Your Trump Card Post Idea 248

I want to share a post idea anyone can use. It’s almost guaranteed to produce one of the best blog posts you’ve ever written.

It’s an idea with limited uses, so I’d suggest that you use it wisely. It will also take some time to do it justice.

The perfect scenario would be one where you have ample time to write but a lack of inspiration. We’ve all had those days, and I hope this will be your Get Out of Jail Free card in dealing with them.

Your final words

Imagine this post is the last blog post you’ll ever be able to write. What would you want to say to your audience? What advice would you be desperate to give? What story would you feel compelled to tell?

This is a good opportunity to take a holistic view of your primary blog topic. Instead of focusing on one of the components required for success, provide a roadmap to it, for example. Instead of writing about a specific part of your niche, take a birds-eye view. What would you say about it all, if you only had one post left to write?

I think web content writers often worry that if they say everything at once, they won’t have anything new left to say. This isn’t true. Unless you intend on writing thousands of words, you can’t explore all details fully without dealing with each in isolation. You might bring up an idea in your ‘final words’ post, but each idea you mention probably deserves a post (or many) of its own.

Some ideas:

  • Outline all the steps required for ‘success’ in your niche — whether it’s becoming an ultra-quick mountain-biker, launching a successful small business or traveling around the world. A good example of this strategy is Maki’s post on The Secret to Building a Popular Blog.
  • If you had to shrink your blog down into one 500 to 1,000 word post, what would that post say?
  • If you were only able to impart one last lesson or idea to your readers, what would it be?
  • What are the five most important lessons you’ve learned, relating to your niche?

Crafting the headline

Take the opportunity to create a headline that expresses the comprehensiveness of your post. After all — you’re trying to create something really important, so you better let your readers know!

Headline formulas:

If you only ever read one post on ______, make it this one

The five most important things you need to know about ______

How to be a successful _______

The most important thing you need to learn about ________

The challenge

I’m really confident this idea will result in some stellar blog posts, so I’d like to showcase them here. If you write a post using the trump card formula after the publish date of this post, then email me a link to it before the 25th, I’ll write a post here dedicated to showcasing your links.

I’m looking forward to reading and sharing some stellar posts!

25 Paths to an Insanely Popular Blog 261

1. The social media runaway train. Perhaps the most sought after (and least frequently attained) route to a popular blog is rapid ‘growth from above’ resulting from huge traffic spikes, most frequently originating from Digg. This route was traveled by blogs like Zen Habits (did you know Zen Habits has been on the Digg front page more than 80 times?) and The Art of Manliness.

Getting started on this path:
Why You’ve Got to Digg Digg to Get Dugg
The One True Cause of Rapid-fire Growth

2. Grassroots growth. The most common form of blog growth occurs at the grassroots, where blogs and bloggers at similar levels of development collaborate from the ground up. The central idea here is that a lot of little links are just as powerful as one big, top-down growth event. This is one of the most community-based approaches, though growth yielded through this route tends to be consistent and slow-burn.

Getting started on this path:
Hansel and Gretel Link-building

3. The networker’s model. This route captures the human element of collaboration and mutually beneficial relationships. This kind of collaboration can be used to encourage links, trade favors, advice, social media votes and make friends. Collaboration has been very important in the growth of Dosh Dosh, for example.

Getting started on this path:
On Getting Noticed
5 Habits of Highly Ineffective Networkers

4. The advertiser. This model involves kick-starting the path towards building a popular blog by investing in the future. Bloggers who favor the advertising model have keen eyes for ways to get maximum exposure at minimum cost.

Getting started on this path:
3 Surefire Ways to Advertise Your Blog on a Shoestring

5. The preview model. My favored strategies in the early days of Skelliewag’s growth, the preview model involves sharing your work with new audiences through guest-posting. It functions on the assumption that anyone who clicks through your byline probably liked your post, and will therefore probably like the rest of your stuff, too!

Getting started on this path:
How to Maximize the Benefits of Guest-posting

6. The leverager. A blogger following this route is an expert at using existing ventures to pour support into new ventures. The impressive thing about this model is that, when done well, it can propel a blog or website forward faster than even the biggest of social media spikes. A recent example of powerful leveraging was Leo Babauta’s launch of Write to Done, which seemed to reach 3,000+ subscribers almost immediately on the back of his support at Zen Habits and in the freelancing/web working community.

Getting started on this path:
Spinning Plates: How to Succeed With Multiple Projects
5 Hard Questions You Should Ask Before Starting a New Project

7. The inward model. This content-focused strategy centers around producing quality content and making it easy for your existing audience to propagate your content to new audiences. Your content becomes more important than ever before, and this model makes it essential that you write content designed to be easy to link to and vote for.

Getting started on this path:
The Web’s Best Content Has One Thing in Common
How to Value-add Everything (Even the Little Stuff)
How to Avoid Fool’s Gold and Create Value-packed Content
Who Are You Writing For?

8. The Matrix model. Blogs following this model become popular blogs because they seem like popular blogs — they’re value-packed with an active community, and they put care into professional-level presentation. Over time, the statistics beneath the surface begin to fall in line with perception.

Getting started on this path:
The Matrix Model: Why Perception is Everything

9. The scientific model. Bloggers who like to quantify things are often capable of following some complex formulas when it comes to blog growth: they work out exactly what kind of benefits are yielded by certain actions, keep detailed records and break down statistics to see what works and what doesn’t. While it seems geeky, these bloggers have an intimate understanding of where the real rewards lie, and how to best get at them. Tim Ferris is one blogger who tends to quantify everything, and it’s one of the factors behind his success.

Getting started on this path:
Dig Into Your Blog’s Statistics

10. The ‘in spite of’ model. Some bloggers are utter mavericks — they break every rule and do everything bloggers shouldn’t do, and still experience roaring success. They might insult their audience, go on an extended hiatus, stir up controversy for fun, or write for themselves rather than an audience — and still succeed in spite of all of that, usually because the strength of their ideas shine through regardless (whether you agree with them or not!).

11. Marching ever onwards. Some bloggers shepherd a blog towards popularity through sheer tenacity alone. They’ll continue to blog through hardship, through creative burn-out, through criticism, through plateaus, and through a lack of motivation. They aren’t always brilliant, but they never give up, and they never take their foot off the accelerator.

Getting started on this path:
What to Do When Your Blog Plateaus

12. The strategist model. Some bloggers spend more time with a whiteboard or notepad than they do actually writing content, and dedicate more words to outline a growth strategy than they do to actually writing content! Some of the world’s most popular blogs are the result of detailed planning and clever strategies. They mapped out a route towards popularity, and only had to put on foot in front of the other.

Getting started on this path:
A Guide to Breaking Into the Technorati 100
The Secret to Building a Popular Blog and Getting Tons of Readers

13. The learner model. Some of the world’s best bloggers, now teachers, were once voracious learners. They succeeded because of a depth of knowledge nobody else has, usually gleaned from extensive experience. is a fine example of this method: nobody in the world knows more about blog monetization than Darren Rowse, so it really wouldn’t matter if he didn’t have the other pieces of the puzzle in place (even though he does).

14. The experimenter model. Some blogs are propelled to great heights by fearlessness: the bravery required to experiment with content types, to throw out what doesn’t work and embrace what does, to admit when they’re wrong and be proud when they are right. Such blogs often re-invent themselves multiple times, but take a loyal audience with them all the way. One worthy example of popularity through fearless experimentation and soul-searching is Ars Technica.

15. The innovator model. An innovative concept that strikes a chord seems to turn a blog into something more than that — it becomes viral. A new, fresh and interesting idea can propel a blog into the stratosphere, even if the execution isn’t stellar. There are countless examples, but one making waves recently is Stuff White People Like.

Getting started on this path:
110+ Resources for Creative Minds

16. The audacious model. Audacious bloggers approach popularity as inevitable — they’re not afraid to reach out and claim it. They’ll ask for things, expect favors, and put themselves out there in order to get noticed. This route is fueled by confidence. Audacious bloggers try things other people assume to be impossible, and often succeed.

Getting started on this path:
Audacious Blogging

17. The cult of personality model. Some bloggers are propelled to popularity, in whole or in part, because people adore them. They’ll support anything they do, read anything they write, and look for opportunities to give something back. Readers who adore you will go out of their way to share your content with others. A prerequisite is usually a lot of hard work on behalf of the blogger: being insanely useful is the best way to get people to like you.

Getting started on this path:
Creating Passionate Readers

18. Who you are. Some bloggers seem to succeed wholly on the: “Whoa, that person has a blog?” factor. While there’s surely a reason Zach Braff averages 1,000+ comments on each post he writes, I suspect it’s not because of his value-packed content. That people like Robert Scoble and Seth Godin have followings is almost inevitable: who they are and where they’re positioned makes them worth watching. Unfortunately, this is a path most of us can’t hope to take.

19. The prolific model. Gawker blogs (you know — same theme in different colors, a new post every few minutes) will produce content that is mainly — but not all — irrelevant for individual readers. Of 24 Lifehacker posts, you might find one incredibly useful and throw out the rest — but you stay subscribed because of that occasional ability to strike gold. What is gold to you is another reader’s lump o’ coal, and vice versa. These blogs operate on the assumption that if you throw out enough content, some of it has to be good — and judging by their success, Gawker readers agree!

20. The outsourced model. The top 10 most popular blogs in the world (according to Technorati) are all outsourcing experts. Big media overlords pay good writers not very much money to produce an endless stream of fresh content and pocket up to a million dollars in advertising profit. This model is one of the fastest growing of them all. While I think some of the most popular blogs using this method don’t pay their writers enough, I can vouch from experience that Freelance Switch is an example of this model working really well (and fairly) for everyone involved. If your blog takes off, you could essentially sit back and let your blog run itself while you pocket the left-over revenue, minus the costs of hosting and paying writers.

Getting started with this model:
On Hiring People to Write for You

21. Being the first. Some blogs are propelled forwards at great speed simply by being the first to cater to the needs of an under-served niche. As time goes on, the number and size of under-searched niches decreases, but if you do manage to colonize one the rewards will be considerable.

Getting started with this model:
Surviving and Thriving in an Under-served Niche

22. Breaking news. Social media tends to reward the original source of news. If a story is broken on a particular blog, that’s the blog likely to go popular with the story, rather than those following in the footsteps of news-breakers. Having industry connections and a network of sources tends to be one of the reasons why news-breaking blogs tend to get popular and stay there. Gizmodo has at times been the most popular blogs in the world, and it also breaks news on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this model is another difficult route for the average blogger to take. Without established networks you’ll almost always be beaten to the punch.

23. The talkative model. Some bloggers are like the popular kids at school: they enchant people simply by paying attention to them. This is the favored strategy of prolific commenters and those who build their blog on the back of a well-respected forum profile. They use their words to rouse curiosity and encourage click-throughs to their blog. These bloggers tend to be voracious readers in a constant effort to bring their perspective to new audiences. Caroline Middlebrook does a lot to evangelize this model.

Getting started with this model:
How to: Leave Quality Comments
Find New Readers in Forums

24. The giving model. Some blogs march along the route to popularity by giving, giving, giving: free eBooks, free services, free advice, free goodies, free promotion, and so on. While it’s good karma, nothing is more popular online than free stuff people actually want.

Getting started with this model:
On Giving Yourself Away

25. The sculptor model. Some blogs are like works of art: every element, every word and every link is there for a reason. Each post seems as if it must have taken hours to create, that it must have been checked a dozen times for imperfections, and each one promptly ironed out. Engaging with something created with the utmost care and attention is a unique experience — one that’s difficult to avoid being captivated by. Coding Horror is an example of every element being carefully crafted to great effect.

How to Get 1100 Subscribers in Five Days 214

There are two reasons why I’ve used the above title for this post. Firstly, it’s a follow-up to my article on How to Get 1,050 Subscribers in Three Months. Secondly, because my new blog, Anywired, reached 1,100 subscribers five days after its launch on Thursday.

This post contains everything I’ve learned about starting a second blog while using your first blog, connections and profile as a platform to launch it from. If you take only one thing away from this post, let it be this point: your first blog is always the hardest. It only gets easier after that.

The recipe for success

When launching Anywired I had no idea what to expect. I had hoped that some Skelliewag readers would be interested in it, and I had suspected it to be a little easier than starting this blog from scratch had been. I had decided to be optimistic and hope for 100 subscribers in the first week.

Clearly, I had underestimated the value of three factors:

  1. A loyal audience.
  2. A profile in your new niche.
  3. Connections with other bloggers.

These are the three components which made the launch successful. If you can build each of these components, you have a recipe for the successful launch of blog #2.

I think that while many bloggers have ideas for new blogs, they’re discouraged because they think back to how tough it was to build something from nothing. Through the process of launching a second blog, I’ve learned that you can leverage the many hours of work you’ve done on your first blog (and on other blogs) to make growing you second blog much easier.

A loyal audience

From the comments on Anywired and emails I’ve received, it seems that a large portion of the blog’s new subscribers are Skelliewag readers (thanks, guys!) It also helps that the blog’s niche (working and earning an income online) is in line with what many Skelliewag readers would like to get out of their blogs: a supplementary income.

If I had started a blog about duck shooting, you can expect that the interest from Skelliewag readers would have been much less.

My key tips on building this element of a successful blog launch would be:

  • Create passionate readers and, as Leo Babauta says, try to be “insanely useful.” (Congrats to Leo on becoming a full-time blogger!)
  • You’ll have more audience transfer if your new niche is of interest to most of your target audience. That being said, a first blog can help even if your new niche is completely different. (After all, maybe some Skelliewag readers are duck shooters!)

A profile in your new niche

Having some degree of respect or notoriety in your new niche can also be helpful. If I decided to launch a new blog in the mountain-biking niche, for example, I’d expect a slow start because very few bloggers in that niche know who I am.

A lot of people know that I’m a freelance blogger, and I also write for ProBlogger and Freelance Switch, both of which are read by people interested in working and earning an income online. Because I already had a profile in the niche, people were confident from day one that I knew what I was talking about.

My key tips on building this element of a successful blog launch would be:

  • Comment on blogs in your new niche before launching (to develop a bit of name recognition).
  • Write some posts on your first blog that incorporate your new niche (to demonstrate that you know a bit about it).
  • Guest-post in your new niche around the time of the launch.

Connections with other bloggers

My friendships with Darren Rowse, Collis Ta’eed, Jon Phillips and Maki resulted in links and support from their respective blogs when Anywired was launched. I’ve been very lucky to make connections with influential bloggers, but the launch was also given support by a number of Skelliewag readers, combining to create a grassroots swell of support.

The combined effect was immensely helpful in generating incoming traffic and no doubt brought in a lot of fresh faces and new subscribers. I’m thankful to everyone who wrote about or commented on the launch. I was truly humbled by the warm welcome.

My key tips on building this element of a successful blog launch would be:

  • Tell blogging buddies about your launch in advance and send them a link when the site goes live. I didn’t ask anyone for a link, but I found people were willing to link anyway.
  • Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get links from top bloggers. Your loyal audience should help you out.
  • Call in favors by asking others to vote for articles on your new blog, or support it in any way they like. You’ll find that if you’ve been helpful to the person before they’re likely to oblige and do so gladly.

Where to next?

I hope this post has allayed some of your fears about starting a second blog, though it’s still essential that you answer five hard questions before starting a new project.

In a month or so I’d like to return to the topic and reflect on what I’ve learned about the actual process of juggling two blogs.

I was considering writing a post simply saying thank you for your support, but I hope this post does the same thing while proving useful. Providing value is probably the best way I can say thanks :-).

7 Blogging Lessons Learned from a Best Selling Author 206

Everything you’ll learn about blogging or running a successful website, you’ll learn from someone else: either by reading how-to articles, observing the mistakes and successes of others, or by observing your readers and how they react to your blog.

The second element — learning by example — has the potential to impart more knowledge and important lessons than (potentially) any other source. In this post, I want to share seven lessons I’ve learned from best-selling author Tim Ferriss (author of The Four-Hour Work Week) and his blog, and how you can use them to your own benefit.

Whether you’re a fan of the blog’s author or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s a blog which has grown entirely through a strategy of content that’s value-packed for its target audience. It’s also a good opportunity to see The Matrix model in practice.

Lesson 1

Reverse-engineer your blog from central goals. While I don’t claim the ability to read the author’s mind, the central goals of the blog appear to be 1) convert blog readers into book buyers and 2) raise the author’s profile.

Every part of the blog contributes to one of those key goals. The content functions as a taster for the book’s contents. The advertisement for the book takes up prime real-estate on the page and nothing else is advertised. The book is also regularly mentioned within posts, to remind readers that the product and blog are inextricably linked.

In terms of raising profile, each headline and post is written to maximize social media and link appeal.

This is a really important lesson: work out what you want from your blog, and make sure there is not one word, image or widget devoted to anything that doesn’t support what you want to achieve. It’s the quickest way to actually reach your goals.

Lesson 2

Practice The Matrix model and let readers assume. I’ve previously written on why the assumptions readers make about your site matter more than the reality. The blog doesn’t display its subscriber count — probably because the average number of comments on each post is high (usually between 30 – 150).

It’s possible that the comments section is simply made up of sycophants and the subscriber count is quite low. I highly doubt it, but we can’t see the statistics below the surface, so how can we know for sure? Regardless of the reality (whatever it may be), the assumptions are likely to be favorable.

The high comment count alone lets us assume that the blog is incredibly popular, which then makes us think: maybe the posts here are worth reading?

The lesson to take away is this: show-off the elements which make your blog look popular and hide those that don’t. Let readers make assumptions about the reality.

Lesson 3

Post less to be (and get) more. One thing you’ll notice about the blog is that every post is a feature article. Asides, news and requests — usually worthy of their own post on most blogs — are tacked-on to the end of feature articles. The rationale behind the practice is this: asides will never get as many comments as feature articles. They’ll also push feature articles further down the page. The comment count can be kept high (and attention diverted to what’s important) by adding the information to feature articles.

Something else you’ll notice is that the blog only updates once or twice a week. This gives each post more time to gather comments and propagate via social media. It also allows for plenty of value to be concentrated in single posts.

Lesson 4

Audience + value-packed content = links and social media votes. Once you have a loyal readership, content matters more than any other variable. If you can create value-packed and well-targeted content, social media success and links are only one step away. Each post is long and full of lessons and detail which (mostly) support the central theme of the blog: you can live and work better. This means that social media visitors who like the post are good candidates to become readers rather than just a hollow surge of traffic.

Take away this lesson: once you have an audience, they’ll spread the word on your behalf. You just need to give them something worth talking about. In the beginning, you have to do a lot of the talking about yourself.

Lesson 5

Put your best content on a pedestal. The ten most popular posts on the blog are held high in the sidebar. The heading ‘Popular Posts’ is visible above the fold. Your popular posts are those that really clicked with your target audience. They’ve been tested by the masses and proven to work. When someone you’re trying to reach visits your blog for the first time, it’s essential that you serve up a menu of your best posts, all relevant to them.

I suspect that blogs which do this have a much higher conversion rate of new visitors to loyal readers (and a lower bounce-rate), but it’s one of those things that’s statistically difficult to measure.

Lesson 6

Create a comment-culture on your blog. We all want more comments. If you want something, sometimes the route which seems too obvious to work is actually the answer.

One of the reasons the Four-Hour Work Week blog consistently gets a lot of comments is because the author actively encourages them. Asking readers what they think, responding to their input, holding comment-competitions and using comments as case studies (or answering questions in posts) are all simple things you can do to create a comment-culture on your blog: where readers feel as if it’s not only OK to comment, but that it will be worth their time and that you’re interested in what they’ve got to say. Participating in comments at your own blog is another highly effective way to build a comment culture.

Lesson 7

Emphasize what’s important. Key points and sub-headings are bolded. Tim’s book is advertised in what’s probably the most prominent location on the site. Popular Posts are almost right at the top of the sidebar.

The core of simplicity is about highlighting what’s important and removing or de-emphasizing the rest. You can make every post you write better by emphasizing key points in bold. You can make your blog design more effective by emphasizing the elements which most contribute to your goals.

5 Content Strategies That Top Bloggers Use 3 Things That Set Them Apart 913

When I’m in a healthy blogging mindset, I write long posts every few days. I’ve tried short and newsy in the past, but have realized I’m no Seth Godin. If I’m going to say something important and useful, I need plenty of words to do so. That’s the style that works for me, but it won’t work for everyone.

By studying some of the bloggers I admire I’ve realized that there are five dominant content ‘strategies’ they use, and that each one is very different from the others. This is good news, because it means that there is (mostly) no right or wrong way to do content. I’ll talk more about that ‘mostly’ caveat later.

Despite the many differences, the similarities are more telling. I think I’ve been able to work-out some factors that are must-haves for your content. Without them, you simply can’t grow your blog into a niche leader.

The 5 Content Strategies I Identified…

1. Long, Deep and Less

Practitioners: Yaro Starak, Steve Pavlina (et al.)

Description: Long, +1,000 word posts that are very comprehensive. Rather than drip-feeding ideas about one topic over a series of posts the author consolidates them into ‘uber-posts’. They’re unlikely to post these more than twice a week.

Pros: This type of content tends to attract links, comments and fare well on social media because it puts a lot of value in one place. Since there is more in each post, readers are more likely to come across something that makes them think. Writing great content in this format consistently is one well-worn path to a popular blog.

Cons: It’s difficult to keep producing this kind of content consistently. Sometimes you won’t have time to write long posts and other times you’ll wrestle with that ancient fiend – writer’s block. To do this style well, you need to write posts in advance and be doggedly consistent. Though this type of content has been a natural fit for me I’ve often been tripped up by a lack of consistency. Some bloggers – bloggers that I envy – are like content producing machines and will never go for too long without posting, even over the course of several years.

Tip: Make sure your posts are long because you are packing them full of good stuff, not just because you’ve taken a long time to say something that warrants far fewer words.

2. Every Day, Without Fail

Practitioners: J. D. Roth, Darren Rowse (et al.)

Description: These bloggers have to be admired for their tenacity. They will not accept anything less than a new post every day. You’ll often find that bloggers who can master this habit are destined for big things.

Pros: One basic principle of SEO is that if you publish lots of content the search-engines have a lot to index. If you write 500 articles that get 2 search visits per day, you will be getting a base level of 1,000 visitors per day from search. The simplest thing you can do to increase your traffic is write more.

Cons: It can be stressful to keep up this habit when you have to go away for several weeks, or if you get sick. It’s not easy to store up dozens of posts as a safety net, though I recommend it. If you’re determined to have your blog updated every day you’ll need to make connections with people who are happy to guest-post for you on short notice.

Tip: If you don’t have a writing routine in place you wont be able to keep this momentum for long. Make a time each day where you will write and don’t let anything stop you. Choose an hour or two when you tend to be alone, or else you’ll be frequently distracted. Early in the morning or late at night are good times for this.

3. A Lot of a Little

Practitioners: John Gruber, Jason Kottke (et al.)

Description: This blogging style involves creating a prolific number of short, poignant posts – sometimes more than ten per day. These posts are usually a mix of wisdom and links with commentary.

Pros: Readers have cause to check your blog multiple times per day for updates, and most of the time they’ll be rewarded with at least one new post. If you’re posting a lot it’s also not a big deal if your readers don’t like some of your posts, so this gives you more freedom to explore a broader range of topics.

Cons: If a particular post’s main job is to point readers elsewhere, it’s not likely to get many inbound links or social media votes. Finding the material for numerous posts can also be very time consuming, and tricky if you don’t have the time to spend hours in your feed reader each day.

Tip: Writing short posts does not excuse you from the hard task of writing words that are unique and interesting. Add your own commentary to links and news. Make your personality – heck, your ego – the daisy-chain between every post.

4. Maybe There’s a Little I in Team…

Practitioners: Brian Clark, Michael Arrington – maybe not at the moment? (et al.)

Description: Bloggers who double as editors, sharing their blog with other writers they’ve invited (and sometimes paid) to contribute. The main blogger will usually write more frequently than anyone else.

Pros: This gives the blogger time to focus on other projects (usually money-making projects) while much of their blog content is outsourced. Some bloggers are able to do this without paying a dollar because there are so many people eager to write a guest-post for them – an example of this model is

Cons: This will dilute your personal brand as the blog becomes less ‘yours’. Readers may miss the days when your contributions were more frequent. Also, for most of us, this will cost money.

Tip: Even with a team you should still write often. Readers are interested in your blog’s topic, yes, but they’re mainly interested in you.

5. Social Media Mayhem

Practitioners: Jacob Gube, Leo Babauta (et al.)

Description: Every headline is optimized for social media and most posts are in list format. Headlines with numbers in them are not uncommon. These bloggers are fantastic at writing posts that make social media users want to share them.

Pros: Traffic, and lots of it. Bloggers who can write for social media will often see their subscribers and traffic grow very quickly.

Cons: This kind of content can be impersonal. Because it needs to be free of context to appeal to social media users (who will usually visit an article and then navigate away to the next one) it’s difficult to establish a rapport. Because what works and doesn’t work on social media is largely determined by following existing formulas, it can also become repetitive.

Tip: Don’t post social media optimized content all the time. Post for social media sometimes, and other times, post just for the readers you already have. They’re the ones who send those votes your way, and they do it because they like you. Help them to like you more.

What They Teach Us

At first glance, not much. There are many different ways to provide value to people, and no one method seems superior to the other. The blogging habits of people like Jason Kottke, Steve Pavlina and Brian Clark couldn’t be more different.

In some ways, though, this helps to illuminate the few similarities shared between every single one of these five content strategies.

Being consistent

For your blog to gather more traffic and subscribers, you must be posting regularly. Whether it’s 3 times a week or 20 times a day, you have to give people a reason to check your blog often. If you post once a week, people will check your blog once a week. If you stop posting for a month, some people might forget to check on you at all.

Consistency has been my own Achilles’ Heel as a blogger. While I consider myself an expert in some areas consistency is one where I’m still learning. I can’t yet provide advice on how to blog consistently but I can say that it is extremely important. It’s also worth noting that I’ve never seen a blog grow while content stagnated. No amount of marketing will work if your content is musty and stale.

Tip: Make it your goal to update your blog 3 times a week (or two times a week if your posts are really long). If you’re not already doing this and finding it hard to collect new readers, this is probably why.

Being tenacious

Aside from writing a lot, top bloggers have been writing in one place for a long time. Links add up quicker than they disappear, so it follows that any consistently updated blog will grow a little (or a lot) more as each month passes. The process, in its essence, is a waiting game – though you can’t wait idly and quietly. Like picking a smart route on a road-trip, your actions can get you there faster.

Settling on a natural fit

Though I’ve experimented with the ‘lots of a little’ method in the past, I’m not really good at anything except longer, less frequent posts. This is the way I write and how my brain works.

The bloggers I mentioned above are all posting content in a way that is a natural fit for them. If you’re not motivated to write it might be because you’re not letting yourself write in a way that comes naturally. Experiment with different styles of content (if you write long, try short, and vice versa) and different voices. Pick the non-fiction writer you like most and imitate them in your writing. Trust me – it will still sound like you, because it’s not them writing, but it might sound like a better you. Do this until you don’t have to anymore.

It’s Work, Not Art

The things I found in common between the five content strategies were not hidden secrets or master skills. Instead, they’re habits that we can all practice but most people find difficult to do. Anyone can write a lot of content for a long time in a way that is a natural fit for them, and every person currently running a popular blog seems to do this. You might not be doing it yet, but you’re capable of doing it, and you can start straight away.

I wish you the best of luck 🙂

The Butterfly Growth Model 224

With the benefit of hindsight, I feel confident making a statement that you don’t hear often. There is no one-size fits all strategy to grow your blog or website. More specifically, the kind of work you do must depend on how far your blog or website has already grown to be effective.

I call this idea the ‘Butterfly Growth Model’ because, like a butterfly, your growth will move through two major stages. Each stage of growth needs to correspond with a very different promotion strategy. I’ll outline the secret to this model here.

The two stages

From a layman’s perspective, the two major growth stages of a butterfly are 1) chrysalis and 2) butterfly. The metaphor describes my own experiences growing Skelliewag over the last six months or so.

The chrysalis stage will be a familiar experience for anyone who has or is growing a blog or website without leverage. It’s not surprising that it’s tricky: your audience finds you through links, social media and search engines, but your audience is also largely responsible for creating this traffic. In other words, you can’t get an audience without an audience! In the beginning, you must inevitably function as a promotional army of one, laying down links to your blog like railroad track.

In a matter of days, or weeks, or months or years, your blog or website will enter the second stage of growth: the butterfly stage. You’ll know you’ve entered this stage when visitors tumble in and your subscribe count climbs incrementally even when you’re no longer self-promoting. You’ve developed an established audience who share the burden of promotion for you.

Some of you will identify yourselves as part of the chrysalis stage, when you’re really at movement number two. Your audience could share the burden of promotion alone, but you don’t let them. You’ve been pursuing the first growth method for so long that you don’t know anything else.

I discovered that Skelliewag was in the ‘butterfly’ stage by accident. For a period I found myself too busy to guest-post, leave comments elsewhere or pitch links to popular blogs. I stopped self-promotion completely. Despite that, readers continued to link and vote for the content, and new visitors and subscribers continued to trickle in at about the same rate they were arriving when I was spending hours on promotion.

There is a point when you realize that your audience no longer needs you to make things happen. Retrospectively, I think a chrysalis becomes a butterfly much earlier than most of us realize. I’m talking a few hundred subscribers, rather than a few thousand. Some of you may already be there, even though you don’t know it.

Which stage are you?

Here are the criteria that I would apply to the two stages:


  1. Fewer than 500 subscribers. I don’t include daily traffic as a criteria because it’s not a good indication of how engaged your audience is. Good SEO, for example, does not guarantee good content. Just look at the results for a search on ‘Make Money Online’…
  2. Trouble getting more than a few comments on your posts.

What you should be doing

Owners of a chrysalis stage blog or website should be dividing their time evenly between value-packed content and off-blog promotion. Here’s what I would suggest:

  • Comment a few times on other blogs in your niche to demonstrate your knowledge and attract the notice of the blog’s owner. I don’t think even chrysalis blogs and websites should pursue a comments for traffic strategy. The rewards aren’t in proportion to the time spent.
  • Guest-post as much as possible on the most popular blogs in your niche. You do this for visibility, profile and traffic.
  • Create value-packed content and pitch your best links to popular blogs in your niche.
  • Make friends and connections on your social media profile of choice.

You’ll grow fastest in this stage if you’re your own biggest fan. While it’s possible to grow without these methods (possibly by skipping straight to butterfly growth), I truly don’t believe you’ll grow as quickly in the beginning stages.

Having said that, part of using the chrysalis model effectively is knowing when to stop. Once you move into the butterfly model, it’s time to hand over promotional duties to your audience and concentrate on the things that make them passionate about you.

My criteria for the next stage:


  1. More than 500 subscribers.

While I practiced chrysalis growth until about December and 2,000+ subscribers, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made was failing to start earlier. A lot earlier. In fact, I’m suggesting that you should start butterfly growth once you hit about 500 subscribers.

This is the point where you acknowledge that your audience is more influential than you are. Give them great, value-packed content and they will champion it with or without you.

What you should be doing

It’s possible to grow a blog or website at an astronomical rate with only one element: value-packed content. But only once you’ve entered the butterfly stage. Value-packed content won’t stand for much if nobody sees it.

Great content + an engaged audience = all the things that grow a blog or website. Links, social media votes and search engine traffic. You don’t need anything else.

Pitching links to popular blogs is still worth the time because it only takes a few minutes to do so — work potentially resulting in hundreds of visits.

At this point, guest-posting needs to be carefully evaluated. If you’re already well-known in your niche, guest posting will only build your profile to a limited extent. You might get dozens of click-throughs, but social media could send the same post hundreds of visitors if it appeared on your own blog. The key difference is this: the traffic you get from guest-posts will be highly targeted if you’re writing on another blog in your niche. The traffic you get from social media is not nearly as well targeted.

I’d suggest only guest-posting on highly-trafficked, highly-targeted blogs, and not doing the same blog more than once a month. However, Dosh Dosh’s recent milestone of hitting 10,000 subscribers without ever guest-posting shows that this strategy isn’t a prerequisite for success in the butterfly stage. Great content on your own blog is.

The chrysalis stage work you did on a social media profile should be enough to have developed a cluster of readers who actively use social media and will regularly vote for your articles. From what I’ve observed, having an amicable relationship with a top Digger or other social media power-user is invaluable, but it’s something I’ve never chased and now that I have it, I don’t really know how to use it. In other words, I can’t provide much advice on this particular point because I’m still stumbling my way through it.

Changing your perspective

This discussion begs a fundamental question: could a butterfly stage blog or website grow quickly without any kind of off-blog promotion? I think so. In fact, I’d suggest that if you divert the time you’d usually spend on off-blog promotional methods into creating value-packed content, you’ll receive more links and traffic than you could have created yourself.

My overall argument is this: if your blog has 500 or more subscribers, let your audience take charge of what they do best — supporting and championing you. As a blogger, focus your energies on providing the value which creates a passionate audience who want to spread the word about you.

Stop talking about yourself and give other people a reason to talk about you.

Number Adjective Contents What Happens When a Formula Dies 543

Posts based on the Number + Adjective + Contents headline formula are probably the most popular form of web content we’ve ever seen. For every one person who loathes them there are one-hundred people who are enchanted by them. For reasons that others have previously explored, this kind of content pushes all the right psychological buttons.

The formula isn’t a secret weapon known only to an elite set of maverick writers. Anyone who reads blogs or uses social media gets it: that the formula is very much in fashion. Blogs that have never used it before are now tapping into spikes of social media traffic with its help. Writers who can stick to the formula are highly sought-after and increasingly well-paid. Blogs that use the formula well are growing at a rapid rate (and so are some that don’t, but I’ll get to that later). The formula works.

But for how long? Trends reach a saturation point and then begin a decline. If the formula hasn’t reached saturation point yet, it must be heading towards it. In this post, I want to talk about what comes after the death of this trend.

One of the best articles I’ve read recently was Derek Sivers (founder of on the action-reaction principle: that change leaves room for its opposite reaction. He argued that once a particular trend reaches saturation point, a market opens up for its opposite. Here are some examples he uses to illustrate this:

More and more and more music to choose from.

More need for tastemakers to tell us what’s good.

Less venues for musicians to play.

House concerts.

Everybody getting too much email.

Increasing effectiveness of using anything-but-email to reach people. (Phone, SMS, snail mail, Facebook message.)

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the ascendency of the formula is creating a similar effect. The counter-trend is still very much in its infancy, just as the formula still has an indefinite stretch at the top (my guess is a year or so before the formula fades or is significantly modified) before the tipping point is reached and it becomes too much.

For bloggers, though, the counter-trend represents and opportunity to pre-empt the tide. Just like tapping into an undiscovered niche can help your blog to grow rapidly, tapping into a newly popular form of content just before it becomes popular is also very desirable.

So, what is the counter-trend? In amongst some of the web’s most popular content (designed to be scanned as much as read, formulaic or high-impact headlines, easily disposable) an anomaly crops up that is the complete opposite of these things. It’s dense and meaty. It requires an intellectual investment and commitment of time–if you want to spend only five minutes with the content you won’t even begin to grasp hold of its main ideas. Its key concepts aren’t served up as take-away sound-bytes, bolded for easy access. In fact, this type of content tends to release its value slowly and surely, in a steady ‘dripping’ rhythm.
Jacques Louis David – The Death of Socrates

Back in late 2007 writer and documentary film-maker Errol Morris’s series of blog posts on whether an image of cannonballs strewn across a road was faked became a viral sensation. Each blog post was thousands of words long, written in full detail, densely researched and slow to unfold. The first post in the series generated 938 thoughtful comments. People were captivated by it, but the post was written like it didn’t matter, and that’s precisely what made it so fascinating. It did everything you’re not supposed to do when trying to garner attention in the age of information over-load, and that’s exactly why it received attention, and loads of it.


Consider also the convincing Digg front-page stint (1625 diggs) of an article about Piotr Wozniak, inventor of SuperMemo, a complicated memory recall computer program first developed in 1985. If you’ve heard of the guy before, kudos to you. I’d guess that most of us haven’t. The profile is seven pages long and takes a winding path through Piotr’s life. It’s a really interesting piece, but it’s a dense, slow burner. It takes more than fifteen minutes to read, paragraphs are infrequent and details are many. It’s not the kind of content that is supposed to work on social media, and that’s exactly why it does.

Dosh Dosh is another example of counter-trend content, and I wonder if the ascendency of the social media formula correlates with the blog’s accelerated growth. A few months ago the blog had leap-frogged the 10,000 subscriber mark. Now it’s knocking on the door of 20k. The content hasn’t changed–if anything it has become denser and its ideas more complicated and abstract (and often more powerful). Post are long and paragraphs are big and chunky. The vocabulary is robust. As a result, readers are as enthusiastic as ever, if not more so, and the blog is growing at a blistering rate.

While I could overload this post with evidence, I’m guessing that you will have had your own encounters with the counter-trend in recent times. It is slowly and steadily becoming more prevalent. We’ve reached a point where lengthy, dense, challenging and time-consuming content is stealing its own novelty away from common formulas for social media optimized content. Though it’s a return to a style of writing influenced by journalism and non-fiction, its scarcity in comparison to ‘the formula’ makes it seem decidedly new.

The counter-trend represents an opportunity, if it appeals to you, for creating content that is more deeply meaningful and multi-layered than you may have been able to create before. After all, if you can simplify a point down to one bolded sentence, perhaps you’re not doing it justice.

One very positive trait of this type of content is that it is incredibly optimistic about reader engagement. It doesn’t assume that readers are incredibly impatient, looking for any excuse to move on the the next article, or the next blog. Instead, it assumes that readers are willing to be patient if they have reason to believe they’ll be rewarded for it. It doesn’t assume that ideas must be presented in their simplest forms or else readers will miss or misinterpret them. Instead, it assumes that readers are fundamentally intelligent and capable of following along with the author, regardless of where they end up (and irrespective of whether they agree).

I also want to suggest that this form of content may be very good at helping readers to feel an intense loyalty and appreciation for you as a blogger.

Imagine that you have two friends–Alex and Kim–who are not quite in your inner circle but are both moving closer. You spend a day with Alex, see a great gig, go running together and swap stories about work. You look back on it as a fun and worthwhile day. The next day you invite Kim to your house for lunch and afterwards, share a few glasses of wine. With the help of slightly lowered inhibitions you end up having a long, vulnerable discussion about things in your life that you would like to change. The result of the conversation is that you feel uplifted and inspired for the rest of the day. Which friend are you more likely to feel closer to?
Photo by freeparking.

The bond formed by engaging in content that challenges the reader intellectually is a powerful one. It probably helps to explain why Steve Pavlina’s book has entered the Top 100 list three months before its release date. Pavlina writes long, dense, multi-faceted posts with almost too-long paragraphs. His subject-matter is often incredibly challenging, and his headlines are written primarily with search terms in mind. He has not hit the front-page of Digg for one and a half years, yet he receives (reportedly) around 2 million visitors per month. This is because his fans evangelize him: they do they job of social media, and they do it better.

If you feel stifled by the formula, there is a strong alternative. Starting now could position you to be well ahead of the curve when the formula starts to fade. At the very least, take this as a cue to experiment, even if only once. If it doesn’t work for you, nobody will make you do it again (and if they do, tell me and I’ll sort ‘em out).

I should end on this note: while I expect the formula to fade in future, it remains very powerful for drawing in new readers to your blog. I’m not advocating that anyone stop using the formula–in fact, I’d suggest that you owe it to yourself to learn how it works and try it at least once.

However, sometimes it can seem like this is the only kind of content any sane blogger should be producing. It isn’t. The success of those who’ve turned their backs on the formula completely is testament to that.

Hansel and Gretel Link Building-41

Most of us are familiar with the old fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. Two children overhear their parents planning to abandon them. They prepare a pouch of white pebbles and, when taken deep into the forest, leave a trail of pebbles leading back to their home. They are able to follow the pebbles back to their parents.

The next time their parents try to abandon them, however, they’re only able to leave a trail of crumbs. The animals of the forest eat these crumbs and Hansel and Gretel become lost.

In this post I’ll be outlining the Hansel and Gretel link-building method. I believe it is the only link-building method that works.

Are your back-links bright white pebbles? Or are they crumbs waiting to be forgotten?

A simple metaphor

Each link to your website or blog should be considered a pebble (or a crumb, depending on its strength) which leads back to your site. Like Hansel and Gretel, your goal should be to build the strongest trail possible.

The ingredients of a solid trail are the quality of links, how easy they are to find, how numerous they are, and how permanent.

Think of your network of back-links like a trail leading to your site and certain ways to make that trail as strong as possible become apparent.


Quality links to your site are in-content links on popular websites or blogs. These links are big bright pebbles, not only sending many visitors your way but also telling search engines that your site is a quality resource.

The best link-building strategy is to focus on getting in-content links on sites that are bigger than your own. Generally you’ll achieve this either by having your own content linked or by writing guest content for that site. These are the strongest pebbles you can add to your trail, and they are also permanent. Your link will exist as long as the content does. Pitch guest-content ideas at bigger sites in your niche and you’ll start building up these solid links. You could also politely submit something you’re really proud of to a site that regularly publishes link round-ups.


The first comment on a popular post will get far more views than the 59th comment. When considering where to place your link, keep visibility in mind. How many eyeballs are likely to pass over it? What might encourage those eyeballs to consider your link rather than passing over it?

Think about the context and how you can make the link more interesting to readers. This can generally be done by attaching your link to worthwhile content: a thought-provoking comment, an informative forum post, an intriguing message.

Similarly, a guest-post on an A-list blog will have more prominence than a guest-post on a new blog. Always remember to weigh the prominence of the link against the time commitment required to create it.


While you should strive to build quality, prominent links to your site, you should also keep in mind that most of your visitors will come from the combined weight of your comments, track-backs and other ‘little’ links, as long as they are numerous. The more quality comments you leave, the more forum posts you write, the more track-backs you make, the more blogrolls you appear on, the faster this network of little pebbles will grow.

Alone they may not count for much, but when taken as a whole these numerous, little links can form a strong trail leading to your site.


Links in places that will continue to be trafficked over weeks, months and years can be more valuable than any other form of link.

Examples of links with permanency are links embedded within content that has enduring use, such as stickied forum threads, frequently used resources, and material which encourages bookmarking.

Links inside content that is likely to be consumed and discarded in one read should be considered crumbs rather than pebbles. They can provide short-term traffic but will eventually stop contributing to the trail as readers consume and discard the content.

Links which can’t easily be discarded are sign-posts on the trail leading to your site.

Social networks

If your content becomes popular on a social network this can have the effect of dropping not crumbs but a whopping loaf of bread in the middle of your trail. Thousands of birds and other animals converge on the loaf over a short-period of time, but the loaf is soon gone. You can only hope that some of those new visitors remember the way.

Tiny, muddy crumbs

Poor quality link directories, large-scale reciprocal link exchanges, link farms, traffic buying and other tactics add only specks to your trail. They’re quickly lost in the darkest corners of the forest: the internet’s so-called bad neighborhoods, or Google’s supplemental results. Google might even take you site with them.

Avoid these tactics and spend your time writing link-worthy content or a guest-post instead. The rewards will be far greater for the time you spent. One white pebble is worth a thousand minuscule crumbs.

A holistic view

There is no mystery to the process of link-building, though it seems to remain a major stumbling block for many webmasters and bloggers.

The trail leading to your site should contain numerous, varied, and prominent links — carefully placed pebbles. Here are the steps to building just such a trail.

  • Write content which naturally generates interest and back-links.
  • In doing so, be unique, so that people link to you rather than others writing on similar topics.
  • Write guest-content.
  • Showcase your best articles to prospective linkers.
  • Leave thoughtful comments on prominent content. Try to be among the first to do so.
  • Participate in forums and establish yourself as a pillar in the community. Write a post that gets ‘stickied’ and never drops off the forum page.
  • Try to create a number of new links to your site each day. This will go towards building a stronger trail.
  • Encourage submission of your content to various social networks, and don’t discount any of them. Those loaves of bread carry the weight of a thousand crumbs.
  • Don’t link to any sites you wouldn’t want to spend time on yourself (a good rule of thumb for avoiding bad neighborhoods) — even if they are offering to link to you in return.

The key ingredients to strong link-building are link-worthy content and a strong trail of pebbles (and sometimes crumbs) spread across the internet — a trail your ideal visitors can follow in order to reach you. As you grow more established you can afford to put greater emphasis on the first ingredient (link-worthy content) and focus less on the second. By that point, other people will have start to build the trail for you. In the beginning, though, it will be you alone, and progress will be slow.

Hansel and Gretel Link-building takes time. It may take months, or more than a year, or several years, until you get where you want to be.

Just like a house built in a week is unlikely to stand, long-term, holistic link building is the only kind that truly works.

Rethinking Links 51

Aggregating links to content by other authors has been a staple item on the web content diet for years. Unfortunately, it’s an area almost completely devoid of innovation. Links are returned like results from an intelligent search-engine: a title, a description, a recommendation — as if things couldn’t be done any other way.

In this post, I want to suggest a number of new and interesting ways links could be both aggregated and interacted with.

Learning from StumbleUpon

When using StumbleUpon users select broad areas of interest, click stumble, and are taken to a popular link in one of the areas they’ve selected. They trust that the link will present some kind of value because it’s been recommended by others who like the same things. Even if the recommendation misses the mark, the user can go explore somewhere else with another click of the stumble button.

It would be entirely possible to replicate this experience inside link content. Links would need to be presented without titles and descriptions, either grouped under broad interests or presented with only one thing in common: the author’s recommendation. Here is what your link content could look like:

. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .

The dots could be replaced with numbers, keywords, little images or icons. Links could even be embedded inside a piece of ASCII artwork. With any of these methods each link is a surprise to the reader, and you’re asking people to put as much trust in you as they do a service like StumbleUpon. This could be quite an entertaining experience for the reader.

This route also allows authors to present more links in less time. The cluster above contains 20 links. A slightly larger cube might contain a hundred, or a thousand. You could even share your bookmarks, or every feed you subscribe to, in a small cube of links.

The image grid

Alternately, you could take a screenshot of the site you’re linking to and crop a 50 x 50 image from a distinctive page element, then use that icon to link to the site. You could create an image grid providing visual rather than verbal previews of the content. You would still be asking to readers to trust your recommendation, but the visual effect would be quite powerful. You could also place some descriptive text within the title tag of each image.


You could also try extracting the most interesting or explanatory sentence or short paragraph from the content you’re linking to and present it as a quote. Link to the source in the usual attribution field. For example:

“Is this kind of minimalist home devoid of character and fun and life? Some might think so, but I get a strange satisfaction, a fulfillment, at looking around and seeing a home free of clutter. “
– Leo Babauta, A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home

Heirarchies and Conversations

Sometimes it’s interesting to track an idea as new people join in on the conversation. Recently, Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror fame did an interview at Daily Blog Tips where he stated that he found meta-blogging “incredibly boring”. He then went on to write a post stating the thirteen things he dislikes about the blogosphere, including meta-blogging.

Maki at Dosh Dosh took up the conversation with his own article lamenting the state of the meta-blogging field. Presented as a flowing conversation, the links might look like:

Jeff Atwood @ Daily Blog Tips: “It’s about the content, not the tool you use to write that content. I find meta-blogging — blogging about blogging — incredibly boring.” [Interview with Jeff Atwood from Coding Horror]

  • Jeff Atwood @ Coding Horror: “If you accept the premise that most of your readers are not bloggers, then it’s highly likely they won’t be amused, entertained, or informed by a continual stream of blog entries on the art of blogging. Even if they’re filled with extra bloggy goodness.” [Thirteen Blog Clichés]
    • Maki @ Dosh Dosh: “I must confess that I am also not a fan of meta-blogging. I find some blogs about blogging to be rather dull, not because they are poorly written but rather because they are repetitive and do not add value.” [The Problem With Meta-Blogging]

The authors don’t necessarily have to be referring to each-other’s content, either, as long as they are discussing the same topic. Some articles will naturally respond to others by making counter-points, highlighting different facts, and so on, even if the authors are not directly referring to each other (or even aware of each other).

This kind of link format would be especially useful for presenting various ways a point of view has been argued.

Create a Tumblelog

The Tumblelog for this site is located at As I’m browsing the web I can publish links at the Tumblelog at the click of a button in my toolbar. I can share content I think you guys might find interesting in a matter of seconds. You can subscribe to the Tumblelog’s RSS feed, too.

Zen Habits also manages its links this way. You might be interested in creating your own at Tumblr.

Over to you

I’m sure there are a number of other ways aggregated links could be presented and interacted with. I’ll have a think about it over the next few days, but I’m interested to hear your suggestions, and what you think of the ideas above.

Zen Habits Redesign the 7 Question Simplicity Review 135

Yesterday popular self-improvement blog Zen Habits launched its first redesign. It’s a blog I read regularly and one I know many readers also enjoy. The redesign was crafted by one of my favorite blog designers and an all-around nice guy, Collis Ta’eed.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to do something I’ve been waiting to do for a while: a published simplicity review. A simplicity review is a web design review with an emphasis on simplicity and usability.

Rather than simply making recommendations, I want to show you how I approach simplicity reviews: the kinds of questions I ask and the things I look for.

The aim of this post isn’t just to give some suggestions and feedback to Collis, but to give you a toolbox you can use to evaluate the simplicity of the designs you create or customize.

Question #1: Is the design eye-catching and unique?

The design looks as if it was tailor-made for the site, which always says something about the owner taking their endeavor seriously.

The blue, black and white theme gives the blog a sense of calm and poise that’s perfect for the self-improvement niche. The logo and black Zen-garden stones help distinctively brand the site, while the custom icons and little touches are wonderful.

It immediately reminds me of Freelance Switch though it’s a very different design. Collis seems to have his own design ‘voice’ that he brings to everything he does, just as great authors have a consistent style throughout their work.

Question #2: What is it?

This might seem like a pretty stupid question. After all, I must know what Zen Habits is — I’ve been reading it for months. And I do. But that’s not important.

To review a design effectively you need to view the site through the eyes of someone who’s never been there before, and who doesn’t yet know what the site is about. This is the embryonic stage of any potential reader’s engagement with your site. Would a first-time visitor be able to quickly gauge what it has to offer them?

With Zen Habits v2, the answer, at the moment, is no. Most new visitors to your site don’t yet know what you have to offer them. Your design and navigation structure needs to tell them quickly.

Looking at the site,there is no About page. There is a ‘My Story’ link, but readers aren’t interested in a story unless they have a compelling reason to listen. An About page would give them that.

There is also no tagline encapsulating the mission statement of the site, which is strange, as there’s ample space for one.

You might say: “Well, if they want to know what it’s about, surely the could just read some of the content?” To answer this question, here’s a really simple exercise: what is the first post on your blog today? If a reader skimmed it and looked at nothing else, what would they think your blog was about?

Is your blog only about that topic?

Most of us blog on a variety of topics. To get an accurate overview a potential reader would probably have to skim several posts. Can we really expect them to do this if they’re still unsure that their time will be well-spent?

The importance of categories
Categories are another great way for new visitors to get an overview of what you have to offer them. At first, I wasn’t able to find any in the design. It took me a while to realize that a link in the sidebar takes you to categories right at the bottom of the page.

While the stated emphasis of the design is to be clutter-free, I don’t think important navigational elements should ever be treated like clutter (and sweeping them under the digital rug does that).

The categories list deserves space in the sidebar. At the moment, the sidebar, apart from a small section at the top, is all ads. This seems intuitive, as including a categories list would push the ads down, possibly lowering click-through-ratios. At the moment, though, the layout gives readers no reason to pay attention to the ads.

Preventing ad-blindness
When people see a cluster of ads without important elements nearby they become effectively ad-blind to that section of the page. Their brain says “Nothing to see there” and refocuses its attention on what is important.

Interspersing the ads in the sidebar with things people want — category lists, popular posts — focuses more attention on the sidebar and, by proxy, more attention on the ads.

Question #3: Does it emphasize the content?

The first visible area of screen is 40% header and 60% content. It could be 25% header and 75% content, simply by cutting out the blank space in the header. The result would look like this:

Emphasizing what's important.

I think this works well as it brings two entry points into the content — the post image and the headline — right into the center of the screen.

Question #4: Does it emphasize essential elements?

A category list and highlighted content are all things I consider to be essential. They show readers at a glance what your blog has to offer them.

These are included in the Zen Habits redesign, but they’re hidden in a place few readers will think to look for them: the footer ribbon.

Why essential elements deserve prominence
For years, footers were home to little else but copyright information. Readers have learned, through years browsing websites and blogs, not to look for value in the footer of a site. While readers are likely to encounter the contents of your sidebar as they read your posts or articles, they have few reasons to venture to the nether regions of your page.

It was only accidentally that I discovered the important contents of the footer at Zen Habits — by scrolling down to comment. Navigation elements you only find by accident are not good for usability, particularly when they’re so important!

The categories list and a digest of ten or so great posts should really be given prominence in the sidebar. The categories list is a quick overview of the topics you cover, while your best posts show potential readers the kind of value you’re capable of offering.

Collis has provided links to the categories and popular posts in the sidebar. While this is a step in the right direction, it’s not the same as integrating the lists themselves into the sidebar. Because the ‘browse’ heading and links below it are not web standards that readers are used of interacting with, it’s possible that the eye might skim right over it.

Question #5: Is it easy to read?

Medium gray on white looks slick, but it’s just not as easy to read as black on white. When the choice is between looking slick and painless reading (as it often is), we need to make the boring but important choice to pick the latter.

One other concern I have is the width of the post column and the corresponding lack of whitespace available to frame it. I’d suggest narrowing the post column to shorten the width of each line of text and frame the words with some clear space. Both these things will boost readability.

Question #6: Is the content easy to share?

There is a nifty links-bar containing useful information and functions above each post. It includes the date the post was published, links to submit to specific social media services, and a comment count.

When you get to the bottom of the post, however, where readers would be most ready to share via social media, there are no options. The bar really needs to be at the bottom of the post, rather than at the top. The top-bar could could be replaced with a different date and comment display.

Question #7: Can I contact the author?

At first glance, the answer appears to be no. I, like any web user who wants to get in touch with the author of a site, look first for a ‘Contact’ page. There isn’t one at the moment. I tried the ‘My Story’ page next — still nothing.

It seems as if there’s currently no way to contact Leo, the blog’s author. This is probably an oversight that will be corrected soon — hopefully with a ‘Contact’ page.

Overall thoughts

The Zen Habits redesign is a few simple steps away from perfection. While there are a hundred things I love about it, this post would be ten feet long if I covered them all. The emphasis here has been on ways it could be made even better. My key recommendations are:

  • Add an ‘About’ page in the links bar beneath the header.
  • Add a ‘Contact’ page in the same location.
  • Move categories and 10 amazing posts into the sidebar.
  • Shorten the height of the header to emphasize the content.
  • Improve readability by narrowing the width of the post area and darkening the text.
  • Add social bookmarking options beneath posts.

In the process of making these recommendations, I hope I’ve demonstrated how these 7 questions are powerful tools you can use to improve the layout of any blog or website — not just Zen Habits!