Counterargument to the Importance of Categories in Blogs

CategoriesIn an interview with Lorelle Van Fossen on adii, Lorelle says,

I have a very narrow focus on Lorelle on WordPress. There are a lot of topics I’d love to cover but won’t. I write about blogging and WordPress. That’s basically it. If it doesn’t tie in nicely, it won’t go on that blog. I write very little about monetizing blogs as that turns blogs into businesses, and there are plenty who cover that market. The only time I cover that subject is when it directly applies to WordPress and WordPress.com blogs. So it’s a narrow path I write on that blog.

Part of Lorelle’s success is her tight focus on a highly popular topic, WordPress — especially with a how-to bent. (She also writes for The Blog Herald, which is another excellent resource to learn about blogging—but only about blogging.)

Two Small Exceptions

It’s fine to keep your categories narrow and focused, but there are two small exceptions where categories become problematic:

  1. If you’re just starting out your blog, you may not know what categories you’re most interested in. If you lock yourself into the wrong categories up front, you may not find inspiration to post often. Blogging can become a chore.
  2. If your focus is too narrow, you may get bored with the topic. As human beings, we generally have a variety of interests.

Content Springs from Focus

On the other hand, much of what Lorelle says is true. As a prime example, the Hello Kitty Hell blog seems to be going on strong for almost a year now and has about 850 readers. It’s amazing that someone can maintain a lively blog with such a narrow focus. (Of course I don’t really read it.)

Beth Long, a creative technical writer, says that having a focus for her blog gives her more inspiration to write. She says,

My former blog was anemic and badly tended, with random posts about random topics interspersed through the months with no regularity or common theme. This blog, on the other hand, has a clearly stated focus (the intersection of the creative and the technical), and while I’m not afraid to stray from the main topic of the blog, the very fact of having a main topic has been crucial in enabling me to post almost daily.

So yes, content springs from having focus. And having focus creates appeal for readers. But …

Counterargument to Categories

Despite the importance of having focus, there are also variables of voice and personality. Some writers can write about anything and I’ll find it interesting. My wife’s blog is a case in point. She’s just a clever, witty writer and I enjoy reading her perspectives.

I would find it boring if she always wrote about the same topic. Can you imagine our dinner conversations?

Same goes for novelists. It’s not the subject or topic they’re writing about that matters — it’s their voice, their charismatic literary persona that draws us in and captivates us. Like a good date, you can spend the night talking about everything and nothing — and be perfectly happy, not remembering a thing of what you talked about. Instead, you remember the liveliness, the emotion and energy.

And like dating, blogs are tools that build relationships. They are not encyclopedic entries. Blogs are social software, a realm where voice, persona, authenticity, and realness matter. (Which is why I can’t understand why Scott Abel writes his blog in third person.)

So while yes, categories are important. You should have a focus on your blog. I should expect to find a somewhat common theme. But I should also learn to love reading you.

A question for my readers: Do you read any blogs with a voice and persona that stands out in a captivating way?

Additional Resources

Madcap Flare Adobe Robohelp

This entry was posted in blogging, general on by .

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

18 thoughts on “Counterargument to the Importance of Categories in Blogs

  1. Pingback: About « Lorelle on WordPress

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  3. Lorelle

    Interesting take on the category issue.

    One aspect you haven’t covered is the issue that confronts many new bloggers after they have been blogging for a while. I recommend they start out with only a few categories, well-defined ones that group things together rather than narrow things down. Then add more categories as they become necessary.

    Also, don’t treat categories like tags. That tends to leave a mess on your blog.

    If you start out with a ton of categories, then you realize that you only have one post in 5 categories after you’ve published a hundred or more blog posts, doesn’t that look odd?

    With only 5 orphanish posts, you can easily edit the posts and move them into a better category, removing the ignored categories. But if you change your category system to refine it and make it more keyword-savvy, then the administration of moving all those posts into new categories is a PAIN.

    I’ve spent HOURS and DAYS moving posts around in categories in the past, so when I started Lorelle on WordPress, I was much smarter about categories. It’s easier to add than to remove a category. Start small and build.

    As for the narrow content, I believe that every blogger must decide things for themselves on what they want to cover. If you want to be the expert on a specific subject, establishing a reputation, then keep your focus narrow. If you want to be the jack of all trades, then blog away.

    It will be interesting to see how the tagging issue versus categories comes up again when WordPress adds tags to the next version.

    I’d love to hear your prespective on the tags vs categories issue.

  4. Tom

    Like most of the WordPress community, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of tags. Ultimately, I think tags will help readers find better related posts.

    Blogs pose interesting problems for information architecture. Blogs can have hundreds of posts in dozens of categories. Some of the posts can be gold, others mediocre. How do you sort it all so that readers see more than your latest posts on the home page? I don’t think readers use categories much at all when browsing a website. We’re much more interested in Top 10 Posts lists and other novel selections.

    Tags are supposed to provide categories on more of a microlevel. However, tags alone won’t be very interesting. We’ll need related posts plugins that find similar posts based on tags (tags should provide better post matching than keywords).

    Ultimately, I’m hoping that through tagging, the Related Posts section at the bottom of my posts can bring up more accurately related entries. 70% of my blog visitors are supposedly first-timers, so they stumble upon a random post out of context. The Related Posts should show them other posts related to the topic they’re interested in. That’s one effective way to help readers find content that’s not strictly on the home page, which was perhaps written months ago.

    At one time I was about to manually configure the related entries for my posts through Jerome’s Keywords plugin, but I already had 250+ posts, so I figured if I was going to go back through each post and tag it with keywords, I only wanted to do it once. I thought I’d wait for the tag feature to do this.

    However, I also think the Blog Category Index you guys have going on the Blog Herald is fascinating. In this sense, I’m guessing you have 50+ categories to choose from for each post, but you only select a handful to show to readers in your category section. When tags are released, are you going to have to restructure that system?

    Thanks for your comment.

  5. Gordon

    And this is why I have two blogs!

    One, my personal (long running) blog is my ‘anything goes’ area. I write about a large variety of things, and have a nicely developed audience who, I’ve been told, enjoy my style of writing and (importantly in this discussion) enjoy the fact that I write about different things!

    That does mean my comment counts wander around, and remain unpredictable, but it’s a personal blog, a hobby, it’s not the end of the earth if no-one comments.. (just feels that way!).

    My ‘professional’ blog was started recently to give me focus, and to allow me to capture my thoughts on work related issues without ‘boring’ my readers on my personal blog. So far it seems to be working.

    And like Lorelle (who also appears in the WordPress Wiki docs! Does she ever sleep!) I learned from my personal blog and kept the number of categories in my professional blog to a minimum, and I’m actually looking to cut it down already (I’m only a few posts in!).

    To me the search function becomes crucial though, as I rarely use categories on other sites, preferring to gamble on the search results to get to what I want, quicker.

  6. Rhonda

    I’m with Gordon!

    On my current ‘to do’ list are these items:

    * WordPress – find a host and set up own
    * Create a specific technical writing blog – start by harvesting useful content from all those emails I’ve sent over the years! This would likely become my ‘professional’ blog.

    My current blogs have different focuses – one is random stuff, more a public diary that includes *some* posts on tech writing; the other is an incomplete online record of my travels over the years.

    I started the travel one (http://travelog.wordpress.com/) as I wanted a central place to store all those travel diaries I’ve written on various trips. Some date back to the early 1980s, and weren’t in any sort of electronic form. At the back of my head is the idea of publishing them through Lulu (http://www.lulu.com) or Blurb (http://www.blurb.com) or similar. But only for me. No-one else would be interested in them, and they really only have meaning to me. Certain entries evoke a lot of memories of people and sights and sounds and smells, even if those sensory things aren’t mentioned in the content.

    The other one (“At Random” http://sandgroper14.wordpress.com/) started as a means of documenting life stuff and experiences that I didn’t want to forget – like moving house! Even now, reading back over some of my entries about my attendances at football matches, brings back the thrill of being there and exalting in a win – and commiserating in a loss.

    Like Tom said, “blogs are social software”. My website is my company’s persona; my blogs are me.

  7. Tom

    Rhonda,

    I highly recommend unifying your content into one blog. Here’s why: when you have three different blogs to maintain, the others invariably get neglected. It’s easier to have just one. Blogging itself is a time-consuming activity. When you have several blogs, your efforts and time are diluted even more.

    I wrote a post detailing how you can have multiple subblogs inside one blog. See <a href=”http://www.idratherbewriting.com/2007/07/07/making-special-hidden-categories-separate-from-your-home-page-and-feed/” rel=”nofollow”>this post</a>.

    As far as hosts go, I don’t know if you need an Australian based one, given your location, or if a U.S. based host would work equally as well. I use Blue Host and have been happy with them, particularly because they offer Live Chat. I also like Lunar Pages. I’ve heard good things about Dream Host. Whatever host you use, I recommend that you request a server with PHP5. If you ever decide you want to install MediaWiki, you’ll need a server with PHP5. They can transfer it later, but it takes a day or so and is a minor hassle.

    With self-hosted WordPress, you can export your content from one blog to another. So even if you have Blogger posts and WordPress.com posts, you can import them into one central WordPress database.

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  9. Scott Abel

    Tom:

    I write in the third person (not always, but often) because I want my site — TheContentWrangler.com — to be an authority, not me. TheContentWrangler.com is more of a news site than a blog. It’s a site that anyone can read and benefit from if they are interested in the topics I cover. Sometimes, I add a little opinion to the mix. It’s fun. But, I’m not consumed by my digital reflection in the web browser mirror as so many other bloggers are.

    Bloggin, let us not forget, is done for a reason. Most often, for attention.

    Opinions, especially mine, tend to piss people off. I tell it like it is and don’t mince words, as anyone who has had a conversation with me knows. If I were to spout off like that on my blog, I wouldn’t be attracting the audience I do.

    I use blogging tools to publish content. I don’t care about the blog as a pure way of communicating in a certain way. I care about it as a free (or almost, in my case) tool that allows me to communicate with a worldwide audience.

    And, I’ve made a pretty decent living as a result. I earn far more money than I used to sitting in a cubicle farm or working as a pure play consultant.

    In reality, my blog is a fast track to Google and therefore I get traffic the more content I produce and the more topics I write about.

    Additionally, my blog is a filing cabinet for things I don’t want to forget. Or, those things I want to be able to share with others.

    I have some other initiatives underway in which I will be more of a typical blogger. I’ll be spouting off about things that are important to me. And, perhaps some others will find it interesting. Maybe not. Either way, I’ll write content to fill that blog because it gives me some other type of reward that is not monetary. I guess it’s podium from which to shout. :)

    As you are well aware, blogs are nothing more than web-enabled authoring and publishing tools. They are delivered using the SaaS (Software as a Service) or hosted software model, which I whole-heartedly support. I am involved in other content businesses outside of the techcom space that utilize SaaS because that is where the action is.

    Today, I am creating websites (with the help of blogging programmer) for conferences and magazines that can be easily duplicated and resold, over and over and over again. It’s single-sourcing with a twist. Write the code once, and reuse it. Tweak the colors and the logo and you’ve got a new billable client. Of course, those websites need top quality content, and that’s where I make additional revenue. I charge to write content. But, I’ve been doing this for years. That’s what technical writers do. The only difference is that now I have a whole world of possibilities, not just the local tech writing market. And, I prefer it that way. :)

    In fact, I’ll be changing it to a magazine format (that also includes user-generated blogs) later this year.

  10. Tom

    Scott, thanks for your response. I was hoping my link to you would get your attention. I’m interested in what you say here:

    I have some other initiatives underway in which I will be more of a typical blogger.

    I assume we won’t learn what you have planned until you launch it? Can you give us any hints?

    You also wrote,

    I’m not consumed by my digital reflection in the web browser mirror as so many other bloggers are.

    I agree that some blogs seem navel-gazing. Some people like to parade in their own spotlight. However, writing in first-person does not automatically make a blog self-obsessed. Actually, using the first person to write is a move toward authenticity and realness. Our opinions are ours regardless of the point of view (first person or third person).

    Blogging is heavily built around the individual’s voice. I think your blog would be stronger if, instead of just publishing information, you gave us your honest evaluation of some of these technologies.

    A lot of people read your blog because you are an authority on subjects, esp. content management. But when you announce a new technology in a post, I’m often looking for Scott’s opinion on it. Is this technology or service worthwhile? What does Scott think? Instead, this evaluative element is often left out, and I’m not sure why. For example, you’ve been pretty silent on the RoboHelp resurgence.

    As you say, you are a very opinionated person. Of course stating your opinion will turn some people off; on the other hand, it will also create appeal for readers too.

    Your blog is highly successful, so I’m not about to tell you to change your angle. I’m just saying that blogs are social spaces where first person writing is welcome if not the norm.

    Thanks again for your comment.

    Tom

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  13. Beth Adele Long

    Just a quick note to say that this post has been percolating in my brain ever since it went up.

    This week I restructured my categories — I finally felt like I had a grasp of how topics clustered in my writing, and I was able to consolidate 20-odd categories down to 10. I’ll probably collapse a couple of the current categories next week.

    I’m glad I gave myself permission to sprawl when I started out, and I’m equally happy to have a more compact category set. Easier to write to, easier to search on, and tidier.

    Once again, thanks for elucidating the how’s and why’s of blogging!

    + Beth +

  14. Scott Abel

    Beth:

    I ike what you did on your site. I, too, recently revamped my site, reorganized, recategorized, and redesigned the interface. These combined improvements have led to significantly increased traffic (5 – 10 times more unique/new visitors each day) and page loads (almost 20 times more per day — so many, that I thought my stat counter was malfunctioning).

    One of the biggest compliments I’ve received is modularlizing the content into more discreet categories and organizing that content on pages dedicated to that type of content — as opposed to the let’s-put-a-link-to-everything-on-the-home-page-approach I used previously.

    It’s nice to hear about your experiences. I find I learn from fellow bloggers daily. Thanks for sharing.

    Scott Abel
    TheContentWrangler.com

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