This is Part 1 in a 3-part series called How To Write a Blog Worth Caring About.
- Part 1: Features of a blog worth caring about
- Part 2: Writing a blog worth caring about
- Part 3: Promoting a blog worth caring about (forthcoming)
I recently wrote about my laser-focusing of this blog on making websites worth caring about. Blogs are a particular kind of website that only work if they’re worth caring about.
Blogs need to be more than search-optimized words and the latest flashy widgets, so I’m going to walk you through the recent updates I’ve made to this blog distilled into lessons for any blog.
In part 1 of this series, we’re going to talk about the necessary features of a blog:
- a strategy with clear goals
- content that doesn’t suck
- a layout that maximizes your strategy
- an optimized squeeze page
- a feedback loop
- a rabbit hole
None of this has to be perfect the day you launch your blog — start blogging now, read this post later — but when you begin to get serious, this is how to get your ducks in a row.
1. A strategy with clear goals
You need a good reason to be doing something as hard as making a website other human beings will want to visit.
A blog is like a Mom & Pop store. If you only wanted to sell stuff, you’d open shop in a crowded mall. But there are other factors, so you rent a quaint little building and slowly build loyal customers.
The problem is that your blog is like a Mom & Pop store in the middle of an empty forest. People need a powerful reason to bother coming.
You need a web strategy.
This blog began as an experiment in practicing what I preached about search engine optimization, so I didn’t care if anyone showed up. I wanted to take a site from non-existence to the #1 result in Google as quickly as possible.
Thinking tactically was fine as an experiment, but I lacked any strategy.
I had to sneak past Wikipedia, Boing Boing, TED and 5.3 million others, but I won the #1 spot after 3 months of work and realized, to my horror, that you people were actually reading the site. I needed to go back to the drawing board and come up with my reason d’etre.
You need that reason to be blogging — and goals to focus on — or you won’t be able to make anything worth caring about.
I now blog for several reasons:
- To spread an Idea: making better websites — websites that matter to human beings — is good for business and good for the Web. Stop making crappy websites.
- To learn — to commit myself to thinking about ideas at the level required to explain them to others. I blog to get better.
- To build a podium. This blog puts me in a position to direct attention — human attention and search engine attention — to things that matter to me (until I abuse that power). This is the 21st century gold rush.
- To build authority. When friends — and friends of friends — have ideas for websites, they talk to me. Strangers use my contact form to ask about consulting (only they’re not really strangers, they’re readers.)
- To be my resume and legacy. This blog is not on a 10-month plan; it’s on a 10-year plan.
2. Content that doesn’t suck
This blog was not particularly thoughtful when I was just gunning for Google rank. The blog didn’t start to evolve until I began thinking about what human beings wanted to read.
Your blog will only be worth caring about if you are the anti-suck. I write articles as if my great-grandchildren will read them some day — because they will (an idea from the brilliant and inspiring Gary Vaynerchuk.)
When I wrote about avoiding marketing on Digg, I bashed the things I call “Top 10 Ways Ducks Quack” posts. Write something of substance and take it through multiple drafts before you hit publish. Merlin Mann says to pick a person you respect and act as if you’re writing to them.
He also says “blog posts are written, not defecated.” Gross, but true.
I’m not a great writer, but I’m trying my hardest.
Part 2 of this series is about writing, so you’ll hear plenty about this soon. Make sure you subscribe to get more details in your inbox when that part comes out.
3. A layout that matches your strategy
Reading a website is not like reading a book. Words share attention with menus, browser buttons — especially the Back button — and every other widget or option on the page.
An effective blog layout leaves off distractions so visitors will do what you brought them to your page to do.
If you make websites and haven’t read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, you’re crazy.
You need to minimize friction (same meaning as in physics) and highlight calls-to-action (“BUY NOW” is prototypic.)
Social media drives traffic to my blog. In social media, posts have to build popularity from scratch, so this traffic is fleeting. My strategy requires that I turn visitors into subscribers.
I care about every person who reads my articles, but I cherish any person willing to let me bother them every time I write something new. That’s a humbling relationship to have with a stranger.
I have a page to subscribe for updates, but I also want to remove the necessity of reaching that deeper page. I’ve added an email sign up form in the top right. I’m not satisfied with it — I need to make some aesthetic changes to make it pop — but the idea is to make it the primary call-to-action.
What have I removed? You won’t find any mention of the projects and brands I work on. I’m not looking for consulting work right now, and you won’t subscribe to my blog because I namedrop.
Maybe subscriptions aren’t your primary call-to-action, but the point is the same: emphasize that which matters most by de-emphasizing everything that doesn’t.
What can you get rid of?
4. An optimized squeeze page
Traditionally, a squeeze page is the landing page meant to “squeeze” the email address out of a visitor in a direct response campaign in order to build a list. I mean something different.
You’re building an audience, so you want participants and subscribers. (If you’re selling something, you want orders.)
People can wander around your blog all day without subscribing. You need a page that squeezes them to take action. For most blogs, that means an about page.
Writing an about page is harder than it looks. You’re writing sales copy on the product called You. Skellie has some of the best advice on writing an about page. You’ll also see some parallels between my about page and Brian’s over at Copyblogger. When all else fails, borrow from someone smart.
The about page is the most important page on your blog because it tells the reader:
- what the blog is about
- who the blog is for
- what the reader will get out of it
- why you’re worth listening to
Many subscribers join from my about page. I also try to attract direct emails. Can you see how it squeezes for both? If I didn’t encourage people to email, it could be even more effective at generating subscriptions.
5. A feedback loop
Reader feedback is what makes you better and grows your blog. It’s a loop because you leverage the input in shaping your output.
An off-site example: Darren at Problogger picked up on my opposition to Digg.com, leading to an influx of subscribers interested in blogging — perfect timing for writing this series.
An on-site example: At the end of every post, I ask my readers to rate the article, respond on their own blogs, leave comments, share with friends, or subscribe.
(I added the rating system, outbrain, earlier this month, so I need your help rating old articles.)
It’s worth thinking about different ways your readers can improve your blog. Focus on the methods that add the most value to other readers.
I recommend the comment system Disqus. It supports threaded responses and lets readers create an account to manage comments across all blogs that use the system (a quickly growing number), turning posts into individual threads of a giant discussion board.
(The only problem with Disqus is it won’t import my old comments.)
6. A rabbit hole
Most of the time, a squeeze page isn’t enough to get subscribers; people need to care first. Blogs need a rabbit hole for Alice to fall down.
Examples of rabbit holes are when:
- you try to watch a video of a kitten on Youtube and end up watching 10 more kitten videos.
- you look up “Abraham Lincoln” on Wikipedia and end up learning about “mercury arc valves.”
- a reader finds one of your posts and reads the next 10.
You need to make it easy for people to become hopelessly engrossed in your content. Here’s what I’ve done:
- added an engine (YARPP) that recommends articles at the end of every post.
- made the blog mobile-friendly (check it out on your iPhone).
- improved search.
Search is an especially important way to find content. It shouldn’t be easier to find something through Google than your own site search.
Yoast has good ideas about making blog search better. Here’s what I’ve done by following his advice:
- By default, results were ordered by date. Now, they’re ordered by relevance.
- By default, results showed the standard excerpt. Now, they show the excerpt most relevant to what you were searching for and highlight the term where it appears.
- If you misspell your term, it tries to correct you.
- If there are too many results, it tries to refine your query.
I’m not convinced I’ve gotten search completely figured out, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Here’s the list of WordPress Plugins that help make the features on this blog possible:
- All-in-one SEO Pack
- Contact Form
- Easy Tube
- Feedburner Feedsmith
- Google XML Sitemaps
- RSS Footer
- Search Excerpt
- Search Reloaded
- Search Suggest
- WordPress Automatic Upgrade
- Yet Another Related Posts Plugin
Stay tuned for part 2 in a few weeks, where I discuss writing your blog. That means subscribe people!