Abroad in the Yard is 1 year old today! Here are 50 lessons I’ve learned over the last 12 months on branding, content, traffic, feedback, making money and life as a blogger.
1. I’ve found it important to think of my site as a brand which needs careful nurturing. A viewer’s first encounter with your brand will be the site’s logo in the banner. I’ve changed my site’s logo twice in this first 12 months with the intention of making it simpler and less amateurish. I’m no graphic designer or marketing professional (and it must show to the trained eye in the quality of my logos) but hopefully they have at least improved. Now that I’m reasonably content with the current design, I will try to resist further temptation to change it.
2. I’ve radically changed the layout of my site 3 times. If I could have hit on the current layout of my site from day 1, I would have saved myself a lot of reformatting work. If hadn’t made those changes, I would never have discovered what works and what doesn’t; the changes I made worked for me in terms of traffic and revenue. All brands evolve and change, especially websites. Tinkering with your website is inevitable, particularly if you use a theme which has loads of editing features, just so long as your changes aren’t too drastic and actually improve your site.
3. My blog has more than one contributor, and I decided from the start that we were not going to blog anonymously. We wanted to do personal family history stuff, so revealing our identity was inevitable. Some bloggers have very good reasons for retaining their anonymity but, if you value your privacy too highly, don’t blog. By injecting a bit of yourself into your blog, you are making your brand more human, like a family run business rather than a faceless corporation. Most anonymous bloggers, even high profile ones, come out in the end, or are outed:
4. As I sit typing this on my 20 inch touchscreen PC, with a decent 6GB of RAM and fast broadband, it’s easy to forget the most basic machines accessing my site. That’s why I now regularly check it on Lee’s netbook, with it’s 10 inch screen and 1GB of RAM, just to make sure everything fits and works at a reasonable speed.
5. Plugins are excellent freebies from WordPress and can really jazz up your site. They are set up in a sort of free online store and pretty much any formatting feature you can think of will be catered for by a plugin. I had to take care not to overdose on them though, as too many can slow a site down. My particular favourites are: Akismet – worth it’s weight in gold for blocking spam; WP-Table – for placing text and images in a table, as I used in this post comparing the cost of luxury goods over time; and World Flags – which are national flags attached to individual comments based on their country of origin, they are more meaningful than bland avatars and give the site an international feel.
6. I’ve found it worth investing in a couple of premium features on my site. The functionality provided by the Headway Theme has been worth the money, as was my only ‘premium plugin’, the Pinwheel Slider, which was very cheap and highlights our best posts in an eye catching and easy to use way.
7. It can be fun to experiment with certain features. I recently created a ‘blog within a blog’, which has stirred a bit of interest so far. Posts in ‘From the heart of the British Empire‘ occupy their own part of the homepage and are isolated through the Category Posts Widget plugin.
8. I’ve inevitably had to increase the number and change the names of categories that our posts are sorted into. I’ve been careful not to include the category title in the permanent address link of each individual post – just the post title and the site name. Some of the old category names have lead to ’404 errors’ from viewers trying to directly link to them, so I’ve tried to keep the changes to minimum.
9. I’ve made sure that my ’404 error’ page is not blank, but has a message of apology and a Pinwheel Slider to try to keep viewers on the site.
10. Abroad in the Yard’s subject range is mainly centred on history and prehistory, though we do enjoy the odd article on more modern topics. In other words, I’ve tried not to make my ‘market’ too niche. This is contrary to all the advice from bloggers seeking to maximise viewers and revenue, but I suppose it depends what your motivation is. It’s all very well being the only blog occupying an obscure niche, but unless you pick an area that you are deeply interested in, and that can generate a sustainable supply of stories and regular exciting developments, your content will dry up and your readers will drift away.
11. I quickly learned that, whatever the subject range, there are only so many news stories to go around. Very little stuff posted on the internet day to day is genuinely unique and groundbreaking – if it is, then the chances are it’s in an academic paper which has to be dumbed down for mass consumption anyway. Since the earliest days of print journalism, the first publication to break an original story would have the ‘scoop’; all other publications would report the story, but would acknowledge the first publication as the originator. This model is exactly the same in the internet age – in fact most of the ‘dead tree’ press are also now the biggest internet players – the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK sells 2 million copies per day – their online service, Mail Online, has nearly 3 million daily viewers. The Mail Online isn’t popular because of the number of scoops it produces – very few of it’s stories are actually exclusive. It is popular because it finds existing stories, packages them and presents them in a way that appeals to its mass of readers.
12. Some blogs just do a brief summary edit of a bigger website’s news story, then simply paste a link to it and watch the traffic roll in. This may sound like a lazy way of blogging, but there is an art to editing material to make easier to read and digest. This way of blogging is highly effective, as applications such as Google News Alerts can do the hard work for you by e-mailing you constant, or daily updates of news stories containing whatever key word you chose. These blogs are catering for people who have an interest in their niche and just want to read a daily or weekly roundup of specially selected stories and developments. I tried it and quickly got bored.
13. If you want to express a bit more creativity than this, then take the same news story from different sources, highlight the best bits and add your own spin. I’ve found that this is often what people want to read in a blog – reaction to big events or controversial news stories. Also, local newspapers around the world are full of fairly obscure but fascinating human interest stories related to my subject range, which I enjoy researching a bit further – for example, Australian VC hero walks in his great-grandfather’s footsteps on the beaches of Gallipoli and Y-DNA test reveals ‘Irish-American’ is actually Native American.
14. I most enjoy writing posts which are not necessarily based on news items, but are created from scratch and aim to cover a topic in an original way. If it has already been covered, and the chances are it will already have been somewhere on the internet, then I try to make it more eye-catching, e.g. Famous faces your ancestors fought alongside, or against, in World War 1. These type of posts obviously take longer to put together, so generally make up the ‘killer’ posts that we submit only occasionally to the blog (every 10 posts or so).
15. I’ve found that the right images can be more effective than words and viewers enjoy them. Three out of my 5 top posts are image-based, such as Ancient Trees Now and Then. Don’t fall foul of copyright infringement though, always attribute image sources where possible and ask for permission to use if that’s what originators prefer. The most important image to get right is the ‘featured image’ which will be shown as the thumbnail accompanying the post. It should look good as a thumbnail (i.e. not too detailed) and should sum the story up.
16. Most image editing software that I’ve tried is hellish difficult to get to grips with. I use Microsoft Picture It, which has sadly been out of development since 2005 – I have had to modify it to work on Windows 7. I have never seen anything as easy or effective to use since and I wish Microsoft would bring it back.
17. I always draft my posts on Microsoft Word beforehand and save them as a back up on my hard drive, but they do need a quick re-edit when cutting and pasting onto WordPress. When I’ve built my WordPress post, including the code for ads, images, youtube clips etc, I copy the code back into Wordpad to act as a second backup. It sounds simple, but I also hit ‘save draft’ regularly as WordPress saves each version of my draft post; on the very odd few occasions when WordPress has crashed, this has saved hours of work.
18. I’ve tried to develop a conversational style using plain simple English when writing. I find it therapeutic and far more interesting to write than the formal style normally used for work. Again it sounds simple, but I always try to use spell checker, proof read for unwanted spaces, bad alignment, and check that images aren’t too big, too small, or too blurred – the preview post button in WordPress is invaluable for showing how the finished post will look when you finally hit publish. When I work quickly, I can be amongst the first with the hot news; but if I don’t work accurately, my brand will suffer – there are many spelling and grammar nazis out there.
19. I wish I’d signed up for Google Analytics as soon as I started the site, rather than waiting for a month. It’s packed with features on numbers of viewers, where they’re from, what sent them, what they’re looking at, and for how long. Using it from day 1 would have been useful for capturing historical trends in site traffic over the full 12 months.
20. I used the WordPress Popular Posts plugin in the very early days to display on the home page the number of views that the top 20 posts had received. Whether to keep your performance figures private or public probably depends on whether you think they’re worth shouting about. I soon realised my viewing figures just highlighted how puny the blog was and gave me away as a complete newby. I removed them and filled the sidebar with actual content instead. I still kept the Popular Posts plugin active and it’s the first thing I look at when I open the WordPress Dashboard. It gives me a quick daily tally of views, and I can also easily spot an immediate trend if a particular post is on the up.
21. I tend to check my webhost provider BlueHost’s Awstats at the end of each month as it shows useful additional stats such as download usage and direct links to the sites that have linked to mine. It is interesting to see the diverse range of websites that have linked to my stuff, from serious thinking sites and specialist forums (my favourite type of link) to the more dodgier ones. I’ve had no difficulties with BlueHost over the past 12 months and would certainly continue to recommend them for hassle-free hosting.
22. I very quickly learned that the USA is the King of the Internet; the consistent majority of my visitors are from the US. This is important for a British blogger to bear in mind. I’ve noticed a lot of major British sites, like the Mail Online, have many ‘Americanisms’ in their stories for this reason.
23. I also quickly learned that Google is the King of Search Engines. The overwhelming majority of traffic referrals to my site come from Google searches, including Google translations by non-English speakers. According to Google’s PageRank algorithm, which gives a numerical weighting to websites according their relative importance, abroadintheyard.com has a PageRank of just 2/10. Is this something I need to worry about? Not massively, but it probably reflects the fact that I’m a bit lazy when it comes to promoting our posts. I much prefer writing them than aggressively marketing them, so I will endeavour to practice more of what I preach below over the next 12 months. What does a PageRank of 2/10 actually mean? Here’s my subjective view, with some examples of the sites that I routinely refer to, enjoy reading, or am an affiliate member of (never waste an opportunity to promote them!):
Google PageRank score meanings and examples:
0/10 – unlisted
1/10 – poor
2/10 – low average
3/10 – high average - k2p blog.
4/10 – good – Mathilda’s Anthropology Blog.
5/10 – niche elite – The Genetic Genealogist.
6/10 – niche best – Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog.
7/10 – market elite – Mail Online.
8/10 – market best – National Geographic.
9/10 – world elite – Amazon.
24. After 12 months, Abroad in the Yard averages around 200 unique visitors making around 600 pageviews per day. Bloggers who boast about how many hits a day they are getting aren’t telling the full story. In the first few months, probably 80% of visitors to my blog clicked straight out of it again within a few seconds. As there is nothing fundamentally wrong with my website (e.g. the background colours don’t bring on epilepsy or migraine), I’ve learned not to take that personally.
25. Of the 20% of viewers who do not bail out straight away, 10% go after 5 minutes (roughly the time it takes to read a single page), another 5% after 10 minutes. The remaining 5% will dribble away after spending anywhere between 10 mins to an hour on the site. These are the people I felt I was writing for, at least initially. They are spending up to an hour on my site because, either they have left their laptop open on it while they go and eat dinner, or they are actually reading the content. They may become regular readers.
26. Longevity counts. Even the most dire material will eventually receive thousands of hits if it’s on the internet long enough. If I am in two minds about a particular post, I will publish it anyway. The overall lesson is, if you occasionally feel disillusioned about blogging, persevere, because you will score hits and misses. One of the worst long-term performing posts on Abroad in the Yard is Geomorphing Ribble Valley over 750 Million Years (one of Lee’s). What’s wrong with it? You tell me. Possibly it’s because it centres on the Ribble Valley in Lancashire, a highly localised area with a small population. In comparison, it’s already been overtaken in terms of views by How 10 great World Cities used to look (one of mine) which I only posted a couple of weeks ago. Lee isn’t particularly bothered about this, because he thoroughly enjoyed putting his article together, and those few who have viewed it have spent at least 5 minutes on it, so I assume they enjoyed it too.
27. I’ve had variable success with news sharing sites, such as Stumbleupon and Reddit. Stumbleupon has been OK for generating views, but the experience of using it is a bit like TV channel surfing, so I don’t think many will become regular viewers of one particular blog. Reddit isn’t really a serious news outlet any more, more of a hangout for smartass/dumbass teenagers; unless your niche is pot smoking and computer games, and you think swearing is cool and subversive, it’s probably best avoided. These type of sites hate bloggers promoting their own blogs anyway, which is fair enough; there are better ways of generating traffic.
28. My site traffic has soared most when a forum has picked up on a post, e.g. when “Colonials at Chelsea for the Diamond Jubilee”– 1897 caught the attention of the lads on the British Army Rumour Service (ARRSE) forum. It’s better if forum members find you, rather than you go on there touting your material – they don’t like bloggers on a ‘drive-by’ and may rightly view you as a spammer.
29. My traffic had gone almost viral when Facebook members have got hold of it. This happened with one of Lee’s posts, Modern Faces give clues to Ancient Migration. Somebody in India picked it up, and then it suddenly started getting a vast number of hits from the same corner of India, which than spread around into neighbouring Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It ended within a few days, but the lesson is to make sure a blog has its own Facebook page; mine has each post fed to it automatically. I only very recently put a link to the Facebook page on the homepage and each post; I also installed the Share This plugin, which comes with a Facebook like button for each post. I wish I’d done it far sooner, because anytime the like button is clicked, a link to the site is generated on the user’s Facebook wall.
30. I also very recently included a ‘follow me on Twitter’ button on the homepage and each post, and signed up to Twitterfeed, which automatically tweets each blogpost to my site’s Twitter page. I am slowly building up a network of followers, some of whom are starting to take an interest. Again, I wish I’d done it sooner.
31. I neglected my RSS feed, which until recently was a solitary button which sat in top right hand corner of my homepage as a standard Headway feature. I installed Google Feedburner and placed a couple of buttons at the top and bottom of each post and the difference was immediate. The site went from an average of 5 to 25 subscribers in the first 24 hours.
32. I’ve now added a tag cloud on the homepage using the Ultimate Tag Cloud Widget. It is a very nice feature; not only does it direct users to posts more effectively than broad category headings, it gives a very pleasing overview on what your site is all about. To generate the optimum number and quality of tags for each post, I cut and paste each draft post I do in Word and select out the key words, separated by commas, then cut and paste into WordPress. I have had to go back through early posts to make more tags, so again I wish I had cottoned on earlier. I initially didn’t appreciate the importance of tags and was making around 5 per post, whereas now around 20 is nearer the mark.
33. I’ve learned to accept that most people reading my posts will not leave a comment, even if they really like it. By far and away the most popular post on my site, Beginning and End of Life on Earth in 2 Years, has received thousands of views, but STILL only has 2 comments after 9 months.
34. I know why this is. It is an image-rich information piece. The post which has received most comments is Y-DNA Test – I am a Viking, OK!, because it explains a niche topic, getting a DNA test, and has prompted responses from both specialists and beginners requesting more information.
35. Controversial posts will get a lot of comments, but may alienate your readers if you make it too outlandish and can’t substantiate your views with facts. Two of my posts which have had high feedback have set out ‘for and against’ arguments: Access the 1921 UK Census Now? 30 Arguments For and Against and Southampton wheels out Big Guns in Cruise Wars with Liverpool. I further exploited this by adding a quick poll , using the Polldaddy Polls and Ratings plugin, which are very easy to use and come in a variety of styles.
36. Hitting a specific area of local interest will generate a lot of traffic and comments from that area. My post Irish Band of Brothers – WW1 got a fair amount of hits and comments from Co. Kilkenny, and from Ireland in general. Thanks to the Irish diaspora, there is a great deal of interest in Irish family history around the world, particularly in the US and Australia.
37. I’ve learned that not all comments are nice. They may be critical of you personally. I wouldn’t censor a comment just because I didn’t like what it said. Those sort of comments can be just as entertaining to a reader as the content itself, and I’ve seen more than one blogger who deliberately infuriates some of his (they’re usually blokes) readers and publicly bans those who dare to criticise him in the comments section. He always leaves the critical comment in place though, which is very clever – it makes the blog compelling reading, as some viewers love to hate the blogger whose site they are visiting.
38. I would, and have, deleted comments which are mindlessly offensive. Lee’s post about race was perhaps asking for trouble, but the first comment ‘ni**ers are just animals’ from some redneck in the US had to go straight away on the grounds that it was just mindless. The second post was equally racist, but had taken the individual from the UK a while to write and was a lengthy rant, so I let it in, and Lee responded. The guy’s follow up was twice as long and basically repeated what he’d already said, so I blocked it, which he wasn’t happy about – but tough shit, ultimately you do have editorial control.
39. I’ve aimed to develop a range of affiliate programmes to monetize the site rather than putting all my eggs in one basket. Commission Junction is good for its variety of advertisers and ease of use, as are Google Affiliate Network and Shareasale, and I’ve signed up with all of these. I also have a direct affiliation with Amazon, which is very easy to use.
40. I’ve been very choosy about the affiliates I advertise on the site. I will only pick companies whose services I have used myself and that I’m happy to recommend. They should also fit in with the context of the post, which is basic marketing common sense.
41. It’s tempting to plaster your blog with ads when you sign up with a few affiliates, and I did succumb to this temptation in the early days. However, this can make you look mercenary. More importantly, viewers can be so overwhelmed by ads that they just ignore all of them; I’ve received noticeably more clicks and sales with fewer ads. My pattern for posts is no more than 2 image ads and 2 Google Ads.
42. Initially I didn’t think much of Google Adsense and tended to avoid using it, but it’s actually been my most consistent source of income over the past 12 months. It’s obviously more effective the more your traffic builds, but Google Adsense limits your use to 3 blocks of ads per page; this is wise, and I personally never use more than 2.
43. I’ve tried to avoid flashing or animated ads, they are too off-putting and slow to load - keep them simple and low key.
44. I initially tried putting vertical ‘skyscraper’ sized ads on my site pages in sidebar widgets, but they did not work well with posts of varying length, and their size was too distracting. Instead, I now use horizontal half-banner ads at the top and end of the content in each post.
45. As well as banner ads, I’ve included the odd text link, plus a few book and DVD recommendations through Amazon. I’ve found this more subtle form of advertising very effective, but it mustn’t detract from the post content, or it will be obvious a mile off.
46. An overly-gushing review about an advertised product or service will not result in more sales – internet users are generally savvy and will not fall for it. Bizarrely, my post criticising Ancestry.co.uk resulted in more sign-ups than any other family history article I’ve done. Why? Dunno – I’ve just put down to an internet oddity. But it was an article dedicated solely to Ancestry records; readers obviously clicked on the Ancestry link, liked what they saw and decided to give it a go anyway.
47. After 12 months I haven’t made an income from the site that I could live on, but I’ve made enough to pay for the running costs and I’m optimistic about it’s potential. I could see ways of making a living from blogging, if I could devote all of my spare time to it.
Life as a blogger
48. Blogging will take over your life if you let it. Maintaining this site has probably come most at the expense of my sleep. If I wake up at 5 am, I can get a couple of hours of (quiet and peaceful) blogging done before I have to get ready and go to work. I can get another couple of hours done in the evening. My morning/evening sessions have settled into a working pattern which comprises reading news stories and doing the odd short blog post in the morning. The evening is spent on longer featured posts. I have tried (but often failed) to maintain a healthy balance between blogging, the family, working at the day job, and sleeping.
49. It’s preferable to stick to a posting schedule as regular readers will come to expect it. However, if you post daily you could be setting a rod for your own back as you will feel compelled to do it, and may become anxious if you don’t. It depends on what your blog means to you – if you want it to be your primary source of income, then you will be driven to devote all your time to it. If it is mainly a hobby with a nice secondary source of income, then other priorities will come first. I have never felt compelled to post daily just for the sake of it – don’t post unless you’ve got something useful or interesting to say, there’s already enough drivel on the internet (though note point 26).
50. Don’t neglect the world around you. The inspiration for most of my featured posts have not come from the internet, but by spending time with family and friends, and by getting out and about and seeing the world around me. Inspiration can come at any time and from unexpected sources (so always have a notepad, pen and camera phone at the ready).