Sunday, March 8, 2009

What I've learned in two years of blogging

This month marks Super Punch's two year anniversary. First of all, thank you to all my readers. The highlight of the year was definitely receiving one of the Coraline boxes. But I really do get just as much pleasure whenever one of you takes the time to post a comment or send me an email or link to my site. With that said, here's what I've learned blogging.

1. Be prepared to work very hard for a long time before you see results

During my first year blogging, I was lucky to see 2,000 page views in a day. Now I average more than 8,000 a day. My traffic's no secret, there's a sitemeter in the sidebar.

To get to this point, I've put in at least two hours a day blogging, every day, for two years. And I didn't really start to make money until about three months ago. (How I've managed to blog so steadily is a story I'll save until my next anniversary.)

2. Figure out what you're good at, and then figure out how to promote that skill on the web

In the early days of my blog, I did a whole lot of annoying things. I posted lame lists and tried to get attention at Digg. I signed up for forums simply to post some self-serving comments and threads. I posted spammy comments on other people's sites that said roughly, "great post, check out my site."

None of that helped promote my site and I was miserable doing it. Gradually I came to accept that I was simply no good at social sites, had no knack for the kind of material that was popular on Digg, and wasn't witty enough to make good comments. So, I focused on what I liked doing - - finding and posting neat things. My sole effort at promoting the site became suggesting tips to other websites. I managed to get suggestions picked up at Boing Boing, Neatorama, Wired, Kotaku and elsewhere, and gradually began to attract traffic.

If you want to attract an audience online, you have to figure out what you're good at. Blogging is just one path. If you're witty and a good networker, focus your efforts on social media. If you're a good networker in real life, focus on attending conferences and other flesh and blood interactions. If you're great at film editing, post films at Youtube. And if you're an artist, focus on generating art that spreads throughout the web. Unless you're a prodigy, you're going to have to work very hard and be very patient to be successful. So, do what you like doing and what makes you special, and then figure out how you can use those skills to make money.

Dan Lyons is a great example. He complained that his satirical blog had 1.5 million visitors in a month, yet barely made $1,000. However, writing the blog helped him get a job at Newsweek.

3. Give more than you expect to receive

Every selfish move I made failed. As I've explained, I tried posting spammy comments and begging for links. It got me nowhere. But what worked extremely well was trying to help other people. I recommended countless tips to other sites. Now, this didn't help me directly or quickly. Many sites would post my suggestion and thank me, but not even offer a link. Other sites would credit me with a "via," but I've learned over the years that "vias" drive no traffic at all, even when they come from the biggest websites.

However, "vias" helped in two ways. First, they improved my site's status in Google's eyes, and thus increased the chance someone would find me accidentally via a web search. Second, vias directed a few visitors to my site, typically other bloggers who were looking for new sources. Those bloggers then started linking to me with more vias, further improving my site's status. Also, every once in a long while, a site I'd helped would drive traffic to me in thanks. I stuck with it, and it all started to snowball.

So, here's a few idea for how to give:

-Recommend links to other websites. I still do this occasionally, typically when I see something I don't want to post about, but that I think is perfect for someone else. Usually some horror I think fits in at Ectoplasmosis.

-Write guest posts. I guest post at Neatorama.

-Direct traffic to other sites. Many bloggers focus on stealing as much content as possible to create page views for themselves. You know the type. They post entire galleries of high-res images and add only a fairly well-hidden link to source material. They add watermarks to images that don't belong to them. They cut and paste the most interesting parts of an article and give no real reason to visit the author's site.

If you're a regular reader of my site, you already know my style. Unless it's images of something for sale, I will use only a thumbnail or two and encourage readers to visit the site of whoever created the image. I'll go out of my way to figure out the author's homepage and webstore. If there's no way of using a photo that will still encourage readers to visit the author's homepage, I won't use the image at all, and will simply describe it instead. Doing these things reduces the chance in the short term that someone will drive traffic to me (since my site won't be the best place to see images), but it does increase the chance that whoever receives traffic will one day repay me in some way.

-If you're an artist, give away some of your art. Give away paper toys, or stickers (here's a two people who do), or desktop wallpaper.

4. Make your product customer friendly

-Have a full rss feed. I subscribe to more sites than I have time to read. I'm not going to bother reading your partial feed, or visiting your site just to see if you might have posted something.

-No flash. It makes your site slow and harder to link to. TV shows don't have long opening credits anymore, and your site shouldn't have a flash introduction. This applies to places like Threadless, also. If an artist submits a design in flash, I won't link to it because I have no way of saving and posting a copy of the image.

-Only allow ads you think your audience is interested in. I've rejected many ads, made limited use of AdSense, and have not joined an ad network.

-Don't put anything "below the fold" or across multiple pages solely to increase page views.

-Don't trick people into going to affiliate sites or going to another page on your site.

-If you're an artist, post very clear links to your homepage and webstore. Add an unobtrusive url watermark on your work. What do you care where people see your work, as long as they know how to find you?

-If you post in a forum, make sure your signature includes a url. No one is going to want to register in a forum just to try to send you a private message.

5. Making money is a combination of traffic and the nature of your site

Newspapers and social networking sites have the same problem - - huge audience, but the audience isn't clicking on the ads. This is because people using those sites aren't interested in ads. I hardly even notice ads at newspaper sites and I bet you're the same way.

If you want people to click on ads or affiliate links, you have to make them relevant to your reader. I think of the ads on my page as part of the content itself. I probably spend as much time crafting the affiliate link/ads as I do drafting the post itself.

Another factor to keep in mind is that not all ads have the same value. For example, you'll make a lot more money running a popular money-related blog, than a toy blog. That's because it's far more valuable to a company if your user opens a checking account, than if he buys an action figure.

6. Flickr photographers have funny ideas about intellectual property

There's a surprising number of people who post photos at Flickr, make their photos public, enable the "blog this" and "all sizes" options, yet act with fury when you actually use their image. On more than one occasion, I've used a thumbnail of such an image, clearly linked to the source material, and then had the owner send me an irate and profane email, demanding I take down the image. So, several months ago, I largely stopped using photographs from Flickr to avoid the hassle. For a while, I experimented with using creative commons images at Flickr, but those users are even worse. After I received a few emails demanding I link in a very particular way, I decided to stop using those images as well.

7. Useful resources

Here's my favorite sites for general blogging tips:

ProBlogger

Daily Blog Tips

So, thanks again for reading my blog. I hope you'll find these suggestions useful.

UPDATE: In response to a question from the best cake blogger out there, let me explain why I add those "previously" on Super Punch links.

8. Give people a reason to explore your site

Typically, when I visit a site for the first time, it's through a link or search result to a specific page. If I like what I see, I'll explore the site, and if it seems interesting, I'll subscribe. I assumed most people surf that way. Wrong. If they're not given a reason to stick around, most people will visit the specific page they landed on and then leave.

Here's an example from a few months ago when I received some traffic from Stumbleupon. As you'll notice, most people were entering and promptly exiting from the exact same page. And this is far from being the most extreme example I've seen:




Adding a "previously" link encourages visitors to explore. But the link has to be a good one, or people won't click. Let me use Wired's Danger Room to illustrate what I think is ineffective:



Look at all those blue links bunched together. My eyes glaze over looking at them. I spend a lot of time looking for a single relevant, interesting previous post to link to. That's actually a big reason for why I add so many tags to posts - - so I can find something relevant.

35 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great insight! I have no aspirations to start a blog of my own, I just like learning a bit of the "behind-the-scenes" of things. As a daily reader of SUPERPUNCH, it was nice to hear about the evolution of one of my favorite blogs! Thank you.

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  2. I'm not a blogger either but I do sell through my website (solely) so I too really appreciate your clear and informative comments! And this gives me an opportunity to tell you how much I like your ads at the bottom of your posts - they are always useful. I very often pursue your links to other sites even if the particular item is not of interest to me because I know the site itself will be. I've said it before; thanx for a great site!

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  3. Forgot......the only thing I wish for from you is that clicking on a link would open it in a new tab or window rather than replacing your page (I don't think this is my incorrect setting of Firefox preferences but if it is please tell me how to change it!). Especially if I explore that site I often have a hard time getting back to you.

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  4. Congratulations on your two year anniversary John! And thanks for writing up this awesome post, it's very helpful!

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  5. Nicely written, John, and all very true. I've learned several of the things you mentioned the hard way, since it's so easy as a new blogger to get sucked into to all the hype on what you "should" be doing. When I first got started, I had folks who thought they were being helpful e-mail me and tell me how I was doing it all "wrong". They told me to do the below-the-fold thing, make readers hit a jump to see the rest of the post, make every cake its own post, etc. Basically all the stuff I hate in other blogs. They also told me page rank was everything, and that using a boring free template design from Blogger was the kiss of death. It's been nice to prove the nay-sayers wrong, but I could have used some of your advice about 6 months ago all the same!

    One of the things I love about your site is that it's obvious you respect your readers. It's clean, easy to navigate, and has amazingly relevant 'related posts' links. (Speaking of which: do you hand-pick those? They seem too bang-on to be automatically generated.)

    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks, as one blogger to another, and also as a dedicated reader. I think I check over here 2 or 3 times a day, and love it. In fact, I'm off to explore that paper-craft link you posted earlier...

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  6. Thanks for this post, and thanks for blogging at all! You've shown me so many beautiful, amazing works of art and now you've helped me with my own little blog. Thank you.

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  7. That's a very helpful post there John, thanks for that. Oh and happy anniversary by the way, keep up the great work!

    All the best,
    David

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  8. Thank you for this post! Two hours a day...that's a tough but do-able number. Especially if I want blogging to be a part-time job.

    So my theory of Quality Content and Quality Comments (on other sites) really is the correct path. I like hearing that.

    Thank you for what you do, your blog is always an interesting read.

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  9. As often as I do read your blog, I read this an hour or so *after* I decided it was time to start doing wallpapers and put one up.

    Everything you have here, golden. This is by far my favorite blog to read, and I certainly am going to have to bookmark this entry.

    Thank you.

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  10. Thanks for all the kind words.

    With Firefox, right click on links to open them in a new tab or new window.

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  11. Thanks so much. Very helpful. you mentioned several of the things I love about your site, honest links, posting things you love and not doing the things I hate about other sites.

    I had some big time blogger tell me to run all photos through flicker recently and wondered why = control i guess. So I appreciated your comments about Flicker users comments. I do like how Flicker makes my gif files though.

    Keep putting up the good post and I will keep suggesting you to friends.

    Brian

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  12. Thanks a lot for all the great info !
    Your blog's the best !

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  13. There are some advantages to using Flickr. In particular, Blogger only allows you to upload a limited amount of photos.

    I don't use Flickr just because it's so time-consuming, and my free time is very limited.

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  14. Thanks for the additional info, John. I have the same issue of getting folks to explore the site, and have been struggling to get an automatically generated "related posts" widget up. However, I like your idea of hand-picking a single entry, so I may give that a try. I've clicked on tons of your "previously" links, so I know it works! Anyway, I hope you don't mind if I copy your technique over on Wrecks.

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  15. Wonderful post even for those of us
    who don't blog. It gives us some info
    we can share with other bloggers to
    help them avoid inefficiency and/or
    being jerks.

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  16. im not a blogger & this is the only blog i ever visit, but i stop by pretty much every day because it's quality and i think you can tell the hard work you put into the site.

    cheers

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  17. Congratulations for the anniversary! I read your blog since a few months ago, and is great. And about this post in particular; YOU MADE A LIST!

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  18. Thanks for this! Your "previously" link suggestion is dead on. That's how I ended up sticking around this site for an hour after discovering it.

    Keep it up!

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  19. Good post, will reread and most likely link to it at some point, and have arrived at the end with an idea. Thank you.

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  20. Well I got here thru Art Sparker, a blogger with integrity, so when she links you know it's good. And this is good.

    You write with authority and every tip is real. I will be back.
    And I will link to you.

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  21. Thanks for the information. I love to blog, would do it anyway. I'm a talker not an author. Blogs are good ways to talk to others. Nevertheless I am always looking for ways to get my artwork out there. Thanks for all the tips!

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  22. Happy anniversary! You're doing very well, I never even saw 2,000 hits a day until I'd been blogging three years.

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  23. These comments are interesting to read, since I'm currently in a somewhat similar situation. I've been blogging informally for a couple of years now, and although I don't have nearly the traffic of a site like this (I'm still around 150-200 hits a day, mostly because a lot of my content is oriented to a relatively small local audience and because Wordpress.com won't let me add things like Google ads and Digg to my Blog.) I have been giving some serious thought to trying to monetize my Blogging (by splitting my local content off onto its own site and moving it to a self-hosted Wordpress site) but I haven't quite sorted out how to go about doing this yet.

    As for the time commitment, I don't know if I could ever spend two hours every single day Blogging, but some of my posts can easily take several hours to put together (especially since I tend to post a lot of stuff requiring research.) I also only have about 300 posts on my Blog, but a good number of those are over 1,000 words (some even breaking 2,000 or more) and I tend to be more interested in going in depth than in trying to just throw up a ton of random stuff (although I will do some of that too on occasion.) Perhaps this approach isn't quite as optimal in terms of generating hit count, but I do think there's a niche to be carved out there. I've seen some people around here that seem to be doing reasonably well with setting up local advertising on their sites.

    In reality, I suspect it'll be a while before I can make any signigicant amount of money on my Blog, but I don't really expect to quit my day job anytime soon, so if I could make a few bucks on the side here and there I'd be happy with that.

    Congratulations on two years, and I hope things continue to go well here.

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  24. Congratulations. Simply, clear and very well done the explanation. For a non born english speaker like me, your post is very easy to read understand and specially useful. thanks and happy aniversary

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  25. I just started blogging a few weeks ago, and I'm glad I came across your post. Thanks for the time you put into it.

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  26. Hey John,

    Thanks for linking to my painting (desk encasing a piece of sky) -- I've been looking through your blog, tons of great stuff here! No wonder other high profile blogs pick up things from you.

    This was a great post -- I've been blogging my artwork for almost two years now, and there are still some things that I'm doing wrong =P.

    Cheers

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  27. Good stuff. Thanks for posting. I've been debating on whether to make "jumps" a habit and I think I'll avoid it after reading this. Got here from Cake Wrecks a few weeks ago and I like what I'm seeing so far. Cool site, cool idea, and good links.

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  28. Wow, Thanks for doing this. When I get home. I'm going to draw up a plan for improving my site. Unfortunately I've done many of the annoying things you listed. I plan on writing you an e-mail later tonight though as I have some other questions.

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  29. Thanks a lot for this post, man. I just found you and started following your posts daily a couple months ago and you've really opened my eyes to the positive uses of the internet. Since I found you I've been finding new blogs to read and follow and now I've decided to start up my own, thanks to you. This post really helps me understand basics of blogging and also gives me the opportunity to thank you for getting me into this and inspiring me to start my own blog. You'll probably be linked in a number of my posts in the future. Thanks again.

    -- Brian Poland

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  30. Thanks for this--I linked to it on a post about blogging today.

    Old posts never die...

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  31. This was really helpful! thanks for sharing your blogging wisdom :D

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  32. You'll probably be linked in a number of my posts in the future. Thanks again.

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  33. I just read this, very well written and also helpful.

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  34. Thank You very much for taking the time to make your insights on this subject available to new website authors such as myself. I really appreciate it.

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