The Great Blog & Roll Swindle

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 20 January 2012 |

I set up a new blog this week. Not here on Blogger – over on the ‘other one’. I had some pre-existing material, so by the time I’d set everything up there were nearly twenty posts. After making the pages look acceptably presentable, I changed the new blog’s status from private to public, registered it with Google and Bing’s Webmaster utilities, and added another post. I expected a good few days to pass before I started to get any proper hits. But a while later I opened my email to find a line of messages from the blog host. Without any publicity, my brand new blog had somehow managed to ‘attract’ a range of ‘followers’, some of whom had also ‘liked’ a post. The same post. The post I’d just made. I should stress, just for clarity, that my comment function is completely disabled, so no one could leave comments.

The first thing I wondered was how these people could find out about a blog which had only just opened, had not been promoted in any way, and was not yet showing up in the search engines. Previous blogging experience on that particular platform had given me cause for suspicion about the legitimacy of ‘follows’ in general, but nonetheless, I went to my blog dashboard to see if the stats could give me any idea what was going on…

There were no stats. Other than the two page visits I knew had been made by a friend earlier in the day, no activity whatsoever had registered on the stat counter. So there I was, with my small band of ‘followers’ and ‘like-clickers’ – none of whom had actually even visited the blog, let alone read any of it. Whether or not these 'followers' and 'likers' are using an automated process, their behaviour is certainly mechanical, and it doesn’t in any way involve them taking the vaguest bit of interest in the blogs they ‘follow’.

I decided at this point to have a look through the ‘followers’ for another of my blogs on the same platform, and sure enough, the same auto-follow bloggers began to show up. Even though the two blogs were registered on entirely serparate accounts, in different names, and were about completely different things, those same bloggers had, ‘by remarkable coincidence’, managed to end up ‘following’ both. Evidently, these people indiscriminately ‘follow’ any blogger who can be considered half-likely to follow them back. You can even see the evidence when you look at their blogs. Some of them have thousands and thousands of 'followers', but no real content. The only way they could amass that kind of subscribership without providing any material of real value, is by indiscriminately following thousands, or more likely tens of thousands of blogs, and then being followed back, out of courtesy.

Of course, I’ve been aware for a long time that ‘following’ is not primarily fuelled by an actual interest in the material, and I’ve said so previously on this site. Indeed, one of the first things the blogging platform advises in its guide on growing traffic, is to ‘follow’ other blogs and comment on them. So from the off, bloggers are educated to associate ‘following’ and ‘commenting’ on other blogs, with the prosperity of their own blogs. It doesn’t take much psychological awareness to recognise that on the back of advice like that, nearly all bloggers are going to ‘follow’ and ‘comment’ on other blogs – whether they can find any blogs that genuinely interest them or not. How many other blogs? Well, as many as they’ve got time for, obviously. And how do they maximise their efficiency in relation to that? In other words, how do they ‘follow’ and comment on more blogs in a shorter space of time? Simple: they spend less time reading each one.

That’s how the cycle starts. And soon enough, the blogger realises that he/she doesn’t actually have to read the blogs he/she follows at all. You’re then left with this massive sphere of bloggers, all ‘following’ each other, not taking the blindest bit of notice of anything they've subscribed to, but (and this is the hilarious bit) all believing their own ‘followers’ are intensely interested in them. It’s quite delusional in some cases. I’ve seen bloggers on Twitter proclaiming their popularity based on the number of blog ‘followers’ they have, whilst playing down the actual number of hits their sites get as virtually inconsequential. Like the hits don’t matter provided a load of other bloggers have taken a split second to click on their Follow button - for the ultimate benefit of their own blogs.

SO HOW IMPORTANT ARE FOLLOWERS?

First, the distinction must be made between ‘followers’ and readers. ‘Followers’ being bloggers or other networkers who are subscribing purely to win themselves an ‘audience’ via the medium of flattery and/or social pressure, and readers being people who genuinely do want to read the content, for its own sake. Next, the likely ratio of ‘followers’ to readers has to be realistically estimated. This is where I differ from the more widely held views. Most bloggers appear to think that subscribers who genuinely visit their blog, and leave comments which have something to do with what they’ve posted, are readers. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that subscribers who drop onto the home page of a blog and read enough of a post to make a subject-specific comment on it (which needn’t be any more than the title), can still more typically be categorised as ‘followers’ than readers.

Just because they’re not using a bot, and they’re not always slipping links into their ‘comments’, doesn’t mean they don’t have exactly the same motivation as the guy who auto-spams a thousand blogs a day with “Hey, great blog! Check this out!! http://blahblahblah, etc…” Subscribers can still be visiting and commenting purely because they want either the blogger or the blog readers to notice them, and then go and patronise their site. The implementation might be more sophisticated and more time-consuming than that of the classic spamlord, but is the intention any different? In a lot of cases, no. And the blog hosts themselves acknowledge this. They’re instructing people to do this as a method of generating traffic. Reading between the lines, you could interpret the instruction as: “One way to grow your blog traffic is to spam other bloggers, but do so in a way that doesn’t look like you’re spamming them.” To me, that’s exactly what the blog hosts are saying, and I think that underneath all the fancy language and pretence, the bloggers themselves realise that that’s what it basically means.

This is just my opinion of course, but it does in my eyes diminish the value of subscribers. I’ve proved with this blog that if you don’t play the follow-back game, you don’t get followers. But I also feel I’ve proved that if you post stuff people want, and you care about quality, you still get the hits. In fact, I’ve just been reading a post by a guy whose blog had 35 times the number of followers that this one has. But in terms of hits, this blog – still fairly new – has had more than three times as much traffic in the past quarter, as his had in its whole lifespan of two years. So does getting more subscribers equate to more traffic, as some blog hosts claim? Not inherently, no. You can have 10,000 ‘followers’, but if none of them ever look at their bloated, chaotic RSS feeds, they won’t visit your blog any more than they would had they not subscribed.

WHY IS THIS HUGE CHARADE ENCOURAGED?

The system of mutual ‘following’ for the sake of having ‘followers’ might appear on the basis of the above to benefit no one. But there is someone it benefits… Who might that be?… The blog host. This is a system which, despite what in real terms is often an overwhelming pointlessness for the bloggers themselves, keeps them feeling valued (in however misguided a sense), stops them giving up, and keeps the revenue flowing in for the host. A load of people subscribing to blogs they’ve no intention of ever reading whilst they themselves are patronised senseless by their peers, may not make a fat lot of sense for the bloggers. But in many cases, they, or should I say we, are mere pawns in a much bigger game. And in that game - the game of blog hosting - it couldn't possibly make more sense.

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