Building a Better Blog: Define Your Own Success

Many people are thoroughly disappointed when, after a couple weeks of blogging, the great unwashed masses of internet users haven’t beat a path to their blog. After a month of hard work, they’re still only seeing a handful of visitors a day – and it’s disheartening.

What that person doesn’t realize is that by every realistic web metric, they’re probably already quite successful. They are just looking at the data wrong and have defined what “success” is in an unrealistic fashion.

A successful blog sees steady growth over time, with occasional sharp spikes when they post something particularly popular. BoingBoing didn’t suddenly become big one day; it took years of hard work by Xeni Jardin and company to build the blog’s traffic to the point where everyone knows of the site.

Let’s use an example from a blog of an acquaintance who found herself wondering why her blog wasn’t a big success. She showed me her usage statistics after the first month, and they looked like this:
Week 1: 145 unique visitors
Week 2: 180 unique visitors
Week 3: 202 unique visitors
Week 4: 219 unique visitors

She lamented the fact that after a month of hard work, she was only seeing about 30 unique visitors a day, and she was thinking about quitting the game. What I told her is that I saw the beginnings of an unqualified success and that I’d be thrilled with this kind of growth in my first month.

Each week, her visitors are going up compared to the previous month, at an average rate of 15%. That is an incredibly impressive week over week growth rate that indicates that there’s a core of material at the site that people are coming back to read over and over again.

What would happen if she was able to sustain that growth over the course of a year? During the first week of the second year, her blog would welcome 207805 unique visitors, or about 30,000 a day. That rate of growth is basically impossible to do, of course, but it gives an idea of how strong her rate of growth really is. This lady only sees herself as a failure because she’s choosing a perspective that guarantees failure.

A much more realistic rate of growth is 8% a week. If our hero were to sustain 8% growth every single week throughout the year (something that many good blogs do during their first year – and even sometimes their second), she would be welcoming 7,932 unique visitors in an average week at the end of the year, more than 1,000 a day. Even better, if she uses this much more realistic metric of success, her blog is doing quite well and will still be doing just fine even if a few weeks go by without any measurable growth.

Unless you’re a large media conglomerate, slow and steady wins the race, and you need to select metrics for determining your success along these lines. You should be comparing your numbers to your own past numbers, not comparing your numbers to what ProBlogger is pulling in.

The day I started The Simple Dollar, I decided I would launch it quietly, see what kind of usage I get the first week, and then shoot for a 9% rate of growth each week. I decided to count page views as my metric, as I was really interested in having visitors stick around for a while, at least during the first month (I’ve now moved to tracking visitors as my primary metric). For me, a visitor who reads ten pages is worth at least as much as ten visitors who read a page each. As long as I was able to stay in line with that rate of growth, my site was a success. Here’s what my real numbers were the first four weeks of life:
Week 1: 11253 pages
Week 2: 11847 pages
Week 3: 22585 pages
Week 4: 19790 pages

Let’s see what my “goal” numbers would have been:
Week 2: 12266 pages
Week 3: 13370 pages
Week 4: 14572 pages

I missed my goal in week two, but I made my goal in weeks three and four with room to spare, which meant that if I had some slow growth weeks in the future, I was still achieving my goals.

If you want to define success for yourself in realistic terms, here’s an action plan for you.

Take the total number of visitors from your first week of non-anomalous statistics and record it in a spreadsheet. For almost everyone, this will be the earliest week you have of statistics. If your blog is an established blog, but you want to start a growth metric to define your success, choose a fairly recent week that doesn’t have anything unusual about it. By unusual, I mean linkage from a high traffic site like Slashdot or Digg.

Determine the percent growth in visitors you want to see each week. My personal recommendation is 8-10% with a new blog and 2-4% for a blog established for more than a year. If you go higher than this, you’re targeting a rate of growth that requires a lot of luck – these numbers are attainable through simple hard work.

Make a trend for the next year, calculating the “expected” visitor count for each week for the next year. A spreadsheet makes this calculation really easy. Put your base visitor count in cell A1, put your target percentage in cell B1 (don’t forget the percent sign!), and then in A2 enter this formula: =A1+A1*$B$1 When you do this, it should produce a number slightly larger than the one above it. Click on A2 and then drag the black square in the lower right corner of the cell down to the 53rd row, and you have your targets for the next year! If you want to change your weekly growth, just change the percentage in B1 and the rest of the cells will recalculate.

Record your real weekly visitor count in the spreadsheet and observe how you’re comparing to expectations. Remember, if you get some big traffic spikes from sites like Digg, the traffic will go down – just enjoy the big margin of success you had that week and plot how to keep a healthy margin in the future. Also, many well-written sites go through a big growth jump at some point where they grow at about 100% a week for a few weeks. Enjoy it while it lasts, because you’ll likely plateau in the near future – just remember what your real metric of success is, and don’t alter it because you believe you’re ahead of the pack.

This method allows you to see your true success every week, and as each week passes, you’ll see that you’re on track for continued success in the future.

Building a Better Blog is a month-long series at The Simple Dollar, outlining steps you can take to build a long-term healthy blog that will attract readers. Jump ahead to the next essay, Don’t Leave Them Hanging, or back to the previous one, Addressing Your Readers.

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