The problem with blogs

Last Thursday, we launched an official editorial blog on Yahoo.

I reckoned at the time that it was an experimental effort; that it would take time for my editorial colleagues to get the hang of the platform, and also for the audience to discover the blog and its contents — if we did 100,000 page views a month, I’d have reckoned we were off to a decent start.

The numbers we are now seeing are insane: on day one, the counter hit 98,480. On the 5th, the editorial bay here in the Yahoo office obsessed over the counter ticking over like crazy, till it stopped at 1,81,899 page views — a hard act, we all thought, to top. On the 8th, the celebration was for hitting the 2 lakh mark a day — 2,19,274 page views to be exact. Yesterday, the 9th, the counter topped out at 2,62,115.

Here’s the macro picture: in exactly one week [the blog was launched at noon last Thursday], the cumulative page views at the time of writing this is 1,145,370, and counting. To put that in perspective, this blog is now a year old — and the counter currently is at 862,040. That for me is the scary thought — that an official blog on a website did a few lakh more in its first week than this blog has done in a year.

More perspective, this time at a micro level: Though I don’t labor over the posts here for hours [a typical post takes anywhere from 15-30 minutes to write, including finding all the relevant links etc], I do invest some thought in them; I post only when I think I can add something to what exists out there in the public domain. And on a good day, a good post gets anywhere up to 25-30k page views.

Against that, on the 8th I put up a post called Dying, Daily. When I started writing it, I knew what I wanted it to be: against the backdrop of air crashes, I wanted to look at the thousand deaths we die each day without thinking about it; about the pathetic state of our roadways, and about how the daily deaths on our roads would, if they were included in medical stats, qualify as a pandemic.

Turned out, it was a particularly bad day at work — I literally logged out of one conference call so I could log into another; there were people here who I had to meet, a ton of stuff to be done… In between, I tossed off a couple of lines here, a link there, and finally published the damn thing not because I thought I was done, but because I reckoned I’d never really get it done the way I wanted it to be, and a post had to go up. In other words, if that post was on this blog, I never would have published it that day.

Guess what, though — that post alone has, at the time of writing this, logged 1,58,035 page views. Crazy? You don’t know the half of it. And the only reason for it is its placement, for the better part of the day, on our top carousel.

All of this makes you think: increasingly, the Indian blog ecosystem is being filled with high quality bloggers. Some four years back, even, there were maybe three, four Indian bloggers I routinely followed: Amit Varma, Jai Arjun Singh, Great Bong, Nilanjana Roy… Today, that number tops 30, and I keep finding more good blogs to follow almost every other month.

The bloggers on my reader are all talented writers — some of them outstandingly so. It’s a natural process of selection — the less time you have for such indulgences, the more rigorous you are about whom to follow, so over time, such lists get really refined. While I don’t have a sense of the kind of numbers the bloggers on my list are doing for individual posts, I’m fairly certain it is nowhere close to what ‘Dying, Daily‘ — a post any of them would condemn as hastily assembled, almost amateurish — has done in just over 24 hours of air time.

That is the problem with blogging, right there: on the one hand, bloggers need their own space, in order to break free of the constraints of conventional media — the reason they take to blogging in the first place. But then, it comes at a price — their content, though more often than not of a quality consistently higher than what the MSM offers, does not enjoy the high visibility writers of far less ability routinely enjoy in our newspapers and websites.

It’s a problem — and, from a purely selfish, Yahoo-centric point of view, an opportunity. I know that the organization has been, of late, doing some thinking along these lines; trying to find a way to guarantee high quality writers the independence they crave while simultaneously enabling their work to reach the far larger audience they deserve. Hence, for instance, the recent acquisition of Associated Content, in the wake of which I noticed a post on TechCrunch that posed a question:

And that is the part that has people scratching their heads. Yahoo is clearly out of the search business through its approved deal with Microsoft. What is left are its owned-and-operated Yahoo sites and its ad network. So far, Yahoo has skewed towards the quality end of the spectrum in terms of online content. It is a brand other brands can trust. But Associated Content operated in another realm, that of non-premium content and related display advertising. It is closer to the performance-marketing end of the scale. More content on its site means more ads, but Yahoo does best on its home page and main portal pages where quality content is expected by consumers and advertisers alike.

I donno — who said a crowd-sourcing platform cannot have quality control? That the content served up through such a platform cannot be as compelling as anything in the mainstream space?

It’s going to take a while before all the pieces are in place, and the AC platform rolls onto Yahoo India — but frankly, I can’t wait. Meanwhile, my mind keeps nibbling at the enormous disconnect between quality and visibility in the blog space, and trying to figure out ways to bridge that gap to the mutual benefit of both. Hopefully, ideas will come — meanwhile, I’d be really interested in any thoughts you have on the subject, models I can learn from etc. Share.

Oh and — at a personal level, swamped with stuff, hence the radio silence on here. Regular service resumes Monday, unless something happens in between that merits immediate attention.

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23 thoughts on “The problem with blogs

  1. It is great to see you shake things up a bit and think up new ways to give quality writers a good platform – and to bring quality writing to more readers too! I like what you said about quality control on the comments, because that is definitely one of the key differences between a blog like this and many of the big blogging sites where I rarely bother to read comments any more (and often regret straying down to comments!).

    While I appreciate many of the links you provide and am glad to find new bloggers through them, I wonder about the breadth of subject matter sometimes. In particular, I wonder what your views are of the quality of science blogging in the Indian blogosphere nowadays. What is your sense of either the quality of writing, or the market of readership for the same? And do your plans extend to include science writing in the Yahoo blogs? I ask, of course, as a (very) small-readership science blogger myself, and have seen the patterns you describe in this segment of blog writing as well. Many quality science bloggers in the US, but most don’t get even a small fraction of the readership of those on sites like ScienceBlogs.

    Count me among your readers who came here looking for a bit of cricket coverage first, but stayed because of the whole smorgasboard you offer, including the high quality conversation in the comments!

  2. IMO, the problem with Indian Roads is corruption – starting from licensing to traffic violations you can get away easily with money. The ‘road dynamics’ will depend on the quality of the people we put on the roads. Dont you think?

    • I’m not on board with the notion that responsibility can be pinned to any one thing, and therefore the solution is really dependent on that same thing. For instance, eradicate corruption, and we will still continue to die. Or repair/renovate all roads, and that won’t end the deaths either. There are at least a dozen compelling reasons why our roads are unsafe — some of them relate to us as individuals [forget idiot drivers, have you seen adults dart down the middle of the road at peak hour, trying to cross where they are not supposed to?]; some relate to infrastructure; some to laws and their enforcement; some even have to do with vehicular quality control. If we really want to do something to reverse the trend, it takes an organized effort — and I just don’t see the institutional and/or individual will to do that. The reason I even thought of posting about road deaths is because I found that statistic compelling: if one person died every eight minutes due to any other cause, there would be uproar across the nation; our best labs would be looking for solutions, and a whole heap of governmental and private energy would go to try and solve the problem. But that is the number dying, never mind those maimed in accidents — and we neither notice, nor think it is worth our while to do something about it. IMHO, that is stupid, short-sighted.

  3. Prem,
    I have been following you since 2002.Purely because i liked your views on cricket ( i’m talking about days play and about some of players).
    NOW everyday i come here but mostly find stuff either on blogging (no offence but sometimes it looks like you are forcing us to follow Amit Varma). you know what I mean.
    I wish you come here just to arite about game (present,past,future).
    As indian cricket fan I have absolutely no interest also in who responsible for latest mess at BCCI; we know there 90% people related to that body who got personnel interests above game.
    I know your you have new challenges and you do best to provide lot of info here..thanks a lot.
    regards,
    maher,canada

    • I don’t want to comment on behalf of Prem, but i disagree. I have followed Prem since early 2000s, just like you and always wanted to hear him on variety of topics not just cricket. I think he has a lot to offer, way beyond cricket and this blog has been a great platform for Prem followers like me. Yes, at times the focus is on topics, not of interest to me, but that’s just the nature of the blog, right? If we only want to read someone on cricket, we would read columns, not his blog, I think.

      • i guess you have not understoo wht i mean. i dont have problem with blog. i have list of certain ppl that i like to read.prem figures on that. BUT these i dont get to read Prem panicker (not just about cricket).
        In short sometime i prefer him than ppl he suggest.
        regarding other knowledge issues, i gained lot reading him through years infact i have not checked rediff may since last couple of years, because only reason gpoin there was PP.

        • About not particularly caring for some people I recommend, that is okay too, no? I read Amit’s blog whenever he updates. Ditto for Jai and Nila and Great Bong and some two dozen others on my list. You might not like all of them, or some of them, but might like others who I don’t care for. The great thing about the net is, we each get to follow our personal interests — so why worry about it?

    • First up, mate, no one forces you to click any link that I post. Secondly, it is probable that you might want me to write about cricket alone. There are others who have been asking me to do another Mahabharat type thing. And still others who like the fun stuff I post, or the bits I write about writing. The thing is, I cannot/should not be writing for a particular reader or readership; if I or in fact anyone wants to develop and use a strong voice, that can happen only when you write about what you want to. Which is what I try to do.

  4. JII :
    Let me try to provoke you:-). Why were the rediff standards different?

    Because those standards were not defined by editorial, but by another department. We had no say in the thing. Here, I get to decide — both on this blog, and on Yahoo. And my personal call always will be, quality trumps quantity. At Yahoo, our first week we decided to cut out overt rubbish — for every comment you see, at least two are getting knocked out. As we go along, we will tighten standards even further.

    • Agreed. Quality trumps quantity any day. On this blog, I read each and every comment because of the quality. I do read the comments on rediff also once in a while. That’s when I don’t have anything better in my life to do.

  5. i hope you read all our comments. I come back here again and again for both -the article and the comments that give a different perspective. Also i feel happy to share my comments for whatever they are worth with others here.
    keep up the good work.

    • As you can see, I read. And where necessary/required, I respond 🙂 I agree, though — the reason I keep the blogging going though my workload has exploded after joining Yahoo is because I really love the comments, the debates that go on here. Not always possible to keep monitoring, but at least once a day I make sure to check.

  6. Pay the search engines like BP or game them to get included in aggregated stories – and try not getting caught. Maybe you can try it with Bing on yahoo first. Btw if u r successful, How are you planning to tackle the exp increase in comments?

    • On this blog, do you mean? I’m not worried about the traffic — what I am trying to do is getting really good writing onto the Yahoo blog. As for comments on this blog, again not too worried — it’s standard-setting, mostly. I used to get tons of crap; in the early days, I ruthlessly deleted anything not to the point, or one liners, stuff like that. Over time, I notice that the comments here have evolved, and there is considerable, and good, topical discussion. Harder to do when the volume multiplies, but not impossible I’d think. You have no idea the number of comments we are currently deleting from the Yahoo blogs. And we’ll tighten standards as we go along.

      • if you can manage the comments then that is great. Because one of the reasons we keep coming back to this blog is not just the blog quality but also comment quality.

        As somebody said, earlier, there is daylight between the quality of the comments here and rest of the sites like Rediff

        • Oh, you can do that. You need merely to set a standard, ignore any potential loss of page views, and hold that line. For now on Yahoo, we only delete repetitive comments, and those posted in regional languages, also obscene stuff. Once the blog catches on, we intend to get far more particular — my preference is for 20 good comments over 2000 mediocre ones, any day.

  7. The parts in this piece about posts on blogs versus commercial websites struck a chord and how! I’ve been working for cricbuzz for 14 months now, and in that time have posted lots of articles for them. (i had my blog up [which was very irregularly updated] much before that though). Without exception, i’ve found every post on cricbuzz gets a whole lot of hits more than any post on my blog. i’ve even cross-posted some posts on both the blog and on the site, and the numbers are vastly skewed.
    having seen this for more than a year, im kind of resigned to it. a commercial website will generate many more hits than a blog…

    • Exactly — but what if there was a way to surface high quality blogs on a high traffic site?

      For instance — what if you struck deals with bloggers, where they contributed posts for us, on whatever timeline suited them, and the payoff was that they got links back to other blog posts?

      I donno — out there, there is tons of posts of incredibly good quality which, if harnessed, adds exponentially to the value of a site like ours. Just have to figure out the right mechanism, I guess

      • Prem, I agree that model will be win-win and almost sure to work. All that most bloggers want is to be read and not money and with Yahoo hosting/linking, they get it. And Yahoo also gets more traffic making it a win-win proposition.

        Marees, most bloggers will prefer more readers and more comments than few/no readers and few comments. Lots of comments, IMO, is a nice problem to have.

          • prem:

            have you ever been to desi pundit? or desi critics?

            one thing you could do is put together an editorial team which is very very good at critiquing good writing. then have readers submit what they think are good blog posts from around the blogosphere. your team can then sift through the posts (shortlisting them along the way) to find the best ones and publish them (after asking the writers for permission to do so, of course) while providing a link back to the corresponding blogs.

            here is a perennial favourite of mine who, alas, blogs no more as she has been absorbed by corporate india.

            another suggestion i have, which i have shared with others, is to have publish ‘blog books’ where you assemble books out of the best blog posts out there. i bet books like these would be bestsellers. think of the population in india (and elsewhere) that is either not internet savvy or does not have an adequate internet speed or time to sift through blogs on a routine basis. i even asked a couple of my favourite bloggers to self-publish their posts via lulu, though i doubt any of them followed through.

            if you are interested, i will be glad to share my favourite bloggers. we could even take this discussion offline if you like.

            – s.b.

          • I guess the trick would be to ensure you land up with bloggers who are capable of more than one-two quality posts. I think a lot of bloggers/writers are capable of that, but the challenge is to sustain it.

            I was part of IEB (Indian Economy Blog), which was really well run by Prashant Kothari and others, but with everyone busy, the posting frequency wasn’t that high. A lot of the traffic we generated, didnt come back once they didnt see updates all that often.

            Your model sort of works around that with a large number of contributors, but more importantly,with some journalists in the mix, for whom this is a full-time job. Even then though, it could be difficult.

            Anyhow, good luck. Sounds like a super venture. Perhaps there could a tie-up with Facebook, to get it in the daily feed. Don’t think FB and Yahoo are competitors:)

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