4 steps to a better blog by planning your goals and post types

This entry is part 14 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Here’s what I’m learning about being clear about your goals and analyzing how your actions match up with them. I’ve been thinking about my goals for blogging because I want to get better. I have time to learn things, and I can learn more effectively if I learn deliberately. It might work for you too!

blogging-and-goals

1. Clarify your goals

It’s good to know what your goals are and how the different approaches serve those goals so that you can choose the ones that are the most effective. You can also look at each approach to see how you can improve it.

After some reflection, I came up with this list of goals for my blog:

  1. Learn more effectively by thinking through complexity or explaining what I’m learning
  2. Explore assumptions and possibilities; become more aware of them myself, and help other people see them
  3. Improve core skills through practice: making decisions, explaining ideas, organizing thoughts, etc.
  4. Save myself and other people time spent re-solving the same problems or learning the same things
  5. Build a long-term archive that I can use to remember what I’m learning and see differences over time
  6. Learn from other people through questions, comments, and conversations

Your list of goals will probably look different. Many people have goals such as building a business by promoting their products or services, educating clients or readers, keeping family members up to date, working through difficult issues by writing anonymously, and so on. Take a moment to think about and prioritize your goals.

If you’re having problems expressing your goals, you can also take a look at your recent blog posts and ask yourself, “Why did I write this?” What results did you want to get? What purpose did it serve? One blog post might work towards several different goals.

2. Analyze the ways you approach those goals

Different actions support different goals to different extents. Think about the different types of blog posts you write. Score them against each of your goals on a scale of 1 to 5, where a score of 5 means that type of post helps a specific goal a lot, while 1 means it does very little or even nothing for that particular goal.

Here are some of the types of posts I share and how they line up with the goals I listed above:

Goal 1: Learn Goal 2: Explore Goal 3: Improve Goal 4: Save time Goal 5: Build Goal 6: Learn from others Total
T1: Draw original stuff 5 5 5 5 5 3 28
T2: Draw book reviews and events 5 2 5 5 5 5 27
T3: Think out loud 5 5 5 1 5 3 24
T4: Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code 5 5 3 4 2 4 23
T5: Review longer spans of time (yearly, decisions) 5 4 5 1 5 3 23
T6: Write tips that few other people can cover 4 2 3 3 4 3 19
T7: Write tips that other people can also cover 3 1 2 2 2 2 12
T8: Review recent posts (weekly, monthly) 1 1 4 1 4 1 12

Sorting the table by the total score makes it easy to see which approaches you value more. If some goals are much more important to you than others, you can also weight those goals in your calculations. For example, if building a long-term archive was twice as important to me, I could double that column when calculating the total score.

Anyway, this ranking makes it clearer why I feel good about original drawings and sketchnotes, and why I skew towards decision reviews and “thinking through things”-type posts even if they don’t feel focused enough on saving other people time. Most of the blogging advice tends to focus on writing tips, but they don’t motivate me as much.

How about you? Do your post types match up with your goals? Are there clear winners that you should focus on? You can write lower-value posts from time to time because they address different needs. For example, I post weekly reviews because they’re useful to me even if they’re less useful for others.

3. Adjust your priorities based on feedback

Of course, since these values are subjective, it helps to adjust them based on your website analytics or feedback from your readers. For example, if you think a type of post saves people a lot of time, you’ll probably see a lot of visits or comments on it. If you have Google Analytics, you can export the Content – Site Content – All Pages table to a spreadsheet, classify the top X links, and then see what types of posts people spend their time on. For example, I analyzed the top 500 pages visited in July 2013, classified each by type, calculated average views and time per page, and sorted it by average views to get a sense of which posts tend to be more popular.

Post type Number of pages Number of views Average page views per page Average minutes per page view Average bounce rate
T1: draw original 23 2875 125 3.4 67%
T4: share tech 149 12468 84 5.8 74%
T2: draw book / event 41 2346 57 2.3 64%
T3: think out loud 62 2452 40 3.4 72%
T5: review long / decision 14 504 36 2.7 73%
T6: write tip (few) 41 1392 34 3.1 72%
T8: review 9 283 31 1.0 61%
T7: write tip (many) 24 461 19 4.7 73%

My sketchnotes are more popular by far. My technical notes are surprisingly durable over time, even though you’d expect them to be superseded by bugfixes, technical changes, better documentation, and so on. Posts as old as 2004 still turn up. Because people still get a lot of value from my old tech posts, I adjusted the “Save time” rating for tech tips from my original value of 3 to 4. (I had started with a lower value because I figured that not a lot of people would probably have run into the same issues I did, but it turns out that time makes up for audience size and the long tail works.) As I expected, tips that few other people have written about get more pageviews than tips that more people have written about, although I’m surprised that people tend to spend more time on the common tips. My “thinking out loud” posts are more popular than I expected. Also, people tend to click on my weekly reviews if I add a brief description to the title, so that’s something.

Limitations: This only looks at single-page views in a single month. Also, I picked July because I started drafting this post in August.

Anecdotally speaking, I get a lot of comments and links to my sketchnotes. I’m also delighted by the conversations that occasionally grow out of the “thinking out loud” posts, and how sometimes people will share even better solutions when I post my technical notes.

4. Identify ways to improve each approach

Now that you’ve looked at what makes each type of post different, you can focus on how to improve each type by building on its strengths or compensating for its weaknesses. Here’s what I’m planning for the kinds of posts I write:

Draw original stuff: It takes me 2-4 hours to make one of these. I like making technical notes (ex: Emacs), sketchnote tutorials (to help people draw more), and other drawings related to life and planning. I’m getting used to drawing them with less up-front planning. Even though I end up moving things around, I think it’s useful to just get started. Drawing involves a trade-off because images are not as searchable as text. I can fix that by including the text, but it’s a little awkward and it takes more time. Still, people like the drawings a lot, and I like them too.

Draw book reviews and events: I go to fewer events these days, but I’m reading a lot more books. It takes me two hours to read a typical business book in depth, drawing notes along the way. I tend to draw book reviews only when I’ve already gotten a sense that a book is worth reading in depth. One way to increase my frequency is to draw book notes based on the skimmed parts of books that I’m not reading deeply – perhaps breaking out just the chapter or idea that resonates with me, and using that to illustrate a blog post reflecting on it. I can also work on getting more high-quality books into my pipeline, or practise by drawing more books with fewer value judgments.

Think out loud: I can improve the “Save time” score by stashing the notes in my outline, adding observations, until I’ve fleshed it out enough for preliminary findings and advice. It means that the output will be more concise in its reasoning and I’ll have to do more learning on my own instead of opening up the conversation early, but then the posts will be useful for other people as well as for me. Mr. Money Mustache is a good example of a blog that mixes personal stories and useful observations. The main thing that was holding me back from doing this before was losing track of my drafts, but my outline is a good step.

For example, this post started as a rough outline, thinking out loud about what kinds of posts I wanted to write. Now I’m going back and filling it in with other information that might be useful for people. If it ends up too long, I might have to trim it. We’ll get there!

Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code: The limiting factor here is that I’m not working on any professional projects that I can write about, so I’m forced to run into and resolve fewer issues. I can replace that with working on my own projects or on open source projects, or helping people with questions. I often tweak or work on things related to Emacs, WordPress, or data visualization, so there’s that. If I set aside time and find a good source of small bugs so that I can ease my way into a habit of contributing to open source again, then that will also help me with my life goal to keep my technical skills sharp.

Review longer spans of time: I can increase the frequency of decision reviews by scheduling them so that I don’t lose track of items. Because I manage my outline in Org Mode, that should be relatively easy to do. I can also bootstrap this by reviewing last year and last decade’s monthly reviews (if available), or the blog posts if not.

Write tips that few other people can cover: There are lots of information gaps to fill. Sometimes it’s because people don’t have the time, inclination, or confidence to write about something. Sometimes it’s because I have a useful combination of skills or I can bring a different perspective. If I can’t find information, that’s a good reason to write it.

Write tips that other people can also cover: The world doesn’t really need another “how to find the time to blog” tutorial. If I can filter through search results for a good one and make it more findable, that beats writing one from scratch–unless I can add something special or relate different types of advice to each other.

Review recent posts (weekly, monthly): These are low-value in the short term (mostly lists of links, plus the nudge to do my weekly planning process), but I’ve found them to be surprisingly useful over the years. They also help keep my large blog archive manageable. That’s why I keep posting them. I’ve started using the weekly and monthly reviews to give people less-frequent subscription options (daily can be a little overwhelming), so that’s helpful too.

One way I can increase the value of the weekly reviews is to add more quick notes to them. For example, in my most recent weekly review, I included an annotated list of links I clipped and books/movies I liked from this week’s haul. I think it will provide additional value, and it’s a good way for me to review them as well.

Wrapping up

“Get better” is a vague goal. If you can identify the specific goals you would like to work toward, different ways to move towards those goals, and specific actions you can take to improve those approaches, you’ll have a lot of flexibility in terms of growing. You’ll find it easier to recognize or create opportunities to grow, and you can track your progress along the way. You might also be able to identify counter-productive approaches and replace them with ones that move towards more of your goals. Good luck and have fun!

Using Google’s In-Page Analytics to understand how people use a site

If you use Google Analytics to get some insight into how people use your webpages, be sure to check out Content > In-Page Analytics. It gives you an idea of what people click on, and that can influence your design decisions.

The posts on my blog homepage change roughly every week, so I used the drop-down in the top right to change the reporting date. Here’s what the overall stats look like for the main page of my blog:

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Let’s look at the breakdown throughout the page:

2013-05-31 11_39_58-In-Page Analytics - Google Analytics

It looks like I should spend some time improving my About page, since a lot of people go to it.

2013-05-31 11_40_19-In-Page Analytics - Google AnalyticsSome blogs recommend removing the Recent Comments widget from the sidebar because people don’t find it useful. I find it handy for seeing what people are talking about, though, and it seems that other people do too. (21% of clicks to see older comments!) I switched to using the Better WordPress Recent Comments plugin in order to show comment previews. There’s a slight delay because I’m using the external Disqus commenting system which still needs to synchronize with WordPress, but I like it overall.

2013-05-31 11_40_37-In-Page Analytics - Google AnalyticsSome blogs recommend manually selecting Top Posts & Pages instead of leaving it up to the computer. This one is automatically selected based on recent views, which is great because it comes up with recommendations I wouldn’t have remembered or thought about (like that Drupal one!). I should make a Resources page, though.

2013-05-31 11_40_59-In-Page Analytics - Google Analytics

I include links to blog posts in my weekly reviews. This is surprisingly useful for both personal memory-jogging and for helping other people jump to things quickly.

2013-05-31 11_41_15-In-Page Analytics - Google Analytics

I have a hard time getting the hang of “Next page” and “Previous page” navigation on blogs. (Am I going forward or backward in time?) I changed my theme to make it easier to figure out which direction you’re going in, and I have these paging links at the beginning (near a table of contents) and at the end of the page.

2013-05-31 11_41_23-In-Page Analytics - Google Analytics

This is all the way near the bottom of the page.  It has the same numbers as the ones up top, so I think Google Analytics might be getting confused about the links because they go to the same place.  (Same with the Older Posts link.) I can probably disambiguate the links by changing the tracking code.

So, TODOs for me: spruce up my About page, figure out where to add a Resources page, look into asynchronous tracking, and see if there’s a way I can set up WordPress to experiment with different layouts…

Check out Google’s In-Page Analytics if you have it on your site!

Note: Got an error while trying to use In-Page Analytics? Make sure you’re properly calling the Google Analytics code on the site. I use a Wordpress plugin to make sure that my visits aren’t tracked when I’m logged in (no sense in throwing off the stats with obsessive refreshing! Winking smile ), so I needed to log out of my site before checking In-Page Analytics.

Understanding analytics for personal blogs

Dan Zarrella’s talk on the science of blogging (#blogsci; my sketchnotes) was an interesting data-backed analysis of what kinds of behaviour were correlated with views, comments, Facebook shares, and Twitter retweets. It inspired me to take a look at my Google Analytics. Here are some highlights, what I think about them, and what you might look at when you’re reviewing your own statistics.

Browser Visits Percentage Worldwide usage share (Nov 2010)
1. Firefox 5,812 44% 23%
2. Chrome 3,396 26% 9%
3. Safari 1,620 12% 6%
4. Internet Explorer 1,414 11% 58%

Browsers and operating systems can give you a clue about what people are like. For the top four browsers people use, non-mainstream browsers are twice as popular as they would be considering the whole Internet. We’re definitely geeky over here.  I used to see a lot of browsing from Emacs w3m, which is why I looked into source-ordered stylesheets and I minimized the need for Javascript. Looks like people have shifted (or have changed their user agents).

49% of visits came from people on Microsoft Windows, 24% from Linux, and 19% from Macs. Hi to the iPhone, iPad, Android, iPod, SunOS (really? cool!), Blackberry, *BSD, UNIX, and Symbian, and Playstation users, too!

Take a look at your visitor statistics to see what people are using. Then you can decide if the average screen resolution will let you play with a wider layout, if you can take advantage of Flash, and so on.

Looking at your most popular pages can tell you what people want to read about. The most popular pages in November were my blog homepage, a blog post from 2008 on outlining your notes with Org, my Emacs-related posts, and a post on recording ledger entries with org-capture. Orgmode.org is the top referring site, beating Twitter, Facebook, EmacsWiki, and Drupal.org. Emacs rules. ;)

Use your popular pages list to learn more about what you’re currently doing well, and do even better at it. If you’re surprised by the results because your favourite pages aren’t on it, look for ways to make it easier for people to find and link to your content.

Your traffic sources tell you if you should focus on links, searches, or direct traffic. On my blog people come in fairly evenly from referring sites, search engines, and direct traffic (28-31% each). Aside from my name, other keyword searches tend to be fairly technical: error messages I’ve written about, and Emacs and Drupal-related questions. Some people come looking for visual notes, though, so that’s fun. =) Other people might get different results.

If you see more searches, you might consider writing more about that topic and working on being easier to link to. If you don’t see a lot of direct traffic to your blog homepage, think about whether your domain is easy to spell. I registered LivingAnAwesomeLife.com and sashachua.com to make it easier for people to get to me, as my name is hard to spell. Domain names are not free, but I think of it as an investment in potential conversations.

Do people return regularly? 40% of visitors in the last month have been to this site before, and they spend twice as long on the site than new visitors do (3 minutes instead of 1.5 minutes). I think that’s encouraging. 112 people have been to this site more than 200 times. (Hi mom!) 20% of visits were after another visit on the same day, so I might look into increasing my posting frequency from once a day to twice a day.

Do you have regular readers, or do people leave and never come back? Think about whether you meet the promise your site makes. All the search engine optimization tricks in the world don’t matter if people come, get disappointed, and leave. Do people come more often than you post? Consider posting more often, so there’s something fresh for people when they come.

Even if you’re writing a personal blog and not doing it as a business, you can learn interesting things from your statistics. Don’t let the numbers stop you from writing about whatever you’re interested in, though. Get that knowledge out of your head and into a form you can work with. And if you’re just starting out and your numbers are small, don’t worry. Everyone starts somewhere. =) Being boring, making missteps, and experimenting with doing  better are all part of the process. Add analytics to your blog, and then start using the data to help you experiment!

Finally got my new landing page off the ground! =)

I’m starting to get the hang of using Web analytics to look at how people are moving through the site. I’ll go through the numbers in detail, but if you’re in a rush and you just want to check the potential landing page out, I’d love your feedback.

The numbers: Both sachachua.com and livinganawesomelife.com redirect to the front page of this blog, which contains links to all the other pieces. Last month, 1015 people visited this page. About 50% of those people were new to my site. This represents about 7% of the total new visits to the site (I get lots of people coming in through search engines), but that’s still 500 or so people who might be confused by the range of things I write about. Of all the visitors to the front page (including people who’ve been here before), about 166 people followed the “About” link from the home page. Others clicked through the categories I feature along the top.

I’d like to get your feedback on the new site landing page first, before I make it the default. I’m also curious about A/B testing, so if I can figure out how to do that consistently (so that once you’re either A or B you don’t switch unless you want to), that’ll be something cool to learn. =)

Anyway, here’s the potential landing page. It’s Drupal-based, mostly done with unmodified  third-party modules. ;) I’d love your feedback. You’ll also notice that it’s starting to accumulate my reading history. I wrote a Perl script to grab the data from the Toronto Public Library, and it still needs some tweaking to make it more useful. I’ve already started using it to keep track of my notes, but those are private for now. =)

Whee!