Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ten Lesser Known Secrets of Blogging

The basic steps to good blogging are by now fairly well known.

The following steps are less well known tips to help your blog succeed. Some of these may have been mentioned by others, but if so, rarely.

1. Keep tabs on your statistics

You can learn a tremendous amount about what your readers like and what works on your blog from your statistics.

Here are some things that I see in my stats:

- Readers who read only the most recent popular post. How do I convince them to read just one more post?

- Readers who read the popular post, and then the first post in the "Recent Posts" list. Or, readers who read the popular post, and then the "hook" post I placed on the top of my site.

- Readers who read the popular post 30, 50, or more times in a month. Are they sharing the link with everyone who stops into their workspace? Did they pass it around an office which does IP spoofing? Or did they set it as their homepage on their browser? How do you get them to read another article on a similar subject which they might also like? After you write the other post, go back and add a link to it at the top of the popular one.

- The first thing readers click after they read their first post. Make sure it's good.

- The last post read before a reader abandons the site. Figure out why.

- Posts that simply never get read, even though they're in the highlights. Eliminate them? Change their titles? I've done both; changing the titles can be very successful.

- Posts that get read disproportionately well. Raise them to a more prominent position?

- Links to my site that don't show up on Technorati - often in forums or web directories. These forums may have comments about your post or blog that are worth reading.

- The faithful readers; either those who simply check every day, or who click every post via an RSS reader. These are your best friends.

2. Order your posts

Sometimes, my unremarkable posts get clicked simply because they are the next post after a popular one. They are the first or most interestingly titled posts in the Recent Posts list that appear next to a popular post. Ideally, I want the second post people read to be another strong one, not some random one. Try writing a "popular post" right after a nice one. You could even slightly tweak the posting time/date on the posts to ensure that this happens (but not so much that it annoys your regular readers).

A blog with one popular post is an anomaly. A blog with two is worth watching. A blog with three is worth subscribing to.

3. Capture a subject

A simply-titled, thorough post about a particular subject, such as a movie or game review or some other topic in your field, can become a definitive post on the topic.

I wrote a post about the game Progressive Rummy; I didn't think much of it, but to this day it gets ten hits or more a month for that search term.

One post - that's nice, ten hits a month. A whole lot of posts like that - that can turn your blog into an encyclopedia, each post generating dependable monthly traffic.

Of course, a really good definitive post can get a lot more than ten hits a month, such as my long list of Monopoly variants.

4. View your blog as if you were a new reader

Every once in a while, erase all cookies from your blog and thoughts from your head and visit your blog as if you were a new reader. As the blog writer, you know where to find the good stuff and the new material. You know how to look past the busy stuff at the top and sides. But would a new visitor?

I've redesigned the site at least twice after looking at it from a fresh perspective. I will probably do it again (still a bit busy, in my opinion).

Also, use several different browsers! What looks good in one can look horrendous in another. At least use Firefox, IE, and Opera.

5. Make the hook prominent

However your reader gets to your site for the first time, there is something else you want to tell them: why they should come again, or why you are blogging, or both.

One of the very first articles I put on my blog more than two years ago was about the main subject of my blog: new games. When I made the Highlights sidebar on my blog, I put the article in it with the title "New Games". No clicks. It was in the middle of the sidebar ("N") and the title didn't seem to speak to people. Yet, that was the article I really wanted everyone to read.

So I retitled it "60 second primer on modern board games" and placed it alone, on the top right of my site directly beneath the title, in a bold red font. It is now the most common second click on my site.

Of course, it has to be a good article, or it will also be the most common exit point from your blog.

6. Find your own voice

You can't get far without being something unique. Study the blogs you like, but be different! Have a unique angle. Be a somebody. Be a personality. Be remembered uniquely, and not just one of a list of sites.

7. Be a mensch

You can probably be successful ignoring this tip; so many people are. And they even make friends doing it. So consider this a tip aiming toward a different type of success: a better world.

Make the world better by your presence, not worse. Be well-mannered, live up to a higher standard, make people feel happy for having read your blog or known you, not "holy crap, he's so cool because he's mean."

8. Don't be afraid to add ads

There's no contradiction between producing great content and trying to profit off of your site. If the former comes before the latter, people want you to make money from it, especially if it doesn't cost them anything.

When banners first appeared on the Internet, some people bemoaned their commercial nature; I was never one of them. I don't condone the obnoxious ones or fraudulent ones, but I was always happy to trade off a little page real estate or even a few seconds wait to keep the content high-quality and free.

But please don't make your site look like a wall of advertisements.

9. Don't be afraid

You may not want to start a blog at all, because how can you compete with fifty million others? You don't know any great news, you don't have access to great products.

Like centuries of advice given to any artistic endeavor, the secret is to just start. What's the worst that could happen? You'll lose your reputation? Have you got one to lose? Just keep away from naming or embarrassing people and don't be afraid.

The trick is to just do it every day for six months or more. First write anything. Then edit your posts and write longer posts. Learn how to use pictures. Pick any topic - how to peel an apple - and write more. You'll quickly know if you don't have any real desire to continue, or if it becomes easier over time.

After a break in period, start again and pick a good niche. Find a topic of the day and write 200 words of commentary, as if you were writing a stand-alone newspaper article. Save it without posting. Go back the next day and check for spelling, grammar, and logic errors, repetition, and a unique voice, and then post it. Do that live for another six months.

Then start worrying about comments, readers, ads, and links. Of course, if you're a natural at all of this, you can speed up the process. The point is to take a long term view.

If it doesn't work, you've lost nothing and you've gained an experience. If it does, happy trails.

In general, don't apologize for blogging. Don't give out false facts and information, but don't be afraid to speak up. Assume that you have a right to be out there, and that you have something interesting to say!

10. Success is made by those who persevere

When things become hot, most people go for the quick buck and then drop out after the initial wave, leaving more space for those that persevere. The ones who do have unique experience and a voice.

Also, the longer your tail of articles, the more incidental hits you will get from Google, and the higher quality will be your top posts. The highest ranking blogs are, with a few exceptions, long running blogs.

Other things, about which I'm less sure

There are a few other not-often-used things that I do on my blog, about which I'm not yet sure:

- Teasing

This comes in two forms. Sometimes I create a single post about a topic with several questions, each of which I answer over the next few posts. I don't know if this is good for readership, but it helps me think about a few posts at a time and has spawned some of my most popular material.

The other is to occasionally mention a post I'm working on. Again, I don't know if this helps with any casual readers.

- Series

I occasionally write posts in series, e.g. Thoughts on A 1, Thoughts on A 2, etc. If someone stumbles on one of the posts they will sometimes go to one or more of the others. Not more than usual, however.

- Combining

The standard advice is to make all posts about a single topic, or a series of links. I often use a third style of adding some links on the bottom of, say, less than earth-shaking posts.

These posts aren't going to get the attention of non-regular readers of my blog; instead they are kind of a reward for the loyal readers. Even the little posts may have something interesting at the end, so it's worth reading everything.

That's the idea, anyway. It gives me a unique style, but I don't actually know how successful it is.

Of course, outside the "hits" of blogging basics there will be a Long Tail of good advice. Sometimes the advice is for a more specific audience, such as a certain niche or a certain level of blogger. But like all fields, don't get stuck listening only to the hits. There's always more to discover.


P.S. The Basics of Blogging Success

Hundreds of posts tell you to:

Have great contentUse lists
Be provocativeUse pictures
Scoop news itemsPush RSS feeds
Use a clean designMinimize grammatical/spelling errors
Post regularly and frequentlyUse great titles
Hook with a great openerLeave on a great conclusion
Find a good nicheComment on other blogs
Link to other blogsEncourage and reply to comments
Tag your postsNotify other bloggers occasionally, but sparsely and directedly
Love what you doDon't offend your readers

These are all great tips. Don't skip them!

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