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:


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.