Happy Birthday ChesterVermont.org!

By Shawn Cunningham

One year ago – a snowier Feb. 16th than today – Cynthia Prairie and I set up our computer in the meeting room behind Bret and Nancy Rugg’s office at the Fullerton Inn. Deb Shelby, our web developer, arrived and, while we arranged some chairs, she configured the projector for our show. It’s hard to believe that it has been a year since we rolled out www.chestervermont.org, although at times it feels like it has always been a part of Chester.

Throughout that February day, Chester residents and business people responded to our Message ad inviting them to have a first look at the new site. Many, including Town Manager David Pisha, pronounced it “amazing.”

The website was part of an effort to attract attention to the town – especially attract visitors – during the period when the Route 103 bridges were under construction. We began working with the web designers in October 2010, by November we had a design and by Christmas there was a beta site that was soaking up as much information about Chester as we could feed it.

Many local businesses supported our efforts by donating needed matching funds to USDA-Rural Development, filling out our website questionnaire and sending in photos. And Cynthia spent hours and hours inputting that data. There also were more photos and artwork to gather and size, calendar items to post and dozens of bugs to find and fix. She even plotted every entry by longitude and latitude so it would show up correctly on the Google maps on every business’ gallery page. This information also was used to correct the dozen or so errors in Google Maps for Chester — like the one that had the Whiting Library located in the Mountain View neighborhood. To date, thousands of volunteer hours have been donated to help Chester market itself to the world. In fact, nobody aside from the web developers has ever been paid for working on the site.

Since it launched a year ago, ChesterVermont.org has averaged more than 1,800 “unique visitors” per month with nearly 2,200 in January 2012 alone. A unique visitor is counted when a web address accesses the site. If you have three people on the same modem and they all visit the site, it counts as one unique visitor. If 30 Whiting Library patrons visit ChesterVermont.org, it counts as one unique visitor. This month alone, at least 2,000 people — probably more — will visit this website for a town of 3,000 residents. To date, in nearly 40,000 visits, people have viewed more than 310,000 pages on the site.

While most of the visitors to the site are from from our own community and the Northeast, our analytics tell us that we get traffic from all over the world. That was confirmed twice recently: We received an email message from a North Carolinian trying to locate an old Chester friend and we got a call from a woman from Tyler, Texas, who plans to spend a couple of months in the area this summer and wanted to talk about things to do that were not yet posted to the calendar. Obviously, people are paying attention.

Thanks to a lot of work keeping the content fresh, the site has risen in Google results for searches of Chester Vermont. It debuted toward the bottom of page 12 and now sits at No. 3 on the first page, just below the default Google map and the municipal site, which Google puts at the top of most place searches. One factor in this steady rise has been the “Around Town” blog in which we posted updates on the bridge construction and later on the Dollar General proposal and Jack’s construction problems. These have been so popular, in fact, they have answered a recurring question and showed us the way forward for the site.

When we started, people asked us how we would keep the site going after grant funding ran out. The huge response to our coverage of town news indicated that an online newspaper with paid advertising could not only be a valuable source of local news and offer freelance employment but could also help supplement donations to support the operation of the tourism/marketing site. So far the response to The Chester Telegraph has been extremely encouraging. To donate to ChesterVermont.org, make your checks payable to ChesterUnited Inc., (with ChesterVermont.org in the memo line), and send them to P.O. Box 221, Chester, VT 05143. Your donations are appreciated by everyone in Chester.

Thanks also to everyone who write in the comments sections, send in calendar items, suggest news stories and offer encouraging words that help make ChesterVermont.org such a success. We look forward to a great 2012 in Chester and online.

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