How to Write a Successful Blog
I share some of my learnings and blogging tips that will help take your blog to the next level
In 2004, I left the corporate world and started a tech & how-to blog called Digital Inspiration. I have been blogging for more than 10 years now and lot of things have changed in these years.
Back then, there were few blogs, there was no Twitter or Facebook and the only way people could subscribe to a blog was through RSS or email newsletters. Bloggers maintained Blogrolls and generously linked to other blogs. Google search results were a collection of 10 blue links and getting a slot on the front page wasn’t so difficult.
I am no expert at blogging but probably the one advantage I have is that I have been in the business for longer than most. There are no secrets or magic wand that will bring success in the world of blogging but it is a combination of good luck, hard work and consistency.
In one of my recent interview with Lifehacker, they asked me how I work and my answer was “enthusiastically” and “diligently”. I enjoy what I do, I do not see this as work, I am always thinking about ways to improve, to learn and I look forward to working on labnol.org every morning.
Here I share some of my learnings and blogging tips that will probably help take your blog to the next level.
1. If you are on Blogger or Tumblr or another blogging platform, do your blog a favor and move to WordPress. The process isn’t complicated and will definitely help you in the long run, especially from the search perspective. Blogger is powerful and easy-to-use but the big drawback is that it blocks everything from bots that’s not a page or a post. The other concern is that Blogger is a Google product and they have killed products mercilessly in the past even ones that had a substantial user base. Remember Google Reader?
2. Content is king but you also need to develop a good and interesting writing style to attract a global audience. Good writing is a gift that comes naturally to some of us but if you happen to be in the other half, get some books.
The Elements of Style, Stephen King’s On Writing, and On Writing Well offer good advice on writing. Compose the blog drafts in a proper editor - like Microsoft Word or Google Docs - as they will highlight all the typos and grammatical errors that otherwise convey a bad impression. You can also get a style guide from The New York Times or the Associated Press and they’ll help you develop a consistent writing style. These guides have accepted writing rules for journalism and you can apply them to your own writing style as well.
3. Do not imitate someone else’s style. You have your own personal style and your readers are following you because they love your style. You need not imitate someone nor do you have to write as if you are writing for a news agency. Make your writing personal.
4. The most important part of a blog post is the headline and suddenly everyone is trying to do Buzzfeed style headlines. “This is why the Apple watch is not round.” “You’ll never believe what Facebook will unveil next.” With such headlines, you raise the expectation level of the audience but when they read the actual article, they are often disappointed. Write boring headlines that may not be cute or clever but are accurate. Your readers should be able to guess what the article is all about by looking at the headline itself.
Also see: Create Good and Effective Web Content
5. There’s lot of noise in the blogging world and there’s a mad rush to report something new. Take a step back and think - are you really adding any value or just contributing to the echo chamber? It is probably the job of the mainstream blogs to publish news as it happens but for the rest of us, blog only when you have something interesting to say. You won’t lose much if you aren’t among the first few to report something.
6. Avoid guest blogging. Yes, it would help raise your profile if you manage to write for a reputed and authoritative site but 99% of the guest blogging is done with the sole purpose of gaining links and that’s just waste effort. Also, as your website grows popular, you’ll find that big sites are approaching you to for permission to republish your stuff. They will promise you eyeballs in return for your content but that won’t actually happen - people will just read your content on their site and move on.
7. Always use good images or screenshots with your blog posts. This helps for two reasons - one, when people share your content on social sites, your story may stand out in the crowded news feed because of that image thumbnail. You can also use images to draw the visitor’s attention to any part on the story that you want to emphasize and if your articles are long, images can work as visual break points. And it goes with saying that you should only use free images that are in the public domain or under Creative Commons.
8. Search is definitely important but none of us really know how Google works. They use 200+ factors to decide the organic ranks of pages and we only know a few of them. The fact is as long as you have the basics right, the cream will automatically rise to the top. Here are a few things that I would suggest as far as SEO is concerned.
- Read the webmaster guidelines from Google and Bing to know the do’s and don’ts for SEO. Follow the refresher course at Webmaster Academy and also read this starter guide (PDF) from Google.
- Have an HTML sitemap so that all your blog pages are no more than 2-3 levels deep from the homepage.
- When writing blog posts, always organize your content under sub-headings, use anchored headings (similar to Wikipedia) and your images should have titles and captions.
- Interlink your content so that both human visitors and search bots can find the gold hiding in your archives.
- The post excerpt is important because it will show up in the search snippets and social news feeds where your articles will be shared. Do not auto-generate the excerpt, write it on your own.
- Keep track of all the missing resources on your website (404 errors) and either fix them or redirect them to something related on your site. Xenu is a good tool to find the outdated links on your website.
- Use breadcrumb menus because they will help the search bots understand the organization of content on your site.
- Focus on typography because the reading experience matters. You can use Google Fonts like Open Sans and Roboto as they look good on both mobile and desktops.
- Any page on your site has two parts - the main content (the article) and common content (sidebar, navigation, footer area, etc). As far as possible, the main content should be above the common content in the actual HTML source.
9. Do not use an RSS to Email service to prepare your daily / weekly email newsletters. Instead, create your email newsletters manually and always put a summary in the email subject - this will vastly improve the open rate of your email newsletter.
10. Think of the reader first and the revenue later. Advertising is important but if you only focus on the commercials, it will be difficult to build a loyal audience. AdSense, BuySellAds, BlogAds are good ad networks but stay away from networks that allow scam ads. Remember, you are responsible for what ads are shown to visitors on your website.
Also see: How Bloggers Make Money on the Internet
11. Good and useful content will spread on its own but, occasionally, you can also pitch other bloggers in your niche. The other set of people who you should pitch are your blog commentators and people who have previously shared your stories on social sites. They love your blog and will happily evangelize your content again.
12. Your “about” page is your chance to convert a new visitor into a regular one. Show off your best stuff, link to your popular stories, make it easy for people to subscribe to your content and include mentions in the mainstream media - this will make your bio more credible to someone who doesn’t know you.
13. Lists, or listicles as they are better known in the world of blogging and journalism, are the easiest way to generate traffic. They are easier to scan and hence people enjoy reading them. Lists are easier to create too but if all you do is publish lists based blog posts, that may repel your audience.
14. Keep updating your old articles so that they stay relevant and up to date. If something is useless, it can be removed permanently. For instance, I had a few Orkut related posts on my blog. They were relevant when I wrote them years ago but now that Orkut is gone, I got rid of them and directed all the juice to something related but more relevant.
15. Google is no longer sharing the search queries with you but the internal search data - that you can download from Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools and Google Custom Search - will help you understand what kind of solutions are people looking for on your website. You can then go a step further. Use the annotations feature of CSE to automatically highlight important pages in your internal search results.
16. You can attract attention of other website owners by linking to them - your blog posts will show up in their traffic logs, they may check out your site and help spread the word among their audience. Like the BBC, you can also add depth to your posts by linking to other sites that have written on the same topic but may have a different perspective. A web page that cites sources and links to research may also be seen as more authoritative and trustworthy by search engines.
17. Page views give an ego boost but the more important metrics are the returning visitor count, the bounce rate and the amount of time that people are spending on your pages. If they are landing on a page and leaving in a split-second, you should diagnose the reason - maybe they aren’t finding the information on the page, maybe the title does not accurately tell what the page is all about, maybe your site is slow or the typography is to be blamed.
18. Plagiarism is a problem and will continue to be. You can get the content removed through DMCA but, unless a popular site has done it, I would not worry too much about plagiarism. Instead, that energy can be focussed on creating more content.
19. In all these years, I have tried to harness various social channels and that has helped in the growth of the blog. I have written an e-book for the Kindle, I have a YouTube channel, I do a podcast on iTunes which is essentially my YouTube videos in downloadable format, I curate on Flipboard, I upload my slides on Slideshare and have Chrome apps for the blog. Only a few hundred thousand people probably know about my website but these channels are known to millions of Internet users. It thus helps to have a presence there.
20. Everyone can have a blog but what separates you from other blogs is your expertise in the field, your writing skills and most important credibility. The editorial should be completely separate from the business side of the blog. Be transparent and abide by the journalists code of ethics, much like the team at The Verge.
Also see: 25 Tips for Tech Startups
Google Developer Expert, Google Cloud Champion
Amit Agarwal is a Google Developer Expert in Google Workspace and Google Apps Script. He holds an engineering degree in Computer Science (I.I.T.) and is the first professional blogger in India.