This episode (Season 2, Episode 1) on blogging is very important to me. I think it’s a distillation of all of Seth’s thoughts about writing and blogging in a crisp, crackling 20 minute episode.
I wanted this for permanant reference, so I thought, I’d transcribe it for myself, and then I thought, well, if it helps me, it’ll surely help others.
So here you go.
It’s all Seth below …
P.S. Typos and errors, omissions and emphases, entirely mine.
At the end of May, 2018, I moved my blog.
I moved it to a new platform.
This is a little bit like moving to a new house, except it takes longer, it’s more emotional, and it’s a lot more expensive.
Hey, it’s Seth. And this, is Akimbo.
Moving my blog is a metaphor for a lot of things; about being found, about how ideas spread, and about the passage of time, in a fast moving world where the culture is driven by the Internet, and the Internet … is driven by the culture.
The last time I moved my blog, was 16 years ago, when George W Bush was president, when Alicia Keys had her debut album and when the bestseller list had names on it, like James Patterson and Stephen King.
So some things change; some things … not so much.
Before I had my blog on Typepad, I used to deliver it by email and I’d been doing that since the 1990s.
What I discovered then, what I wrote a book about, is the simple idea that:
Anticipated, personal and relevant messages are more likely to resonate with people, than spam.
Day by day, week by week, I built up a list of people, who wanted to hear from me, who wanted to get an email newsletter from me, back in the day, when newsletters actually had stamps on them.
I understood, from seeing the work of Esther Dyson that an effective newsletter could completely change the game.
The goal isn’t to reach a lot of people, the goal is to reach the right people, and to reach them in a way, where they are glad you showed up.
Anticipated, personal and relevant, means, that they would miss you if you didn’t show up; that’s my definition of permission.
Earning the privilege … you can’t take it, it’s not a right; there’s no such thing as free speech—when we’re not talking about the government. This is earned speech.
Showing up with a message that people want to get, drip by drip, day after day.
At the time, my emails didn’t come out everyday; that would have overwhelmed most people in the information starved 1990s, atleast compared to today.
When I began it was twenty people, getting a newsletter about the struggling entrepreneur they knew.
Then it was twenty-five.
Then it was forty.
Then, it was a hundred.
This led to my second big insight:
Ideas that spread, win.
In the late 90s this magazine showed up, Fast Company.
I decided, Fast Company was the greatest magazine ever published.
I also decided that my life dream, was to be a columnist, for Fast Company magazine.
I figured I had something to say, and I figured that was the place to say it.
I sent a note to Bill and Alan, the founders, the editors and I told them, I wanted to write a column for them. I offered to write it for free. Alan wrote back a really nice note saying, “We’d love to, except, we don’t run columns.”
Well that didn’t deter me, so I started writing a column for Fast Company, even though they didn’t have columns.
Every week, I sent Alan & Bill, a new column and by the time, I got to, I guess, the eighth or ninth week, their ad sales had started to go up and they realised they needed more editorial to sit next to all of those ads. So they said, “Sure, Seth. If you want to write for us, if you want to write thousands and thousands of words for us, for free, we’d be delighted to run your column.”
I was thrilled. I made a decision then and there, that the goal of the column was to write some thing that people would xerox, in an old fashioned Xerox machine and put one in the slot of every person in the mailroom, in the old fashioned mailroom, the old fashioned slot, the whole idea that there was an office to begin with. So instead of people forwarding it by email, (which was unheard of), people were actually copying a column and putting it in other people’s mailboxes.
Ideas that spread, win.
Month after month, my column grew in its impact. Fast Company grew, in its impact. And that lesson has not been forgotten. That what we can do, is serve a small group of people, with an idea that they want to share.
Why do they want to share it?
In case of my Fast Company column, the reason was this:
I was telling them something, they already believed, they already wanted to be true, they already wanted to share.
My job, was to write it in a way, that made it cogent and easy to share.
And so they did. And if that resonated with some other people, they joined in.
Few years later, I was at a conference. I met Joi Ito there. He was on the board of a company called Six Apart. I saw for for the very first time, what the Typepad platform looked like and I moved my blog to it, a few weeks later.
Here’s the thing.
Google changed everything.
They changed everything in a way that most people dont see or understand. Most people use Google to find things. They assume it is telepathetic. They assume, that all they have to do, is type in a few simple words, and Google will comb through the entire Internet, and find them exactly what they’re loooking for. Most people never get past the first page of results on Google.
Well it’s so popular, so many billions of searches are done, that everybody, who makes a thing, who has a service, who wants a job, who needs or wants to be found … wants to be found by Google.
There is a haystack, the biggest haystack in the history of the world, and each of us, each of us who wants to make a difference, who wants to be found—we’re needles.
And so there’s a problem. There’s a challenge.
And the challenge is, getting found for a generic term.
Right, if I search for “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and Google does its job right, I will actually find John. But most of the time, that’s not what people search for.
Most of the time, people aren’t sure what they’re looking for and they want Google to find it for them. And so, in every town there are a thousand plumbers, with sharp elbows, hoping that they will be the first match for the word, plumber. And in every industry there are consultants or there are freelancers or there are companies, big or small, waiting to be found.
At the beginning, Google’s algorithm was pretty primitive. It wasn’t particularly difficult to cheat your way to the front of the line, to play in ways that the Google algorithm liked a lot and get more than your fair share of visits, from the hordes of people, searching, for the likes of you.
And so we began this striation, this sedimentary approach; people at the top, people in the middle, people at the bottom, not because they are worthy, not because Google has done a site visit or the Department of Health has verified them, but instead, because they got good at getting found.
This is often called SEO, Search Engine Optimisation.
It’s a weird term. Optimising who? Optimising what?
Well, the search engine is Google and what we are optimising is the way, our website looks and feels and is seen by the other people in the world, so that Google will pick us.
And it’s led to all sorts of weird side effects. People twisting themselves into knots, not seeking to serve the customer, but seeking to serve some sort of mythical wizard, inside the box, that calls itself Google.
So what does this have to do with blogs?
I’ll get to that in just a second.
At the beginning, the genius of Google’s algorithm was this—they didn’t rank pages, based on what was on the page. They ranked pages, based on what people who linked to the page were saying. So if a lot of people linked to a page, saying this is the best hotel in all of Ghana, then if you search for “best hotel in Ghana”, the Google algorithm should have found, the page they were all pointing to.
If you wanted to be found then, the idea of writing blog posts that were often shared and spread, made an awful lot of sense. Because instead of just one website that just sat there all day, everyday the same, you were writing a blog.
A blog about this and a blog about that.
So for eight years, if you typed the word blog into Google, my blog, was the very first match.
Now it’s important for me to state, that I didn’t write the blog so this would be true. I wrote the blog, because after I left Fast Company, I wanted that same experience.
The experience of people, xeroxing my posts and putting them into the office mailboxes. Of course, no xeroxing, just email.
So I was writing for the very reason, that people were linking. I was writing so that people, would spread the ideas.
No ads on my blog. Rare calls to action.
That’s not what it’s for.
What it’s for, is to teach people, to show them something.
But, back to this challenge and how the culture changed.
Because what happened was, people who didn’t belong, for whatever reason you want to measure, number one in anything, decided that being number one was so valuable, they would spend their time and their money working to be number one as opposed to working to be better, working to serve people, better.
And thus, SEO developed a bad reputation.
The idea was that for a thousand or five thousand or fifty thousand or a hundred thousand dollars, you could game the system, so that you would get more links than you would (quote) “deserved”, that you’re exposing many of the failings of the Google algorithm, because human beings weren’t actually looking at your site.
Once it became worth millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars to be ranked number one in Google, an arms race began. That arms race brought in good operators, bad operators, people who were playing for the right reasons and people who weren’t.
But what we saw in all of the hotly contested areas, things like hotels or travel or things that we might buy, or services or obscure terms, were people who were subverting the very idea behind the search engine.
It was then, that Google made an interesting choice.
I’m not sure what I would have done in their shoes.
But it was a two part choice. They didn’t really understand how the algorithm began to work, because it got too complicated. More than three thousand people, were hand tweaking, the way Google was scoring pages. So Google pretended,
a. They knew exactly how it worked and
b. that no human beings were actually making these decisions. It was simply the algorithm. “Well it’s not our fault you moved down, it’s the algorithm”. “Oh, it’s not our fault, that this hate term is number one in results. It’s the algorithm.”
And somehow, though all of this is nonsense, it also undermines their responsibity, because once they are the middleman, the monopoly on how peple find stuff, they do have a responsibilty to keep their promise and give the best possible results.
But we’re here to talk about the change that each of us can make, and I think the key insight is this
You cannot trust, that your needle is going to get found in the haystack.
You cannot trust that, any generic word, the word you seek to own, butcher shop, shoe store; pick whichever one you want, is going to end up with you on top.
And if you’re not on top, if you’re number twenty, or number fifty or number hundred, you might as well be invisible.
The alternative, is to win when someone searches for you.
So, if you look for Seth, you’ll find me.
If you look for Seth Godin, you’ll definitely find me.
If you look for Newton Running Shoes, you’ll find the people that make Newton Running Shoes.
So the game goes from, “How do I persuade Google to find me, when someone is looking for the generic?” to “How do I persuade the public to look for the specific?”
And so, as we enter this post Google age, where clearly there’s room for more than one winner for every noun, how do we have a chance to change the culture?
And the answer is this.
The answer is,
Change the people you engage with, so much, that they want to tell other people.
Have them want to tell other people in the specific, not in the general.
You may have heard me talk about one of my favourite examples: The Poilâne Bakery in Paris.
Run by Apollonia Poilâne, the daughter of the late Lionel.
This bakery is extraordinary. Lines out the door. A premium product enjoyed at most of the fine restautants in Paris.
If you search for bakery, you will not find it. Not easily.
But if you search for Poilane, there it is, right up top, where it belongs.
So that’s the mission.
The mission is to write things, create things, post things, engage with things … that people choose to share.
To earn the permission of people they share them with.
The permission to follow up, the permission to teach, the permission to engage,
And then share some more, and then teach some more, and do it in a way that people will share it again.
And then people will share it again.
And then people will share it again.
Each time, earning you more permission.
Because, trusting the middleman on the Internet; that’s a dangerous game.
That if you are building your content on Linkedin or building your content on Facebook, you’re sharecropping.
That you’re working for a landlord who does not care about you.
That has no contractual obligation to keep their word.
That at anytime they can say, “Oh! You know all those people you have permission to talk to? Your followers? your friends? We’re going to start charging you money to reach them. Wanna boost this post?” That’s a lousy deal.
That what we have to figure out how to do, is engage with a platform that has an obligation to us.
That was my relationship with Typepad.
And I’m super grateful, that in the sixteen years I was on their platform, they kept their end of the bargain.
I happily paid them, whatever it was, $20 a month, because that money was repaid to me again and again, by a third party that had my interests at heart, a site that was up almost all the time.
It worked. Because I was paying for it.
I wasn’t the product.
I was the customer.
And my job, on that platform, was to be a teacher.
My job, on that platform, was to teach, was to make it easy for people to find me, if they were looking for me.
Not looking for the generic, but looking for the specific.
And then, to earn their attention and trust, and to keep a promise.
I discovered that five to ten years ago, I was blogging three times a day.
I was sort of insane. I don’t know what kind of caffeine I was drinking.
I realised that my promise was out of hand.
So I made a specific promise.
I said “Once a day. That’s it. I’m not going to overwhelm you. Once a day, I’ll be here.”
And I’ve been there everyday, since then.
Partly, because I have something to teach, partly because I have something to say, partly because I have something to share.
But also, because I made a promise.
Anticpated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them.
Drip by drip.
Day by day.
So I’m grateful to all the people, who worked so hard, to help me build this new platform for my blog.
But waaaaay more important than that, I’m encouraging each one of you to have one.
Not to have a blog to make money. Because you probably won’t.
Not to have a blog because you’ll have millions and millions of readers. Because you probably won’t.
But to have a blog because of the discipline it gives you, to know, that you’re going to write something tomorrow, something that might not be read by many people, it doesn’t matter.
It’ll be read by you.
And that if you can build that up, ten at a time, twenty at a time, a month at a time, day by day, you will begin to think more clearly.
You’ll make predictions.
You’ll make assertions.
You’ll make connections.
And there, they will be, in type, for you to look at a month or a year later.
This practice, of sharing your ideas, to people who will then choose, or not choose to share them, helps us get out of our own head, because it’s no longer the narrative inside, it’s the narrative outside.
The narrative that you’ve typed up, that you’ve cared enough to share.
So SEO’s fine. If you win at SEO, Congratulations!
I’ll send you a postcard, maybe a medal and a ribbon.
Someone needs to win at every single noun, anyone could search on.
But it might not be you. It probably won’t be you. The odds are against it being you.
A twelve year old, probably should not grow up saying “I will not be happy, unless I am the champion of the world at this sport or that thing.”
Because the odds are too long.
It’s not worth betting your happiness on that.
That if we’re going to change the culture, we’re going to have to figure out how to bypass the generic Google search, and instead reach a few, the smallest viable audience, the group of people we seek to serve, to connect those people with each other and with our ideas in such a way that we become the specific, not the generic.
Because if you’re specific enough and generous enough and consistent enough, it’s worth the journey.
Thanks for tuning in to Akimbo.
I hope that you will subscribe and tell your friends.