|The best way...to start a blog|
Drew Curtis's sense of humor runs from the juvenile to the absurd. And like a lot of people these days, he indulged it for several years by cobbling together oddball news stories he found online and e-mailing them to friends. He certainly didn't expect to make money from it.
By 1999, worried that his frequent e-mails might annoy more than they amuse, the now 30-year-old from Lexington, Ky., instead poured his daily collection of the bizarre into one of a new but burgeoning class of sites called a Web log. He named it Fark.com (www.fark.com), for reasons that can't be printed here.
Apparently Mr. Curtis's humor amused people more than it annoyed them, because today, Fark.com is one of the most viewed Web logs, or blogs, on the Internet, according to statistics from the blog-tracking Web site Daypop.com (www.daypop.com). And it even turns a profit through advertising and memberships, which give readers greater access to the site's links. Fark.com is so popular that sometimes the sheer number of viewers who click on those links crashes those Web sites. Mr. Curtis's Fark.com is proof that an ordinary Joe can have a successful Web log.
Five million visitors a day follow his links to stories about people's beer-fueled exploits, dubious or frivolous scientific research (such as a real study that found obese people eat more), and politicians with their own particular version of foot-and-mouth disease. Fark.com also offers photo-alteration contests where Mr. Curtis posts a photo and site members compete to come up with the funniest PhotoShop manipulation of it.
Blogging to the World
Around since the late 1990s, blogs these days number in the thousands, perhaps millions, though estimates vary widely. The blogs range from intimate personal diaries to screeds about the day's headlines to the musings of bored cubicle-dwellers.
A slew of Web-logging tools make starting one easier than ever. With just $20 or less a month and a desire to share their creative side with the world, even the most technophobic of Internet neophytes can have a new Web log up and running within an hour. A few -- like Mr. Curtis -- even have discovered ways to make their high viewership pay off.
But as Mr. Curtis and other popular bloggers can attest, drawing an audience for your new Web log takes constant attention and more than a little elbow grease. Because it's so easy to start one, Web logs are proliferating at an even greater rate than before, making it even harder for a new Web log to compete against longtime bloggers.
It's a case of "the rich become richer," says Cameron Marlow, a research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and the creator of Blogdex.net, which measures Web-log traffic. "Highly popular blogs become even more popular by the fact that people are already following them. But every year, it's harder for new blogs to draw readers."
Still, it can be done, say successful Web loggers. Knowledge of the topic at hand is key. Having new material every day will keep readers coming back. And, as in high school and the business world, popularity results from meeting new people, networking and making the right friends.
To start, you have to find the right tool for the job. For the beginner, many services can be had free of charge, and without much need of computer knowledge. For instance, Blogger.com (www.blogger.com), owned by the search-engine company Google, provides one of the most popular bare-bones systems, with an easy-to-use interface. Diaryland.com (www.diaryland.com) offers easy setup. And LiveJournal.com (www.livejournal.com) lets you easily link your Web log to friends' logs and add your log to a list the site maintains of other Web loggers with common interests. All of these are free of charge.
But you get what you pay for. The free services tend to look the same, and don't have the ability to offer photos and graphics. What's more, some insert their own pesky ads or logos that are difficult to remove. Any customization requires knowing how to write a Web page in hypertext markup language, or HTML. And while part of the fun of Web logging is letting friends add content to the site, most of the free services allow only one user to update offerings.
If you're looking for a little more oomph in your Web logs, there are two new products just for you.
The 25 million Americans who reach the Web through America Online have access to AOL Journal, which comes free of charge. AOL Journal offers the same rounded corners, pastel colors and easy interface of AOL's Internet software. The initial setup menu lets a new user enter the e-mail addresses of friends and family, who will then automatically receive e-mails announcing the Web log's creation. Users can pick among one-, two- and three-column templates for their page and add places for linking to favorite Web sites and previous entries. If you're on the run, AOL Journal lets members add postings from their cellphones, and if you're looking to add audio to your log, for an extra monthly fee you can call a toll-free number and leave a voice message on the Web log in the form of a compressed audio file.
AOL Journal's features have been tightly integrated with AOL's other products. Members can add photos from their online AOL photo galleries to their Web log entries, for example. But that integration is a drawback, too. Like other blogging packages, AOL Journal allows visitors to leave their comments, but only AOL members will be able to so. AOL says that gives users increased ability to block rude or obnoxious comments.
There are just a few layout and color options available in AOL Journal. That could change, says Rick Robinson, AOL's vice president, community products. "We're not putting out products, calling it a wrap and going on to the next thing," says Mr. Robinson. "We're going to be putting things out and constantly improving them." One possible update would add the ability to accommodate multiple users. Currently, AOL Journal lets only one user write and update entries.
Another product, TypePad, charges for its services but offers a lot of features. For those who want to shape every detail of their Web logs without knowing a thing about programming, TypePad allows users to change colors, typefaces and font sizes for just about every part of the Web log through easy click-through menus. It "pings" sites that track Web logs, telling the world you've added a new entry. As for photos, TypePad lets users create photo galleries and can post photos from cellphones. Users can also post cover art from the CDs and books they're currently listening to or reading.
TypePad's parent is Six Apart Ltd., a San Mateo, Calif., start-up that until this summer was based in the spare bedroom of co-founders and spouses Mena and Ben Trott. The Trotts wanted a product that was customizable but didn't require a knowledge of the intricate workings of the Internet.
For the more ambitious Web logger, several free software products, like Movable Type (www.movabletype.org), pMachine (www.pmachine.com) or Greymatter (noahgrey.com/greysoft) offer a great degree of customization. Serious bloggers use them to add graphics and photos and run their sites from their own URLs, like www.(your name here).com. The other services mostly host Web logs under variants of their brand name, like (your name).Diaryland.com. But their requirements are hefty. Users must purchase computer server space from a Web-hosting service and install it themselves. An attentive or lucky user could install the system in under an hour, but a novice user could quickly get bogged down in a quagmire of frighteningly obscure technology acronyms like PHP and mySQL.
Getting More Eyeballs
Jupitermedia Corp., Darien, Conn., estimates that only 4% of people online ever look at a Web log, but most of those who do have annual household income of at least $60,000. So how do you get the attention of that 4%?
One method is to specialize. Nick Denton, president of Gawker Media, a New York online-publishing concern, says successful blogs "attack niches too small for print media to cover on a daily basis. By addressing that niche, it's much easier to develop a passionate audience."
Mr. Denton runs a site, Gizmodo.com, that reviews technology gear. The site has a free-lance writer who weighs in on technology news and the merits of new products. Gizmodo (www.gizmodo.com) gets compensation when readers click the ads that appear with the reviews. For instance, if a laptop is reviewed, ads for laptops pop up; same thing for television sets and other electronics. Mr. Denton won't disclose what Gawker makes from Gizmodo, but says it's profitable. He says a tight focus on tech products keeps readers returning.
Matt Haughey goes one further in the electronics arena. Mr. Haughey, who runs the Web log MetaFilter.com (www.metafilter.com), recently started a new one, PVRBlog (PVR.Blogs.com), that specializes in TiVo products and tricks such as linking your TiVo to a wireless computer connection, which lets you use your computer to program your TiVo or use your TV to listen to music or look at photos on your computer. He decided to add pay-per-click text ads from Google to TiVo and related products. Visiting TiVo enthusiasts clicked on the ads. Although only 1% to 2% of his visitors actually clicked on an ad, Mr. Haughey's overall traffic was great enough that he made $400 in revenue in his first two weeks.
In addition to specialization, Mr. Haughey found popularity matters. Popular bloggers start out by reading other logs, talking with those authors and linking to them. The other Web loggers reciprocate. Enough popular buzz might then land a Web logger a link on an even more popular site, generating more hits.
Mr. Haughey linked PVRBlog to MetaFilter, a Web log that draws roughly three million page views a month. Friends he had made in his years of Web logging added even more traffic. PVRBlog gets about a thousand daily page views now. "If Joe Schmo built a TiVo blog, nobody would hear about it," he says. "So I lucked out."
Mr. Marlow, of MIT, compares the Web log social circle to high school: More friends leads to a more prominent profile. "It's easy to start getting to know the unpopular kids," he says. "Then, if you're a good enough writer, you get into the A list. In blogging, everyone starts out as a freshman."
Keeping It Fresh
Another key to drawing readers is to constantly post new entries. Mr. Curtis, the owner of Fark.com, handles most of the posts to his site himself. But Fark.com's readers count on the site to be updated through the day and into the night. Mr. Curtis uses software he designed himself to queue up headlines to post automatically at all hours.
Mr. Curtis professes to not knowing exactly why Fark.com has become a hot Web log, but it owes a part of its success to fostering a community. About 100,000 of his readers have signed up for memberships to post on the site's public forums, and they keep him supplied with story ideas and exult when Mr. Curtis accepts one. Mr. Curtis holds get-togethers at bars when he travels, as a way to meet readers, and he tries to respond to all e-mail. He fears offending readers' sensibilities so much that he says he has turned away $100,000 in offers to host pop-up ads.
Despite its silliness -- one recent Fark.com headline he wrote said, "If New Hampshire eliminates toll booths, what will drivers do with the lobsters and bullets they throw in the baskets?" -- Mr. Curtis takes running Fark.com seriously. He pays an attorney $1,000 a month to look over Fark's routine contract and advertising paperwork. Then there are the expenses for accounting, and taxes. He still manages to have fun -- on Thursdays, at a local TGI Friday's, the beer's on him for Fark.com's friends. But Mr. Curtis knows that even fun has a price, and he figures the beer tab into his business calculations. "If it was hurting the company, I wouldn't do it."