One of the things I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks has been trying to figure out exactly what I want this blog to be about, and what has value in the greater scheme of things.
The thing is, defining “value” for a blog is still a really squishy concept. The easy answer is pageviews, but unless you’re one of those sites that’s designed to maximize them because it drives your advertising revenue, what do pageviews really mean? And buy you?
Want to goose pageviews? It’s surprisingly easy to write some link bait that gets pointed at by sites that can drive pageviews and give you that nice, ego-satisfying spike on your Google Analytics.
(look, maw! I went viral!)
Of course, three days later, they’re gone, and they don’t come back. Maybe they even left you a few choice presents in your comments — did you check?
I’ve come to believe that pageviews is a poor way to judge the value of a blog post, but how I wanted to value them wasn’t really obvious to me. What is the value of a blog post?
Well, now that I’ve trashed pageviews, I need to talk about them a bit. Over the last year, readership of this blog has been growing, slowly but consistently — and for that, I say thank you! Pageviews are up about 130% since January, and up a massive 275% compared to this time last year. Visits are up 350%, unique visitors are up over 500% — which implies that pages per visits has dropped, which it has, down from about 1.5 pages to 1.25 pages per visit.
But overall, the site is now seeing around 10,000-12,000 pageviews a month. A few pages have been blessed by the google beast for a few fun and interesting search phrases, and that’s helped drive consistent traffic for the last six or seven months.
That’s why the Amazon affiliate and Borrowlenses ads showed up about three months ago, because I wanted to experiment to see if the combination of those ads and that traffic might generate a little revenue, and if so, whether it would be worth tossing that page real estate at them for the return. the short answer is yes; with two months of data, the blog is now paying for itself, plus maybe a couple of cups of coffee. The number of complaints I got for adding ads to the site were, well, zero.
So all in all, the experiment is a success. I have zero interest in turning the web site into something that looks like a low-end neon brothel, so don’t expect to see pages festooned with a dozen ads for things like mortgage refinances and weight loss miracles. Not interested in prostituting my content for the sake of a few pennies. I won’t offend your eyeballs like that.
An interesting shift over the last year is that 70% of my pageviews are now photography related, with an emphasis towards the geekier side of things — tools and workflow. That doesn’t surprise me, and I think that’s an area where I do bring some real value to a conversation, so it’s safe to assume that’ll continue. Having said that, I have no intention of turning this into a photo-only blog. It’s still going to be “stuff I’m interested in”, of which photography’s only one aspect.
But even that’s not really correct. I’ve been thinking long and hard about not just posting to the blog, but adding value to the universal conversation we have here online. It’s easy to open a vein and type something out and post it, but those kind of articles are quickly forgotten. I’m more interested in posting less frequently, but posting a higher quality and more interesting set of messages.
How to judge that? I’ve decided on two metrics:
- Engagement: do people react to the piece? Is it shared? tweeted? Do you leave comments? Do you write blog posts condemning me for it? Do you send me email? All of those are active measures of whether the content matters. So are some less obvious things like how long you spent reading the material and whether that page encouraged you to look at other pages on my site. I’ve decided, for instance, to look more at page views combined with time spent on a page to create a basic value metric: 1,000 pageviews of a page that people spend 3 minutes on is higher engagement value than 10,000 pageviews where people stick for 30 seconds.
- Revenue: In some cases, it’s easy to track back an Amazon affiliate order to a specific page or entry point. In other cases, not so — but I have some ideas on how to do some behind the scenes tweaks that will at least let me get this data to the category, if not a specific page. Right now, it’s pretty easy; almost all of the Amazon affiliate purchases have been photography related, so it’s fairly safe to tie it back to the photography writing. About half of the orders I can tie directly to a link on a couple of specific pages, too.
One of the questions I’ve been asking myself is whether I really want to wade back into the mosh pit of writing about technology stuff, and secondarily, Mama Apple. I find a lot of the writing in this space pretty piss-poor, to be blunt about it, but I also wonder if I really add much to the overall conversation (or even if I want to). In a few specific areas I think I do, but honestly, I struggle to convince myself I really want to, given how many babbling mouths are already fighting to be heard talking about those topics.
So I conducted a couple of experiments. They got some initial link coverage, and ended up with nice sets of pageviews, but by my metrics they didn’t do well. Engagement was poor — few folks spread the link love around. Few explored my site. Almost none sent feedback of any kind. Nobody clicked an affiliate link and dropped some pennies in the tip jar. And after the peak of the moment, as far as I can tell, none of them subscribed to the site and hung around to see more, because my numbers dropped back to where they were before the spike.
So to me, the value of contributing that kind of content is effectively zero. It helps feed the huge herd of news-omnivores that wander the net in search of something to look at and then move on as if it never existed for the next content to chew on. Other than the herd leaving the occasional turd in the comment section, they don’t return anything useful as an encouragement to grow more stuff for them to feed on.
So I don’t see any reason to keep trying to find reasons to write for that audience right now. Doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally, but it just reinforces my instinct that things are moving in the direction I want it to move. (all those discussions about “slow and steady” as a way to good SEO and search engine placement? It turns out they’re true, and it works, if you keep at it. It took me a couple of years to shift my readership to be photography-centric AND to return to the page view volumes I had when I left Apple. Of course, few folks have the patience to do things the slow and steady way, which is why so many people get taken by the black-hat SEO scammers…)
It’s important to remember that if you want more of some kind of content, or if you have a writer you want to do more of something, you have to actually let them know you want it. Passively sitting back and reading stuff and then moving on — that gives authors no hints on what they ought to be doing more of. I think that’s one reason why so much of what’s published online is so forgettable and interchangeable (that, and there are too many freaking sites all cribbing from each other on the same few and trivial stories trying to pump up pageviews to pay the bills…).
So here’s the call to action: give feedback. I’m not speaking specifically about me, but about writers in general. There’s a reason why I do the Things You’ll Find Interesting blog posts (which are, by the way, the second most popular postings on the site overall after the photo geeking). And why I litter interesting links on Twitter and Google+ (when I have the time; it’s still the site that loses when I get too busy, but hope springs eternal). Links are one way to let someone know you found it interesting; it also helps show Google something was interesting, which helps it get better placement in the great search engine database. And you can do those things without necessarily spending the time it takes to write comments, or drop a buck in a tip jar, or things like that. But those things matter, too, and frankly, a well-thought comment or email means as much as a few dozen links, because of the time I know went into writing it.
If you want better content online, you need to invest a bit of energy — but it’s easy. simple make sure that the people writing the good stuff know about it. It’s as simple as a link on twitter. Or commit to once or twice a month hitting someone’s tip-jar or one of their affiliate links. Amazon affiliate costs you nothing, and Amazon throws a few dollars at someone for you. It may sound trivial, but it’s noticed — and even something simple like having a blog that pays for its hosting costs makes it a lot easier to put time into writing content for the blog. Even if you only throw a half dozen links a week onto twitter or G+ or Facebook, it’ll make a difference in helping encourage better writing on the net.
Or just sit back and browse on whatever gets tossed at you and do nothing. And you’ll get more of that. To me, that’s like living on fast food. It keeps you fed, but wouldn’t you really like something better to chew on?
If so, you need to start helping the chefs know what that is. By telling them…