Quite a while back Steve Heimoff wrote a piece about the state of blogging. Judging by the number of people who sent me the link, a good number of them bloggers, it was expected that I would take offense to his opinions. I didn’t take any at all. The opening statement of his post pretty much summed it all up for me…he was talking out of his ass. As that neither negates nor validates his opinions, it merely is what it is, why would I take offense to them? He was blogging.
Blogging, as I see it, is usually best when the writer expresses an opinion. It is certainly more fun for me, at least. Opinions stimulate thought, encourage debate, and cause me to evaluate my own thoughts on the matter. So, at the risk of disappointing anyone who had hopes of me riding out, knives sharpened and cloaked in righteous blogger armor, to slay the evil Grendeloff, I found some of the piece to be thought-provoking.
Some of his points were salient, some provoked me to think “who cares?” and some I found to be pretty much off-base. One of latter type has had me writing this post in pieces ever since. This was the opinion that inspired me to feel the need to express my own.
Something else, too: I think we now know who the players are, and that situation is unlikely to change. The field is set, the top names known. It is now extraordinarily difficult for a newcomer to enter the fray and succeed. It’s too late for that. The country already is saturated with wine blogs. I can’t see how a newbie could jump in and achieve any kind of respectable numbers, unless that person already was famous from something else.
Maybe I’m the one that is talking out of his ass now, but I find that sentiment to be dead wrong. I also find it to be more-than-a-little elitist, arrogant and defensive. There tends to be an attitude among some of the more well-known bloggers that they have made it, and if anyone else “makes it” then their voice will be diluted. Gatekeepers is what they’re known as in these here parts. As good as they may be at something else, when they are in gatekeeper mode they invariably begin talking out their asses. Unfortunately, some people don’t realize this and believe what these gatekeeper type’s hinter regions tell them. Don’t be one of them. One of these days their little circle jerk is likely to turn into a circular firing squad, and that is a crossfire no one should ever find themselves in.
So, it is in that spirit that I write this post on how to prove Steve wrong. As someone who has had some success garnering an online audience in areas as diverse as sports and wine, these suggestions could apply to any type of blogging, although I am writing it from a wine and food point of view. Doing these things won’t guarantee that you will rise to the top of your chosen heap, but they have always worked for getting me where I want to be. Work being the key word, which leads to the first things I think everyone should know about blogging.
Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with blogging simply as a way to express yourself with no thought to gaining an audience. There is no need to worry about any of this stuff in that case, this advice is for those who want to shoot for a larger audience.
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no fooling around!
Blogging is hard work. Sure, you have a million and a half ideas right now and posts just seem to flow from your fingers. You are a blogging Goddess (or God)! Trust me, it won’t always be that way. Your blog will someday become a beast that requires more time and effort than you can imagine. I suggest you start referring to that bitch as Audrey II in your head right now, because she’ll want fed, Seymour. If you can make her grow, she’ll demand more and more blood.
Because of the demands a successful blog puts on its owner, it is imperative that the subject of the blog be something that you are sincerely passionate about. These Interwebs are littered with abandoned and neglected blogs that were begun with all good intentions. Doing a gut check to make sure that you are driven to write about your chosen subject will help ensure that you aren’t one of those people who swear to love and care for that cute little blog, only to abandon it on some side road of the information superhighway (when was the last time someone used that term?) to fend for itself, possibly going feral and joining a marauding band of sheep-killing blogs in Montana, or something.
Know your influences. Whose books did you devour ravenously as a kid, as a teen, and who do you read now? Not only should you figure out what it is about their writing that makes it so compelling to you, you should also understand how it influences your own writing. Once you’ve done that you can understand what to be on guard for. For example, like many writers my age I consider Hunter S.Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut giants among my many literary influences. While I am certainly influenced by them, and in many more aspects of my life than just my writing, I’d be a fool to try and emulate their style. Yet I see a lot of fools on the web who attempt to do just that.
If you are truly influenced it will show when you write in your own voice. Mimicry will just show that you have no voice. No one is interested in your impersonation of some other writer, but they may very well be interested in what you have to say and the unique way that you say it. That said, especially if you plan to do reviews of any sort and are not familiar with the writings of Lester Bangs then I suggest that you stop reading this right now and do so. Go ahead, we’ll all wait for you.
Ok, finished? Now having read a record review that sang the loving (and highly caustic) praises of an album based on the packaging and the depth and spacing of the grooves cut into the vinyl, I hope that demonstrates my points (and advanced age) above. Trying to write like Lester Bangs is futile, but learning the lesson that great writing can be about anything is valuable. Forget what so many other people tell you, wander off topic when you feel the urge, use your chosen subject matter as metaphor or merely as a jumping off point to wax poetic or to just rage against the machine. Open up, be honest, show the world what’s inside of a blogger, even the ugly bits…most people don’t have the balls for it, but I’ll bet your influences did. If nothing else, learn that from them.
I give it a 6, but I couldn’t dance to it
Don’t come up with some convoluted rating system for your reviews. In fact, I would suggest having no ratings at all. Tell your readers what you thought of it, what it paired with, what you imagine it would pair with, what it reminded you of, whatever you think is interesting about the wine. No one really cares if you gave it 4 stars, 92 points, or 8 out of ten burps. Face it, you’re probably not the next Robert Parker, but if you’re lucky you might gain a loyal group of readers who think of you as someone whose opinion they can trust. The world needs another Parker like it needs another folk singer, but everybody can use another trusted friend.
If you must rate wines, do it in a way that people already have some comprehension of. 10 points, 100 points, A through F, whatever…if you have to explain your methodology, it is useless to your readers. More importantly, be honest. Don’t say something nice because you want more samples from that particular PR person’s other clients, or you took money for advertising from them, or whatever shady logic you can think of. Bloggers of any sort who do these type things are bottom feeders who are eventually exposed as such because they make us all look bad. Think of it this way, PR firms look for blogs with influence when they send out samples. Influence usually comes from having an audience. Audiences tend to come to writers who are respected and trusted. Lose the respect of your peers and you will lose your audience. Lose your audience, and if you are doing this just for samples, guess what else you just lost? No more free wine for you.
Which leads us to…
Blogger Ethics, Navel Gazing and Other Happy Horseshit
Blogger A does something Blogger B doesn’t like, so Blogger B writes some scathing post about Blogger A’s lack of ethics. B may mention A, or not, but it is almost always some shrill screed about how B’s moral compass is so much more true north and that A, or a strawman stand-in, may not even have a moral compass. This nonsense rears its stupid ugly head with the kind of regularity that could put the makers of Ex-Lax out of business.
If you are the sanctimonious, self-righteous, stick-firmly-inserted-into-rectum, 100% certain-that-God-has-a-plan-for-you-and-you-know-what-it-is type, then by all means, write what you know, babe. But seriously, if you’re writing about something people use to relax, increase the amount of contentment in their lives, and even, heaven forbid, to get a tad tipsy, you might want to consider another subject…perhaps something along the lines of women don’t have the right to choose, or poor people are just lazy, or how Jesus wants you to be rich and doesn’t care how you do it, or even the Dallas Cowboys. You know, subjects written by people just like you. Leave the fun to us heathens. We’re better at it, and trust me, all of those subjects will probably get you more readers and provide more opportunities to cash in than wine or food writing will.
Seriously, if you start off with a few assumptions about your blogging brethren, you will find it easier to avoid these tedious dust-ups. First, assume that other writers are ethical. Second, realize that your code of ethics is just that, yours. That other person’s code may not match up exactly to your own, but the sun will still come up tomorrow morning anyway. The last assumption I suggest making is that no matter how convinced you are that you know something, there is a frighteningly high probability that you are either full of shit or have a healthy dose of hypocrisy somewhere in some part of your precious moral code. Trying to impose your code on others is a damn good way to shine some light on something you may not know is there and definitely don’t want the rest of us to see. I’ll tell you the one thing that I am certain of when it comes to ethics; the folks among us who disagree with this paragraph the most are the ones who need to take it the most to heart.
The same goes for lecturing about professionalism. When you sign my paycheck you can discuss professionalism with me, but we will keep that discussion limited to the job at hand and beyond that you have nothing to say that is of any value to anyone. I get it, some people would love to parlay this blogging thing into something bigger. It even happens. I can think of exactly four examples in the wine milieu that I know of personally. It won’t happen for many who make the attempt, and then there are bloggers like me who don’t give a shit. I not only accept that I am a blogger, I embrace it, I love it, and it is fun for me. You don’t like my professionalism when I drink or write? Fuck you, I don’t care, and trust me, you don’t want me critiquing you in the area where I truly am a pro. Speaking of which…
SEO is Bullshit!
Okay, it’s not entirely bullshit, but most of the people who do it for a living are entirely full of said excrement. There is no secret formula to getting listed in search engines, or as I see it, getting listed in THE search engine. I am referring to Google, of course. The rest added up together don’t have even half of the impact as the Big G.
So, how does one get decent placement in Google? Lean in really close to your monitor and I will reveal the true secrets of sustained SEO success. Ready? Here it is: Write valid, accessible, semantic code and write relevant, quality content.
It really is that simple, or actually that difficult. Shortcuts will bite you in the area that I accused Steve of speaking from. Google wants to remain on top by ensuring that their users are served the best content when they search for something. The better their results are, the more users come back to use them again, and the more users they have the more ads they sell. When it comes to content, give Google what it wants and Google will give you what you want.
Now, what do I mean by valid, accessible, semantic code? Simply this: Google sends out robots to scour the Web for its index. These robots don’t sit in front of a computer scanning Web pages, they actually crawl inside of the pages. They read the code. If the code is valid, accessible and semantic their job is very easy. Invalid code could completely block them. Inaccessible code will not only alienate some potential readers, it could cause entire areas of your pages to be ignored by these picky robots. Semantic code will tell the robots what they are looking at. If your site title is level 1 heading, then it follows that the headline of your story is a level 2 heading, thereby making sub-headers level 3. Your paragraphs belong in paragraph tags. Pages require HTML titles. The list goes on and on.
Don’t try and get cute with these elements. Google knows when it is being gamed. Yes, a level 1 or 2 header gets more weight than a level 3 or simple paragraph text, but making everything a level 1 will diminish that weight to the point of being meaningless. Get too cute with games like that, and the ones the “specialists” use, and you will find yourself sending pleading emails to Google begging to be included. Chances are that those pleas will be utterly ignored. Rightly so. Do NOT try to cut corners!
Write in a Partial Vacuum
Reading other blogs, especially ones that cover the same topic, can be informative, ego-boosting, or just plain fun. It can also make you completely boring. Bloggers tend to read each other and then write their opinion on what they just read. This leads to blogging about blogging. Need proof? What are you reading now? Yeah, shit happens.
When I follow my own advice on this not only do I avoid getting caught up in the whirlwind of bloggers blogging about blogging, I also know that if I write something similar to what someone else has written that it was honestly my own stuff and that I didn’t accidentally “steal” something. See George Harrison, if you don’t believe that can happen.
My next bit of advice may seem to be a wee bit contradictory of what I just wrote, but that is only because it genuinely does completely contradict it.
Get to Know Other Bloggers
Other bloggers are not your competition, no matter how much the Gatekeepers seem to believe that they are. In fact, most of us like and root for each other to succeed. There are a few people who are just dicks (Toms and Steves, too), but in general bloggers are very generous souls. Who else would put in so much work to entertain others all while paying for hosting? Even the less generous souls tend to be nice to people who pucker up and smooch the area they usually speak from. I assure you that those types are very rare, and if you ever get to meet many of the most successful members of our tribe like Gary V. or Joe Roberts, no matter whether you like them or not prior to meeting them, you will walk away a fan.
So, how do you get to know other bloggers? Well, um, read their blogs. Just try and balance this advice with the advice above and find your own personal blogging equilibrium. Start following other bloggers on Twitter and Facebook. Eventually there is a better than average chance that you will meet some of them in person. The Wine Bloggers’ Conference has always been a great place for that to happen. We’ve been to all of them so far, but unfortunately, the uneasy mix of great activities for the attendees and self-interest of the organizers has shifted to the point that we can no longer justify the price of attending. Not to mention, the last one held in such a non-traditional wine region kind of sucked. That said, you will meet some great folks there if you choose to attend. If not, there are plenty of other events that tend to be crawling with bloggers that will afford you the opportunity to meet and greet.
You will find out over time that many of your most loyal readers (and possibly best friends) are other bloggers. Learn to be generous to them as well.
As one of my last pieces of advice, I highly recommend that you buy a domain name and, if you can afford it, pay a reputable host for server space. Ask me or any other blogger who has been around awhile, and they can probably give you a list of who to trust and who to avoid. Even if you use free hosting, purchase the domain name if you can. While there are some successful bloggers who use the default sub-domain URL of their free hosts, there are a ton of pitfalls involved in doing so.
Since we are discussing how to be a successful blogger, controlling perception while defining your image has to be part of your plan. The sub-domain URLs can make some people think that you are less serious than other sites. Yeah, it sounds a little silly, but paying for your site requires a commitment and means that you are invested. Can you really fault people who believe that the inverse is also true?
You also have to remember that people will sometimes be typing the URL in by hand. If I tell someone the name of this blog, that is all that they have to remember. They can type anotherwineblog into a modern browser and get here without even typing .com. Not so with a subdomain URL. They have to remember if it is http://www.wordpress.anotherwineblog.com or http://www.anotherwineblog.blogspot.com and then hope that they don’t fat-finger it as they are typing all of that. Make it easy for people to find you; if you do, it will also be easier for PR people and even Google to find you too.
Look at the variations of the URL’s above. Imagine what happens if you have to change hosts with the longer ones. Your search engine rankings are hosed, all incoming links are broken, all bookmarks to your site no longer work, and you will be printing new business cards.
If you’ve read this far then you’ve shown some of the determination you will need to prove the Steve Heimoff’s of the world wrong. I hope that my advice helps with that. He and the rest of Gatekeepers aren’t particularly horrible people, but anyone who feels the need to discourage others from doing the same things that he purportedly loves to do has some deep-rooted issues based on his own insecurities, and frankly should be sufficiently ashamed of themselves to quit doing so.
Don’t let anyone tell you that there is no more room for you. If they try to close a door in your face, kick that motherfucker right back in their face. If they tell you that you can’t do something, dare them to stop you. Getting somewhere first doesn’t entitle anyone to get in your way.
Now if you happen to lack talent as a writer, or are just one of those really boring people better suited for writing Sharepoint manuals than about having fun with food and wine, then all of the advice in the world probably isn’t going to help you be successful. But if you have the talent and the determination, this advice might help you to someday spit in Steve’s eye and tell him how wrong he was. Just try to only use figurative spit. We bloggers may be barbarians at the gate to people like that, but we’re not animals.
Best of luck getting there, and if I can help in any way, just ask!