A considerable portion of my consulting time has recently revolved around the optimization of corporate blogs (or the addition of blogs to revamped sites). As usual, I find a pattern emerging in the strategies that need attention and the pitfalls that must be avoided. So, rather than charging $400 an hour to give advice on the subject, I thought it would be valuable to share many of the most common pieces of advice here on the blog (business part of Rand fights with open source Rand, but loses, as usual).
- Choose the Right Blog Software (or Custom Build)
The right blog CMS makes a big difference. If you want to set yourself apart, I recommend creating a custom blog solution – one that can be completely customized to your users. In most cases,WordPress, Blogger, MovableType or Typepad will suffice, but building from scratch allows you to be very creative with functionality and formatting. The best CMS is something that’s easy for the writer(s) to use and brings together the features that allow the blog to flourish. Think about how you want comments, archiving, sub-pages, categorization, multiple feeds and user accounts to operate in order to narrow down your choices. OpenSourceCMS is a very good tool to help you select a software if you go that route.
- Host Your Blog Directly on Your Domain
Hosting your blog on a different domain from your primary site is one of the worst mistakes you can make. A blog on your domain can attract links, attention, publicity, trust and search rankings – by keeping the blog on a separate domain, you shoot yourself in the foot. From worst to best, your options are – Hosted (on a solution like Blogspot or WordPress), on a unique domain (at least you can 301 it in the future), on a subdomain (these can be treated as unique from the primary domain by the engines) and as a sub-section of the primary domain (in a subfolder or page – this is the best solution).
- Write Title Tags with Two Audiences in Mind
First and foremost, you’re writing a title tag for the people who will visit your site or have a subscription to your feed. Title tags that are short, snappy, on-topic and catchy are imperative. You also want to think about search engines when you title your posts, since the engines can help to drive traffic to your blog. A great way to do this is to write the post and the title first, then run a few searches at Overture, WordTracker & KeywordDiscovery to see if there is a phrasing or ordering that can better help you to target “searched for” terms.
- Participate at Related Forums & Blogs
Whatever industry or niche you’re in, there are bloggers, forums and an online community that’s already active. Depending on the specificity of your focus, you may need to think one or two levels broader than your own content to find a large community, but with the size of the participatory web today, even the highly specialized content areas receive attention. A great way to find out who these people are is to use Technorati to conduct searches, then sort by number of links (authority).Del.icio.us tags are also very useful in this process, as are straight searches at the engines (Ask.com’s blog search in particular is of very good quality).
- Tag Your Content
Technorati is the first place that you should be tagging posts. I actually recommend having the tags right on your page, pointing to the Technorati searches that you’re targeting. There are other good places to ping – del.icio.us and Flickr being the two most obvious (the only other one is Blogmarks, which is much smaller). Tagging content can also be valuable to help give you a “bump” towards getting traffic from big sites like Reddit, Digg & StumbleUpon (which requires that you download the toolbar, but trust me – it’s worth it). You DO NOT want to submit every post to these sites, but that one out of twenty (see tactic #18) is worth your while.
- Launch Without Comments (and Add Them Later)
There’s something sad about a blog with 0 comments on every post. It feels dead, empty and unpopular. Luckily, there’s an easy solution – don’t offer the ability to post comments on the blog and no one will know that you only get 20 uniques a day. Once you’re upwards of 100 RSS subscribers and/or 750 unique visitors per day, you can open up the comments and see light activity. Comments are often how tech-savvy new visitors judge the popularity of a site (and thus, its worth), so play to your strengths and keep your obscurity private.
- Don’t Jump on the Bandwagon
Some memes are worthy of being talked about by every blogger in the space, but most aren’t. Just because there’s huge news in your industry or niche DOES NOT mean you need to be covering it, or even mentioning it (though it can be valuable to link to it as an aside, just to integrate a shared experience into your unique content). Many of the best blogs online DO talk about the big trends – this is because they’re already popular, established and are counted on to be a source of news for the community. If you’re launching a new blog, you need to show people in your space that you can offer something unique, different and valuable – not just the same story from your point of view. This is less important in spaces where there are very few bloggers and little online coverage and much more in spaces that are overwhelmed with blogs (like search, or anything else tech-related).
- Link Intelligently
When you link out in your blog posts, use convention where applicable and creativity when warranted, but be aware of how the links you serve are part of the content you provide. Not every issue you discuss or site you mention needs a link, but there’s a fine line between overlinking and underlinking. The best advice I can give is to think of the post from the standpoint of a relatively uninformed reader. If you mention Wikipedia, everyone is familiar and no link is required. If you mention a specific page at Wikipedia, a link is necessary and important. Also, be aware that quoting other bloggers or online sources (or even discussing their ideas) without linking to them is considered bad etiquette and can earn you scorn that could cost you links from those sources in the future. It’s almost always better to be over-generous with links than under-generous. And link condoms? Only use them when you’re linking to something you find truly distasteful or have serious apprehension about.
- Invite Guest Bloggers
Asking a well known personality in your niche to contribute a short blog on their subject of expertise is a great way to grow the value and reach of your blog. You not only flatter the person by acknowledging their celebrity, you nearly guarantee yourself a link or at least an association with a brand that can earn you readers. Just be sure that you really are getting a quality post from someone that’s as close to universally popular and admired as possible (unless you want to start playing the drama linkbait game, which I personally abhor). If you’re already somewhat popular, it can often be valuable to look outside your space and bring in guest authors who have a very unique angle or subject matter to help spice up your focus. One note about guest bloggers – make sure they agree to have their work edited by you before it’s posted. A disagreement on this subject after the fact can have negative ramifications.
- Eschew Advertising (Until You’re Popular)
I hate AdSense on blogs. Usually, I ignore it, but I also cast a sharp eye towards the quality of the posts and professionalism of the content when I see AdSense. That’s not to say that contextual advertising can’t work well in some blogs, but it needs to be well integrated into the design and layout to help defer criticism. Don’t get me wrong – it’s unfair to judge a blog by its cover (or, in this case, its ads), but spend a lot of time surfing blogs and you’ll have the same impression – low quality blogs run AdSense and many high quality ones don’t. I always recommend that whether personal or professional, you wait until your blog has achieved a level of success before you start advertising. Ads, whether they’re sponsorships, banners, contextual or other, tend to have a direct, negative impact on the number of readers who subscribe, add to favorites and link – you definitely don’t want that limitation while you’re still trying to get established.
- Go Beyond Text in Your Posts
Blogs that contain nothing but line after line of text are more difficult to read and less consistently interesting than those that offer images, interactive elements, the occasional multimedia content and some clever charts & graphs. Even if you’re having a tough time with non-text content, think about how you can format the text using blockquotes, indentation, bullet points, etc. to create a more visually appealing and digestible block of content.
- Cover Topics that Need Attention
In every niche, there are certain topics and questions that are frequently asked or pondered, but rarely have definitive answers. While this recommendation applies to nearly every content-based site, it’s particularly easy to leverage with a blog. If everyone in the online Nascar forums is wondering about the components and cost of an average Nascar vehicle – give it to them. If the online stock trading industry is rife with questions about the best performing stocks after a terrorist threat, your path is clear. Spend the time and effort to research, document and deliver and you’re virtually guaranteed link-worthy content that will attract new visitors and subscribers.
- Pay Attention to Your Analytics
Visitor tracking software can tell you which posts your audience likes best, which ones don’t get viewed and how the search engines are delivering traffic. Use these clues to react and improve your strategies. Feedburner is great for RSS and I’m a personal fan of Indextools. Consider adding action tracking to your blog, so you can see what sources of traffic are bringing the best quality visitors (in terms of time spent on the site, # of page views, etc). I particularly like having the “register” link tagged for analytics so I can see what percentage of visitors from each source is interested enough to want to leave a comment or create an account.
- Use a Human Voice
Charisma is a valuable quality, both online and off. Through a blog, it’s most often judged by the voice you present to your users. People like empathy, compassion, authority and honesty. Keep these in the forefront of your mind when writing and you’ll be in a good position to succeed. It’s also critical that you maintain a level of humility in your blogging and stick to your roots. When users start to feel that a blog is taking itself too seriously or losing the characteristics that made it unique, they start to seek new places for content. We’ve certainly made mistakes (even recently) that have cost us some fans – be cautious to control not only what you say, but how you say it. Lastly – if there’s a hot button issue that has you posting emotionally, temper it by letting the post sit in draft mode for an hour or two, re-reading it and considering any revisions. With the advent of feeds, once you publish, there’s no going back.
- Archive Effectively
The best archives are carefully organized into subjects and date ranges. For search traffic (particularly long tail terms), it can be best to offer the full content of every post in a category on the archive pages, but from a usability standpoint, just linking to each post is far better (possibly with a very short snippet). Balance these two issues and make the decision based on your goals. A last note on archiving – pagination in blogging can be harmful to search traffic, rather than beneficial (as you provide constantly changing, duplicate content pages). Pagination is great for users who scroll to the bottom and want to see more, though, so consider putting a “noindex” in the meta tag or in the robots.txt file to keep spiders where they belong – in the well-organized archive system.
- Implement Smart URLs
The best URL structure for blogs is, in my opinion, as short as possible while still containing enough information to make an educated guess about the content you’ll find on the page. I don’t like the 10 hyphen, lengthy blog titles that are the byproduct of many CMS plugins, but they are certainly better than any dynamic parameters in the URL. Yes – I know I’m not walking the talk here, and hopefully it’s something we can fix in the near future. To those who say that one dynamic parameter in the URL doesn’t hurt, I’d take issue – just re-writing a ?ID=450 to /450 has improved search traffic considerably on several blogs we’ve worked with.
- Reveal as Much as Possible
The blogosphere is in love with the idea of an open source world on the web. Sharing vast stores of what might ordinarily be considered private information is the rule, rather than the exception. If you can offer content that’s usually private – trade secrets, pricing, contract issues, and even the occasional harmless rumor, your blog can benefit. Make a decision about what’s off-limits and how far you can go and then push right up to that limit in order to see the best possible effects. Your community will reward you with links and traffic.
- Only One Post in Twenty Can Be Linkbait
Not every post is worthy of making it to the top of Digg, Del.icio.us/popular or even a mention at some other blogs in your space. Trying to over-market every post you write will result in pushback and ultimately lead to negative opinions about your efforts. The less popular your blog is, the harder it will be to build excitement around a post, but the process of linkbait has always been trial and error – build, test, refine and re-build. Keep creating great ideas and bolstering them with lots of solid, everyday content and you’ll eventually be big enough to where one out of every 20-40 posts really does become linkbait.
- Make Effective Use of High Traffic Days
If you do have linkbait, whether by design or by accident, make sure to capitalize. When you hit the front page of Digg, Reddit, Boing Boing, or, on a smaller scale, attract a couple hundred visitors from a bigger blog or site in your space, you need to put your best foot forward. Make sure to follow up on a high traffic time period with 2-3 high quality posts that show off your skills as a writer, your depth of understanding and let visitors know that this is content they should be sticking around to see more of. Nothing kills the potential linkbait “bump” faster than a blog whose content doesn’t update for 48 hours after they’ve received a huge influx of visitors.
- Create Expectations and Fulfill Them
When you’re writing for your audience, your content focus, post timing and areas of interest will all become associated with your personal style. If you vary widely from that style, you risk alienating folks who’ve come to know you and rely on you for specific data. Thus, if you build a blog around the idea of being an analytical expert in your field, don’t ignore the latest release of industry figures only to chat about an emotional issue – deliver what your readers expect of you and crunch the numbers. This applies equally well to post frequency – if your blog regularly churns out 2 posts a day, having two weeks with only 4 posts is going to have an adverse impact on traffic. That’s not to say you can’t take a vacation, but you need to schedule it wisely and be prepared to lose RSS subscribers and regulars. It’s not fair, but it’s the truth. We lose visitors every time I attend an SES conference and drop to one post every two days (note – guest bloggers and time-release posts can help here, too).
- Build a Brand
Possibly one of the most important aspects of all in blogging is brand-building. As Zefrank noted, to be a great brand, you need to be a brand that people want to associate themselves with and a brand that people feel they derive value from being a member. Exclusivity, insider jokes, emails with regulars, the occasional cat post and references to your previous experiences can be off putting for new readers, but they’re solid gold for keeping your loyal base feeling good about their brand experience with you. Be careful to stick to your brand – once you have a definition that people like and are comfortable with, it’s very hard to break that mold without severe repercussions. If you’re building a new blog, or building a low-traffic one, I highly recommend writing down the goals of your brand and the attributes of its identity to help remind you as you write.
Best of luck to all you bloggers out there. It’s an increasingly crowded field to play in, but these strategies should help to give you an edge over the competition. As always, if you’ve got additions or disagreements, I’d love to hear them.
p.s. Note to self – starting long blog entries at 11:30pm is not conducive to a good night’s sleep. At least Angela got kicked off Project Runway tonight.