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"What I'm Reading": A New Feature on My Site and a Tweak of Writer River

by Tom Johnson on Jun 24, 2009
categories: technical-writing web-designwordpress

I'm trying something a little new on my blog. Previously, every time I read a cool post, I submitted the link to Writer River. The problem with that, however, is that posting to another site isn't such a smart search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. Using the Writer River method, people who follow trackbacks don't follow them back to my site (, but rather go to another site (

Additionally, it's more beneficial for me to link to others from my site, because it has a higher authority than Links from higher authority sites are more beneficial in transferring search engine visibility than links from lower authority sites. For example, a link from will push you to the top of Google results while a link from Sam's vacation blog probably won't have much influence.

So here's what I did to better search engine optimize my site. I created a new section on my site called What I'm Reading. The page shows all the posts I'm reading (which I want to share), with short commentaries or summaries about the content. This way I keep the keywords and links on my site. I'm hoping that this strategy will create more pull back to my own site and will increase the rank of those I link to, more so than links from Writer River.

I didn't want to limit my reading page to blogs only, because I read books too. So I used Shelfari, an online bookshelf site, to embed a few bookcases of books I'm reading, books I plan to read, and books I've read. If you buy a book through one of my Shelfari bookshelves, I will someday get Amazon affiliate revenue. It just made sense to consolidate everything I'm reading on a single page.

Technically, setting up this What I'm Reading page wasn't that easy to do. The WordPress geeks can read on for the details, because this post is moving from conceptual to technical information. "What I'm Reading" is a category on my site hidden from the main page and RSS feed. I also excluded the posts from appearing in the Next and Previous links at the bottom of the home page (index.php).

I then used a custom category template, naming it category-1246.php, so that when users click the What I'm Reading category (the category ID is 1246), it opens category-1246.php rather than category-php or archives.php, which is the generic template for all categories. With this custom category template, I customized the sidebar, added some intro text at the top and inserted the javascript code from Shelfari to display the bookshelf widgets.

In the custom category template (category-1246.php), I also hid the post title and manipulated the styles a bit. I hid the title tag because I'm using the WordPress Press It bookmarklet to quickly and easily post links from the articles I'm reading while viewing the articles (rather than logging in to my WordPress dashboard to post them). The Press It bookmarklet automatically creates a link to the article I'm reading, so I didn't want this link to be redundant with the title of the post—hence I removed the title from the category-1246.php template.

However, here's where it got tricky. Trackbacks are one of my main SEO strategies, because most people are curious to know what you're writing about them, even more so than what you add in the comments below their posts. A trackback sends a notification to the original blog authors that someone has linked to them. It's like tapping them on the shoulder and saying hey, this is what I'm writing about you.

The problem is that a trackback's link opens the single post template (single.php) rather than the category-1246.php template I customized. This leads to a major shortcoming of WordPress: you can customize category.php, but not single.php.

With a little research, I found a script that I could insert into my functions.php file that gives me the same functionality with single.php as category.php, so I then created a custom single-1246.php that matched category-1246.php, and I added a note at the top letting people know a bit about the page, because I didn't want people thinking I was scraping their feed (according to Feedburner, about 100 people are scraping [stealing and reposting] my RSS feed). My short commentary and summary next to their links also helps avoid the appearance of scraping.

I also created a custom RSS feed and email delivery option for content specifically on my What I'm Reading page. However, I wanted the posts to update my regular Twitter feed (where I have most of my followers). Using Twitterfeed, I pointed the secondary RSS feed to my main Twitter account, so now I have two feeds pointing to my Twitter account. When my main feed updates Twitter, the tweet is prefaced with New Post. When the What I'm Reading feed updates Twitter, it's prefaced by Recommended Read.

Now, there's another complication. I'm not abandoning Writer River (a community link blog I started) by any means. I'm trying to move to a model that allows more flexibility and automated submissions. To accommodate this, I had to change Writer River a bit. First, because of all the spam that keeps seeping through, I changed the default registered user role to Contributor (which means I'll have to approve their drafts first). For people I recognize, I'll keep their role as Author.

Additionally, the Writer River home page now shows an aggregated RSS feed rather than links to the direct Writer River posts. The aggregated RSS feed displays results from my What I'm Reading category feed, the Writer River feed, and anyone other "good-reads" type feeds that people want to submit to me. The items in the feed are sorted by date.

To aggregate the feeds, I used Yahoo Pipes, which allows you to create and filter and apply rules to large numbers of feeds, and then spits out a single RSS feed from those multiple feeds.

I created a page on Writer River called Latest Posts, and I set this as the home page of the site rather than a reverse chronological list of only the latest posts from Writer River. (You can do this with WordPress through the Settings > Reading options.) On this new Writer River home page, I used the Simplepie plugin for WordPress to parse and display the Yahoo Pipes feed.

The benefit of displaying an aggregated Yahoo Pipes feed on Writer River rather than just content posted to Writer River is that it allows every blogger to do what I've done with my What I'm Reading page. Bloggers can simply designate a category that says "Recommended Reads" and select it when they post links to something worth reading.

I guess this assumes the bloggers would also be on WordPress, because WordPress has feeds for each category by default. For example, the feed for my What I'm Reading category is I'm not sure if the same is true for Blogger and other platforms.

So if you're a blogger and you have a category for good-reads, or something similar, let me know what the RSS feed is and I'll aggregate it with the Writer River Pipes feed.

Finally, to encourage people to share links on Writer River, I created a Spring Widget, which is a little RSS reader that anyone can embed in the sidebar of their blog. To get the code for the Spring Widget, just click the Get this widget link below the Spring Widget.

I want to personally thank Alistair Christie, a tech comm. podcaster and blogger in the UK, for providing feedback and advice on how to handle the Writer River setup. If anyone else has suggestions for me, please let me know.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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