The other day I happened to check my yearly views for 2018 and was surprised by the number: a little over 500,000. It’s been a while since I’ve written a post about blogging and statistics so I in this article I would like to talk about what helped me get this amount of traffic. Keep in mind, this isn’t going to be a how-to guide, but rather a collection of my thoughts about driving traffic to blogs.
Before I enter into the main topic, I wanted to give a few introductory comments.
First, while around half a million views in a year is a nice figure, probably surpassing many hobby blogs, surely there are many blogs out there that get 10x or even more traffic. In any field, there are always those above and below you––and I think it’s important to appreciate what you have while making incremental steps towards one or more specific goals.
Also, while it’s perfectly healthy to check the stats of your blog and to have goals for the number of users and hits, I would like to caution you from giving too much weight to these metrics. I think most blog statistics nowadays will try and filter out non-human traffic (bots, etc.), but even so there is always a margin for error and so these numbers may not be completely accurate.
More importantly, I would caution you to avoid attributing more value to blog stats more than they deserve. Turning blog hits into cash is likely something many bloggers have on their minds, but there is a huge difference between getting people to view your content and having them actually shell out money for some product or service, or even click on an ad. Personally, while I am gradually trying to do various experiments like showing ads or trying to sell things on this blog (mostly my own books), I am still in the early stages of that and don’t feel I have enough data yet to write about. But for now I’ll just say that in order to make money it’s not just the raw numbers of people, but the demographics of those readers that matter (what they like, what they tend to spend their money on, etc.).
But let me get back to the main topic of this article––how I managed to get 500k+ hits in a year on a language-learning blog like Self Taught Japanese.
Here I should mention that even though I do actively check statistics, and in recent years have been trying to write more targeted articles that get more hits, for a majority of the time I have focused simply on posting content that I think others will get some benefit out of, as well as content that I myself enjoy writing. I think that may be one of the keys to blogs that others enjoy reading.
Besides the content itself, I’ve tried to consistently post, at minimum once a week and on average 2-3 posts a week. Together with the length of time I’ve been running STJ––I began in Dec 2013 so this blog is a little over 5 years old––that amounts to over 740+ posts.
But you may be thinking that the necessity of having many posts with good quality content is pretty obvious. So what else matters?
At this point I should mention that different types of blogs have different types of readers, and different ways to receive traffic. So I won’t claim that what I’m about to say will apply to all blogs, though I do think it applies to the majority of language-learning blogs.
Probably the most important thing I have learned from frequently looking at STJ’s statistics is how critical traffic is from search engines, especially Google. It’s no exaggeration to say that over 95% of this blog’s traffic is from search engines. While I really appreciate people linking to me, and lately have been trying to increase readership with Twitter, all the traffic from other sources is still just a drop in the bucket.
Ideally anyone could start a blog, write a few articles, and then start to see what sorts of keywords are used to find their site. But the problem is that for security reasons search engines (= Google) only give information about search keywords for a very small number of requests, so you need a lot of traffic before you start seeing any patterns. This makes it difficult for new bloggers to get good data that they can use to optimize their site.
For my blog, I get a large amount of my traffic from people searching for simple keywords, and I’ve noticed that having keywords in the article’s title (and obviously in the body) is important. As a result, some of the longer, more editorial-type articles don’t get too many views. So if you are writing a language learning blog, I would suggest writing more articles that focus more on a word or set of words as opposed to a longer, more abstract article that is hard to find from keywords.
I think the reason that keywords often contain simple, everyday words is that generally the people searching for Japanese words on search engines are beginner- to middle-level students. Advanced students, on the other hand, would probably either not need to look up so many words online, or would use specific dictionary sites without necessarily starting at general-purpose search engines. This sort of information also helps to drive what sorts of content I should focus on. (As a side note, when doing research for translation myself, I often still use Google in order to get a balanced view of information about that word)
Of course, if you start out with articles about common expressions and topics, you’ll likely have a lot of competition from other similar sites and may not initially get too many hits from search engines. But the more articles you write, the more you’ll eventually find those that “pop”, where there is a niche for an important topic that other people haven’t written about much yet. You can think of this as finding small areas where there is an excess of demand and lack of supply.
There is a lot more to the “magic” behind how search engines value links, and while I think it’s not a bad idea to research this, over time things will change so I wouldn’t over-rely on it. But the way I see it, the web engines need to “trust” your site, and the more easily-searchable, quality content (that people want to click on) you have, the better. Also, I’ve heard many times that other “trustworthy” sites linking to yours is important. For this blog, I have not advertised that much on other sites and the majority of the linking has been organic, meaning coming from kind people who thought this blog’s content was useful enough to tell others about.
An alternative to writing laser-focused posts is to write those that talk in general about a certain topic. Let’s say my blog was about Japanese Religions and I wrote a series of articles on Buddhism. If I did my research and made superb-quality articles, eventually someone would find out these articles and they would probably gradually rise in search engine rankings. But think about how many other articles are there about Japanese Buddhism, including reference sites like Wikipedia. For the average web search, I think people tend to try one of the first few links and, if they are satisfied, not go farther down the list. And it’s going to be pretty hard to get your article near the top. On the other hand, if you manage to write a focused article that makes it near the top on Google with a common set of search keywords, you can get a large number of hits. For example, for one of my articles I wrote a few years ago I managed to get first on Google, and while it is a pretty obscure topic I have gotten almost 10k views since then. These focused articles don’t have to be that long either––this specific post is less than two pages––so you can write many of them and see what sticks. (Unfortunately, certain types of blogs will probably not mesh well with this strategy, and in those cases you can focus more on having high-traffic sites directly link to you as opposed to SEO.)
Another thing I have learned is to not be too concerned about the number of followers I have. By that, I mean that just having a certain number of followers doesn’t necessarily lead to hits, though of course I value all of my WordPress and Twitter followers!
There are many factors to how a follower translates into future page hits: how often that person checks their followed sites, if your articles match their interest, how many other followed sites they have, etc. Especially for a language learning blog, after several years of watching readers come and go I began to get the feeling that some people will just stop studying a language altogether. Perhaps this is because they get frustrated, want a break, get busy, or in some cases maybe even reach their desired level of fluency. So while I think followers are important for the short term, the more time passes, the less I think you’ll see them coming to your blog again.
There are still ways you can use your number of followers to help optimize your blog. When someone unfollows your blog, while you generally don’t get an explicit notification, if you frequently check the number of followers you can figure out when somebody leaves. If you start seeing that happen more often, you might want to think about the types of posts you made recently. Maybe your followers feel disillusioned because they are not seeing the content they expected when they “signed up”. For STF, this is a problem since I have branched out into so a few areas beyond Japanese learning that may be less interesting to beginning students (like translation). In order to keep people happy, I try to do a mix of different article types, never forgetting to write articles focusing on explaining words and grammar, which are my more popular topics (based on blog statistics plus the results of a survey I ran a while back). And while I will try to interject things advertising my books, I try to keep that under control and not annoy readers.
There’s another aspect of this focus on search-engine-driven traffic: likes and comments become less important. The other day, I was reading someone’s blog who had a large number of comments, and thinking that they must have many more readers than my blog does. But then in one of their articles they mentioned their monthly hits, and I realized it was significantly less than I got. While I still would love to get people more actively liking and commenting on my posts (comments especially can turn into interesting discussions and even help inspire new posts), both of those things require a WordPress account, and certainly the number of people on the Internet that do not have such an account is very high. (Correction: a reader pointed out that only email address and name is required, but perhaps some people hesitate to give such information). I think it’s a good goal to try and do things which encourage viewers to comment, but keep in mind it’s only one aspect of a blog’s popularity.
Similarly, because traffic from search engines is so predominant, the number of hits a post gets in the short term isn’t that important. A post that gets 50 hits the first day but doesn’t get much of traffic from search engines over time is not as desirable as a post that gets only 10 hits the first day, but has a small trickle of views from search engines. For example, if a page gets 3 hits a day that translates to over 1000 hits in a year.
It’s clear that getting people to your blog is certainly the most important thing. But the fact that views and unique visitors are completely different numbers means that some people will view one page on your blog and leave, whereas others might click on a link, read another article, and then maybe another after that. If you are seeing these two numbers very close to one another, it can mean that people aren’t motivated to click on any links once they get to your site, though it can also mean that they were disappointed by your site––it somehow wasn’t what they expected. The first way to keep readers on your site longer is to simply link to your own past posts whenever they are relevant to the topic at hand.
I get a good amount of traffic from the menus I’ve configured around my blog: the top buttons and the various menus on the side––popular posts, recent posts, and categories. I have gradually optimized these over time by looking at statistics and also using common sense. For example, I used to have a menu that showed posts from every month, but who really has a burning need to read posts from a certain month? If you want to gradually try adding menus, I would start with “popular posts” first.
Ultimately, I think making a successful blog is a lot like mastering a foreign language––slow and steady wins the race. There’s a simple word in Japanese to describe this persistence: 地道 (jimichi). Like business enterprises, I’m sure the percentage of blogs that don’t last more than a few years is quite high. Simply “sticking around” will go a long way to success.
I hope you learned something from this article, and if you have your own blog were inspired to try something new to increase your traffic. If you don’t have a blog yet, now is always the right time!
(Note: the feature image, a picture of a crowd, is from Pexels.com)