Associations are creating Web sites in record numbers--and planners are using them for internal communications, event bookings, and promotional marketing of meeting programs. But the quality of these Web sites varies tremendously.

Keep in mind that when designing a site, it should follow these three golden rules: it is easy to find; it provides useful and interesting information presented in a user friendly and visually compelling format; and it gives readers a reason to bookmark the site.

How to Be Found An average of 40 to 50 percent of all Web site hits come from search engines--the electronic card catalogs of the Web. Moreover, the following five search engines represent more than 90 percent of Internet traffic: Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), Excite (www.excite.com), Infoseek (www.infoseek.com), Lycos (www.lycos.com), AltaVista (www.altavista.com), and HotBot (www.hotbot.com). Make sure your site is listed with them.

The goal is for people to easily find your association Web address (URL) by using key words when they do a search, which means that the URL should show up in the top 10 listings of search engine results. If your organization does not come up in the top 10, searchenginewatch.com has lots of information about how to improve your ranking. It is also crucial to list the URL on every e-mail signature, business card, and marketing piece that is produced by your organization.

Attracting Readers Once people have found your site, they must be enticed to explore it. Here are some critical components to drawing in readers: * Home page: Your home page should be cleanly designed, come up quickly on the screen, have a central focal point, concisely welcome the visitor, and succinctly state what the site is about.

* Design consistency: Impart a common look and feel throughout the site. Each page should display the same font styles, color scheme, and overall layout. It's a good idea for each page to have the logo of your association.

* Good Navigation: A navigation bar that appears on each page of the site makes it easy to explore. The "three-click rule" should be followed--that is, no page on the site should be more than three clicks away.

* Speed: If the site's pages do not come up quickly on the screen, they won't be read, no matter how spectacular the graphics. The opening page shouldn't take more than 15 seconds to appear.

For examples of compelling association site design, check out the International Association of Conference Centers' site (www.iacconline.com). Another great example of a good, full-featured association Web site is that of the American Society of Association Executives (www.asaenet.org). This large but easily navigated site is packed with information with searchable databases of associations, CVBs, association management companies, and association-related articles. These listings can become substantial revenue-generating areas by charging for the listings. This site has also a leader in providing government affairs issues to its membership.

Repeat Visitors Ultimately, the most important reason people return to a site is for content that is relevant and fresh. Gist, a leading Web site marketing firm, recently reported that readers will revisit a site if it is entertaining, provides relevant and personalized information, gets immediate and gratifying results, and gives a feeling of belonging. At the least, make sure that your association Web site includes not only your basic association profile, but also news, press releases, special offers, and so on. In later columns we will discuss the various other types of content, many of them revenue-providing opportunities, such as distance learning and Web-based exhibit management solutions.

Corbin Ball, CMP, is a professional speaker and technology consultant for the meetings and hospitality industries. He is MPI's 1997 Chapter Leader of the Year and serves on meeting planner advisory boards for Sheraton and Sonesta hotel corporations. He can be contacted by e-mail (corbin@corbinball.com), and at his Web site (www.corbinball.com).