Monthly Archives: May 2016

Arthurian Anthology Submissions

Anthony M over at SuperversiveSF.com has opened submissions for an Arthurian themed anthology of short stories. I’d like to submit one myself but I’m not sure I’ll have time to get one done. So you should submit one! Details are available at the link.

This is not a Silver Empire project, and I have no relation to it other than the fact that I love Arthurian legends and I love superversive fiction. However, we are still accepting submissions of science fiction and fantasy short stories (Arthurian and otherwise) for an upcoming project.

Why Blogging Works – Inbound Links

Inbound links are a major reason why blogging works.
Inbound links are a major reason why blogging works.

Whether you’re promoting yourself, your product, your service, or your business, everyone tells you that you need to start a blog. A lot of places will tell you how to do it. But very few will tell you why blogging works. Understanding why will help you get more out of your blog.

Last week I talked about outbound links and said that they just might be the reason why blogging works to promote your brand. If it’s not outbound links, then inbound links are a strong contender. Once more, to understand how this works we need to understand a bit about how modern search engines work. Let’s recap from last time:

Google began as a research project by its two co-founders into a new technique to make internet searches better. They created a system called “PageRank.” The extremely simplified version is this: every time one page on the internet links to another, that link counts a “vote.” The more votes a page has, the higher its PageRank is. When searching for keywords, the algorithm first finds pages that match those words. Then it checks the PageRank of each page, and the page with the higher PageRank wins. But they got a little smarter than that, even, and added a few layers to it. They manage it by individual keywords. Say your page is about cars. Another page links to you, and includes the word “cars” in the link. If somebody comes along later and is searching for cars, that counts as an extra vote, because they used that keyword to link to you. And if their page is about cars – and ranks well for cars – then that vote counts even more.

Remember, this is a vastly simplified explanation. That’s ok. Just remember the three mnemonics. Links are good. Links that use specific, relevant keywords are better. Links from a “reputable” site are even better.

That’s all great, you say, but how is my blog going to help with that? Your blog helps because it’s easier to get quality inbound links to a blog than it is for just about any other form of content. I’ve run several web sites over the years and I can tell you hands down that this is true.

Getting inbound links to your blog isn’t as easy as it used to be. Back in the day everybody’s blog had a comment section and – like mine still does – those comments linked straight back to… well, whatever you told them to. And people liked it if that linked back to your blog. If you left interesting comments, they wanted to go see what else you had to say. So they’d follow the links.

This still works – just not as well as it used to. A lot of blogs use commenting systems that don’t provide direct links anymore. Many others don’t accept comments at all. But there are still plenty of blogs out there that do this. Find them and take advantage of it. Be sure that the comments you leave are relevant to the topic of each individual post. And personally, I try not to leave a comment unless I have something useful to add. But blog comments are a major way to get quality backlinks to your site. Google Webmaster Tools currently recognizes 4,275 links pointing to this blog from the blogspot.com domain alone. That’s a lot of comments! But I’ve left them at various blogs over 15 years. Many of them have pointed to this blog since its very first incarnation. And the beauty of the internet is that those links didn’t go away when I shut that blog down. They were right there waiting when I started it up again.

Some other techniques to get high quality inbound links for your blog:

  • Write about other people, especially bloggers. Review their products. My review of Somewhither is one of the top ten traffic generating pages on this site, and is responsible for more inbound links than almost any other page. Why? Because Mr. Wright saw it, liked it, and linked back to it.
  • Interview other people. They like to hear about it, and they’ll tell their readers about it. My interview with Brian Niemeier is another of my best-linked pages. I definitely plan to do more of those. [Hint: if you’d like to be interviewed on this blog, drop me a line!]
  • Write about things that people want to talk about – especially scandalous or controversial things. My post about science fiction and fantasy fandom’s pedophilia problem is my most linked page as of today.

Inbound links are a major reason why blogging works to help build your brand. Know how to build them and don’t neglect the work!

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 1

Editor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.

My conversion to Catholicism is best described as an uneasy alliance. I am not the best Catholic out there, and I’m not likely to ever be. I still have issues with the church, its theology, and its dogma. But my wife and I jointly came to the decision that it was the best choice for our family. I can’t speak for her. If she wants to tell her tale, that’s her business. I suspect that it was at least in part because she was following where I led, but she’s bright enough and educated enough and strong willed enough that she never would have let me lead her there if she didn’t want to go.

I was raised as a Protestant. Specifically, I was raised Methodist, but I don’t think it really matters much. The nit picky details of their theology may be different, but the different branches of modern liberal American Protestantism are more or less indistinguishable from each other on a day to day basis. The church I was raised in was more or less like any other SWPL protestant church, only more so. In the almost two decades since I stopped attending, it’s grown substantially, to the point where an old friend of mine once referred to it as “Fort God.”

Like most children, I didn’t much question religion when I was small. It was what all the adults told me, so it never even occurred to me to question it. Unlike most children – at least then – I was introduced to the concept of atheism fairly young. A good friend of mine declared in late middle school that he was an atheist. Like most bright people, being introduced to the concept of atheism forced me to rethink everything. And frankly, once you start thinking about it, there’s a lot to find issue with inside Christianity – especially modern “Churchianity.”

Though I didn’t understand it very well at the time, there’s also a lot of social pressure toward atheism, agnosticism, or “Christianity lite” from our “educated” classes. I was most definitely born a part of that class and lived most of my life within it. You could describe my mother’s family fairly accurately as “educational aristocracy”, but the term might not make any sense to anybody who doesn’t know my mother’s family or people like them. I didn’t have the words to express it in my youth, but at a base level “Churchianity” always seemed just silly to me. And growing up in the American south, the other flavor of Christianity I was routinely confronted with was fundamentalist evangelicalism. Although most fundamentalist evangelical Christians are nice people, and many are quite bright, frankly, the kind of thought (or lack thereof) that leads to that particular breed is… well, to me it’s always been the counterpart of radical feminism. Both breeds of “thought” are vapid, empty headed, flim flam that ignore large portions of reality.

Atheism couldn’t hold me for very long, though. Atheists will do all kinds of logical somersaults to avoid it, but true atheism requires a kind of arrogant denial of reality of its own. Like any other religion, atheism itself is an insistence that we know, definitively, all that there is to know about the universe. In a sense, every argument “proving” the non-existence of God has a kind of Black Swan problem. “God can’t exist because we have no evidence of him,” the arguments essentially go. Well, if all we ever see are white swans, we would conclude that there are no black swans. How could there be? We’ve never seen one. Every swan we’ve ever seen is white. Until whoops, along comes a single black one, disproving our argument that all swans are white.

The Christians hadn’t done a very good job of convincing me that God exists, at least not in the way that they described him. But the atheists couldn’t convince me, either. His existence being highly, stupendously, amazingly improbable is not the same is it being impossible. At the same time, it seems abundantly clear to me that there are forces at work in the world that we don’t understand. I don’t even necessarily mean anything supernatural. Relativity has been work in the universe since the beginning of time, but it’s only in the last hundred years that human beings have been able to understand it. What else is out there that science doesn’t understand yet? I’m guessing there’s a lot. Again, there are forces at work in the world that we don’t understand. God is as good a word for them as anything, and at this point in time, Science can’t explain them any better than religion.

Also, Science is still struggling with some deep and difficult questions that push up right against the boundaries of philosophy and religion. Where does conscious thought come from? What causes it? Science tells us it comes from neurons firing, but the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t replicate it. Despite decades of effort, we have no artificially intelligent computers. Indeed, we’re not really much closer to them than we were decades ago. We haven’t genetically engineered highly intelligent rats (to pick a random animal), and if we did, how would we even know that they’re intelligent? Or self aware? Science fiction has spent a lot of time dealing with this problem, but even there we find no real answers. Also, most of the hoopla about such and such an animal being as smart as or almost as smart as man is mostly bull. When you start to look into the studies, you do indeed find aspects of intelligence. But there’s nothing that brings with it the same capacity for abstract thought and reason that humanity has. Who is to say that it isn’t an eternal soul that gives us intelligence and self awareness?

Five years of undergraduate study toward a Philosophy degree didn’t really clear it up very much. Unlike most in the department, I could have skated through pretty easily. It could have been (and in some ways was) the easy path toward a college degree. For me, it was deadly serious. These were all issues that I cared a great deal about. I found a lot there to ponder: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Nietzsche. I found a lot to ponder in the field of science, too – especially modern physics, which – when it’s not being hijacked by Richard Dawkins types – is doing more interesting philosophical work than modern philosophy (which is mostly a bunch of pseudo-intellectual, New Agey, relativistic nonsense). I didn’t really find a lot of answers, but by the end of college I did know one thing for sure: I was not ready to accept full blown atheism.

True agnostics are rare. It takes a certain uncommon kind of strength to admit that you just really don’t know about anything, much less the really important issues like religion. But for a long while, that was me. The only thing I knew for sure was that there are forces at work in the world I didn’t understand.

Tomorrow in Part 2 – how and why I came to realize that religion in general is important.

The Whole Series

Followers Aren’t Everything

Everyone these days is using social media to promote your business, your product, your service, or yourself. And what’s the first metric everyone turns to? The number of followers you have. Make no mistake, that’s an important number. But it’s not the most important one. Followers aren’t everything.

Sales > Conversions > Engagements > Impressions > Followers

Remember, your number one goal is to get paid. So sales are the first metric you need to be tracking, and that’s the number you need to ultimately be focused on raising. Everything else on the list is just a tool to help you with that – just like social media itself. You have a lot of social media followers. So what? Or maybe you don’t have very many at all. Again, so what? Let me show you a quick screen grab of my Twitter analytics as of Friday. This is just a snapshot of one social media platform. You’ll always want to use every platform you have – and you’ll want to analyze them about the same way.

My Twitter Analytics as of 5/13/2016
My Twitter Analytics as of 5/13/2016

Impressions are how many times your content has been seen (in this case, tweets). As you can see, I don’t have a particularly high follower count – only 344 followers. But move your eyes over a little bit to the left to that second number: 107 thousand impressions over the four week period shown. There are folks out there who could certainly do better. But as far as impressions go, I’ve done quite well with the followers that I have.

Engagements are how many times somebody has interacted with your content (again, in this case a tweet). Twitter says I have an engagement rate for this period of 2.4%, which comes out to roughly 2568 engagements. That number includes people liking and retweeting my tweets, or responding to them. It includes people who click through the links to wherever they go. It includes people following me after seeing a tweet, or clicking through to my profile. A 2.4% engagement rate isn’t terrible, but it could be better.

Conversions are far more valuable than engagements, however. And conversions are kind of defined by you. Conversions are usually sales related – somebody actually bought something from you. But often they can be useful to track non-monetary transactions. You can also think of somebody signing up for an e-mail list as a conversion, for example. Since my primary goal with social media is to increase traffic to this blog and awareness of my businesses, let’s think of somebody clicking through to one of those sites as a “conversion.”

Digging through my Google Analytics history shows that those 2568 engagements led to at least 800 pageviews on this blog. It’s more than that, because Google Analytics doesn’t always show someone coming from Twitter as coming from Twitter. Sometimes they show up as “direct traffic.” But I don’t know how much of my “direct traffic” came from Twitter, so we’ll stick with the 800 pageviews value. We can confirm that. Also, this is just from one of the three sites that I promote on Twitter. That means that on Twitter, I’m converting approximately one third of my engagements into my goal (site traffic) – probably much more when you include my other sites. That’s not bad!

Ultimately you want to track how many of those visits convert into actual sales. Sorry guys, but that information I keep confidential! I do track it, however, and you should do the same. The ultimate goal is to get paid. If you’re not getting as many sales as you’d like, you need to check every level of this chain and see where you’re deficient. As we can see from the chain above, my follower count is low. But we can also see that it’s growing quickly. It grew almost 20% in this period. I’m doing well on impressions per follower, and we can also see from this result that this is something I’ve improved quite a bit recently. I expect it to improve even more in the next 28 days as I implement new processes to help automate my social media. My engagement rate isn’t bad, but it could be better. 4-5% would be a good target. That’s definitely something for me to work on. On the other hand, I’m converting a large number of those engagements into pageviews. At the moment, that’s not where I need to put my energy!

If you’re focused on your low follower count, you’re looking at the problem wrong. You need to be ensuring that you’re doing the most that you can with the followers that you have. If your followers are engaging with your content, you will grow more followers with time. So make sure that you get those impression and engagement numbers up! And always remember to analyze every level of the flow to make sure that your focus is where it needs to be.

Why Blogging Works – Outbound Links

outboundlinksWhether you’re promoting yourself, your product, your service, or your business, everyone tells you that you need to start a blog. A lot of places will tell you how to do it. But very few will tell you why blogging works. Understanding why will help you get more out of your blog.

Outbound links are a major reason – perhaps the major reason – why blogs work. To understand why this is so important, we need to understand how modern search engines work. Thankfully, I’m a computer scientist so I can help you with that. But don’t worry, I’m going to leave out the math and the hard stuff.

Google began as a research project by its two co-founders into a new technique to make internet searches better. They created a system called “PageRank.” The extremely simplified version is this: every time one page on the internet links to another, that link counts a “vote.” The more votes a page has, the higher its PageRank is. When searching for keywords, the algorithm first finds pages that match those words. Then it checks the PageRank of each page, and the page with the higher PageRank wins. But they got a little smarter than that, even, and added a few layers to it. They manage it by individual keywords. Say your page is about cars. Another page links to you, and includes the word “cars” in the link. If somebody comes along later and is searching for cars, that counts as an extra vote, because they used that keyword to link to you. And if their page is about cars – and ranks well for cars – then that vote counts even more.

Remember, this is a vastly simplified explanation. But the short version is this: links are good. Links that use specific, relevant keywords are better. Links from a “reputable” site are even better.

Google has really updated its algorithms over the years – it’s come a long way since its founding! It now accounts for all kinds of other factors, and their process of determining all of this has gotten far more complex as well. For example, links from known spam sites now count against you. But at the core, this statement is still true: links from a reputable source that use relevant are really good.

Why does blogging help you so much with links? First, it’s pretty easy to get links to your blog. Google recognizes 4,862 links pointing to this blog. Now, I did spend a pretty good amount of time building those links. Back in the day when Google still measured such things, this site had a PageRank of 4 (out of 10). That’s not too shabby.

Links

The upshot is that this small blog alone has enough power from the links that I’ve built up that I can link to other sites and actually have a small but noticeable impact on how they rank in search results. It’s not enough to put a site up to number one, but it’s enough to take a site that’s not even ranking and get it on the radar. Right now the effect is very small. But give me two more years of working this blog, and it’ll will be significant.

Why is this important? Because you want to use that power to promote your brands, by linking back to yourself. But be careful – if you overdo it, Google will decide you’re spamming them and it will really hurt your site. One of the easiest things to do though is also highly effective: put links to your businesses, products, or services in the sidebar of your blog. Look over to the right and you’ll see links to my dojo, my publishing company, and my wife’s videography business. [Notice how I linked those using keywords instead of just straight text? And how I slipped them in and made them a natural part of the post?]Also notice that I have links to a few of my friends and to several of my most recently published works.

The nice thing about the sidebar links is that they’ll show up on every page of your blog.Google currently recognizes 225 pages on this blog, so anything I put on the sidebar automatically gets 225 “votes.” In a year, this blog will have at least twice that much content, and its power will be even bigger. It will also have hundreds, if not thousands, more incoming links – which means that its own reputation will also be far higher.

Intelligent link selection is just one of the techniques I’ve used to help my dojo completely dominate the search engine results for most martial arts related searches local to Madison, Alabama. I’m still building the web presence of my publishing company – and it’s a little harder to do on a national scale than a local scale – but it’s coming.

Before we go, here are my tips for using links in your blog:

  • All of your businesses should be linked in the sidebar of your blog so that they show up on every page. Simple links are fine – you’re not actually hugely worried about people clicking them. These are for search engines.
  • If you sell products or services, the two or three that are currently your biggest priority should have prominent, visual links (such as book covers, like I’ve done). These are partly for search engines. But you also want people to actually see and click these, so use the space.
  • Use that sidebar space to link to friends and supporters – but be very judicious about who you link to.
  • Inside your blog posts, be cautious about over-linking back to yourself. But if it fits the content of the post, don’t be afraid to do it – and make sure you use good keywords in and around the link text itself.
  • Don’t be afraid to link back to other bloggers and news sources that you’re referencing. In the old days (circa 2005) this was common, and just considered “good manners.” Too many bloggers have gotten away from it, thinking that they can keep the traffic and the credit to themselves. This is short sighted (more on this in a future post).

SOULDANCER – Book Review

Souldancer by Brian Niemeier
Souldancer by Brian Niemeier

Last night I finished reading Souldancer by Campbell Award nominee Brian Niemeier. Souldancer is book two of “The Soul Cycle,” and the sequel to his debut novel Nethereal.

I’ll be honest, this was not the sequel I was expecting. There’s a large time gap between the two books that caught me off guard in the beginning. Furthermore, the story spends significant time with characters that simply aren’t in Nethereal. But the two stories are connected, and in a very strong way. I give Mr. Niemeier strong props for weaving the tales together in the way that he does. I can say that it’s not an easy task – but to say much more than that would be to spoil rather important parts of the story.

The world here continues to be something new, unique, and different, rather than just a new spin on the same old generic “space universe” that we see so often in space operas. This installment explores even more of that world, and brings us far more of its history. The new characters are a real joy, especially Xander and Astlin. Meanwhile, the returning characters are even more interesting in this incarnation. Most interesting is the way the finale of Nethereal has repercussions that underlie every page of this novel, from beginning to end.

To put it bluntly, this novel is the rare sequel that manages to surpass its predecessor. I give it 5 stars out of 5, and I highly encourage reading it. There’s a reason Mr. Niemeier received his Campbell nomination, after all.

Building Your Blog is Easier Than It Used To Be

This isn’t the first blog I’ve run. It’s not even the first blog I’ve run at this URL. From about 2002 until 2007 – the golden age of blogging – I ran another blog on this site. It did reasonably well at the time. And I can tell you firsthand, a lot has changed since then. As I mentioned yesterday, in many ways, building your blog up is much harder than it used to be.

But in many ways, it’s also far easier than it used to be.

keep-calmTo put it bluntly, the blogging software back in the “golden age” sucked compared to today. Find today’s worst blogging platform and compare it to the best tools available in 2003 and you’ll see what I mean. Heck, the first version of a “blog” that I ran at this URL used software I wrote myself. Believe me, that software wasn’t very user friendly at all. At some point I switched over to B2Evolution, which was a huge improvement. WordPress came out around that time, and it was pretty decent, too. I liked B2Evo a lot better at the time. But today’s WordPress kicks its butt. The level of customizability, the number of themes out there, and the plugins available all far surpass what we had back in the day. And most of them are free.

We also didn’t have tools like Google Analytics or Google Webmasters, both of which are now indispensable. The best we had back then was the old fashioned “TTLB Ecosystem” and Google’s “submit your site” tool. Alexa came along a little bit later, but it’s always been less than perfect and seems today to actually be worse than it was then. You could get the Google toolbar and check your PageRank status, but that was always of mixed value.

And social media? MySpace was garbage right from the beginning. Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist until 2004 and 2006 respectively, and it took a few years for each of them to really get big. Today, I get more than half of my blog traffic from social media – and I’m working to learn that world even better and increase that. As an example, yesterday’s post about the difficulties of today got shared by Mike Cernovich on Twitter this morning. I got an entire day’s worth of traffic in 15 minutes. Make friends with influencers on social media!

Want to really make use of that e-mail list you’ve built? MailChimp is phenomenal – and they have a free plan that’s just fine if you’re just getting started. Want to automate your social media? Check out HootSuite – again, the free plan will be plenty for many users.

Want to improve the performance on your blog? Get the caching plugins, and boom it’s done. No more spending days messing with your server’s configuration. Want your own server instead of the free blog-only solutions? Hosting solutions are cheap these days. I pay $98 per year through OpenSourceHost.com, and I run four web sites off of that! Want to pay for a killer site design? If you’ve got the cash, there are plenty of folks who will do it for you.

All the things I wrote yesterday are true. But on balance, building your blog is easier today than it’s ever been. You just have to adapt to the times. Keep reading. Stay current on what’s out there. Use tools to make your life easier. Learn to play the social media game. And keep on blogging.

Hyperloops Won’t Catch On

I ran across this in my Twitter feed this morning:

The funny thing is, I found this other article about why hyperloops won’t work.

But I think there are a number of problems with this.  First of all, many of the people flying between Dallas and Houston are not actually ending up in those cities; they’re going somewhere else, because Dallas is a major hub.   When I want to fly up to see my family in upstate New York, I don’t take Amtrak to Penn Station and then trek out to LaGuardia, even though I much prefer rail travel to air travel.  So high speed rail doesn’t readily substitute for air travel unless you have a lot of connections running out of Dallas.  I don’t think it’s an accident that the two places in America where rail kind of works–the northeast corridor, and the LA-San Diego route–are coastal runs where the regional links run down a basically straight line.  And the reason that they are conveniently in a straight line is that both regions happen to be sandwiched on a narrow strip between the coastline and a big mountain range that limited inland development during the formative years. In the middle of the country, where you need to add an east-west axis to your planning, things rapidly get more expensive.

The other reason I don’t think that rail is going to compete with air in most places is the very thing that makes air travel so environmentally problematic:  frequency of service.  For high speed rail–or any sort of rail, really–to be an environmental boon, the trains have to run pretty full.

A Hyperloop
A Hyperloop

But wait, you say. Ms McArdle (yes, the same Ms McArdle) is talking about high speed rail, not hyperloops!

From a technological perspective, hyperloops are new and cool and really awesome and totally not trains. But from a business perspective, it’s just a glorified train. It moves a lot faster and it’s more efficient, but those aren’t really the problems with trains. Maybe speed, but we already have a faster-than-trains alternative: it’s called the airplane, and there’s already a lot of infrastructure in place for it in the US.

But trains are already pretty efficient, especially electric trains. The reason we don’t have more of them in the US is because the infrastructure cost is too high. For hyperloops to become a thing (outside of a few limited areas), there would have to be trillions (yes, trillions) of dollars worth of loop built. If you don’t believe me on the cost, check out the latest highway bill – and remember that that’s just for maintenance, not for building the whole Interstate Highway System from scratch. Trillions of dollars isn’t exactly the kind of fixed cost that you recoup quickly or easily.

What about the speed? Well, what about it? The Concorde had speed, too, and it didn’t catch on either. The thing is, I can already cross the country coast to coast in about five or six hours. There are very few reasons why I’d need to do it faster. I might like to, sure – but not enough to pay twice as much to do it. Some businessmen might, but they already have a nice way to do it faster: private jets that can go point-to-point and shave an hour or two off of that (more if you factor in layovers and TSA checkpoints).

The thing is, the faster you’re already going, the less of an advantage more speed is. If you can cross the country in four hours, you’d have to double your speed to make it really worth paying more. Even then… how many of us value our time so highly that shaving two hours off of a four hour trip is worth thousands of dollars? Again, not many. The extra speed just isn’t worth much. Which means that hyperloops would be competing with an industry that’s already hyper-competitive.

The tech is cool. But the market simply isn’t there.

Building Your Blog Is Harder Than It Used To Be

bloggingThis isn’t the first blog I’ve run. It’s not even the first blog I’ve run at this URL. From about 2002 until 2007 – the golden age of blogging – I ran another blog on this site. It did reasonably well at the time. And I can tell you firsthand, a lot has changed since then. In many ways, building your blog up is much harder than it used to be.

The blogging community is radically different than it was in the early 2000s. Political differences still existed, and were very real. But the community of people on these newfangled things called “blogs” were a lot closer knit. Blog relationships transcended party lines a lot more. It wasn’t just party lines, either. Pretty much anybody who had a blog on pretty much any topic would interact cordially and frequently with just about anybody else who had a blog on just about any other topic. Many of today’s biggest bloggers knew each other back then and got along very well. Back in the day, even the biggest of big name bloggers would respond easily to even the lowliest of other bloggers.

The blogging community of today is very fragmented. It’s fragmented politically. The “red vs blue” divide really hit home during the 2004 presidential election cycle. The political blogosphere segmented along lines that were somewhat party based, somewhat ideological, and pretty much all “I’m going to live in my own bubble now, thank you.” Beyond politics, the blogosphere has largely segmented into topical blogs that are far more focused. Back in the day, most bloggers talked about anything they felt like. Now most bloggers are looking for a niche. And those big name bloggers? They’re getting spammed too much, and it’s hard to get through their filters.

The infrastructure that supports blogging has also radically changed. If you wanted to “reply” to someone else’s post, you wrote a nice post of your own. And then your software notified them via “pingback” or “trackback” that you’d said something. These often showed up in the comments section of their own blogs, which served as a nice way to get more traffic to your own blog. Readers there would see the notification and (some of them, anyway) would come over to see if you’d said anything interesting. Comments themselves were a great way to get traffic. Leave an interesting comment on another blog and people would click through to your own. Even better, the links from pingbacks, trackbacks, and comments would all hang around – and the search engines would pick up on them. Your own blog would climb up the search engine listings, little by little.

Today, trackbacks are all but dead. WordPress still supports them, but they’re manual. Many blogs, if not most, ignore them now. So even if you take the time to do them, they often won’t show up. Pingbacks are still a thing and are still automated… but they don’t seem to actually show up on most blogs, either. Again, they’re mostly disabled. And comments you leave on other blogs? In many cases they don’t link directly to your own blog anymore, but to your “profile” somewhere – either on the host site or on the site of a third party comment provider, such as Disqus. You’ll still get a bit of direct traffic from people who click through, but the search engines don’t recognize those as links to your site anymore.

There are good reasons for all of these changes. Spam is the biggest one. If you had a blog back in the day then you know just how bad the problems of pingback, trackback, and especially comment spam were. Fighting comment spam could easily become a full time job all on its own, even for a small blog. Today’s automated spam detection tools are less than perfect. Back then they were barely functional. And many sites moved toward simply shutting down pingbacks and trackbacks as a direct result. The move toward comments without direct links came early as well.

Those big name bloggers who don’t respond to you anymore? It comes with success. Some of those guys get millions of page views a month now. They’re simply too busy for the unknown guy – just like every other celebrity. It’s sad, but it’s completely understandable. It comes with the territory.

Last but not least, there are far fewer blogs now than there were then. Most bloggers never had their heart in it to begin with. Many, like me, enjoyed it but couldn’t find a way to monetize it. I’ve since solved that problem. But blogging takes a lot of time, and without either love or compensation (or preferably both), most people either can’t or won’t keep doing it. That means that there are far fewer small name blogs, which means fewer opportunities to leverage their readership to help build your own – especially since the big name bloggers won’t interact with you as much anymore.

No matter how you slice it, most of the techniques for gaining traffic that worked back then are simply worthless now. Pingbacks and trackbacks? Pingbacks are automated, so you might as well leave them on. But trackbacks are worthless now. Commenting on other sites? It’s still helpful, but the return is far lower. Also, you have to be aware of what site you’re commenting on and whether those comments link back to you or not. There are sites I’d love to participate on, but since they don’t link to me anymore it’s not worth my time. I need to spend that time in other ways.

Building your blog is much harder than it used to be… or is it? Tomorrow we’ll look at ways in which blogging has gotten much easier over the years.

Data Driven Journalism Fails to Live Up to the Hype

Data Driven Journalism
Data Driven Journalism

When Nate Silver’s weighted polling average model accurately predicted 49 of 50 states in the electoral college in 2008, he became a household name overnight. A few years later, he launched fivethirtyeight.com, and with it the new trend of “data driven journalism.”

In 2012, his critics charged that his models were wrong because the polls he relied on were skewed in favor of Democrats. The actual election proved that his critics were wrong. But it didn’t necessarily prove that Silver was right. The thing is, there were good reasons for the critics to believe that the polls were skewed. The put forth historical models showing how and why they probably were, and the models made sense. But making sense isn’t the same thing as being right, and when election day dawned, we learned that the model was broken.

The problem for Silver and other data driven journalists is that their models aren’t right, either. I wrote a few months ago that Silver’s modeling method would eventually fail, and fail spectacularly. By any honest measure, it has done so in this election cycle. His “polls plus” model, billed as the newer, better, more accurate model simply wasn’t. It actually performed worse in this cycle than his “polls only” model, worse than general weighted polling averages (such as the RCP average), and even did worse than a fictional pundit.

This destined to eventually happen.

Mr. Silver made three cardinal mistakes.

First, he confused the map for the territory. He built a model of the past. His model fits the past with high accuracy. But the past is not the future, and the model is not reality. He found variables with high correlation. Those variables seemed to have a logical causation effect that made sense. So he made a model out of them. But as we noted above, making sense isn’t enough to be right.

Second, statistical models of his sort simply can’t account for Black Swan events such as Donald Trump’s candidacy. Yet the one thing we can say with certainty about Black Swan events is that they will eventually happen. Donald Trump happened, and Silver’s model couldn’t account for it.

Third, Silver let his own opinions and feelings get in the way. He was accused of this in 2012, but the election results vindicated him. This time, Silver simply couldn’t accept that his own model was actually wrong. It happens to the best of us. But it hit Silver hard in 2016.

To be somewhat fair to Mr. Silver, he has acknowledged that this cycle threw his model off. On the other hand, his model is off by far more than he – or most – understand.

First of all, we have to accept that with good polling data, which we’ve mostly had, predicting an election the night before isn’t actually all that hard. The single exception to this is if the polls show a very close race. There are occasional upsets to this, but Nate Silver’s method (basically an advanced weighted polling average run through a Monte Carlo simulation) wouldn’t catch most of those. Still, Silver has done pretty well with this. His polls-plus method called 50 of 56 primaries this way. But his polls-only method, without his extra factors, still did better – 51 of 56.

But this isn’t even very interesting. You could have done just about as well by simply using the RCP polling average the day before the races and looking at who was ahead. Silver seems to be including a few more polls than RCP and weighting them based on past performance. Both techniques are useful and probably provide him with a small edge over RCP. But in both cases, you’re still essentially just looking at the polls the day before a race.

What about before a race? Predicting the race the day before just isn’t very useful. By then, most anybody can do it if they have good poll data available. How did Nate Silver’s polls do a week before each race? A month before each race?

I don’t have the data right at hand, but the answer is “very poorly.” I spent a lot of time checking his forecasts this cycle – which means I watched an awful lot of his predictions swing from “heavily favors someone who isn’t Trump” to “90%+ chances of Trump winning.” Sometimes these forecasts took a month or more to change. Sometimes it happened over the course of a few weeks.

In other words, his “forecasts” were completely and utterly useless more than a week or so ahead of any given race.

And here is where Silver – and data driven journalism as a whole – breaks down. Psychohistory simply isn’t a real science yet. That far in advance, “data driven journalism” doesn’t give any better answers than experienced pundits. It can’t. The science of data analytics simply isn’t good enough, especially in cases like presidential primaries where past data is sparse. Over time we can actually expect these forecasts to do somewhat worse than experienced pundits. Like their conventional brethren, the data driven journalists can’t help but let their biases step in. We saw this very clearly this cycle with Silver, who was certain that Trump couldn’t win the nomination. This is often worse for “data driven journalists” because they are so convinced that their approach is purely analytical. Furthermore, the data driven journalists, although excelling in statistical techniques, lack the experience with the political system to make intuitive calls. When the data isn’t good, or the model isn’t good, their fallback intuition simply isn’t there the way it can be with a seasoned pundit.

On the other hand, we just sat through an election cycle where all the seasoned pundits called it wrong, too. Because seasoned intuition also has trouble with Black Swan events. Except for one thing: many of the seasoned veterans, although predicting a different outcome, did acknowledge that something seemed to be “different” about this cycle. Experience can give you that feel in a way that data often simply can’t.

Data driven journalism is not useless. It has its place. But it will never be the revolution in news that Silver and others have tried to make it.