I Get Around
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One of the great pleasures of my work is having the opportunity to participate in offline and online meetings of fellow journalists–even when I’m presenting, I always come away with more ideas than I bring to them. The next week is going to be especially busy: I’m attending events in cyberspace and on two continents:
Monday, November 17th: I’m co-presenting at a Webinar hosted by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The topic: “Creating the Next New-Media Resource.”
Thursday, November 20th: I’m on a panel at Consumer Revolution on the Web, a conference being put on at Columbia University in New York by Consumer Reports and the Columbia Journalism Review.
Sunday, November 23rd: I’m presenting at APSP 2008: New Tech, New Media, New Vision, a conference for science and technology journalists being held in Beijing.
All three events are completely different; all three should be a lot of fun.
Racepoint PR Visit
I had a good time stopping by the offices of PR firm Racepoint Group today to talk about Technologizer and Web publishing in general. If you’re interested in a status update on how Technologizer is going–mostly very well, thank you–check out Caroline Kawashima’s post at the Racepoint Blog.
PC World’s Tipping Point
Just a quick note to point you towards Advertising Age’s chartfest on the state of the magazine industry. It shows that my friends at PC World have achieved something pretty spectacular: the highest percentage of revenues from online of any publication that reported this figure, at 38 percent.
Yes, that means that 62 percent of overall revenues still come from print–a medium where readers are still happy to pay real money for content, thank heavens. But if you know anything about consumer publishing, you can probably guesstimate what percentage of PCW’s ad revenues come from print versus online. And you’d guesstimate figures that show that PCWorld.com is a vibrant and growing revenue source.
(This is an important point in part because I still run into folks who assume that PCWorld.com is some sort of sideline or loss leader for a great big magazine–’taint so, and hasn’t been so for a long time.)
When I was at PC World, I explained to anyone who’d listen that our editorial strategy was pretty simple: We had to be a Web site that had a magazine, not a magazine that had a Web site. That philosophy affected the decisions we made in 10,000 different ways. And it’s nice to see revenue figures that validate that approach.
The Myth (Well, Not Competely, But Sorta) of Search Engine Optimization
Does…someone involved with Engadget work on SEO (search engine optimization)?
No. We don’t do any SEO. I don’t believe in SEO.
–from the interview in Michael Banks’ book Blogging Heroes with Peter Rojas, founder of Engadget–a site whose Googe rankings most Web publishers would kill for.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t discount traditional search engine optimization techniques out of hand. At their best, they can help, and there are such things as poorly-optimized Web sites that don’t get all the traffic they could.
But SEO of the traditional sort is one one of a long list of things you can do to introduce people to your conent. And for most sites–especially smaller ones–I’m convinced that it’s nowhere near the top of that list.
Technologizer is a far smaller tech site than Engadget, but it’s growing rapidly–in September, its second full month of operation, it received around 400,000 unique visitors who generated 950,000 page views. (That’s according to WordPress Stats; I also use Federated Media’s tracking pixel and Google Analytics, both of which report numbers which are a bit lower…which is a subject for another post.) I’ve done almost no traditional SEO, other than to pick a platform (WordPress) that’s SEO-friendly in the first place and to remember to use the names of things I write about in the headlines (tricky, huh). Despite that, I’m doing fine in Google results, sometimes outranking humongous sites that lavish attention on SEO.
–Google is not an idiot. It is, in fact, generally remarkably smart about figuring out the topic of your content. Stuffing your pages with keywords in a desperate attempt to rise to the top of its rankings is the equivalent of shouting at an intelligent friend at the top of your lungs.
–The best way to rise to the top of Google results is to write something useful that nobody else has. Especially if your site is small and/or new. It’s certainly a faster strategy for success than trying to be the Internet’s top site for a search like “notebook reviews” or “health,” which will put you in competition with major sites that have a decade’s head start on you. Example: RealNetworks’ RealDVD was released today, and if you Google for “RealDVD Review” you’ll find–at least as I write this–that Technologizer’s review is the top one on Google. I didn’t accomplish this through brilliant SEO. I accomplished this through being one of the few people who bothered to review a signficant product from a large company, and posting my review last week in order to get a head start.
–Search engines may not be your best source of traffic. My strategy with Technologizer wasn’t to be on the front page of Google–although I am, in many cases–but to be a site that started conversations that other bloggers and sites would find interesting enough to link to, and which had traction with news aggregtors and social media sites such as Google News, Techmeme, Slashdot, Digg, Macsurfer, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and Hacker News. Traditional SEO doesn’t help here and can actively damage your site’s chances of success, since it may lead you to dumb down your content and render it bland and generic. Who wants to link to a site that’s bland and generic? It’s far more important to write for people than for machines.
–Getting linked to by sites other than search engines is the best kind of SEO. Google’s whole PageRank algorithm was founded on the idea that the search engine should emphasize sites that a lot of other sites link to. Focus on doing stuff that other people like and want to link to, and your Google results will improve correspondingly.
–Google enjoys foiling tricky attempts at SEO. In some cases, it and other search engines actively work to ignore techniques that SEO firms recommend. And if Google decides to do something, it usually succeeds.
–Nobody knows anything. William Goldman said that about the movie business, but it’s equally true of SEO. Google does disclose some techniques that will help your cause, and it makes sense to know them. But for the most part, it’s secretive about its special sauce–and that special sauce’s recipe is subject to continuous change. Devote a lot of energy to applying a surefire SEO technique to your site, and Google may make a change that renders it irrelevant before you’re done…if it ever worked in the first place.
I said this a few sentences ago, but it bears repeating: It always, always, always makes sense to concentrate on writing for people, not for machines. My deep belief in that proposition is one of the things that led me to found Technologizer–and so far, it’s paying off.
Boom! From Zero Page Views to (Almost) a Million a Month, in Less Time Than You’d Think
How is traffic at Technologizer, you ask? I’m glad you did. It’s going really well. And a chart from Google Analytics covering September 1st through yesterday will tell the story better than I ever could:
Actually, I lied: This graph is deceptive, since it looks like the site was flatlining at almost nothing until yesterday. In truth, traffic was in the hundreds of thousands of page views a month–not bad for a site that’s still in soft-launch mode. It’s just that yesterday’s traffic–a half a million page views or so–was such a dramatic leap that it dwarfed the rest of the month into a form where it’s hard to see what was going on.
I first blogged on Technologizer on June 9th, to announce the site. But I didn’t post again until July 14th, which is when I began blogging in earnest. That was ten weeks ago. And the site looks like it will do a bit under a million page views in September–maybe more, if I’m lucky during the last few days of the month.
One story will contribute the majority of that traffic: “The 13 Greatest Error Messages of All Time.” Which is fine by me. Part of Technologizer’s recipe is to regularly publish blockbusters–stories that drive tidal waves of traffic our way. I thought this story would resonate with hundreds of thousands of people, and it did: On September 24th, it became the top story on Slashdot, and the hockey stick in the chart above was the natural result.
I launched Technologizer in part because I wanted to prove that an individual without much in the way of resources could produce content that did as well or better as that from big companies with lots of resources. “13 Greatest Error Messages,” which will likely generate a million or more page views all by itself in the weeks to come, is happy confirmation that I wasn’t completely insane.
How can you create a blockbuster story on the Web? I persist in the eccentric belief that it’s just not that hard:
1) Find the intersection of what you love and what large numbers of people might like–anything involving computer-related nostalgia is a good bet, for instance–and never write anything that doesn’t come from the heart or which you wouldn’t want to read yourself;
2) Write it in the form of a list if possible;
3) Don’t take yourself too seriously;
4) Don’t be stingy with links to other relevant sites;
5) Break it into multiple pages,but not so many that people think you’re forcing them to click, click, click;
6) Make sure that readers can chime in (”Greatest Error Messages” has generated 350 comments and 15,000 poll responses);
7) Make sure your site won’t choke on the traffic if it comes (Technologizer is hosted by Automattic , the creators of WordPress);
8) Get the ball rolling by telling social media sites like Digg and Slashdot, as well as bloggers who might be genuinely interested, that the story’s up.
That’s the strategy we pursued countless times at PC World. I simply replicated it with “13 Errors,” and once again it worked.
Next challenge for Technologizer: Do it again and again and again…sometimes more than once a month, so getting to two million page views in one month doesn’t feel like an impossible dream. I’ll keep you posted on how we’re doing.
I’m Sorry, There Are No Such People as “Web Natives”
Dear fellow journalists and other media types,
Have you ever engaged, willingly or unwillingly, in discussion of the percentage of your staff who are Web natives–also known as digital natives? It’s a handy cudgel that’s sometimes used against anyone who’s in any sense a veteran of the era in which print products dominated our business. You’re either a Web native, or you’re not.
And if you spent years committing acts of print journalism? And were pretty successful at it? And admit to loving the print medium to this day? Then you aren’t a Web native, my friend, and you are therefore suspect.
Or so the theory goes. In fact, there’s no particular background that gives you bragging rights to digital skills. I know people with thirty years of print experience who are superb at online. I also know people who arent yet thirty and who have only worked for Web publications whose skills are shaky. But the folks I know who like to talk about Web natives would never use such a phrase for that first sort of journalist, and are likely to assume that the latter sort are natives without bothering to seek evidence.
(Side note: I first read a computer magazine in 1978–and first went online, at a blazing 300 bits a second, in 1978. I’m not sure what that makes me, but I hope that sixty years of combined experience in this world earns me some street cred.)
Note also that the world is full of voracious consumers of Web content who have no particular ability to create or wrangle content that anybody will want to read.
Let’s not forget that the Web medium is so young that neatly everyone who’s old enough to earn a paycheck learned to consume media in the print era. We’re all immigrants here. And it’s entirely possible to speak both Web and print fluently. In fact, if you’re smart enough to question everything you think you know, there’s no better background for the Web than print.
And questioning everything you know forever is the only way to succeed online, since the stuff you thought you learned about the Web in 2007 is nearly as likely to be obsolete as the stuff you learned about magazines in 1997. In same cases more so, since there are such things as eternal verities, and the Web runs on fads, trends, and temporary wisdom.
I don’t mean to discount the importance of online chops–far, far, far, far from it. Any media enterprise that doesn’t have people who love the Web medium and who spend as much time as possible luxuriating in it is destined for failure. Period. Divvying up a staff into natives and non-natives, though, is a counter-productive exercise that tells you absolutely nothing about who you want on your team.
Relevant related point: The real online superstars I know never talk about the notion of digital natives.
Oh, and I lied. There are such people as Web natives. It’s just that the very oldest are around sixteen or so. When they enter the workforce, they’ll do some amazing things. But if you’re old enough to vote, you’re an immigrant to the Web, not a native…
To Build a Community, Lower Fences
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The single hardest thing for a content site to do, I’m convinced, is to build a community. Throwing money at the project doesn’t help; there are no particular features that will ensure success; build it, and chances are high that they won’t come. You need patience, commitment, and a willingness to switch plans on the fly as you learn what does and doesn’t engage people.
But there is one relatively simple way to boost a community, and that’s to lower the fences. The less work it is to participate, the more people will do so; the more barriers you put in their way, the higher the chances are that they won’t bother.
At Technologizer, we have two principle forms of community: user comments on blogs, and the social network we call The Technologizer Community. The former requires no registration, and folks dive right in: It’s not unusual for a post to generate dozens or even hundreds of responses. (Not bad for a site that’s only a few weeks old and whose page views haven’t yet hit 200,000 a month.) The latter does require registration–the fairly simple one used by Ning–and will clearly need more work before it’s an unqualified success.
Then there’s PollDaddy, a poll tool I’ve had a lot of fun with at both Technologizer and PC World. Participating in a PollDaddy poll requires just a couple of clicks, and so I’m not surprised that you can get thousands of people to partake in one. Yes, the results aren’t the kind of meaty engagement that thriving forums or user reviews provide, but PollDaddy is simple, free, and popular; I can’t imagine running a Web site and not using it.
Always Bear Left
Many years ago, a book titled Always Bear Left maintained that doing just that was the smartest strategy for dealing with lines at Disneyland. When most folks came to a fork in the queue, they instinctively veered to the right; keeping to the left supposedly left you with less competition on your way into a ride.
I don’t know if that approach gets you onto Pirates of the Carribbean any faster. But I do know that on the Web, cheerfully doing the precise opposite of what universally-accepted best practices would have you do often works wonderfully well.
A couple of examples:
–Everybody knows that evenings and weekends are quiet on the Web, and so you should concentrate your efforts on mornings and weekdays. Which means that content that goes up during “off hours” has less competition. At both PC World and Technologizer, some of our very best traffic days have come on weekends, and we’ve had success with late-afternoon posting.
–Any search engine consultant will tell you that stuffing headlines with keywords is all-important. Which means that many headlines on the Web are deadly dull, and ones with panache will get noticed. And truth to tell, Google is so damn smart that it’ll identify your stories without heavy-handed SEO.
I don’t mean to scoff at best practices; I love to learn what works for other sites, and I cheerfully steal good ideas as often as possible. And I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as randomness on the Web–the actions you take as a publisher will determine whether your site’s a smash or a flop. But conventional wisdom is no substitute for real-world experience. And the great thing about the Web is that there’s little downside to trying something unconventional and seeing what happens.
Living and Learning
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Just a few months ago, I quit a wonderful job to launch my own site about personal technology. As I told everyone who asked, I wanted to scare myself. I did, and continue to do so–but I’m happy to report that I’m also having the time of my life. Working on something that’s already very successful, like PC World, can be a blast; building something new from scratch, such as Technologizer, is a hundred times more rewarding. With a startup, every single day is by definition an experiment. And with Technologizer–so far, at least–every day is bringing pleasant surprises and successes and new opportunities. I’m learning more than I ever have in this business, which is saying something when you’ve been at this as long as I have.
And now I’m starting a new blog to share the lessons I’m learning, as well as other stuff I’ve discovered over a couple of decades in the media biz. I’ll also comment on major news that transpires during this most interesting, surprising, and ultimately rewarding time to be in the media industry. I hope you’ll enjoy reading McCracken on Media (feel free to call it MoM for short); just as important, I hope you’ll contribute, too, by commenting on my posts.
Technologizer is an amibtious undertaking, with a real business plan, partners, multiple contributors, features such as a social network, and fresh content. With MoM, I’m keeping things very simple. (For instance, I used an off-the-shelf template with minor modifications, and am making no effort to make any money at this.) But I hope to blog multiple times each week, at least. More, if it turns out that this is the conversation I hope it will be. If this site ends up getting one percent of Technologizer’s traffic, I’ll be surprised and gratified. Here’s hoping…
Meanwhile, here’s a post I wrote for the American Society of Business Press Editors. Riffing on a Ray Bradbury quote, I called it “Building Your Wings on the Way Down.” That’s what I’m doing with Technologizer. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.