downpour Pssst! Want to have a more popular blog? Add 300 hits a day in just a few days or your money back? Without even mentioning sex?

There is no real secret to blog popularity. It requires a mix of focus, timing, good content and self-promotion. Like any product, your blog has to fill a void, a need, in the blogosphere. When a new topic of great interest arises, you need to be first, and to be seen to be first, to offer either excellent links to sites on that topic (if yours is a ‘linker’ blog), or original insight, research or analysis on that topic (if yours is a ‘thinker’ blog).

Two principles, which I’ve written about before, mitigate against ‘breakout’ blogs and must be overcome to break out. Shirky’s Power Law basically says that, once a community of blogs (or of anything else) has been established, it gets harder and harder for newcomers to “break in”. It’s like trying to start a new daily paper in a saturated market. And Gladwell’s Tipping Point says that, in order for your blog to be ‘contagious’, so that word of it spreads like wildfire or like a virus, you need to have three things going for you:

  1. A memorable theme or style or some other attribute that gives your blog ‘stickiness’, so people remember it and come back regularly after they see it the first time, 
  2. A well-tested and consistent writing process that has been proven to build allegiance and regular readers, and 
  3. An infectious quality that leads readers to recommend your blog to their readers in words that their readers relate to.

I recently did some research of my own, on seven ‘breakout’ blogs that suddenly soared in popularity, to see what their lessons were. Here are their stories:


The Agonist : Sean-Paul’s blog started last year with the purpose of discussing and analyzing political events. When the Iraq War started, however, he chose to become the first to aggregate and report the minutiae of the war: minute-by-minute details of troop movements and other events, with no waiting, no analysis, no repetition, something not even CNN was doing. This kind of one-stop-shopping detail is addictive to war fans, and Sean-Paul was quickly racking up two million hits per day, posting new details on average every ninety seconds. First, unique, and consistent (he was apologizing for taking bathroom breaks). He’s still incredibly prolific, posting dozens of times per day.

The Agora
: Doug Anders’ Salon blog averaged a decent 50-100 hits a day until his blog appeared alphabetically at the top of the blogroll of the above-noted Agonist’s blog. The exhaust alone of appearing at the top of the blogroll of the most active blog on the blogosphere increased Doug’s traffic by an order of magnitude. Doug got noticed and blogrolled by an A-list blogger. Doing so requires self-promotion and tact. You have to write something that the A-lister would want to report to his/her readers (some original research, exceptional compilation of useful links, great synopsis, great find, unique insight etc. on the subject the A-lister normally writes about that he/she doesn’t have the time to do). This involves real work, not just providing a few links or personal commentary, no matter how high their quality. Once you’ve ‘broken out’ you need to sustain that hard work to stay on the A-lister’s blogroll and keep the traffic coming. Alas, the Agora appears to be currently down for technical reasons.

Marprelate Tracts : This Salon blog had started as an interesting but rarely-read political ‘linker’ blog.. But Martin Marprelate was one of the first to offer a substantial and well-researched, well-considered philosophical explanation of a hot topic — the Matrix Reloaded movie. Google did the rest, moving him from an average of 50-100 hits a day to over a thousand a day over the last two weeks, including dozens of daily visits from each of a small hard core of Matrix fanatics.

SARSWatch : Originally done for a lark by Tim Bishop as an adjunct to his political Geodog blog because no one else was writing about the disease, SARSWatch became so popular so fast that Tim gave up Geodog, trademarked the name SARSWatch, and devoted his full time and attention to aggregating news on SARS. Averaging over 6,000 hits per day, this site was the first to pull together in one place all of the news and data on SARS worldwide. Interestingly, he’s started recommending the Agonist’s SARS site as a backup so he can take a break from time to time.

The Gothamist : This is a group blog focused on first-hand reporting of New York City events. New York based A-list bloggers like kottke and anil dash merely mentioned the group’s unique and original photos of city celebs at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in their ‘remainder’ sidebars, and Gothamist jumped to the top of the Technorati Interesting Recent Blogs list.

J-Walk Blog : This quirky blog is by John Walkenbach, a guy who really digs into the Internet to find the weird and wonderful. He rarely reports news, favouring product websites with unusual offerings, and humorous writing. One of his original compositions, a clever spoof of the notorious Nigerian e-mail scam, caught the interest of A-lister slashdot and brought a 10-fold increase in daily hits and an amazing 35 new inbound bloglinks in one day for John’s site.

Whiskey Bar : Blogger and humour writer Billmon did some exhaustive research and came up with a series of chronologies of all the major quotes by the Bush administration on WMD and other lies about Iraq. The political A-listers like daily kos lapped it up, and Billmon’s incoming blogroll has ballooned to over 300 (putting him in the top 100 of all blogs in the world) as a result. Read the adoring comments appended to the chronology link above — this guy now has an audience for his plays, which is what his blog is really about.


If you want to study some more breakout blogs for more ideas, look at Technorati’s Interesting Recent Blogs list each morning (it changes every day). For each breakout blog listed, look at the five largest blogs that have recently linked to each (they’re listed directly underneath them) to see what has caught readers’ attention.

In summary, the top six techniques seem to be:

  1. Do some real research to create new insight on a topic many people care about. This will take a lot of time and hard work.
  2. Be the first to write extensively on some new and important or interesting subject.
  3. Write very clever, incisive, original material on topical subjects.
  4. Do something completely novel that isn’t available on other blogs or in the media.
  5. Ensure you’re noticed by the appropriate A-listers by e-mailing them with a brief message linking to one excellent post you’ve written (I’ve tried this — it works).
  6. Once your blog has broken out, reinforce and refresh it by repeating whichever of the five techniques above that got you there.

Not easy, and, like giving up your beloved poetry-writing to make a living writing a Celebrity Watch column, it may require you to compromise your writing principles somewhat. But if you have talent, patience, technique, timing and something unique and interesting to say, you too can have a breakout blog. Until then, don’t give up your day job. When it happens, you may have to give up your day job to keep up the good work. That’s my excuse for staying below breakout status, and I’m sticking with it.

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  1. Michael says:

    Excellent report!

  2. Doug Alder says:

    Well you forgot to mention that it helps if you are unemployed and have the time to sit there all day addding entries :-)

  3. Jen says:

    Thanks for the mention!Also, The Dynamic Driveler, Gothamist actually is employed, we just work around that small fact.

  4. Susan says:

    But the question is, are you more successful if you post five times a day and have 300 hits a day, or if you post five times a week and have 120 hits a day? The first blog might be clicked on several times a day by the same user. The second might have twice as many actual readers who know to only come by a couple of times a week. Without unique user data, we really don’t know which blogs are most successful.

  5. mrG says:

    Ah, but as with website hits, what is the metric of “success”? It’s not numbers of visitors because that is an easy game. Filling a niche? I don’t know about that, I mean, yes, I have Conrad in my blogroll because he provokes me, amuses me, and gawddammit how does he get those amazing babes to follow him home and then pose in the shower? As a long-time and very happily married man, Conrad is a vicarious pleasure of the life I thought was Hefner’s fantasy, and did I mention he’s also very often amusing and acidically observant of the world around him? So that’s a niche, and it’s a social function.Gizmodo, now there’s a niche, but what is it about Gizmodo that’s transferable to other domains? Was he not once again victim of Ecclesiastes, “time and chance happeneth to them all” or could you apply what he does to selling cars? Since he’s pulling a full-time wage off his Amazon commissions, I’m willing to say his form of niche has a lot more ecological validity than Conrad, and Conrad has already confessed that if the babe who keeps saying no says yes, his service closes shop forever. I think that’s a good choice, btw, but I’ll miss him.As with anything else that someone holds up as the high-score, my next question is always, “Is that a good thing?” What do the warbloggers do now? Did any of them really make a difference? I heard Blair on the radio today once again saying Saddam had WMD, I heard an analyst explain that the UK gov never found the caches of IRA weapons either but everyone in Belfast knew they existed. But does it matter? Celebrity has its perks, but most who are in those shoes tell you it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Just look at Micheal Jackson, and woe be to any of them who get on the wrong side, because audiences are known to be fickle.For myself, I write for myself, I tell my own story, my own way, about me, about my world, for no particular reason. It’s nice when something I say strikes a chord, nicer still when someone touches the tip jar, but I’m not a performance artist here, I’m not a celebrity, I don’t intend to be. Instead, I only intend to make a difference through who I am and what I do.And there’s the advice I give to wouldbe bloggers: Forget popularity. Nothing surpases the perfectly ordinary. Because of the way the web works, whatever you say will make a difference, one way or the other and that is a prospect unparallelled in the history of print: This isn’t about being quoted in the NY Sunday Times or being the darling of some Andy Warhol moment (Weinberger: “Every blogger is famous to 15 people”) it’s about PageRank, it’s about DayPop, it’s about the little tiny pushes that sum up to move mountains, it’s about the re-democratization of the web.What Shirky misses is that the web may be swayed by one comment by Doc or Cory, yes (even though Cory denies it ;) but the world is swayed by the sum total of all of us. The Antz outweigh the Grasshoppers by an amazing factor, and when and where we move, that’s what makes the Docs and Corys happen, not them, not their method or their wit or their writing, we make them by our tiny actions. And the history of stardom right back to Franz Liszt (first international performing star) or even way back to Jesus Christ Superstar (if you don’t mind my blasphemy ;) the history says that we can unmake celebrity in a flash, and for that reason, they need humility, not powerlaw justifications, to stay in our hearts.

  6. mrG says:

    An added thought: Some years ago, I was a technician to the Canadian composer Udo Kasemets for an installation show done in a small gallery in Hamilton Ontario. The turnout was tiny. Udo was a little disappointed and wondered what it would take to get experimental art back into the fore — he later tried taking his message outside the jaded Toronto/Hamilton horseshoe, and that’s maybe also significant, but what I told him that night as we walked along the street outside is that it does not matter if 500 people show up if no one really gets what he’s trying to tell them. If only 12 people show up and they all get their ears awakened to the sounds of the world, then that’s an amazing success for a composer. What counts is the lasting change, the impacts that change other people indelibly, the change that those people make part of themselves and carry on to change other people they meet and so on, and to do that, it’s not about Neilsson Ratings, it’s about communications, it’s about making quality interpersonal connections.

  7. Rob Paterson says:

    Thanks Mr GHaving found a humiliating article on penis size and then reading Dave’s on blogging success _ I was feeling a little low this morning.You have given me hope – seriously I agree. Seeking celebrity as an end is not why I do this and I suspect this is true for many. What I am getting most out of blogging is the community. It has been so wonderful to meet a few whose thoughts are so enjoyable like Dave. I can only cope with a small online community (My own magic number) After all I also have a direct community that I interact with as well.I am finding it more fun to play quite a lot in a few comfy sandboxes than to skim the blog universe.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Susan: There is no answer to the question of how to measure ‘popularity’. In the case of M. Marprelate, unique users isn’t that important — these guys are carrying on almost a continuous, lengthy dialogue all day long on the meaning of the Matrix, and the 45 times that one individual checks in are just as valid, if not more so, than 45 unique Google hits by people who promptly said ‘oops’ and exited the site. I still believe the least imperfect measure is the average of your ranking in hits and your ranking in number of inbound blogs. Using ranking instead of absolute numbers compensates for Shirky’s Power Law. I’m just compiling that data for the last month for Salon blogs now, and will run it up the flagpole tomorrow.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: Sometimes I need to draw a map to follow your train of thought. That’s a compliment — someone told me the same thing this afternoon. I don’t think ‘popularity’ is necessary for everyone, or even most blogggers. It all comes down to why you blog. For many people, just writing for yourself or a small closed circle of friends just isn’t enough. We don’t want to be too popular, since, as I note, that can often lead to either exhaustion trying to keep up (quite a few A-listers are begging for donations to fund servers and other tools they need to keep their small army of readers happy), or to the inevitable huge letdown when the issue that made you popular (e.g. SARS we hope) goes away, and with it, the readers. At the same time, many of us want enough regular readers to make us feel our writing isn’t just verbal masturbation, and to give us a sense (from comments and new referrers) of whether what we’re writing is resonating or not. From that, we can learn (oh, woeful lesson) how we can write ‘better’ (i.e. more commercially successfully), and what subjects have a potential audience. Most of us care enough about writing that we really wouldn’t mind doing it for a living, and the various popularity measures, carefully interpreted, can move us a bit closer to that goal.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary/Rob: On Gary’s second comment, I’m in full agreement, if your blogging objective is community rather than celebrity. One of the things the Raven taught me is the need to stop and think from time to time what your objective is. If community is really your sole objective, you probably don’t even look at the popularity data, and judge ‘success’ solely on the quality and quantity of interactions with your chosen circle. But celebrity is seductive, even addictive, and I think most of us, if we were honest, would really like to be at least a ‘B-lister’ (say, on average 1000 legitimate hits per day, and 150 inbound blogs). My post was aimed at that group. That takes absolutely nothing away from bloggers who blog for other reasons, whom I greatly admire.

  11. Rob Paterson says:

    Ok you got me Dave – celebrity would be nice but I think that it may demand a hell of a commitment. I don’t know how the A listers keep going.I am in the middle of a course right now and the class gets about 50 posts a day from 17 students. I have found that this takes a huge amount of energy as the facilitator has to pay a lot of attention and it is a process where I have to post really great stuff to keep my end up

  12. Steve says:

    It definately helps to make sure your are listed on sites such as Technorati and

  13. I just began my blog after experiencing a life changing event — an unbelievable, financial windfall. With some time on my hands and a desire to chronicle my mindset during this wild time, I decided to attempt a blog. Blogging has become very interesting to me. This post was terrific. Thanks.

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