Category Archives: Writing

We live in the age of nostalgia

I once read a rather cynical take on where all the extra-terrestrials are. The author – I can’t remember who it was – said that eventually every civilization invents its own alien version of the internet and massively multiplayer online role-playing games, and that thereafter they pull their heads so far up their fundements, that they never find their way back out. Continue reading

How to Setup a WordPress Blog Properly

Image representing WordPress as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

Over the past few months, we’ve averaged around one new blog setup per day.

Recently, Nathan (one of our SEO experts – see his article on Buddy Press) and I started putting together a list of the standard things that we do after we install a WordPress blog.

The following assumes some familiarity with WordPress. We’ve started playing around with the latest version (2.8), and I suggest that you use that unless there’s a pressing reason not to (i.e. incompatible plugins).

1. General Config

  • Make sure that you have configured clean URLs in Settings -> Permalinks.
  • Under Settings -> Writing, put in additional locations to ping whenever you update your blog. There is a decent list here.

2. Themes

  • We try to make small changes to all stock themes that we use. This means that search engines are less likely to group your site along with every other blog that is using the same theme.
  • Even better: use a premium theme, or make your own one.

3. Plugins

Our objective with plugins is to automate the process of creating quality meta information for blog entries to the largest extent possible, and to make sure that our blogs talk nicely to search engines. We install the following set of plugins:

  • TagThePress
  • TagMeta
  • PingPressFM
  • Google Sitemap (there’s a few good options)
  • Ultimate Google Analytics

Make sure you configure all of the above. You may need to create some accounts in various places in order for some of the above to work.

If you’re running Firefox, we highly recommend installing the Zemanta plugin.

We used to put tag clouds into the sidebars of all new blogs, but if Sitemaps is working correctly that isn’t necessary (and it can take up a lot of important real estate).

4. SEO Stuff

  • Make sure you have accounts for Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools. Use them. Play around with them. Learn how to use them inside and out.
  • Make sure every new blog has one or two posts containing YouTube videos.
  • Getting the right number of tags per post is critical – we try to hit a sweet spot between 10 and 15 tags for each post. This may change depending on search engines.
  • Make sure that your blog is configured to use different page titles and meta tags for each page. Use HeadSpace if necessary to automate this process.

There’s probably a ton of important things I’m missing here (please let me know!), but this is a minimal list of things that you should be doing whenever you setup a new blog (if you want it to perform well).

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How Much Can a Blogger Earn?

I saw an interesting article via Slashdot today on how much bloggers make. Couldn’t resist throwing in my two cents. The numbers below are based on a wide range of websites that I’ve either run myself, or helped in the creation thereof.

To reiterate something that Evan Carmichael frequently talks about, the amount earned from Google Adwords is equal to the number of click-throughs, multiplied by the dollarvalue of a click-through. Sounds obvious enough, but there’s a huge divergence in the quality of ads, and that is somewhat dependant on the blogger themselves, since Google tries to place ads topically. You’ll see what I mean below.

Let’s talk about traffic quickly first. Building traffic to a website takes a lot of hard work and tremendous patience, which is why many website owners simple throw up their hands and accept whatever comes their way (or try to drive revenue by paying for traffic themselves – which is a tricky proposition for a blog). I’ve seen many websites that have built up to the low thousands of unique visitors per day though, through a ton of sweat equity. Anything beyond that may be a black swan event, so let’s set that as the upper bar of what the average individual can achieve through hard labour.

The value of an ad on a website is largely driven by topic and industry. There are people making higher than average rates using other ad placement systems (or by selling ad space themselves), but Google AdSense is the most accessible system to the average blogger, so let’s use some examples from there. The majority of click-throughs that I get on this site (and others I’ve run in the past) varies between $0.10 and $2.00. In one extreme example, I think I once received $5 for a single click-through. I know of specific topics that pay significantly higher (life insurance being one such).

Click-through rates tend to depend a lot on where people place ads on a page. Having high quality ads can help as well, but since Google tries to tie ads into the contents of a page, bloggers have some control over the sorts of things that generally appear. Spending some time experimenting with placement can have a large payoff. Editor’s Note: I’m guilty here; I do have ads, but I really can’t be bothered where they show up, since ad revenue isn’t what I’m after.

Therefore, the expected average earnings for a statistically significant number of hard-working bloggers could be calculated as being in the following range:

Low End: Assume 1000 visitors per day, 3% click-through rate and $0.10 per click = $3/day or $90/month.

High End: Assume 5% click-through rate and $1 per click = $50/day or $1500/month.

Bear in mind that the above figures are for somebody with average knowledge of how search engines work, a good work ethic, a willingness to experiment, and the patience to build things up over time. I don’t know how many people this covers.

Like I said before though, there’s a black swan or power law effect that’s at work here. What will typically happen is that the vast majority of bloggers will earn next to nothing through ad revenue, a small but well defined set will make enough to make it worthwhile to do full time, and a tiny (and exceptionally well-known) group will make a fortune. Similar to other kinds of creative efforts right? Think authors or musicians.

Disclaimers (I think they’re needed here):

a) I use Google AdWords on this site. I’ve made $10 in the past 6 months. I’m too busy with other things to care too much. I’ve run sites that made $50 to $100 per month in the past, with minimal effort on my part.

b) I know of several people who make a decent living blogging (by decent I mean more than I make!). There are some interesting differentiators between them and other bloggers. They all approach it as a business. Most of them seem to have found ways to make other people do the hard work for them. They also all find real-world outlets (i.e. seminars, consulting, selling product) that neatly tie in to their blogs, in such a way as to create a reinforcing upward spiral of activity. Believe it or not, only a few of the ones I know are “famous” or are active mainstream journalists. The people I know aren’t a big enough set to be statistically significant.

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How Schools Could Use Social Media

This is #12 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics list, and is part of the 100 Topics Challenge.

There's an opportunity to incorporate social media into the classroom. Will school boards take it?
There's an opportunity to incorporate social media into the classroom. Will school boards take it?

If I had a dollar for every kid that tries to get me to answer their homework questions on Yahoo! Answers, I might have a better than average chance of paying all my bills this month.

Yes, we happen to live in an age where things are changing pretty fast. It still puzzles me that the most common reaction by schools and universities to the social media phenomenon is to try and ban it from the classroom. Hence the proliferation of websites that try to catch cheaters.

If I was running the show, I would try a different tactic: co-opt social media. Make it part of the game. There’s a great learning opportunity here, and it is being missed – at least in North America. In Europe, there’s a heavy push to incorporate e-learning into the classroom (see for some interesting related topics).

Here is how I react when somebody tries to get me to do their homework for them: hey kid, there is an awesome learning opportunity here. I’m not going to solve the problem for you, but I will try to teach you a few interesting things. Maybe I’ll rephrase the question for you so you can understand it better. Maybe I’ll point you in the right direction so that you can discover places online where you can learn more about the problem at hand. Maybe I’ll give you a few pointers on ways to approach a solution. Sounds more like a tutorial? Self assisted learning opportunity?

One critical factor is that one really needs something like a walled garden – at least initially, and at least for younger students. If you toss them onto Yahoo Answers and tell them “good luck kid”, they’re going to come back with some interesting (and probably odd) notions about how the world works. For one thing, many of the so-called experts on sites like these, ain’t. Even on the late, great, there were more than a fair share of kooks. Many of the e-learning projects underway (i.e. the Second Life-based project in the UK) are building things around such walled gardens.

If schools – or maybe school districts – had a site that only kids and teachers could login to, it could be a powerful tool. You need a critical number of users before something like this becomes useful. I don’t think one school is sufficient. On the other hand, if the whole world is involved, it may become too unwieldy (and expensive to maintain – let alone the factor of who owns and manages it).

Let other kids get involved in teaching their peers. After all, teaching something is often the best way to learn it.

Let adult teachers supervise and guide the process. I envision a system that categorizes data by topic, and allows the teacher to put a filter on it – right now you can learning anything you want about math. Here’s todays quick lesson and some questions to answer. Here are the resources to learn more. Need help? Here’s what everyone else in the class is working on? Here’s who else in the school district can help you? Here’s what last year’s class did.

Put in scoring mechanisms so that students can get competitive if they want. Help your fellow student, two points. Get rated for the best question by teach and peers? Bonus points! It would be critical to balance a competitive system so that it doesn’t leave some students behind, possibly through an opt-out system. Or just let kids see their own score and rank, without access to anyone else’s.

Build in the day’s lessons in a way that the students can explore the topic in their own way and at their own pace, but with guides and video tutorials to help them if they get stuck. I know that this kind of learning methodology doesn’t work for everyone. There has to be a way to incorporate self directed learning into a pedagogical system though.

I wish there had been something like that when I was growing up. Yes, there were computers in the classroom (I got lucky with my schooling). Yes, we learned how to program in Basic and Logo. I also grew up reading Ender’s Game, and there were definite precursors to e-learning social media in there. The concepts involved here aren’t new, and the technology involved isn’t particularly challenging any more. There are even some fairly big companies building pieces of the puzzle – hence Blackbaud and their myriad competitors (e-learning overall is at least a $50 billion USD per year industry). All something like this needs is a vision, some corporate sponsors, and a lot of courage from school boards.

How I Find Blogging Ideas

This is #9 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics list, and is part of the 100 Topics Challenge.

Over the years I’ve had more than my share of writer’s block. I’ve found that I tend to go through short periods of intense activity, where I write a vast amount – articles, blogs, lyrics etc – followed by years of “drought”.

One strategy that I have adopted is to work with lists wherever possible. I use them to generate ideas for material (you need only look at the top of this blog entry to see an example), as well as to help structure longer pieces (there’s nothing like a well structured list of chapters for helping in the process of writing a book).

For blogging purposes, keeping a close eye on the news is also useful. There’s nothing like writing about something currently interesting to people when it comes to attracting attention to a blog. However, my gut feeling is that writing only about topical subjects means that the material will rapidly become dated. If you use this approach, make sure that you also write about enduring topics.

As somebody who writes largely about business-related topics, I draw much of my material from my day to day experience running businesses. A good way to find topics to write about is to draw on your own life. If you use this approach, a good strategy is to learn to allow your own “voice” to come through in your writing. Your unique voice and personality is powerful. Write about the things you feel strongly about: things that you love or hate, things that amuse or horrify you.

A final way to find topics: ask people what they want to read about.