Forgive me for indulging in a bit of a rant here. I recently checked a particular RSS feed and, of the first ten articles, 7 of them were in the style of this post’s title. For the two people on the Internet who have not caught onto this trick yet, this is because list-style articles are widely considered to be good bait for digg et al and engage finicky Internet readers who don’t want to read so much as scan. And, I concede begrudgingly, there is a place for that and used in moderation 10 Actionable Tips For You To Increase Widget Sales has some value for people. As a writer, however, I would caution you against overly imbiding.
The reasons (of which there will not be ten, and they will not be numbered) boil down to the following: if you write for people with the attention span of an ADHD flea who is hopped up on methamphetamines, then this is who you’ll end up with for readers. Yes, you’ll get the odd link here and there, and the Internet is full of high PR/high traffic sites whose readers are there precisely because they want articles that they can absorb in 90 seconds or less. However, and this is rather important, this is not the sum toto of value on the Internet. For people who actually read what they “read”, the top ten lists are just so much dross: everyone does them, they rarely contain insights (especially after you’ve seen one on the given topic), and they go in one ear and out the other.
Now, you have to ask yourself, why do I write? If you’re a queer sort whose personal worth is measured by how many top ten lists you have produced in your life, well, do what makes you happy. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to build a base of loyal readers, for whatever reason (you hope to use your blog to get traffic, you intrinsically enjoy writing for an audience, whatever), Top Ten lists will not get you there. Say, for example, you have a blog to promote your widget management software. Ten Ways To Manage Widgets is a good way to get a lot of hits in a hurry, but the majority of them will be in and out in 90 seconds and if you asked them two minutes later they’d be unable to recall your name.
If, however, you over time build up a reputation for writing nuanced, in-depth analyses of the pleasures and perils of widget management, people will take notice. Other widget aficionados will begin writing articles about you and putting you on their blogroll (and saying “Wow , he can write, too!”) . This is what you want for a couple of reasons. The first is that it pleases your harsh mistress, Google. You see, blogs (and digg, and social bookmarking, and everything else Web 2.0 can come up with) exist in snippets of time. You never look at the same blog twice, in the same way you can never enter a river twice. Google, on the other hand, really wants to be able to enter the same 100 million rivers on a daily basis. And so there is a little tension here with links-which-will-soon-be-irrelevant: since Google reserves most of the link-juice for links which are on the front page, links which fall to the archives are worth rather less to you. Links which fall to the archive in the space of literally hours (helllllo, Digg) are worth, in SEO terms, practically nothing.
You know the one type of link which never falls to the archives? Blogrolling. Getting blogrolled requires someone to make a commitment to you. You don’t get blogrolled after the first visit any more than you get to meet the parents after the first date. You have to impress (some would say seduce) the prospect over time, and if you continue to provide value to them over weeks or months then you’ll end up on their blogroll. That is good for you — not only will you get SEO mana, but they’ll visit you more frequently, comment on what you have to say more frequently, and count you among their few trusted sources of information. And when they trust you, their readers will come to trust you. And so trust for you expands throughout your niche and eventually makes you money.
Another reason you’ll want to write to be read, not to be scanned, is the growth of RSS readers. RSS readers are a disruptive innovation in how people read blogs. They change the ballgame almost as much as the existence of Google changes the ballgame for web design. In the absence of an RSS reader, people congregate to a starting point (a portal, Slashdot, digg, a known-trusted blog) and begin getting their daily dose of news there. They might leave that site a dozen times over their news-cycle but they always come back to it. None of the dozen sites they visit “owns” (I’ve always thought this use of the word was vulgar) them — they keep coming back to the aggregator. RSS readers make every reader into their own aggregator. I cannot overemphasize how fundamental a change this is. Now, even though perhaps 1% of the blog reading public has ever blogrolled anyone, a huge percentage of your readers are trying to make a forward-looking decision about your blog: it’s good today, but will it be good tomorrow when I open its RSS feed? Quality writing is a great way to convince folks that yes, you will be there for them tomorrow.
Incidentally, articles which are well-written often tend to stand the test of time better than articles which are not. If you constantly keep cranking out the top 10 lists to an audience who thinks yesterday was ages ago, you’ll have to produce something new every day or the readers will stop coming. If, on the other hand, you write pieces which are both genuinely useful and written well, people will continue to find those and refer other people to them long after they have fallen off your front page and the radar screen of the Internet’s mayflies. My blog is pretty tiny in the grand scheme of things, and yet yesterday 60 people (yikes, two months ago I didn’t even know sixty people) decided to take some time out of their day to read something I wrote about customer service some two to three weeks ago.
Now, clearly it’s easier to write top-ten lists than it is to write well. Writing well, though, is a skill which can be taught and which can be learned. Imitate writers you admire. You’ll eventually end up with a voice of your own, but it will tend to bear a little resemblance to your favorite authors. Practice, practice, practice. Spellcheck and have a decent, but not slavish, respect for the formal rules of the English language. (Poor writers ignore the rules, good writers follow the rules, great writers break the rules, and the very best writers make the rules.) Finally, write in a way that shows off your own voice, personality, and ideas, the better to stand out against a sea of mediocrity.
[Edit: Fixed my English.]