I’ve been writing this blog now for a little over 4 years. I’ve found it to be a really rewarding and fun thing to do – more people than I can count have told me that this blog has helped them, lots of you have helped me figure things out, and just the act of writing down confusing things has taught me so much.
I want to talk a little about what what it means for a blog to be “successful” (and how I think about success for this blog) because I think independent blogs are kind of a wonderful + magical thing – I have a site that I own! And lots of people have signed up to get updates when I post, because they’re interested in what I’m saying. And there isn’t any other intermediary (a newspaper/facebook/twitter/anyone) who we have to appeal to, it’s just up to me to write interesting things and up to people whether they want to subscribe or not.
A lot of the posts I’ve seen about building a successful blog (like this one) are very SEO/marketing heavy and seem to assume your goal is to maximize page views. I haven’t found maximizing to be that rewarding. So what does success look like if it doesn’t mean “maximize page views”?
This post isn’t really about how to build the Biggest Most Popular Blog (I think small blogs with small audiences are wonderful and important things!). It’s more about how I think about building a blog which is fun and useful and where I feel connected with people who read it.
I’ll also talk a little bit about metrics that I find more meaningful than page views (like subscribers) and how to track those!
focus on conversations, not page views
Like many website authors, I’ve spent my share of time looking nervously at Google Analytics for my site (“do people like me? Oh wow! People are visiting my site! wow!”). I haven’t found stressing about google analytics numbers to be that useful – if 2x or 5x more people visit my site this month than last month, so what? It doesn’t really feel that meaningful to me.
I find it much more useful to ask myself – am I having interesting conversations / learning things with as a result of blogging? A couple examples of times I’ve had great conversations as a result of blogging:
I’ve been writing up my progress on building a Ruby profiler, and other profiler authors have told me a lot of interesting things about their experiences writing profilers. I’ve gotten some really helpful tips.
Or, last year I wrote a lot of blog posts about Kubernetes as I was trying to figure out how to use it. One awesome thing that happened as a result of that is that someone from another company IMed me to ask me questions, and they ended up sharing the code for a super interesting container project that gave me new great ideas. I would never have talked to that person if it weren’t for my blog!
Talking about what I’m working on in public means that other people working in the same field can tell me useful things and help me out, which is awesome.
A result of this attitude is that I don’t write about topics I’m not interested in having discussions with people about! Like I could write a post about cryptocurrencies and it might even be helpful to some people, but I’m not interested in talking about cryptocurrencies, so I probably won’t write about that!
try to write blog posts that actually help people
The other big thing that keeps me motivated is when people tell me that a blog post I wrote really helped them!
It’s very easy to write blog posts that are widely read but don’t make a big difference to the people who read them (page views aren’t important!!), so it’s always interesting to see what writing is actually helping people. To contrast two technical posts that a lot of people read – this post about a mac kernel bug got a lot of page views and was fun to write, but I don’t think it really helped anyone. This post from last year about how kubernetes certificate authorities work is about something I really struggled to understand, and at least 4-5 people have told me that the blog post really helped them understand the topic (for example in this tweet from last week!).
Blog posts don’t have to be useful (they can also just be entertaining!) but I find it rewarding to write useful posts so “number of people who have told me my blog helped them lately” is a part of how I measure success.
One of the most useful blogs I read right now is Lara Hogan’s amazing blog – for instance this post on what to do when your manager isn’t supporting you is something that would have really helped me at some times in the past. I’d love to be able to be as useful as that for other people and I hope that sometimes I am.
write for actual human people, not “content” for an “audience”
It’s always striking to me when I go give a talk at a conference, meet someone whose work I really respect, and they tell me, “oh yeah! I read your blog, it’s great!” Also I know that some of my friends read my blog, and I like my friends. Because I know that all these people I like read my blog, it makes me want to write posts that are kind and interesting, not just “content” that I think my “audience” will “engage” with :).
A lot of my blog posts come out of conversations I have with individual people! Like I started writing this one in the hopes that it might help one of my friends who writes a really cool blog.
How do people comment?
My favorite part of blogging is getting ideas / corrections / comments back from people! I don’t have a comments section on my blog, but I actually love hearing from people.
In practice most of the regular comments I get are on Twitter – I’ll post a tweet saying with a link to a post, and people will tell me what they thought! Here’s what I see as being the options for comments:
- on the blog. (either disqus / self-hosted comments)
- on Twitter.
- on reddit or hacker news or whatever.
- by email.
Twitter comments are the thing that works the best for me right now – I used to have Disqus comments on this blog but I removed them because I decided moderating them was too much work – I like having a public discussion around my blog, but being responsible for hosting and moderating that discussion forever isn’t what I want right now.
Also sometimes people email me interesting comments, which is awesome, for example when somebody emailed me out of the blue to tell me about regular expression derivatives just because they thought I might find it cool (I did!).
To me this is one of the most important things – like for example I wrote a post about how to look at a container’s mount namespace, and somebody pointed out on Twitter that there was an easier way to do it that I’d missed! I wouldn’t have thought of that if that person hadn’t commented.
letting people subscribe is important!
I think one of the most rewarding parts of blogging (both as a reader and as a writer!) is that you can continuously hear what somebody’s working on over months or years. I have a ton of blogs that I’ve been reading for years and I love seeing how the author’s interests change over time.
As a writer, I’d much rather have a few hundred people who are (to some extent) keeping up with what I’m working on and sometimes chip in suggestions when they have something to add than 100,000 people who read 1 blog post and make some snarky comments :)
I don’t try to push “HELLO HERE IS MY MAILING LIST WOULD YOU LIKE TO SIGN UP” popups on people – I find that obnoxious and I don’t see the point.
Here are the main ways to let people subscribe to your blog.
- RSS! This is the classic. People keep periodically claiming that RSS is dead but thousands of people subscribe to my RSS feed so that’s obviously not true. Setting up and linking to an RSS feed is super easy.
- Email. I have an automatic weekly digest that I generate from my RSS feed, (here’s how I set it up). I think of this like RSS for people who don’t have RSS readers. I didn’t add this until pretty recently but quite a few people subscribe to it now.
- Twitter. I post a link to each of my blog posts to Twitter when I publish it (manually). I don’t do anything special here – just tweet the name of the post + a link.
the only metric I like: subscribers counts!
I’ve left metrics to the end of this post because for me relationships and conversations are a much more important part of blogging than page views / eyeballs. That said, it’s still meaningful to me that many people are reading my blog, so I like tracking it a little bit!
The only metric that I find to be meaningful is subscriber counts, because it tells me whether people are interested in an ongoing way in what I have to say. I can count the number of people who subscribe to my mailing list easily, which is nice.
Here are 2 different ways to count how many RSS subscribers a blog has:
The first way is Feedly: If I search for “Julia Evans” in Feedly, I see this, which tells me how many Feedly subscribers I have
The other way is to search my access logs – if I grep for ‘subscribers’ in my HTTP access logs, it turns out that many RSS readers report the number of subscribers in their user-agent string, like this:
NewsBlur Feed Fetcher - 490 subscribers Feedbin feed-id:478105 - 419 subscribers Newsify Feed Fetcher - 27 subscribers Feed Wrangler/1.0 (34 subscribers)
intentionally publicizing my blog
I’ve left intentionally publicizing my blog (by posting it to tech aggregator sites like reddit/hacker news) to the end because I think it’s the least important thing to me today. When I started out, I posted my blog posts to hacker news probably dozens of times, and I think it really helped me build an initial readership of people who were interested in the same things, which was great!
These sites obviously aren’t perfect but I think getting my blog in front of a wide audience was a great way to find other people who are interested in the same things as me :)
Today I have lots of awesome readers who tell me interesting things, and that’s enough for me! I don’t really have any desire to publicize this blog further (though my blog does get frequently posted to those sites and that’s fine) – my goal is just to write useful things and keep learning :)
how do you measure your blog’s success?
I think it’s very possible to have a blog that is meaningful to people and lets you have interesting conversations about the topics you’re interested in, even (especially?) if you only have a relatively small number of readers!
If you’re thinking about how to grow an audience for a blog (especially if the goal of the blog is not to make money!) I’d encourage you to think about what’s important to you instead of trying to blindly optimize page views, and track those things instead. And if you have other ways to measure your blog’s success on more human terms than “page views” I’d be curious to hear what they are!
thanks to jeff, will, sonali, lindsey, veit, laura, tom, and bonnie for reading this and making it better!