April 10th, 2011, marks the one year anniversary of RossHudgens.com. Much has changed since then, and the most important part of that, as it relates to this blog, is my stance on the craft itself. I opened this blog very early with a post that went into detail on why SEO blogging sucks.
The TL;DR version of that post is that SEO is a finite practice, and because of that, what we describe in many of the posts in this industry is, at some point, finite, and thus constantly regurgitated throwaway. The thesis of the “SEO blogging sucks” post is that the stance SEO bloggers should take, then, is a personal one. Talk about the people and the events – not things as static and redundant as an algorithm.
Looking back over that and over my one year of blogging here, it may then be decided that my blogging, then, sucks. Whether or not you’ve come to that conclusion as well is up to you, but according to my original definition my current blogging style fits that schematic. I have largely stayed away from discussing events, and other than my interviews with respected industry professionals – I have also stayed away from the people.
What’s changed is what’s changed. It turns out a year is a long time. I’ve since read Merlin Mann’s Better, which is what I consider one of the most cogent articles on what creating things – and doing – and living – should be about. The article posits that there is a multitude of content that contributes “to the imperative that we constantly expand our portfolio of shallow but strongly-held opinions about nearly everything”. This is tech news, politics, celebrity gossip, and etcetera - this is Google +1, this is SEO is dead, this is Bing copying Google’s search results.
Blog posts writing about events and people are almost always throwaway. These are information blips on the internet superhighway – things that will come and go, that won’t change people, that won’t do anything. They can be consumed and created for the sole intention of distraction and the reductive thrill of clicking a mouse, but that isn’t doing anything to make us better. Our time should be spent reading and creating things that make us and those around us improve – or they simply aren’t worth doing, unless you just like existing.
I feel my best when I make a breakthrough or development in my work processes or career – I feel my worst when I find myself dalling around Techcrunch waiting for more news that won’t modify my world in the slightest.
Thankfully, I’ve found myself able to generate enough ideas to populate this blog with non-repetitive SEO content for the duration of its existence. How long that persists is hard to say, but I have confidence that I am capable of doing so for at least the immediate future.
Creating a Better Boat
I wanted to call this post “Why Blogging is Broken”, but I’m not a huge fan of trafficbait titles (ignore How to Steal Money From SEOs), and this post is mostly supposed to be a summation of 1 year of doing this thing. But, have no qualms – blogging is broken. Not in the my-car-won’t-run sense, but in the I’m-handicapped-and-inefficent sense.
Blogging is a highly inefficient mechanism, one that creates several layers of runoff with every subsequent post. But it doesn’t have to be this way – and it won’t – at least not for me. And I hope not for you, either.
There are three types of blog posts, that generate three motions of human reaction:
- Thinking – Quick Change Action
- Thinking – Delayed Change Action
Every post does one of these three things, even at the most microscopic level. News, guides, opinion pieces. They are each capable of being spread virally. They are each capable of being considered “good”. But, I posit, the only legitimate, real good among them is the second type – those that generate thinking and then quick change action.
SEO theory and tech news and opinion pieces can be well written. They can make you chew knawingly on intellectual gum. But if they don’t move you to act, they’re a waste. They’re a pulse. They’re you clicking on a mouse. Good opinion and theory posts have the mask of being “tech punditry” and “gossip throwaway”, but they actually have the ability to incite action. Bad theory and opinion pieces make you read them and then move on. This is a person throwing their political opinion on the wall – watching it slide to the floor, and then having it be picked up by the janitor.
Posts about SEO being dead, or Google complaints, or paid links, or black vs white hat are generally just that. Throwaway. Short-lived intellectual gum. Good opinion posts – a good “paid link post” – makes you change your opinion. Makes you either completely stop buying paid links – or makes you start buying paid links. Or makes you stop calling them paid links entirely.
I can mask some handwavy gunk into a post about motivating an SEO, and it might just be me flailing my hands wildly, but if it actually makes people go and send one or two more e-mails or start a blog post – then it was a good post. If it didn’t, then it falls into the “thinking” category, and it’s an information blip on an otherwise crowded internet.
These posts have hidden action items. People love actionable advice. Good opinion and theory pieces are actionable advice, masked in hyperbole. Due to this potential, theory and opinion can be good. But most of them aren’t. If your blog is entirely SEO theory or opinion or news, there’s a strong chance it just isn’t very good – at least as it comes to doing something positive for the world. If it’s still popular, it’s probably because you’re a celebrity in some sense, internet or otherwise – or you’re just a good writer. But it doesn’t make it good. It doesn’t make it better. It makes it something that will fade away at some point, into the ether, without ever having made a damn worth of difference.
Point two, thinking and then quick change action, is the holy grail of internet writing – at least as it comes to blogging. It makes for a good post. The more a post does this for the largest amount of people, the better it is. Merlin Mann’s post is an opinion piece, but it creates quick change action. I now ignore politics and celebrity news and business headlines almost entirely, besides an eyes-side glance at the title.
My post last week, Please Exit The Link Building, succeeded because it created and offered several quick change actions for a large amount of people. One quick change action can often be enough, but when you do it in droves, and you offer a large amount of them, the better the chance that what you say will impact the largest number of people. Great posts – good posts – any post that is above terrible – incite readers to think and then implement quick change actions in their life.
At this point you’re probably wondering why I think posts that incite the third state – “Thinking – Delayed Change Action” – aren’t nearly as good or as viable as the second. The majority of this has nothing to do with what these posts do – it’s because blogging, as it exists currently, is a failed model for sustaining textbook-worthy, evergreen content.
Artifacts and the Frailties of Time
There are two types of delayed change actions. The first type is a blog post that details something informative and useful, but isn’t necessarily applicable immediately. For SEOs, this could be some agency workflow that increases productivity 50%. But currently, they work in-house, so it’s useless. Or, an example of a great infographic template. The second type of delayed change action is one that takes a lot of implementation to get done. This is a blog post equivalent of a “Guide to Learning C++” textbook – such as a scraper or advanced coding suggestion to improve your SEO.
Both are useful, both crave action, but due to time-based characteristics, both must be delayed until later for the majority of the audience who reads them.
The problem with this is it at conflict with the nature of blogging itself. Blogging is a time sensitive operation – if you have outdated posts on your homepage, readers are likely to completely ignore the content. Similarly, if a shared post has a timestamp from long ago, they are equally likely to disregard it or not share it with their audience. If a post is good now but falls off the homepage, there’s a high probability that readers won’t give it an equal level of credence, despite its evergreen nature.
This runs opposite of the great novel. When’s the last time you’ve retreated to a blog that hasn’t been updated in five years because of the great, evergreen content that was hosted there? On the opposite side, when’s the last time you bought or read a book that was five or more years old? Probably recently, right? Do you see the dilemma here? The current state of blogging accelerates the death of evergreen, textbook-level content.
If we think about this rationally, it creates a huge dilemma for a certain type of content – content that’s no less valid, but has a small “quick-change” market. This type of content must be extremely memorable and “guide-esque” to actually be remembered when the time comes to implement it. Yes, some people – the most adept and aware – will bookmark these posts and use them appropriately, but this is a small minority of every blog’s audience. The majority of every blog readership is not prepared, or likely, to bookmark a post for future use.
For the “Guide to C++” posts that have high-level algorithms and scraping and other details that require a real sit-down to implement, the impact is similar. Many people would be willing to install and use these at the correct time – however, it is rarely right when they see the posts, and they have few built-in-reminders to take the time to improve their processes. Because of this, these advanced-advanced level guides can go over a reader’s head and ability to implement, and despite their ingenuity and depth, fail.
Both “Guide to C++” and quick-action tips with rare implementation have to be gargantuan in value to be remembered, or they’ll fall out of consciousness. Based on the characteristics of only having quick change actions for small portions of your reading audience, these blog posts and tips, for all intents and purposes, are relative failures. This has nothing to do with the value of the content itself – and it has everything to do with the nature of blogging. Given this characteristic, creating these thinking – delayed change posts can be content wins but giant marketing failures – for a lack of knowledge on how their audience might interpret it because of the above characteristics.
Solving the Problem
The answer isn’t easy – it isn’t comprehensive – but it’s a start. The kind of great content I describe above, that will reach the largest portion of it’s potential audience when it reaches your blog, is in the essay format. Two implementations of this are Eric Ward’s link building articles and Paul Graham’s essays on startups. The homepage of these “blogs” don’t read like a blog at all – they read like a sitemap – the table of contents for a living book.
This is how great, evergreen content should be stored – as indents on a living, internet book. This is the only way your readership will give it a full chance – the only way they’ll appropriately scan it for content appropriate to what they’re working on now. “Best Of” sections serve a similar purpose, and are a decent substitute – but they still aren’t analyzed or read in the same depth as a landing page of an “essays” type-layout. My best-of section was the 17th most viewed piece of my site last month.
The failures of this model are in the marketability of the content. These aren’t the most optimal, aesthetically pleasing setups – but the benefits are that it allows you to create a hub that exists outside strong time sensitivity. Both Paul Graham and Eric Ward’s “blog” designs do just this – and do it swimmingly. This allows them to have a hub that can be modified whenever they want – the lack of time stamps and the “living book” setup allow for intermittent updating without crying from readership – while gaining the maximum benefit the essay format allows. They still stay true and honest with their users by ordering the posts by date, but the “sitemap” experience is far superior as it comes to discovering older content from these two.
The beauty of new microblogging platforms like Twitter is that you can leverage a static, non-changing website – like Eric Ward or Paul Graham’s – with a fresh, less time-intensive hub like Twitter. You can send traffic to the website at will, even if you modify rarely – as long as you stay active on your external microblogging hub, or otherwise have a personal brand strong enough to create constant, continual returns to your website.
Although not currently executing the “living book” setup, someone who is doing an effective job of sending users to old content is Michael Gray. He currently uses Tweet Old Post to create “Archive” tweets that send his followers to old posts of his. It often creates some disdain with his readers – but the strength of his personal brand – and the strength of his ability to balance being human and being a bot – allows him to do this time and time again without real damange to his brand.
Living Book vs Throwaway Blog
This doesn’t work for every kind of blog (it doesn’t work for the bad ones that mass produce content), but for those that create articles that can accurately described as evergreen, textbook-level content, it makes the most sense. Think about the depth and quantity of SEOMoz – how much buried SEO knowledge easter eggs are there on that blog that will never be discovered retroactively based on their information architecture setup?
Not to say that the living book format is right for them – they have a different model and are mass producing content, and have generated thousands of posts. But for the individual that prefers depth over quantity and only has limited time, I believe the living book display to be far superior.
My current setup obviously falls to the “throwaway blog” format. However, it won’t stay that way. As my schedule becomes more packed, I won’t be able to produce massive posts once a week – but I’ll still want to write, and have an audience when I do so. Sooner rather than later, I will eventually be moving the way of “living book” – and I believe you should too. The blogosphere will be much better off if you do.
One Year of RossHudgens.com
I am happy to have made it through one year of blogging at RossHudgens.com. I spent 5 months blogging on general topics until I decided to shift to SEO full time. Not surprisingly, I gained very little traction in those first five months. When I narrowed in, good things started to happen, and I am just now hitting a threshold where I am happy with the readership developing. Newsflash – building things is a grind, but – eventually – good things start happening.
The outcome I am most happy about from this blog is how much it has improved my SEO skills. It might seem weird, but many of the ideas I talk about in my posts came to life while I was writing those posts. This is why everyone should blog – everyone should write – in some capacity, even if they have no readers. It solidifies ideas, pokes holes in others, and improves your skills at whatever you choose to write about.
I 100% expect to be back here in another year’s time. I have some things on the radar – improvement to various parts of the aesthetic here, focus, etc – but I will definitely be writing in some capacity here for years to come, even if I eventually outgrow SEO – which I plan to do.
I have lots of thanks to give out. I am very thankful for several people – Sujan Patel of Singlegrain has been my mentor in the SEO game since day one and has helped my development extraordinarily. Garrett French is probably the person most responsible for accelerating growth of this blog through content sharing – he discovered me early on and shared my content frequently with his already-established audience both on Twitter and his blog – and I’m very thankful for that. Eric Pratum has probably been the most consistent reader of this blog since the earliest days, and is now doing me the great favor of giving my content a first-read for any errors I might have missed.
Joshua Titsworth, Don Sheldon, Wiep Knol, Jim Rudnick, Matthew Diehl and Nick LeRoy have consistently shared my stuff since very early in the process, and I owe them huge amounts of gratitude for doing that – as well as some beer. I’m thankful to Danny Sullivan and Elisabeth Osmeloski (and whoever else gave me the thumb up) for letting me write at Search Engine Land – which has been very helpful in promoting both this blog and my personal brand. Additional thanks to the folks over at Sphinn such as Sebastian, Matt McGee and Hugo Guzman – who have been very kind in promoting my posts on the site and driving much additional traffic to the blog.
My final thanks go to Rand Fishkin and Aaron Wall, my ideal readers, who set the bar for SEO writing quality with their posts. It is their standard of writing that I hope to live up to with each subsequent post on SEO.
To everybody else that has shared my stuff or left a comment or helped in some way, thank you. I greatly appreciate your support – and hope I can provide some continually helpful quick change content in RossHudgens.com’s second year.