This is a brief article on why I blog, some things I have learned by blogging, and how I think it benefits me. Lots of people have written articles about why blogging is important for outreach (for example, to counter misunderstandings like this), but I also think that blogging is good to do for you yourself, as well. For an entirely ego-centric blog post, read on…
How Blogging Benefits Me
AntarcticGlaciers was launched in July 2012 as the outreach part of our project on the Glaciation of the Northern Antarctic Peninsula. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength (or so I tell myself), and it has become a real labour of love. I get around 3500 unique visitors a month, and Google Analytics tells me that I get visitors from all around the world. I’ve even had to increase my hosting! I’ve yet to be invited onto primetime TV, but it’s coming, I assure you. I have put more passion and energy into this website than I ever thought I would, and it has had some really obvious benefits. I thought I would list some of them here, in an effort to persuade more people to do the same.
- I’ve learned a lot. Many of the articles on this website are outside my normal day-to-day work and area of expertise. Writing blog posts and articles about a topic helps me understand it much, much better. I think things through carefully, which means I remember them better! I focus on the changing glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula, and there are much broader articles on the website than that. This actually forces me to be a better scientist; I read much more widely and thoroughly than I did before. When an interesting paper (or series of papers) comes out, I read them and if I blog about them, I make clear linkages in my mind between all the papers.
- I am a better writer. Writing regularly improves your writing. Everyone knows this, and I feel that I am getting better – and faster – at writing, especially for the wider, outreach market.
- I have a better online presence. As an early-career researcher (now 4 years post-PhD), it is vital to increase my online presence. I have increased the online visibility of my publications and myself, and made myself more visible to potential future employers. I am better known as a result of this website. My publications are easier to find, and probably get more readers. My increased online presence is very important for networking, and helps me to better connect with future collaborators.
- I am a better teacher. The greater depth and broader understanding I have of glaciers and Antarctica in general makes me a better teacher. I am more aware of online resources, know about more topics, and am better at communicating them to non-experts. A lot of my material I have used directly or indirectly in lectures, and a lot of the original figures I created for this website are useful teaching tools. I am told that the students find this website very helpful (although they do tend to cite it in essays – they obviously haven’t read this post on essay writing skills yet!). I hope to continue to use AntarcticGlaciers.org as an innovative teaching tool in the future.
- I’m reaching a lot more people than I ever could by word of mouth. I’m passionate about my work, about what I do and why I do it. Like a lot of passionate people, I really like talking about it. I could never talk to 3,500 people a month about climate change, sea level rise and melting ice sheets, but I can reach that many through this website. Of course, there are problems; the people who look at the website tend to be more interested in general about climate change. Convincing Joe Average who only reads denial blogs or the Sports Pages is harder, but he’s always hard to reach.
- My work is open access. By writing short summaries of my publications and putting them on my website, I reach more people. People don’t have to pay to see the main findings, and that means more people read (and cite) my work.
- I enjoy it. I find the process of writing an article about something that in general is poorly explained on the Internet very rewarding. And when someone tells me they enjoyed a particular webpage, I get a warm fuzzy feeling.
- I’ve learned a lot about websites, the internet, and programming. I know all about WordPress, write better HTML, I know all about search engine optimisation (SEO), Google Analytics, the way the web works, and about how developers put together websites.
- It motivates me. If I don’t understand something very well and want to learn more about it, writing a blog post or article about that topic focuses my thinking and helps me learn it better.
- Finally, it helps provide (hopefully) clear, accurate information about glaciers, climate change and sea level rise. There are so many people out there writing rubbish about climate change (I don’t use the term climate sceptic), that anything we can do to put out clear, accurate information is vital.
How to be a blogger
So, blogging and writing articles about your work is important, good for you, good for your career (we hope), and leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy. It is, however, a lot of work – don’t kid yourself! But I thought that I would also share some of the things and practical tips I learned over the last few months of blogging.
- People don’t like words. They only like pictures. In a recent survey I did, people consistently said they liked all the photographs, and that it was the photographs that kept them on the page. Draw them in with a great homepage with loads of nice figures.
- People are fickle. They will leave your website immediately if they don’t like what they see. They are intimidated by long pages of text with not enough pictures (getting back to that again), and too many long words. Keep articles to less than 500 words.
- People need great visuals. Your website has to look great and use great images to get and maintain interest.
- People like a simple design. On the survey again, people said they liked the easy navigation, the working ‘Search’ function (it often doesn’t work on too many websites), and the way they could find what they were looking for.
- Keep your website specific. It is better to write specialist articles on a smaller study topic than to try and tackle the whole of the problem. I focused on glaciers in Antarctica, and even that was a large challenge, and there is so much more I could write! Specialist websites also do better in Google – it is easier to target key words and have a higher keyword density in more specialist, expert websites.
- Don’t take too long on articles. You’re writing a web page, not the next Nature article. Let it take too long and you won’t do anything else. You need to be able to write one or two blog posts a week, and you won’t do that if each one takes you a day. Spend no more than 2-4 hours on a post (less if it’s something you know well and have lots of good pictures for).
- Blog posts and articles brew. I don’t set aside a specific day or time to write. Rather, they brew slowly in the back of my mind, and I think about them for several days first. By the time I make time to sit down and write them, I have a fairly good idea of what to write and how to write it.
- Social network. Most of my hits on this website come through Twitter and Facebook. As the website has become more established, more people have found it through online searches. As more people linked to it, it did even better in Google.
- Use WordPress or similar. There are many free blogging platforms out there. This website is built on WordPress, which makes it very easy for me to develop and maintain, without needing to involve my developer. Which brings me to…
- Use a professional developer, if you can afford it. It’s worth it – your website will be so much better. You don’t need to actually spend all that much to get a better and more unique website than you can with the free WordPress themes. Senktec.com built this website. There are many pots of money around to help academics with outreach, or your department may be able to help. Don’t ask, don’t get – try writing a few letters and see if anyone can help you.
How to get your blog doing well in Google
The last section of this post concerns some ideas and tips on how to do well in Google. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is a bit of a dark art, but I will attempt to give you some easy, practical tips that I have learned along the way. Most people use Google (over 80%), and if your blog does well in Google, you’ll reach many more people.
- Use WordPress, or similar. Google likes WordPress and finds it easy to index.
- Install an SEO plugin. I use this one, and it helps me target key words and add metadata to help Google find my website.
- Install Google Analytics. This helps you identify who’s looking at your website, get an idea of numbers, and work out where they’re coming from. You’ll see what their ‘landing page’ is, where they exit, and which of your pages is most popular.
- Target Keywords. Decide on a set of keywords for your website (e.g., “Antarctica”, “Glaciers”). These are the words that people will type into Google when looking for something on your topic. Use these keywords lilberally throughout your website. Include them in subheadings and page titles. Your SEO Plugin will force you to do this.
- Link, and be linked to. The number of links to your website determines your PageRank. The higher your PageRank, the better your website will do in Google. PageRank is scored 1-10. AntarcticGlaciers.org has a PageRank of 4, which is reasonably good and significantly helps it in Google. Get your university to link to your website – that will pass on high PageRank to you. Link generously to other websites and have a Links page, and people will reciprocate. Create a web of links around your own website too, to help people navigate around the website.
- Update content regularly. Google likes active websites that include social networking and regular blog posts. The more often it is updated, the more often Google will index it, and the higher ranking it will give it.
- Have lots of unique content. Write everything from scratch, and never, ever, plagiarise someone else’s website! Google also hates duplicate content. Keep each page unique.
- Don’t use content without permission. I own copyright for most of the figures on this website, the rest are used with explicit permission. Some are open access; you can find some great figures on the Wikimedia Commons.
- Allow comments. Comments add great unique content to your website, helping you do better in Google, and they are a great way of getting people to engage in a discussion with you. In theory. No one has commented on AntarcticGlaciers yet! Note of caution: use great anti-spam software, such as Akismet.
- Use social networking. Twitter and Facebook are great ways to tell people (and Google) about your new blog posts.
So there you have it – everything I’ve learned about blogging and the Internet. I’ve broken almost all of my rules (too long, no pictures), but … rules were made to be broken. I hope you find this blog post useful, and I hope you consider writing a blog of your own. If you keep a blog, add a comment and tell me of what you learned, and if you have any suggestions to new bloggers. Let’s get out there and tackle misunderstandings, liars, deniers and ignorance, and lets have fun doing it.