There are two basic ways to establish a blog: social networking, and search engine optimisation (from here on referred to by its initials – SEO). Some bloggers use a combination of the two, but my impression is that for the majority it’s pretty much either/or. So, which is best as a policy for establishing a blog? Well, I much prefer SEO, and in this article I’m going to explain why.
With networking, you’re essentially trying to persuade people to visit and read your blog. This presents problems. Firstly, the majority of people you’re targeting won’t give a flying stuff about your blog. They may visit out of curiosity – particularly if you’re blowing hard on your own trumpet, so to speak – but on arrival they’ll be either decidedly unimpressed or completely bemused by your content, and exit the site immediately, never to return. I call this type of traffic ‘WTF? traffic’, because that’s basically what the visitors say to themselves when they land on your blog. They click your link, mumble “WTF?”, and instantly backstep their browser, pretending the previous click never happened. You can minimise ‘WTF? traffic’ by being more modest with your promotion, but of course if you do that you’ll get very little response at all.
Secondly, of those who do want to visit your blog, a high proportion may have reached such a decision for entirely the wrong reasons. If, for example, you’re networking with other bloggers (deemed by many as the obvious place to start), you could find that the majority who decide to pay you a visit are doing so purely and simply because they want you to visit them in return. I call this type of traffic 'schmooze traffic', because the visitor's main goal is to schmooze you (and perhaps readers of your blog) into becoming a fan of theirs.
With a blog I have on another platform, I’ve had other bloggers arriving on the site and making a big fuss of it. Subscribing to the RSS feed, ‘liking’ posts, making “Wow!” comments – all in the space of a few moments. Some didn’t appear to have any connection with what I was blogging about, and I certainly had no connection with the subject matter on their blogs, so I didn’t ‘follow them back’. Did they return? Of course not. All they were interested in was amassing followers for their own blog, and their policy was to do that by feigning interest in hundreds, sometimes even thousands of other bloggers. They don’t read the blogs they visit. They couldn’t. They visit so many that there wouldn’t be time. They merely access the home page, click on ‘follow’, ‘like’ the first post they see, and type “Wow! Great blog – this is really inspiring stuff” (or something similar) in the comment box. Their hope is that when you get your patronising auto-email from the blog host, saying that [insert blogger’s name] thought your blog was the best thing since sliced bread and you should really consider reading/subscribing to their equally great blog, you’ll be flattered into doing so.
These people show in your statistics as legitimate visitors, of course, but for me there's no value in having visitors of this type, because they’re not interested in the content. If you network with other bloggers, you’ll become a target for this type of low/zero-value visitor. Not all bloggers behave like this, obviously, but generally, a blogger’s primary interest will be their own blog. In my experience, if you make it impossible for other bloggers to promote themselves on your blog (i.e. disable the comment box), and make it clear you don’t generally ‘follow back’, then apart from the odd exception, they will not visit your blog. That’s the evidence I’ve seen. I’ll leave you to draw a conclusion.
But obviously, social networking is not confined to other bloggers. Twitter, Facebook, forums, social bookmarking sites… All provide ways to promote a blog. If you don’t already have a well established profile on Twitter, Facebook or a bookmarking site, the forums will normally represent the most effective route to instant visits. If you haven’t built up a following on Twitter, for instance, you will literally be talking to yourself. There’s no point in tweeting links because no one’s reading. But on a forum, your posts will potentially be seen by all visitors to the site, and that could be a lot of people. The drawback is that if you sign up to a forum and merely post links to your blog, you won’t make yourself at all popular, and on many forums you’ll simply be banned for spamming. There are forums which do allow promotional posts in a special section. But guess what… the section doesn’t get many visits because… well, why would people want to read through a catalogue of spam?
So the best option in my view is to put a link to your blog in your forum signature (if that’s possible – it usually is), and then engage in the active discussions on the forum. If you’re genuinely interesting, funny or whatever, you will get blog visitors via the link in your signature. However, the number of visitors who return regularly will depend on the relevance of your blog to the forum. If your blog is highly relevant (is about exactly the same thing as the forum) you might retain a small percentage of visitors as regulars. If your blog is only marginally relevant to the forum, you’re very unlikely to retain any.
In fact, retention is the biggest disappointment with the networking approach in general. What tends to happen is that you get bursts of visits each time you nag people to look at your site, but then the traffic dies away very quickly, for two main reasons: 1) because your blog as a whole isn’t fully relevant to the people you’re targeting, and 2) because people can’t be bothered to make a note of the sites they visit unless they’re expressly motivated to do so. Even if they like what you’ve done, they probably won’t bookmark you because they’ve already got too many bookmarks, and they’ll probably have forgotten the name of your blog by the following day because there’s just so much else taking their attention on the web.
If you pester people relentlessly, then in the end the likelihood is that you will build sustained interest. But the process is not very dignified, it can take a long time, and in the end you could still have a high proportion of regular visitors who are visiting primarily for social or self-promotional purposes. If you’re happy with that, that’s fine. But I want visitors who are primarily interested in my content. And because I want that content to be the best it can possibly be, I don’t want to spend the bulk of my time networking – I want to spend it creating.
The beauty of the SEO approach is that the visitors you get will almost all be specifically looking for the exact content you’re providing. If that wasn’t the case, they wouldn’t end up on your site in the first place. True, Google searches don’t always go entirely as they should, so you may get a few visitors who reach your site in error. But with SEO, there’s nowhere near the amount of ‘WTF?’ or 'schmooze' traffic you typically get with the networking approach. Crucially, the visitors you gain through SEO are not visiting for social reasons, or because they’re after a ‘follow-back’. They’re visiting because they’re interested enough in your content to go to a search engine and ask for it. And since in the main your visitors actually do want what you’ve got, for its own sake, the chances of you keeping them on your site for longer periods are much higher. The longer they stay during their first visit, the more likely they are to remember or bookmark you, so this is all positive stuff.
The build of traffic with the SEO approach is steadier, more gradual, and importantly, more predictable than with the networking approach, and that's something I really like. You don’t tend to get those erratic stats of 500 people visiting one day (the day you make a promotional post on a big forum), 250 the next, and just 30 by the end of the week. You start off with just a few visits a day (sometimes zero if you’re not networking and you have a new site), and your traffic steadily increases month by month. Below is a stats graph for an experimental SEO-only blog I’ve been doing on WordPress.
The graph shows that in a period of four and a half months, a very simple blog taking up around ten minutes per post to write, moved from zero visits per day, to around 80 visits per day. These are all genuine, content-focused visits by the way. The totals don't include any referrer spam, and I don't play the schmooze game (comments are disabled) so no one's visiting for 'networking' purposes. 80 visits per day may not sound like a lot, but remember, the subject matter is of relatively limited interest, and all I’ve done is post. No time at all has been spent promoting the blog, and there’s nothing to suggest that the month-on-month rise in traffic will not continue as more visitors become regular and/or spread links. I can also consider broadening the interest of subsequent posts to attract a wider audience now that the blog is established and generating its own backlinks.
So undeniably SEO does work as a standalone solution, and it’s much more encouraging, I feel, to see a steady, perpetual increase, albeit small on a week to week basis, than have a lot of visits one day, then virtually none the next. That can be very soul-destroying, because it feels like the vast majority of people looking at your blog think it’s a load of rubbish. That may not be the case of course. There’s a hell of a lot vying for people’s attention on the Internet and elsewhere, and if you’re not eternally in their face they’ll simply forget you – even if they think you’re good. But it’s your perception that matters more than the reality, because the way you feel has a big bearing on whether you believe blogging is worth the effort. If you think people are interested, you’ll post regularly. If you think they’re not, you won’t bother. With an SEO-driven blog, that soul-destroying eventuality of a massive drop in visits is unlikely unless you do something to incur a penalty from Google. And if you work conscientiously, there’s no reason why Google should penalise you.
The big disadvantage with SEO is that you have to observe conditions regarding structure, and if you post with no regard at all as to how people will find your content, then chances are that they won’t. Particularly if you write humour or rely on an unusual style, optimising your text for search engines can devastate the whole appeal of what you’re doing. Accordingly, some careful thinking was required in relation to Planet Botch, with its high proportion of humour and spoof content. But SEO suits me much better than networking. It allows me to spend my available time creating and posting rather than faffing about on Twitter, Facebook or whatever. Even though I have to compromise to some extent with my writing style in order to befriend the search engines, I feel it would compromise the site much more seriously if I only spent half as much time as I do working on it. And that’s what would happen if I chose to network for high-value visits rather than get Google to send them.
I’m not an SEO expert – I’m still learning, so I won’t try giving any SEO advice. Other than to say, of course, that if you Google ‘SEO tips’, the links you’ll find on page one must take you to people who know what they’re doing. Those people wouldn’t have made their way onto page one if they didn’t. Whether they’ll reveal their best secrets, however, is another matter.
Posted by: Bob Leggitt