The very next night, Google Analytics unmercifully ruined my “web analytics” experience via massive downgrading of almost all applicable benchmarks and metrics. And in many instances, the difference reported by both platforms was staggering: for example, Awstat could report 6,971 visits for the month of March whereas Google Analytics showed paltry 840 visitors. Needless to say it was tough to digest, let alone accept, the sudden loss of the web traffic. But what could cause such chasm, and which platform was telling the truth?
Awstat visitor stats for March
Google Analytics stats for March
Let’s get some technical definitions out of our way and here is how I, not a technical type by any measure, think about it. There are two methods to collect web data: logfile tracking and page tagging.
So with the technical stuff out of our way, let’s focus on the visitor statistics. Which method produces the most accurate reports? None if we are talking about the absolute numbers. Both methods will miss or overstate visits. While the logfile method records everything, its data filtering and sorting process is not 100% bulletproof. For example, a logfile based analytical platform has to deal with search spiders which are not always easy to identify due to their ever expanding numbers.
Google Analytics vs Logfile stats
With all that said, I prefer to use Google Analytics with an occasional peek into the Awstats reports. I found Google Analytics to be very “web report” friendly: there is multitude of charts, stats, metrics and custom reporting options. The Awstats reports also provide plenty of useful information, but they are not as flexible or encompassing compared to G.A.
At the same time, I don’t fully trust the visitor stats reported by both platforms. Actually, I no longer care about the absolute numbers, unless there is the $ sign attached to them (and even that is questionable with G.A.) What I do care about is an upward trend in the visitor metrics. And if both platforms confirm an uptick movement, then it might the right time to shake off skepticism and do a victory lap around your desktop. Done? Now back to work to keep that upward trend going!
Back during my sophomore year I took the “Headline writing for journalists” class that taught aspiring journos to write attention grabbing headlines for newspapers and magazines. The core lesson was pretty simple: write to the point to attract and retain your readers. Today this lesson can be easily adapted and applied to the web-based content: write your web page titles to the point to attract readers AND improve your search engine rankings.
But what is the page title and where do you find it? To use an analogy, I think of the page title as a newspaper headline and here is where you can locate it for any web page:
web page title in a browser
web page title in the search results
Titles appear at the top of web browsers, browser tabs as well as in the search results. Keep them short – preferably no longer than 70 characters. Make sure to run a keyword research to select one or two keywords best describing your page and use these templates to construct the SEO friendly page titles:
Primary keyword – secondary keyword | Brand name
Brand name | Primary keyword – secondary keyword
You should resist an urge to stuff your page title with every possible keyword related to your content- there is no evidence that longer titles improve your search engine rankings. Also remember that search engines can only display a limited number of characters, not to mention that having dozens of keywords looks spam-ish and unprofessional.
With that said, allocate enough time for the keyword research. Here is a basic plan if you don’t have much experience researching keywords. Start by using Google’s updated keyword tool: it is free, and you can search possible keyword combinations by words or phrases, websites, and even categories.
Google keyword tool
Select keywords which you expect your potential visitor to use to find your web page, but stay away from highly competitive search unless you have an established and popular site.
So let’s take mev.com as an example. The home page title is short, just 44 characters without spaces, and to the point: “Building Custom Interactive Web Solutions – MEV LLC.” We used the “Primary keyword – secondary keyword | Brand name” structure to optimize our title and also selected specific keywords.
In short, writing descriptive and SEO friendly page titles is not an overly complicated task: write to the point, run a thorough keyword research, tweak your page title keywords and you should find the winning combination.
With a serious snowstorm bringing the Northeast to a standstill at the end of 2010, brick and mortar stores were sure to suffer losses as consumers hunkered down in their homes.
While this is bad news for businesses that depend on walk in traffic, many believe that online retailers see a considerable increase in sales during very bad weather. Although it is still unclear whether or not the Snowmageddon of 2010 has brought a substantial increase in revenue to eCommerce businesses, data shows that last Christmas season during an east coast snowstorm online retailers saw a 13 percent boost in sales.
Snow or no snow, the 2010 holiday season has been a major cyber success. According to MasterCard’s SpendingPulse eCommerce Index, sales online rose a healthy 15.4 percent from last year to $36.4 billion.
“This is exactly what we don’t need…this is ridiculous… the worst idea…” poured criticism. I admit: hearing people criticizing your post is not pleasant; and to be honest, I was disappointed to hear that my “strategic thinking” was that bad. But there was also a silver lining – I struck the web nerve resulting in increased pageviews and links to my blog.
I think that most bloggers, who write with a goal of reaching out and engaging the wider web audience, want to strike the web nerve. It is imperative for us to know whether or not our idea finds the resonance with readers. Do they like it? Do they hate it? And it is important to know the answers, because without them we can’t gauge the effectiveness of our thoughts. And if our thoughts do not reach the intended audience, why bother writing in the first place? So before you sail out on your writing journey, make sure to address, or consider, a couple of points.
It is love-hate affair that matters.
Do readers love your posts? Yes? Perfect! Do they love to hate your posts? Yes? Perfect! In either case, it means that you found something that matters to your readers. As long as your posts are not xenophobic or crossing ethical norms, taking a stand is better than being neutral. So you think that Sochi is a bad place for the upcoming winter Olympic Games? Please, say so: “I think it is absolutely ridiculous to have the Winter Olympic Games in the town that enjoys a tropical humid Mediterranean climate and has the mean winter temperatures around 42F.” This statement drives home your point. Though for the sake of completeness you might express your hope that a winter storm drops mountains of snow on Sochi, your point should still be clear – you do not like an idea of the Olympics in that particular region.
Think against the web traffic.
Sometimes, a close-knit community might not be receptive to new or radical ideas. Everyone is very passionate about whatever keeps this group of people together; everyone is on the same page with each other, and changes are not always welcome. In other words, it is the perfect ground for you to gain some recognition and get the extra web traffic.
Not long ago, I wrote a review of a small ski resort in Vermont. I tried to stay neutral and balanced: “I like this; I dislike that, but I think that it is a decent place overall.” The post did not trigger anything. It was well written, proofread and optimized. But it did not strike the web nerve; it was just like many other ski resort reviews: a little bit of the good, bad and ugly stuff. It was in tune with the commonly accepted practices of writing reviews.
Undeterred, and inspired by epic powder days at this ski resort, I suggested that management should drop a family oriented marketing pitch and stress the steep and challenging terrain available at the resort. As soon as I posted it on-line– readers found it. They tore the post apart; they criticized me; they brought it up on Facebook discussion boards. Overnight, I became the most criticized blogger among the fans of that ski resort; but I also got want I wanted – engaged readers, comments and links. And I did it without insulting fans or the resort. I just went against prevailing thinking on the subject.
Lastly, your blog topic should have a large pool of potential readers.
Of course, if your goal is to reach 100+ people, this point might be irrelevant. However, I assume that most bloggers think in thousands, and so it makes sense to make sure that there is enough of demand for your selected topic. Let’s say, you want to blog about “punctum.” According to a French philosopher Roland Barthes, punctum is an object or image that jumps out at the viewer within a photograph- ‘that accident which pricks, bruises me.’ It is a rare topic given the fact that there are about 231 million web pages with photography as a keyword, and only about 1.9 million pages mentioning punctum. In other words, the subject might appear odd, but given popularity of the photography field, there is potential for this niche topic to acquire significant web readership.
To sum it up.
Stick to your guns. If you have a strong position on whatever subject that interests you, take a stand. Sound off, and don’t be afraid of spoiling your reputation or making enemies. Stay within ethical boundaries, back up your claims and eventually, your blog should attract a steady flow of engaged readers. Just make sure that there are enough of them to cheer, or boo you up.
Now when I think about it, the mid to late eighties were marked by one feature – we actually read books to educate or entertain ourselves. My parents had a book subscription services, and boy did I enjoy it. I can still remember that books were delivered wrapped in a rough brown paper and often sealed with a wax stamp which would add a bit of mystery to them. Inside were novels by Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, Konan Doyle and many other marquee literary names. I could not wait for a postman to bring these books because I was reading them cover to cover. Back then, we did not have the high-speed internet with a gazillion of flashy web distractions. Back then, we could focus on content because we had all the time in the world to read it.
But it is no longer the case. Books are not the only medium to consume information. We also have the World Wide Web and cable networks now. We have HD TV sets, blazing fast computers, and convenient iPads to access them. Web browsers allow us to have multiple tabs open and dual monitors to view them. And each single medium is further capable to distract us. Cable networks have hundreds of channels; computers can handle dozens of applications at the same time, and iPads feature thousands of apps. In other words, our attention is diffused because we have too many – though some obviously disagree – substitution choices to give an unknown blog some love, a.k.a. a fair and extended trial.
People visit your new blog and skim over your content trying to find a keyword. And what if they don’t find it? They leave. Why? Because there are thousands of alternatives just seconds away. This is not a physical library where you would have spent considerable time browsing titles, pages and paragraph in search of information. And knowing that, readers are less inclined to read through your whole post (And God forbids if it goes over 1000 words.) I also get an impression that many folks are only looking for a keyword and a sentence it is used in. And as far as I know, a keyword is not a thesis – it might be a part of the much larger content and more interesting context. But it is the click-n-go culture where popularity of your posts is often measured in the time-spend-online metric. And it appears that we are talking about minutes here. How much content can you consume in just a few minutes?
Of course, there are notable exceptions. I know from running a blog that typically, people read the whole story when it is about some breaking news; if it is written by an authority in his/her field; or if it is recommended by someone who is popular among his/her peers. The problem here is that not every blogger is always in the epicenter of news; not everyone can be a renowned expert in his/her field, and we don’t know if a socially well connected person stumbles, reads, and recommends our blog.
So if you have been blogging and do not see much progress, stop for a second. It night be that your readers have not uncovered your ideas yet. Of course, you could simply suck at what you do, but there is a chance that the readers are not enticed enough to read past certain keywords. The World Wide Web gave us the unique opportunity to easily reach millions of people in minutes, but its popularity also made readers less willing to explore content beyond the front cover. They know that there are many other blogs vying for their attention and time. And it means that you should not take anything for granted. You have to fight to get noticed.
Sure, you might get lucky, get discovered by chance, and become famous without putting much effort in self-promotion. But it is luck. It is something that we can’t control. And most others should tinker and experiment for content presentation to help reader discover your content. It is totally up to you how far can you go, but often small changes make enormous difference (read “The tipping point” by Malcolm Gladwell on this topic.) What really matters here is your ability to make a web reader to make an extra step and follow your content to the end. Web readers might be a distracted bunch, but all it takes is a couple of socially well-connected and influential readers who push that single but awesome post to the tipping point of popularity. But unless you find the way to display and convince these few people to break that mysterious wax seal and unwrap your content, you might end up being the only who really reads it.
- Good content is king; but you need to make it noticeable.
- Identify your strongest posts and tweak their presentation.
- Your ultimate goal is to entice readers to read an entire post and not just keywords.
In the previous blog post Sergey touched a subject of balance between a content and design. That post actually originated from an email thread between him and myself, as we were arguing going over why we should concentrate more on content as oppose to presentation. His point I guess is pretty clear, so this time around I want to offer my perspective on this thing.
I think content is king, even more it’s an emperor, an all-mighty-frigging-dictator if you wish. If you have what people want, really really want – they won’t care whether it comes in a nicely presented way or in plain black-on-white as long as you can read one way or another. Actually I believe it’s quite easy to prove. Let’s see, if you’re reading this you are either:
- work here, so your boss(me) told ya to go read my awesome creative masterpiece
- you ended up on this blog post through some random link from some random site or twitter or reddit or technorati, or another one of the gazzilion aggregation websites out there
- you came here through Google or Yahoo or Bing, or, god forbid, AOL
Regardless of your origin you landed on this page safely, without going through our nice and shiny navigation, or digging through list of articles(which currently consists of exactly 2 items). Why? Because someone else created link directly to this bit of content(be that someone a human or crawler bot).
In other words:
- content is what gets you visitors
- content is what gets you links
- content is what people are interested in
This actually poses an interesting problem for websites that are not content heavy. I mean blogs are simple, as Sergey said – setup WordPress, find nice theme, and you’ll be all set, till you earn your million dollars through AdSense or whatever. But let’s look at “serious websites”. Say online stores. Well there we have things like usability coming into play, so design does play an important role in it, but what happens in a lot cases – people set it as a most important thing and invest a lot into it, while starving content, forgetting that it’s still a king. And starved kings don’t look too good. What end’s up happening is that budget is spent on building a beautiful frame, leaving zero or very few dollars for actual painting. In the end though – it’s content that matters and that brings you customers and makes them buy(granted, site needs to function well). Be that content a set of nicely done product photos, attractive description or some other creative way of product presentation.
Design is important, sure, but I believe content comes first, as it is the essence and a base of communication. And if content is a king, communication is a god(or a demi-god at the very least), since I guess that’s what the web is all about.
Starting a blog is relatively easy: come up with a blog idea, pick a publishing platform, and click a “publish” button. Bingo! You are all set to take on the blogosphere, but here comes the hardest part – earning your spot under the tech Sun. Unfortunately, the web-land is already carved up by a gazillion of writers claiming a piece of cyberspace. So if you have intentions of building significant web presence in this cyber-estate market, be ready to back them up with quality content and functional design.
I think that in many ways, building a blog is almost like designing and building a house: You need a thorough plan, desire to stick with it and skills to execute it. Once you find your own parcel of the web-land, you are ready to settle in your new cyber neighborhood. And the next step is to lay down foundation and pour in solid content.
I cannot stress enough the importance of thoughtful and original content. If you do not have one, or don’t want to spend time creating it, stick with poking or tweeting. Good content is not always synonymous with perfect grammar, maximum number of words, and a thesis statement in the last sentence of the first paragraph. Good content is a product of hard work and thorough research that you put into your topic. Sure, good grammar helps, but professionally proofread space-fillers do not stick around for long – eventually, they get dispersed and lost along vast vistas of the web.
The problem here is that when you have just a few posts, readers will have little troubles finding them. In this case, you simply need a basic Kubrick styled blog template to express yourself. But what happens once you grow your blog? You will need to build internal structures to keep your posts organized in a layout that makes it easy for visitors to find what they want. Unfortunately, not every post will have an overwhelming reaction from readers; not every photo will be memorable; not every video will be popular.
I have been running a couple of blogs, and I am pretty happy if 25%-30% of my posts get statistically significant readership. Most of the time, I don’t even know what post or image will have good pageviews. Sometimes, I spend hours researching and writing a post only to see it at the bottom of my website statistics while a substantially shorter post might generate multiple comments and record pageviews. I think it is impossible to pinpoint one exact reason why certain posts fail to generate positive feedback from readers. And as far as I know, the only solution here is to tweak, replace, resize and re-touch posts.
Lately, I have been experimenting with different site designs trying to find a layout that would push certain pageviews out of the web obscurity. So far, the results have been mixed; but at least I can get a slight sense what categories, posts, and pages have a better shot to be winners. If anything, it is a good start, and I suggest tweaking your own design if you have hundreds of under performing posts. In other words, put the winners on display; leave the losers dwell at the bottom. In this time and age, the internet readers do not have patience to sift through all categories and read every post. You can either catch their attention, or lose them. If you manage to turn unique visitors to returning readers, they will forgive your occasional writing blunders and not-so-good photoshoped images. But if you fail to grab their attention the first time around, chances are they will never come back to appreciate your late masterpieces.
I should note that not every blog needs to have a special design, rollovers, flash and dynamic photo galleries. For example, www.islanderspointblank.com is my daily fix for everything New York Islanders. This site has a very simple a la Kubrick theme design and frankly, it does not need any graphical or functional upgrades because it is the extremely popular on its own. How popular? Well, it had 1.5 million pageviews in January 2010 alone. But this type of a site is totally different because it provides time-sensitive information. In most other cases, good content needs to be filtered, separated, and presented in a clear way.
Let’s sum it up:
- You cannot afford to lose potential visitors just because hundreds of your posts are spread out across a site in a messy manner.
- Of course it does not mean that you need a layout stuffed with flash animation, rolling photo galleries, and glowing headers.
- What you need is a solid structure holding and displaying the top 20%-25%, or whatever your conversion is, posts and enticing readers to further explore your content.
- Those visitors might not only bring back additional traffic, comments and links, but also make that elusive spot under the tech Sun one step closer.