November 24, 2008

Features of a blog worth caring about

NOTE: This post is old, and is probably on different subject matter than my current writing. It is possible the information is outdated or my opinions have changed. -- Josh Klein, May 28, 2012

This is Part 1 in a 3-part series called How To Write a Blog Worth Caring About.

Introduction

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.

Appendix: Plugins

Here’s the list of WordPress Plugins that help make the features on this blog possible:

Stay tuned for part 2 in a few weeks, where I discuss writing your blog. That means subscribe people!

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  • http://www.outbrain.com Kate

    Hi Josh,
    Thanks for adding outbrain to your site and for writing about us. I'm also really glad you you've decided to go with disqus – we did a small integration with them about a month ago – you'll notice the comment link next to the rater links directly to the commenting fields.
    Anyway – thanks again and feel free to contact me if you run into any issues. Kate[at]outbrain[dot]com
    Cheers!
    Kate
    The outbrain team

  • http://www.outbrain.com Kate

    Hi Josh,
    Thanks for adding outbrain to your site and for writing about us. I'm also really glad you you've decided to go with disqus – we did a small integration with them about a month ago – you'll notice the comment link next to the rater links directly to the commenting fields.
    Anyway – thanks again and feel free to contact me if you run into any issues. Kate[at]outbrain[dot]com
    Cheers!
    Kate
    The outbrain team

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      My pleasure, Kate. I really do think outbrain is a top notch plugin. I hope more people start using it.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    My pleasure, Kate. I really do think outbrain is a top notch plugin. I hope more people start using it.

  • http://www.tumblemoose.com tumblemoose

    Well ok then. This is me subscribing. Your writing style is clear and straightforward and in this single post, I've gained three new ideas for my site that I had not considered.

    Gonna bookmark it to! But I'm not going to Digg it! ;-)

    Cheers

    George

  • http://www.mintblogger.com/ Rajeev Edmonds

    A comprehensive guide to better blogging. Great content… Stumbled.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for commenting Rajeev. Feel free to add me on Stumbleupon: http://joshklein.stumbleupon.com/

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    Ha, that's great George. I like when people put the ideas to actual use … including keeping me off Digg :)

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    If I'm here for nothing else, it's to feed the collective ego of the blogosphere :) You'll have to tell me about this new entrepreneurship blog when it goes live!

  • http://abaminds.com Karen Zara

    I'm about to launch a new blog for entrepreneurs and have already written the about pages. I'm happy that the pages' content meet the standards mentioned in your post. Validation is good for a blogger's ego. ;-)

    On an unrelated note, I've read your post at Problogger and I support your views on Digg.

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      If I'm here for nothing else, it's to feed the collective ego of the blogosphere :) You'll have to tell me about this new entrepreneurship blog when it goes live!

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but it always depends on what market or niche you're in. It's hard to charge people for something they think should be free, and it's hard to show ads to people who are opposed to them. But there is an expectation — rightly so — that the best stuff out there isn't free. If you want the best, you pay money.

    So really, I think the challenge is to stop commoditizing what you do.

    That being said, I think there are different ways to approach the question of “income”. I have no intension of making income off my blog, per se. Instead, my blog is fast becoming my most powerful marketing tool (though I don't like the way that sounds… because it's so much more than marketing to me). My blog is an investment in my personal brand, my career, and my other projects.

    I'm not selling you anything, but that doesn't mean I'm not considering the business implications of every asset I have. Blogs that aren't pushing a product are about as soft as a soft-sell can get… and I think the soft-sell is the long-term path to business success with unyielding ethics.

  • graphiker

    This thoughtful, content rich blog entry has given me lots to think about, plus taught me about some interesting new plug-ins. Excellent, thanks!

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    You know it's a good entry when your Mom leaves a comment! See you at Thanksgiving :)

  • http://www.tumblemoose.com tumblemoose

    Well ok then. This is me subscribing. Your writing style is clear and straightforward and in this single post, I've gained three new ideas for my site that I had not considered.

    Gonna bookmark it to! But I'm not going to Digg it! ;-)

    Cheers

    George

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      Ha, that's great George. I like when people put the ideas to actual use … including keeping me off Digg :)

  • http://crudeoiltrader.blogspot.com Ray

    Great post, really helpful. I think this is my first time to your site, I'll subscribe right now!

    Thanks.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    Awesome, thanks.

  • http://www.mintblogger.com/ Rajeev Edmonds

    A comprehensive guide to better blogging. Great content… Stumbled.

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for commenting Rajeev. Feel free to add me on Stumbleupon: http://joshklein.stumbleupon.com/

  • http://www.AshevillesHot.com Nan

    Josh – I like your writing style – and your point of view. I definitely look forward to the Part 2 and 3. It is definitely an issue I am confused about – the desire to make a blog that matters – and the desire to make an income. Do you think they are mutally exclusive?
    Nan

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but it always depends on what market or niche you're in. It's hard to charge people for something they think should be free, and it's hard to show ads to people who are opposed to them. But there is an expectation — rightly so — that the best stuff out there isn't free. If you want the best, you pay money.

      So really, I think the challenge is to stop commoditizing what you do.

      That being said, I think there are different ways to approach the question of “income”. I have no intension of making income off my blog, per se. Instead, my blog is fast becoming my most powerful marketing tool (though I don't like the way that sounds… because it's so much more than marketing to me). My blog is an investment in my personal brand, my career, and my other projects.

      I'm not selling you anything, but that doesn't mean I'm not considering the business implications of every asset I have. Blogs that aren't pushing a product are about as soft as a soft-sell can get… and I think the soft-sell is the long-term path to business success with unyielding ethics.

      • nan

        You make good points – I'm continuing to come back and reread your articles.
        Nan

  • graphiker

    This thoughtful, content rich blog entry has given me lots to think about, plus taught me about some interesting new plug-ins. Excellent, thanks!

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      You know it's a good entry when your Mom leaves a comment! See you at Thanksgiving :)

  • http://crudeoiltrader.blogspot.com Crude Oil Trader

    Great post, really helpful. I think this is my first time to your site, I'll subscribe right now!

    Thanks.

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      Awesome, thanks.

  • nan

    You make good points – I'm continuing to come back and reread your articles.
    Nan

  • http://sinolicious.wordpress.com/ Stephen

    awesome awesome plug-in list. way to add value!

    but i have a question about linking to other websites with information relevant to your posts. are outbound links good practice?

  • http://sinolicious.wordpress.com/ Stephen

    awesome awesome plug-in list. way to add value!

    but i have a question about linking to other websites with information relevant to your posts. are outbound links good practice?

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      Glad you enjoy the plugins.

      Technically speaking, there isn't anything right or wrong about outbound links. But at least part of word of mouth — the fundamental building block of the web — is good old fashion networking through reciprocity.

      Reciprocity is a psychological impulse we have to (essentially) return favors. This isn't a defect in any way — it makes sense to do nice things for the people who do nice things for you.

      If you want inbound links, you probably need to use outbound links.

      That being said, I don't link out from my posts too often. I also violate plenty of other “best practices” — posting frequently, using small words and short posts, etc — but that's because I'm trying to keep an exceptionally high signal to noise ratio.

      I spend most of my time deciding what not to say.

  • http://www.toogeektobetrue.com Chris Prakoso

    Josh, this is a brilliant write-up. There is nothing more satisfying than to read something and to feel that the knowledge is being transferred to your brain. Thanks a lot ! I'm looking forward to read the second one.
    PS: I am subscribing :)

  • http://www.toogeektobetrue.com Chris Prakoso

    Josh, this is a brilliant write-up. There is nothing more satisfying than to read something and to feel that the knowledge is being transferred to your brain. Thanks a lot ! I'm looking forward to read the second one.
    PS: I am subscribing :)

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      Now I just need to invest a knowledge-to-brain transfer device that doesn't require me to type anything.

      Thanks for subscribing, and great to meet you.

  • http://www.visionaryblogging.com/ Easton Ellsworth

    Josh, just saying hi as I prepare to dig into your great content here. We're in the same niche – teaching people about online strategy – so it would be great to keep in touch.

    “Hopelessly engrossed” – that's a great phrase. I love that idea. Why spend the time if no one is gonna care about your work?

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    Glad you enjoy the plugins.

    Technically speaking, there isn't anything right or wrong about outbound links. But at least part of word of mouth — the fundamental building block of the web — is good old fashion networking through reciprocity.

    Reciprocity is a psychological impulse we have to (essentially) return favors. This isn't a defect in any way — it makes sense to do nice things for the people who do nice things for you.

    If you want inbound links, you probably need to use outbound links.

    That being said, I don't link out from my posts too often. I also violate plenty of other “best practices” — posting frequently, using small words and short posts, etc — but that's because I'm trying to keep an exceptionally high signal to noise ratio.

    I spend most of my time deciding what not to say.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    Now I just need to invest a knowledge-to-brain transfer device that doesn't require me to type anything.

    Thanks for subscribing, and great to meet you.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    I think the whole notion of business responsibility and personal responsibility as separate are dead, because of two separate forces. One is the recent craziness going on in the business world, but the other is the new way personal responsibility — and care — give your business an incredible competitive advantage.

    Making people care about your work is a smart business move.

  • http://www.visionaryblogging.com/ Easton Ellsworth

    Josh, just saying hi as I prepare to dig into your great content here. We're in the same niche – teaching people about online strategy – so it would be great to keep in touch.

    “Hopelessly engrossed” – that's a great phrase. I love that idea. Why spend the time if no one is gonna care about your work?

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      I think the whole notion of business responsibility and personal responsibility as separate are dead, because of two separate forces. One is the recent craziness going on in the business world, but the other is the new way personal responsibility — and care — give your business an incredible competitive advantage.

      Making people care about your work is a smart business move.

  • solavista

    Great post. Very enjoyable.

  • http://www.toogeektobetrue.com Chris Prakoso

    Josh, I just came across this app called IntenseDebate at http://intensedebate.com. I believe it has the same functionalites (maybe more) with Disqus, but this time you 'can' import your WP comment.

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      I had heard of IntenseDebate but never gave it a fair shot — I'm a reader of http://www.avc.com/ by Fred Wilson, who is a user and investor in Disqus, so I had become familiar with the tool there. When it was time to upgrade commenting on my site, it was the natural place to go.

      WP comment importing is supposed to work, but just doesn't for me. I trust that in some point in the future this will be fixed. Until then, it's not the worst thing in the world… and I otherwise very much like Disqus.

  • solavista

    Great post. Very enjoyable.

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      Glad you enjoyed, thanks for stopping by.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    I had heard of IntenseDebate but never gave it a fair shot — I'm a reader of http://www.avc.com/ by Fred Wilson, who is a user and investor in Disqus, so I had become familiar with the tool there. When it was time to upgrade commenting on my site, it was the natural place to go.

    WP comment importing is supposed to work, but just doesn't for me. I trust that in some point in the future this will be fixed. Until then, it's not the worst thing in the world… and I otherwise very much like Disqus.

  • Kalle

    Eagerly waiting for the other two parts. :)

  • Kalle

    Eagerly waiting for the other two parts. :)

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      Coming soon, I promise!

  • http://www.ratracetrap.com/ Stephen

    Unbelievably good! WOW! Every article of yours I read slides so easily into my own logical thought process I'm starting to get worried. This is not hyperbole either. I mean it. I found this site from a tweet by remarkablogger. Thanks for the great ideas.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    That's a passionate response, not the sort of stuff I expect in the comments of a blog about business, but I'll be damned if it isn't the nicest thing that's been said about this blog. Thank you, and I'll have to buy Michael from @remarkablogger a beer.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    Coming soon, I promise!

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    Glad you enjoyed, thanks for stopping by.

  • http://www.ratracetrap.com/ Stephen

    Well, for good or bad I'm passionate about everything. It hurts me a lot at my rat race job because I can't hold back and stop caring when I should. I went straight to my blog and add YARPP and outbrain. See related post stuff all the time. Seldom see a ranking option like outbrain.

  • http://www.ratracetrap.com/ Stephen

    Unbelievably good! WOW! Every article of yours I read slides so easily into my own logical thought process I'm starting to get worried. This is not hyperbole either. I mean it. I found this site from a tweet by remarkablogger. Thanks for the great ideas.

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      That's a passionate response, not the sort of stuff I expect in the comments of a blog about business, but I'll be damned if it isn't the nicest thing that's been said about this blog. Thank you, and I'll have to buy Michael from @remarkablogger a beer.

      • http://www.ratracetrap.com/ Stephen

        Well, for good or bad I'm passionate about everything. It hurts me a lot at my rat race job because I can't hold back and stop caring when I should. I went straight to my blog and add YARPP and outbrain. See related post stuff all the time. Seldom see a ranking option like outbrain.

  • http://twitter.com/glopatka Geoff Lopatka

    #GinaAbudi Great article for some tips on getting started with blogging. What do you think?

  • erikwallace

    Another helpful and insightful post Josh. This is great advice to get a blog off to a great start. Thanks for sharing lessons learned.

  • http://www.erikwallace.com Erik Wallace

    Another helpful and insightful post Josh. This is great advice to get a blog off to a great start. Thanks for sharing lessons learned.

  • http://gadgettechblog.com/ Gadget_Blog

    Very very interesting post..I like this one. gotta bookmark this one.

    Cheers,
    gadgettechblog.com

  • http://www.seodriven.com SEO Miami

    Great understanding about blog.. Great post.. I hope A lot of bloggers will read this..
    Many will understand what is blog all about…

  • http://www.seodriven.com SEO Miami

    Great understanding about blog.. Great post.. I hope A lot of bloggers will read this..
    Many will understand what is blog all about…