Blogosphere

Google giveth and Google taketh away

My blog’s stats are essentially meaningless. I’ve said it several times to you that engagement with you is far and away the biggest joy of this blog for me. I love it that I put my thoughts and photographs out into the world and people like them enough to keep coming back.

Yet it bugs the tar out of me that my pageviews are way down this year.

If my average daily pageview rate holds this year, Down the Road will net about 216,000 visits by year’s end. In 2018 it was about 245,000 visits. 2017 was Down the Road’s best year ever at 288,000 visits.

I’ve written before that search is driving fewer and fewer visits to my site. In 2017 search brought 10,000 to 20,000 visits each month. Now it’s no more than 4,000 monthly

I think this is in part because many others have started blogging and YouTubing about film photography and the more crowded field has diluted my blog’s influence.

But I see now that I may also have shot myself in the foot in June of 2018 when I completed a large project to change this blog’s tagging scheme (announced here). Tags are little keywords that further describe the post. You can click any tag to see all of the other posts I’ve written that use that tag.

When I started this blog, an old friend who works in advertising gave me some search-engine optimization (SEO) advice. A key piece of his advice was to tag posts with good synonyms for the post’s main subjects so search would have an easier time finding them.

I was inconsistent and sloppy with it, and I wasn’t sure it was helping bring people here at all. Then I decided to add tags to my photography and road-trip posts to help organize that content by cameras, films, and places. Now when you click a tag for a camera, film, or place, you see every post I’ve ever made related to it.

Then I deleted scores of what I thought were useless synonym tags. The decline in search visits roughly correlates to the time I did that.

Correlation isn’t causation. I did that synonym-based tagging scheme from 2007 to 2018 and it wasn’t until 2015 that search started bringing people here in any real numbers. So I can’t say for sure that my tagging scheme had anything to do with my search-driven visits.

I blog to connect with people who share my esoteric interests. Some of you found my blog because you searched for something I wrote about, and you liked what you found here and kept coming back.

If search is bringing fewer people in, there are fewer chances for those connections.

Let’s say that search drove monthly visits in 2019 roughly equal to an average month in 2017. That would bring an extra 5,500 visits to my blog every month, or an extra 66,000 visits all year. That would make 2019 Down the Road’s most-visited year ever.

I blame Google in my title because you have to play their SEO game to rank well in search results. But it was my choice to stop playing the game.

Its time for another tagging project, one in which I restore the synonym tags. I can do it in a more organized manner this time.

I’m also going to read up on SEO. The game has changed a lot in the dozen years since my old friend advised me. There may be some simple changes I can make that will help bring search traffic back.

I have also just upgraded this site to WordPress.com Business to gain the SEO optimization tools and plugins available at that tier of service. It’s three times more expensive than the Premium plan I was on. But after this many years it’s clear that this blogging thing is not a passing fad in my life. The connections I’ve made through this blog are meaningful and enriching. I want to keep making new connections. One of the ways I can do that is to play Google’s game on its terms.

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49 thoughts on “Google giveth and Google taketh away

  1. Might not be Google at all….more and more people are using things like Ghostery to block tracker (like Google Analytics) and Adblocker Plus to block ads. Well perhaps it is Google with their insatiable appetite for our most personal information that causes this behaviour…..either way the only way you will know I have visited is if I like a post or leave a comment. Your viewers may in fact be up, but there is no way of knowing for sure…

  2. And you never know what’s going on under the hood in Google search algorithms. By my uninformed experience, Wikipedia used to be one of the first things to display with almost any search, but seldom is now. Sites selling things seem to do better these days.

    • Yes, that appears to be true to me as well. I sort of wish for the Internet of 10 years ago before it was this enormous economic engine for a few tech companies.

      • Michael says:

        That’s interesting since it hasn’t changed for me (yet). Wikipedia is almost always in the top 3 spots of my results.

      • It’s a shame that Google and other search engines don’t have an option to switch off commercial results. I know it’s in contravention to their business models and thus unlikely to ever happen, but it’s still a shame. You can focus your search terms to try and minimise it, but it still gets through.

        Sometimes I just want information about stuff, not to buy stuff.

        • Remember when all the tech companies that are now large were trying to figure out how to monetize their services? At the time micropayments were being discussed — we’d all pay fractions of a penny for each use. But advertising, unfortunately for us all, won out.

  3. I don’t do any ads on my site. The top referring urls this morning are google.com, monica29(?),duckduckgo, and petapixel.
    I look at my stats each morning, but the ups and downs often don’t seem to bear any obvious relationship to the blog’s contents, and there is not a clear way to determine which hits come from actual humans.
    I have used subject tags on my posts mainly for the purpose of constructing a visitor-accessible alphabetic index of my cameras and the pictures they make.

    • The WordPress stats panel is reasonably informative and does let me draw some conclusions about where my visitors come from. I find that the more I post, the more visits I get. When I took my blog sabbatical last year my visits fell precipitiously.

      I too am using post tags to create visitor-accessible indexes of cameras, films, and places. I think that’s valuable.

      I’ve yet to configure the SEO tools here. Now that I’m on the Business plan I have access to them. There’s an error I’m getting trying to install the main SEO plugin and I haven’t had time to resolve it.

  4. Interesting. I tag my photos with the places they are shot. I use categories for camera type, film and what the topic is. Maybe I should tag more aggressively? Also tag my posts with the camera and film type for example. I look forward to your thoughts, comments and changes.

  5. Jim, very interesting post to someone who also blogs, and has a keen interest in stats.

    I’ve been blogging less frequently for almost two months and will be writing a post about hows that impacted my stats in the next week or two. (Spoiler – I’m not sure it has had any measurable impact whatsoever!)

    I know tags have been hugely valuable for me on Flickr, not least of all for my own photos. On the blog I do use tags, but I don’t go into great depth with them and use a dozen variations of a phrase or keyword, just the most obvious or sensible ones.

    I remember when I started out with websites and coded my own in html with a friend around 2004ish, there were sites you could go to and input a keyword and it would generate loads of other variations to use in the heading tags in the html code.

    I also remember a number of sites I visited trying to trick the system by having long lists of keywords at the foot of articles, but in the same colour text (usually white) as the background, so they were visible to the search engines, but invisible to those reading. I think I did a “select all” once to copy something and it highlighted those “invisible” words, then I found others doing the same. Those were the days!

    • The truth is, I just want to make photographs and write, and engage with people like you who stop by.

      Secondarily, I wish to make sure my blog is known to everyone in the world who will appreciate it and keep coming back. Ambitious, I know. But it’s a far second. And frankly I resent how hard it is to accomplish.

      I remember the old tricks you describe. The were iffy practices to be sure. I’m sure they don’t work anymore.

      • Instagram used to do this. But I hardly get any new visitors there. Maybe that site is too saturated? Facebook is a waste for this. I want my blog, and those I follow, to be a camera club where pictures, conversations and ideas happen.

        • I’m not finding Instagram to be at all helpful at driving traffic to my blog. Lately, Instagram isn’t even helpful at driving traffic to my posts on Instagram. It’s a lot of work to gain attention there.

        • That’s what I’m finding. I get maybe 15 to 20 “likes”. My prior Instagram account would get 5 to 10 times that amount. Careful tags hasn’t done much either.

  6. I’m compulsive about following traffic on my website and email list. My traffic is down too, making it very difficult to ‘reach’ people consistently. I don’t know, but I think it has a lot to do with changing attitudes of internet users in general. All this talk about privacy has gotten them spooked, and the onslaught of spammers (unsolicited contacts) by email, contact forms, blog comments, and even by telephone…. well, I think we’re all sick of it and at this point, we’re getting gun shy about signing up for anything. Then, there’s the “new” ways of reaching people like ‘chat’ and social media; who wants another email in their in-box anyway??

    What’s a guy to do? And, no, Jim, I don’t have the answers.

    Cheers, J. Riley

    • You’re generally right, but I still have a desire to reach more people who will like what I do! But yes, because this doesn’t pay my bills, stats are essentially meaningless.

  7. tbm3fan says:

    I thought Google’s search algorithm ranked results based on quality of and how many links there were to a site. The more others were linked to you the higher in the results you would be. To me that sounds like whether you had 10 or 1000 tags, if no other site linked to you then you would be low in the result ranking.

    • That’s how it used to be. I don’t know if it’s still true. Several of my posts used to be top 3, top 5 results for certain search terms common for the subjects but now very few still are.

  8. SilverFox says:

    Is it perhaps a change in how people digest you content JIm? I am guilty of reading blogs either in the email I get from the one’s I follow or via my Feeder RSS reader and lately I have not had time to follow up and comment on posts I have read and enjoyed.
    I know this doesn’t account for search/new traffic to you site but may account for a decline in page views.
    Also, people are creatures of habit and I wonder if the is a trend going on here where one people have found a few blogs that they like and follow whether they can be bothered to go searching for new ones? As you say there is a lot of competition out there these days and we can’t read everything on the internet.

  9. Some further thoughts, following other comments.

    Doesn’t Google value fresh content highly? I remember reading multiple times in the past how a blog works well compared with a static website because you can produce new content with similar keywords over and over again.

    Because of this, it would follow that if someone wrote a series of articles about, say, a more obscure SLR like an Olympus OM40 or Konica FS-1, then this would raise all of these posts higher up in Google search, and give the blog overall more visibility. Compared with having just one post on the topic, five years ago.

    Just wondering Jim if some of your reviews of more obscure cameras, where it’s the only mention of them on your whole site, and now the original post is years old, it becomes increasingly overlooked by Google?

    I’m not sure what the solution is, other to specialise in an ever limited set of cameras and write multiple, frequent posts on them, to become an expert and the go-to source for say three or four cameras, rather than have a review of three or four hundred different ones?

    There is a ceiling to the popularity of everything. Plus, not everything scales. I remember reading a Seth Godin post ages ago, perhaps 10 years ago, that the secret to finding a following is to pick a narrow topic then build a tribe around it. In fact I probably read it in his excellent Tribes book too, which I believe came out about 10 or 11 years ago.

    He has added in different blog posts (but this is a point he repeats often) the interconnected point that not everything is scalable.

    For example, say you had a bakery on a town high street where every loaf and cake is hand made by the master baker and has his years of expertise and dedication poured into it, based on recipes handed down generations, and people come from miles around because everything tastes incredible.

    You might want to open another bakery in the next town, or expand the size and therefore production of the existing one. But to have that master baker’s hand in every item, there’s a limit to how much he can produce.

    To scale up, there’s a compromise – diluted recipes (and possible taste) to reach a higher audience, ie sell more baked goods.

    Online, if we have 100 views per week from publishing once a week, it doesn’t automatically follow that by publishing twice a week, we will get 200 views, or 10 posts a week will give us 1000 views. (I have a post in draft about my recent publishing frequency experiments which hasn’t shown what I would have predicted at all!)

    (This partly relates to 2) Getting bigger isn’t necessarily better. Many people love to hang out (online) at places that feel small, friendly, where every comment receives a reply and so on. Like Cheers, “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came”.

    There are two now pretty big camera blogs I used to follow religiously, but now look at perhaps only once every few months.

    One just started farming out guest posts that were increasingly poorly written, with uninteresting photography, and his own posts (perhaps 1 in 10) I just couldn’t be bothered to wait around for.

    The other has largely maintained a high quality of writing, but the site is so saturated with ads, for me it makes it almost completely inaccessible, so I avoid it.

    Both I think are examples of where people tried to get ever more popular (and/or make money from their blog, rather than it be a passionate hobby), and the original format, quality and small community feel got lost along the way. In my humble opinion!

    Oh and regarding Instagram, I think some excellent points have been made about how over saturated it is, and how it’s almost impossible to make any impact with now. With blogs we still have that wonderful set up where someone can come to our place and browse for hours, without being distracted by the thousands (millions, billions!) of other voices and streams screaming for their attention.

    Instagram is like going to a street food market and being overwhelmed by dozens of stalls selling food, but a blog is like going to one of your favourite little restaurants on a quiet back street away from the tourists…

    Oh I didn’t mean to say so much, but there you go!

    • This is a deeply insightful comment. Thank you.

      I have had delusions of fame from the moment I started this blog. But few if any of us become famous simply for sharing our hobbies with the world. The journey I’ve been on over the last few years, and this year especially, is coming to terms that Down the Road may have gotten as big as it ever will — it may even have peaked.

      That’s hard. The ascent was exhilarating. From the first time one of my blog posts was widely shared, which didn’t come until 3.5 years in, to the heady days of 2017 when search was dumping huge traffic here — those were some great times to be writing this blog.

      Now I’ve built a good following, and I’m very fortunate. I’ve said it before: I tell people thinking of starting a blog now to think twice, that perhaps they should podcast or vlog instead. Because I think static text pages on the Internet are taking a back seat. If you’re not already popular on the Web you’re almost certainly not going to be.

      I’m in frequent contact with many of the other film photo bloggers. We all have some amount of dream to make our blogs hugely popular and even maybe make us some part of our living. Unfortunately the ways we have to do that lead to the very things that you decry in your comment.

      I’ve chosen not to go that route. I’ve killed ads on my site. I’ve never accepted guest posts and I don’t see that changing. I’m just me, here doing this thing I find intrinsically fulfilling, grateful as hell that as many people as do keep coming back.

      As for keeping the ball in the air on some of the old camera reviews, that’s a good point. If I kept writing about the Kodak Pony 135, Model C, you’re right, it probably would boost my old review of it in the rankings. Maybe now that I’m settling in on my camera herd after thinning it, as I use those cameras and keep writing about them I’ll be seen by Google as more expert on them and my reviews of them will rise.

      • Ha, yes bit of an essay wasn’t it!

        I wonder exactly what it is you’re looking for Jim? What does “famous” on the internet mean for you?

        Mostly to me, it’s very vacuous and fleeting, today’s social media “stars” are tomorrow’s desperate reality TV contestants, and a year later 99% of them are entirely forgotten… That’s not the kind of “fame” I want, and I’m sure you don’t either. I don’t quite understand what you do desire.

        I think you’re hugely underselling what you’ve built here. That is, a blog that has been incredibly consistent for years (I was going to look through your archives to see how long, how do you find them?) and built a loyal, expansive following, whilst remaining true to yourself and your voice, and your interests.

        You haven’t done some of the things others have that we mentioned, which are all forms of “selling out” in my book, on the whole ethos of having a personal, passionate blog.

        Give yourself credit for doing that so continually, not least of all most recently, through what we know have been a very difficult two or three years for you and your family. Your blog – and you as the sole author – are a huge triumph.

        • Once upon a time, before this blog started to become popular, I thought of it as my gift to the world. I hope that’s not too grandiose. All I mean is that this is something I’m putting out there that I don’t have to, for the enjoyment and benefit of others. I operated it that way until a few years ago, when I decided to monetize it and to seek to dramatically expand the audience. After I stopped feeling good about how that was going, I’m now transitioning my mindset back to this being my gift to the world.

          The truth is, something in me wishes to be very well known. That’s a never-ending game, of course, because no matter how many people know you, there is always somebody who doesn’t you’ve yet to reach. I’m trying to stuff that tendency in me back down, put it away, and just enjoy what I have here because it’s objectively mighty good.

          My archives are tricky to find; I don’t have links back. If you use the backward links at the bottom of each post you can eventually get back to the very beginning. I dunno, maybe I need an Archives page on here.

          I have no ill will to any other photo blogger who wants to have a go at eking out a living through blogging and activities tied to their blogs. I don’t call it selling out — I call it following a different purpose. That doesn’t mean I have to view their blogs with my ad blocker off, however. :-)

        • Thanks for your reply Jim. But what will being “very well known” give you, what need would that fulfil?

          Yes, following a different purpose is a very gracious and diplomatic way of phrasing it!

          On my blog I just use the “archives” widget in the footer, I think it’s from the standard set in WP, not something additional I bought or imported. I looked in your text menu (Home, About Me etc) then realised you have another “icons” menu higher up, but couldn’t see archives in either. Just personally I like browsing through archives!

        • I don’t know why I have this bent. Rationally, I know that to be famous would upend my life in ways I don’t want.

          I’ll see what I can do about adding archives without screwing up the look of the blog. My ideal is to add an Archives page and add it to the menu.

  10. SilverFox says:

    I don’t think that you are unique Jim in wanting recognition or fame in your particular passion. I think for many it is the same.
    I also had grand ambition when I started my blog and for me that was foolish; I was too late into the blogging world and if I am honest I don’t think my writing is of a high standard – if I am really honest I am not really sure right now why I am still blogging.

    I believe though that you do have recognition and you and your site are well respected in this old camera world.
    It sounds like you want more and I think that if you really want the next level you probably have to take an extra step; one that maybe you don’t want to.
    Our area of interest has a limited audience and not of interest to the broader population so I think that, as Dan says you become the expert in a very specialist area, or alternatively you try to expand into a wider (more popular) subject area.
    But I personally think that what you are doing now is of great interest and I enjoy reading your work.

    • I’m not in good touch with how well known my site already is. I get the readers I get and I do what I do, and I live a whole life outside this blog!

      I hope you keep blogging, I like seeing your work there.

  11. SilverFox says:

    I’ve seen enough references to your site to realize that you are one of the go to places and people.

    I am not giving up yet, just struggling with where I am going

  12. Great insight into Google’s numbers game Jim. I still maintain that Jim Grey’s “Down The Road” is one of the more prolific photography sites out there because it’s deeper than just cameras!

  13. I suspect you are right, visits may be down due to increased blogs our there. I do enjoy your work, and even if I don’t comment as much as I should, your site is one I read most of the time. Keep up the good work!

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