This is the third post in a series of guest posts by Emily Bowles on social media and teaching. You can read the first one on Twitter in the classroom here, and the second one on using rotation curation Twitter accounts here.
During my time working for a social media/digital marketing agency, I contributed to a wide variety of blogs and websites for companies ranging from hospitality services to business technology providers. What I found surprising when starting out was that although the actual content was very different, the format was largely the same – this is basically why social media agencies exist.
The same kinds of rules can be applied to almost any blog, and can help make them more appealing to readers – and, specifically, more appealing to search engine algorithms. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is about making sure your website or blog turns up on the first page of results when someone searches for connected keywords in a site like Google. Google updates and changes its algorithm in order to prevent people from manipulating the system, so marketers have to keep on top of the changes. There’s a lot of trial and error, and there’s a whole industry built around SEO.
Although academic blogging feels like something different – and I’m not suggesting that an academic or teaching blog should be run like a business – there’s a lot that can be learned from applying some basic SEO techniques to academic or educational blogs, and using them can help you reach a wider audience and become a better blogger. Here are ten tips to help your blog posts rank higher (these tips aren’t based on any specific algorithm, but have been shown to work):
1. Link to other blogs and reputable websites
Ideally for about every one hundred words of blog post, you should have a link. This might sound high, but in an 800-word post that would be eight links; visually it’s not obtrusive at all, and it provides your reader with further reading. Link to reviews of books you’re discussing, or other blog posts that comment on your topic – what this does is connect you to reputable sites. Ideally, you would share their content and in turn they would promote you; obviously, linking to a review in the Times Higher Education probably won’t lead to them promoting your blog, but other blogs in your field might reciprocate. You can look up the page rank of different websites for free here.
Extra tip: Set new links to open in a new window, so that you’re not sending people away from your own site and giving yourself a high bounce rate (more on this in point 5).
2. Start a conversation
Comments are the holy grail of blogging. They prove to Google that your site is valuable to the people who go on it and that it deserves a high page rank. In order to encourage comments, try to include discussion points in your posts – open-ended questions, calls for responses, etc. In business, posts often end in a Call To Action (CTA) that encourages readers to buy their product or sign up to their service. You might want to instead point readers to other relevant blog posts you’ve written, or ask them to subscribe to your blog. When you do get comments, respond to them! Thank people for taking the time to comment, and keep the conversation going.
Extra tip: Social media is another great way to get the conversation going (see point 7). Without it, I wouldn’t have this fantastically ridiculous picture of Charles Dickens boxing George Henry Lewes to accompany my blog post on (more metaphorical) ‘Dickens bashing’.
3. Include images and videos
Google likes multimedia content, it’s as simple as that. Not only does a post with well-selected images look better, it ranks better. Ideally, each post should have an image and a video. This isn’t always possible and can be a bit contrived, but think of interesting ways of including extra content.
Extra tip: Don’t forget to check that you are legally allowed to use the images you find – you don’t want to be slapped with a £1000 copyright fee. Wikimedia Commons has a whole host of images you can use for free, although you should still attribute the images you use.
4. Tag correctly
This applies to blog posts themselves, but also images and media within posts. Keywords are the way that Google and other search engines direct people to your content. WordPress and other pre-built blog sites include easy tagging – make sure you use this function and think about the words you use. It is important that you include around eight to ten keywords per post, and that these are specific and not misleading. Make sure when you use a keyword in several posts that it’s spelt the same, so that your site is becoming an authority on that topic. Tagging images with the correct metadata enables them to show up in image search engines, adding another way for people to find your site. Image tags should be a literal description of what the image is – think about the words you use to find images yourself.
5. Aim for a low bounce rate
‘Bounce rate’ refers to the length of time people spend going through your pages before clicking away. A high bounce rate (someone coming to your site and clicking away quickly) suggests to Google that you’ve misled them and that your site isn’t giving readers what you say you will (think of spam pages that literally copy and paste rows of keywords). It’s difficult to ensure a low bounce rate, but there are a few things you can do. Firstly, make sure your keywords are accurate (as above). Secondly, think about who your audience is. If you’re blogging about Victorian life, tagging ‘Taylor Swift’ because you make one jokey pop culture reference is misleading: any Swifties coming to your page are going to leave pretty quickly.
6. Emphasise your keywords
This is tied in with the importance of tagging: keywords should appear regularly in your posts and the focal keyword(s) should definitely be in your title. This might sound very boring – especially for arts and humanities bloggers who have been trained to use the ‘ambiguous quote: vague explanation’ style of title – but it needs to be spelled out if you want people to find it. You should also ensure the main keyword pops up regularly in your content, just to prove to Google that you’re actually writing about what you say you are.
7. Use social media to publicise your posts
A blog on its own is a gramophone playing to an empty room. It’s almost impossible to get an audience for a blog without promoting it, and the easiest way of doing that is via social media. Share your content with Twitter followers, Facebook friends, maybe even on academia.edu or LinkedIn’s new posting function. Consider adding your blog to your email signature.
8. Get to the point
A blog post is not a journal article or an essay. One of the most likely causes of a high bounce rate is that you’ve simply written too much and the reader loses interest. The average person spends around three minutes on a blog page, and can read around 200 words per minute. If your post is several thousand words long, it probably isn’t going to get read. Academic audiences might stick it out longer than the average, but this comes down to who you want your audience to be. Are you using your blog as a kind of public engagement, which means you’re trying to appeal to everyday readers? Or do you want it to be read only by experts in your field? Blogging is a skill, and it’s not the same skill as other kinds of writing. Learn how to engage your audience more quickly. This isn’t to say that every post should be short and snappy, but try to make longer posts the exception rather than the rule.
9. Link to current affairs
The media has been lighting up with new historical finds recently – perfect for historians who blog. One of my favourite online articles asks whether or not Charles Dickens would have voted for Tony Blair – actually, it’s a review of a book, but this is a nice way into the topic. Find ways to tie your work in with current affairs, TV programmes, and other topics of public interest. It’s good practice for public engagement and impact, too.
10. Blog regularly
The cardinal sin of blogging is to set up a blog, write voraciously for a couple of weeks, and then let it die. This doesn’t do the blogger any credit; anyone who looks at it a year from now will see that you were very committed for two weeks in August 2015, and then never returned to it. Ideally, for SEO purposes, you should be blogging just about every day. That’s certainly never been feasible for me, so I try to post something about once a month (which is very low, and which I don’t always meet). If you have a spurt of enthusiasm, that’s great! Schedule the posts to go out over a period of time so that your content is regular – this is very easy to do with any WordPress site. You can also backdate posts if you’re starting a new blog and want it to look ‘lived in’.
Websites like Google Analytics, or WordPress plug-ins like Yoast, make it very easy to keep on top of basic SEO. Do you find it useful to implement ‘business’ blog tips on your academic or teaching blog? Do you use analytics with your students? For me, bringing social media tips that I’ve gained from working for businesses to academia is a delicate balance, and it’s important not to lose the individuality and personality of your own blog. Should social media skills have a more formal role in HE teaching?
Emily is a PhD candidate at the University of York, working on changing representations of Charles Dickens 1857-1939. You can find her on academia.edu and on Twitter @EmilyBowles_. She also blogs as the Nineteenth Centuryist.