Reflections on 10+ years of blogging

Om Malik shared yesterday what he’s learned in 10 years of blogging.

1. Blogging is communal.
2. Be authentic.
3. When wrong, admit it and listen to those who were right.
4. Be regular.
5. Treat others as you expect yourself to be treated.
6. Respect your readers’ time.
7. Wait 15 minutes before publishing.
8. Write everything as if your mom is reading.
9. It’s not opinion–it’s viewing the world a certain way and sharing that view.
10. A little snark goes a long way.
From what I can tell, I’ve been at this longer than he has, though he stayed far more prolific. I started sometime in October 1999 or so. Most of that experimental content is lost to the ages now, and that may be for the best. Initially my goal was to demonstrate that Net Objects Fusion was a better tool for blogging than Microsoft Frontpage. It was, but then again, so is anything but edlin. Neither tool was all that well suited to sites whose content changed that rapidly, though. So after a few months, I ended up on one of Dave Winer’s Userland sites. Compared to what we have today, Userland was crude and awkward, but it was far better than anything else I’d tried up to that point. I don’t remember anymore precisely why I migrated away from Userland, other than it being slow and not liking that much reliance on someone else. But whatever the reasons were, I moved to Greymatter in April 2001, which had two advantages to me: It was a modern blogging platform, and it didn’t need MySQL. By June 2002 I moved to b2 to get the advantages of a MySQL-based site, and it could import all of my Greymatter content. The state of the art at the time was Movable Type, but I didn’t want to lose my content yet again and Movable Type didn’t have an upgrade path from Greymatter at the time. Eventually spambots took the site over, so I moved to a platform called Geeklog, which I never really liked and was a dead end, but it kept the spammers at bay. In the meantime b2 morphed into the very excellent WordPress. I can’t even remember now when I started plotting a move to WordPress, but digging indicates it may have been as early as 2003. 2003! I finally got around to it in October 2010.

So here’s my take on those 10 rules, having been around the block a few times myself.

1. It’s absolutely communal, and Movable Type took off because it encouraged that with pingbacks and trackbacks and all that. I lost most of my community in those years in exile running Geeklog, and it’s amazing how much difference just changing to WordPress alone made.

2. There’s no substitute for authenticity. That’s true of writing in general. If you’re not authentically passionate about what you’re writing, it’ll show. If you don’t care, your readers won’t either. And if you’re phony, they’ll see right through it and find someone else. And every day it gets easier to find someone else.

3. I’ve never cared much for confrontation, so I can’t speak much for point 3, right or wrong.. But it sounds good.

4. I can’t believe how much difference regularity and routine makes, to the point that I schedule content to appear at a certain time of day. I prefer to write and edit in the evenings. I always have, and with two young kids, that’s the only way I can do it. But people prefer to read in the mornings. Not everyone, but a large contingent does. If I have something ready to go at 7 PM, I’m better off scheduling it to run at 7 AM. Some 30% more people will read it. And if I post content before 7 AM every day, more people read it than if content appears haphazardly.

And if you want to be a professional, posting three times a day sounds reasonable. And I suspect there are optimal times of the day to post, too. Of course when something is breaking, you want to post as quickly as possible, but something that can wait a few hours ought to wait for some optimal time. I suspect most reading happens first thing in the morning, with another wave around lunch time, and perhaps another wave in the late afternoon or early evening, with perhaps another wave in mid or late evening. Five times a day at predictable hours seems like a relatively safe formula, if you can pull it off.

I certainly see an uptick on those days I’m able to post once in the morning and once in the evening, but it’s fairly rare that I have enough time and inspiration–it takes both–to do that. And usually if I do manage to write two things in a day, I’m better off saving one for a day that I’ve got nothing.

5. Treat others as you expect yourself to be treated. That truism dates back to Moses and beyond, and still works today.

6. Respect readers’ time. If it’s not useful to someone, it’s not worth posting. That’s why I don’t post about doing mundane stuff around the house. If I’m not going to remember it in a week, there’s no point in recording it and sharing it with everyone with an Internet connection.

7. Sometimes you can’t wait 15 minutes, but if you can, giving yourself a little time and distance between typing that last period and hitting the publish button always results in better content.

8. I write as if Mom is reading, partly because my mom really is reading much of the time. She and I work in different fields, and I can’t always explain things at a level of detail that she’ll understand, but if Mom knows two sentences in whether it’s something that’s going to affect her and needs to pay attention to, then everyone else will too. And that helps keep the tone more polite too.

9. Regarding opinion vs. view, what I think is far less important than why I think that way. What I’ve learned about something is a lot more valuable than my personal opinions about it.

10. Snark and irreverence aren’t the only ways to get a point across. Certainly there are times they are warranted. Then again, there are some things that just aren’t worth getting that worked up about.

And I’ll add an 11th rule.

11. Search engine hits aren’t everything. When 100 million other people are writing about the same thing and chasing the #1 search engine position, you’re fighting a losing battle. You may get a good search position for a while, but you won’t keep it. So write about something 100 million other people aren’t writing about, and you’ll maintain that position.

A real-world example: One of my former classmates is an expert in toys made by Metalcraft Corporation of St. Louis in the 1930s. He’s at or near the top of the Google search results because the company only has a dozen or so references on the Web. Metalcraft would be good content fodder. How many people are interested? No more than a few thousand, perhaps. But there’s literally nowhere else for those people to go. If Andy ever decided to start blogging, he’d have a captive audience.

I’ll close with the best piece of advice I ever received. It was about 14 years ago that I heard Bart Larson speak to a small group at the Mizzou campus. I really needed to hear what he had to say that evening, and those 30 minutes or changed my life, and probably lengthened it a great deal too. He and I spoke afterward and remained in contact for a while. He had co-authored a book way back in 1983, and being an aspiring writer, I asked him why, after all those years, he hadn’t written another one, and he said he’ll write another one when he has something to say that nobody else is saying.

In a blog, you can’t do that every time. You might be doing well to do that a few times a year. But the more often you manage to do that, the better you’ll do in search results. I have content that’s stayed at the top of the search results for six-plus years and counting, solely because it covered something that nobody else ever bothered to write about.

Spend a month writing about things everyone is interested in and nobody is interested in on alternating days, then look at your search results at the end of that month. Chances are you’ll be surprised which half gets all your traffic.

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