Blogging is often seen as a narcissistic pursuit. It can be, but the best bloggers (that is not necessarily synonymous with the most popular) put their audience first. To do that, you need to know it first. Most blogs have three very distinct types of readers:

  1. Regular visitors who use web browsers and bookmarks to visit. If the page doesn’t change often enough, they will get discouraged by the lack of changes and eventually stop coming. You need to post often to keep this population engaged.
  2. People who come from a search engine looking for very specific information. If they do not find what they are looking for, they will move on to the next site in their list, then possibly linger for other articles and may eventually graduate to repeat visitor status. Closely related are people who follow links from other sites, pointing to yours.
  3. Those who let feed readers do the polling for them, and thus do not necessarily care how often a feed is updated. Feed readers allow for much more scalable browsing – I currently subscribe to 188 feeds (not all of them are listed in my blogroll), and I certainly couldn’t afford to visit 188 sites each day. Feed readers are still a minority, but specially for commercial publications, a very attractive one of tech-savvy early adopters. The flip side of this is a more demanding audience. Many people go overboard with the number of feeds and burn out, then mass unsubscribe. If you are a little careful, you can avoid this pendulum effect by pruning feeds that no longer offer a sufficient signal to noise ratio.

The following sections, in no particular order, are rough guidelines on how best to cater to the needs of the other two types of users.

Maintain a high signal to noise ratio

Posting consistently good information on a daily or even weekly basis is no trivial amount of work. I certainly cannot manage more than a couple of postings per month, and I’d rather not clutter my website with “filler material” if I can help it. For this reason, I have essentially given up on the first constituency, and can only hope that they can graduate to feed readers as the technology becomes more mainstream.

Needless to say, test posts are amateurish and you should not waste your readers’ time with them. Do the right thing and use a separate staging environment for your blog. If your blogging provider doesn’t provide one, switch to a supplier that has a clue.

Posting to say that one is not going to post for a few days due to travel, a vacation or any other reason is the height of idiocy and the sure sign of a narcissist. A one-way trip to the unsubscribe button as far as I am concerned.

Distinguish between browsers and feed readers

In November of last year, I had an interesting conversation with Om Malik. My feedback to him was that he was posting too often and needed to pay more attention to the quality rather than the quantity of his postings.

The issue is not quite as simple as that. To some extent the needs of these browser users and those who subscribe to feeds are contradictory, but a good compromise is to omit the inevitable filler or site status update articles from the Atom or RSS feeds. Few blog tools offer this feature, however.

Search engines will index your home page, which is normally just a summary of the last N articles you wrote. Indeed, it will often have the highest page rank (or whatever metric is used). An older article may be pushed out but still listed in the (now out of date) search engine index. The latency is often considerable, and the end result is that people searching for something saw a tantalizing preview in the search engine results listing, but cannot find it once they land on the home page, or in the best of cases they will have to wade through dozens of irrelevant articles to get to it. Ideally, you want them to reach the relevant permalink page directly without stopping by the home page.

There is a simple way to eliminate this frustration for search engine users: make the home page (and other summary pages like category-level summaries or archive index pages) non-indexable. This can be done by adding the following meta tags to the top of the summary pages, but not to permalink pages. The search engine spiders will crawl through the summary pages to the permalinks, but only store the permalink pages in their index. Thus, all searches will lead to relevant and specific content free from extraneous material (which is still available, just one click away).

Here again, not all weblog software supports having different templates for permalink pages than for summary pages.

There is an unfortunate side-effect of this — as your home page is no longer indexed, you may experience a drop in search engine listings. My weblog is no longer the first hit for Google search for “Fazal Majid”. In my opinion, the improved relevance for search engine users far outweighs the bruising to my ego, which needs regular deflating anyways.

Support feed autodiscovery

Supporting autodiscovery of RSS feeds or Atom feeds makes it much easier for novice users to detect the availability of feeds (Firefox and Safari already support it, and IE will soon). Adding them to a page is a no-brainer.

Categorize your articles

In all likelihood, your postings cover a variety of topics. Categorizing them means users can subscribe only to those of interest to them, and thus increases your feed’s signal to noise ratio.

Keep a stable feed URL under your control

If your feed location changes, set up a redirection. If this is not possible, at least post an article in the old feed to let subscribers know where to get the new feed.

Depending on a third-party feed provider like Feedburner is risky — if they ever go out of business, your subscribers are stranded. Even worse, if a link farm operator buys back the domain, they can easily start spamming your subscribers, and make it look as if the spam is coming from you. Your feeds are just as mission-critical as your email and hosting, don’t enter in an outsourcing arrangement casually, specially not one without a clear exit strategy.

Maintain old posts

Most photographers, writers and musicians depend on residuals (recurring revenue from older work) for their income and to support them in retirement. Unless your site is pure fluff (and you would not be reading this if that were the case), your old articles are still valuable. Indeed, there is often a Zipf law at work and you may find some specific archived articles account for the bulk of your traffic (in my case, my article on lossy Nikon NEF compression is a perennial favorite).

It is worth dusting these old articles off every now and then:

  • You should fix or replace the inevitable broken links (there are many programs available to locate broken links on a site, I have my own but linkchecker is a pretty good free one.
  • The content in the article may have gone stale and need refreshing, Don’t rewrite history, however, and change it in a way that alters the original meaning — better to append an update to the article. If there was a factual error, don’t leave it in the main text of the article, but leave a mention of the correction at the end
  • there is no statute of limitations on typos or spelling mistakes. Sloppy writing is a sign of disrespect towards your readers; Rewriting text to clarify the meaning is also worthwhile on heavily visited “backlist” pages. The spirit of the English language lies in straightforwardness, one thing all the good style guides agree on.
  • For those of you who have comments enabled on their site, pay special attention to your archives, comment spammers will often target those pages as it is often easier for them to avoid detection there. You may want to disable comments on older articles.
  • Provide redirection for old URLs so old links do not break. Simple courtesy, really.

Make your feeds friendly for aggregators

Having written my own feed reader, I have all too much experience with broken or dysfunctional feeds. There is only so much feed reader programmers can do to work around brain-dead feeds.

  • Stay shy of the bleeding edge in feed syndication formats. Atom offers a number of fancy features, but you have to assume many feed readers may break if you use too many of them. It is best if your feed files use fully qualified absolute URLs, even if Atom supports relative URLs, for instance. Unicode is also a double-edged sword, prefer HTML entity-encoding them over relying on a feed reader to deal with content-encoding correctly.
  • Understand GUIDs. Too many feeds with brain-dead blogging software will issue a new GUID when an article is edited or corrected, or when its title is changed. Weblogs Inc. sites are egregious offenders, as is Reuters. The end-result is that an article will appear several times in the user’s aggregator, which is incredibly annoying. Temboz has a feature to automatically suppress duplicate titles, but that won’t cope with rewritten titles.
  • Full contents vs. abstracts is a point of contention. Very long posts are disruptive on web-based feed readers, but on the other hand most people dislike the underhanded teaser tactics of commercial sites that try and draw you to their website to drive ad revenue, and providing only abstracts may turn them off your feed altogether. Remember, the unsubscribe button is a mere click away…

Blogging ethics

The golden rule of blogging is that it’s all about the readers. Everything follows from this simple principle. You should strive to be relevant and considerate of their time. Take the time to spell-check your text. It is very difficult to edit one’s own text, but any article can benefit from a little time spent maturing, and from tighter and more lucid prose.

Don’t be narcissistic, unless friends and family are the primary audience. Most people couldn’t care less about your pets, your garden or for the most part your personal life (announcing major life events like a wedding or the birth of your children is perfectly normal, however).

Respect for your readers requires absolute intellectual honesty. Laziness or expediency are no excuse for poor fact-checking or revisionist edits. Enough said…

Update (2008-05-21):

Unfortunately setting the meta tags above seems to throw Google off so that it stops indexing pages altogether (Yahoo and MSN search have no problems). So much for the myth of Google’s technical omnipotence… As a result, I have removed them and would advise you to do as well.

Update (2015-11-20):

If you use JavaScript and cookie-based web analytics like Piwik or Mint, make sure those script tags are disabled if the browser sends the Do-Not-Track header. As for third-party services like Google Analytics, just don’t. Using those services means you are selling giving away your readers’ privacy to some of the most rapacious infringers in the world.