Three Ways I Got You To Read This Stupid Post

A month or two ago I started experimenting with Outbrain, a little startup that promises to put links to your blog posts on top sites. It’s an interesting premise and they had offered me $50 to play with so… hey why not? Let’s share the Exversion love.

A few weeks into it I noticed an awful lot of activity around this blog, all coming from a quick throw away post I put up a few months ago: Five Things They Don’t Tell You About StartupBus. Outbrain had indexed all our content, but their algorithms really only liked that post.

It was easy to figure out why: obviously Outbrain looks to match relevant content by keywords in the post titles, rather than post content. So while Differential Diagnosis in Production might have ten times the technical content of Five Things They Don’t Tell You About StartupBus and Version Control for Data might be loaded with relevant material neither one has a very clickbait title.

The suggestion that Upworthy style “You won’t believe what happens next!” titles are more effective even on technical blogs made me a bit sad, but also piqued my curiosity. Was it the keyword “startup” in the title, or was it the “(Num) Things (blah blah blah)” format that made Five Things They Don’t Tell You About StartupBus so successful?

So I designed a quick experiment. I created two clones of this blog: We Make Data Sexy and Free the Data. Exactly the same content, just different titles. Some titles had stupid “(Num) Things (blah blah blah)” format, while some were just structured around relevant keywords (hacker, apps, startups, big data).

Then I created campaigns for both clones and let all three blogs compete to see which posts did better.

Here are the most popular posts on this blog before Outbrain:

Version Control for Data
Differential Diagnosis in Production
Five Things They Don’t Tell You About StartupBus
The Ethical Hackathon or: How we learned to put on a good hackathon and make hackers happy
Every piece of NYC’s real estate data is now accessible through our API
And we’re off, Exversion is now available to everyone.
Dealing with Complex Data on Exversion

Here are the titles that performed the best on Outbrain:

  • 2 Reasons Why You Need to Version Control Your Data
  • The Best Startups Are Bad At Blogging
  • Pushing a Microsoft API to the Limits
  • Why Developers Won’t Build Cool Apps
  • Getting Out Of Big Data’s Torture Chamber
  • How to Make Hackers Love Sponsors

Okay… faith in humanity somewhat restored. Only one “put a number in it for no reason” title got any traction, but keywords definitely improved post performance. That got me thinking about how I come up with the titles of my posts.

I write for hackers, so in general I’m inclined to avoid keywords like “big data”, “apps”, and “startups” because when you put a title like that on something like Hacker News it drowns in the endless stream of identically titled company blog posts. Such keywords usually make the post seem too generic to have any interesting technical content or discussion. To capture more of an audience, I naturally lean towards titles that will stand out by being either super specific or playing on smart references.

The Outbrain experiment made me realize that even within an educated niche there’s a difference between speaking to insiders and going more mainstream. We were speaking to insiders, and our posts were very successful in that arena– generating lots of traffic organically from shares. But to a broader audience they landed with a thud. We were having trouble breaking out of that group of insiders, because we hadn’t found a balance between clickbait and accurate summary.

I don’t think we’ll go any further with Outbrain as– at the end of the day– the traffic they brought us didn’t really benefit Exversion, certainly not the way successful posts on HN have. But I’m definitely going to try to slip in a few more generic keywords into our titles from now on 😉


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