I started this site in September 2014. At the time, it was for fun and to showcase my writing skills when I reached out to startups about doing content marketing for them. I never originally intended for it to become a big part of my work.
But now, two years later, the site has been read 2,000,000+ times by 1,350,000+ different people spanning 231 countries. It’s become one of my primary focuses, and by far my favorite, longest lasting project.
Along the way, I’ve experimented a ton to see what would do well, and what wouldn’t. And between my work on this site, my work at SumoMe, at Zapier, and at Programming for Marketers, I’ve learned a considerable amount about creating a high traffic blog.
If that’s something you want to do, I’m confident that anyone taking these tactics and putting them into practice could reach the same or higher numbers in less time than I did.
1. Don’t be a Charlatan: Write About What You Have Experience With
The vast majority of people blogging and writing online are writing about things they have little or no experience with, and that they should not be giving advice on.
For example, you see tons of articles on “being successful” that are written by, well, people who you wouldn’t call that successful. Why would you take advice from them? It’s the biggest problem with content today, and contributes massively to the tarnished bullet and infomania problems online.
Instead of creating more of that junk, write about what you’re experienced with and qualified to talk about. Try waking up at 4AM every day for a month and tell that story. Go without eating for 5 days. Get drunk and start a company. When you write about what you have done and what you learned, it creates more engaging, useful content, while also telling a fun story that brings readers along for a ride.
I noticed this was especially true with the lasting longer in bed article. By talking about it from a more personal angle, it received a much stronger response, especially on reddit where it’s still one of the top 50 most popular /r/sex posts of all time.
Same goes for the starting a lifestyle business article. Many people talk about “making money online,” but by walking step by step through how we did it, I gave people something more useful that they keep referring back to and sharing with other people trying to do something similar.
That doesn’t mean that everything you write about has to be a story or something specifically that you did, but if you’re going to give “how to” advice, make sure you’re qualified to do it. Most people aren’t.
2. Write for the Long Term, Evergreen Trumps All
Unless you want to be BuzzFeed (and please don’t be BuzzFeed, one is bad enough), you should focus on evergreen content.
The Internet is awash with ephemeral content that becomes meaningless within 24 hours, and you should do yourself and the world a favor and NOT contribute to it. We don’t need more noise, what we need is more strong, in-depth content that lasts for months and years.
Every piece I write I want to be good for at least a year, ideally longer. My fasting article has been getting 1,000+ views a day for over a year, the sex articles only get more popular as time goes on, and any recent content I’ve put out I do with the goal of referencing for years to come.
I should note, though, that this requires a LOT of time go into each article. Most of the best articles on this site took 40+ hours to write and edit, not including the weeks or months of experience beforehand. This article took 2 years to write, depending on when you start counting.
When you focus on long-term content, you make each article an investment instead of a one-off grab for some short term attention. And, by focusing on evergreen content, you build more loyal, invested readers, instead of the ones who are just there for a quick hit of fauxductivity or mental masturbation.
Also, you’re never going to compete with Instagram models and puppies for people’s ephemeral attention. Why not go for more engaged readers instead?
3. Write Something New, or Write The Best Version of It
When I built the Runway Calculator, it was because I realized that there was no good tool out there (or article on the topic) for figuring out what your finances needed to be in order to support yourself when self-employed or as a nomad. Savable income was the same deal. Fauxductivity didn’t exist as a term yet, so I claimed it. Same with Decomplication.
All of those articles did well because they presented a new form of some idea in a way that wasn’t being talked about online (at least that I could find). They gave people new mental models to go off of, and new terms to use when looking at the world around them.
Claiming terms is great for search traffic, too, since now I can say “runway calculator” in a conversation and if someone Googles it later, boom, there I am.
But, not everything has to be new. You can also cover existing topics, so long as you do the best job of it online.
There were a million articles out there on lasting longer in bed, so I wrote the best one, and that’s why it has risen through the ranks. Same with the lifestyle business one: popular topic, lots of useless content.
Aim for writing new things that haven’t been talked about. Or, choose common topics that haven’t been covered effectively and write the best content out there on them.
4. Publish What You’re Scared Of
Just about everything I’ve been scared to publish has done well, and just about everything that’s done well I’ve been scared to publish.
That certainly goes for the sex articles, but it also goes for more personal ones like Subconscious Sabotage and Life After SumoMe. In the Sabotage one I was neurotic about what my friends and family would think when I published it, and in the SumoMe one I was freaked out about possible future people I wanted to work with being concerned about it.
But what I’ve found with both, as well as with articles like What Do I Do Now and Huckster, is that while it was scary to publish them, people reacted overwhelmingly positively to me putting those thoughts out there. In some cases, namely Subconscious Sabotage and Huckster, they were thoughts that many people had already had but didn’t want to publish. In the case of SumoMe or What Do I Do Now, it was an honest expression of what I was thinking and going through, and it gave a bit more personality to an otherwise me-focused blog. And in the case of the latter, showed how there are some downsides to a lifestyle that can frequently be put up on a pedestal.
Now, I try to use that fear as a sort of guiding compass. If I have an idea for an article that starts to scare me, that’s when I know I might be onto something good.
5. There are 5 Traffic Sources, and SEO is the Best
People get to your site one of five ways:
- Direct (type in the URL)
- Email (clicked from an email)
- Referral (clicked a link from another site)
- Social (saw it on Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
- SEO (sent from a search engine)
And SEO blows all of the other 4 out of the water for creating sustained traffic. Let’s go one by one.
Direct: When was the last time you typed in a URL? Moving on. But Nat, you get tons of direct traffic! Yes, but most direct traffic is actually misattributed SEO.
Email: Let’s say you have an email list of 100,000 people. You email them. MAYBE 5% click the link (that’d be a great conversion rate). You get 5,000 views. Then… nothing. It’s a one time thing. And good luck getting 100,000 active email subs.
Referral: How often do you click on the links while reading an article? The highest single-link click rate I’ve seen in an article is ~2%. So say you get linked to in an article by a popular blog, and that article gets 5,000 views. You’re going to get… 100. Wheee. Referral traffic is great if you can get a ton of it, but that’s more likely to happen with data articles (which are SEO focused anyway) or products.
Social: Great for ephemeral content and for content that evokes Fear, Awe, or Outrage, but for most content it’s hard to get a sustained trickle of social traffic. Plus, Facebook and Twitter have been pushing down link posts, and if you want to keep being on social you have to keep posting or get someone to post for you. You can get lots of traffic from social, but it requires a certain type of content and requires ongoing work.
SEO: Then there’s the magic of SEO, where you write something and then Google sends you traffic for months with zero extra work from you. Search engines drive over half of all web traffic, more than all other sources combined, and way more than all other free sources. There is absolutely no competition to SEO if you want to get a lot of traffic. If you can get ranked on Google, you win. It’s as simple as that.
And before you go read a ton of stuff on how to do SEO, don’t. If you do the other stuff in this article then SEO will come easily for you, but if you want a bit more guidance, I have a course on it.
6. Guest Posting is a Terrible Use of Time (Usually)
If you’re following the other rules in this article, then in 99% of cases guest posting is a huge waste of your time. You only have so much you can write about, so why would you put that high value content on someone else’s site where it won’t help you nearly as much?
Since the click through rate is so low on articles, at most you’ll get 1-2% of the traffic back to you from a guest post. Was it worth giving away that article for so little traffic? Likely not. And before you say it helps with SEO, it doesn’t help anywhere near as much as having that highly ranked article on your site.
Now, there is an exception. If you can get a guest post on an extremely popular blog that ALSO focuses on evergreen content, do it. I would never turn down a guest post opportunity on fourhourworkweek.com because the site gets 2,000,000+ visitors each month and the content lasts for years. That’s high value. Being part of BuzzFeed’s daily nonsense doesn’t help you.
7. Stalls, Declines, and Fluctuations Happen
About a month ago, I logged in after being offline for a week to see my traffic had been down a full 30% for the last couple weeks. Whoops.
It turned out that some small change I had made was slowing down the site, and that reduction in page speed was affecting my rankings on Google, so my traffic had declined to all of my articles. Once I fixed the load speed issues, it corrected course, but it still wasn’t very fun to see.
These problems will happen. You’ll have weeks where your traffic suddenly spikes, and then long periods where it’s stagnant. You can’t beat yourself up when these plateaus or setbacks happen, just fix anything that’s broken, and then get back to creating good content. If you spend too much time freaking out about small changes, you’ll waste valuable time you could have been spending on writing your next great article.
8. Expect the 80/20 Rule
90% of my traffic comes from 5 articles (of ~65). While that could be seen as annoying, it’s to be expected. Some of your articles will do much better than others from a combination of chance, how big the addressable market, SEO competition, and other factors beyond your control.
Instead of being annoyed by it, think about how you can replicate the ones that do well. The most popular content on this site is about sex since, well, people like sex. I’m not sure I’ll ever have another article get as much traffic as the lasting longer in bed one, and I just have to be okay with that. The more niche of a topic you’re writing about, the more you have to adjust down the amount of traffic you expect to get.
So if you saw these numbers and went “ugh, I’ll never get that much traffic” you have to frame it within the topic you’re covering. If your articles are about tactics you’ve developed for changing the resulting fur texture while breeding gerbils, then yeah, you’re only going to get so much traffic even if you do have the best content.
You have to be okay with the limitations of what you’re writing about, and you have to expect that a small portion of your content will do magnitudes better than the rest.
9. Tell a Story, Answer a Question, or Create a Heuristic
Much of this advice, I realize, boils down to this. What’s worked well for me is to do one of three things in each article:
- Answer a question that many people have that isn’t being answered well
- Tell a story that people will enjoy and learn something from
- Create a heuristic, some new idea that people can use in their lives
I try not to tell self-indulgent stories that don’t help you, try to answer questions as best I can, and occasionally have some new thought that I want you to carry around with you. Those three things have done exceptionally well, and most blogs don’t do them.
You see tons of unhelpful content, advice from charlatans, stories that tell you nothing, or repackaged ideas from other people. What you don’t see as much of is the kind of content you can keep referring back to, instead of saying “oh that’s nice” before moving on to the next link.
But if you can do even one of these three things exceptionally, you’re just about guaranteed to have your content perform well in whatever niche you’re writing about.