Children of a Lesser Blog

Written By: Paul Toth - Apr• 01•14

Or: Secrets of Blog Promotion Everyone but Me May Have Learned Long Ago

This is an article about the things we writers do to promote ourselves, our books, and books-yet-to-be. More specifically, it’s about using social media to promote the blogs of “developing” authors. What do I mean by “developing?” It’s simple: the world of writers is divided into two populations—those who have realized some significant measure of success, and those who have (putting it kindly) yet to do so. Of course, there’s a gray area here in that “significant” is in the eye of the beholder. Generally speaking, if someone has a deal with a mainstream publisher, or has sold at least five digits worth of books, I would regard that as significant. That’s setting the bar lower than many, higher than some, your mileage may vary, blah blah blah. Set your own bar where you will.


So, why frame blog promotion in such binary terms? Isn’t promotion via social media a concern of writers in general?

Well, yes and no.

For the “developed” (vs. “developing”) author, the promotional challenge is very different, and considerably less, well, challenging. The reason is simple: the developed author already has a notable body of work to leverage, and a readership—perhaps including ardent fans—who may be willing to lend support. In other words, the developed writer already has what the developing author is striving for. This means that the two populations are dealing with decidedly differently challenges. The developed author uses the blog as an instrument to address his fans and promote his work, while the developing has to reach out to the world at large and show a great deal more ingenuity in selecting subject matter.

In other words, the developed author is tuning up the engine on his sports car, while the developing author is trying to jerry rig a go-cart using rubber bands, spit wads, and the rusty oil pan he cribbed from grandma’s Yugo.

So, Why Bother?

It’s a reasonable question. If author-blogging is such a pain in the ass for the uninitiated, why not just wait until one becomes, well, initiated?

 

 

Because We Say So

Like many developing authors, I’ve sought advice on pursuing the profession from a variety of sources. Writer’s conferences. Books and articles by those seemingly in the know. Various online resources. Any body of advice constructed within the last half-decade includes the following: Build. Your. Platform. Since you’re reading this, you’ve probably well aware of this aphorism, but, just in case, I’ll provide a brief rundown of what “platform” means in this context.

A writer’s platform is his means of presenting himself to the world. It’s the collection of activities, mechanisms, and memes that provide him with a presence in the collective consciousness. In more concrete terms, it provides an (albeit extremely indirect) means of achieving one or more of the following:

  • Wooing agents, and eventually rising from the ranks of the hoi polloi to become one of the few, the chosen, the agented
  • Convincing prospective readers to buy one’s not-yet-bestselling book, usually a self-pub
  • Getting positive visibility among industry potentates such as acquisition editors, which will in turn improve the odds of making a conventional sale
  • Disseminating information that’s useful to other writers, and perhaps receive helpful advice in kind

Back in ye olde days, building one’s platform consisted largely of hitting the road, Jack, and speaking to anyone willing to hear one speak. Local writer’s circles, libraries, and the occasional writer’s conferences were all fair game. All of face-to-face work continues to be important—to some, at least—but much of the game has moved online. Advice regarding e-platform-building usually includes social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.), online writer’s groups, and blogs. Of these, blogs are perhaps the most interesting—and demanding—in that they involve the writer presenting his work.

Thy Shalt Not Write This

I’ve never been at a writer’s conference where the various to-dos of author promotion were presented as a set of commandments, which is strange to me because the utter certainty with which this advice is dispensed seems akin to the purveyors of religious dogma. I guess it isn’t done for fear of offending the religious, or the non-religious, or something. If, however, some brave/crazy individual did choose write up such a set of commandments, and the first ones on the list would probably look something like this:

  1. Thy shalt build thy platform
  2. Thy shalt not give away thy writing

The reasons for rule #2 are often glossed over or simply left unsaid, but there’s a general fear in the writerly community that having authors give away the fruit of their labor will end up devaluing that labor—not just for the individual who does it, but for community at large. After all, why should readers both to spend their hard-earned dough on books when there’s plenty of sufficiently entertaining stuff that’s available for free? Clearly, depressing the monetary value of the written word is bad for anyone who’s trying to make a living by cranking the stuff out.

“But wait,” you say, “aren’t the first two commandments of writerly blogging in direct opposition?”

Yep. Nice shootin’, Tex. You plum well scored a rhetorical bulls-eye there. Those who dispense advice on such subjects address this conflict by urging bloggers to create a certain kind of post. Here are some examples I’ve personally heard mentioned:

  • Interviews with successful writers
  • Links to books reviews (and, to a lesser extent, critiques of other sorts, like movie reviews)
  • Links to fun and/or interesting stuff from around the web—typically, stuff that other prospective writers will find interesting

Now, I ask you, does this sound like the kind of blog you’d want to visit?

Take a minute.

Think about it…. Think about it.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. It sounds like we (that’s the grand we, the royal we, the we that encompasses developing writers as a whole) are being advised to write blogs that suck. The “interviews with successful writers” part might not sound so bad until you slice open the patient and take a gander at the gory details. Generally speaking, the best thing a member of the unwashed masses might expect in terms of an interview with a well-known author will be a brief exchange of written queries: you write down some questions, and they (or their agent, or their intern, or their hyperintelligent, functionally literate basset hound) get back to you with written responses. Unless you’re very lucky, or well-connected, or possess some variety of allure that’s intensely interesting to the interviewee, there will be none of the adaptive, interpersonal back-and-forth that make an interview worth reading.

Yes, chances are that following conventional wisdom will result in a blog that sucks. One that will attract no attention except that of the NSA, whose agents will become certain that posts so bland and unappealing must mask communiques of a nefarious sort. And the utter, dog-fart-stinky badness of the advice is enough to make one wonder if the writerly powers that be want us (and that’s the royal us) to fail.

I don’t believe this is the case. Rather, this advice is being general being given by those who have enjoyed some measure of success (as an author, editor, or whatever) that their advice is framed in those terms. If you already have a legion of fans, you don’t really need compelling content to get people to visit your blog—they’ll show up because they’re entertaining by your work and are curious about what you have to say. It’s a forgiving audience made up of people who won’t be inclined to judge a blog’s content too harshly. They’re just happy to have a means of interacting with the author.

This means that well-known authors can get away with writing blogs (or tweets, or Facebook posts, or whatever) that aren’t necessarily all that compelling in their own right, because people are drawn to the platform for other reasons.

For the developing writer, it’s a very different story. Our content has to stand on its own merits, and attempting to follow #2 isn’t like to get you there. To some extent, #2 doesn’t work because of the very nature of modern online life, and this is something I’ll explore in a little while.

Obviously I’ve concluded that successfully complying with commandment #1 requires ignoring #2—at least to some degree. You may feel differently, and if you do, by all means post some comments and let me know why.

Now What?

Okay, you’ve written some handsome original copy, you’ve posted it online, and it’s time to watch the page-views roll in. Problem is, there are thousands of developing writers who have just done the same thing, and you’re competing with them for eyeballs. Actually, it’s worse than that, because you’re not just competing with other authors, you’re competing with entire cacophonous multimedia hydra that is the modern online world. Ugly cat videos, anyone?

To some extent, drawing people to your article is just a matter of telling people it’s out there. You mention it in conversations and tweets, harangue friends and family to get the word out, and send bulletins to fellow online work-shoppers. Maybe you can convince some other bloggers to post links. There’s only time for so many promotional activities, though (especially if you have a day job and kids consuming the lion’s share of your day), so prioritizing is critical.

So, which strategies are most likely to bear fruit?

To answer this question, we’ll need to do a bit of pondering about the sort of things that affect the flow of traffic on the web. Those coveted eyeballs aren’t just wandering the internet randomly, as if under the control of some mystical Brownian motion—they go where they go for concrete reasons, and if we’re to be successful bloggers, we need to understand what those reasons are.

Here’s are few of the ways the masses are likely to find their way to your blog and mine:

  1. Word of mouth (bro, check out my rad blog post, it’ll blow your freakin’ mind)
  2. Direct social media (spent all day on new article: “Fueling the Imagination: What is the Optimal Number of Whiskey Shots?” and now I’m done! Read it!)
  3. Indirect social media (retweet, external blog links)
  4. Online search (Google, Bing)

For most of us, #1 has limited value, because we only know a small proportion of the sentient beings in existence. It’s a big universe. The second item is less juicy than it might at first seem, because of what I call “distancing.”

Distancing is a phenomenon that becomes evident as someone who lacks celebrity or notoriety grows the number of online connections. It boils down to this: As you add connections in a particular social medium, the value of each new connection tends to decline.

Why should this happen? Aren’t two thousand Twitter follows twice as good as one thousand?

Not really. The first ten or twenty people you connection with on a particular site are likely to be people you already knew—those who are genuinely interested in your perspective and have a personal stake in listening to what you have to say. They’re the ones who are likely to read your tweets, look at your photos, and follow the links you post.

Now think about what happens as the number of connections grow. Many of those who connect with you don’t give a crap about what you have to say, they’re just looking to grow their own network. Maybe they want bragging rights, maybe they like the attention (and delude themselves into thinking more connections = more attention), and maybe they—like you—are trying to build a platform. Many of these platform-builders will be people who connect with very large numbers of net-denizens. This sounds good, but is it?

Consider the example of a typical tweet-monger. Sure, they’re followed by 20,000 Twitter users, but they also follow 15,000 fellow tweetmeisters. If someone has tweets from 15K people flowing across their screen, how much attention do you think they’ll pay when you sound off about you hot-of-the-presses whiskey article? And what are the odds they’ll retweet?

It’s called diminishing returns, folks. Believing that a vast number of connections necessarily signals the presence of an effective platform is simple-minded at best and outright delusional at worst. Spending a lot of time and effort in search of raw connection numbers probably isn’t a good use of your time or mine.

Number three on the list, the indirect effect of social media connections, is tricky. Cultivating link-sharing relationships with popular sites is a fine thing, but there’s limit to how much can be done in terms of encouraging re-shares, retweets, etc. for specific posts. This is primarily a matter of cultivating high quality online relationships (vs. vast numbers of pointless connections) and composing decent material to post. Since this sort of relationship-building has been already been discussed extensively by everybody, his brother, and the bacillus living his brother’s digestive tract, I’m not going to explore this further.

The Tao of Search

That takes us to #4 on our please-visit-my-blog list, search. Make online search work in your favor is important for a couple of reasons. First, it will help you reach people are both outside your immediate circle of worthies, and second, it will drive traffic from a demographic likely to be interested in what you have to say. These are much higher-quality eyeballs than the ones that barely register the presence of your latest tweet, which has to share the screen with an endless cascade of tedious ads and clichés disguised as new age wisdom. The most important reason for doing your damndest to drive search traffic to your blog, though, is this: The kind of activities that effect search are the same kind of activities that will drive traffic in general. So, even you don’t actually drive anyone from the Google home page to your site, the effort is apt to prove fruitful in other respects.

So, how does this “search” stuff work? It’s simple in theory and hideously complex in practice. The first thing you need to know about search is that it’s all about page rank. This is a number Google assigns your site (other engines work much the same way) that reflects its theoretical appeal. So, Apple.com has a sky-high page rank, and that Gumby tribute page you just threw together does not. The better this number, the better the chance it will be prominently placed in search results.

People care about Page rank. A lot. And they care about because page rank = money. Cold, hard cash, that is. It’s so important for retailers that when Google makes changes that result in a reordering of page ranks, they sometimes get hammered by lawsuits. For those that advertise using Adwords (those ads that appear in the left margin of the search result page), the impact of page rank is direct—the better your page rank, the less you pay for your ad campaign.

Let’s review.

Better page rank = better search placement.

Better search placement = more blog traffic.

More blog traffic = stronger writer’s platform.

Stronger writer’s platform = better chance of achieving your goals as an author.

So, how do we get a better page rank? Reams have been written on the subject (because, as I mentioned, higher page rank = mo better money), but let’s cut to the quick. It’s mostly a matter of two things:

  1. Content: quality and quantity of original content.
  2. Incoming links.

So, we’re back to content. And, once again, we’ve established that adhering to the second commandment of Building They Platform is a bad idea. Posting quality original content means making goodly chunks of writing available gratis—there’s just no way around it.

Number #2 works like this: Every link from another site that points to your site improves its page rank. Sites with high page ranks add a lot when they link to yours, and sites with low ranks and less. So, getting your buddy’s blogs to point to yours probably won’t achieve much (not that’s it’s a bad idea). Links from social media posts add very little to your page rank (though there seem to be caveats). So, while having Facebook link to your blog would in theory be a huge coup, having a Facebook post point to your site probably won’t achieve much—in terms of boosting page rank, anyway.

Improving page rank is so important that there are companies with no purpose other than attempting to game the system. They do things like throw up a bunch of bogus sites with garbage content and then plaster them with links to their clients’ pages. This is called SEO (search engine optimization). Google (and the other search providers) naturally take a dim view of this practice, and engage in a running war against those who practice SEO, with both sides constantly tweaking their tactics and techniques. Google obviously brings the big guns to this battle, and engaging in SEO can get your site banned from Google search altogether. To my mind, it’s not worth the bother—though there’s a gaggle of SEO scammers ready to convince you otherwise.


So, other than generating quality content and cultivating relationships with high-profile site owners—platform-building activities we already knew were important—what can be done? When I mentioned the minimal impact social media link have on page rank, I also mentioned there was caveat. And it’s this: Google has its own social network, Google+. While an Instagram post that links to your blog isn’t apt to do much for your page rank, is the same true of G+? Keep in mind, Google defines the rules of the game. A link is worth exactly what they say its worth, and the Google leadership has made it clear that promoting G+ is a huge priority.

Again, let’s review:

  1. Google wants to get you to use G+. Bad. “Yo. Everyone. Use our social network. We swear, it’s not just a Facebook clone. Really. P.S. Facebook sucks.”
  2. Page rank is really, really important.
  3. Google controls page rank.

While I can’t prove it, I have no doubt that G+ links, likes, shares, and comments, have a profound influence on page rank. So, at the risk of sounding like a G+ shill, I have to say, get thy ass onto G+. In fact, let’s replace our original second commandment of platform-building with the one just stated. Our new list of commandments looks like this:

  1. Thy shalt build thy platform
  2. Get thy ass onto G+.

Of course, we really should have eight more commandments, but two is all I’ve got. For now. Hell, since #2 is just part of #1, you could argue I don’t even have two proper commandments. Others more knowledgeable (or more arrogant) than I will no doubt be happy to give you more.

In my particular case, G+ appears to have made a significant different in my blog traffic—though how much of this is due to page rank shenanigans is unclear. Keep in mind, Google’s power to promote G+ goes well beyond search, and other aspects of G+ promotion may have an equally significant effect. For instance, G+ generates alerts that show up, by default, in the heavily used Chrome browser, YouTube—the whole range of Google properties. The cumulative effect is striking. There was one blog post I promoted—with equal fervor—on Twitter, Facebook, Scribophile, and G+, staggering the various posts so I could gauge the effectiveness of each. The first three yielded almost nothing in the way of results, while G+ yielded a noticeable traffic increase in a matter of minutes. I’ve also experimented with promoting posts on different combinations of venues. This yielded the same conclusion: G+ is much, much more effective at driving blog traffic than the alternatives.

Naturally, individual experiences will vary. If you have a gaggle of Twitter followers who hang on your every word, and they’re part of your target audience, then the right tweet might move mountains. Much the same goes for Facebook, Pinterest, and so on. But if you don’t already have the kind of support—and very few people do—then G+ may prove to be your best bet. You don’t have to take my word for it, of course—by all means, try out the whole range of social networking options the web-o-verse offers. Just make sure you don’t forget G+ (see commandment #2, above).

What it All Means

You’ve probably noticed I haven’t provided much in the way of advice. Post lots of high-quality original content on your blog. Forget about SEO. Try G+. Sorry, that’s all the wisdom I have to impart. Remember, I’m a lowly “developing” author, just like you.

But my puny trove of advice isn’t the end of the story. Article. Whatever. In describing the might of Google—it’s ability to make or break the business owner, the blogger, or the entire SEO industry—it’s fair to ask what might at first glance appear a fairly bombastic question.

Is Google a god?

Yes, yes, I hear you scoffing, see you rolling your eyes, and smell your nasty pad thai burps. Go ahead and get it out of your system. And when you do, think about what the gods (not “God” with a capital G) were to ancient man. A god wasn’t necessarily the creator of the universe—or the creator of anything, for that matter—he or she was just a (usually) unseen presence with the ability to influence events in the way an everyday Joe could not. Maybe the god could make it rain, or make sure the oxen had healthy calves, or help Aunt Groo get over the gout, but omnipotence wasn’t necessarily part of the deal. The most powerful gods were seen as possessing some measure of power over life and death, but others might do little more than enhance (or detract from) an ardent believer’s prosperity and general well-being.

Prosperity. Think about it. Whether or not I’m right about Google’s ability to drive blog traffic, there’s no doubt that the platform as a whole has a huge influence on the relative prosperity of many, many people. Now, some might respond to this by saying that Google the platform is simply a tool that responds to those that wield it—namely, the high muckety-mucks at Google the company. This might have made sense ten years ago, but I contend that it makes little sense now, and that the notion will hold less and less water as time goes by.

Consider.

 

The Google platform is far more than Search and Adwords. It’s a sprawling cosmos of interwoven, mutually reinforcing products.

 

No one person—and no single group of executives—controls the Google platform. There are thousands of coders, managers, and designers involved. In a very real sense, it has a life of its own—a presence and potency independent of those who run the corporation that owns it.

The overall platform consists of tens of millions of lines of code, terabytes of data, and a vast number of complex algorithms. It’s grown far beyond the capacity of any specific mind to comprehend. The platform has become an entity that is very much distinct from its creators. I’m not going to claim it’s sentient, or possesses will, or any such nonsense.

 

But I will claim that it behaves in much the same way it would if it did have those things.

 

Humans give the Google Platform its marching orders, but can no longer predict the exact manner in which those goals will be pursued. When it does the things make you more or less prosperous—like driving traffic to your blog—there is no human in the loop. There’s no committee out there that decides your fate—no humans whose favor you can curry to improve your lot. It’s the Google entity you’ll have to please, by offering up original content it can use to further ensure the obeisance of its followers.

I find this intriguing, and slightly creepy, food for thought.

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