Don't ask me to blogroll you
Hmmmm, shoes. Condi. George might like them.
by Chris Bowers This is a form letter response on how to build blog traffic and influence.
Dear anonymous blogger,
Around 25-30 times a week, at least, I receive emails from bloggers such as you asking me to put them on the MyDD blogroll. Overall, in less than a year and a half of blogging, I have easily received more than 1,000 such requests. By now, if "blogroll" or "link" is in the title of an email sent to me from someone I don't know, I simply delete that email without even reading it.
I am not angry that people send me these emails. In fact, it has happened so often that by now even annoyance has worn away. There are many benefits of blogging "fame," and they have dramatically changed my life for the better. I simply accept requests to be blogrolled as a fact of life now, and I don't imagine that this letter will cause them to stop (much as I didn't imagine that my Diary Purge post would cause inappropriate diaries to cease).
I can imagine that many "smaller" bloggers have a significant amount of justifiable frustration toward the "mid-major" and "A-list" blogs. After all, such blogs do engage in a number of annoying activities, such as:
- 1-1. "A-list" bloggers seem to link to each other a lot more often than they link to smaller blogs.
- 1-2. When they do link to smaller blogs, many "A-list" bloggers will reprint a significant amount of the post they are linking, thus giving readers little reason to visit the website in question.
- 1-3. Even when "A-list" bloggers don't quote much of the post they are linking to, they have far more commenters at their site, thus often times making the "A-list" blog that links the post, rather than the small blog that wrote the post, the better place to go for a conversation about the post.
- 1-4. Often times, "A-list" bloggers seem to do little more than quote whatever just came off the news wire, add a sentence or two of banal commentary, and that's their post. I mean, that gets you tens of thousands of readers a day? You have got to be kidding me.
There are defenses for some of these activities, and for others there are none. On the first point, there are literally tens of thousands of progressive political blogs in America, and how many can someone really read in a day? I myself read about ten or fifteen a day. On some days, I'll read up to twenty-five. That is a lot
of reading, and it still only covers a miniscule fraction of what is on offer out there. Do you really expect all A-list bloggers to read several hundred blogs every day and report back with the best of what they saw?
The second point is not defensible, and it is a practice that should be avoided at all costs. Don't rip off smaller bloggers, A-listers. Make people go to their websites to read what they wrote.
The third point simply cannot be avoided. There is nothing that can be done about that. It is no one's fault.
The fourth point is also something that, at least in my opinion, is a pretty lame habit that has set in on a lot of blogs. Even leaving aside the copyright issues that may arise from it, I don't go to blogs to hear two sentences of commentary on an article in the New York Times. That just isn't interesting, and it isn't why blogging took off. Give me something I can't get anywhere else. That is why I started reading Dailykos and MyDD--because they gave me information about the 2002 midterms I couldn't get anywhere else.
However, even with these issues aside, as a serious student of blog traffic, I'm hear to tell bloggers of all shapes and sizes that linking, especially blogrolling, is neither the main engine for building website traffic nor is it the main way for validating that what a website is doing is productive. First, here are some points about the impact of blogrolls on blog traffic:
- 2-1. Blogroll links do jack squat for traffic. With few exceptions, traffic from blogrolls accounts for less than 2% of all blog traffic. With one exception that I will explain below, this is even the case at MyDD, even though we are linked by several hundred blogs, including every "A-list" progressive political blog there is.
- 2-1A. The exceptions to the above rules are very rare. The most obvious exception is the blogroll link to MyDD on Dailykos, which accounts for around 5-10% of all traffic to MyDD. The extreme case of this particular blogroll cannot be emphasized enough, since MyDD is allotted a special, premiere "blogfather" blogroll link on what is easily the largest political blog in the world. Even then, it still only brings in 1,000-2,000 daily readers (not that I'm complaining, and thank you very much kos). That should give you an idea how much other blogroll links are worth in terms of traffic.
- 2-1B. The only other exceptions I can think of to this rule have to do with specialized blogrolls and webrings. For example, MyDD receives a disproportionate amount of its incoming blogroll traffic from blogrolls that only list Philadelphia progressive political blogs. If a blogroll tells you what you are going to get when you click through the link, someone is more likely to click through that link. This is because when someone looks at a Philly blogroll, they are probably looking for Philadelphia bloggers. I am sure the same works for any area or topic.
- 2-2. The larger the blogroll, the less it does for traffic. Some blogrolls have several hundred links. These also tend to be the blogrolls with the highest number of "small" blogs linked. However, does anyone seriously think that anyone who reads a blog is going to sift through all 400 blogs to which it links? That would take several days of only doing that. There is a law of diminishing returns, where the larger the blogroll, the less traffic it generates to all blogs on the blogroll. And this is a law of diminishing returns on a tool that doesn't generate much to begin with.
Simply put, there is no number of blogs that could blogroll you, no matter how large they are, that will ever propel your blog even into "mid-major" status. Blogrolling isn't going to get you anywhere in terms of traffic. It has almost nothing to do with what separates the "A-list" blogs from the smaller blogs.
Here are some more traffic tips:
- 3-1. Over 80% of the daily traffic to almost every blog is generated by people going directly to the main URL of a blog without any prompting from a link, blogroll or web search. If you want to build an audience for your blog, you are going to have to get them to come in through the front door on a regular basis. More on how to do this later on.
- 3-2. The secondary traffic generator to blogs is web searches. It is entirely possible, though still difficult, to build up blog traffic through this means. Drudge Retort and Swing State Project are perhaps the best examples of this. I wrote for Swing State Project through 2004, and after the site had been around for long enough, eventually it came to dominate Google searches for a number of variations on "Swing State," which obviously was a common search in the 2004 election. Building your blog so that it comes up high on a number of common web searches is an effective means of building up traffic.
- 3-3. Traffic generated via links from larger blogs almost always doesn't last. After two days, your traffic spike will die down and, in all likelihood, every single new person who came to visit your blog will not return unless prompted with another link from a front-page blog. MyDD has been linked on the front page of either Atrios or Dailykos on at least one hundred occasions. If even 1% of the people who came through those links had become regular readers, our traffic would now be close to Eschaton's. It isn't. People come for the one post, but they don't stay. Like I said before, you need to get people to come in through the front door.
- 3-3A. The only exception I can think of to the previous rule is when you get several links from several big bloggers on several consecutive days. This can cause a blog to permanently change its traffic levels in a short period of time. I saw this happen to Captain's Quarter's and MyDD last year, and I saw it happen to Americablog this year. What happens in this circumstance is that so many people are being directed to your blog on such a regular basis, that before long they just start coming in through the front door on their own in order to save time. This however, is a very, very, rare occurrence, and can only happen when your blog is at the absolute center of a major online event. So, if you can consistently prove to be the absolute best source of information for something like, say, Gannon or polling information before an important election, then you might be good to go. More on this later as well.
- 3-4. Another means of improving traffic to your blog is to become a commenter and poster on the big blogs that cover the topics most similar to the topics you cover on your blog. This is a useful means of building up a reputation as a person to turn to on that subject(s). In fact, on some major blogs, even a comment can briefly generate decent traffic to your blog (as long as you post a link to your blog and you are trusted on that blog). Dailykos is the best example of this, as it has spawned a large number of "A-list" and mid-major blogs written by members of the Dailykos community.
Before I move onto a summary of what works and what doesn't, I'd like to cover the two points where I said "more on this later" in greater detail. How do you get more people to come in through your front door, and how do you become the center of a major event?
- 4-1. The answers to both questions are the same: don't write about everything. The primary "catch all" blogs have been firmly entrenched for some time. You will never be another Dailykos, another Atrios or another TPM. Those roles are covered. These three blogs have been at the very top of liberal blog traffic for nearly all of the past two and a half years, and unless one shuts down, that isn't going to change. BooMan Tribune has succeeded in becoming a pretty large blog even though it is new and writes about pretty much everything, but that was achieved primarily by drawing from several authors who had a lot of respect on Dailykos.
- 4-2. Find a niche (aka, brand yourself). Find a small number of topics you are comfortable writing about, and focus extensively on those. Find even one such topic. Write about the state, city, or neighborhood in which you live. Find a reporter you want to hassle. Find a single campaign you want to write about, like Bolton, and write about it over and over and over again. Do not, under any circumstances, delude yourself into believing that providing short commentary on several large quotes from news sources that address a wide variety of topics will ever generate more traffic to your site. This is especially the case if you already don't have much traffic. However, if you carve yourself a niche, people interested in that niche will start to turn to you on a regular basis. Best of all, large numbers of people will turn to you when that niche becomes important to a large number of people. This will also do a lot more to guarantee that what you are doing is useful, and properly targeted to the audience you want to reach. Progressive blogging has a difficult time targeting specific issues, so targeting yourself will instantly make you useful. Just look at Crooks and Liars (video blogging) or Juan Cole (Middle East policy) if you need any examples.
- 4-3. Take that niche and build yourself into a like-minded community. Comment on those blogs that focus on your niche. Stay in email contact with those bloggers who also focus on your niche. If there is no such community, or if the community you find is disorganized, the best thing to do is to build up a community around you. For example, if you live in the Phoenix area, and no one has started a progressive Phoenix blog ring, find other Phoenix bloggers and build one. Have regular get togethers, like Drinking Liberally and local DFA. Build an email listserv for yourselves, and create a graphic that advertises the webring. Exchange phone numbers. Almost instantly you will become a local authority that people interested in your target area will turn to--including local politicos. Not only that, when something big happens in your area, you will be authority that all of the big bloggers turn to. You can do this with single-issue based blog rings as well (as long as they don't spiral out of control in terms of size).
That is how you become a well-read and influential blogger. General blogrolling and front-page linking doesn't help. That is like when congressional campaigns post diaries on Dailykos--they might get a quick surge of visits to their website, but they won't get many people, if any, coming back to walk through their front doors on a regular basis.
So, to summarize, when looking to become better read and more productive / influential, here is what does not work:
- Generalized blogrolling. Doesn't work no matter how many people blogroll you, and no matter how big those people are.
- Writing about everything. The roles for "A-list" blogs that write about everything are already taken. You may not like that, but that won't change anything.
- Being sporadically linked by "A-list" bloggers. Even if Atrios links you five times in a month, one month later your traffic will be right back where it started.
- Standing alone. If you don't join other communities and / or build one around yourself, no one will notice you.
- Being ripped off. People need to raise a lot more hell when bloggers quote too much from a post to which they are linking.
On the positive side, here is what does work:
- Structure the URL's within, and the links to, your blog in a way that will allow them to turn up near the top of common web searches. You can do this entirely by yourself.
- Focus your writing to become an expert on a small number of issues. MyDD doesn't write about everything--that isn't how we became big. People turn to us for election, activism, and strategy information.
- Take part in blogs that have a focus similar to that of your blog. This is a good way of building up trust as an authority on your issues without anyone ever visiting your blog.
- Build a like-minded community. Stay in touch with, and try to organize, bloggers who focus on the same subjects as you. This will do even more to build up authority and awareness of the subjects on which you focus.
- Targeted blogrolling. Once you are a member of a community, develop a specialized blogroll that directs people around that community.
- Becoming the center of a blogswarm. This doesn't happen very often, but if you are an established authority on a subject, it has a much better chance of happening to you.
- Write every day. People won't keep coming through your front door if you are regularly closed. Personally, I have taken around twenty days off since I started blogging seventeen months ago, and that includes weekends. That may sound insane (because it is insane) but hey, if you don't have the stomach for it, reconsider your goals when it comes to blogging.
- Write original material. If people just wanted to see a short comment on the news they can find at established outlets, they would hang out at bus stops all day and look at the expressions on faces as people read the newspaper. Blogging offers people ideas, viewpoints, and research they can't find elsewhere. Provide it to them, or they won't come back.
So yeah, I'm not going to blogroll you, but that wouldn't really help you anyway. It is easy to look at things on the surface and think that blogrolls are an important factor in building up a blog. However, if you spend a year and a half studying blog traffic like I have, and helping build two blogs up from nearly scratch to major status, the real causes for blog success become a lot clearer to you. Take the hard steps that actually work.
And if you ask me to blogroll you, from now on I'm just going to send you this post as an attachment.
All my best,
September 22, 2005
posted by Steve @ 12:08:00 AM