Blog posts: inferior quality sells

9 July 2007

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox emails are good in that they often come up with antidotes to received Web 2.0 wisdom. But the latest one, telling people that blogging is bad for Internet exposure, looks a bit off-target.

Trust me, I'd love to be able to agree with Nielsen's central point: that rapid-fire blogging is inferior to properly researched articles. But I'm afraid he is basing his analysis on the world he wants to live in, not the world he actually occupies. There is plenty of evidence that quickly tossed-off blog posts are only too effective. In fact, the quicker and more poorly researched the better in many cases, just as long as you are already heading towards the steep end of the power law that dominates blog statistics. How many of the sites at the top end of the Technorati stats spend a lot of time on each post? They post a lot each day, but there just isn't time to research them.

Nielsen's view is this:

Even average content undermines your brand. Don't contribute to information pollution by posting material that isn't above the average of other people's writings.

But if you tell people about a great theory in a forest full of nothing but squirrels, does that theory exist? Demonstrating world-class expertise is one thing; letting the world know you are there is another. In Ambient Findability, Peter Morville cited Mooers' Law (as opposed to Moore's Law). Calvin Mooers pointed out that having information can be more troublesome to people than not having it, if the effort to obtain and understand outweighed the apparent benefit of ignorance.

Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless...Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it.

While search engines continue to favour digital-diarrhoea diatribes (short ones, mind) that act as link-bait, I'd hesitate counselling people to not blog in that way if they want to get noticed. It's something that newspaper columnists have known for years. Being right is all very well, but it's not a lot of use when people actually prefer to read stuff that gets them riled up. From the laughably named "Voice of Reason" columns of Woodrow Wyatt through Richard Littlejohn to Little Green Footballs, the same techniques are in action. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is.

And, for people who don't necessarily foam at the mouth at life's injustices and just want to talk product, I'm afraid Nielsen has it back asswards. He argued:

Blogs are also fine for websites that sell cheap products. On these sites, visitors can often be easily converted and the main challenge is to raise awareness. For example, a site that sells pistachio nuts should post as much content about pistachios as possible in the hope of attracting quick hits by people searching for that information. Some percentage of these visitors will buy the nuts while visiting the site.

Now, I've seen a blog about hamburgers. But pistachio nuts? From people selling pistachio nuts? The only blogs I've seen in that pile 'em high, sell 'em quick market have been fake blogs. Not terribly successful.

Where blogs have taken off is in those areas where more in-depth articles would seem to be more sensible: technology development. Microsoft's sponsorship of internally generated blogs has been remarkably successful. Forget about Robert Scoble. Take a look at the developer blogs, such as The Old New Thing written by Raymond Chen. Here, developers of software that runs on Windows can get a look inside the thinking that went into the many, many function calls that make up the arcane structure of the world's top-selling operating system.

Now, you can argue that blogs like Chen's are popular because of the piss poor quality of Microsoft's official documentation - having Chen tell people not to use a certain function call rather than putting it in the manuals does seem perverse as the Register has pointed out. Then again, searching for ways to deal with a coding problem is easier with Google than it is with MSDN. So, for a technical audience, blogging can and does work, although it's success has yet to be replicated in many of the non-software technologies.

One day, search engines will stop using links as their primary means of determining relevance. Until that day, blogging will continue to rank highly in search results. And writing short posts around a subject can attract regular readers. How many you want to attract depends on how often you want to risk falling flat on your face with an off-target post.

It took 20 minutes to write this. Five minutes of that I spent looking for Morville's book on the shelves. I didn't bother looking at Chen's blog, so the links will get added later. Sad, isn't it?