Once there were RSS feeds, and I had one on my blog. For months it shuffled people to the wrong URL—my fault, and what a waste.
Some people still prefer RSS feeds, and who am I to suggest a change? Changing online habits is such a pain, and I myself resist it with a little question: how does this improve my own life or others’?
Nevertheless I can’t resist whispering a word of unsolicited advice. O ye bloggers and readers, one tiny new habit can save you rather a lot of time, in the long run.
Follow other blogs without pain or penalty
The immense size, the richness of the WordPress blogging community is both thrilling and overwhelming. After a certain point you need a strategy or you will go crazy!
Never miss a post from your favourite bloggers.
Never feel overwhelmed by blogs you like but want to read only occasionally.
Each time you follow a new blog by hitting the Follow button (top right of the screenshot above), pause for a second. By activating the Settings icon immediately below, you get some options. First, do you want to be told by WordPress when a new post appears on the blog you’ve decided to follow? It’s not mandatory, it’s a choice. Second, do you want an email with that information? If so, would you like instant updates? Daily updates? Weekly updates?
Maybe you spend a lot of time in the blogosphere and don’t want to miss a thing: then you’ll opt for instant updates by email as well as notices in your personalised WordPress Reader.
Maybe you have only got about 15 minutes per week to read blogs: then you’ll want updates from just a few key people, and catch up on others on vacation.
Maybe you follow 1,000 blogs, but only need to read posts on specific topics. Then you might get weekly updates on specialist blogs, and skim the others with Reader: Search.
Skim in Reader to select before you read
Using email notifications is a great way to follow your hot favourites, and never miss a post. But you’re sure to follow other blogs as well, blogs that delight you now and then. You’ll want to see a headline before you open that blog. What is this post about? You need a signpost and a summary.
You get that on WordPress Reader facility. For skimming in advance, it is a beauty, on a screen of any size.
So you see, you can probably do everything you need as a reader without exiting the WordPress system. Which saves time.
Still want me to add an RSS Feed? I might. I might not.
On first encountering the web in 1996, like most people I was fascinated by two key questions: how can I find information online and how can I enable my own web pages to get found? Like any poet trying to get her head around a problem I constructed real-life analogies—analogies that failed promptly, because a digital world is not a physical world.
By the time I got involved around 1995, Yahoo! and WebCrawler and Lycos were doing their thing, then came LookSmart, Excite, Altavista, Inktomi and Ask Jeeves. Their processes were mystifying, their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) even more so.
Two filing cabinets for the World Wide Web
But Yahoo! stood out. Why? Because in its early years, it didn’t rely on spiders (robots that crawl the web and index and catalogue every page). You could submit your website to Yahoo! for inclusion. Yahoo! used real live human beings to evaluate each site—is it worth listing? is it correctly categorised?—before listing it in a ginormous directory.
(You realise that I’m over-simplifying, of course. This is a little blog post, not a PhD thesis.)
Such a pedestrian system of indexing is unimaginable now, with over 1,860,000,000 websites—oh, seconds later, that figure is way out of date. But it was doable, and kind of comprehensible. You could imagine Yahoo!’s sub-contractors as working librarians in a monstrous ethereal library. You could send them your “book” and they would decide whether it was worthy of inclusion, and which Dewey number would apply. In other words, they were filing websites. There was a “place” for every website, a folder, or a sub-folder, and if every website was filed correctly, they could be quickly discovered.
DMOZ, or the Open Directory Project, was even more noble in concept. Their conceptual filing was performed entirely by volunteer editors. I don’t think they ever developed other layers of search technology, such as web crawlers. And DMOZ closed down in 2015.
Who are you?
Extreme filing cabinet types have a place for everything, and everything in its place.
Extreme search engine types wander around searching plaintively for their car keys every day. On a good day, they say “Keys!”, and five sets of keys leap into their arms.
Most of us fall in the middle, doing our best to file things correctly and failing quite often.
All search facilities are cross-breeds using multiple methods
In the digital sphere, today most search engines combine a raft of criteria into a jealously guarded algorithm that changes frequently. If you were there in the early days, I’m sure you’ve noticed that results have improved exponentially as searchers, publishers, bloggers, developers and search engines refine their techniques.
On WordPress, for example…
Bloggers can give each blog post a Category (that’s rather like putting the post in a kind of folder dedicated to one type or topic of information).
Bloggers can list an unlimited number of Tags (other words or phrases that tell people and search engines what the page is about).
We can also write an SEO Description (a summary of what a particular post is about or for), a “slug” that gives us control over the URL, and an Excerpt.
WordPress makes it easy to provide titles, captions, alt-text and descriptions for every image we use.
WordPress gives bloggers advice about how to use all these fields. Not that bloggers follow guidelines as a rule: most of us do our own thing.
WordPress performs other magic Search Engine Optimisation tricks in the background, buried in code that most of us never see.
All these titbits of information about the topic or function of one particular blog post provide more guidance for search engines, more information for readers as they search, and a higher probability that search results are relevant and listed in order of value to the reader.
In other words, the Filing Cabinet is incorporated into every search engine, and a Search Engine into every Filing Cabinet. This is inevitable, given that digital information does not suffer from the intrinsic limitations of a physical folder.
To cross-reference information, we had to pack at least two folders with identical information, for example one filed according to topic, one according to date. And we tagged items with coloured labels.
To file the entire contents of the world wide web, you’d need an outrageous number of categories, making the whole process almost pointless. Take DMOZ: On October 31, 2015, there were 3,996,412 sites listed in 1,026,706 categories. (Source: Wikipedia) One category for every four websites? Imagine a library organised like that, with four books per category.
To categorise sites perfectly, you would need to see the future.
Search engine technology permeates all our work
Search engines are everywhere, and their success is always connected to a vigorous effort at imposing order on the materials.
Every application that purports to organise our virtual office provides choices between Folders (they might be called Notebooks or Categories or any one of 40 other names) and Tags (again, every developer thinks up a new name for the same thing).
Can you think of any application you use that does not incorporate search? I can’t.
Filing cabinet habits are invaluable for real stuff
Putting everything in its place doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instead we learn from painful experience that it does save time.
I’ve just appointed myself life coach to my 18-year-old grandson, who is suddenly in sole charge of organising his own studies, apartment, meals, money and his time. All alone. He’s doing great, but it’s an overwhelming task. You can picture it, I think? So he’s begun three tiny habits, each with a trigger, and action, and a reward. One is to put away every garment that he takes off. Reward: clear floor space and satisfaction—Nice work! he says. Yes: ideally, every garment will be put in its place, whether a chest of drawers or the washing machine. With such tiny gestures will order emerge from chaos.
I’m a fraud as a life coach, because I badly need to cultivate my own tiny habits. Organising my computer files is a work in progress and always will be. Folders feature strongly and I too drop stray files on the floor (desktop) every day. They all have a place—mainly in the trash.
What of our minds as we shift to instantaneous information feeds?
It’s easy to get sloppy about controlling our own information, now that search engines are brilliant. Yes, yes, excuse me but they are brilliant at what they do. Maybe you hate them but just think back 20 years and count your blessings! Maybe you fear them for their invasion and stealth, but it’s a tradeoff we make while fully informed of the risks.
So has the extreme efficiency of Google changed the way you work and read and think? I believe I’m more scatty. I flick across websites. I taste and taste and taste, half-hoping there’s something more appealing only one click away.
I don’t like this. I yearn for limits, constraints to my information guzzling. I dream of the old days when you had to know where to look.
I’ve recently deleted news apps and Facebook from my iPhone, disturbed by the constant updating on news sites and the random news items on Facebook. For my news I now rely on the radio, the odd newspaper in a cafe, and a couple of long reads per week. It’s a start.
I can’t blame search engines alone for this. But they play a part. I’ll use them forever, but … mindfully? Bring on the tiny habits.
I am darned if I’ll write more than a couple of lines… because my last few blog posts have been kidnapped. This is just a test. Will this link do as instructed or lead you to Badlands 404?
Update on the missing blog posts
Problem solved, for now. Everything back in place. It was the pixies.
Of most concern were some drafts and scheduled posts: not yet published but almost ready to go. Along with the last few blog posts they had apparently vanished from my blog. My friends and followers were receiving the usual automated emails alerting them to a new post. Then they’d click on the link provided and land on a 404 (bad link,no-such-page) page.
No likes, no comments for about a week. Funny, I thought. What I had done to offend you nice people? Because it had to be my fault, right?
Then the phantom posts all reappeared again, and we’re kind of back to normal, I think.
I haven’t copied or saved anything. I’m going to trust in the mighty community of WordPress developers to carry on doing their magic.
When I become a Highly Successful Blogger with 1,000 followers — oh why be so modest, 10,000 followers — please, please don’t ask me how I did it.
Here’s the hazard: I would be flattered. And I might actually agree to deliver my gems of wisdom, my 10 or 10,000 tips on how to blog stupendously well. And that would be deeply embarrassing.
You see there are already 265 million pages of “blogging tips”, and if you Google “how to blog” you will discover 6,670 million answers. What more is there to say?
A taxonomy of bloggers
Let me crudely categorise the bloggers I follow into types. Each type has completely different needs.
Type A. Professional bloggers. They work hard at every aspect of their blogging day after day after day. Classic example is Darren Rowse of Problogger.com, who is not only blindingly successful but also knowledgeable, balanced, helpful and authentic. If you want your blog to make money, or to advance your business or professional career, go there for advice.
Type B. Personal bloggers. People like me, who started with a vague idea that blogging might be useful professionally but quickly forgot about that angle and now regard their blog rather as an exercise in self-entertainment and exploration.
Both these types are happy in their work. Blimey, what a sweeping generalisation! Maybe I should say they kind of know what they’re doing, or what they are aiming at. Professional bloggers have a vested interest in improving what they do, but personal bloggers don’t. Not really. And they don’t care because they’re having fun.
And within these “types” — who are not really types at all — are infinite variations because we are all utterly different. We have every reason not to follow the herd, because authenticity is the gold standard of blogging. All the bloggers I follow have chosen to walk their own path. Their blogs are all very, very different— in length and tone and topic and attitude and style. I enjoy tiny frivolous posts, deep long demanding reads, photos, fiction, poems, about politics, philosophy, fitness, feminism, aging, everyday life and so much more. I want posts to take me by surprise, not to trot out the same old recipe for “success”.
Type C. Anxious bloggers. They may be fixated on statistics of Likes and Followers and feel inadequate. They may suspect there’s one magic trick that will make them an instant “success.” Or they may just suffer from generalized anxiety. So they seek advice. Not by Googling, or taking a course, or following a trusted adviser on blogging, but by asking their favourite bloggers. Who then respond with another 10 Tips for Blogging…
OK Personal Blogger, here come my 4 tips (I just can’t help myself)
It’s only one tip, actually. Why would you try to change yourself with the hope that strangers might find you, like you and follow you? That would destroy you. Don’t do it.
Of course, read tips, do a course, get the hang of this blogging thing. I recommend The Daily Post Blogging University, for instance. And then get going. Don’t be scared, just start.
Stop worrying about what hypothetical readers might hypothetically want. Figure out what you want. If it’s instant easy “success” with 10,000 followers by Tuesday, forget it: this is not going to happen, luckily. Blog the way you feel like blogging on the day. Keep on blogging your way, in your time, when you feel like it. Be yourself and let the followers come or not. (They will. And they’re lovely.)
And lighten up! What’s the worst that could happen? You learn with experience? I rest my case.
Do you have a system for blogging? A schedule? A spreadsheet with topics and times? A goal?
Wish I did. For a while I hoped that the Raewyn Gwilliam system would work for me. Every time she has an idea, she writes it as a sentence, which she saves as a draft title. Because it’s clear, accurate and specific, she remembers the whole idea. When it’s time to write, she opens WordPress, grabs a title that appeals and writes. Bingo!
I did the first part — for a while — but I’ve never used anything from my list of brilliant ideas. I also have truckloads of scribbly notebooks filled with other brilliant ideas.
The Earl of Southampton’s cat is one of my favourite blogs. It was, you understand, written by a cat in the 16th century. A cat, moreover, suspected of having written at least some of the works of Shakespeare. These strange circumstances are plausibly explained by the editor of his works, who has deciphered Gib’s writings and has been publishing them in bite sized pieces, complete with scholarly annotations, on a WordPress blog.
In today’s chapter, the now elderly Gib is pestered by his niece. She wants to learn how to write. OK… where to start? I love this chapter because it unpicks the massive phenomenon of writing. What is it? What’s it for? Before Gib ever figures how to teach a kitten how to write, he must find ways of explaining the purpose, the tools, the very definition of writing.
“Now see,” sayt I, “these black marks? Like to a host of little worms? They are sounds imprinted.”
Of Reading, Writing, and My Greatness
Blog post No 71 of The Earl of Southampton’s Cat is compulsory reading for all who write. Be amazed yet again at your miraculous skills, the toys at your fingertips, the knowledge and wisdom and understanding that you possess once you embark on the adventure of writing!
No wonder Gib writes of His Greatness. You too, you who write: ponder today on your own Greatness. You can read those black marks, like to a host of little worms! You can write those little worms! Oh Great One, I salute you. And I am one of you.
But Gib is the Great of Greats, because he is about to impart the skills of reading and writing to a kitten. Inspired by Gib I have been trying for months to teach my cat Ursula to read, which Gib has shown is possible, but in the end I don’t have the patience. Let me know if you succeed.
A few days ago, this blog gained Follower #100. I am still savouring the moment, even though I can’t swear exactly when that moment was, and I’m even uncertain about exactly which person was the 100th follower.
“Exactly which person” — what a crazy prosopagnosic phrase, as if all readers were a blur of clones. Quite the opposite! The beauty of having only 100 followers is that I’ve looked up every one, seen your face or avatar, read many of your posts, and been delighted to receive your comments on my blog. So I can state without fear of contradiction that you (we) are all fiercely individual.
I mean, look at the avatars of the four most recent followers! Could they be any more different from each other or clearer in their individual goals? I urge you to visit their blogs and see for yourself:
I can celebrate this number with all modesty because it’s not 10,000 or even 1,000. It’s a friendly, human number, the sort we can imagine, a lovely number which is nevertheless within reach.
When I was doing social media stuff for my company I was puffed up with greater numbers. 5,000 email subscribers and 3,000 Twitter followers are now in someone else’s hands. Those numbers are still modest, but far too great for me to recognise as individuals.
100 people is:
The population of Fairlie (NZ) when I was born there in 1940 (that’s a creative but liberal estimate) — a place where every person in the village was known to every other
A century in cricket (or years or whatever) — caps in the air, yippee, surely that guarantees a win! (Actually not but hey.)
As a percentage, couldn’t be better, A+ and surely that means top of the class! (Actually not but hey.)
Thank you for being my WordPress village
My thanks not just to the latest arrivals but everyone who hangs out here now and again. You keep me going. You get me going. Right, that’s the happy 100 done and dusted — back to work, me!