Monday, February 6, 2012

Homebrew Blogging Tips - SotB 2012

Me and my beard in India.Rather than summarize the statistics of my fifth year of blogging for the annual State of the Blog post as I did in previous years, I decided to take the opportunity to summarize what I've learned from blogging. Over the years, I have received probably a dozen emails from new homebrewing bloggers seeking advice. This post is how I should have answered those requests if I'd had the effort at the time. The same sort of suggestions would help anyone starting a blog about a hobby or craft. I also hope that even if you don't blog that you might be interested in what goes on behind the scenes.

Having unique, high quality, content is the most important thing to focus on. This is easier to do if you write about something you have a passion for. Try to narrow your focus to find a niche or a niche within a niche that appeals to you. Be honest, don't try to cover up mistakes; posting flaws and accidents builds trust with the readers, if your batch sucks let people know so they can avoid the same mistakes. This is especially important with brewing because I often post a recipe before the beer is ready to sample. Don't try to sound like an expert on subjects where you are not, if you say something stupid in an authoritative way about one thing it undermines your credibility on other topics.

Almost as important as what you write about is how you write. It doesn't need to be perfect, but at least reread and spell check before you post. I find my results are best when I can wait a day or two between writing and editing. I usually draft in  Microsoft Word, but had formatting issues when pasting from there into Blogger's Compose mode. I now work around the problem by pasting into the HTML mode and using Compose to format the post.

Try to build credibility in your chosen field. One of the biggest issues with blogs is that anyone can start one. You need to find ways to prove to readers that you are a trustworthy source of information: awards, endorsements, professional credentials, whatever. In my case appearing on podcasts, having a sour beer advance to the second round at NHC, and working with professional brewers all helped me build a level of respectability (I hope). It also feeds back on itself, the blog got me a gig writing articles for BYO Magazine, and that in turn raises the credibility of the blog (this year I'll be writing on spontaneous fermentation, dark lagers, designing recipes, and fermented foods for BYO).

You don't need to post every single day (especially if you don't have something interesting to say), but if someone comes back to the blog a few times in a row without seeing an update they may stop checking. For me it has really helped to set a schedule for posting. I try to have a big post every Monday (a recipe, technique, travel), and something small later in the week (like a tasting, or poll results). It can be discouraging to keep posting when no one seems to be visiting at first, but keeping it up is key.

Try to make your blog appear at least marginally unique, professional, and easy to navigate. Try to avoid a background that is too clunky or distracting. Use tags, text links, and static pages to draw people back to related posts. It is hard to get people to visit your blog for the first time, so try to get those who do to stick around. People love photos especially when we are reading about eating and drinking; you don't need a DSLR and a high end lens, but try to take clear pictures (with a cheap camera good lighting and a free image editing software like Gimp are your best friends).

Don't cram your site with intrusive ads, your main goal early on should be to build a readership, not make a few dollars. The pace this blog has grown at means that each year I get about as many visitors as I did for the entire history of the blog before that point (this January the blog topped 100,000 page views in a month for the first time). If you have a niche try to get targeted relevant ads, I never had good luck with Google AdWords (they seem better for a general site with hoards of visitors).

Five years of relatively steady visitor growth.

Put up an email address (although probably not your personal email) and respond to questions as quickly as you can. Same goes for answering comments on the blog. Interacting with people directly is a great way to build a more enthusiastic following. The number of people who have emailed me for advice, and subsequently sent me beer, microbes, or other stuff has been amazing. Direct interaction on Twitter and Facebook is gaining importance, although I have not seen the sort of traffic that some other sites report. Despite having only half as many Facebook "Likes" as Twitter Followers similar posts get more interaction and traffic from Facebook. Facebook uses an algorithm that give priority to posts they think you'll enjoy, while Twitter relies solely on chronology. Twitter has a huge number of users who post with great frequency so it can be difficult to reach people without being a frequent tweeter.

Posting on relevant forums and message boards is helpful as well, but don't solely post links to your blog (try to be part of the community). Social media aggregator sites like Reddit's r/Homebrewing and StumbleUpon have also sent a lot of new visitors my way, but the amount who who click a link and explore passed the linked page is pretty low (20% for StumbleUpon, and 30% for Reddit) compared to users who come through search (35%) or message boards (~40%). As much as all of these referrals are important they account for less than 30% of the traffic on my blog.

Optimize your posts to increase search traffic. The page's web address is a big factor in whether it is listed on the first page of the search engine's results. You have to strike a balance between eye catching to a human and full of key words for a computer (your website name is even more important). Speaking of website names, buy a "real" domain name rather than using the free .blogspot, it's just $10 a year through Google. Recently I became the proud owner of the address I originally wanted, (a gift from a reader, it just links back to the blog, I don't think I'll go through the effort of moving the blog).

Adding html tags like a Meta Description, and Meta Keywords, can help (although from what I understand search engines no longer give them much weight). Similarly you can submit your site to DMOZ, but in my case I did this six months ago and it has not been listed in their directory of homebrewing sites yet. Add title and alt tags to your images to allow search engines to know what is in the picture to list it appropriately (you can hover your mouse over an image and see what they say). Recently I also added a little piece of code that makes search engines display the title of a post first rather than the blog name, making it clearer what the page is. Google Webmaster Tools allows you to remove any sitelinks (that display below your main link) that you feel are unnecessary, I've removed all of the Monthly archive pages for example.

Keep an eye on the traffic (I use Google Analytics), but don't get obsessed with the numbers of visitors. It is interesting to see who is linking to your site, consider linking back if it seems like a worthwhile site. Links drive traffic directly, but also are one of the major things search engines use to assign importance to a site. I have never emailed people requesting that they link to me, although I have reciprocated when people linking to me have asked (but only when I visit their site regularly). Try to post deeper links as well, not just to the homepage, but to a specific post that is relevant (having related words as the text of the link makes it even more valuable). Watch out for sites willing to pay for links, linking to them can cause search engines may to put you in a "bad neighborhood" which can hurt your site ranking.

Work on the technical stuff as much as you can, but time spent on the content is more valuable. When you do make changes view your blog from a couple different computers/browsers to make sure it displays properly on all of them. I've been lucky enough to have a couple people lend their eye for design and technical know how to help me improve the layout of the blog.

I hope at least a few people found that interesting. Any tips from other bloggers on things I missed?


Andrew said...

While I am not a blogger, I do read a few. Just a few days ago I thought about what makes specific blogs better than others. Some have better resources to draw on (guests, specific knowledge), while others have excellent writing, occasionally sacrificing content for just another good post. You have blended both together: original experiments with great writing.

Thank you for keeping the content honest. I find the blog to be a "lab journal." You keep all the important details with enough writing craft to make it enjoyable to read. Everyone can learn from what you do to replicate or expand on. Homebrewing is an experimental science; the more experiments run, the better we can all brew! Keep it up!

The Limon Leader said...

I must say! You've nailed it here.
People pay good money for less advice than this, and I for one, am glad to see you exposing it for what it is. Also, I'm glad you are doing well with he blog.
I find your sour experience inspirational.

ESheppy said...

Nicely done. Very interesting and informative. I am sure I could improve my blog and its readership by following your advice.

One thing I would add, and maybe you can comment on this to let me know if you agree. I think it is very important to make RSS subscription easy. I rely heavily on Google Reader to let me know which blogs that interest me have been updated. It really frustrates me when I find a site that either does not have an RSS feed or doesn't make it obvious how to subscribe to the feed.

I see you have done this. And, I quite frankly would probably not have come across this article had I not subscribed to your RSS feed.

Shawn said...

Great tips, especially for us beginner-bloggers. Although I noticed you forgot to mention a must: full-frontal nudity!

I think the two things you've really nailed with your blog are:

1) You've definitely found your niche with all the sour-beer experiences you've had and useful information you can provide as a result...

2) Great writing. This keeps me coming back again and again as much as anything else. Can't wait for the book!

Keep up the great work...

Middle Class Middle Aged White Guy said...

So not only are you a far, far better home brewer than I, you're a better blogger as well.

I truly hate you....;-)

mark said...

All good advice, I would only add that bloggers find their voice (style of writing) and be true to it. I find myself watching the traffic to my blog and considering how to write differently to draw more interest then I have to remind myself that my blog is an expression of my passion for brewing and writing. This makes posting enjoyable.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Exactly, the worst thing you can do to a hobby blog is make it feel like a chore.

BarlowBrewing said...

Another great post, and solid advice for bloggers in any field.

I think finding your voice and your niche really is the key, but you can’t rush them. At least for me, finding what I liked to write about and my style was an exercise in doing it. If a blogger spends a ton of time trying to develop those things before the launch of a blog, the blog may never happen. So start writing, see what comes out, write some more, and get better. It is kind of like brewing. You probably aren’t going to make a truly amazing beer on your first batch, but you’ll never make an amazing beer until you make your first batch. Practice makes perfect.

Some search engine thoughts for the bloggers out there:

In terms of search engines, the Meta Keyword tag is useless. Not since the dark ages have Google, Yahoo or Bing used those in anyway. Don’t put any effort into creating those.

Meta Descriptions are very important, but they won’t make you pages rank higher in the search results pages. They have no ranking worth at all. But they do show up when your URLs appear in search results, and they can be the reason that a surfer chooses to click through to your website instead of another. If you don’t create a meta description for every post, Google (and the others) will simply grab text on that page and make their own meta description. You’d much rather a listing say “If you want an IPA with half of the standard alcohol content it is not as simple as cutting in half each malt and hop addition” than “Vienna Malt Session IPA Recipe • English Oatmeal Porter Recipe - Big and ....If you want an IPA with half of the standard alcohol content it is not as ...”

Keep your meta descriptions under 150 characters, and make the web surfer want to go to your site and read more.

lavender_pepper said...

Thanks for this post! I've been following your blog for probably 2 years now (about when I started homebrewing), and I've loved all of your insight. You definitely found your niche and I appreciate your consistent posting, two things I'm finding difficult in my recently started homesteading/brewing blog attempt!!

I'm certainly looking forward to the next year (and more) of writing... and of my liberal use of your archives as inspiration.

Keep being awesome!!

cam0083 said...

That was great posting and made a ton of sense for a new blogger such as myself. I started mine for myself but since have gotten a desire to actually get people to my blog so this was pretty informative.

Ben said...

Been following your blog for a few years now and it's been endlessly helpful to me for both my homebrewing hobby as well as running my own brewing blog. Definitely some great tidbits in this one. Thanks again!

Oxen Nerang said...

I'm glad that I came to your post mate. You nailed it, This is very important if you are starting your blogs about homebrew.