What I know about blogging

My mentor from the Columbia program, Jon Williams, recently started a blog, and asked me if I had any advice about blogging. That got me thinking about what makes for a good blog, so I’m sharing my thoughts here.

The blogosphere is intensely competitive in terms of the attention economy. When blogs I read link to other blogs, I’ll bring the new blog up in a tab and read half a post. If that snippet doesn’t interest me, I’ll leave and never come back. If I actually finish reading the post, I’ll click on a couple other recent posts to see if they can write on more than one topic, and then if it’s promising, I’ll add it to my RSS feed.

In other words, a blog has at most 30 seconds to convince me that it’s worth my time. And my experience generalizes. According to Google Analytics, the average visitor to my blog from a search engine spends about 30 seconds before leaving. That’s not much time, especially when it’s impossible to precisely control the visitor’s experience, because search engines may deposit them on any page. That’s why every page here has the sidebar that introduces me and links to recent and random posts, so visitors can have a sampling of what this blog is about no matter where they arrive.

What does a blog have to do to capture my attention?

  • It has to be well-written. That may seem obvious, but there are plenty of bad writers out there. One of the hardest parts of writing for the Internet is learning to edit before publishing rather than posting stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Since there’s no editorial process, we have to do our own filtering to avoid such writers rather than relying on a gatekeeper like the editors of the New Yorker.
  • It has to talk about something of interest to me. I won’t read a blog about knitting, no matter how well-written it is.
  • Blogs I like tend to have a focus. They’re not for everybody, but they appeal to their core audience. Creating Passionate Users or Joel on Software make it clear from their titles what their focus is. It’s related to the process of becoming “The Guy” – having a focus makes it much easier to become _the_ reference on that topic. The first question I asked Jon was to articulate why he was blogging (his answer is in his sidebar). That focus will make it easier for him to determine what is appropriate for the blog and what isn’t, what should be cut in editing and what should be left in.
  • It has to be authentic. If the writing shows no soul or personality, I’m gone. I have to feel like I know the person from reading that first half-post. This doesn’t mean over-using slang, but making it clear that the author has a point of view and is sharing it with you via their writing. I need to be interested in learning more about how they see the world.
  • At the same time, the blog has to be more than just a vehicle for self-expression. In many cases, the blog is a way for the blogger to share their experiences with friends and family. That’s great, and the reason why sites like MySpace, LiveJournal and Vox exist. Heck, I have a LiveJournal account so I can keep up with what’s going on in my friends’ lives. But I don’t think I read anybody’s personal journal who’s not also a real-life friend. Such sites are the extension into cyberspace of real-life relationships, which is interesting to me, but a separate topic.
  • Having comments is a good sign. It means that the blogger is trying to start a conversation, and is interested in more than just hearing themselves speak. One of the great achievements a blogger can attain in my eyes is to be the seed around which a community forms.
  • Attention to detail must be apparent on every page. Because of search engines, the author doesn’t have control of where a visitor will arrive, so having high quality content throughout the site is important.

So those are the thoughts I have on writing a blog that would be of interest to me. Note that I don’t feel strongly enough about these recommendations to follow my own advice. This blog doesn’t have a focus. It is more in the realm of self-expression than of fostering community. My posts tend towards the rambling. But I’m okay with that – I have not yet found a focus that compels me enough to write about it regularly. We’ll get there.

8 thoughts on “What I know about blogging

  1. One thing that I didn’t see mentioned – if he wants to develop any sort of readership, he has to blog *regularly*. For personal journals and crap like that, it makes little difference because you’re speaking to feeds. But if you’re trying to foster an audience, regular content is required. I read somewhere that the life of a blog post is about 36 hours – people will “ping” the site periodically for updates, but after 36 hours, you’ve lost your audience.

    I don’t recall where I read it, but it was a year or so ago, and it’s “felt” about right since then, both for my own pointless, irregular blog and others.

  2. I’d say the question is why does he want to blog in the first place? In someways, ok, everyone else is doing it. But what is he thinks he can say or do or create with it?

    I think of myself as having at least three blogs. There’s my public blog, on which I post research findings, and there’s my private blog, in which I talk about if I should dye my hair green or blue, and apparently piss everyone off when I bitch about librarians, and then there’s the sooper-private bit, where I blog about how I’m incapable of getting any work done and I’m a failiure at all I attempt. Or whatever. Each serves different functions; I’d like to do more on the first, including more speculative stuff — which currently goes into the mid-level blog — but it’s worth figuring out what he things he could do with it, and why he might want to do it in the first place.

    ps. And, importantly, for whom.

  3. Seppo: I think blogging regularly is less important now than it once was. I actually prefer less-frequently-updated blogs that have better content, now that I have an RSS reader that tells me when new content has been posted. But point taken.

    Josakana: That’s what I was pressing him on for his focus. And I think he has a good answer – he’s a tech guy who’s successfully made the transition into executive management, and he wants to share his experience with other techies. I’ve enjoyed reading his insights so far.

    I sometimes wonder if I should start a new blog. Pick a focus and try to seed a community with it, leaving this one for my general ramblings, and maybe using LiveJournal for journal purposes. Haven’t figured out what a good focus would be yet, though. Whatever it is, I’d probably also use it as the seed for a book.

  4. Eric – great points, many of which speak to the problems I have long struggled with on my own creations.

    I think that you’re absolutely correct about focus. I have realigned my site recently, creating a (almost) pure tech / business focus, and have leveled up my readership by a significant amount. Since that’s happened, I’ve been very anxious about posting any personal or political content, and will probably keep it that way. Not everyone can be Jason Kottke.

    Guess it’s time to either fire up a ‘vanity’ site for my general journaling, or rekindle the old LiveJournal account.

    As for your own aspirations, and idea at all on what you’d focus on?

  5. Oh dear, my whole blog is stream-of-consciousness… Even in a personal journal, though, it can be a challenge to decide who you are writing for. Friends (totally uncensored)? Friends and Family (requires editing and diplomacy)? To pick a quasi-relevant example, the Boston Globe seems to get confused on its readership (covering websites in one article, actually writing “…web log, or ‘blog’ for short as it’s popularly known…” in another). I don’t think it matters what path you take. But staying consistent will help the right audience find (and stay with) you.

    Another thought: blogging as described (intro sidebar, etc.) requires a certain amount of technical expertise. Not that it’s difficult to learn, mind you, but for an author more focused on the topic (say, knitting) than the medium might have different challenges/shotcomings.

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