For the past couple of weeks, I’ve focused on making the website a little easier to grasp. It’s been a fairly organic process, which in itself is something of a breakthrough for me; in the past, I would have obsessed about getting everything just right first, but then I wouldn’t have had a website. And that’s the way it was for 5 or 6 years: a few half-finished, empty shells taking up space on a server.
I thought it would be interesting to catalog what I’ve done. Being in business for myself is continuously challenging, exciting, and at times scary. I find sharing what I’ve been up to be a good way of reviewing and assessing what I’ve done.
The Challenge of Attracting Traffic
I’ve been pretty fortunate that The Printable CEO has been popular, and it still seems to be maintaining some interest in the community. The people who have taken the time to comment on their blogs or message boards have helped drive traffic steadily upwards since the site launched in October 2004. It’s been an interesting grassroots education in “Eyeballs 101”, and it’s a good foundation for me to understand Marketing from a personal perspective.
On an average day, I currently get about 600-700 unique visitors and a 1700-1800 page views. About 33% of that traffic is from Google, maybe 10% comes from the [9rules Network][9rules], another 30% are from people who ride hyperlinks in from other sites/blogs, and maybe 10% are people who come to the website directly now that they know it’s here.
If I was interested in expanding the total number of daily visitors as rapidly as possible, I’d probably focus on Search Engine Optimization, aggressively pursuing link opportunities and tailoring what I write toward a) linkability and b) popular keyword searches. However, I’m more interested in that last 10% of the people who like hanging out here. The analogy that comes to mind is that I’m creating a nice public space where people can chill out and maybe connect with other people. Why? Because these are the people that I think are most likely to create some kind of synergy with, and synergy is something that I really am seeking.
There IS another class of content that I am considering, and that’s a kind of Encyclopedia of Dave that’s written FOR the search engines. They will be outside the context of the blog. I plan to do a more factual kind of writing there, as opposed to the more conversational style. By keeping advertising only to those pages, I may be able to the blog part of the site free of those distractions.
The Challenge of Connecting
Every once in a while I like to walk instead of drive. The richness of one’s experience tends to be proportionate to the amount of time spent passing through it. While driving allows us to get a pretty good sense of a neighborhood quickly, walking a neighborhood gives one a whole new level of detail that’s accessible to human context. You don’t get that when you drive, since everything is distant and “out there”. When you walk, you’re also much more likely to stop and check something interesting out. Boston is a great city for this kind of exploration, but you can find this in every town. It’s amazing what you will see, and who you might meet.
I’m interested in that last 10% of people that I can connect with, and part of the challenge is to “connectable” and “accessible”. 90% of this site’s visitors are here for a specific purpose: a headline on a web agregator, maybe a link to The Printable CEO, or perhaps a random web search. Those are the people who are “driving by”. What I want to encourage is stopping by for a spell to check out what else is here, quickly and conveniently. That means better signage and clearer boundaries between types of content.
The Challenge of Being Seeable
Another realization is that I need to be more proactive about meeting people, as I wrote about increasing my social surface area in The Printable CEO V: Makin’ Rain. The idea behind “surface area” is that the more of you there is (surface area), the more opportunities for interaction exist for you to be seen.
Everyone you meet, in any avenue or walk of life, represents a unique opportunity to exchange personal experience, stories, and information. And therein lies the first hurdle: how do you break the ice? The first step of that, I wrote, was just to be seen and noticed in the first place.
Reducing Challenge to Practice
So here’s what I’m doing specifically on the website to address those three challenges.
Add Social Bookmarking Convenience Links
One of the first things I did was add those social bookmark links at the bottom of every post. You know, to sites like del.icio.us and Digg, those teeming marketplaces of attention.
I think adding these convenience link may had added a few additional bookmark events a week. This may not seem like a lot, but consider that each one of those bookmarks is connected to an individual who has friends, who themselves have friends, and so on. Who knows what random opportunity may arise? It’s like putting treasure maps into bottles, and releasing them into the ocean.
Show instead of Tell, or Getting Away from Text
After re-discovering Flickr, the popular photo-sharing service, I started noticing that a lot of blogs were pulling their photos out of Flickr directly. I installed the FAlbum plugin to add the same capability, and then it occured to me that I could actually put my portfolio on Flickr. I would gain the advantage of Flickr’s funner photo interface, and I also may get some interest in my work from random encounters. Additionally, you can tell a LOT about someone by their photos; more visual people can figure me out much quicker through browsing my pictures.
I split the photo groups into two: a portfolio section that shows examples from my information graphics / interactive design photoset, and a random picture section that pulls from the entire photo library. I also put links to other articles and information about me near these photos, thinking that they may benefit from “spillover attention”. Not sure if it’s effective or not, but it seems there’s been a slight uptick in pageviews per unique visitor. I could be imagining it though.
An improvement I might make to my Flickr setup is to add my website URL to every photo description. I think that would be overkill and in poor taste; I already link photos to relevant posts on the blog.
Make it Easy to Subscribe to RSS
I was surfing links from ToDo or Else and ended up on CopyBlogger, an interesting site about writing effectively for blogs. The article Four Simple Steps to More Blog Subscriptions caught my eye; apparently, making subscription easy will lead to more subscriptions. A simple but powerful insight. I made a subscription badge and stuck it prominently at the top of the sidebar. This happened to displace the two “About Dave” and “Contact Dave” badges that were there before, but I had never liked them; people weren’t really seeing them anyway, from what I have been able to gather.
Liberate My Personal Identity from the Sidebar
My sidebar is way too long. The site design is based on an old WordPress 1.2 template that I adapted from an even-older Movable Type design, and the legacy two-column framework is getting pretty long in the tooth. The cool blogs have all moved away from this long ago, so I am following suit by adding a third section to my site, at the bottom of the page.
With just two zones, I had a main text area, and more text in the sidebar. Pretty boring, and by having so much information in each zone I was de-emphasizing the importance of each element within them. By adding the new “identity zone” at the bottom of the page, I separated out my name and personal information, which theoretically makes it much easier for people to find.
The implementation so far is pretty crude: my name and expertise, with supporting portfolio, resume, and biographical links. By including this information, I am essentially trying to say, “Yes, I’m available for project work” without beating people over the head with it. This replaces the old “contact dave” link at the top of the sidebar. Below this are two simple banners that highlight other attractions that search engine visitors (“drive by visitors) might find interesting: The Emergent Task Timer and The Printable CEO. This was also an interesting exercise in copywriting, because I had to come up with two slogans that could, in a glance, impart something salient to the drive-by visitor. You know, the equivalent of seeing a sign like ICE COLD COCA COLA or FRESH-SQUEEZED LEMONADE on a hot day.
The next stage, which I’m still working on, is writing a much more accessible version of The Printable CEO introduction so people can immediately see its benefit. How to measure effectiveness of these, I’m not sure yet. There are some options in Google Analytics related to “campaigns” that might be useful.
Create a Google Sitemap
To help Google index my entire site, I installed Arne Brachhold’s Sitemap plugin. It generates a giant XML file that Google parses to find everything on my site. This helps keep some of the “dead content” alive in the search engine. Back when I used to have the full archives link, this wasn’t an issue, but I removed them some time ago because they took up a lot of space for little benefit.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the dead links that were still in the search engines have now been cleaned up. It probably helps with search engine ranking for some pages as well, but that’s pure speculation.
Leverage Other Social Networks
I have been using StumbleUpon for a few years to keep track of my interesting bookmarks. What I like about it compared to Del.icio.us or Digg, is that I can surf one-site-at-a-time instead of being overwhelmed with a huge list of cool things to look at and blowing my whole afternoon. StumbleUpon also recommends links to you based on who else seems to be linking to the same stuff, so the likelihood of finding something interesting through the Stumble button is fairly high.
The relevance to my site is that my Stumble History (the sites I bookmark through StumbleUpon) forms an interest signature that other people can find and follow through the service. Since I have a link back to my website in my profile, this creates an opportunity for people to find my website. Since we share interests, there’s a higher probability that they will find the site interesting. I don’t see many hits from StumbleUpon, but it just would take ONE million-to-one connection to pay off. If you want to win the lottery, you have to play the game.
I could probably DIGG my own articles and get away with it for a while, but that just doesn’t seem very sporting. Having this attitude may be against my better interest, but I really like releasing content in the wild and watching how it floats out on the Internet. There was an old film I saw in elementary school called Paddle to the Sea, in which a toy wooden canoe was released on a river. The film covers the journey of the toy through the world, into the ocean, and then it somehow makes its way back to the original carver. Every time I get a referrer back from another blog or website from something I’ve written, I feel a similar thrill; I don’t think it would be the same if I’d planted the return route myself.
So that’s what I’ve been doing here and there in the past couple of weeks, and while it’s hard to say whether any of it is paying off, I feel like I’m getting a little better at this web stuff without obsessing so much over it. As a bonus, my knowledge of PHP is slowly growing because I’ve had to customize each of the plugins to work nicely with my theme. Not a bad way to spend my time, but I should take a page from my own book and go outside once in a while. Meeting people, of course, is the entire point of this exercise.