As I promised a week ago, I'd like to describe some of the tools I use and tricks I've learned from running this blog. By no means am I an expert; in fact, it is quite the opposite, I still have a ton to learn.
My motivation has never really been to develop a popular website like Strobist. Frankly, a large website like Strobist would be a pain to run and it'd become just another obligation. But this blog does scratch some of my itches: an itch to be heard, an itch to organize my thoughts, and an itch to create something useful.
Everybody wants to be heard. It is a basic element of humanity -- we want our presence to be acknowledged. Of the billions of people on the earth, we feel we are special, and we want someone else to notice. If you look out in the blogosphere, being heard is the overwhelming reason people create blogs. Sadly, just creating a blog doesn't automatically make you noticed as a lot of bloggers have learned; people need a way to find out that you have a site. More on that later.
Also, I find writing really organizes my thoughts. And as I get older, I forget things more and more, so having a repository of my better thoughts (photography or otherwise) is useful. If I forget the specific macro setup I used at one time in the past, I'll be able to look it up here. If I want to remind myself of some of the basics, I have an entry or two here for that too. If I forget how crappy my pictures were when I started out, I don't have to go far :)
Finally, I, as many people, have a desired to create, to accomplish something. Lets be honest, just going through daily life feels pretty useless if you don't get anything done, and I am all about measuring progress. Here, I can measure progress in hits, posts, comments, etc. In a way, it feels a bit like a video game (and I've played my fair share of those). Just like those guys (and girls) who spend tons of time in WoW (and you know who you are) socializing, building experience, and making their digital self more powerful, running a blog feels a lot like building up an online character. Instead of interacting with virtual entities, you're actually interacting with real people and trying to attract them to your site. Pretty cool actually (and reminds me a lot of a game called Theme Park).
But how do you manage a blog? How can you attract readers?
Tools of the Trade:
A method of editing and posting HTML. Obviously, I use Blogger, which works pretty well although it does have a few things that bug me to no end (why not make your composition window a little taller!). Anything will work as long as you find it easy to use. In the old days (you know, 10-15 years ago), I used to make all my web pages by editing the raw HTML... yeah, it isn't worth doing that anymore, especially if you want to post a lot of text! The best part of Blogger is that it is completely free.
A method of tracking visitors. I use Google Analytics for this, which is another awesome free service from Google. The opening image of this post is straight from my GA page. An amazing, amazing resource which I'm just beginning to learn to use. You can see who is coming to your page, what they look at, how often they look at it, and even what type of browser they use. And there is no cost whether you have a dinky little site like mine or a monster site with millions of dollars running through it. Very nice, Google. (but how is it that you make money again?)
It is amazing the level of detail GA can give you. For instance, I was wondering if I could increase the main text width of this blog (currently set at 400 pixels, but it makes it difficult to post larger photos or photos with wrap-around text). So, I looked in GA for the last two weeks, and behold: nobody surfs this site with less than 1024 pixels horizontal resolution. So I'm safe to do it, if only I could figure out how. Hee-haw, isn't the Internet fun?
[Addendum: Google Analytics just rolled out a new beta interface. I don't like it so far; it crashes Fire Fox every time I bring the mouse over the thing that changes the date.]
Attract readers. This is arguably the hardest thing to do and there are many, many options at your disposal. Obviously, you could hand out fliers on the street with your web address, but I can't imagine that'd be too effective. In fact, as many people as there are that surf the web on a regular basis, the constant stream of new sites popping up makes it harder and harder to attract eyeballs. There's a reason people pay money to put ads on sites. In a nutshell, since people usually find out about your site from another site, getting linked on other sites is huge.
This is such an important, key idea, let me put it under its own heading:
Wait for it...
What I Know About Attracting Readers (in short, not much):
The best resource in Google Analytics is the ability to see where your readers come from. For example, my data at right is based on the last two weeks of data (click to see larger). Ignore the 'direct' referrals; that was me when I hadn't properly filtered out my own hits (something I recommend you do to simplify your analysis).
Currently the top methods of finding this blog are:
- Strobist: Strobists are procrastinators at their heart and they tend to surf the web a lot. Almost 60% of my visitors have been referrals from Strobist. I've linked myself in one comment, but I expect most of the traffic is from a little doo-hickey (yes, that is a technical term) that David Hobby sticks on the bottom of his posts that lets readers search Technorati (a blog list/search service) for recent posts that refer to Strobist. Why it gets tagged as a Strobist referral, I'm not sure, but it does. What I do know is:
- Strobist readers spend more time here (on average) than anyone else -- they are procrastinating, after all. And they obviously like some of the stuff I like since they average 1.6 pages per visit (which doesn't seem like a lot, but it is much higher than my other sources).
- They like to see pictures, and my Anatomy of a Photo series. (Big surprise)
- Moral: Post items that appeal to known audiences. Use those audiences to build your audience.
- Blogger/Technorati: I lumped these two together because they are similar in the way they work. Both show links to randomly selected blogs on their home page and bored people click on them. For Blogger, this means I tend to get hits right after I update (because they have a list of recently updated sites on their main page). Technorati is similar, but I haven't found the direct link yet -- I also may be getting hits from searches in Technorati, but I don't have a way to track them.
- Most of the hits from these sites are bounces: they follow the link, take a quick look, and are gone seconds later because they aren't interested.
- I suppose if you had some really engaging content (such as pictures of young starlets demonstrating the need for underwear when out drinking) you'd keep some readers around, but it is a very broad audience.
- Moral: Short of constantly updating posts to get a few extra hits or very attention grabbing images, not much use.
- Google (and other search engines): Most people know that Google is a search engine (if you don't, where have you been?). But, many people don't know that your site (including blogs on Blogspot, now owned by Google) will not be entered into the index automatically. Google has special programs (spiders) that surf the web and add sites by following links at existing sites. So if you don't list your site with Google, you won't show up in any searches. This page has a lot of useful information. I recommend adding your site manually at least once to get the ball rolling.
- A nice thing about Google Analytics is the ability to see what people search for to get to your site. For example, many people find my site because their 350D is broken or they are looking for lens reviews. Some find my site because they have a rash or saw a hairy cactus :) But, once I know what people are interested in, I can create new content (or adjust current pages) to better satisfy them and keep them coming back.
- Google prioritizes pages based on the PageRank algorithm developed at Stanford. The algorithm made some grad students and Stanford (through the patent licensing office) very rich. But, for us, as web designers, the thing to know is the more people link to us, the higher we show up on search results, and so the more hits we get. Often, though, it is hard to get the process started, kind of like the old chicken and egg problem.
- One thing that could help is increasing the use of commonly searched words. For instance, strobist, naked, Britney Spears, nude, or Heros could help you get some hits. Alternatively, very uncommon words that relate to your subject (like western tussock) might get you hits from a very specific demographic. Do you think David Hobby would be angry if I listed him in the same sentence as Paris Hilton? Probably not, since just linking him will help raise his page rank and get him more hits. And possibly the association will provide Miss Hilton with a little more class...
- Another important thing is to make sure your site comes up when someone actually tries to find it. After all, many times your readers will forget your web address and use Google (or another search engine) to find it. I'm actually pretty bad about this: my chosen title isn't very unique. I do come up as the first link if you search directly for my title (it wasn't like that last week, but I requested another scan from Google and I guess it worked).
- The more people actually click on your link in search engines, the higher your priority. But that all goes back to having good, useful, and engaging content. Also, the higher your priority, the more often you'll be crawled (scanned), and the fresher the data will be in the search indexes. This is useful if you update often.
- Moral: Do whatever you can to get listed and raise your priority in searches. Also, make sure your pages are search engine friendly and you can easily find your page if you search for it.
- DPChallenge (and other forums): A great tool for attracting readers with similar interests is an online forum. After all, they read stuff on that specific forum because it interests them and they read stuff because they are bored (probably at work), so why not let them read interesting stuff at your site? Just post a link to one of your articles and let them come to you. For DPC, I've posted a link in my portfolio/bio, and included it in a few posts where I said something relevant here. I haven't gotten much traffic from it, but I expect that will build.
- Usually, this works best after you've built a reputation at a site (as in, you are respected and not seen as one of those guys just trying to promote his web site). Then, just start slipping your web address in occasionally, and you'll get your site known to people who care about your content.
- Don't overdo it: forum readers have seen shameless self-promotion before, and if they think you are doing it, they'll ignore you.
- Moral: Find forums that interest you, join them, participate in them, and you'll attract readers naturally. Hell, you might even learn something!
- Viral: I don't actually have any referrals from this, but I know it works -- similar to viral marketing. Sometimes, you can post something so mind-blowing, so useful, so freakish, that everyone who looks at it tells their friends and suddenly, overnight, you have a ton of hits. Often this is what will draw new users in and from those eyeballs, you get a bunch of regulars.
- For Strobist, the most viral page is probably the DIY $10 Macro Studio -- that was the first page on Strobist I ever looked at, and it really blew my mind that something so simple and cheap would look so professional. That page sucked me in, as I'm sure it has countless other photographers.
- Viral marketing could also be something super freakish that everyone forwards around. For instance, if you had a picture of something very rare, like a car accident as it was happening, you might get a lot of hits. It could also work with a video on YouTube which mentions your web address, but that would be less direct.
- Moral: Controlling viral referrals is difficult, but if you have an idea or picture that you think is remarkable, post it, spread the word a little, and see what happens.
Writing a blog is kind of like talking to yourself in a room. At first, you're the only one around and you're pretty much talking to yourself. Although, speaking from experience, that can be fun on its own.
Occasionally someone might stick their head in looking for someone else, listen to a few words, and then move on (Blogger, Technorati). Other times, they'll be looking for someone else that talks like you, but like what they hear so they stick around a little longer and maybe even chat for a bit (Google, Strobist). Or, they could be friends you told about your little room when you were hanging out at the bar, and they stop in to say "Hi" (DPChallenge). Or you might say something mind-blowing that they tell all their friends about you and your little room (viral). You might even impress some of those people with your wit so they stop in regularly and maintain a dialog with you (regulars, none for me yet, AFAIK).
Ultimately, though, what you do with your little room is up to you. If you want to make it a big room with a regular party, go for it! Know that it will take a lot of work, though. If you just want to talk to yourself, well, you're already set up. And if you want to create a small room where you occasionally chat with like-minded individuals (my aim), that will also take work. Lots of work, as I am finding out.
But sometimes work can be fun, just like increasing your warriors experience in a video game.
For now, I'm trying to build my quantity and quality of posts. In a while, maybe a few months time, I might actively try to attract readers. Currently, I'm happy to see them when they stop in, but I'm also happy to talk to myself.
[I've posted a follow-up to this post here].