Blogosphere

Frustrating experience with WordAds

This blog has been in the WordAds program for nine months now, which is why you see one or two little ads at the bottom of each of my posts. I signed up to help offset the costs of running this blog, as I explained when I joined the program.

This remains a personal blog, not a bigtime commercial enterprise. I feared that if I crammed the place with ads, or if the ads were abusive (popovers, slide-ins, videos that play automatically, and the like) it would drive you away.

wordadsWordAds promised one little static ad placement at the bottom of each post. That sounded perfect. It wouldn’t generate much income (I’ve earned about 50 bucks so far), but it would protect your experience here.

It turns out I’ve had little control over ad placements and behaviors, despite the WordAds site’s original promises to the contrary. And the ads have been buggy. It’s been frustrating and occasionally infuriating. I’m losing patience with it, and if the challenges continue I’m likely to withdraw from the program.

WordAds worked as promised for a while. There were a couple strange issues: empty ad boxes, or a database error appearing instead of an ad. I dutifully reported those bugs to WordAds Support.

And then one day a second ad appeared next to the first. I inquired of support. They explained that the program didn’t actually specify the number of ads that would appear. What? I went back to the WordAds site to check, and it had been redesigned with new copy that mentioned nothing about a single ad placement. I was sure the site had been very clear about that! I felt gaslighted.

And then a large video ad appeared below the two static-ad boxes. After processing some unhappiness over how the ad pushed the comments section so far down the page, I decided to let it ride because I figured it would increase my earnings. But soon a reader contacted me to say that the video sometimes automatically played, and while he enjoys my blog, if that continued he would reluctantly stop visiting.

That’s ad abuse, and I wasn’t going to have it. I contacted support again. The support tech explained that WordAds uses dozens of ad partners. Reading between the lines, I guessed that they just pass ads through from those partners, and don’t themselves have full control of them. The WordAds software probably limits some forms of ad abuse, but an ad partner who codes around it can get by it. The WordAds team finds out only when users complain. In the end, they were not able to fix it. They offered to manually disable those video ads on my blog, and I took them right up on it.

And then the two static ad boxes started occasionally showing video. It was strange stuff: tourist scenes from Morocco, men riding lawn mowers around a field. Text at the bottom said “your ad will play in a moment” but no ad ever played. And occasionally the audio would play for a second or two, and then silence for several minutes, and then play for a second or two again. The only way to stop it is to reload the page to get new ads. I didn’t bother to report this to support. Through writing and previewing posts, I visit my blog far more than anyone, and I see this only infrequently, so I figured you probably never saw it. And conditions you can’t reproduce at will are nearly impossible to troubleshoot. And, well, a man does grow weary of support chats.

But then a couple weeks ago a banner ad appeared at the top of my blog. This infuriated me. Not only did this go against the promises I believed had been made when I signed up for the program, the ad pushed the masthead way down the page. It looked like crap. I immediately contacted support and was clear and firm: this was unacceptable. They explained that ad placement is automatic, that they have no control over where ads appear. I explained that this didn’t even match the behavior their own Web site describes: that this particular placement was supposed to be controlled by a setting on my WordAds dashboard, and I had that setting turned off. Long story short, support manually turned off the banner ads. They do have control after all, glory be.

All I wanted was to have a quiet ad placement on my blog and make a few nickels. Instead, I got a comedy of broken expectations and time lost in support chats. My patience with this is about exhausted. What keeps me hanging on is that WordAds pays only in $100 increments, and I’m only about halfway there. But one more infuriating unexpected ad placement and I’m walking.

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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.

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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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Photography

Film on Instagram

IMG_0430I feel like such an Internet curmudgeon. In my day, sonny, we used Netscape 1.0 to surf static HTML Web pages that were coded in Notepad, and we liked it!

I try all the new Internet gewgaws and gimcracks but don’t like most of them. Twitter? What’s the point? Pinterest? Wow, what a colossal waste of time! Instagram? Crappy lo-fi photography? Bah! Bah to the whole lot.

Except that I’ve been posting photos to Instagram more and more lately. Film photos, taken with old cameras from my collection. It feels so subversive! And it’s so easy now that the iPhone Flickr app lets you save your photos to your phone. I choose a film photo from my Flickr stream, save it to my phone, bring it into Instagram, crop it, apply a filter, et voilá.

And thanks to iCloud, these photos automatically show up in a folder on my PC. It was super easy to upload them from there to WordPress, where with a couple clicks I made this slideshow out of them.

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Hm, I’m enjoying a lot of modern Internet technology there. Maybe I’m not as curmudgeonly as I thought.

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Blogosphere

Six ways to build blog readership

Down the Road, v. 1.0

I started blogging on a whim because I missed writing, something I used to do professionally. When I wrote my first post, I dreamed of thousands reading it and fawning over my excellent brilliance. (Delusions of grandeur? Naaaaaah!) Neither of those things happened, of course. As of today, that post has had only 41 views. Fame still hasn’t come four and half years later, either, but it’s okay. I’m over it now.

Instead, this blog has brought me great pleasure both in the discipline of writing it and in the response I get from you (hardly thousands; more like tens) on each post. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things that have enhanced the experience:

  • Post on a schedule. My old friend Mike Roe, who is a copywriter for the University of Notre Dame and a blogging veteran, told me to post on a regular schedule. “People will come to look for your posts on those days and will keep coming back,” he said. He was right. When I started my Monday-Thursday schedule in 2009, I began to attract regular readers. (And I’m grateful for each of you!)
  • Schedule posts in advance. When I have something to say, I clear the decks and write. When I don’t, I lose enthusiasm for my ideas – and sometimes end up with writer’s block. Sometimes acting on an idea right away opens the creative floodgates. Almost everything you read here between January and March this year I wrote the week after Christmas in a fit of blog mania. It was pure diarrhea of the brain.
  • Have a way to prime the pump when the well runs dry. Sometimes my post backlog runs out and I can’t think of anything to say. When that happens, I look through my Flickr space, find a good photograph, and write two paragraphs about it. (Now you know the secret behind the “Captured” series.) This usually starts ideas flowing in my mind again and puts me back on track.
  • Reply to comments. At first, I replied to (almost) every comment because I thought it would be impolite not to. But soon I figured out that blogs are meant to be interactive; it’s part of the fun. People like it when you reply, and it encourages them to keep coming back. Replying has also had the unexpected benefit of leading to some Internet friendships that I value very much.
  • Tag your posts with common keywords. I used to think tags were useful mostly to drive searches, and so I tagged posts as if I were creating a book index. But I got very few readers that way. Then I read this post by a WordPress editor that says that they choose posts for their daily Freshly Pressed feature by trolling common tags. (Here’s a list of the most popular tags on WordPress right now.) I added a couple relevant common tags to my next post and it was Freshly Pressed, leading to 700 visits in one day. Another Freshly Pressed post brought a staggering 5,000 visitors on its first day. Also, every tag has a page on WordPress.com that lists the latest posts that use that tag; pages for the most popular tags (such as photography, music, and travel) list two featured posts each day. The tag pages frequently send readers to my blog.
  • Write about things others don’t. If you write about obscure topics, things other bloggers don’t cover, the Internet’s long tail can drive readership. My posts about vintage cameras seldom attract many visits when new. But people who find their grandpa’s old Brownie inevitably turn to the Internet for information about it, and it frequently leads them to my blog. So far this year, seven of the 10 most visited posts on Down the Road are about my cameras. Many of my camera posts are in the top five results when you search for them on Google. (Seriously. Try searching for Argus A-Four, or Kodak Tourist, or Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK, or Minolta Hi-Matic 7, and see what you find.)

So, my blogging friends, what lessons have you learned about building blog readership?

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