently some site databases (or your own browser's cookies) lag behind events in those cases, causing submissions to possibly not go through. Thus, it might be safest to register in one session, then log off the site, close your browser, then re-open it, return to the site, and log in again, before completing the submission form.
Another thing to consider is that of those portals which require you to become a registered member before submitting your contest, at least a few may take up to a full ten days or more to render your membership active, and notify you of the fact. And then require still more time to actually publish your contest link. Yikes! So right there you have a possible two week delay on sites like that getting the word out.
Would you like to know which contest portals out of the ten I actually posted to gave me the best traffic results? Of course you would! Here they are, in order of traffic potency as recorded in my referral logs:
1. online-sweepstakes.com was the winner by a significant margin.
2. cashnetsweeps.com came in a very respectable second place.
3. totallyfreestuff.com came in third-- doing better than all the remaining seven on the list put together!
Of course, different sorts of contests from mine might bring different results among contest portals.
Note that if you use anti-ad or anti-pop up plug-ins with your web browser, you may have to change your settings to successfully submit to many contest sites. I use Firefox with Noscript, and often have to repeatedly indicate to noscript that I want to allow the current page to be fully functional in order to get at the submission form like I need to. And I must do that BEFORE entering much info into a form-- otherwise that info might be lost in a page refresh, forcing me to re-type everything a second time. In some cases there can be so much info involved as to be highly annoying whenever much re-typing is made necessary.
At least some sites say they don't accept submissions for contests which aren't yet underway. So it might be best not to try adding your link until the day your contest starts, at the earliest.
Many sites state there'll be delays of days to even a week or more before your contest might be listed. So if your contest period is very brief, like one-day only, or anything less than a couple weeks, you may not be able to get much promotional use out of the contest portals at all-- which will tend to defeat the whole purpose for the contest, for many web site owners. So I recommend all your contest lifespans be at minimum 30 days long.
General web opinions regarding maximum length tend to disparage durations of more than a few months, unless the prize is really big, or the contest is of an indefinite and ongoing nature, with a new winner announced regularly and periodically over time.
Note that there are a LOT of contests and sweepstakes out there. Mostly small ones, similar to your own. All competing for attention. So you'll likely get the most traffic from a link on a given contest portal in the first day or two after it appears, and then later on in the days nearing the expiration date-- merely because of how the links are listed on the portals, and how people like to access them. Regulars tend to check the new listings religiously, while irregular visitors might go for those expiring soon, or the biggies in prize terms (a category my own certainly will not be found in).
Inbetween those 'new' and 'expiring soon' links pages, your contest link will languish in a vast limbo of competing contest links, where clicks might be determined solely by the attractiveness of the prizes being offered, or the implied ease of winning, or even the appeal of your contest's title or domain name.
There are apparently hundreds of new contests announced online each and every day(!) So trying to juice up your presentation for that long stint in 'limbo' during your contest design phase could be very helpful to you over the duration of your program.
The very last element I'm doing for my contest is preparing the papers for winners to sign in order to get the prizes. Basically affidavits of eligibility and publicity releases. I'll offer more info on those later-- since as I type this particular sentence, my contest is a few weeks away from its expiration date.
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