A while back, Meg sent me and several others a list of twenty-one questions about Weblogging. The questions ranged from “What strategies have you applied to traffic generation, if any?” to “Is there an ‘ideal’ blog length, in terms of word count?” to “What are the top five or so blogging tools you can’t do without?” They were thought-provoking questions, and I ended up answering at some length, if rather imprecisely. Meg said that she found my answers “completely and utterly helpful.” Assuming that she wasn’t just being polite, I thought I’d edit my answers a bit and post them here on the off chance that someone else might find them helpful.
Measuring Traffic. When I was writing my Weblog in Radio on Salon, I checked my traffic statistics religiously–I probably spent an hour a day doing that. Needless to say, that was a waste of time (and a source of minor, irritating anxiety). When I moved to iBlog and it got harder to have the Salon traffic statistics updated, I gradually let that go. I would like to say that that made me a better person, no longer driven by a need for attention and approval, but beyond making me a little less anxious, I think the only real effect it had was to make me much lazier as a writer. Without being focused on traffic, I write much less and (based on a recent perusal of some of my older posts) what I do write isn’t nearly as good.
Attracting Traffic. Since I don’t really have any way to measure traffic anymore (that I know of anyway), I couldn’t really say what drives traffic. I remember when I first started with my Salon Weblog, it seemed that which sites got traffic and which ones didn’t was based entirely on luck. I couldn’t figure out any way to explain the popularity of some of those Weblogs, and the lack of popularity of others. I guess the obvious factors apply: sex will always attract traffic, as will cornering popular Google search terms and being linked to (or, better, added to a Weblogroll) by a high traffic site. Beyond that, I think just building up a communal audience by mutual commenting and linking seems to work, if much more slowly and modestly.
Syndication Feeds. I think that providing some sort of syndication feed option is important. I generally only read Weblogs via a feed reader (Safari on my Mac at home and Thunderbird on my PC at work) because it tells me what to read when. I rarely read Patteran Pages only because Dick’s feed is broken, so I never remember to actually navigate my way over there. As to which feeds to provide, I think that providing one of the standard feeds (RSS or Atom) should be sufficient. I’ve never had a problem with a feed reader not being able to read something based on one of those standards. I’m generally opposed to proprietary approaches like My Yahoo! feeds, which are entirely unnecessary when the existing open standards work fine. But that’s more a matter of principle for me, and I’m not really trying to attract traffic. Reasonable people with different motivations might see that differently.
What to Write. I feel pretty strongly that a Weblog should be some sort of personal expression. If you want to write one word entries, go for it. If you want to write 2,500 word essays with pictures of leaves and other found objects taken in various fun-house mirrors, it’s all you. On the other hand, if your notion of personal expression is giving people precisely what they want, that’s fine too (though you might face practical problems discerning that–just ask anyone who’s ever tried to program a television network). For me, the great thing about Weblogs is that anyone can publish anything they want. The two kinds of Weblogs that I read regularly are those that are really well done (usually by professionals) and those that convey a strong sense of the humanity and personality of their authors. The latter is very hard to do through the attenuated interaction that a Weblog affords, and if the author is focused on catering to readers, it’s very unlikely to happen. In short, be professional or be yourself.
How to Write It. I have my own domain with all of the associated services and storage, so what works best for me won’t work best for someone who doesn’t have that. For someone seeking both hosting and software together, I think the only two viable options are Radio and Blogger. Radio costs money and is more powerful (but might be the most poorly written software I’ve ever used more than once) and Blogger is free and less powerful. If you’re willing to get hosting and software separately, I think the best option is iBlog (which is Mac only). It’s the best piece of blogging software I’ve seen for those who aren’t I.T. professionals. You can use it to publish either to your own domain or to a .mac account. It’s a much better combination of power and ease-of-use than Radio. If you’re willing to put in a bit more effort, WordPress, which is free, is the best blogging tool I’ve seen, but it requires not only that you have your own domain, but that you also have MySQL running on that domain (which most domain hosts do provide).
Other Details. For picture hosting, I use either my own domain or Flickr. Flickr’s nice because it has all sorts of community building features, and it’s free. As to comment spam, how to manage it depends on what you’re using for comments. HaloScan (which I used for comments with iBlog) and WordPress both allow you to moderate comments, which, after getting used to it, I really like. Both also provide a nice way to manage comments in one place (and HaloScan includes the ability to delete comments and ban commenters based on IP address). Given those two tools, I’ve never had a real problem with comment spam.