Before we get started with my Top Ten list of best practices, let’s take a moment to explore why you are blogging in the first place. Is it to market a product? To force yourself to write regularly and in a more disciplined way? To weigh in on matters that concern you in the church and the world? To “get your name out there” as an expert, author, or freelance writer? To find out what all the fuss is about since it seems like everybody and his dog has a blog nowadays?
All of those are valid reasons to begin blogging, but they are not usually reasons why readers will come—or stay. It’s not a foregone conclusion that just because you write a blog that anyone will care. The most important reason to blog, hands down, is to build a community of like-minded people around a common interest or interests. The blog is not about you; it’s about the readers you gather.
With that in mind, here are ten tips:
1) Think of yourself as a curator of ideas. At a museum, a curator is a person who chooses exhibits, researches them, carefully marks them, and presents them to the world. A museum curator knows her niche audience. As a blogger, you will come to know yours too, though this takes time. One of the best things you can do as a curator is to try different “exhibits” and see what people respond to most. Whether you are pointing readers to new books, other people’s posts, or what was on Colbert last night, you are custodially managing information and ideas for your readers.
2) Remember that your blog is a community, not a soapbox. A blog is definitely a place for you to express opinions (in fact, you'll probably find that the stronger the opinion, the greater the traffic—a depressing reality in these polarized times). But there is a difference between a blog that relates opinions and curates information and a soapbox that only exists for one reason, whether it’s to hawk a book or an ideology. Discuss other people’s blog posts, and whether you agree or disagree. Showcase a news article or op ed. And when you have generated a large enough audience that you can pose questions of your readers and actually get answers (which takes a while), ask a question aloud and solicit your readers’ ideas.
3) Use a lot of tags. One of your goals as a blogger is to help build traffic with SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. The layperson’s translation of SEO is “how high your blog comes up in the Google rankings when someone searches for that topic.” One way to improve SEO is with links, as discussed in #4. Another way is with tags. Think of tags as the comprehensive index of each blog post. Any author you’ve referenced, any website, any article, gets its own separate tag. Remember that a category is not the same as a tag. Your post will probably only have two or three categories, but far more tags. You'll likely want to include your own name as a tag so that your readers can easily find your posts with a Google search (or you can find them yourself later).
4) Link early and often. Linking is critical to improve your SEO because it helps Google to “spider” your blog. (Relax, arachnophobes: In Google lingo this is a positive thing.) But as a curator and community-builder, you don’t only link to other posts and sites because doing so helps you, but because it helps them, the community you are creating. You will make friends in your field when you call attention to other thinkers’ posts and send traffic their way.
5) Plan ahead. Regular blogging can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. I blog five times a week for RNS, and that schedule wouldn’t work at all if I didn’t have most things plotted out ahead of time. I tend to write little snatches of posts as they occur to me, then flesh them out later. You’ll find a rhythm over time. Be sure to have a couple of “reserve” posts always on hand should you fall ill or have an urgent matter come up. In a later post this month I'll offer tips on how to upload content ahead of time and have it post automatically at a time you specify.
6) Having said that, do blog about items in the news. Your blog is a water cooler conversation, so it’s good to stay abreast of the topics people are actually discussing this week. It’s harder to plan those kinds of posts ahead of time, obviously, but it’s important that your blog stay current and also that you are providing thoughtful commentary on the news of the day.
7) Don’t be afraid to be personal. Many of the best blog posts weave events from the blogger’s own life and world with larger happenings and ideas. Aim for a happy medium: you don’t want the content to be all about you 24/7, but neither do you want it to be so impersonal it could have been written by anyone.
8) Be brief. Keep your blog posts under 1,000 words, and preferably shorter. The sweet spot for blog posts seems to be between 500 and 800 words. One of the biggest causes of burnout in blogging is when bloggers feel they have to cover huge topics all by themselves in one sitting. Keep your posts specific, link to other people’s material, and don’t be exhaustive. In fact, exhaustive posts tend to exhaust their readers. It’s no accident that some of the English-speaking world’s most popular bloggers, like Seth Godin and Andrew Sullivan, are known for brevity. (They also blog multiple times a day, and presumably live in caves with no social life, but you do not have to do this.)
9) Make your posts visually interesting. A satisfying blog post isn’t just memorable written content, but strong visual content as well. Every blog platform can support photographs, so use at least one image that encapsulates the content of your post but does not violate someone else’s copyright. You can find fair use images on the CreativeCommons search engine for free. Remember that this primary image will also be exported along with the title and teaser of your post whenever it is posted or shared on Facebook, so try to choose an image that will pop nicely against a white background. If your hosting platform has the ability to embed video via YouTube (WordPress, for example, makes this a cinch), then do so from time to time. Also, vary the text within your post to make blocks for long quotes (WordPress has an icon for this), use bullet points, and even do different colored text. Please don’t go wild with this last idea, though, because a little colored text goes a very long way unless you are still in junior high.
10) Work hard on your title. Personally, I find titling my posts to be one of the hardest aspects of blogging. Here’s what you have to balance in your title:
- It has to be short, because when the content gets shared in social media you’re usually looking at five or six words of room for your title. (Don’t go all academic and think there has to be a longish title and a subtitle for every post. This is my own grad school hangover problem. Don’t let it happen to you.)
- It has to be opinionated, because mealy-mouthed titles don’t generate a lot of traffic, and people want to know at a glance whether this link is something they should click on. Put it all out there.
- It has to be strategic in terms of keywords. One of the worst errors you can make as a blogger is being coy about what’s actually in your post. In Google searchability, keywords in a title are given more SEO weight than those found within the text of the post, so title keywords are golden real estate.
- People love numbered lists of 3, 5, 10, etc. My guess is that they know with a numbered title just what they're getting, which is helpful for busy people. Examples could be "The Top Four Birds to Watch for on an Alaska Cruise" for your bird-watching blog or "Six Reasons We Switched to Homeschooling" for your homeschooling blog.
Obviously, there's far more we could say about blogging. A couple of helpful books I like are The Rough Guide to Blogging (though it's a bit out of date now) and Blogging Heroes, the second of which I'll discuss in more detail next Saturday.