Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Searching for the Sacred Sheet

It is interesting to analyze the keyword search activity that brings visitors to my website. Each Fall for the last few years, the percentage of searches including some variation on the words "HO 4X8 layout track plan" increases significantly. This percentage is substantial throughout the year, perhaps 20% of all searches that lead visitors to my web pages.

But in the Fall, this percentage grows. For September, it was 38% -- and if the past holds true, it will grow to 45% or more into the Winter*. As a point of reference, just 8% of searches in September included variations on "shelf layout" and 7% contained variations on "switching layout".

Since most of those "4X8"-related searches lead visitors to my argument against the traditional "sacred sheet" HO 4X8 layout, one might wonder if these searchers leave frustrated. But rather than a "bounce-off" (the web marketer's term for a one-and-done visit that lingers only briefly on a single page), many of these visitors seem to spend some time on that page. And more than half look deeper into the site.

I draw two conclusions from these data points. First, the idea of the HO 4X8, for its many demonstrable faults, is deeply rooted in the prospective model railroader's mind. Decades of magazine articles and layout books devoted to the good ol' HO 4X8 have created the perception that it is the ideal beginner's layout. Of course, this is far from true, but it shows how powerful that notion has become.

[I assume that many of these searchers are folks who are beginning in the hobby or returning to it after an absence, since the percentage increases so noticeably leading into the year-end holidays.]

But secondly, there is also a strong interest in alternatives to the HO 4X8 layout, if those are presented on equal footing with the sacred sheet. One can see this in how deeply many of these "4X8" searchers go into my site.

The decades-old fascination with the HO 4X8 sacred sheet is strong -- many are drawn to it like moths to a flame. The commercial press recognizes this and has catered to that interest (or pandered to it, depending on one's perspective). But a large part of the attraction of the HO 4X8 is due to the perception of its suitability that is created by the commercial publications' past over-promotion. I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether the resultant cycle is virtuous or vicious.

I hope that my small effort to educate folks on the alternatives helps at least some find a path that better suits their needs than the one-size-fits-few HO 4X8. In the same floor space, alternative layout footprints usually offer broader radii, better access, more engaging operations, and improved scenic opportunities. I'm glad to be playing a small part in telling that story.

* Update: It was just over 48% in December, 2009. The desire for the Sacred Sheet remains strong.