Finding your place in cyberspace

Way back in the early 90s, it seemed as though cyber-pioneers had practically the whole Web to themselves. How times have changed! Kevin Rayburn recalls those good ol' days and offers some advice for the next generation of Web site builders.

Lots of IT pros set up personal Web sites for themselves, friends, or family. In this new column, Kevin Rayburn provides advice and information to help you host, design, and promote your personal Web sites.
Remember those days of America's innocence? No, not the 1950s.I mean the early 1990s—when surfing the Net meant prowling around in a text-based, mysterious UNIX world of subdirectories and .ftp files. The “Brave New World” of the graphical interface was yet to be, and big decisions beckoned: Should I go with a Mosaic or a Netscape browser?

If you were a geek back in the Stone Age of the Net (circa 1993 and 1994), you may already have had your personal Web page devoted to Monty Python, Star Trek, Mountain Dew, or Spam (the meat product).

In 1994, I was shocked to find there were no Web sites devoted to two of my favorite subjects, W.C. Fields and the decade of the 1920s. I was on the ground floor. In 1995, my Web site on W.C. Fields made its debut. The next year, my site on the 1920s went online.

Today, it's getting harder to create Web sites on unique or untouched subject matter. If you're into movies, music, Nintendo, or (dare I say it) sex, it's pretty much too late. Oh, you can put something online, but will anyone be able to find your site among the thousands already out there? Should you reinvent the wheel?

Of course, it's still possible to find niches. While recently researching obscure actresses for my upcoming book on the history of cinema, I ran across two such specialty sites on the actresses Diana Scarwid and Lee Armstrong. So far, these fans have a Web monopoly.

Better tools, higher standards
With improved software and better ISP choices, creating a Web site today is much easier than it was in 1994. Still, newcomers face a disadvantage: If they hope to attract surfers today, their pages can't look as crude as the pages we cyber-pioneers built five or six years ago. Our advantage was an ability to improve our pages and develop a learning curve as techniques improved. Today, Web creators have to spend more time and expense to create a truly competitive Web site in terms of visual aesthetics and navigability.

Been there, read that
Before you create your Web site—whether your interest is obscure or widely shared—you should discover what's already out there. To do this, you have to hit the search engines and surf around. The best place to begin your search is with the venerable . But don't just surf via one search engine; try several. Different search engines will locate different sites. A good one I've been using lately is Northern Light. Yahoo also has a large listing of other search engines available at Searching the Web/Search Engines . Some of the oldest and most popular of these include AltaVista, HotBot, Lycos, Metacrawler, Infoseek, and Starting Point.

If you're trying to figure out what types of things might interest potential readers of your Web site, hunt through online discussion groups. Many of these groups' discussion threads can be found via the discussion group archives and search engine at (formerly DejaNews).

As of fall 1999 (when my "hit" counter went on the fritz), my W.C. Fields Web site had logged 73,491 surfers. Not earth shattering, but not too shabby either. Having your own Web site can bring other joys—like the sharing of good fellowship with like-minded people you otherwise never would have met.

Kevin Rayburn is a Louisville freelance writer. He has won awards from Yahoo!, Lycos, Netguide Magazine, Magellan, and others for his Web site on the life and work of film comedian W.C. Fields. He also has received recognition for his Web site on the history of the 1920s from the Internet Scout Project's The Scout Report, which identifies sites that are deemed useful for educators.

If you're getting ready to create a Web site (or if you've reached the construction phase), send us a note and tell us about your experiences. To share your thoughts on this article, please post a comment below.

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