By Neil Patel
When I started my marketing career, I had the privilege of working with 20 of the top 100 blogs, according to Technorati. My job was to help them grow their traffic… and most would say I was widely successful at it.
For example, I was able to grow TechCrunch’s traffic by 30%, and I was able to grow Gawker Media’s traffic by an extra 5 million visitors a month.
Although what I did may seem impressive… it really isn’t. All I did was tweak a few on-page elements, leverage social media and cross-link to grow my clients’ search engine traffic.
What was impressive is the fact that some of these bloggers took their sites from nothing to upwards of 100,000,000 pageviews a month. Over the years, I had the privilege to watch, study and learn from their strategies.
Here’s what I learned from them:
Timing is everything
Almost every single one of these blogs became popular because they got good at breaking news. And not just any news… but mainstream news. These sites went after mainstream news because more people searched for it, which meant the potential traffic opportunity was greater.
The way these blogs found mainstream news was by following sites like Google Trends. Trends lists all of the hot topics, and if you happen to blog on one of those topics, you are more likely to get traffic.
One site that leveraged this strategy in the past was Mahalo. They built up a lot of their traffic when they started out by writing about everything mentioned on Google Trends.
They don’t leverage this strategy as frequently anymore; hence, you see the drop in traffic when you look at the graph. But as you can notice, it was very effective before.
Quantity over quality
I myself prefer writing high quality posts instead of writing large quantities of content, but that strategy doesn’t work well if you are trying to hit 5 or even 10 million unique visitors a month.
All of the 20 blogs I worked with focused on quantity first and then quality. They made sure crap wasn’t thrown onto their blogs, but they had quantity goals… such as posting 4 blog posts a day.
When I had access to all of their analytics stats, I saw there was a direct correlation between how many posts they released a day and how much traffic they received. The blogs that wrote more content tended to be the most popular.
It wasn’t because of social media. It was because of Google. The sites that published over 4 pieces of content a day typically received 55% or more of their traffic from search engines.
If you look at the graph above, you’ll notice two lines. The first one shows general traffic growth of their core user base at 8% each month as content is continually published each week.
The second line represents hit content pieces that caused traffic spikes. Because the blog published content so frequently, the chances of hitting these traffic spikes increased, which helped take their growth rate from 8% to 10%.
Your influence affects your blogs popularity
Most blog owners who have popular blogs are well networked. Sure, the blog helped grow their network, but even before they had the blog, they were still pretty well connected.
These connections helped them break stories and get more social media traffic. From getting their friends to tweet stuff to having them share it on Facebook, the blog owners leveraged their connections to get as much traffic as possible.
If you want to create a popular blog, you need to work on your networking. The more influential people you get to know, the more social traffic you will generate.
Hire influential writers
None of the blogs I worked with were “one-man” shows. It is simply impossible to be that popular with just one writer. There is no way one person can write 10 or even 4 quality blog posts a day.
So, you will have to staff writers to produce more content. When hiring writers, don’t just evaluate their writing ability, but look at how influential they are.
Bigger blogs love hiring people who are well-known. When I started my first blog, Pronet Advertising, I hired MG Siegler because he was a top Digg user, which helped me generate more traffic.
TechCrunch later hired MG as well, and it didn’t hurt that he had a ton of social clout as it can be leveraged to drive traffic. For this reason, he is also one of the more popular tech bloggers on the web.
Follow the data, not your gut
It’s rare that blogs get popular accidentally or by luck. In most cases, the big blogs are using data to figure out how they can grow their traffic.
One of the main metrics these blogs look at is author stats. They analyze the average traffic, number of comments and social shares per post for each author.
By breaking it down from an author level, they can see which writers drive the most traffic. And then they use averages to see which authors drive the most traffic per post. This is important because some will write less than others, and the ones that have a higher traffic-per-post ratio are the ones you want to encourage to write more frequently.
This also helps them determine which writers they should fire. The last thing you want to do is pay a writer who can’t generate traffic.
It’s all about the headline
Some editors spend as much time editing as they do helping massage the headline so it hits hard. Without a good headline, your content won’t be read, which is why the editors are so picky on how posts are titled.
If you want to get to mass scale, you should hire a good editor who focuses on correcting other people’s posts and ensures that the headlines that are being used on the blog appeal to both users and search engines.
This isn’t an easy skill to acquire or train someone on; instead, you need to look for editors who are creative. It’s extremely hard to teach someone to be creative, so make sure you hire someone who knows what they are doing out of the gate.
In most cases you can find a good editor by taking someone from the magazine world.
You don’t have to write to reap the rewards
Once your blog has reached a critical mass, you can keep growing it by using other people’s content. Entrepreneur Magazine does this to grow their traffic… they currently syndicate our KISSmetrics blog content.
I’ve experienced this firsthand with Business Insider when they asked me if they could repost a few Quick Sprout blog posts. They said they would link back, so I gladly accepted.
Once they published a few of my articles, I realized that they were generating more traffic from my blog post than I was on my own blog. Just look at this post. It generated over 21,211 views on Business Insider and only 6,315 views on Quick Sprout.
The other thing I learned from Business Insider when they used Quick Sprout content is that they broke it up into multiple pages. Although I don’t feel it is that usable, it increased their pageviews-per-visitor statistic, which helped their advertising revenue.
You have to fuel the fire
Starting out is the toughest part, which is why companies like AOL acquire blogs instead of creating them. You have to get traffic from somewhere when you are starting out, or else your blog won’t be popular.
Some of the blogs I worked with, such as Mashable, fueled their growth by commenting on other blogs. Other blogs fueled their growth by levering their contacts. For example, Guy Kawasaki mass mailed his entire email list when he launched his blog.
In today’s market it is hard to create a popular blog from scratch. One of the ways you can increase your odds of becoming popular is by advertising on Facebook. Send your paid Facebook ads to a landing page that allows you to collect emails in exchange for giving away a free ebook.
Then, whenever you write a blog post, you can email your list, asking them to read the blog.
Acquire to grow
Once you have the traffic and your high authority in Google, consider acquiring other blogs to fuel your growth. GigaOM acquired The Apple Blog years ago, which helped them drastically increase their Apple traffic.
When they combined all of the blogs – both the ones they started and acquired – under one domain name gigaom.com, they were able to increase their authority in the eyes of Google, which eventually helped them increase their overall traffic.
Acquisitions don’t have to be pricey. Blogs that generate 50,000 or even 100,000 visitors can be bought for five figures or less. You can do that because most of these blogs don’t make any money, so when you offer someone $10,000 for their blog, they get intrigued.
When I bought Gym Junkies, it was generating 170,000 visits a month, and I spent $30,000. That’s not a bad deal considering the site was making $30,000 in profit each year… so, in essence I bought it for one year’s profit.
Quality doesn’t guarantee traffic, but it does build loyalty
You can write great content, but it doesn’t mean you will see an increase in traffic. You can write crap content in large quantities, and you are more likely to see your traffic numbers go up.
In the long run, however, crap content will lead to disappointed readers, which hurts your long term traffic. Yes, in the short term, things will grow like a hockey stick, but once search engines continue to see that users are bouncing away and no one is willing to tweet your content or even link to it, eventually your traffic will tank.
You have to consider your strategy not just from a direct traffic standpoint but also from a search engine standpoint. Google looks at the number of pages you have indexed, the number of sites are linking back, and even the number of social shares you are generating. If you have a good ratio, Google will reward you with higher rankings. If you don’t, you’ll eventually see your rankings tank.
If you want to build a long term blogging strategy like the big boys, you have to focus on high quality content. Quality will help bring loyal readers who will continually share your content via the social web, and these readers will increase your overall word of mouth rate. This will help increase your direct traffic and your referring traffic.
Aggressiveness may tick off users, but it usually doesn’t slow down growth
Being aggressive with growth strategies is usually forgiven by your readers if your content is great. I’ve used aggressive strategies in the past with Quick Sprout, and I’ve continually grown. From multiple pop-ups to content blockers, I tested it all. And every time I have done so, I saw that this approach does tick off a few readers, but my traffic continually climbs up and to the right.
Another good example of a blog that uses aggressive strategies is Upworthy. Their blog is extremely popular even though they use popups to try to convince you to friend or like them on Facebook.
Now, I am not saying you should be aggressive, but the data shows it typically doesn’t increase bounce rates or cause an overall traffic decrease. According to this article, Upworthy is the fastest growing blog that ever hit the web, and they are extremely aggressive.
You can also look at Mixergy: you can’t read their content without putting in your email address.
Optimizing a blog that is already popular so that it can be more popular is easy… I did it with 20 of the top 100 blogs, and I was able to provide additional growth in just a few months.
On the other hand, starting a blog from scratch and growing it to millions of visitors a month is a very difficult task. But if you follow the strategies that the big guys use, which I outlined above, your overall traffic should quickly increase.
So, what other tactics are the big blogs leveraging that you can learn from?