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How I cheat my way to success

© Anthony Lawrence, aplawrence.com

I like to think this web site is moderately popular. Maybe a little quirky, a bit unfocused, perhaps a little too geeky for some and far too un-geekish for the real geeks, but fun and informative for the few who read it regularly (estimated at less than 1,000 right now, by the way). I can point at some decent stats: under the 100,000 mark in both Alexa and Technorati (under 50,000 in the new Alexa stats), more than 80 Stumbleupon mentions, a decent Google PR (though it was a heck of a lot better until very recently, but really, that's small potatoes: truly popular sites get thousands of readers per hour. And yet, we do manage a healthy visitor count - almost 200,000 a month, give or take. How's that possible with just 1,000 readers or less?

I cheat.

No, not at the stats. Those are very real. We really do get six to seven thousand visits daily, but very few of them are regular readers. Most came here because they were sent here by Google or Yahoo or whatever: over 90% of our traffic comes from search engines and only a little less than 9% is from referring links and direct traffic. There's overlap, of course: a regular reader can also get here because of a search - even I sometimes find a long forgotten post when I'm searching for something elsewhere. But the important point is that search engines are largely responsible for the traffic here and it is their activity in ads that pays the bills. Without those visitors, this site would join the depressing majority of small sites who only make coffee money (if that!) from their blogging efforts.

The blogging secret

So, what's the secret? How do I write articles and posts that attract so much search engine traffic? Well, once again, the answer is simple:

I cheat.

No, no, not by special keyword techniques, not by hidden text, not by cloaking, misdirection, doorway pages or anything like that. I "cheat" by raw volume.

I started this site in 1997, ten years ago. Since then, I have posted steadily and consistently. Not necessarily every single day, but pretty close to it. Actually closer to two posts per day, on average. Not every post is long or memorable, but heck, you throw enough darts and you are bound to hit the bullseye once in a while, right? More importantly, you are bound to use a phrase or two that nobody else happened to have used much and when some seeker of wisdom types that phrase into a search box, bingo, up pops your site. Have many thousands of articles out there in the search indexes and you don't even have to match very often to get a lot of traffic.. the raw numbers and the randomness of chance will do the work for you. That's why I say it's cheating: I don't know how many searchers actually found what they wanted here, but the point is that it doesn't really matter: Google et al. will keep sending them because there is a large pile of articles with potential matches sitting here.

Raw volume vs. popularity

In a pithy phrase, being prolific is as good as being popular, at least for advertising income. Ideally, of course, you'd like to be prolific and popular, but popular can require talent, luck and hard work, while prolific only really demands the latter. Prolific doesn't pay all that badly, at least in the tech field: I'd estimate that each reasonably decent post you make is worth about $10 in ad revenue over a five year period. Some will be worth less, some more, but that's probably a pretty accurate expectation. I say five years because if you are writing in the tech arena, the value of anything you are writing about usually fades fairly quickly; in other fields (accounting or law) your work might have better longevity, and in others (pop culture, politics) it might be far worse. If you think your subject matter will fade away in two or three years, cut that number in half, if it will last longer, increase it. It should give you a decent idea of how much time you can afford to invest in blogging (assuming you care about it being financially justifiable - you may not).


The hidden payoff

Of course if you do someday become popular, all that prior work instantly becomes even more valuable (the stuff that hasn't aged into insignificance, anyway). Look at authors like Stephen King: he wrote a lot of shlock junk that sold for peanuts (or couldn't sell at all) before he "caught fire". After he became famous, that old "junk" was republished and made more millions for him and his publishers. So the (somewhat depressing) $10.00 figure may be worth a lot more if the world ever does finally recognize your talents and full worth.

But even if it doesn't, that's not so bad, is it? I estimate I've earned about $30 to $40 per hour from blogging writing (that's just from advertising, it's much more if I count the consulting work that came because of the website) - not bad pay for doing something I would do for no pay at all. Of course that comes from the "prolific residuals" - five years ago the figure would have been less, and five years from now it will be more (assuming I keep writing, of course). If I hadn't written so much in the past, my current earnings would be far less. For this sort of "on the fringe" blogging, it's just a numbers game, and the numbers come from volume rather than glory.

Some standards, please

I'm not advocating publishing junk just for the sake of building volume, though I suspect that you could do that and actually do just as well as I have - maybe better, because it takes less time to create junk. But I think I have at least a chance of gaining more popularity, because I do care about what I write, I do put real effort into it. If you aren't doing the best you can, what possible hope could there be? More importantly, what would you take from it? Beyond prolific, there is something else you can have even if you aren't (yet) popular, and that is pride. Being proud of what you do is important, and I simply can't understand those who do not care about that.

Prolific, popular, and proud. Now there's a goal worth working hard for.

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Sat Feb 9 00:38:52 2008: 3624   Evan

Hi Anthony,

I'm responding to your link from Skellies' blog. I see that you comment on it fairly readily (another form of cheating?).

Have you been able to discern any patterns in the reactions? There seems there must be lots of data from ten years work.

I'm just starting out - six months with my new blog. I hope posting consistently will lead to an income for me too.

I love the way you write - you have a lightness of touch that I envy.

Sat Feb 9 00:45:03 2008: 3625   TonyLawrence

Yes, I comment at a lot of places.. and yes, that can bring new readers though that's seldom the reason behind my comment. Maybe even "never", it's hard to say..

And yes, there are a lot of posts here; many many thousands.

But I'm not sure what you mean by "Have you been able to discern any patterns in the reactions?" Can you expand on that?

Oh, and thank you for the compliment.. I don't fuss about my writing style, I just write it out as I think it.. I'm deeply appreciative that you enjoy it.

Sat Feb 9 00:51:56 2008: 3626   Evan

What I meant by patterns was if you got better responses to some topics or headlines.

One theory I have at the moment is that people like numbers in headlines. So if I've done a post with a few reasons for something spelt out I've been putting the number of reasons in the headline.

At the moment I think blogging is quite new and the rules are still being sorted out. So any decent information is very valuable.

Sat Feb 9 00:58:43 2008: 3627   TonyLawrence

Oh boy.. the SEM folks are going to disagree loudly, but no: I don't pay a lot of attention to headlines other than to try to make them make sense: if you see this headline, will you be disappointed by what you actually find? That's my main concern.

I do make a bit of an effort with keywords and description metatags, but again I don't spend hours fussing over them: I just do 'em.

My feeling (and I know the SEM's will say I'm wrong) is that if you keep your readers interests in mind you'll do fine..

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