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Make Your Blog More Powerful by Optimizing the Signal-to-Noise Ratio

Make Your Blog More Powerful by Optimizing the Signal-to-Noise Ratio

“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau (who would have made an excellent blog writer)

How much of your blog is actually useful content, compared to stuff about your blog, about your cat, about what you did today, or about why you’re not posting as frequently as you should?

People come for the useful stuff, but they’ll leave if your Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) is too low.

SNR is a term borrowed from electrical engineering by Usenet, used to describe the amount of real information in a post (or in a forum) compared to spam or irrelevant or false information. You come for the signal, but you leave if the noise level is too high. You don’t want to sort through a bunch of stuff to get that one little nugget of information.

The useful stuff should be jumping out at you, from every corner, and the non-useful stuff should be kept to a minimum. Otherwise, you’ll quickly lose those visitors who you do happen to attract.

How can you keep your blog’s SNR to an optimal level? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Focus on publishing something useful, every post.
    My goal on my blog, and when I write for other blogs, is to write something extremely useful, every time. Now, I don’t always succeed, I’ll grant you that … but that’s the goal. My experience as a reader is that I tend to continue reading blogs that have a high ratio of useful content. That should be your goal — when you’re thinking about what to write, ask yourself how useful it’ll be, and what problem it will solve for the reader.
  2. Focus on the reader, not yourself.
    Related to the above point, of course, but it’s to make a point: too often a blogger will talk about his day, his dog, his boss, his cool new iPhone. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those topics … they can be great topics, and very useful to your reader … if you apply them in a way that will be useful to the reader. If instead you talk about yourself, and what interests you, you are being self-centered … and you’ll lose the reader. Think about the reader’s needs and wants, what problems the reader has, and how your post will help solve them.
  3. Focus on the macro level. Think about your blog overall — is the overall topic very general and not of much use to the reader? Then you’ll only get a few readers. Be more specific, and think about the theme of the blog — is it useful? If not, you’ll get a lot of noise, because you aren’t starting with a concept that lends itself to focusing on producing a high SNR. Now think about each post: start with a concept for each post, and then make it more specific: don’t just talk about your boss, but talk about ways to deal with a micromanaging boss. That’s useful.
  4. Focus on the micro level. Once you’ve thought about usefulness on the level of your overall blog concept, and your post concepts, think about it on a paragraph and sentence level. Is this paragraph necessary, or can it be cut out? Is this sentence, or this phrase, helping get the message across?
  5. Review and revise. Once you’ve written the post, go back over it and review it on the macro and then the micro level. Cut out as much noise as possible. It’s good to revise, cut, edit. Be minimal.
  6. Use lists. I use lists too much, but I’m a compulsive list maker. You don’t have to do that, but I would suggest you try it out. It allows your reader to quickly find the main points (the signal) of the post, without having to read through all the noise. If the reader wants more, he can decide what to read more closely.
  7. Cull your archives. Every month or two, you should go back over your archives. This is a daunting task for many bloggers, but it helps tremendously. You might have had a bunch of posts that talked about site updates, or your daily life, that most people don’t find interesting when they go over your archives. They want to find the amazing posts. If a post didn’t do well, perhaps it’s time to toss it. Cut out the noise.
  8. Simplify your design. Noise doesn’t have to come from just words. Look at every element of your blog and decide if it’s really serving a purpose — for the reader, not for you. Removing elements that aren’t necessary will greatly reduce distractions and allow your reader to focus on what’s important — the message. Every design element should help get that message across, not hinder it.
  9. Identify the essential. In order to know how to cut out noise, you need to know what signal is. And to do that, you need to know what message you’re trying to get across with your blog, with each post. I like to crystalize my message in a good headline. If I can’t do that, then I don’t really know what I’m writing about. Once you’ve crystalized that message, you know what is essential about the post.
  10. Eliminate all else. Now that you know what’s essential, remove everything that’s not. I know, it kills you to do that. But really, it will help your reader focus on what you really want him to focus on — the message. Everything else is a distraction — noise. And remember — too much noise, and you lose readers.

Liam Cavanagh

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