Is Blog Optimisation Worth It?

As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been enjoying a writing sabbatical since April (using a lineup of 10 or so pre-written posts as buffer). But I wasn’t taking a step back, I’d been focussing my efforts into optimising this blog instead. Making it mobile and tablet friendly, tweaking the theme, reducing image file sizes whilst making most of my images (from 2012 onwards anyway) retina-enabled to accommodate our near future of using high resolution screens.

I was driving alone in the country on Tuesday, watching the winter fog clear as the morning progressed… and the thought suddenly hit me: “is all this effort worth it?”.

That’s how this geeky 2-part post came about. I thought I might share a few things I’ve learnt about Blog Optimisation, and how it has changed my perspectives towards blogging. And I hope my fellow bloggers can also share their perspectives about this too. For those of you following me just for food reviews, this post will be quite tangential… but it sort of gives you an inside glimpse into the technical side of food blogging.

A Bit Of History… The Good & The Bad

Things have a come pretty long way for me since the old days of using Blogger’s (simple but limited) interface… loading up photos with ease and, with a heart filled with hope and inspiration, typing my thoughts out… and then pressing “Publish”! I’d jump with delight when I saw that my post actually had ten page views, and the first comment from someone, ever, shocked me into thinking “OMG… people ARE actually reading this!”.

Fatboo Blogger
Previous Blogspot theme (circa 2010-2011), before migrating to WordPress

15 months in, I started feeling a bit limited by the lack of customisability with Blogspot as a platform, and made the massive move from fatbooo.blogspot.com to a paid and self-hosted WordPress site (fatboo.com). I had loads of fun playing around with the huge library of Themes, Plugins and Widgets that you can customise your website with on WordPress. However, because my blog had migrated to a ‘newborn’ web address, Google didn’t rank my site well in search results and my page views plummeted by 30-40%.

I soldiered on for a year or so… publishing post after post, upping the quality of my photos and sharing my posts via social media. But it seemed my ever expanding library of blog entries never quite equated with a commensurate increase in page views. Instead it more or less plateaued… or fell. That had an amazing effect on me: I started caring less, I put less thought and effort into my writing, engaged less with the blogging community and shared less on social media. Needless to say, my page views fell even further.

…I wouldn’t say I’ve come to a complete turnaround now. But I will say that I’ve learnt a few lessons from this experience. I’ll now share them with you in the form of a series of (nosy) questions. Hopefully you can also share your views and perspectives towards the technical aspects of online blogging.

Alila-Villas-Soori-Tabanan-Bali-2034.jpg

Is Social Media Any Good?

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Digg… the list is endless. They’re all ways of promoting your blog by sharing your latest posts, thoughts and photos. I use only the first 5 on the list and that’s enough for me.

Personally, I initially thought Twitter was a good way of having interesting discussions (if they don’t become nasty) with fellow foodies, bloggers and even chefs. However, that soon got overtaken by fun conversations revolving around a (usually food-related) photo on Instagram. I also noticed that while my Facebook Page is (finally) reaching 500 likes, I find that (for some reason) linking my newly published blog posts to my Facebook Page isn’t all that effective in getting people to read it. Finally, I’m keen on getting Pinterest going (and maybe Google+)… but sometimes find that upkeeping so many social media platforms quite time consuming.

Bottom line is: I’m still kinda fumbling through using social media and am only using it when I have time or when I remember to! But I’d like to put it out there to everyone: is there a social media platform that works particularly well for you?

And What About Urbanspoon?

Urbanspoon is a crowd-sourced restaurant review site for those of us living in Australia, the USA, Canada, Britain & Ireland. It’s good for food bloggers because it has a ‘spoonback’ functionality where adding a small Urbanspoon ‘badge’ to your post links your blog review to the restaurant’s page on Urbanspoon. So people browsing for ratings and reviews for a particular restaurant will see a snippet of your blog post there… and with one click, can be directed to the corresponding review in your website. This gives your restaurant posts better exposure.

Statistically, referrals from Urbanspoon is the 3rd most important source of traffic to my blog, accounting for nearly 9% of my page views. That’s significantly more than the traffic that Facebook or Twitter affords me. And since I’m primarily a Melbourne restaurant food blogger, I believe my restaurant posts would be utterly lost in the “sea of the www” and be hardly read at all if not for Urbanspoon. The spoonback functionality is of particular importance to those of us who’re starting up as restaurant food bloggers, back when the newborn website isn’t that high-ranking in Google search metrics.

Should I Make My Blog Retina Enabled?

This question can feel sort of inconsequential if you’re blogging from a non high-res screen. But since I’d upgraded to a Retina Macbook Pro in June 2013, I found that my old images looked pretty blotchy. That’s because the new retina screen packed in twice as much pixels per inch. So a 500 pixel wide image, when viewed on the new screen, actually needs to be 1000 pixel wide in order to look super crisp.

Retina Screen Test 1430 9828 An uploaded 1430px wide image compressed into a crisp 715px wide image on a retina screen. (Simulation)

Retina Screen Test 715 9828An uploaded 715px wide image with its pixels ‘stretched’ when viewed as a 715px wide image on a retina screen. (Simulation)

The two photos above may help you understand what I mean. The lower photo has been stretched to fill the ‘gap in pixels’ and it looks less crisp… especially the watermark at the bottom right corner.

And that’s the downside of owning a hi-res screen… viewing websites that aren’t retina enabled now looks painful to the eyes, especially if you have OCD tendencies. Somehow, non-retina images look even blotchier on hi-res screens compared to the same image when viewed on a normal screen.

Which comes to my next lesson learnt:

Is Image Optimisation Important?

I’d say yes.

Since blog migration, I’d made the mistake of uploading images with large file sizes of 500kb onwards each, thinking that uncompressed images meant better image quality for my viewers. And from June 2013, my images reached around 800kb to over 1mb each since I’d doubled their dimensions to make them retina-friendly. With such hefty-sized images, my website’s load time started to lag.

You can imagine readers getting impatient waiting for the webpage to load and giving up. And here’s something you should know about Google. Google penalises sites with slow load times, meaning your posts and pages don’t appear as high up in search results.

Retina Screen Test 1430 95 9682 Retina Screen Test 1430 55 9682Top image: 95% compression – 930kb
Bottom image: 55% compression – 201kb

For the past month or so, I’ve been swapping my heavyweight images with compressed images… so images that were 500kb-1.2mb are now 100kb-250kb. My posts load quicker now. I also found that compressing your image size to a scarily low 55-60% does not affect the end result that much when it’s viewed on the web. Can you spot any big difference in quality between the two images above?

Bottom line is: a big file size for images isn’t necessarily a good thing. Resize them and compress them to suit your blog’s needs.

Should I Optimise My Blog For Mobile?

I ate another slice of humble pie here.

Over the course of the past two years using WordPress, I’d been having problems with mobile views on my site. Sometimes the mobile optimised theme would appear, but other times the full site version would appear with the icons and words all squashed and overlapping each other… making my website very user unfriendly.

I’m not exactly that tech-minded, so it wasn’t until last month that I solved the problem: two of my plugins were conflicting each other. About ⅓ of my daily page views are usually viewed from mobile phones, so once I fixed this issue, I enjoyed an instantaneous 10-15% rise in page views.

So if you’re noticing problems with your blog when viewing on mobile… fix it as soon as possible. Don’t ignore it for two years like I did!

What’s The Price Of Blog Optimisation?

To tell the truth, the geeky side of me quite enjoys the technical aspects of blog optimisation to the point that it actually detracts me from blogging. It’s similar to how I enjoyed hacking my Nintendo Wii so that it could play games off a USB Harddrive a lot more than actually playing the Wii games itself.

I find that the OCD person in me can get quite easily caught up in tweaking everything on this blog until it looks perfect (for now). Maaaan… how I wish I have the same attitude towards household chores. But the downside is… getting so caught up with optimisation keeps me from doing what I love doing… which is to share my photos and stories with you.

In the next post, I discuss 10 SEO Mistakes That I Learnt The Hard Way.