The Current State of Individual Blogging

This post is off-topic. And a little whiny.

Let's say you're like most people who take up blogging: you enjoy writing and you want to get better at it. You have insights and ideas to share, and if you're lucky, your insights and ideas are useful and interesting. Finally, and understandably, you want to build your blog's audience, increase your pageviews and, hey, maybe even make a little money while you're at it.

There's a problem however. You're competing for a finite resource: attention. And you're up against powerful competitors: sites like The Huffington Post, Gawker Media, and thousands of other professional media companies, with more staff, more resources, and the ability to pump out incredible amounts of content. And don't forget, you're also up against a monstrous army of SEO engineers constantly tweaking titles, lead paragraphs... anything to capture all the pageviews they can.

Of course, all of us are up against an even bigger force: Google's search algorithm, which changes, abitrarily, all the time.

What Swiss Chard Taught Me About Search
I'll share an example. Until recently, one of the most heavily trafficked posts here at CK was, weirdly enough, How to Cook Swiss Chard.

Somehow--and to this day I have no idea how--that post became Google's first result for the search query "how to cook swiss chard." I never optimized it, I never pumped it full of keywords, I never did anything. All that search traffic just... happened. And back in 2009 and 2010, this post by itself drove nearly a third of my search traffic.

Until a few months ago, when that traffic spontaneously vanished.

Later, I found out it was around the time Google rolled out Penguin, its new search algorithm. Now, I'm third on the list for "how to cook swiss chard."

Is this a big deal? Yes. A huge deal. By going from first to third, I now get less than a tenth of the traffic from this search string. Incredible, isn't it? The rule of thumb is about 35-40% of search traffic goes to the first result, and the rest of the traffic is divided up by everybody else in rapidly diminishing shares of the spoils.

And if you fall off the front page, forget about it. Page two results capture as little as 1/100th the traffic of the #1 result. Search is in many ways the ultimate winner-take-all market.

Worse, there's next to nothing I can do about it. Hiring an SEO firm to "fix" this would make zero economic sense. Casual Kitchen simply doesn't make enough revenue. Not to mention, there are probably hundreds (or even thousands) of SEO firms working for other websites... all trying to do the exact same thing. All the time.

Of course, anything anybody does could easily vanish the minute Google decides to roll out yet another iteration of their search algorithm.

And this is just one insignificant post on an insignificant blog in an insignificant corner of the internet. Imagine this happening to your carefully-tended blog across multiple posts and across all of your search traffic. Because at some point, it probably will happen. The bottom line? Nobody can really count on having a stable share of internet traffic.

HuffPo Thinks You Have No Attention Span
Next, imagine who you're competing against in the race for pageviews, revenues and reader attention. Take Gawker media as an example, with its enormous collection of websites, each with full-time staff using real-time search activity to generate purpose-built posts to capture traffic. We're talking about staff writers who pump out as many as twelve posts a day, who are paid based on pageviews. (For more on information mills and other internet publishing trends, I strongly recommend Ryan Holiday's eye-opening book Trust Me, I'm Lying.)

I haven't even mentioned the content farm industry, where you can pay a firm to generate customized, pre-written, SEO-enhanced articles for your site. It makes me feel dirty just thinking about it.

The idea of competing with these companies is hilarious to me. It would mean never writing a post longer than 300 words (HuffPost presumes its readers don't have the attention span to digest a 900 word post like the one you're reading right now). It would mean writing "worry porn" articles like Does Tabasco Cause Birth Defects? or posting multi-pageview slide shows of anti-informative things like The Ten Worst Foods In The Entire Universe. Anything--anything--to get you to click through.

All of this is exactly what I don't want to do here at Casual Kitchen. There are too many truly interesting things out there to teach, learn and write about. In the meantime, however, I still have to accept a fundamental truth: my traffic stats and my ability to reach new readers is increasingly out of my hands.

Concluding Thoughts
Oh man. It sounds like I'm just wringing my hands and complaining, doesn't it? But what really I'm trying to do is understand the lay of the land where Casual Kitchen lies. Which takes me to my final question: What's a blogger to do?

Heck, I don't know. But I have some ideas. For one thing, accept that this is the reality of individual blogging. And accept that as a writer, sometimes your fate, popularity and economic success are as arbitrary as your search rankings.

Which means what we've all known all along about blogging: you write for the love of it and for the love of interacting with your readers. No matter how many or how few there are.

Readers, what do you think? And why do you blog?

Related Posts:
In Defense of Big Farms
Doing More Harm Than Good
Zombies, Processed Foods and the Advertising-Consumption Cycle
A Fund For... Who, Exactly? Addressing the "A Fund For Jennie" Controversy

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
For those readers interested in supporting Casual Kitchen, the easiest way is to do so is to do all your shopping at via the links on this site. You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.


NMPatricia said...

We all are entitled to be a bit whiney. LOL

And I don't know where to start. I read CK because it is insightful - long and short posts. I read it because I don't feel slimy afterwards. And what I have heard is the frustration with the onslaught of big business and their tactics. I sympathize with your position. Not sure what to do except continue reading.

Tragic Sandwich said...

I read Casual Kitchen because it's interesting, and I like interesting. That doesn't mean I always agree with you--but, frankly, it would be less interesting if I did.

This is actually one of the reasons I haven't actively pursued the idea of monetizing my blog. I was planning to do that, but I think it would take away from the enjoyment I get from it.

Liz said...

I read because you have interesting things to say -- things that make me think.

I don't blog, though I used to (about knitting). When I did, it was because I had things I wanted to say that the people I live with and those with whom I interact regularly (coworkers, for example) weren't particularly interested in hearing. My blog was basically a journal that others could read if they wanted, but not something that sought readership.

Anonymous said...

1. My blog is like the one that Liz kept only it started out as a quilt blog, then it became an all about me blog - got married, travelled, have cats, had a baby, cooked something, etc.

2. I come here becasue it is interesting & for the Friday Links.

3. So eye opening about seach engines, swiss chard, article lengths, & what ever the heck a SEO is!

At the end of the day I don't care about traffic...

Owlhaven said...

Funny, my biggest google-draw for awhile has been a post about making grape jelly. Not sure what the solution to the blogging dilemma is, but I figure it probably falls into the category of things I can't change with my current resources. So I'll just keep trying to produce useful content and hope for the best.

chacha1 said...

If I had approached my blog in a more businesslike way - using it as a website to draw customers, basically, which at the beginning was in the back of my mind - I think I would have been disappointed.

For my type of after-hours business (personal training, teaching dance) word of mouth is still the best thing. It does me no good, here on the ground in L.A., if someone in New Jersey sees my post and thinks "I'd like to take a lesson with her." LOL

My blog is definitely, at this point and probably into the future, a navel-gazey exercise in thinking out loud more than anything else.

If and when I write stuff that I'd like people to actually pay to read, I'll publish it in the appropriate format (to date that means for the Kindle and in paperback).

For someone like me who blogs for personal entertainment, SEO is just a waste of time. :-)

Joanne said...

I've heard about bloggers doing crazy things to up their manufacturing the titles of their posts so that they'll come up first, hiring people to optimize their posts and doing other such ridiculous things...and I would just never do that. I want people to read because they find it interesting and I'd rather have loyal readers than someone who clicks through once but never again. Interestingly, when I search for recipes I only tend to click through to sites I trust and will go through the "pages" of google until I find a blogger that I recognize rather than just click on the first link...but I guess I'm weird that way.

Kinneh said...

I'm sure I came to CK through a Google search, or after reading one of your comments on another blog.

The good news is, I keep coming back to CK because of your insightful articles, your sense of humor and a general feeling that your values coincide with mine.

I've had many starts and stops in the blogging world and I can say one thing for certain. Anything that's been published as a hard and fast rule for site traffic, key words, marketing, etc needs to be thrown out the window! Not only will it all drive you insane, but much of the information out there no longer applies.

I guess what I'm trying to say is you might not have captured the top ranking on Swiss Chard, but whether you realize it or not, you HAVE captured your corner of the internet. You have loyal readers who want to interact with you. That, for me, would be all the internet currency I'd need. Now, if only I could pay my mortgage with it!

David said...

As a fellow blogger, I agree completely. As a reader, I agree completely. SEO-optimized text is to human-optimized text what spam (the canned meat variety) is to parma ham - it's loathsome. Search engines do us all a disservice when they reward content machines with the lion's share of search results.

I'm attempting to build a community of bloggers to combat this trend - and I'd love to feature this post on my site. If you're interested, let me know.

Ronda said...

Well, for one thing, it occurs to me that you really should be thankful that, for some reason, you happened to be the one who wrote about Swiss chard when no one else bothered! :) I for one am glad for that maverick post which put you on the map, because I really love the way you blog. I'm very glad that you don't just write a cooking blog. I love to cook, but *ideas* about cooking...and food...and just living... are really interesting stuff, and they make your blog one of my very favorites. I like your emphasis on frugality and practicality, both vital to me.

I once set out to write a cooking blog...and then I realized that there were already about 376.5 zillion cooking blogs, all being done much better than I could, so I gave it up. And then I found yours, which did what I wanted to do, and more. :) I suspect you are right that the blogging world is a capricious and unreliable environment, which is frustrating, but hang in there. You are offering a mix that I simply have never seen anywhere else, and I like it! Thanks for what you do.

Ronda said...

One more thing that I think is interesting. Your Swiss chard post reminded me that the most hits on my first blog, month after month, came on a post that lamented about how buying a new pitcher for my iced tea maker was more expensive than buying the entire appliance new. go figure! :)

Katie Mack said...

You say, "Swiss Chard", I say...crickets chirping...

Daniel, you really hit home with this post. How do we get attention? If you are Kardashian inclined, you would know how to get attention. Say what you will about that family, they do know how to capture a lot of attention. And if nothing else, I have to give props to that kind of attention.

But a lot of us are hoping that readers aren't Kardashian fans. A lot of us are hoping that online readers are the same readers that pour through the New Yorker.

And I think a lot of us are sad.

I came to your site for a group of recipes (I think the "laughably cheap" recipes) and I stayed because you are one of the most intelligent food writers on the internet.

I often hoped you would morph your site into a food politics or food economy home or food philosophy, because I believe this is where your strength resides.

You have a lot of intense and amazing things to say about food and the food industry. Stop focusing on Swiss Chard and keep going out on the limb about food industry issues that most of us never think about. That is your internet gold.

But most of all, don't stop writing!

Marcia said...

Very interesting. I used to get a lot more traffic. It's gone down lately, probably because of several things. My content isn't what it used to be (something about that second baby), and I don't post as often (see that second baby).

I used to spend a lot more time reading blogs too. Now, I don't. I don't go into Google Reader. I have a few blogs that I'm on email for...that may be old school, but it's THE WAY I'm going to read a post. If I don't like the title, I delete without reading it. As my life has changed, the blogs that I choose to read also change, so I have added and subtracted blogs from my email list.

There are very few on the list (but Joanne's is one of them!)

Anonymous said...

I come here over and over because you're no bullshit about food...and a bunch of other things, and I like that. I like that you're no frill and highly insightful. Keep it up.

Daniel said...

I'm grateful for all the good vibes and all of the insights in these comments. I had a couple of thoughts in response:

1) Ronda is absolutely right. I should be grateful that "How to cook swiss chard" got me the traffic it did. I could easily have never seen those readers in the first place! Certainly it's more useful to view it using a framework of gratitude than to wring my hands about losing traffic that I might never have had at all.

2) Interesting thoughts from Tragic Sandwich and Chacha on monetization and using a blog to find customers. One thing I'll say about Google's adsense: it may not pay a ton of money (especially if your traffic is low to moderate), but it scales well and doesn't require a lot of month-to-month maintenance.

Finally, when I wrote this post up, I edited it and retooled it a *bunch* of times, trying to make it sound as non-whiny as I could... but it still sounds a little on the whiny side. :) So, thanks to all for your patience and efforts at hearing what I'm trying to get at. I'm pretty much trying to take a hard, fair and unstinting look at what blogging is all about.


Anonymous said...

Since you post was off topic, my comment is off topic for this post... (Or something like that.)

In your copious amounts of free time, you may enjoy reading this:
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us - Michael Moss

Melayla said...

I like to read articles where my favorite bloggers write about blogging, because I'd love to start a blog of my own.

It does make me wonder though if search engine traffic brings a lot of subscriptions? I know that personally, I find blogs to follow from blogs I already read and through pinterest.

I shy away from blog entries when I'm googling for information (because if I don't know the blogger, I don't know if I can trust their information)

Brooke said...

I really don't think this post is off topic, since you do write a blog!

I used to struggle with this question a lot and lately. I'd wring my hands, spend hours re-tooling my site, and feel doubly empty after.

Lately, I'm putting my site in the hands of fate, readers like you, and belief in the power of what I'm writing to impact 10 great people. If those 10 people like what I'm doing, I hope they'll tell ten more people, and so on...

I know. It's a crazy thought. But maybe it's time for all of us to re-think what our blogs are about. If it's for advertising dollars, than ignore what I just said. But if it's for making a difference, creating change in the world, building a platform for yourself then....

Who knows.

I come here because you give value, ask great questions, and share the love.

Anonymous said...

Wow I think about this a lot. I came at my blogging and monetization thoughts from a different angle, since my blog is isn't in English. My potential readers are but a tiny fraction of the internet users at large, so I knew from the start there was no way I'd be seeing big money from the endeavor, even if I got really good and really well known. I can't get hundreds of thousands of readers because there just aren't that many people on the internet that care about and are capable of reading food blogs in Hebrew. Knowing that is very freeing. I know that I'm not in it for the money, and I don't get this warped feeling of entitlement that many bloggers get - I worked hard on my blog! I deserve compensation! No you don't. You chose to produce content for free. Supply and demand is not exactly in your favor right now.
So I focus on the other reasons. I enjoy writing. I enjoy pushing myself to be funny and insightful and I like it when my readers appreciate that. I enjoy talking about food and engaging with people who share my passion. Most importantly, since my blog is about cheap and frugal recipes, I hope to influence people's attitudes about food and spending, and just to be a useful resource - so people know can take recipes from the blog and trust they'll be sensibly priced. From you I learned the value of an engaged readership. Getting google traffic is nice, but getting insightful comments from regular readers means that I'm building a real community around the blog. *That's* gratifying.