When the truck full of armed soldiers pulled over
and encouraged me to hightail it off a country road, I got the impression that I was in the wrong place. I'd been looking for a weekend hiking and biking trail, and I had found one location that intrigued me: an eight-and-a-half-mile stretch of abandoned highway that used to be part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Three years ago, a conservancy bought the entire stretch, including two long tunnels, for a dollar. And now, it's open to the public.
My Web research had produced accurate results about the location, but it missed one crucial detail about my potential hiking site: on some weekends, the U.S. Army's 99th Regional Readiness Command practices maneuvers there. On those occasions, the public is discouraged from getting in the way by a truck full of soldiers--polite, but nonetheless armed, soldiers.
My Web research missed one crucial detail about my potential hiking site: on some weekends, the U.S. Army practices maneuvers there.
The sad thing about this encounter is that the nonprofit that manages this trail regularly posts information about closures on its Web site. The information was there for me to find before I set out, but I failed to find it. Why? Because until recently, the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy used its ISP's Web storage as its sole Web site--and any generic URL ending in /~sacc/index.html isn't going to register high on a search engine. If it did appear in any of my search results (and it might have), it didn't land very high on my list, because I missed it.
The Conservancy recently acquired its own domain, and its plan is a good object lesson in how to migrate to a higher-profile Web presence--even if you're a small nonprofit with a tiny budget for such matters.
The name game
Step one in establishing a domain presence is getting the right URL, which means registering the right domain name. All nonprofits should register .org names so that they're not confused with profit-seeking .com addresses. All that remains is picking the name itself. Like many organizations, the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy has a handy three-letter acronym, SAC, but registering such a simple and easy-to-remember domain is next to impossible. All three-letter domain names in the major domain spaces (.com, .org, and so on) have been snapped up and cost a small fortune to buy on the domain-resale market. Because the whole name of the organization is 30 characters long and contains a word that's almost impossible to spell, the Conservancy chose another abbreviation: saconservancy.org. Not ideal, perhaps, but easy to remember and type and a good match for the organization's name.
All three-letter domain names in the major domain spaces have been snapped up and cost a small fortune to buy on the domain-resale market.
A small nonprofit with 20-some miles of roadway to maintain is probably, like most of us, looking for the cheapest way to register a domain. The domain registrar and host that the Conservancy settled upon was DirectNIC, which charges $15 for domain registration (not the cheapest fee on the planet, but in the budget zone); provides e-mail forwarding; and throws free, ad-supported Web hosting into the bargain. For an extra $15, it takes away the ads. So for $30, the Conservancy got a year's worth of domain and ad-free Web hosting--a decent price. DirectNIC gives you a basic Unix hosting environment on a shared server that hosts many domains. It provides a fairly tight 2GB-per-year data-transfer limit, but that's more than enough bandwidth for an illustrated informational site with moderate traffic.
Leave a forwarding address
Moving an existing site like Southern Alleghenies Conservancy's to a new server is a piece of cake. You program an FTP client such as WS_FTP to log on to your new server and select all the files in your site. A few minutes later, your site is live at your new domain.
But the work doesn't end at your new site. An often-overlooked step is leaving a forwarding address from the old domain. You'll want to redirect people who already know your address or have it bookmarked. You don't want to maintain two separate Web sites or have people view old pages at your old address either. Otherwise, people may end up running into the armed forces you've warned them about in only one place.
The easiest method: replace all the pages at the old site with a simple page telling visitors that you've moved house. Maintain the change of address pages for as long as you can (six months is a good time). You should prominently display a link to the new site's main page. It also doesn't hurt to remind readers to change their bookmarks.
A better approach is to provide an automatic redirect. The simplest way is to insert an HTML redirect tag on your old pages. This meta tag belongs in the <head> section of your old Web site and looks something like this:
<meta http-equiv="REFRESH" content="10; URL=http://www.saconservancy.org">
This particular snippet of code redirects you to www.saconservancy.org after 10 seconds. You can change the URL to whatever address you like and make the content= value another number, even a zero if you don't want any delay in sending visitors to your new site, but it's good practice to give your visitors enough time to read what's going on. And just in case their browser doesn't support redirects, be sure to include a link to your new site.
With a new domain for an already well-developed Web site, the Conservancy was well placed to spread the word about its projects. But I missed both of its Web sites until after my brush with the armed forces, which had more to do with the vagary of the search engine world than any fault of the Conservancy's (or mine or the armed forces').
In the next On the Dot, I'll look at a few search engine tricks that would have helped me avoid armed conflict and may help you attract the right kind of visitors to your Web site.
Is your site lacking redirection? Tell Matt Lake about it in the TalkBack below.