As a grizzly old veteran of the blogging business (3 months on this blog but 3+ years on a previous one) I have a few ideas about what makes a blog successful or not, at least in the early stages. Part of this knowledge comes from running a blog for years and years and years… with no readers. I then blew up the site, refocused on different topics, changed the way I approached building a blog, and voila! Readers. My site is certainly no Zen Habits, but the traffic levels are continuing to trend upwards. Here are ten tips on how I did it:
Get a domain name. I know that not everyone think a domain name is a reasonable expense, but your site will be taken far more seriously if you register a domain name. I kept a blogger account for years, but once I switched over to using bripblap.com I think people took it more seriously. I’m not saying you have to host your site and start using WordPress if you aren’t ready to, but at least get a domain name and have it redirect to your blogspot.com or wordpress.com (or LiveJournal, etc.) blog.
Leave comments. I like getting comments. The old advice “give and ye shall receive” is completely true in this case. If you leave meaningful, insightful comments on other blogs, those bloggers and their readers are more likely to come visit your blog and leave comments. Maybe not at first, but keep plugging away. I know that there are a few sites in the blogosphere that have very active readers who love following comments – The Simple Dollar always has dozens of comments for even the briefest posts.
Find out what other bloggers in your field are reading. One of the first exercises I did when I decided to leap back into blogging was to go to a few of the “big names” in the fields I’m interested in (personal finance, parenting, health, environment, career, and blogging) and go through their blogrolls. Those blogrolls are there for a reason. I identified the blogs from the “big guys” blogrolls and kept working my way down. I found a few gems here and there, many dead blogs and a few that simply didn’t appeal to me. That exercise gave me an idea of what people find appealing in those areas and helped spur me on some topics.
Post daily. This one may irritate people, but don’t go more than 24 hours without a post. If you use a free blogging service, this may be difficult, but WordPress lets you load up posts for future publishing. Even if you are going to Antarctica for two weeks your blog can look like you never left. This is important. Many fine writers’ blogs I’ve come across start off strong then trail off over time to four posts a week…three…one every two weeks…dead. However, avoid the temptation to leave “oops, sorry, busy, no time to blog!” posts to fill space. I did that once myself and saw half of my RSS subscribers unsubscribe, and it took me a week to build readership back up to where it was before I did that. Even if you write a three-line post (“here’s a great tip on how to clean countertops: use white vinegar and water mixed 1:3 in a spray bottle! non-toxic, too!”) people will keep coming back.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Most browser users are simple folk. When they come in from a hard day’s working the soil – figuratively speaking – they don’t want to figure out that your site uses bold lettering to indicate hyperlinks, a big book icon to subscribe to RSS or cursors that turn into butterflies when you click something. They want blue underlined hyperlinks, the big orange icon and no further monkeying with their browser setup. Just don’t do it.
Keep the site clean. I think most people understand that pop-up ads, 5000 adsense links, endless widgets and noisy graphics distract from a site. The most popular sites can get away with being visually busy not because they arranged it just a little better, but because they have great content! A new blog doesn’t have that luxury – a sloppy design or aesthetically unpleasing design will scare people right away before they get a chance to become readers. At first, keep the ads and widgets and fancy text to a minimum.
Don’t use partial feeds. I understand that most bloggers don’t get any ad revenue if you don’t visit their site. I don’t. However, I am happy if someone signs up for my feed, and it’s up to them to come to the site on their own time. I try to offer other resources at the site to lure people in, but if not, fine. I think a partial feed in your RSS feed is a none-too-subtle bash at your readers. I don’t subscribe to any partial feeds, personally. Too often I want to skim through my Google Reader rather than flipping from site to site. If I find something good, I’ll flip over to the site and leave a comment, but I want that to be by choice, not because I’m forced to go.
Make yourself accessible. If you want to be the mysterious X-Blogger and be anonymous, that’s fine. If you do decide to do that, though, set up an email account at Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo like “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Don’t keep people from emailing you just to remain anonymous. Even if you aren’t anonymous, make sure that you allow people to contact you very easily. Keep a contact page or put your email on your site (here’s a handy site to generate email logos to help dodge spammers). Make sure you reply to every email, even if you don’t have much to say other than “thank you for reading!” People want that feedback, and if they get it they’ll be more excited to keep coming back.
Don’t do link posts. If you want to write a paragraph mentioning a URL somewhere else, fine. Make sure you explain where the reader will go (e.g., “warning! PDF link!” or “read my article about quasars here”). Most people don’t like being told to read here and here and here for more information. A blog that’s filled with one-line posts (“hey, check this out! <EOM>”) should be moved to Twitter or Tumblr.
Spellcheck, grammar proof! I know people hate being told they need to spell correctly. An occasional typo is fine. I recently visited a blog that prominently displayed “Please visit our sponsers!” towards the top; a big banner that you couldn’t miss. There is really no excuse in this day and age for misspelling words. If you have trouble with “there” versus “their” or “it’s” versus “its”, spend a little time with Strunk and White. Not everyone cares as much about spelling as I do, true – but do you want to lose readers because they came to you’re sight and wrote someting tuff to follow their? It’s annoying enough to me that I’ll move right on.
As a final bonus tip (#11) I will tell you the most important tip on starting a blog: love the subject. I liked (not loved) politics, so I started out strong on a political blog, but I found it really just made me angry and frustrated after a few years. I love writing about all of the topics I cover now. I would do it for no readers, honestly. But I love the feedback and it does exactly what it says – it feeds readers’ interest and enthusiasm straight back to me and helps me develop even more passion for what I write about. If you don’t like personal finance, don’t blog about it. If you get bored by productivity writing, don’t do it! If you love astronomy, don’t try to blog about the market just because you think that’s the way to make money. I realized that I’m passionate about learning about and teaching certain subjects and there was no reason not to blog on them. I took some unrelated topics and started other blogs (on movies and books) and eventually as I get into more and more of a groove I’ll start others (maybe on other topics that wouldn’t quite fit Brip Blap like food and travel). But I have decided never to worry about starting a blog on auditing (my profession) since I realized I have very little enthusiasm for it as a writing subject. I’ll stick to the fun stuff!
Now go out there, start a blog (or update your existing one) and let me know if any of these tips helped you out, I’d love to hear about it.