Personal

Switching from NBC to PBS, in a manner of speaking

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve turned off the ads on my blog.

They had become more trouble than they were worth. Ad placements I didn’t authorize kept appearing, ruining the look and feel of the blog. Many times I heard from readers that ads were auto-playing videos or, worse, automatically redirecting to junky and scammy sites. I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with WordPress.com support, getting them to turn off the unauthorized placements and squash the bad ad actors.

I made only about 50 cents a day from ads here. That paltry income wasn’t worth the hassle and, more importantly, the risk of alienating you. Nobody wants to keep visiting a site where videos automatically play or the page suddenly redirects to “Your computer is suffering from 23 viruses!!!!!”

The small stream of income was nice, as it covered this blog’s annual hosting costs with a little left over. But it’s not like I can’t afford this blog. Down the Road will live on without ad revenue.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Perhaps, however, you’d like to partner with me to fund more film, cameras, and adventures. If you do, you can click this “Buy me a coffee” button to send me $3. My favorite color film costs about $3 a roll, so it’s perfect.

I’ll quietly drop that button into posts from here on out. Clicking that button can be your way of saying you appreciate my work and want me to keep at it. But no pressure or stress — you’re welcome and wanted here even if you never click the button.

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Blogosphere

Three tips to increase engagement with your blog

As a veteran blogger and a veteran reader of blogs, I want to share some key things I’ve learned about how to encourage readers to keep coming back.

Your readers have only so much attention to give. Your blog is part of a wide stream of information swishing past everyone you hope will read your writing. They, too, quickly decide what to read and what to pass by.

Here are three things you can do now to help readers not pass your posts by.

Write descriptive titles and strong opening paragraphs. This lets everyone know why your post is awesome, and gives them a good reason to keep reading.

I used to write clever or obscure titles and then ramble in early paragraphs. I thought I was a witty raconteur but in reality readers didn’t track with me. When I started writing simple, declarative titles and got to the point in my first or second paragraph, pageviews and comments began to grow.

Doing this well takes practice. I don’t always succeed! But I keep working at it. You can too. For good examples by other bloggers, check out this post and this post.

Share complete posts, not just excerpts, in your feed. I buck conventional wisdom with this recommendation.

Before I explain, here’s some background. Readers can find out if you’ve published in several ways. They can always just come to your blog. Or they can follow you on social media if you share new posts there. Or they can subscribe to your blog and get an email every time you publish.

They can also follow you in a feed reader like Feedly or Bloglovin’ or NewsBlur. These services work by picking up your blog’s feed, a technical name for the way your blog alerts these services of new posts.

WordPress, and I assume most other blogging platforms, give you an option to share only the first paragraph or so of your posts in your feed. The idea is that this entices readers to click through to your blog to read the rest.

If your excerpt doesn’t strongly communicate why your post is interesting, most readers won’t click through. (Unless you’re a celebrity and people hang off your every word.)

If you get good at writing compelling titles and opening paragraphs (or custom excerpts, a WordPress feature; more here), you should improve your clickthrough rate.

But so many people read on their phones now. If they subscribe via email or feed reader, the phone opens your posts instantly. But if you make them click through they have to wait a few seconds for the post to load in the phone’s browser. I think this is a strong deterrent. I know it deters me. I think it’s better to not throw up this barrier.

To turn off excerpts in WordPress, click My Sites in the upper-left corner of your blog and choose Settings. Click the Writing tab and scroll down to Feed Settings. Click the slider next to “Limit feed to excerpt only” until the white dot moves to the left and the control turns gray. Click the Save Settings button.

Enable, and reply to, comments. Comments are the last key to engagement with your blog. Once they’ve read your post, let them respond.

Yes, readers still have to click through. But just as most of us are faster to speak than to listen, a reader’s desire to have a say is likely to hurtle them right over that barrier.

Several blogs I follow don’t allow comments. It’s super frustrating when they write a good post and I want to offer a perspective or praise! I assume they disable comments because so many comment sections are cesspools, full of pointless arguments and nasty insults.

Yours doesn’t have to be this way. You get to decide the the tone of your comment section. Just delete anything that crosses your line. You don’t even have to warn an erring commenter if you don’t want to.

My blog generates little controversy. But trolls, jerks, and people having bad days do show up from time to time and say unkind things. When it’s a regular commenter, I ask them to tone it down. Otherwise, I just delete the comment and move on. If you do the same, you’ll shape a pleasant comment community — one that your readers will be glad to join.

Respond to at least some of the comments you get. Readers will see that you’re willing to engage, and it will encourage them to come back.

To enable comments on your WordPress blog, click My Sites and choose Settings. Click the Discussion tab. In the Default Article Settings area, click the slider next to “Allow people to post comments on new articles” until the white dot moves to the left and the control turns gray.


Do you have any other thoughts about how to increase engagement with your blog? If so, share in the comments!

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Blogosphere

A couple weeks ago I published a mini-review of the new Gutenberg editor in WordPress. I said there that there was no clean way to embed images from Flickr.

I was wrong. It’s stupefyingly easy. You just paste the Flickr embed code directly into an empty block. The image appears instantly! It also hyperlinks back to the Flickr page from which it came, per Flickr’s terms of service.

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Flickr image embedded instantly into WordPress Gutenberg

This is far easier than how we all had to embed Flickr images in any previous WordPress editor. Given that I use Flickr to host my photographs, Gutenberg is making creating posts significantly faster for me!

Embedding Flickr images in the WordPress Gutenberg editor

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Blogosphere

Using the WordPress Gutenberg editor

WordPress has been working for a long time on a new post editor, which they’ve named Gutenberg. The folks at WordPress.com are slowly rolling it out to users, allowing them to opt in to test it. As soon as it was available to me I took the plunge, and have written several posts with it now.

I remember the last time they rolled out an all-new editor — it broke all of my workflows and frustrated me for weeks until I learned it.

Gutenberg didn’t. That’s not to say it’s like any past WordPress editor; it’s not. It doesn’t offer Microsoft Word-style editing like every other editor in the universe. Each paragraph, photo, everything is its own element known as a block.

I thought this would be the most overthought editor design ever. But then I started typing my first post, and the majority of things I wanted to do fell right to hand or were quickly discoverable.

I make software for a living. Let me tell you — the quick learnability they have delivered is no mean feat. Within a couple posts I didn’t want to use the old editors anymore. I even converted my in-progress posts to Gutenberg.

To add any kind of content, you press Enter to create a new block. If you want a text element, just type. If you want any other kind of element — image, YouTube embed, pull quote, anything — hover over the block with your mouse, click the plus-in-a-circle icon that appears, and choose the kind of content you want from the list that opens. The block will then give you every clue you need to create, link to, or embed that content.

Here’s a random image from my WordPress media library, easily inserted as a block.

Moving blocks around isn’t a cut-and-paste operation, as it is in every other editor. You hover over the block with your mouse and some controls appear that let you drag and drop the block, or move it up or down in the document.

There are a few quirks yet that I hope they iron out.

Empty image block

First and foremost for me: you can’t directly embed Flickr images. You’d think you could use “Insert from URL,” but it doesn’t work for Flickr (yet?).

Fortunately, there’s a workaround: create an image block and hover over it. A toolbar pops up. Click the icon that looks like three dots stacked vertically. From the menu that appears, choose Edit as HTML. You’ll see some block code in there; triple click to select it all. Then paste in the image’s HTML embed code from Flickr. Then click away from the block. You will get a message about it not being in block format. Click Resolve, and then scroll down and click Convert to Block.

A helpful commenter explained that you can insert a Flickr image simply by pasting its embed code into an empty block. Bam! Easiest Flickr embedding ever in WordPress!

At Coxhall Gardens
Embedded image from Flickr.

This is far easier than it was in the old editors, which had limited Flickr embed functionality. I always switched to HTML view and pasted the embed code there, which was more a pain than the workaround method in Gutenberg. But still, here’s hoping that WordPress streamlines this even more.

Another quirk is that while typing, if you delete the first letter of a word it also deletes the space before it. I have to assume this is a bug.

On my theme, at least, paragraph spacing is different (it’s most noticeable before and after images, as the image isn’t evenly spaced with the surrounding paragraphs). And image captions are centered, where the old editor left-aligns them.

There also isn’t a way to set the text Publicize uses when it sends your post to your social media accounts. I’ve been going back and doing that in the old editor; it seems to hold the formatting okay. Gutenberg creates code that is very different from the old editor’s so that wasn’t a given.

Again, I’m shocked by how easily and quickly I’m taking to Gutenberg. I look forward to WordPress improving on these quirks and adding missing functionality.

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Ten Years of Down the Road

Choosing a place to share your content online and why I stick with WordPress.com

If you want to write (or share photos) on the Internet, do it on WordPress.com. If you want to grow your existing audience, do it on WordPress.com.

Forget Medium. Forget Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn (all of which allow blog-style posts). And forget Blogger.

WordPress.com is a fine platform on which to publish. It offers a good editor in which you write your posts. It manages images well. It provides a rich community through which you can promote your work and find readers. The good people at WordPress do all the system administration for you – you need configure no servers, schedule no backups, run no maintenance.

And you can use it for free forever. Now, I’ve purchased a couple upgrades that give me my custom blog.jimgrey.net address and let me customize my site’s design. You can buy these upgrades for your site for about $100 a year. But they’re not truly necessary for a successful blog.

I’ve been on WordPress.com since this blog’s birth, ten years and counting, and have no plans to leave. WordPress.com has grown and changed with this blog, adding useful features all along the way. (Blogger, on the other hand, feels like it is stuck in 2007.) For example, as people increasingly viewed the Internet on their phones, WordPress introduced blog themes (templates) that looked good even on those small form factors. I switched to one. It took more time to choose one I liked than it did to make the change and tweak the settings.

And then the WordPress.com community brought me a lot of readers. I’ve been featured four times on WordPress.com’s former Freshly Pressed feature, and once in their Discover feature. And others have found my blog by searching the WordPress.com Reader.

Because nothing’s perfect, there are some challenges. For example, when you need support, your only option is to leave a post in a support forum. The community is reasonably helpful, and if you tag your post “modlook” a WordPress support engineer will respond. I have an open case with them right now. They’ve addressed several problems I’ve reported, but have declined to fix a few others. I get it: in my work in software development I’ve declined to fix some user-reported bugs myself, for solid reasons. But it’s not terribly satisfying to receive that answer.

There are reasons to use other platforms. Medium has an elegant editor and the cachet of being where all the cool kids are. But my experience there is that the platform rewards the already well-known leaving regular Joes like me to languish. And I’m not convinced Medium’s business model is viable long term.

And when you publish directly on Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other social network, those networks are more likely to favor your posts in others’ feeds than when those posts come from other sources. Posts from outside sources are at a distinct disadvantage. But when you write directly on these social networks, it’s not entirely clear how much you control your content. And WordPress.com can automatically share your posts to these networks so you can still reach plenty of readers.

You can choose to host WordPress on your own Web server. Doing so lets you customize endlessly and lets you sign up for ad networks so you can get the most possible advertising revenue. I get enough traffic that I was accepted into the Automattic Ads program. It’s not been very lucrative so far — I could make more through self-hosting and signing up for Google’s AdSense program. But that would come at the cost of doing my own back-end maintenance, and I’m not interested. My buddy Pat, who has caught a tiger by the tail with his The Small Trailer Enthusiast site, self-hosts WordPress. He sells ads directly and participates in AdSense, neither of which you can do on WordPress.com. But his site is lucrative enough to make the maintenance hassles worth it.

Given all of this, when I wanted to start a new blog about software development, I went straight to WordPress.com.

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And when the nonprofit I help run, the Historic Michigan Road Association, needed a new Web site, I turned again to WordPress.com. Yes, Web site. WordPress.com has provided tools for a modern, responsive, professional-looking online calling card for our organization.

historicmichiganroad

Here’s the final reason I stick with WordPress.com. Should I ever want to switch platforms for any reason, I can export this entire site to a set of files, and reimport them into pretty much any other content-management platform. My content is truly mine.

I donate testing to WordPress.com and the WordPress.org open-source project, and through that work have had reason to test site export. I’m thrilled to report that it successfully exports even a blog with this much history — more than 1,600 posts over ten years. But I don’t expect to need to use that feature for real anytime soon, as long as WordPress.com keeps on keeping pace with the Internet at large as it has.

Anytime you choose to publish your work online you make tradeoffs. I think that for most people, and certainly for me, WordPress.com offers the most benefits and the fewest challenges.

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Road Trips

A new Web site for the Historic Michigan Road

The Historic Michigan Road Association has a new Web site at http://www.historicmichiganroad.org. On it you’ll find information about the road’s history and many of the fun things you can do and see along the route.

HMRA_Web

Shiny new Historic Michigan Road Web site

The HMRA is moving slowly but surely toward our vision of driving heritage tourism along the entire Michigan Road. Now that the road is signed along (almost) all the route, we can start directing travelers along it to the attractions and events along it. You’ll find information on the site about some of those things to do, and we will add more in time to make it a comprehensive guide to Michigan Road fun.

But we haven’t taken away the information about the Michigan Road’s place in Indiana history. Our hearts beat for historic preservation in the HMRA, and we support preserving both the route and the historic buildings that dot it.

I built the new site on WordPress.com, which has become a great way to quickly and inexpensively build a Web site. Did you know that WordPress powers more than 25% of the Web? WordPress.com lets me add content to the site quickly and easily. It makes the site automatically scale to whatever device you’re viewing it on: desktop, tablet, or phone. And WordPress.com’s system administrators do all the backend maintenance so I don’t have to.

This replaces an older, static HTML site that I built in Microsoft FrontPage. It was great as an online calling card when we were still working to have the road named an Indiana historic byway, and it worked sort of well enough for the first year or two afterward while we organized the HMRA and got our first initiatives underway. But now that we’re ready to really lean into our heritage-tourism mission, I’m not sad to see it go.

HMRA_Web_old

Goodbye, static HTML site; be relegated to the digital dustbin

 

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