Soon after starting Web Dawn, I came with up with an idea for a new site.
I mentioned previously the SEO discussion forums where I was learning about search engine optimization. One of the hottest topics in forums were those about "Google Updates". At the time (May 2003), Google would update its index with new pages and new ranking algorithms periodically, about once a month, sometimes less often. As such, Google search rankings were quite stable in between updates. For example, if you had a page that was ranked #5 for a certain search phrase, it was unlikely that would change much, for better or worse, until the next Google update. During and after a Google update, the forum activity would spike. Some happy that rankings had improved, other unhappy that rankings had fallen. In addition to the cheering and whining, there was also discussion (speculation) about the algorithmic ranking tweaks that Google may have applied during the update, that had caused rankings to change.
In May of 2003, a major Google Update occured -- a huge shake-up in the rankings. The changes in the rankings were so significant that forum activity spiked even more than usual, much more. New messages were being posted faster than you could read them. There were literally thousands of posts relating to the update. Unfortunately, most of them were of the "cheering and whining" variety -- which doesn't really help anyone better understand the update or contribute anything of value at all. Amongst all this chatter, however, there was one forum member was providing useful insight into the update. And he had inside information. Going by the forum nickname of 'GoogleGuy', and anonymous Google employee was a member of the forum, providing helpful and insightful information from time to time. Of GoogleGuy would never reveal any of Google's 'secret recipe' of ranking algorithms. But even though his posts were necessarily vague, they did contain useful information, some posts more than others. During the flurry of posts during this particular update of May 2003, GoogleGuy was virtually the only forum member that was providing valuable information. The problem was that his post became increasingly difficult to find. Forum activity was so fast and furious with the cheering and whining, that you would have to wade through hundreds of posts before coming across one from GoogleGuy. I found myself scrolling through page after page, trying to keep up, scanning for posts from GoogleGuy.
At this point I came up with an idea to start compiling GoogleGuy's valuable comments -- for my own SEO reference, making them easier to find in future. As I pondered this idea, it occured to me that others might find such a compilation valuable. And there was only one way that I could compile GoogleGuy's comments in a public way without a huge effort on my part: a blog! Well, perhaps not strictly a blog, but a blog-format site. The conventional blog format was well suited to the task at hand. Reverse chronological sorting, with the lastest updates at the top of the page. Each blog entry could be stamped with date and time. I decided to name the site "GoogleGuy Says" (http://www.markcarey.com/googleguy-says/). I also decided to categorize each quote as low, medium, or high importance. I did this because some of GoogleGuy's were more valuable than others, from the perspective of adding to our understanding of the Google search engine. I customized the templates such that each importance level had its own RSS feed, enabling people to subscribe only to "high importance" quotes, for example.
When the initial templates were designed and customized, I began to post some quotes to the site. I spent a few hours posting all of GoogleGuy's comments from the May 2003 update, then going back in time a few weeks before that. I probably posted 30-40 quotes that morning, which means the site already had grown to 30-40 pages. I tried to give each quote a relevant, unique title -- keeping in mind potential search phrases as I did so.
The next step, of course, was the hard part. Spreading the word, attracting visitors to the site. I started by posting a blog entry on Web Dawn, leveraging that traffic. But I knew that would only help get the word out to a small portion of the blogging community. I also wanted to reach the SEO community, people who may really see the value in the resource. So I emailed the author of "Google Weblog", a popluar blog about Google (though not affiliated with Google, Inc.) Aaron Schwartz, the author or Google Weblog, soon posted a blog entry about GoogleGuy Says. This event was the tipping point. Instantly, a virtuous cycle was sparked. With Google Weblog as the starting point, word begain to spread. References and links to GoogleGuy Says started to appear rapidly, mostly from blogs and forums. While I was convinced that it was a valuable resource, I was blown away by the broad-based interest. Everyone, everywhere in the world, were interested in Google. Using Technorati to track links to the site (as well as my web stats), I discovered links from blog and forums in over ten different languages, some of which I did not even recognize. As more people learned about the site, more people linked, and still more people visited the site. The RSS feeds seemed to be popular, a way to be notified of new quotes by GoogleGuy - it seems that I wasn't the only one frustrated by scrolling through endless comments to locate the valuable posts by GoogleGuy. Soon after the site was launched, traffic to the feeds was outpacing traffic to home page.
As momentum continued to build, I started to notice a pattern. More visitors seemed to lead to even more vistors. Largely because many of the visitors were bloggers, the more people who learned about the blog increased the chances that those vistors would tell others about my blog, whether via an entry on their blog, or by some other means.
To me, this seemed like a virtuous cycle of ever-increasing web traffic. Traffic was breeding traffic. If I could keep this virtuous cycle going, my traffic would grow at a continually accelerating pace.
The search engine traffic showed a similar pattern. The more blog entries I wrote, the more pages ended up in Google and other search engines. And since each page was on a different topic, with different keywords, the number of different keywords that people were using to find my blog was increasing. I call this broadening the keyword base. So the more entries I posted, the more traffic I would get from search engines. Inevitably, some of those visitors were bloggers, who decided to link to my blog -- thus feeding the virtuous cycle.
Reality check: while traffic growth was accelerating nicely, please don't misinterpret what I am saying. At this point I was NOT getting a huge amount of traffic. Web Dawn was still a blog about social networking, business, and blogging - fairly narrowly focused. The important thing to note is that links and traffic were growing in continually accelerating manner, in a virtuous cycle that just kept going up.
After starting receive some visitors to my blog, I knew that I needed to take advanatge of the opportunity that had presented itself. I knew that if I played my cards right, I could leverage the small visitor base to generate more links and thus more visitors. I knew that there was a very good chance that some vistors to the blog also has their own blogs. If this were true, there was a chance that they might link to my blog in future. The challenge, of course, was to write some blog entries that they might find interesting -- and I needed to do it while I still had their attention.
So I started posting new entries, trying very hard to post one new entry each (it wasn't easy). In the weeks that followed, momentum started to build. I gain some additional links from other blogs, and visitors gradually increased.
By this time, I started to receive some visitors from the search engines as well. Of course, I optimized the Movable Type templates for SEO before launching the blog. And that, combined with the links I was getting, was starting to produce some decent rankings for a handful of minor, yet relevant search phrases. This helped build the momentum even further. As more people (and more bloggers) learned about Web Dawn, more bloggers would link to the site, which would lead to even more vistors. A pattern begain to emerge.
Keeping in mind the SEO and Blog lessons that I had recently learned, I started my first blog.
After playing around with Blogger, I decided to use Movable Type instead. There were two main reasons for this: 1) At the time, Blogger didn't individual post archives, a feature that would archive each blog entry on its own web page, and 2) Movable Type was much more customizable than Blogger. (Note: While the current version of Blogger does support individual post archives, the customization options remain limited compared to Movable Type.) Since Movable Type is a Perl-based CGI application, you must install it on your own web hosting space. For those who are not the most technically-oriented, the installation can seem a bit complex. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I was able to get it installed and running.
The topic of my first blog was inspired by a book that I had just finished reading: The Cluetrain Manifesto. Although the book was published several years prior, the messages about the power of Internet in social and business contexts, were very enlightening to me. For a book about the Internet, you would think that it would be out of date, but it is not -- even today, the message of the book is highly relevant. I highly recommend the book, if you have not read it already. I called the blog "Web Dawn - Rebirth of the Social Marketplace", the focus being the power of the Internet to become a social, interactive marketplace. Related topics include blogging, social networking, etc.
In my first entry, I explained topic and inspiration of the blog. In doing so, I linked to the blog of one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, The Doc Searls Weblog. Not surpirsingly, Doc Searls blog was a very popular blog, with many readers, and many incoming links. Within 24 hours, Doc Searls had linked back to my blog! In his short entry, he commented how he found my blog -- which was very new -- via Technorati, the web service that I mentioned previously, which quickly tracks incoming links to blogs and other sites. It was a fantastic way to get a new blog rolling. Over a few days, I received a flow of visitors who following the links from Doc's blog, many of which (presumably) were interested in similar topics as Web Dawn. Some of them subscribed to the RSS feed for Web Dawn, as way to keep track of what future Web Dawn entries might be. The ball had started rolling, and I was beginning to think I was onto something with this blog stuff.
As you can see, this was some pretty solid confirmation of two of the blog lessons I had learned: bloggers love to link to other bloggers, and bloggers care about who is linking to their blog.
As I mentioned previously, I was learning about SEO and Blogs around the same time. It was the spring of 2003. Because both blogs and SEO were at the top of mind at the time, each affected the way I viewed the other. For example, when I was learning about blogs, I did so with my "SEO goggles" on -- I couldn't but think about the SEO considerations with respect to blogging.
It is for this reason that several of the Blog Lessons I learned have more to do with the psychology and behavior of Bloggers themselves, rather than actual blog sites and technologies. Central to this line of thinking was the stark contrast between the world of SEO and the world of Blogs. In the SEO world, links were important and very hard to come by. Links were almost never free: you had to exchange links or pay for them. At the same time, I learned about this Blog world (the blogosphere, at it is sometimes called), where everyone was volontarily linking like crazy. I found it quite fascinating.
Even more curious was that many of SEO experts in the SEO forums didn't seem to know or care about blogs. When they did care, it was usually the common complaint that blogs were polluting the search engines or outranking their (presumably commercial) web sites. Which brings up an interesting point: blogs were primarily non-commercial entities, most bloggers were not doing it for money or business. And since most of the topics of blogs were not commercial or money-making in nature, perhaps there was little appeal to SEO experts or online business people to get into blogs. I, too, struggled with the question: how could one merge the benefits of the blog world with web-based businesses or other money making business? I didn't have an answer to the question...at least not yet.
While each blogging tool and service is different, each enables customizable of blog templates that determine how the blog is displayed on the web. My preferred blogging tool is Movable Type, primarily for the reason that the template system is extremely customizable.
Some blogging tools enable you to customize the web templates in wasy that enable you to build web sites that go beyond the conventional blog-format sites.
Since Movable Type's template system is highly customizable, with a little creativity, you can use Movable Type templates to build many different types of sites, which may not resemble a blog at all.
Another major benefit to a customizable template system is that it enables SEO optimization of the templates. By applying "on-page" SEO best practices to the blog templates, you can be sure that every blog entry to create will be optimizable for search engines. Which brings us back to the first Blog Lesson: that the Blog CMS system makes it easy and fast to publish content, even SEO optimized content.
Most blogging tools and services support the use of update pings. Update pings serve the purpose of notifying other web sites that you have posted a new entry, or updated your blog. There are a number of web sites that accept update pings. Commonly, these web sites publish a (constantly changing) list of recent updated blogs. Some update sites may be blog search engines or feed aggregation sites, who may use the update pings to notify their spiders to crawl your blog to fetch the new content that you have posted.
Sending update pings can result in links, traffic, and faster search engine spidering
Many of the links that you might get from sending update pings are transient links. This means that the links disappear soon after they appear. Since the recently updated blog lists are constantly changing -- and because there are many, many blogs sending update pings -- links on such site may last only 15-20 minutes. But if you get lucky, and Google spiders the update site when your link is being displayed, it could give you a bit of a (temporary) boost in the rankings. Other update sites that also aggregate feeds will provide longer lasting links, in the form of the syndication of your feeds (but many of them won't checkj your site for new entries, unless you send them an update ping!)
It is possible to get some visitor traffic directly from the update sites, as your link is being displayed. Don't expect a huge amount of traffic via this avenue, but you will get some. And when you are first starting up any blog or web site, any traffic you can get can help get the ball rolling.
Faster Search Engine Spidering
Another, indirect, benefit of sending update pings is that it may result in faster search engine spidering. This means that your new entries may get into the search engine results faster. The reason stems from the fact that most search engines try to have as much fresh content as possible -- when pages are modified or new pages are added to the web, they want to index them as soon as possible. Keeping this goal in mind, update ping sites can be very helpful, since they are constant displaying lists of recently updated sites. It seems like it would be a good idea for a search engine to be frequently spidering the recently updated lists, as this leads to new and updated web pages. So for this reason alone, it is a good idea to send update pings, as it may bring the search engine spiders around a little sooner.
Publishing RSS and Atom feeds has an additional benefit. The structured nature of the feeds enable them to be easily syndicated into other web sites.
Other bloggers or web services may link to your blog by syndicating your feeds.
For example, another blogger may use your feed to display links to the five most-recent entries in your blog. This would be done in an automated way, meaning that their blogging tool would fetch your feed from time-to-time and update the links. Another example is a site that focuses on display and aggregating feeds on particular topics, bring together the feeds of various blogs in one place.
Aside: Another important reason to publish feeds is to ensure that your entries are included in feed-based search engines. This is increasing important now, (as opposed to back when I first learned about SEO and blogs), since Google has just launched a BETA version of their feed-based blog search engine. Feeds can also be used with the new, also BETA, Google Sitemaps service. Another popular feed-based search engine is Feedster. While feed-based search engines have not been a major source of web traffic to date (based on my experience), that may change in the near furture.
Most blogging tools or services including the ability to automatically create RSS or Atom feeds of your blog entries. These "feeds" are XML-based representations of your recent blog entries. While the feeds themselves may seem a little cryptic, they are highly structured, which enables external applications and services to fetch and display your blog entries. For example, someone might use a web service such as BlogLines to monitor and read blog entries from many blogs in one place. One of the obvious benefits of this, is that subscribers of your feeds are more likely to return to your blog in the future. because they subscribe to your feed, the feed reader application or service will essentially remind them about your blog, notifying them when you post new entries.
So it is important to note that by publishing RSS or Atom feeds, you are likely to generate more repeat visitors. While this is always a good thing, if you are like me, you are very interested in attracting new first-time visitors to your site. In an indirect way, publishing feeds can help you achieve this:
Other bloggers will subscribe to your feed if they find your blog interesting. In future, they may link to one of your blog entries.
The first part of this lesson is to understand that bloggers, more than most people, are active users of feed reader tools and services. Many bloggers will subscribe to feeds from many blogs that interest them, and check the feeds daily for new, interesting entries. The second part of this lesson relates to one of the previous Blog Lessons: bloggers love to link to other blogs. Knowing that bloggers like to link to other blogs, your feed will remind them about your blog, increasing the chances that they will read future entries, thus increasing the chance that they will link to one of your entries in the future. And if they do link, this will bring in new first-time visitors via that link (not to mention the SEO value of that link).
Since bloggers know that bloggers like themselves love to link to other blogs, there are also aware that other bloggers may be linking to their blog.
Many bloggers actively monitor which blogs may be linking to their blog
Blogger do this not out of pure vanity. Rather, it is part of the conversational nature of blogs. Bloggers want to monitor the other side of the conversation. Of course, they also like to know that others are reading their blog, and find it interesting enough to link to.
There are a number of tools that bloggers use to monitor who is linking to them. One is a service by Technorati, which displays a list of blogs linking to pages on a particular site, including the time and date when the link occurred. One of the features of this services is that is updated very quickly. New links are often tracked by the site within minutes. So Bloggers can quickly see who is linking to their blog. Another tool that is built into to some blogging applications is Trackback. Trackback is a system in which one blogging application will automatically notify the other blog's system that a link has been made (if the target blog supports Trackback). Optionally the blog receiving the Trackback can automatically publish a link back to entry in question -- a way of automatcially linking the two pieces of the inter-blog conversation.
"Start a Blog, Quit Your Job" is an ebook in BETA. It is currently a work-in-progress, and your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Please help me find typos, spelling, and grammar errors too.
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