Ten Years of Down the Road

What’s the point of blogging if nobody reads what you write?

This blog had the best February in its history. Readership is usually down in February, but not this year!


But so what? Who cares?

Some bloggers say that it’s folly to follow your stats, that it just creates a better-faster-more mentality around your blog — everything you do has to gain lots of views or it’s not worth it.

I’m not so sure. What is the point of writing and clicking Publish for your words to go into the infinite bit bucket, never to be read?

If you don’t care about being read, you don’t need a blogging platform, you need a journal. If you’re putting it out there, some part of you wants someone else to see it. Your stats show you that your work is being viewed.

And so: why not write to be read? Draw readers in with strong titles and sparkling opening paragraphs, as I described in this post? Write with good flow to keep readers engaged?

When this blog was young I wrote several stories from my life, stories that I still love. I used to think it was because I had few, if any, regular readers when I first published them that they got so few views. So when this blog had caught on (to the extent it’s done that) I reran them all, hoping they’d get more attention. They didn’t, not to the extent of my normal posts, anyway. I’m thinking about Restored in Bridgeton, and A Place to Start, and Re-Integrating Joy. And Holding Up My Hand. Especially that one. Please go read it.

While I could edit a few of them to make them stronger, I think they all still stand pretty well on their own. Yet every last one of them ignores my tips for drawing readers in.

Especially Holding Up My Hand. That one could be in a magazine about the Christian faith, I think. It might be well read there, well liked. A faith magazine brings an audience primed and ready to read stories like that. But even then, it wouldn’t just present it as I did. It would almost certainly at least subtitle the story: “How a young boy’s first walk to school with his mother became a metaphor for his faith journey.” There. Now you know what it is about and why you should read it.

My blog has become more about photography since those early days. I’m more likely to write a camera review or a how-to post now. But I still like to tell stories from my life. Once in a while, I might write one like those I mentioned above, ones where you have to just take it on faith that it’s going to be good. I hope I’ve built up enough goodwill with you that you’ll read it anyway.

But I’ve also rewritten a couple stories with titles that tell you better what you’re going to get, and with opening paragraphs that draw you in better. And they have done well. I’m thinking of A Good Icing, which I rewrote as What the Ice Storm Could Have Taught Me About Myself. The rewritten story got way more views and comments than the original, more views and comments than the time I reran the original. My retelling is a better story, and it connected with many readers.

On your blog, write what you want how you want. But my experience has been that if you want readers, you need to show them value. They have so much to read that you have to draw them in and keep them interested. Your writing must relate to them. If you ever become deeply established, or a celebrity where people would read anything you write because it’s you, then maybe you’ll be off the hook. Until then, get on with this.

Ten Years of Down the Road

How to attract readers to your blog – and keep them

Even though you’re almost certainly never going to become rich or famous through blogging, with effort and patience you can build a rewarding regular readership, and start to form a community with your readers.

A masthead image from this blog’s bygone days

I’ve learned a lot about how to do this in my ten years of blogging. Some of it I’ve figured out on my own, and the rest I’ve learned from other successful bloggers.

Titles and opening paragraphs must be crackling good. Your readers follow many other sources of information and entertainment. They probably don’t have time to read everything they follow, so they scan titles looking for stuff that might be interesting. When the title pulls them in, they skim the opening paragraphs to decide whether to read the rest of the post.

As people find themselves regularly drawn into your posts, they often start to think, “This blog posts good stuff, so I’m always going to read it.” That’s the moment a reader becomes regular.

I’m still not as good at titles as I want to be, but I feel like my opening paragraphs are much improved now over just a couple years ago. And it is paying off in terms of views, likes, and comments.

Post regularly, on a schedule if you can. The more often you post, the better your posts rank in searches. And readers come to look forward to your posts. One of my blogging friends posts every Friday morning, for example. When I see his post in my feed, I think, “Oh yeah, Friday morning!” And then I dive in and read. It’s a little weekly dopamine hit.

I don’t publish regularly on my other blog, about software development. The stats reflect it: that blog gets five percent of the views this one does.

Keep your posts short, between 300 and 1000 words. The Internet is a short-attention-span theater, after all. People are more likely to stick with a post when it’s bite sized.

I’ve not always kept to this. Last year, I wrote a post that was over 2,500 words! Because most of my posts are 500-800 words, I hoped you’d all beg my pardon. I was surprised by how many of you read it all the way through and commented.

But when all of your posts are long, people become fatigued. “Ah, another post from that guy. It’s probably gonna be a mile long. No time for that today. Pass.”

Tell stories. Humans are naturally drawn to stories. Using them keeps them engaged with your posts. Even when I’m writing something routine like a camera review, I tell little stories about the places I photograph, or of a triggered memory, or about what’s going on in my life as it relates to the photographs I took. It humanizes the post and makes it interesting even to people who don’t care much about the gear itself.

Write as someone who’s still learning, still growing – except when you’re really an expert, when you should write as an expert. A blog becomes tiresome when the author always comes across as the World’s Foremost Expert. We’re all works in progress here. Let your blog reflect it. You’ll resonate with readers more deeply.

Yet you just might be an authority on some things. When your imperfect humanity comes through elsewhere on your blog, you have air cover to boldly assert the authority you do have. (Like I’m doing in this post.) Your readers will accept it because they aren’t fatigued from it.

In your feed, show your posts’ full text rather than a summary. This might seem counterintuitive – don’t you want people to click through from their feed reader to your blog, to juice your stats? But unless you’re a famous blogger, people won’t hang on your every post. They’re skimming and scanning their feed readers looking for interesting stuff. Making them click through gives them a good reason not to read your posts.

Remove that friction! In WordPress.com, go to yourblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/options-reading.php, click the “Full text” radio button and click Save.


Reply to comments. Leaving even a simple reply lets your reader know that you’re a real person and that you are happy they stopped by. It encourages them to keep coming back.

And for those of you who don’t allow comments at all: what the? I know that on some sites the comments are a cesspool. But on your blog, that’s fully under your control. You’ll get the comment section you cultivate. Cultivate a good one and more readers will become regular.

Include images in your posts. This is a trick more than a technique. But most feed readers show one of your post’s images, which adds interest and encourages people to click through. And when you share your posts on social media, one of the images generally appears as part of the share. It causes the share to take up more real estate, making it harder to miss. And eyes are naturally drawn to good imagery anyway.

This is what I’ve learned so far. One thing I’ve very much enjoyed about blogging is that it has provided endless opportunity to learn. So when I learn more, I’ll share it in future posts!

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!


Welcome to the post-blog era

I’ve noticed a shift in this blog‘s audience during the almost nine years I’ve been writing it. Early on, bloggers and non-bloggers alike read my posts. But in recent years, if you read this blog regularly you probably have a blog, too, and it’s probably on WordPress.com. So say my stats.

Those stats also say that most visits to this blog come from Google searches. Someone finds Grandpa’s old camera in a drawer, or wants to get film developed, or remembers the CBS Late Movie, and searches to learn more. It’s easy to be an authority on the Internet: write about something arcane or obscure, and searches will drive visitors to your door! But those search-driven visitors never become regular readers. They came here for information about that subject and, once satisfied, go away forever.

Views and visits to this blog, by year

Yet those searches have made 2015 far and away the best year this blog has ever had, at least as measured by page views. A handful of my posts about photography have become relatively popular, and drive 200 to 300 page views a day.

On the one hand, I’m glad to have published a few things that people find useful. On the other, what makes me keep blogging is engaged readership. I love it when you comment. I like it when you click Like.

But because I write of the obscure and arcane — old cameras, old roads, the dusty corners of my faith — well, my fantasies of Internet fame with thousands of adoring readers will just have to remain fantasies. I’m grateful I have regular readers at all.

I figure there are on the order of magnitude of 100 of you, people who look at each of my posts on or near the day I publish them. And I thank the Internet that we’ve found each other. Our blogs link us through our common, but unusual, interests. For example, I’ve collected cameras for 40 years. It was a lonely hobby until I started this blog and met you.

And that, I think, is where blogging shines: in the niches. It didn’t used to be that way. Blogs used to be like online diaries that anyone could read. But Facebook fills that need now. And in blogging‘s early days, it was possible to gain a large audience and make money directly by blogging. Some of those early big bloggers are still at it. But today, too many voices clamor for attention. Anyone who wants to attract a large audience on the Internet pretty much needs to write for a site that already gets lots of traffic.

And now I see that possibly even niche blogging could shift toward sites where traffic is already high. Facebook’s new Notes feature looks suspiciously like blogging. I could move there easily enough. I already have my account set up so anyone can follow me, and most of my posts there are public. And Facebook’s easy sharing might bring me more readers. All I’d have to do is start writing there.

Or I could move to Medium, an upstart writing platform that’s doing a stellar job of building an audience. It’s not on Facebook’s scale yet, but my read is that the audience there is engaged, where sometimes Facebook’s sharing can be a little mindless. I occasionally repost something from my software blog on Medium, but have yet to figure out how to get many readers.

WordPress does a pretty good job of shifting with the times. After all, WordPress powers one out of every four Web sites on the Internet! But notice I said Web sites and not blogs. This is a broadening of their original mission, a tacit admission that the personal blog‘s heyday is long past over.

So who knows where I will be blogging in a year, or two, or five. Regardless of platform, I will persist. I crave connection with like-minded people, and by keeping at this for almost nine years and by commenting on your blogs, you keep coming back here. I’m so grateful for you.