What I've learned in my first year of blogging

For the last few days I’ve been trying to figure out how to best write this post. This is what I’ve come up with, I hope it’s helpful (cause it sure is long, winded).

  1. What I’ve done
  2. What I think I’ve done right
    1. SEO
    2. Content
    3. Responsive
    4. Thankful
    5. Research
  3. What I think I’ve done wrong
    1. Community participation
    2. Took a break
    3. Low Page View per Visit ratio
    4. Misc. Mistakes
  4. What I was surprised by
    1. Traffic sources
    2. Browser type
    3. Top content
  5. What I still don’t understand
  6. What I’m going to do next
  7. Summary of my tips/suggestions

What I’ve done

One year ago I started this site. The first month (Aug, 2006) I had 1400 visitors. The last month (July, 2007) I had just over 200,000 (full stats here). I’m in the Technorati “Top 5K”, and have been featured on a bunch of high profile sites – including Lifehacker, digg, del.icio.us/popular, The Unofficial Apple Weblog, 43 Folders and Download Squad. Simplehelp actually led to a contract with Download Squad, but that didn’t last very long (no comment).

I don’t know if that qualifies me as a successful blogger, therefore take everything I say (in terms of the suggestions I offer) with the appropriate grain(s) of salt.

What I think I’ve done right

  1. SEO
  2. As the traffic sources indicate, being SEO-aware has been pretty good to me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m far from any kind of SEO expert. But I paid attention to a few suggestions, and Google sent me 527,205 ‘visits’. Things that I’m absolutely convinced helped:
       – Submitting a sitemap to Google
       – If you’re using WordPress, use a specific URL structure
       – Write naturally. I’ve never attempted to keyword-stuff, and Google seems to think I’m OK.
       – Not being a link-farm. I don’t take part in link exchanges, which a lot of people claim help, and I don’t do blog meme’s. I’m absolutely certain this has helped my search traffic, not hindered it.

  3. Content
  4. Yeah, I’ve done my fair share of digg-bait writing. Top 10 lists involving pretty much anything to do with OS X, or detailed Ubuntu tutorials, are a lot more likely to make it to the front page of digg than a post on converting flac files to mp3.

    With that said, that post on converting flac files to mp3 is the #1 viewed article on this site. It was never on the front page of digg, never linked to from Lifehacker (in fact I think only three or four blogs have linked to it). So why is it so viewed? Google. It’s the #1 returned result for the phrases flac to mp3, convert flac to mp3 and flac converter. Suggestion: if you know a fair bit about lossless audio, I think there’s a great niche audience for a blog on that topic. I’m not enough of an expert to start one, but if you are, I’ll be happy to give you your first link :)

  5. Responsive
  6. I think I’ve done a pretty good job at answering most of the comments/questions that have come my way. I often compose a response and not only leave it as a reply on the blog post, I email it directly to the person who asked. That way even if they never come to the site again (to check and see if I answered their question) they can deal with me directly by email.

    A couple of times people have pointed out errors in my content, or suggested a faster/better alternative solution to a problem. When that happens, I immediately confirm that the error/suggestion is in fact correct, then update the post – crediting the person who pointed out my error etc.

  7. Thankful
  8. I try to go out of my way to thank people who have helped me. From small notes of thanks to people who link to me/write about my site, to answering notes of thanks with a “you’re welcome, I’m glad it helped!”. Though a number of well-respected bloggers suggest that soliciting links from bigger blogs is a good idea (when it’s on topic), it never felt right to me (a bit spammy, but maybe it’s acceptable spam?). Now, if the site in question actually asks readers to submit their own content, go nuts. I have found that simply thanking people for linking to you, makes them more likely to do it again.

  9. Research
  10. I’ve learned a lot by reading other peoples blogs, and actually doing what they suggest. Pro Blogger I couldn’t recommend enough. Even the guest writers on his site offer great insight. I read How not to be a successful blogger (and the fantastic quote by Kathy Sierra at the end of the post) at least once a month. Though I don’t always agree with some of the ‘marketing’ tactics he suggests, Dosh Dosh is also a wealth of knowledge.

    Using Google Analytics. I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to know things like how people got to your site, what they searched for to get there, which posts are most viewed, which source of traffic it was that drove a post up etc. That’s all pure gold. Once I realized that people were searching for info on flac files, I went nuts with the lossless audio posts. Though none of the subsequent posts have been as successful as the original, combined they have generated pretty significant traffic.

    Knowing which questions to answer. In my case, that’s literal – Simplehelp is a Question and Answer site. But it applies equally to any blog that tries to answer any kind of question. Know the right ones to answer. For example – I sign up for message boards of the bands that I like. It’s a great way to find out pre-sale info for concerts, trade (legal) live music etc. But I also see the same questions asked over and over again. One of them was “how do I convert this .flac to .mp3?”. So I wrote out the answer, and now it’s the most frequently viewed page on my site. Go to forums, join mailing lists, newsgroups, yahoo groups, whatever – but find out what people are asking for or find interesting, and then give it to them.

What I think I’ve done wrong

  1. Community participation
  2. I haven’t been nearly social enough. Though I’ve made it as easy as possible to contact me (my contact form has my Pownce info, email address, GTalk and AIM addresses – plus, a contact form) – I’ve seriously lacked in the networking department.

  3. Took a break
  4. That was really dumb. Look at 10/06 in the chart below. Notice a trend over the next two months? I was off to a great start, and then got lazy. I think I should move this up to the top of the What I think I’ve done wrong section, but I’m too lazy.

    simplehelp visitors by month graph
    click to enlarge

    Admittedly, there were other factors. During that period of decline in traffic I started another blog (note: music blogs are a tough ‘niche’ to get into, especially when you have eclectic taste in music). I had a brief contract with another company that included a clause that didn’t allow me to write for “competitive” sites, which Simplehelp was considered. Anyway, the point is, it took me a good 3 months to get traffic back to where it was. Don’t make the same mistake I made. Keep at it.

  5. Low Page View per Visit ratio
  6. I don’t link to other content on my site very well. I’ve started to fix this, though this post is a bit over the top in terms of linking to my own content, it’s relevant this time. I did have the Related Posts WordPress plugin installed, but I discovered that it caused huge problems when your site is ‘dugg’. I have a fairly low (I think) level of Page Views per Visit (1.59). That means a lot of people are coming here, reading one article, and leaving. Though I think this is in part specifically because of the nature of Simplehelp; it’s mostly a ‘how do I fix this problem’ kind of site. A lot of people come here through specific search terms, get what they were looking for, and leave. Well, I’d like for them to stick around a while longer, and I haven’t done enough to try and fix that.

  7. Misc. Mistakes
  8. I should have registered a .com domain.
    I haven’t done enough to promote RSS. Take a look at the How-To Geek. He started his site in October of 2006 (I started mine in Aug of 2006) and he has 14,557 RSS subscribers (as of Aug 08 2007). I have 1100, on a good day. In fact, get him to write a ‘how to be a successful blogger’ post, cause he’s done a better job of creating a ‘how-to’ site than I have.

What I was surprised by

  1. Traffic sources
  2. Over the last year, in spite of being on the digg front page 17 times, having a bunch of links from Lifehacker (thanks guys you rule!) etc – Google search is the #1 source of traffic to this site. By a long shot. I go into more detail on this subject in the what I still don’t understand section, but Google accounted for 47% of the overall traffic to this site. Yahoo accounted for 1.47%. In another light, Google accounted for 93.41% of the Search Referrals – Yahoo, the 2nd most popular search referral, only accounted for 2.88% of search driven traffic.

  3. Browser type
  4. Simplehelp visitors are awesome! Firefox was the most popular browser among Simplehelp readers, at 51.48%. IE was second @ 32.49%, Safari 3rd @ 10.68% and Opera 4th @ 2.72%. Though this site targets “beginner to intermediate computer users” it seems as though more than 2/3’s of you are doing the right thing and not using IE.

  5. Top content
  6. The #1 most viewed article, as I’ve already discussed, is the how to convert flac to mp3 tutorial. The #2 most viewed article is How to use your PC and webcam as a motion detecting and recording security camera. In hindsight, it kind of makes sense that this was popular. It’s a neat concept, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different reasons someone might want to use their webcam as a security camera, and everyone has a webcam lying around unused. But at the time I wrote it, I did so in part because it was something that I personally needed to do (someone broke into my apartment, and judging by the neighborhood it probably would have happened again). So I figured out how to do it, and decided I might as well document it as well. It was a front page digg, linked to from Lifehacker, was popular on Reddit and then eventually Stumbleupon.

What I still don’t understand

Why on earth does Google send so much traffic my way, and Yahoo so little? Seriously, do you know? Search Yahoo for Windows Explorer. The 20th result is “10 Windows Explorer alternatives” – on Lifehacker.com. The Lifehacker result is a link to a post on my site. The post itself doesn’t show up until #30 in the same search for “Windows Explorer”. Now search Google for Windows Explorer – my post shows up as #4. Is Yahoo “punishing” Simplehelp because it uses WordPress (which means it must be a blog?) and ranks blogs lower? As I mentioned in the traffic sources section above, Google accounted for 93.41% of my search traffic – Yahoo accounted for 2.88%. That’s a huge difference, and it’s one that still has me puzzled.

simplehelp visitors by search graph
click to enlarge

What I’m going to do next

I’m going to try some new stuff this year. My first project has already started – I’m trying out different ad vendors and actually spending money to promote my site. And then reporting back on how it went. This is all part of a larger ‘new project’, which is to write tutorials about blogging. I’d (like everyone else) like to reach a wider audience, and what better an audience than bloggers, right? Now, don’t expect Pro Blogger stuff out of me. I’ll leave that to the experts where it belongs. What you can expect: reviews of paid services (and the free ones too), tutorials on how to use them, and my personal findings/results. I’ve started out by writing How to “Pubvertise” your Live Feedburner RSS Content to a Wider Audience. And I created an actual ad campaign through FeedBurner, which I’ll write about as soon as the results come in.

Next. I absolutely never, ever said that I was particularly good at graphics. Because that would be a lie. Adding to that, I’m an even worse designer. This all results in the site you’re currently looking at. Now – I intentionally went with a specific type of WordPress Theme – minimal. Which I think this current one accomplishes. But lets face it, it could still be very functional, and look a lot nicer. So in the next month or two, I’ll have a completely new look. This is entirely because of the time, effort and incredible ability of Jamie Carter – someone who I will be singing praises of in more detail soon.

I will continue to write the same type of content that I always have. Trying to increase the audience is one thing, avoiding doing the thing that brought you ‘success’ in the first place strikes me as not a good idea.

I think it makes sense to try and correct a few of those things in the What I think I’ve done wrong section. For starters, I’m going to be a bit more social. Speaking of which, check out the Simplehelp Facebook group (ok that wasn’t entirely subtle, but you get the point).

Summary of my tips/suggestions

If you didn’t read the “take what I say with a grain of salt” disclaimer at the top of this page, I’ll reiterate it here. I’ve had a semi-successful first year. That doesn’t make me a pro blogger. I’m sure there are much better lists of “how to be a successful blogger” in existence. This is a series of things that I’ve personally observed.

  1. If you take away only one thing from this rather lengthy post, it’s this: don’t blog about a subject you’re not interested in. If you see blogging as an easy way to make money, I can’t stress this strongly enough – it’s not. The only reason I made it to one year is that I enjoy doing it.
  2. Learn some of the basics of SEO, but remember that no matter how ‘searchable’ your site is, if there’s no useful, original or interesting content, it’s not going to matter.
  3. Don’t quit or slow down because you don’t see immediate growth. This is an incredibly common tip, but it’s absolutely true.
  4. Shell out the cash for your own domain. Hosted services like blogger.com and wordpress.com are great, but have limits. Internet Duct Tape learned this the hard way.
  5. Don’t worry if something you spent a lot of time working on isn’t immediately popular. Services like Stumbleupon can send thousands of visitors to a piece of content that’s months old. Sometimes good stuff takes a while to be discovered :)
  6. Reward frequent visitors. If you have a ‘movie review’ blog, and someone who comments a lot asks you to review a specific movie, do it. Most people like having their name in the spotlight – if someone gives you a great idea, credit them. Ask for the URL to their site/blog and link to it.
  7. Be easily contactable. Have an obvious ‘contact me’ page, post your email address (you can use an address-to-image service if you’re worried about spam-bots). Post an IM screen-name (but maybe not the same one you use to chat with friends/family). If you don’t want to be that accessible, at least have a standard “contact me” form. Whatever blogging platform you use will have a plugin to create one.
  8. Consider Copyleft or Creative Commons. Not because it’ll make your site more popular, but it’s good karma. If someone wants to translate something you wrote to their first language (for their blog/site), what’s the harm? Most of the time they’ll link to your post as the source.
  9. Participate in Group Writing Projects. If you’re wondering why I suggest group writing contests but don’t participate in meme’s – group writing contests generate content. Meme’s are glorified link exchanges. I’m a big fan of content. There are additional benefits too – you’ll discover a lot of new blogs, and you’ll probably get a lot of links just by participating.
  10. Don’t spam your blog. Putting it in your email signature – absolutely fine. Putting it in your forum signature – almost always fine. Submitting every single piece of content you write to every single social news, bookmarking and web site possible – that’s spamming. Don’t do it. It might generate short-term traffic (I honestly don’t know) – I have serious doubts that it would have a long term benefit. People will find good content – focus on that, instead of putting your URL everywhere you can.
  11. Develop thick skin. I’ve never heard of a semi-popular to “top of the A list” blogger who hasn’t been called every name in the book. Consider it a badge of honor. Print out the first email/comment when someone calls you a moron, and frame it. With that said, don’t be an ass just to incite feedback. There are enough of those blogs out there already.
  12. You’re starting to see growth and you’re very pleased with yourself. People mention to you that your site is down all the time, or really slow. If you’re certain that it’s not a problem with the code on your blog, switch hosting providers. The last thing you want to do is attract readers, and then give them an easily avoidable negative experience (slowness or frequent downtime). When you get to 4-5k visitors per day, start to consider a dedicated hosting solution*. Shared hosting services like Dreamhost are fantastic to start on. They typically offer very inexpensive packages that include plenty of storage space, and most come with “one click install” packages so you can get your blog up and running quickly. But you’ll get frustrated when someone else on your shared server causes your site to go down (or, when your site causes others to go down). If your site frequently makes it to the front page of Digg, Reddit or Slashdot (any site that drives huge volumes of traffic in a short period of time), a shared hosting provider can become frustrated with you. This is a lesson I learned the hard way.

    *=The 4-5k number is by no means a ‘set in stone’ rule, but it was at about that point when I should have moved (I did shortly after, but it caused me a lot of headaches to be forced to move quickly). If I had been able to plan out and time a move from one hosting provider (shared) to another (dedicated) the transition would have been much better. It’s also worth mentioning – most of the stuff on Simplehelp includes a fair number of screenshots. The more your visitors browser has to load, the higher the stress you’ll put on your web server. If you have a blog that’s almost text-only (which can include CSS etc), you’ll be able to survive on a shared host quite well. The more widgets, images and plugins you have, the more your web server has to work (less with external widgets, but some regardless). If the topic of your blog isn’t one that’s popular with the digg/slashdot/reddit crowd, chances are you won’t have to worry too much about sudden massive traffic spikes. Which is another reason you can go well above 4-5k per day and still be ok with a shared provider.