What makes blogs so successful (and how to make yours so too)

Everybody blogsBlogging has taken the world of web publishing by storm over the past decade. In this post, I want to review the reasons that made blogs evolve into the leading form of online publishing.

The core aspects that made blogs into the absolute rulers of the industry are the ones you should be focusing on, in order to make your own blog a success as well.

Once Upon A Time…

About a decade ago, online publishing was about mostly about creating static websites. These beasts were coded in HTML and PHP, or published using a content management system such as Joomla or Drupal.

They looked something like this website which I created back in 2004. It took me a weekend to create it. That’s it. Coded by hand without using themes or plugins and with almost no need for updates. It’s made just over $2,500 over the years. Not bad for a weekend’s worth of work.

Like many webmasters, I used to create dozens of these websites. Some I sold, others died out, a few are still here, making a nice drizzle of entirely passive income. At the height of my empire of websites I had more than 400 domain names, about half of them developed and the other half awaiting development.

In my previous post I reviewed the 5 things that have changed in web publishing over the past decade. Quite a lot has changed but the most notable change is that blogs took over the place of “regular” websites as the preferred platform for web publishing.

There are a few good reasons for why this has happened. I think each one of them is incredibly important to understand, especially for those new to blogging. These are the key reasons for the success of blogs as a “genre”. Understanding – and following – these lessons are also key to the success of your own blog.

First things, first –

What is a blog?

I checked Wikipedia and I think their definition for a blog is – at best – lacking.

A blog (a truncation of the expression weblog) is a discussion or informational site published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order (the most recent post appears first).

Hmmm. Here’s what I think most people mean when they use the word “blog” in 2016 –

A website that offers a unique personal perspective (by one or more individuals) through constant updates in the form of posts.

A blog is a form of a website. A unique form, that has gone through a process of gradual evolution over the past two decades. People have been publishing personal websites since the beginning of the internet but about a decade ago, blogs gained an evolutionary advantage over other types of websites which gained them unprecedented dominance, especially in the unique ecological niche of independent web publishers.

Understanding the four key aspects that brought on this evolutionary “jump” is crucial to the success of your blog. With that in mind, here what I think they are and along with the key industry players that brought them on.

1.The Right Platform: WordPress

WordPress is so much more than a piece of software. It’s a vibrant online community of developers who collaborate to constantly improve the infrastructure of blogs. It triggered nothing short of a revolution. The ability to instantly create a professional-looking website has opened the gates to a flood of new web publishing initiatives.

WordPress was released back in 2003 and caught like wildfire. It offered a clean and easy-to-use interface – far easier than that of other content management systems – and took away the need for advanced coding skills. Now, anyone can be a web publisher.

Lesson #1:

Stick to wordpress. In 2016, WordPress is definitely the platform to use if you’re an independent web publisher looking to start your own website.

2. Fresh Content And Constant Updates

Back in 2004 when I published Goldfish Care and hundreds of websites like it, Google loved them. Throw in some link building and on-page SEO and you could fairly easily score a good place in the SERP’s.

I’m not sure if it was the shift in people’s surfing habits that has made Google alter their algorithms, or the other way around, but things have definitely changed. Google now clearly prefers fresh content. A website that offers constant updates will be getting more search engine traffic. It will also get more returning traffic simply because it offers something new to the same readers.

Guess what kind of website is easiest to update with fresh content? And guess which platform lends itself so naturally to always having that fresh content displayed on the main page of your site?

Lesson #2:

Keep your blog updated. Constantly. Set up a schedule which includes at least one new post every week and stick to it.

3. Real People Coming To The Front

I blame Facebook for this one.

A decade ago, most people were afraid of having their identity out there “on the internet”. Many web publishers felt far more comfortable creating websites that never mentioned their name. If you wanted to contact the owners, there would be a contact form or a generic email such as webmaster@website.com. Communication between webmasters was mainly through forums where each one would have their own “handle” or “nick”.

Then Facebook exploded into the world and social media came to be. Facebook offered a huge amount of gratification for users but also demanded authenticity. The whole point was about connecting real people who actually knew each other. Using their real names and sharing their very real photos and stories. Bye bye anonymity.

This had a crucial effect on web publishing (which by now was fast becoming blogging thanks to WordPress and Google’s preference for fresh content). Suddenly, bloggers who presented their real selves, wrote in the first person and – lo and behold – shared their image, gained a huge advantage. Perez Hilton blogged about celebrities, Ariana Huffington took over the news world and Brian Clark began showing newbies how to create a successful blog. Today their projects are online empires but they all started as blogs with one identifiable blogger clearly and visibly at the helm.

Lesson #3:

Authenticity is key. People want to know who you are, so bring forward the real you.

4. Monetizing Through Affiliations

Yes, affiliate marketing has been around the block for ages. Many non-blog websites have effectively utilized both affiliations and other forms of advertising. Landing pages were the mark of affiliation-oriented websites long before blogs became popular.

However, once bloggers came to the front, the rules of the game changed. With the advent of authentic voices, showing their real self and putting forward their personal reputation, affiliation marketing took on a whole new direction.

Selling products no longer depended on sending a mass of traffic to shady landing pages with cloaked links. Instead, it became a matter of leveraging people’s trust in the blogger to generate sales.

Lesson #4:

Create quality content that offers real value to your readers. Aim at gaining followers who respect and trust you and promote products and services you feel will genuinely help them.

There you have it.

I believe these are the four key elements that made blogs win over the individual web publishing industry. A combination of an awesome platform and changes in search engines and social media – along with a financial reward for the people who supplied the new demand for authentic voices that keep constantly in touch with fresh reliable content.

 

If you want to join Team Success of web publishing in 2016, a quality blog with fresh content that brings forward the real you is definitely the way to go.

5 Things That Profoundly Changed in Web Publishing

There’s a science fiction theme where they freeze someone for 500 years and he then wakes up in an a totally different world. Something similar happened to me. Instead of 500 years, it was 7-8 years and I wasn’t actually frozen, just busy with a different kind of web project. I’m back now! And it is a different world out there! From this – rather unique – point of view, I can identify 5 major changes in web publishing.

First, a quick recap –

As you may already know, I started my career as a webmaster back in 1998. I created and owned more than 400 websites since then.

I took a break from independent web publishing back in 2011. In some ways, even earlier. For more than five years I focused on a joint venture where I was in charge of content creation and community management of my flagship website, letting others take care of marketing and monetization.

Now I’m back, launching or re-launching six blogs with the aim of creating an additional and separate stream of revenue. My main site is doing extremely well, thanks for asking. It’s just that with my kids growing up, I have more time on my hands and I think it’s time to lay a few new eggs and put them in a different basket.

Quite a lot has changed in the past decade!

back-in-my-day
I’m old enough to say “Back In My Day”!

I think I’m in a unique position to notice these changes because I sort of “wasn’t around” as they evolved in the gradual way that such things usually do.

My framework for comparison is roughly 2006-2008 vs. today. These are just my own impressions based on two things –

  1. My experience as a full-time web publisher back in that time period.
  2. Google Trends. I checked a few terms to see if my hunches correlated with actual search trends. You’ll see quite a few screenshots of my findings in this post.

Blogs vs. Websites

No, blogs are not that new. What’s new is the way they took over the world of self-made independent web publishers.

Let’s say you’re a beginner and want to make money online.

2006 advice: Create content websites!

Find your niche, publish good content, promote and monetize. You can code your website in HTML or PHP, or you can use one of the content management systems out there, such as Joomla or Drupal. They’re the future, man!

2016 advice: Start your own blog!

And yes, find your niche, publish quality content, promote and monetize. It’s a blog though, not a website and the one and only software you should be using is WordPress.

Here’s what Google Trends has to say on this –

blogvswebsite

Somewhere in 2005 there’s a dramatic shift in trends. Search volume for the word “blog” skyrocket while the ones for the term “website” go down. It’s interesting to note that searches for the term “blog” are on the decline as well since 2010.

When I compared searches for names of content management systems, the trend was even more impressive –

Comparison of content management systems in Google Trends

Bye bye Joomla and Drupal. WordPress is the undisputed king of content management systems for self-published content sites.

Just as websites turned into blogs, so did webmasters turn into bloggers. I confess, I still find it difficult to define myself as a blogger. I mean, I am a blogger too – obviously, this is a blog post – but I am first and foremost a web publisher. In my case, the title still applies because my flagship website is a community website and not a blog.

There’s a multitude of implications to this massive shift. For example, it looks like web hosting companies now offer packages specifically designed for wordpress blogs. It’s nothing more than a marketing trick, as far as I can see, and it certainly demonstrates the change I’m talking about here.

I think there are several reasons for this shift and I’ll be discussing them in more detail in a future post. Right now, I want to talk about the changes in the two main challenges webmasters bloggers face: promotion and monetization.

Promotion Techniques

Who moved my SEO?

SEO is still here but it’s oh, so different.

Let’s press that purple button in our time machine again and take a look at an average blog back in 2006. The one thing every blog had back then? A Blogroll.

Blogs as well as other types of websites focused their SEO on link building and the easiest legitimate method of link building was the simple – yet effective – link exchange.

Again, Google trends to the rescue, just to make sure I’m not imagining it all.

link exchanged died!

Oh, no! Link exchanged died! You might even think that active link building is pretty much dead. Not really. It has fancier names now, like “guest blogging” but people still work hard on building incoming links.

So, where’s SEO at now? It’s mostly about onsite optimization and a little bit of active link building by guest posting etc. Oh, and Yoast. Everyone uses Yoast (I do as well in this blog).

Mailing Lists

Visit a blog without a pop-up blocker and whoa.

Have you just arrived? “Subscribe to my mailing list and I’ll send you my top 117 tips on how to turn your blog into a money-printing machine!”

Scrolling down? “Join my list and I’ll send you my secret list of affiliate programs that paid me over $10,000 last month! Each!”

Leaving? “Oh no! You just have to join my list right now or you’ll miss out on my awesome e-book on how to make $234,000 on your first month of blogging!”

Back in the day, you could subscribe to a blog via your RSS reader or – if you insisted – you could get notifications about new posts by email and that was pretty much it. Web pages that offered you free ebooks and what not in return for your email? Those were shady spammy sites with landing pages waiting to trap the suckers who didn’t know any better.

From the web publisher’s point of view, mailing lists were a real pain to manage. Most webmasters – myself included – managed their lists using a script installed on their server. Sending out a newsletter was a huge deal. You had to use increments so that your server won’t be overwhelmed and your IP won’t be blacklisted as a spam generator. It would still happen occasionally with various ISP’s.

There were paid services for sending out newsletters but they were fairly expensive and not nearly as sophisticated as those available today. Basically, you would invest in one if you had a lucrative landing page and a product that made you enough money to justify the cost.

So what’s changed about mailing lists?

I think Mailchimp happened. You now have a top notch freemium service with so many bells and whistles, allowing you to utilize emails without the headache of sending them out yourself.

Here, I checked trends for MailChimp and two of the more popular mailing list scripts back in the day. I think the graph says it all.

mailchimp

Social Media

Some would say this is the most important change of all. I actually think that in terms of blog promotion, it’s not as dramatic as it appears to be at first glance. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are important to some niche-specific  but I have yet to see stats where social media is what drives most of a blog’s traffic. The exception would be sites like Buzzfeed where their entire model is based around viral marketing.

There, I said the V word.

Which is where I can actually see a significant change. Social Media has affected the way people consume their online content. In order to get the reader’s attention, you have to play by the same rules that make content viral. After all, that virality is based on immediate and intense plea for attention.

And so, competing with social media on the reader’s’ attention, bloggers now produce content that’s shorter and more user-oriented, i.e. lists, how-to’s and short pieces with sensational headlines.

Monetization

Quite a few bloggers are generous enough to post detailed reports of their monthly income and expenses. I have been reading quite a few of those lately, trying to see where the money is coming from in 2016. And yes, things have changed.

Affiliate Programs vs. Google Adsense

A decade ago, Google Adsense was the leader of site monetization. You could have had a very lucrative website based solely on Adsense revenue. That was the finest hour of MFA’s – Made For Adsense scraper sites with no original content. Fortunately that hour passed quickly.

These days, it seems like Adsense is no longer the #1 revenue source for bloggers. I think it correlates, once again, with the picture Google Trends shows us –

adsense

I’m not sure affiliate marketing replaced that entirely. Google trends show a decline between 2009 and 2013 for the term “affiliate marketing” as well.

affiliatemarketing

Judging from the reports I read, quite a few bloggers focus their efforts on creating and selling their own digital products, be them e-books or online courses.

Also, formerly major players in the affiliate marketing arena seem to have gone down in popularity. Commision Junction, Clickbank and Shareasale are names that I checked on Google trends. They have all declined in search volume since 2009. “Amazon’s affiliate program” has not though.

Judging by the revenue reports that some bloggers shared online, my hunch is that more companies now operate their own in-house affiliate programs and bloggers choose to market these products now.

Some things stayed the same!

I’m happy to see that some things stayed the same! Quality content still rules. That trend started before 2006 and it got stronger only the years. Not really surprising, considering Google’s constant improvement of their algorithm, along with more content being curated and shared by actual people via social media.

And domain names! A few years ago it looked like there may be a change coming, when registrars began to offer a slew of new domain extensions. Apparently, that was not a huge success and the world is still ruled by .com’s!

It’s been an interesting day for me, writing this post.

Recipes for blogging success: Do they really work?

Do you want my own recipe for generating a monthly five-figure income from a blog? Maybe add that to your growing book of recipes for blogging success?

My recipes for blogging success

I’m not giving it away. Sorry.

For one thing, I’m not making that much money.  My sites make as much, as it happens, but my actual profits only hit the 5-figure range (upper, I’m happy to say) on an annual basis.

Also, I don’t have a recipe to share. The thing is, I don’t think anyone has. If anyone had a foolproof recipe, they would hire 10 people and replicate everything to make 10 times as much. At least, that’s what I would have done.

I guess there are such people and they have done that. And that’s how they eventually got to making five-figures a month from blogging. I don’t think that’s what you were looking for when looking into recipes for blogging success, were you?

Here’s what I can share though, based on my own experience.

  1. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication and the ability to do this for the long haul. And by long haul, I mean years. Blogging about what you love can help achieve that.
  2. You have to absolutely love web publishing. This includes every aspect of it: from deciding on a project, buying domain names, dealing with hosting, writing top-notch content and marketing. If any of these daunt (or bore) you, this isn’t for you.
    You absolutely can outsource some of these functions but  you need to have a good grasp of them to know what works and what doesn’t.Which brings me to my next point –
  3. You need to be able to write with a passion. I don’t believe you absolutely have to be an expert on the field. Being an expert helps in cutting down on research time and gives your writing an authoritative tone.  That said, there’s nothing wrong with investing some time to research a topic and with using a more hesitant, explorative tone. Either way, unless you care about what you write about, it’s going to be so much harder to keep writing for years on end.
  4. There are no formulas for successful web publishing. There are ideas, tips and techniques. However, it will always take some amount of creativity on your part to implement them in a way that works for you, your niche, your style and personality.

Don’t get me wrong, “How I made/make money” kind of posts are fun to read. They can be anything from educational to inspirational. Just read them with the understanding that what worked for that particular blogger, in his or her niche, with their own interests and abilities, may not necessarily work for you.

I suggest you read these posts skeptically, not because I think that  these bloggers  are lying. I never just assume people are lying (though obviously, some may be). I just don’t think their own way of making things happen will necessarily work for you. And that’s totally fine, of course.

My own “Dos and Don’ts” for reading this type of posts are –

Do –

  • Let their enthusiasm motivate you. Motivation is always a good thing!
  • Assess how close that blogger is to what you’re trying to do. Is he or she blogging in the same niche or vertical? Does their style of blogging resemble yours? The closer the affinity, there’s a better chance you can actually learn from them.
  • Scan their techniques and tips for those golden nuggets which may be pertinent to your own style of blogging, even if it’s a different niche altogether.
  • Engage in a positive dialogue with the blogger. Networking is always good, and leaving your paw mark in the comment link (if such a field is available) never hurts either. This isn’t SEO per se (the links are nofollow) but just a nice friendly way to get yourself known in the community.

Don’t –

  • Ignore the date. Found an inspirational blog post? Check the date. That magic-bullet SEO trick mentioned may no longer be relevant and in fact could hurt your blog.
  • Copy their techniques or blindly follow any step-by-step recipes. Web publishing simply doesn’t work like that.
  • Spam. Don’t just leave them a comment that says “Great blog post, thank you!”. You’ll look like a bot. If you have something to say, say it. Otherwise, move along.
  • Be rude or objectionable in your comments. Constructive criticism is fine but if you do leave a comment keep it polite.

I hope you find this blog post helpful even though it doesn’t provide you with a recipe. I do believe recipes are for cooking and baking – not blogging – sorry! And honestly, even when I use a recipe for baking, you can count on some tweaking on my part 😉

What’s up with this schema.org business?

Ok, yeah, I’ve been living under a rock for the past few years. Sue me (not really, please don’t! I’ve been sued before and it’s not at all fun).

These past few years I focused almost exclusively on creating quality content and managing an online community. I’m fortunate to have my main website on a platform where there are experts who handle everything related to SEO etc. They spared me having to follow Google’s antics for a few years which I was grateful for.

With a bit more time on my hands (thank you, Adderall! Love ya!) I’m resurrecting some old blogs and website. Which means getting re-acquainted with the Google Webmasters Tools which apparently is now called the Search Console.

And so, this week my mind is riddled with terms such as “rich snippets”, “structured data” and their evil source: Schema.org.

Let’s see what I got so far.

About six years ago, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft got together and decided the Internet is too big and it’s getting hard for them to figure it out. So, they are now asking webmasters to insert new code into web pages which should tell their search engines what specific pages, paragraphs or words mean.

They actually came up with an entire vocabulary for that and take pride in their search engines “understanding” concepts such as events, movies, books, stars and libraries. This vocabulary is listed in detail in a website set up for the purpose in Schema.org.

In that website, they give the following example –

<h1>Avatar</h1> tells the browser to display the text string “Avatar” in a heading 1 format. However, the HTML tag doesn’t give any information about what that text string means—”Avatar” could refer to the hugely successful 3D movie, or it could refer to a type of profile picture—and this can make it more difficult for search engines to intelligently display relevant content to a user.

Poor search engines. They can’t tell what the meaning of the word “avatar” is on our pages. We have to help them out by adding lines of code around the term. In this case –

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Movie">

Oh, cool! Now Google can tell it’s a movie! Hooray! So much easier now.

Dear Google, have you lost your mind?

Wasn’t the whole point to make your search engine smart enough so it can tell whether the word “avatar” is used to describe a movie or a profile picture?

For decades Matt Cutts has been telling us webmasters to focus on the surfer. To keep our content interesting and relevant to human readers and let Google do the rest.  To avoid having any content in code that’s not available to the human surfer and doesn’t show up in the browser. The exception was things like image tags because reading the content of images was too hard at first. I was expecting even that to disappear in the future, now that search engines are learning to interpret images.

I’m getting a de-ja-vous. It’s like I’m back in the year 2000 now and need to start keyword stuffing all over again. Sure, it’s a whole new “markup language” and it’s around elements and not in the header but the concept is not all that different: Add words to your page which your users can’t see and search engines can.

And of course, Schema.org has become an “SEO thing” now. One of those things “SEO experts” can do for you, the owner and author of a quality content website. No longer will you be able to rank based on the quality of your content and not even based on the vote of confidence from others (i.e. genuine quality links).

Don’t get me wrong. I get that rich snippets are used for displaying information on search results. They’re relevant to some items, like events, products etc. and yes, ok, they can give those who search Google a better user experience. My problem is that they’re used to favor some websites over others merely because they look prettier on the SERP’s. Site A could be far better than Site B but it’s not displayed that nicely on the search results, so let’s serve the users with site B.

And we all know what the end result is. An arms race between webmasters to give Google what it wants. I’ve been reading more current posts saying how in 2016, only a fraction of web pages implement these tags yet these are the pages that make up about a third of the actual SERP’s. In other words, a pretty huge advantage.

We need Google traffic, there’s no going around it. Even if that means we need to put a LOT of time into something which has ZERO effect on the user experience on our website. After all, we’ll do whatever Google wants to get our site to rank higher. Pretty much to the point of (and possibly including) sacrificing a black goat at midnight.

So, now that I got this off my chest, I guess it’s time to head over to Schema.org and fire up  Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper. Time to add a bunch of pointless code to my pages. I guess it’s still less messy than slaughtering that goat, huh?

 

 

Hyphenated domains: Are they a total waste of money?

I just bought a domain name on Godaddy for a new project. I really love that phase of a project. Searching for a good domain always feels like a treasure hunt. And yes, you sometimes still do find treasures out there. But not often. Which calls for some tough decisions, such as whether or not to go with hyphenated domains.

hyphenated domains

It’s 2016 and keyword.com domains have been taken literally decades ago. Some of the owners actually develop their domains. Others just squat over them, charging exuberant sums from any interested party. Not really an option when all you want to do is start a new blog on something you’re interested in.

So, we’re talking about domains with at least two words in them.

Anything with “blog” as the second word is taken. Duh!  Most other cool words like “love”, “lover”, “fun”, “central” or “about” are long gone as well. Some are available though and my keyword (a type of pet) was available in several fairly tolerable combinations.

Why even consider hyphenated domains then?

Some combinations just don’t work well without a hyphen. Everyone knows that famous example Matt Cutts used, right? How Experts-Exchange has to be hyphenated or people will read it as Expert-Sex-Change. Ha, ha.

Does that mean Matt Cutts ever recommended hyphens in domain names? Not that I’m aware of. That video is all about URL structure and how Google reads words. The message was that hyphens are used as separators of words while underscores are not. Hardly relevant to domain names.

Some SEO experts claim that whether a domain is hyphenated or not should not really matter. Hmmm, I can see how in theory that could be the case. After all, why would anyone be penalized for a hyphen if everything else is ok. I am guessing that’s the case.

That said, how many popular websites do you know with hyphens in their domain names? I can’t really think of any, to be honest. The ones that have words like “blog” or “forums” in their domain name, for example, seem to avoid hyphens and do well without them.

Hyphenated domains used to be relevant

I still remember the time when hyphenated domain names were hugely popular. Back then, in the early Jurassic era, people used extreme SEO tactics to create and promote what was basically MFA (Made for Adsense with some Amazon thrown in that A for good measure 😉 ). I know because I had such sites myself. There was a time when this was a viable and productive way to make money online. I promise you, a decade ago nobody considered this spam or blackhat SEO. It used to be a legitimate way to optimize your blog or website for the search engines.

Then the bad guys took over and spammed Google like crazy with sites that had shitty content. And by shitty (pardon my French) I mean either illegal scraper sites or sites that can barely be considered to be in English – those produced by word jumbling algorithms. The first type (scrapers) are illegal. The second type should be.

Using software to mass produce these junk sites means their producers couldn’t care less about what their domain name sounds like to surfers. In an effort to SEO to the extreme, they used domain names that had 2, 3 or even 4 keywords. These were almost always hyphenated. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe the hyphenated ones were easy to find (so why waste time searching for non-hyphenated ones) or maybe they thought this was in fact better SEO.

The bottom line is: hyphenated domain names have become a trademark of junk websites. And if I can see that as a surfer, I am pretty sure Google sees it as well. After all, the whole point about the Google algorithm is that it tries to be as intelligent as a human being using the web.

So, are hyphenated domains always a bad idea?

Well, I will say that. I have very mature domain names that I use which are hyphenated and as far as I can tell they’re doing well on Google. You could say this proves that hyphens don’t matter but I suspect Google realizes that old websites – well over a decade old – were created in a different environment. Or it could be that they are mature enough for Google to realize they’re good sites despite the initial flag the hyphens may have raised. I still think a new website that starts out with hyphenated words could suffer.

Which is why – after some deliberation – I decided to go with a non-hyphenated domain name. I finally found the combination that works for me and will start working on the new project today (WordPress files being uploaded as I’m typing this!) Now, all I need to do is start working on some top notch content and hope for the best!