Rants From the Geek Lab: Improving Your Blog
Heads up, this content is 16 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

The BlogHer Geek Lab in Washington, DC was loaded with questions about how to improve a blog and increase its reach.  I ended up on my soapbox more times than I expected, ranting about misinformation and imploring bloggers to rethink their strategies.

I’m summarizing most of my rants below because I think they’ll be helpful to some people.  Please keep in mind that I’m coming at this from my own experience.  I’m not an “ad revenue” blogger, and there are plenty out there who can give you tips on what they’ve done to be successful. I encourage you to go talk to them, too.

The Goals Rant

If you ask me, “How can I make my blog better?” I’m going to ask you what “better” means.  What are your goals? If you don’t know, stop whatever you’re doing right now and figure them out.  Here are some common ones:

I want to…

  • express myself in a creative, positive way.
  • vent my frustrations in a safe and constructive way.
  • work through some challenging issues.
  • document a process or experience.
  • create a space for myself that’s separate from my daily life.
  • establish a certain kind of reputation.
  • convey a certain tone and aesthetic.
  • serve a certain community in a certain way.
  • build a community that supports me.
  • make money with ads and affiliate revenue.
  • find new work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • maintain my existing work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • give friends and family a way to keep track of me.
  • keep track of my thoughts and the interesting things I’ve found on the web.

If you have a lot of these goals (and hopefully some others I haven’t named yet), that’s great!  Now you need to prioritize them. Which ONE do you care about first and foremost? How about second? Third? Fourth? Lay them all out in order — NO TIES! It’s fine if your priorities change in the future, but you need to be honest with yourself about what they are right now.

Once you’ve got that, you’ll know what “better” means. And you’ll probably be able to brainstorm about 20 answers to your original question without any help from me now, too.

The Money Rant

So you want to make money from blogging, and you’ve heard that ad revenue is the way to go.  That’s great and I completely support you, but let’s talk about it for a minute.

First, in order to make money on ads, you need traffic. The levels will vary based on your blog type and your ad network, but here are some baseline numbers: if you’re getting 3,000 pageviews a month, you’ll start to receive income.  If you’re getting 10,000 pageviews a month, that income will start to feel significant. (To find out what your traffic numbers are, check your blog’s admin panel or set up Google Analytics and wait a month.)

Ads are a tradeoff. If you don’t already display them, adding them will change your blog’s personality. If your traffic numbers aren’t high enough to make that change worthwhile to you (a personal judgment call), then don’t do it. You can always add them later, once you’ve built more of a readership community.

Also consider this: your blog is an asset in many ways — not just through ad revenue.  You can make money from your blog indirectly, and it might even be easier, prettier, and more lucrative than displaying ads.  Consider leveraging your blog for job leads, client referrals, donations, and other kinds of support that can affect your livelihood.  Your blog is your presence in a community.  If you’re taking care of your community, your community is likely to take care of you.

The Traffic Rant

So you want more people to visit your blog. Before we get into this, make sure you’ve read the Goals and Money rants above. Are you clear with yourself on why you want more traffic and what you’d like to do with it once you have it? If not, trying to increase your traffic will be a waste of perfectly good blogging energy. Stop reading this rant and spend your time on things that matter to you.

… Still here? Okay, let’s talk about what kinds of traffic you’re looking for.  I’m going to oversimplify things for a minute and lump most traffic into two categories: organic and superficial.  These categories aren’t mutually exclusive — traffic can be one, both, or neither — but it still helps to think about it in these terms.

Organic traffic is the audience that finds you because your community thinks you’re worth reading. Do other bloggers link to your blog in a relevant and compelling way? Do your readers refer their friends to your blog? Do your posts naturally show up well in search engines because they’re great and people are linking to them? If yes, then you’re probably getting a lot of organic traffic. These are the readers who stay on your site longer, click on more of your links, listen to your suggestions, and market your blog for you. If you’re trying to build relationships and strengthen your community, then organic traffic is more valuable than gold. Building it requires consistency, integrity, generosity, presence, sincerity, and quality.

Superficial traffic is the audience you can buy, negotiate, and strategize.  These visitors might leave just as quickly as they arrived, but they’ll at least take a quick look at your site.  If your primary goal is to make money on ads, or if you’re trying to get more brand recognition across a broader audience, then it makes sense to focus on pulling in more of this kind of traffic. Building it takes analysis, awareness, creativity, connections, technical skill, and sometimes just plain old cash.

One suggestion that comes up a lot for building both kinds of traffic is leveraging social networking websites.  It’s true — if the community you’re trying to reach hangs out on [Twitter, Facebook, Del.icio.us, Flickr, Pownce, Bebo, Kirtsy, Yelp, Tribe, LinkedIn, MySpace, Craigslist, BlogHer.com, etc], then your traffic will probably increase if you have good presence there, too.

Here’s the key: only use the services that actually make your life better. If you’re spending time on that website solely to promote yourself, you’ll start to resent the site and your presence will seem insincere. This stuff is supposed to be fun. Experiment, test sites out, and be willing to abandon your profile when it stops working for you.

On the Internet, your time is your biggest asset. You should only ever spend it on things that nourish you.

The Humanization Rant

If you’re not in your blog, no one else is gonna be there, either.

There are studies flying around left and right that we’ve had a cultural shift in trust.  We no longer trust faceless corporations, government, or experts in white lab coats. We trust people we can relate to.  We trust people who are like us.

Does your blog display your photo? Do you share multiple aspects of your life with your readers? Do you convey a sense of humility?  Do you show that you can be vulnerable? Do you speak in layman’s terms?  Do you let people see how and where you’re learning and growing?

Your blog may be a company blog, an organization blog, a topic blog, or a group blog.  And if so, you may be thinking that the questions I just asked don’t apply to you.

I challenge you to consider that they do. Yes, you have a responsibility to maintain a certain level of professionalism in your writing, but the definition of “professional” is shifting. It’s okay now to show people you’re a human being. They like that.

It makes them come back for more.

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12 Responses to “Rants From the Geek Lab: Improving Your Blog”

  1. Dopp's cousin's brother Says:

    Since you seem to be a rather respectable authority on blogs, how does my Honduras blog compare to the rest. If you had to grade me on a scale of one to seventy three, where would I fall? Give me some constructive criticism.

    Your cousin’s brother

  2. sarah Says:

    You’re silly, Clint!

    1) What are your goals?
    2) How well are you meeting them?
    3) That’s your answer.

  3. Elisa Camahort Page Says:

    Hey Sarah: nice rant, but I do have a question about one statement that sounds like a sweeping generalization:

    “adding them [ads] will change your blog’s personality”

    Do you mean it will change visitors’ *perceptions* when they visit your blog or that it will change your *writing itself*. If the former, I’d probably agree…it’s a big visual impact and can’t help but affect someone’s perception of your blog.

    If you meant the latter I think it depends on the person. I don’t think you’re in a position to look into the heart (and writing) of every blogger who has ads on their blog and say whether it changes their writing, and I know I’m not the only one who kind of throws them up there for reasons other than an expectation that they will make me tons of money, and therefore never gives them a second thought. (Other than to make sure I’m not getting ads for things I’m philosophically opposed to…like meat and stuff.)

    Just curious your context. Thanks :)

  4. sarah Says:

    Elisa, thanks so much for pointing out the ambiguity in what I wrote there. I was talking entirely about the visual aspect — I don’t think putting ads on a blog changes writing at all. I think writing only changes when goals change, and that’s a completely separate thing.

    I was also being a little bit vague on purpose because it’s not necessarily a *bad* personality change; it depends on how you do it. There’s tasteful ad layout and there’s tasteless ad layout. There are useful ads and there are irrelevant ads. There are respectful ads and there are invasive ads.

    Also, you bring up a good point: ads aren’t just about money. Some ad networks (like BlogHer) also increase traffic to your blog, whether you’re making money or not. And I know there are still other reasons to display them, too.


  5. Laura Says:

    I really have to say the timing of this post was very relevant for me, as I’ve just started considering integrating ads into my blog. Looking at my list of priorities, I’m realizing that it’s not the right step for now. Perhaps later, but right now moving toward building an audience that stays for the content is most rewarding.

    I love how you point out the humanization of blogs. I think this is what makes blogs stand out as a media to me in so many ways, you really get an indepth at someone’s personal politics, their flaws and their joys. Those are the kind of blogs that I enjoy reading the most and so that’s what I strive to write. Plus, I lead a fairly interesting life so that always helps too :-)

    Anyway, just a rambling comment to tell you thanks for sharing these tips. They’ve really helped put my goals into focus.

  6. SplendidMarbles Says:

    Hi. Great rant. About a month or so ago, we did a major overhaul of my blog. Formerly it had been a somewhat personal site about politics and political cartoons. Now, it’s still about all that, but it’s less “dude in a garret, madly tapping away at a keyboard while his cat eats his toes” and more “keen-eyed sophisticate casts his crumbs into the digital waters”. Anyway, my traffic has basically tripled – it’s over 3000 pageviews a month, but, my revenue is not going to feed the hungry cats. Or me. Suggestions? Again, thanks for a great post.

  7. Emma McCreary Says:

    Pageviews isn’t always relevant. There’s also whether your topic is something that anyone is buying ads for. Think like a business owner – would anyone *want* to advertise on your blog? If so, is it a high ad cost niche?

  8. Rimma Says:

    I did not know, that it can be true..

  9. Daniela Says:

    There is so inertesting for us! Thank you!

  10. Luke Jackson Says:

    it is really hard to build massive traffic on a website. you need to promote your website by blog commenting or PPC advertising~;’

  11. Philippine Lotto Community Says:

    the affiliate revenue that i get from amazon is amazing, i made 500 bucks in just less than a month ‘–

  12. How Do I Make Money From My Blog? Should I Put Ads On It? Says:

    […] This is in response to Sarah’s excellent Rants From the Geek Lab: Improving Your Blog. […]