An addendum few people will care about

Sort of related to the previous post, I realized recently that I’ve been using a seriously flawed metric for this blog’s RSS traffic. In a post a few months ago about the selfish benefits of using Twitter I wrote:

I no longer count on a blog post to get traffic on its own. My number of subscribers on Google Reader has languished around 160 for months while in a little over a year I’ve picked up more than 550 followers on Twitter. Today if I want a post to get attention I link to it on Twitter and Facebook.

The morning links feature and the prominent placement of the RSS icon at the upper right of the page are both intended to encourage RSS subscriptions, so the total failure to increase the number of subscribers in Google Reader was disappointing.

It turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right place. When I redesigned the site last year, I kept the RSS feed at the same URL so that it would keep working. However I did change the name of it from this blog’s old title, “Eternal Recurrence,” to simply my name. This apparently caused Google Reader to treat it as a new RSS feed and so none of the new subscribers showed up in the version of the feed I check in Reader. I thought I had lost 10 or so subscribers over the past year; in fact, I’ve gained about 120. That’s not a huge number, but taken as a percentage of where this blog started before the redesign it’s a major increase. Twitter still showed faster growth, however RSS for this site was not as dead as I’d led myself to believe.

If you’re a blogger keeping track of your RSS subscribers, make sure you’re accounting for all of your feeds. (I now have three, including one from my MovableType days that has only seven subscribers in Google Reader.)


To link or not to link your feeds?

A few weeks ago I linked to an open letter by Tim Maly politely asking that we all unlink our feeds, i.e. stop automatically syncing our blog/Facebook/Twitter/Foursquare/etc. accounts. Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole thing:

I noticed that you’ve started automatically importing your feed from that other service. I can certainly understand why you’d want to do that. Heaven forbid that anyone miss any of your incredibly insightful commentary and linking, just because they don’t use that other service. But it creates a problem for me.

You see, I already follow you on that other service. This means that I see everything you post twice/thrice/quarce.

This puts me in something of a bind. I don’t want to stop following you on this service or that service. For one thing, sometimes you post things to this service that don’t appear in that service. For another, I’d miss out on the unique constellation of contacts and conversation that each service provides. But neither do I want to keep filtering redundant updates in each service.

There’s a lot I agree with in that letter and in the past few weeks I’ve had several conversations with friends about when and when not to link one’s feeds. Despite my general agreement with what’s written above, I actually do link some of my feeds. This blog’s RSS and my Twitter feed both export into Facebook. However I don’t link my blog to Twitter and I don’t link Foursquare to anything. Perhaps I’m just rationalizing my own behavior but I think this is a defensible setup. And if I’m wrong, I hope you’ll tell me; I’d like to not be annoying on the internet.

Reasons to link your feeds to Facebook: The main reason I link my feeds to Facebook is that Facebook is really, really huge. Facebook has made the leap from niche social networking site to essential fabric of the web. According to its statistics for the press the site has more than 400 million active users; by at least one metric, it receives roughly as much traffic as Google. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but RSS readers and Twitter have a much more specialized user base (see “RSS reader market in disarray, continues to decline” and “18 million Twitter users by end of 2009;” I wish I had better numbers for RSS). Therefore if content is not exported into Facebook, many users who would presumably be happy to read it will miss it simply because they don’t use RSS or Twitter.

One complaint about exporting one’s Twitter updates into Facebook is that the formatting is so different. Fortunately @replies are now automatically filtered from Facebook so this is less of a problem than it used to be. Hashtags still get through which are less useful on Facebook than on Twitter where they can be searched, but their meaning can be deciphered. And hashtags are often used more as humorous commentary than as actual tags to be searched, and that meaning translates to either service.

The vast majority of my tweets that are automatically exported into Facebook are updates I would post separately there anyway, so exporting them is efficient, especially when I’m typing on a mobile device. The integration also prevents me from taking part in some Twitter memes, which is probably a good thing. The only significant downside is that people who use both services see updates twice. But are there many of these people? I use Twitter primarily and only check Facebook when I’m bored, and I assume that many of the people I’m friends with on each service also prefer one to the other. Empirically I know that people leave replies or click on links in each service, so I think the gains outweigh the costs here.

How about importing blog posts? To be honest, I’d rather not import my RSS feed into Facebook. I would much prefer that people subscribe via RSS to get notified of posts more reliably or read my site directly, generating ad revenue for me instead of Mark Zuckerberg. But as mentioned above, Facebook is huge, and many of its users aren’t using separate RSS readers. Nor is my site compelling enough that I expect them to make a point of visiting regularly. For these users blog posts are perfectly welcome as imported notes. And for users with RSS readers, these notes are fairly unobtrusive on Facebook. Since I’m more interested in being read than in maximizing ad revenue, I think the gains once again outweigh the costs.

(Incidentally, I’ve toyed with the idea of sending only a partial RSS feed to Facebook to encourage traffic to the site, but this would be inconsistent with my goal of not being annoying.)

Reasons not to link your blog into Twitter: Many bloggers link to every one of their posts on Twitter, either automatically or by hand. This lets users know that a blog has been updated without having to manually check the site. However this problem was solved more than a decade ago by RSS and RSS readers handle blogs far better than Twitter does. Twitter can present at best an excerpt of a little over 100 characters plus a link, so reading a post requires visiting a new page. This is less than ideal on a computer and potentially worthless on a mobile device.

It’s true that there may be some people who follow you on Twitter and don’t subscribe to your RSS feed. However this isn’t Facebook; Twitter is populated by more tech-savvy people who will use RSS if they want to. If they’re already subscribed to your blog, these automated Twitter links are needless duplication. If they aren’t subscribed, then there’s a good chance they just don’t find your blog that interesting. Either way you’re not doing them any favors by tweeting about every post.

I do link to individual posts occasionally, but only if I think they’re particularly worth highlighting. This can be an effective way to introduce followers to your blog and to drive traffic to specific posts. Hopefully some of these visitors will become regular readers. But if they don’t, one needn’t force the issue by trying to turn Twitter into an RSS aggregator. Let Twitter be its own thing.

In fairness, I’ll note that views on this topic are divided. According to Technorati’s 2009 State of the Blogosphere survey, 52% of responding bloggers who use Twitter syndicate their feeds to their accounts; Twitter has become a substitute for RSS readers for some users. Linking blog posts and Twitter is widely practiced and I may be hopelessly conservative in wishing it would stop. (As a producer of content I should like Twitter replacing RSS; please, click over to my site instead of viewing it in Google Reader! As a consumer of content I love full RSS feeds.)

Why not to link Foursquare with anything else: I enjoy Foursquare, but broadcasting one’s location on Foursquare is unlikely to be useful to anyone outside of one’s own city. Foursquare updates are essentially spam to friends on Facebook or Twitter who are in other locations.

Linking anything else to Twitter: There’s a growing tendency to transmit all of one’s online activity to Twitter. Before doing so, ask yourself if it would really create value for a significant number of your followers, or if it would be best left to friends on that specific service.

Disclaimer: This advice isn’t intended to be universal and you might have good reasons to adopt other practices. Maybe every one of your blog posts really is too insightful to miss, or perhaps you update your blog so rarely that every post is an event. Or maybe I’m totally failing at not being annoying online, in which case feel free to let me know in the comments.

As always, you can subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed here or follow me on Twitter here.


Blogging and job searching

I’m in this MSNBC story by Eve Tahmincioglu talking about how cocktail blogging helped me land a job in Portland after my move from DC:

For mixologist Jacob Grier, his blog “Liquidity Preference” helped him land a primo bartender job at the Carlyle Restaurant in Portland, Ore.

Grier started blogging about making unusual cocktails two years ago as an outlet for his love of food and drinks. While working for a bar in Washington, D.C., he decided to move to Portland because of the culinary scene.

Thanks to the blog, he had already connected with two well-known mixologists in Portland. Those contacts ended up taking him to an industry event where Grier met the bar manager at the Carlyle, and the rest is history.

Yes, this is a bit ironic after just getting the news that my bar is closing. Time to start the search all over again, eh?

If you’re coming here from the MSNBC site, click here for cocktail posts. And if you happen to own a craft cocktail bar, let’s talk.


Why blog?

Laura McKenna has an excellent post up about how the blogosphere (does that word mean anything anymore?) has changed since she got into it about six years ago. I started blogging at about the same time she did. Back then there was a sense of being part of a new, vibrant, open community. Even as a 21-year-old DC intern with a poorly designed website it seemed easy to break into. We had monthly Blog-o-Rama happy hours at which local bloggers could meet. Now blogging has evolved from a world unto itself into just another medium; merely having a blog no longer counts as much of a point of commonality.

McKenna’s third observation hits the mark:

Bloggers have undermined the blogosphere. Bloggers do not link to each other as much as they used to. It’s a lot of work to look for good posts elsewhere, and most bloggers have become burnt out. Drezner and Farrell had a theory that even small potato bloggers would have their day in the sun, if they wrote something so great that it garnered the attention of the big guys. But the big guys are too burnt out to find the hidden gems. So, good stuff is being written all the time, and it isn’t bubbling to the top.

Many have stopped using blogrolls, which means less love spread around the blogosphere. The politics of who should be on a blogroll was too much of a pain, so bloggers just deleted the whole thing.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone given the impracticality of including hat tips with my morning links. On the other hand, the links do allow me to spread some traffic to people who write interesting posts.

I’ve noticed over the past year or so that it’s become more difficult for posts to draw attention to themselves. It used to be that I could count on a particularly good entry getting linked elsewhere without much further effort on my part. Now if I don’t also promote it through Facebook, Twitter, or other means it’s not likely to get much of a boost. This is perhaps a good thing: No longer must we bloggers skim through each other’s long-winded posts. Now we can just skim through each other’s 140-character tweets and only click on the best stuff.

Another consequence of this is that’s it much harder to track how much influence a post has. Site traffic and comments used to be a reliable measure. Now much of a post’s reach extends far off the blog itself: into RSS readers, Facebook, and tweets. My blog is probably reaching more people now than it ever has, but it’s much harder to know this.

So why blog? That’s a question I’ve been coming back to lately. It’s less obviously worthwhile than it used to be. Keeping up a blog takes time, time that might be better spent writing longer pieces for established publications. Still, there are benefits:

Self-promotion — Writing this blog is how I got my last job in DC and it helped immensely with my job search in Portland. My bar resume was rather thin when I got here, but my cocktail writing put me on the radar of several people in the local bar community and helped establish myself in the industry. The blog has also helped with my writing, giving me a product to send to editors and sometimes prompting editors to contact me for articles. It’s also led to a few media requests from other writers stumbling across my site.

Social networking — Facebook is great for keeping up with existing friends, but blogging and microblogging seem far better for meeting new people, especially in niche communities. A successful blog can also cross-promote one’s other online activities.

Extended discussion — For most bloggers, publishing an article elsewhere is the best way to reach a larger audience. But for continuing a discussion far into the future, responding to feedback from readers, and approaching a topic from multiple angles, nothing beats a blog.

Hits from search engines — Though a blog may not be generally popular, it can become a leading source on search engines for selected niche topics. Or in my case, become an impromptu support group for people scared of camel crickets.

It’s fun! — Since I’m not making money at this and don’t expect to do so anytime soon, there must be other compensating benefits.

These are all good reasons to keep blogging. That said, they’re not necessarily great reasons for someone to start a new blog, or to continue blogging with the goal of building a larger readership. A combination of devoting more time to published pieces coupled with attentive social networking might be a more productive way to reach people. So might joining a group blog rather than trying to go it alone.

If you do blog, why do you do so?

[Hat tip – remember those? — to Megan McArdle.]


Toward a supply-side theory of assorted links

Tyler Cowen posted recently about the apparent increasing popularity of bloggers posting daily lists of assorted links. He asks questions of his readers: Do they click? Should he care if they do? The comments are interesting.

That’s the demand-side of assorted links. What about the supply-side? Why do bloggers write these posts? I started providing daily morning links in January, 2008. I based the idea on the twice-daily lists of links provided by The Morning News, my expectation being that they would be a useful way of getting people to visit my site or subscribe to my RSS feed. The links are basically a loss leader: They take a bit of work each day and aren’t directly rewarding in terms of links back, but by attracting readers to the site they make it more likely that people will read my longer posts too. Or as Jason at 37signals put it in a post about why the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the Web, “The more you send people away the more they’ll come back.” (The other main reason for the feature is to give myself a convenient way of linking to things I find interesting but about which I have little to say.)

My rough impression is that this has worked, based on positive feedback from readers and a near doubling in daily traffic in the year or so following the implementation of morning links. But there are confounding variables: In the same period I wrote more normal blog posts, published elsewhere more frequently, redesigned the site, and did a guest stint blogging at Radley Balko’s popular weblog.

Unfortunately the stat programs I’m currently running don’t tell me much about how many readers click on the links, especially those of you who read via RSS. So consider this an open forum on the morning links feature. Do you read them? Would you rather have more numerous, shorter posts, and fewer links each morning? Should they go off the sidebar and onto the main page? Anything else I could improve? Let me know what you think.

(In case you were wondering, I use Kates Gasis’ excellent Sideblog WordPress plugin to make the feature work. It’s a very simple way to shunt selected posts over to a sidebar.)


Twitter tools

As in tools for using Twitter, not tools on Twitter (though there are plenty of those!). I may review a few this week. The first one’s easy, useful, and unlike some of the other ones, actually works.

The site is Backtweets. Search for a URL and Backtweets shows you who has linked to it on Twitter, including links that use URL shorterners. It’s a great tool for tracking commentary about your blog.

I’m currently testing out a few Twitter apps that are a lot more complicated and running into some problems. If I get them working I may post about them tomorrow.


Down the memory hole

Eugene Volokh started an interesting thread last week about whether or not one should consider deleting someone’s name from old blog posts if he requests you to because, for example, he doesn’t want acquaintances or prospective employers finding it by Googling his name. Volokh’s example regarded a person’s past misconduct. I’ve just received a similar request regarding commentary on a person’s previously published opinion. There’s no question that it was appropriate to comment on at the time. The question is whether there’s still any value in leaving his name attached to the post and if I should honor the request. There’s nothing egregiously objectionable in this person’s opinion, nor has he necessarily renounced it.

Like Volokh, I’m of two minds about this, so I’ll open the matter up to comments. Under what conditions, if any, should past blog posts be edited for the convenience of the people they reference?