Making Your Studio Web Site Work
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
eb site building tools have become readily available to most people, including piano teachers, so that almost anyone can build a site for their business. However, just because it has become easier to start a site doesn't mean that writing a successful site has become a trivial matter. Content does matter - and making that content easy to find with a search engine and and easy to read when people come matters just as much. Of course, the site has to accomplish what you want it to (e.g. bring in new students, provide information for existing students, provide you with greater visibility among the local piano teachers); otherwise, it's just a waste of your time to write and maintain.
This article focuses on some of the specifics of what content you should consider including in your site and what I think most site owners should steer clear of! It is focused on helping teachers write their own sites, rather than having "professionals" do it for them. These tips are born out of my experiences writing and editing The Piano Education Page for over twenty years (as well as several other informational sites) and reviewing over a thousand piano teacher sites in connection with PEP. While every piano teacher's site should be individually tailored to that teacher's particular needs, this article discusses some basic content principles that I think most piano teachers would be well-served in following on their studio sites. I'll also discuss some ways to get your site noticed and read.
Think through exactly how you plan to use your site before you start writing.
Consider what it is you want your site to accomplish. A site whose primary goal is to interest and bring in new students will have a different structure and content than one which you use primarily as a means of communicating with existing students. Think through exactly how you plan to use the site before you start writing.
Outline your site before you start to write it. This is the single best thing you can do to make sure that your site doesn't become an unmanageable hodge-podge of disconnected pages. The outline process is virtually identical to the one you were taught to outline high school and college papers. Generally speaking, your Roman numeral I page (describing the intro paragraph of a paper in most outlines) will become your home page. Other first level outline topics (II, III, IV, etc) will become sub-pages linked on the home page. Second and third level headings in the outline will become either the content of the home page-linked sub-pages or, if the topics are large, further linked sub-pages on the first-level pages. You can see that the outline actually defines both the content and navigation structure of your site, so that it is inherently already organized for you when you actually begin to write the site.
Put location and contact information, at a minimum, on your home page. People looking on the web for piano teachers will usually go to a search engine like Google and type in something like "piano lessons Chicago" to find teachers in their Chicago area. If your page doesn't even say where you are located, it simply won't come up at all in most searches! Unless the contact info is especially long, I think the best place for it is the home page. It doesn't have to be displayed in a large font, but should include an e-mail link at the absolute minimum and, preferably, phone number and general location (if you happen to live near a prison, you can leave out a mail address!). If your studio is in a large city and a little hard to find, you can also put the contact info on a separate page with a map and directions to the studio. It's also a good idea to put at least an e-mail contact link or a link to a page that has it on every page.
Include certain basic content. I think the best and most useful teacher sites include information for new students, policy and event information for existing students, an introduction of the teacher (so that new students have a sense of the teacher as a person before they call), and helpful tips and encouragements for potential students. Individual teachers probably will want to include additional information as well, but these general areas should probably be covered to some extent in most teacher sites.
Use a custom "404 Error" page. The error logs on our server show that about 10% of our page requests are for non-existent files, either because the page URL was mistyped or because of an error in a link that was followed to the site. Normally, such requests simply result either in a display of the dreaded (and unhelpful) black-on-white "404 Error Not Found" page, or, worse yet, a page of advertising displayed by your ISP, from which the ISP makes money on the typographical errors of your site's visitors. Such errors mean that money is taken out of your pocket and given to your ISP, especially if you put ads on your site. Many times, people who get such errors think that your site has disappeared and stop looking for it.
You can prevent this misapprehension relatively easily. Just prepare a substitute error document, which will replace the standard one, that carries the same format as the rest of your site. Look on your server for a file named .htaccess in the same directory as the rest of your site's files. Download it to your computer, then rename the .htaccess file on the server .htaccessbak. If no .htaccess file is present, you can create one. Using any ASCII editor (Notepad, for example), not a word processor, add the text "ErrorDocument 404 your404filename" (removing the quotation marks and substituting your new 404 error file name for your404filename) to the .htaccess file you've downloaded or, if a 404 error document is already named in that file, replace that name with yours (make sure you don't disturb anything else in the file). Save it to your computer as .htaccess and then transfer the new file to your server, in the same directory as your site's other files. To test the new file, type in any nonexistent file name after your site's domain name; if the new custom error file loads, you're done. If not, and if you can't figure out what you did wrong, you can simply rename the .htaccessbak file to .htaccess and no harm is done. Although custom 404 pages are usually considered an "advanced" topic, it's easy to use one on your site and stops people from thinking that your site doesn't exist, merely because they got a 404 page. To see PEP's custom 404 page, click here. It shows the kind of content you might want to put on your custom 404 page.
Maintain and update your site. A site that is never modified, where the information is obviously old and half the links don't work properly, may do more harm to your business than good. Most sites should be upgraded or updated at least once a quarter, if not monthly. Updating need not take more than an hour or two for a small studio site, but is essential. Updating with some regularity also improves your page ranking in many search engines.
Put material unrelated to music or your studio business on your studio site. Most people have multiple interests; it can be tempting to try to do a single catch-all site that covers all your interests, business and personal. Don't do it. You want your studio site to depict you as a professional teacher. Unrelated information on the site detracts from that image. You can always have another site with the unrelated material and just link to it from your studio site, if you feel it is necessary.
Use material from other people's sites on yours. If you copy parts of someone else's site onto yours, especially if you do it without permission or acknowledgement, you're probably looking at an extremely costly copyright infringement suit, against which you will have little or no defense. Don't think that, because you live in an isolated area, you are immune from being caught infringing someone's copyright. Search engines are accessible to everybody, everywhere. If you infringe another's copyright, chances are you will be caught. I have even caught people in Africa (to name one location) copying PEP without permission or acknowledgement. If you feel another site is valuable, include it on a Links page. Use your site to talk about you and your studio, not to promote other people's work as your own.
Use too many graphics. A good studio site needs some graphics - as guides for the eye, as personalization features, and for best appearance. However, too many graphics, especially generic or animated ones, become distracting or, in extreme cases, can even cover up the message. Most studio sites can get by with perhaps a half dozen different graphics (most of PEP's pages use only five, including backgrounds), plus whatever photos you may wish to use. Keep the graphics small and use them with a purpose (e.g. to help the eye toward navigation bars, provide easy places to click for links, etc.). Animated graphics can add interest, but don't use more than two different ones on any given page. If at all possible, create your own graphics. Some graphics available on the web (e.g. an animated keyboard) have been used so many times on studio sites that they have become trite.
Try to "do everything." Keep in mind that there are sites that offer literally millions of MP3 recordings. Chances are, people seeking MP3 files will not come to your site primarily for that purpose. Of course, if the MP3 files are of your own or your students' performances that might be different, since those can't be gotten elsewhere. A good general rule is: if somebody else is already doing something reasonably well on a site, don't do it on yours; link it instead. Focus on what is unique to you and your goals.
Put too much material on one page. If your pages get longer than about 64 Kb in size, try to find a way to split the material into two or more sub-pages. Ideally, you would like every page on your site to load in under 15 seconds over a 56K dial-up connection, so that visitors don't give up on the page. In particular, don't put too much on your home page. That is the page on your site that will be most visited. If it produces visual or aural overload, people may not look at your other pages. You don't need to put everything on the home page, nor do you need to link every page on the site from the home page.
Get too "chatty" on your site. A little bit of informality goes a long way on a web site which is to portray you as a professional. It's best to try to strike a balance between making the site welcoming, with some limited and well-used informality, and maintaining a professional atmosphere. Similarly, don't put personal or family information on the site. Your last vacation might have been really fun and you may have some great photos of the family from it, but do potential or existing students really care about it?
There are now thousands of piano teacher web sites. Most are rarely visited - except by students the teacher already has! Many such sites disappear fairly quickly. Much of the reason for this is that there are simply too many teacher sites out there. However, there are some tricks you can use to get your site noticed - once you have written one worth noticing.
Most search engines these days include in their site position rankings (i.e. whether the site shows up on page 1 of a search or page 236) a "popularity" factor. This is determined largely by how many times people follow a link from the search engine to that site. When you start a new site, the first thing you must do is get the search engine to index it. The best way to do this for Google is to submit what's called a "site map". The way this works is you give Google the URL for your site so that their "robot" can crawl it to find out what pages are on it. You can find out how to do this easily by searching on the Google site. Many commercial server operators also provide tools in their "control panels" that will do the site map and submit it for you.
Once the search engine knows about your site, people may still not read it because it comes way too low in the search page rankings. Most people won't go more than a couple pages deep in the Google search output. Here's a way to get it noticed. Go to Google and search for your studio web site by typing in a set of search terms which are so well-defined that your page will come up in the first two or three pages. For example, if you use the terms "piano teaching studio", there are so many that your site will be back a couple hundred pages. What if you use "piano teaching studio Albuquerque"? That will still put your new site back ten or fifteen pages in the rankings because there are many piano studios in Albuquerque. Now try "piano teaching studio Suzuki heights Albuquerque". Chances are it will turn up on the first or second page. Of course, if you are just trying to find the home page, using your name in the search terms will quickly bring it up, too.
Now that you've found your new site (especially if you live in Albuquerque!) in the Google search output, click on the Google link to it to visit your own site. Google logs your visit and your site ranking edges up slightly. Repeat this process once a day or more, using different search terms that target different pages on your site. Within a month, you'll find that just "piano teaching studio" will turn up your site in the first few pages. This technique works because most studio pages get visited relatively infrequently, so any site with repeated visits moves up fast. After a while with your site popping up among the first pages of search results, real visitors will begin to come and they will push your site higher, if it's worth reading, with no need for you to intervene further.
Lest you be misled into thinking that this is the only secret for getting your site noticed, let me disabuse you of that notion here. The many factors in the Google ranking formula are a closely held secret. One other factor that most acknowledge as important is how often your site is updated. There are other factors (e.g. how often the search term shows up in the text of your pages and where on the page it appears). Other search engines have different formulae for rankings, but they tend to check each others' rankings. For example, if your site gets ranked highly by Google, it won't be long before Bing will display it prominently, too. Much of what I've said here is what you might pay a "search engine optimization" firm to do, but you'll do it faster and with better targeted efforts.
Another important element in getting your site read is the way you write the pages. If you have a page devoted to your piano lesson teaching and you only mention piano lessons or teaching once on the page, Google will rank it low in the search order because it uses term occurrence as a ranking criterion. If you want to get that page seen in the search results, think about what search terms people are most likely to use to find it and then be sure to mention those terms several times throughout the page. You can include these terms in your page keywords meta-tag, but Google doesn't use the keywords, so you need them in the text. You should not just arbitrarily include multiple repetitions of such terms, but find ways to use them in the page text that make sense.
There is no question that this recital of good and bad elements of web site content and promotion is incomplete, regarding both web sites generally and studio sites specifically. Following these prescriptions probably won't, by itself, get your site into the "Web Site Hall of Fame." However, it might help keep you out of the "Web Site Hall of Shame." People will also find and read it!