running-a-blog

Looking back at the year 2012, and back at the articles I’ve written, I can see all my mistakes and successes balled up into several specific issues. I feel like many sites run into the same problems and realizing these problems is what will push them forward and make them a complete failure.

I hope you can learn from my successes and mistakes and allow that to help you jumpstart your blog. It’s not easy going from 0 to 20K but it is doable, and it is doable within 6-8 months if you dedicate your time to it.

There are many things to consider about a blog from design, to SEO, to content, performanceand finally to results. But before all that, let me give you some important questions to ask yourself when you run a blog:

  • What is your goal with your blog?
  • Where, on your priority list, is your blog?
  • What kind of responses have you gotten regarding your blog?

Let’s answer these questions below.

What I did WRONG

Let’s start with the bad news. There are many things I did inherently wrong. I’ll give you some examples and we can move on from there.

As you read these, keep in mind that you can easily fall into these problems yourself, no matter how and what you write.

Publishing Schedule

One of the things hammered into new bloggers is to setup a “publishing schedule” because it helps. Well, it also has a negative effect. If you don’t write for living, writing a blog post a week can be tough and can easily end up in low-quality articles. And that’s what happened to me. I can pick out 5 best articles of the year, from about 30 articles that pretty much suck and are not memorable in any sort of way. I can blame a lot of things but I know pushed out some mediocre stuff just to keep up with my schedule.

Don’t let your publishing schedule mess up your flow, lower the quality of your articles, and bring about a bad reputation!

Changing my goals but not changing my blog

When I started this blog, it was a side project for a freelance/contracting business. Right now, I no longer want freelance work or contracting, I’ve a great full time job and am not looking to change from that. However, 75% of my site is focused on something other than what I write about. My blog is finally a true “blog”, not a secondary feature on my business-oriented site. Changing my goals and keeping my blog the way it is was a mistake and confuses not only readers but also possible clients.

Your blog needs to focus on your goals, otherwise you’ll get the wrong results

Make conversion based changes when conversion was a secondary goal

I wrote an article on how to make design changes based on conversions, and google analytics data. I agree that this is very useful and it is something most businesses should do BUT, again, I’m not a business, and not even a freelancer. Making decisions on design based on conversions I could care less about right now was a bad idea. I ended up with buttons and conversion points that strayed my readers from my new goal: to get them to keep reading.

Setup your blog and design to fulfill YOUR specific goals. If those goals change, change your blog accordingly

Allow Guest Posting without scanning content thoroughly

So yes, a few months ago, I allowed guest posting on my site to help me out. I had a lot of work on my plate and could not keep writing at an article-per-week pace (except I did end up writing that much anyways). One major mistake I did was not being an editor enough. I allowed some guest posts in that should not have made the cut. Some articles did have a lot of impact on my site (some positive, some negative) and those are great but the others were pure garbage.

It is quite known that there are writers, bloggers, and companies which get paid to “seed links” on your site by offering guest blogs. And while I am mostly okay with that, it’s important to scan through articles and decide if they hold up to your quality standard.

Not setting up a facebook page earlier

I missed out on traffic on facebook. Well, on traffic and statistics! I really should have invested more time in my brand and created another route for people to view my content. Since I use Hootsuite, attending to facebook would have added no extra hassle. I created my facebook page about a month ago and I am really loving it :)

It’s also a great way to approach readers from yet ANOTHER place of contact. Some readers use facebook only to scan pages they’ve “liked” while others use twitter for those purposes.

No SEO Keyword Focus

I’d say this is another big one. I write and I don’t usually edit to include specific keywords for Search Engine Optimization purposes. I even have the Yoast SEO plugin which allows me to pick a focus keyword and scans for it! This was a huge mistake on my part and probably why many of my really great articles suffered. Without an SEO focus keyword, I was left with articles that had to excel via social media and hope sharing of it got the notice of google.

Assume no one will read my articles, thus write for myself rather than the public

When I started writing for my blog, I wrote for myself, to keep in the habit of it and to get my ideas down. However, when I wrote the article on “pretty commenting”, I got an overwhelming response and with that a ton of criticism. It was hard to direct where that criticism went, and how I felt about the issue beyond just what I wrote. It happened several times afterward and resulted in a lot of negativity on some articles. Nowadays, I write in such a manner where I assume that EVERYONE on the planet will read my articles.

It’s easy to receive a lot of criticism on small remarks, misunderstandings and such. I’ve edited this exact article 6 times already to correct such mistakes or clarify problems.

Attain a reputation of bad writing after a tough writing time.

Due to my publication schedule and  a mix with some guest posts, I was faced with a lashback on article sharing sites, and have attained somewhat of a bad reputation often met with “It doesn’t help that the site hasn’t had a successful article in months”. And while untrue, it may seem like it to someone who saw 2-3 articles that were not really that great. Sharing sub-par articles was a bad idea and I should have curated my content better.

In some ocassions, it may be better to elongate your appropriated time to write in order to produce a high quality article rather than take shortcuts and inappropriate methods to “keep it up”. If it’s not worth showing, don’t post it.

Falling into the “list” articles I vowed to not get into

So, this article could be seen as a “list” butttt, that’s not what I mean. With “top 10″ and “top” articles popping up on my blog list, I am quite shocked that this is what I have resorted to. Yet… yet, it’s not that big of a deal since I feel like I’m not entirely “milking it”. I’ll try to stay away from them, however, as much as possible. I dislike lists for the “cheapness” they seem to exude. They give me a standard of being a blog that just wants to make money or get traffic. Well, I’m not here just for that anymore. I’d like to offer unique opinions, unique tutorials, and so on rather than just get traffic!

Just to clarify some comments, when I refer to “list” articles, I am referring to posts that usually list 10 tools, 10 images, or 10 ideas (being actually just 1 idea written in 10 different ways) without much explanation or content to support why those 10 bullet points were worth bringing up. I see nothing wrong with structuring your post like this one where every bullet has substantial information included within it. 

No downloadables/specialties/goodies

While working for a marketing/advertising company, I learned the value of downloadable pieces yet I have not employed one, other than my bootstrap theme. Now, I’m no longer looking for conversions and even when I was, email lists held little value to me; however, downloadable pieces are great linkbaits, and they’re attractive. And overall, I think they’re awesome on whatever site they are. People like downloadables. Not only that, but hosting the bootstrap theme on my github account sent some traffic that way. They’re great for SEO, linking, and all kinds of stuff.

Add downloadables/goodies etc. to your repertoire of “blogger” weapons to get backlinks, traffic, and attain a reputation of being an invovled writer.

No Youtube and Video participation

I’ve been meaning to make a youtube tutorial for months. From google analytics courses to laravel setup, to SSH, oh god, there’s just so much I could have videoed rather than written about. I really wish I had done that. Some topics would have worked out better. Youtube participation is another source of traffic. Not only do you have a blog post with the video but you also have a youtube channel that a different demographic of readers/consumers can access you through. I, personally, follow some great people on youtube but rarely get on their blog unless they have a link on the youtube video page!

Youtube is awesome in that it can give you tumblr-like exposure. Youtube, if you think of it, is another search engine where you’re trying to score. Better yet, your youtube videos may show up in a google search as well. This is really good stuff. And It sucks that I don’t have a SINGLE good video!

Not enough images

I try to do one image minimum per post but that’s not good enough. My site is bare and not in a good way. I don’t have any graphics on my services/solutions pages where they NEED to be. Blog posts, it’s okay. But elsewhere, not so much. The lack of images contribute to the boredom of my page.

Now, if you have a site design that revolves around not using images, great. I don’t. My site needs them and I have not come up with graphics to fulfill that need. Hell, I don’t even have new graphics for my front page!

This is a big mistake.

Unreliable Hosting & No Optimization for a long time

For some times, I did not consider what traffic can do to a site and it took me a while to “lock down” my site for heavy traffic spikes and even now, my hosting isn’t the expensive, scalable hosting I need. I did all the optimization I could, even using a CDN and cloudflare but it’s just not enough. My site has suffered from major outtages and this brought on distrust from users.

Just to illustrate my point, I was with a host that BANNED my account due to traffic spikes and breaking user agreement, I had no idea I’d get so many hits (i expected 5K MAX, I got 25K). The host quickly locked my account and I was left without a site and only a backup ready to be switched on. After I did some optimization, I took the load off my hosting and my CDN/Cloudflare helped me to stray away from heavy host usage. Another host had hardware problems, and that happens. But, I get what I pay for.

What I did RIGHT

On the other hand, there’s a lot that I did RIGHT and I’m proud of those things. And if you haven’t done these things, go do it!

I started with a fully designed site, pleasing to read

So while my site may suffer from legibility now, it wasn’t so bad at the beginning. Or rather, it was not so apparent. Most readers had no issue with it and thus my site excelled on that front. The full design allowed people to feel like they’re on a finished site rather than a WIP that may disappear. It gave the feeling of stability. And again, my site wasn’t BAD in design, just slightly outdated. So what does that mean? People go read my stuff rather than become frustrated and leave! Keep in mind, I went through several design iterations to get to where I am right now. My previous sites have gone through many “free themes” which did not appeal to anyone. My unique design (albeit “outdated” looking) made sure that people took me seriously rather than as just another “fly by night” blogger.

Responsive design was present from the beginning

I took a bit of that big demographic that checks reddit/hackernews/dzone, and other sites via their phones rather than their computers. The responsive design allowed me to interest readers rather than frustrate them. I got a lot of “thanks” from people who were glad that my site was easily navigated via the phone. Same thing for the tablet. I recommend this to everyone!

Publishing schedule ensured habit building 

So while my publishing scheduled did a lot of harm, it was a great encouragement in the beginning. It got me in the mode of thinking about what I’ll do with my blog “this week”. I kept it up pretty well too. I don’t believe there is a single week I missed since I started writing! How awesome is that?! I recommend a publishing schedule for every starting blog to build up pages, to build up post writing, and to get into the habit. I’d tweak it a bit later if you see things going a bit wonky ;)

For most blogs, I recommend 1 post a week. If you write 2 posts this week, save the next one for next week. Keep up a regular schedule and adjust according to need. I’ll be downing my requirements to 1 every 2 weeks until I get a more organic schedule going (ie. no schedule, write whenever).

Putting my controversial opinion out there

Some time ago, I wrote about how much I hate the standard commenting system present in majority of frameworks. People disagreed, some agreed, and some realized it’s time to reflect back on “what commenting is really for”. At first I regretted writing the article because of the HUGE backlash but then I realized that I got people thinking. And it got me thinking. It was a huge turning point to see veteran developers argue about commenting. Some saying that we should discuss the “why” of our code, other saying commenting is for beginners and code should explain itself, yet others arguing we should discuss “what”. For me, it was a styling issue. And in the end, I was happy with my own opinion because there was no “right” answer and one always had to adapt to a new environment. Another example was my “bootstrap-y” article which many saw as “condescending” and written by an “asshole”. Well, perhaps my language was crude and I was harsh but it got my point across for MANY. It’s my BEST article out there. It burrows deep into people’s minds.

In the end, your opinion, however controversial, can be good food for thought for others. Don’t be discouraged to write something out of the norm just because you’re afraid of backlash. That was another thing that you’ll learn from this experience. Backlash, negative comments, and so on are part of your daily life. Even Oatmeal, the awesome comic writer, wrote about the effect of negative comments on him. Learn from it, embrace it! And let that negativity slide off you!

To clarify this point, your opinion does not need to be controversial per se, but if you have a strong opinion on something, put it out there and try to withstand the onslaught of backlashes!

Listening to readers

I got great feedback from my readers, especially on a Forrst post I made, and many on reddit as well. Listening to the readers got me to get rid of miscellaneous tidbits on my site that NO ONE gave a crap about. Yes, analytics can help but reading the written opinion of a reader, can offer further insight. Listening to the readers, I changed the background on my site that many thought  was distracting, something analytics WON’T tell you. I got rid of the footer as well, and many other things. I also ADDED many things. And it helped a lot!

So, I say, listen to your readers, post articles on forums and community sites to get feedback. Listen to it and analyze it.

If you ever refresh any of my posts throughout the day it gets published, you’ll notice, I update it with notes, checks and so on. My readers are important and if a topic requires clarification, I WILL include it.

Capitalizing on topics that I was already successful with.

I’m not talking about “laundering” or “respinning” articles, I’m talking about using articles and topics you know well, that people are eager to hear about, and write about them! Bootstrap was one of them for me. I constantly get positive feedback on those articles and my site has become somewhat of an authority on the topic! Reusing past topics, and expanding on their content was the best thing I could do. I got great replies, client contact etc. If you’re starting a blog, try to “go with what works” when it comes to your posts. If you write about laravel, and people respond positively, write about it again, tackling a different laravel topic. If it works, keep going. You’ll learn, and the readers will learn too.

I recommend reading my post on using Google Webmasters and Google Analytics to find your next blog post, to see where to get all that relevant data and which topics to focus on.

Analytics, analytics, analytics

I launched my site armed with Google Analytics and google webmasters, and later on added all kinds of metrics (none that slow down the site). This was one of the best things I could do. It was the greatest way to measure my success, failure, and so on. Right now, I have nearly a year worth of data that is starting to stabilize (same amount of traffic every day) which gives me great insight into how I started the blog and what I need to do to keep it going.

Early Monetization

I feel like this was a key success to seeing where I needed to go to make the site self-sufficient money-wise. Ad placements also gave the reader some idea of what kind of site they’re looking at. With minimal advertising and no “wait 3 seconds while we play this ad” interim pages, they were created with good content, and enough ads to keep my site going. Early monetization also allowed me to try several different approaches from affiliate links to banner ads. One of the most important steps was researching different ad providers and finding out where the big money is: non-google-adsense ads providers that have restrictions. I was turned down from several ad networks due to low traffic (several hundred a month at the time) but realized why they create such restrictions. Still working on $$$/month system, they could provide quality ads to quality bloggers at great prices to both bloggers and ad publishers. My goal is to enter one of those systems to provide even BETTER ads, meaning, less obtrusive, and focused on quality products we actually use.

Strong branding

I feel like I have a pretty strong brand from a memorable “Aunt Janice” name to my simple logo and colors. Well, the best part is my name. From forrst, to dribbble, to facebook, I use the same nickname. No one will use it other than me, most likely. And that’s awesome. I have people on forrst tell me “Oh yeah, i saw your post on reddit” and people on reddit tell me “saw your tweet earlier” and so on. That’s GOOD branding. People know who I am across multiple platforms, they know my involvement and when they get on my site, they see what I’ve got. It’s awesome, and it helped my blog grow because people appreciate me and my advice, and they visit my site. These people then become loyal readers.

What about this year?

Next year will be a year of changing for everyone. You’ll see a lot of changes on this blog as well. I’m going to take the right and wrong, mix it together, and come up with a new strategy. Here are some things to look forward to and that even your blog could benefit from.

Blog Less, but write better

As strange as it sounds, I’m looking forward to cutting down on writing. The initial volume of articles I’ve written allowed my site to grow quickly in subscribers/visitors and was of great SEO value but my biggest concern was quality. Instead of taking a week to write a mediocre blog post, I am hoping to take two weeks and write a thorough post on interesting topics with illustrations and quality content. It wasn’t the small posts that I threw between the good ones that kept my blog running, it was the QUALITY posts that made the difference and allowed me to spark conversations across different sites about interesting topics. I am vowing to not ever write another 400-word throwaway that was made just to fill up the space. The extra time will also allow me to focus on downloadable and hobby projects that I’ll open source. Maybe even case studies, who knows?

Redesign and rework my site structure

All of a sudden, my site is not a “business” site and I am no longer wanting to convert visitors to customers. Nope. So I will be redesigning my site on a less power-resource-hungry platform (Kirby CMS) and keep my site clean of “services” and “solutions” clutters. Conversion buttons will be gone too, safe for the ones for downloadables. My site used to be that “portfolio” piece I’d show off at interviews, to sell myself, or to clients, to show them what I can do for them but I’m very happy with my job right now (extremely) and have no need for extraneous work.

I think it’s important for everyone re-evaluate their site and focus on the new goals they have set for themselves, and that’s what I’ll be doing.

note: I received a ton of feedback from Forrst and reddit on the pitfalls of my current design :) I will be taking those SERIOUSLY and those suggestions will influence my design decisions!

Design focus on legibility and post access

My design is meant to convert visitors, no longer. I’ll be designing to increase legibility in the spirit of the minimalist, readability movement. If you’re a blogger, this is the best thing you can do. I can’t stress enough how much I use readability due to poor type, color usage, or other aspects of design.

As far as post access goes, I feel like sites keep their posts “locked” down and it’s almost impossible to venture back and see quality material. I’m hoping to introduce “featured posts” sections, “throwback posts” sections, and so on to stress quality material.

Monetization 

Monetization will hopefully be different too. Due to the wealth of visitors I receive, I’m hoping to switch from google adsense to a more…let’s say, “focused” ad network that can actually provide me with enough income to keep up the CDN and hosting costs. I also considered affiliate links but honestly, as great as affiliates are, I always have trouble making that stuff work.

Media involvement

Not social media but photography, videos, and illustrations. Did you know I used to be a freelance photographer? Perhaps I can put that to good use and use a wealth of images to illustrate my points. As I mentioned before, I’d love to get my youtube channel become more relevant so hopefully, that will happen!

Better Site Reliability

As I’ve said, outtages were a big problem with my site at one point. Despite the optimization I did, the site failed. This is why I’ll be moving to using Kirby CMS which is much less resource hungry. With it, I can even move to a cheap VPS and get better results. My goal is to do this.

Q&A

I answered a question on quora on how I made my site go from 0 to 20K visitors a month which is what this blog is focused on. I’m ready to answer any questions anyone has in regards to my accomplishments and will take on any criticism, below are some common questions I get asked and some questions that need answering.

What kind of traffic do you receive now and what kind of traffic have you received throughout the year?

I started on a complete 0. With a new domain, no backlinks, and a clean slate, I went from 0 to a maximum of about 60K back in September and have settled on a neat 20K in the past months.

What’s the biggest driver of your traffic?

My most popular posts, especially the ones on bootstrap. I get several hundred people a day from google and at one point, I received a thousand visitors a day just from that. My biggest articles are becoming less relevant due to Google’s ranking system. My thought here is that blog post articles get less “weight” with time. Outside of that, when I release an article, my biggest pushers are Hackernews, Reddit, and LinkedIn.

Do you do directory submissions?

No, definitely not; however, I find my articles often listed on bloggers’ monthly link sharings. Some people like to gather links to what they perceive as useful resources and post them monthly. This was always a great way to get backlinks for me.

How do you “announce” the release of your articles?

I have a small checklist that I always follow ;) It starts with sharing on twitter and facebook, then I move on to dzone, stumbleupon, google plus, and finally, I hit up reddit and hackernews. If an article is not successful on reddit, I choose a different subreddit but never go past that. Afterward, if my article is a tutorial, I submit to pixel2life, good-tutorials, and sometimes designfloat.com.

This system has proved invaluable to me and I keep a list of places that I can hit up to announce my articles. This list often expands and I choose to submit to 50% of them because often, someone else will submit my article to the rest.

I might write an article on this if anyone is interested.

What kind of “SEO” tricks do you recommend?

No tricks really. Your best bet to growing a good following is to write good articles, write often at the beginning, and become involved in the community.

What were some key things that got you from 5-10 visits to 50-100 visita /day?

:) that’s what the post is about:

  • my site is well designed, easy to read
  • responsive design ensures repeat visits from people (ie. people don’t just say “well, fuck, can’t see it on my phone”)
  • publishing schedule that ensured I had fresh content every week
  • putting strong opinions into my articles. People like reading strong opinions
  • listening to readers and adjusting design/content according to concerns
  • analytics which allowed me to measure which topics are more successful and popular than others
  • strong branding and community involvement that makes my name recognizable on several well-trafficked forums.

But let me simplify that a bit:

  • write GOOD content. Something new, something fresh, something that answers questions that people have. Put yourself into it, make it passionate.
  • share your content wherever you’re active. Whether it’s forrst, linkedin, or reddit, be active, be recognizable, have a history of commenting on other people’s stuff, and post at good intervals. I get most of my traffic from there
  • analytics: analyze your strong points and weak points. Figure out what’s getting ranked on google from all the awesome stuff you write. Make that topic stronger, support it with a few more articles.

:) That’s basically it! My articles were popular, they got shared, they got linked, raised my PR, gave me traffic, and show up on the front page for several great keywords!

Can you share specific numbers and your growth? 

numbers-statistics-google-analytics

This is a quick graph screenshot (per month) over the past few months, the “weekly” and even” daily” views look a bit strange because on August 24th, I got 25K hits and none of my days afterward could compare, the graph looks amazingly stupid ;)

Outside of that, I launched my blog around June 1st and before that I kept up a blog with a free theme and two or three posts that were not ranked anywhere and my average daily visits ranged from 0-3, 3 being when I got on my site from my work computer, home computer, and someone wanting to work with me checked me out too.

Anyways, here’s my growth, month-by-month:

  • June – launched my redesigned blog. Found my first great avenue for traffic: linkedin. I wrote a couple of good articles. One of them being Zen Tips for a Web Developer and Designer. This one was my first great article and launched me forward. I also wrote about KOjs to get a job. (Traffic: Search Engine 147, Referral 900)
  • July – started writing some better stuff. Found out about using reddit to share links and get traffic, found out about hackernews.  I just got a new job and was rapidly learning new tech so I wanted to share my experiences. I released several great articles on CSS organization and WP optimization which got some attention. I started to get a hang of what to write, how, and where to share it for best exposure…(Traffic: Search Engine 259, Referral 3844)
  • August – The “judgement day” month.. wrote two great articles, one on Bootstrap, other on commenting, this is my turning point. The residual traffic from the hits (60K that month) kept me going and encouraged me to write more. Even my Laravel article worked out perfectly, creating awesome discussion on reddit. :) (Traffic: Search Engine 1400, Referral 38000)
  • September – I tried, somewhat, to emulate August. I realized my success was measured over time, rather than daily. I started monetizing my site, redesigning small elements to allow better legibility (some may remember a grey grainy background which looked like smudges on your screen). I also started accepting my first guest blogs. I started redoing my site structure then and focusing on SEO. (Traffic: Search Engine 3700, Referral 7500, Direct 3800)
  • October – I couldn’t have another September, mainly because of the residual Hackernews traffic dissolving. So I wrote some really great stuff :) I got into the habit of doing things and kept writing while focusing also on the other aspects of my blog. It started to occur to me that my blog was definitely more important than any other part of the site. Search Engine traffic became crucial to my site (Traffic: Search Engine 11000, Referral 7000, Direct 3000)
  • November – November was the first month that pretty much relied on search engine traffic. It was a terrible month for me article-wise but guess what? It was still better than October or September. I started writing several drafts of GREAT articles and realized that my publishing schedule was screwing me over. (Traffic: Search Engine 16000, Referral 3600, Direct 3000)
  • December – Mediocre month as far as writing goes. My “search engine” luck just ran out, google announced to me that one of my articles was falling in searches and clickthroughs. I decided I needed to make some drastic changes which is why January became an important month :) (Traffic: Search Engine 15,000 , Referral 3600, Direct 3000)
  • January – here we are. Two successful articles down. I closed down Guest Blogs, I wrote down a goals list and redesign list from the help of people on Forrst and Reddit. Search engine traffic is falling and I need a new plan. If you check out my traffic, I have the most referral traffic I’ve had since I posted my big 2 (Bootstrap + Comment articles) and my search engine traffic will most likely match previous months:) (Traffic: Search Engine 3000, Referral 7500, Direct 3000). 

Are you “gaming” HackerNews or Reddit?

I was asked that earlier and I don’t see this question as an insult, it’s important to ask. So to summarize it: no. And it’s pretty difficult to game either anyways.

Both HN and Reddit are very critical of articles and posts. I’ve had in the past been helped by some friends who upvoted my articles on reddit but if the article was bad, it’d get slammed down within 5 minutes. This strategy, however, is futile as hell. If you post something good, it’ll get attention, if you don’t, it’ll be downvoted.

I don’t even know anyone on HN so that’s pure HN community doing their work. And again, same principles apply. Only good stuff passes through the filter.

What do you suggest is the best way to succeed on HN and Reddit?

Be active. People recognize my name everywhere, they know I write. The same way I recognize Dan Eden’s name everywhere. Shit, I mention him everywhere too. I instantly know if it’s him on Forrst, Twitter, Reddit, or wherever else. I know him to post great stuff so when I see his posts, I click on it, upvote it if I like it. Guess what? I’m not as nice to people I don’t know or have never heard of.

Outside of that, be sure to post at appropriate times. Thursday-Fridays are best for that on both networks. And around lunch time ;)

I’ll be adding questions as they come up.