Julie Balish describes herself as an artist / adventurer. Her wordpress site contains some great photography and video of her work. She asked me that million dollar question about getting “out there”, and it reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to blog on for a while.
I’m old enough to remember the pre-internet days of self promotion as an artist. When still a teen, with a head full of magic about a career in the music business, it seemed like there was an unending list of resources to dip into for funding, exposure, gigs, equipment–you name it. Of course you had to contact all of the organisations, magazines, clubs, promoters, fanzines and so on individually, or pay a manager to co-ordinate it all for you. It was time consuming and a road littered with pitfalls for the individual who wanted to spend more time on creating and less time on marketing.
Then the internet came along and, for a while at least, it seemed that a centralised human database would solve all of these problems, especially for the small businessperson trying to manage it all themselves. All of the information you could need, but a mouse click away.
Of course the reality of it is that as the internet settles into it’s 10th year as an affordable entity, so too has that very affordability traced the same curve as that followed by the misinformation to worthy content ratio. Push button publishing is all very well, in other words, but how many blogs, artist sites, photography tip sharing forums, community bookmarking sites and the modern day equivalent of get-rich-quick pyramid schemes can we really sign-up to, read and learn from in one day, much less actually gain anything from in the long term?
Getting “out there”, then, is as much of a needle in a haystack as it ever was–and success as a blogger is as much to do with having the time to self-learn the art of re-diffusion as it is understanding the underlying technology which makes RSS work.
For example. I have shied away from sharing my musical experimentation on here for many reasons. The first being a private embarrassment and even shame at how little I bother to pick up a guitar these days–let alone carry those noodlings through to a full blown project involving other musicians. The second is that, no matter how elaborate a piece I am (or am not) working on might be, the blood and guts of how it’s made aren’t ever going to be as interesting to anyone else as they are to me. The fun part in making music–speaking as nerd–is the hour after hour concentration on the minutia; getting that hi-hat just right, so it fits just right with that kick drum and so on–what my American friends would call ‘Inside Baseball’ of the music making process.
What I am building to, then, is an acceptance we must all of us–content producers–embrace, that no matter how good it might make us feel to be so transparent about ourselves, especially as our page rankings grow and we see our visitor numbers creeping ever higher–ultimately it’s the end result; the product of our works, which people are really interested in, because everyone, it seems, these days is a content producer–the line of demarkation between the good and the bad is as subjective as it ever was. An obvious conclusion to reach, I know–but an important one to bear in mind when considering the holy trinity of successful blogging; the ABC’s from page one, figure 1.1 in the Ladybird book of “how-to get out there”; Content, Hosting and Monetization.
WordPress, AdSense and Costs
WordPress.org is a blogging platform which you can download and install for free onto your own server. WordPress.com is again free but hosted on WordPress’s site.
There are limitations on using WordPress.com’s free service and paying a hosting company like GoDaddy.com, for example, to deliver your wordpress.org based site can at first appear to be a cheap way of maintaining greater control over your content–but there are some hidden costs to so-called self-hosting, which we’ll come to in a moment.The main advantage of a self-hosted wordpress based blog, is that you can customise the site in a number of ways not currently available to free wordpress.com blogs, such as the one you are reading this article on now. The main difference being CSS template modification.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are files which contain text formatted in such a way as to tell a web browser where every element contained within a page is supposed to go, what colour it is, how large it is, in what order it is to be displayed and so on and so forth. Being able to modify this template is not only advantageous for reasons of giving your site an individual feel, but because by entering certain code into your CSS template, third party services, such as Google AdSense, can analyse your site for keywords which correspond to keywords which their advertisers have specified as unique to the products and services they would like to sell–and would therefore wish to display on your site.
By either creating from scratch, or modifying existing WordPress CSS templates, Style Sheets are the secret ingredient in modern web pages; the secret sauce which sets apart the look and feel of a so-called Web 2.0 site, from older sites–with that jenky done in MS Word feel some older sites suffer from, which looks so dated and unprofessional by comparison to modern, clean, fast loading sites designed using modern web standards.
Most conspicuous by its absence, from the range of WordPress.com widgets (the side bar and main content area plugins which display everything from RSS feeds to your latest Flickr.com uploads) is AdSense–the defacto monetization scheme from Google.
‘Monetize’ is an Americanism, hewn from the Web 2.0 boom of recent years, meaning to insert targeted advertising into an already successful site, to keep the content free, while the author(s) gets paid-per-page hit. Since AdSense requires you to modify your site’s CSS code to work properly and free hosted blogs like WordPress.com do not currently allow users to do this, the only way to earn a share of the ad revenue for clicks to ads which originate on your blog, is to self-host your blog.
The rock star of the hosting world is undoubtedly GoDaddy.com. But they do receive a lot of criticism for their hidden charges, once you step over the bandwidth allotted to your particular kind of hosting account, as detailed in the small print of the end user licence agreement.
It’s very easy to inadvertently step over this bandwidth allowance. Something as beyond your control as suddenly finding an article you wrote being submitted to one of the usual suspect community bookmarking sites, like reddit.com, delicious.com and digg.com, can spike your traffic so quickly that the physical machine your data is stored on has to (automatically) move your content to a server more capable of meeting the increased demand. Rather analogous to an unplanned overdraft from the bank, a sudden spike in your bandwidth can cost thousands of dollars, so be warned!
As soon as you’ve crossed over your total allowed bandwidth, GoDaddy will automatically begin charging the credit card you used to pay for a basic hosting package, with the rates applicable to the high bandwidth business service your site is now hosted on–and although many of the well publicised cases of GoDaddy doing this have often resulted in these charges being waived (after the odd heated e-mail) there are plenty of reasons why you would want to avoid letting things go that far to start with.
Incoming linksAds and monetization, of course, aren’t everything. If you simply want to be seen / heard / read–social bookmarking, as mentioned above, is the fastest and easiest way of “pinging” the latest entry on your blog around the ineptly named blog-o-sphere–which seems to have stuck as the catch-all term to describe what is possible using Really Simple Syndication (RSS).
The idea of RSS is that once the main body of your blog entry is published, it can be reformatted into something which can be easily pushed out in a variety of different ways to sites which specialise in categorising and prioritising certain kinds of content, based on keywords, tags and metadata, collected from lots of different RSS feeds, which can be searched and presented according to the tastes and search criteria of the viewer, or ranked based upon the popularity with other viewers of that content.
Most so-called social bookmarking sites rely on two main methods of collecting and presenting content from around the blog-o-sphere (you see, there’s that term again, it works so annoyingly well).
- Manual entry of an article into the site’s submission engine. On sites like digg.com, for example, this can be a slow and protracted proceedure–partly through deliberate design, to dissuade spam and partly to ensure submissions fall within a certain range of topics, so as not to dilute the focus of digg’s technology, software, games and entertainment mission.
Reddit.com, on the other hand, has a rather easier submission method, which is as simple as pasting the URL of the article you wish to submit and giving it a title. Reddit, while appearing simpler and cleaner than many of the other social bookmarking sites, is in fact very sophisticated in it’s sub-categorisation of submitted links. So-called sub-reddits range in topic from religion and atheism to computer programming and pornography.
- The second method of collating RSS feeds is the convention adopted by sites such as Google reader and Technorati–where the main text of an article is all that remains of the original work and is presented on the site in a seamless presentational style, indistinguishable from the design of the rest of the site. This kind of re-diffusion has been criticised, because popular content only earns ad revenue for the author if the reader clicks through to the writer’s own site, rather than reading the content on the central feed reader–although there is still revenue earned from ads embedded in the RSS field itself, if this has been enabled by the original author (more on how to do this later).
The advantage of using an on-line RSS reader, as opposed to one which collates RSS feed subscriptions in an off-line reader, such as Mozilla ‘Thunderbird’ or Apple’s ‘Mail’, is that a user can log into their subscriptions page from any machine, anywhere in world which is connected to the internet.
This second method of re-diffusion is also useful in terms of expanding your readership, because it’s more likely that your page rankings with major search engines, such as Yahoo! and Google, will climb higher by your blog receiving incoming links from other big sites, than if it only receives incoming links from a few other similarly low ranking sites–although paradoxically if many such smaller sites banded together and linking to lots of articles on your site, this would have significantly more impact on your page ranking than if only one or two large sites linked to only one or two of your articles.
Feed me, see moreAll RSS feeds are not created equally. Without going too deep into the technicalities and politics of it, suffice to say the term RSS is one which several rival systems and methods of syndicating content have vied for the right to call their own over the years. Predictably this has led to some incompatibilities which, although largely ironed out (or papered over) by amendments here and collaborations there, for some very complicated reasons it’s a good idea to clean up the XML in your feed.
The only service I’ve ever used to do this, is feedburner.com. Simply put feedburner reads your RSS feed and parses it in such a way that enables you to control how your content is redistributed, without worrying about being compliant with the various flavours of RSS / Atom.
somewhat WAY beyond the scope of what I wanted this article to be about to list all of the reasons why it’s a good thing to use feedburner, but suffice to say the following are among the main reasons why signing up for their free service is recommended. You should also read up on the many articles available on their help forums, which will help you understand how RSS can help your site branch out even further.
- SmartCast – “..adds elements required for a richer, more detailed listing in iTunes Podcast Directory and sites using Yahoo Media RSS.”
- FeedFlare – Adds “e-mail this” and other quick link buttons for your readers to add your content to social bookmarking sites. Also includes easy ways of marking any licence restrictions you want to highlight on your content, such as Creative Commons.
- PingShot – Automatically notify all of the major blog indexing services when new content is available in your feed.
I hope that’s a decent primer on some of the tools I’ve used to clamber up the rankings. NOT that I am some sort of über-blogger with a billion million hits. I’m not saying that–but without wanting to blow my own trumpet (even though I am somewhat breaking my own rule of never blogging about blogging) I have done rather well in the last 3 months or so–and I enjoy passing on what I learn, as I learn it–and that’s what blogging is really all about.