> I recently published three major articles. The three articles received a combined 45,000 views from HackerNews, Medium, Reddit, and other social media. I don’t have expertise in content marketing, so take my learnings with healthy skepticism. Each article was an ugly brute force writing process combined with many lucky factors (detailed). See Part Two (below) for detailed analytics about traffic, New Domains and SEO, social media, tips, and mistakes. The three major articles were How Anki Saved My Software Career, Takeaways from OpenAI Five, Strategies, Tips and Tricks for Anki
Audio Version of Part I. How It Happened
I stared at the floor. The Reddit comment felt like a punch in the stomach. Fuck.
My content marketing was a train wreck. Why was I doing this again?
Many software engineers love the great product lie. “All great products market themselves". I should know. I’ve lied to myself countless times. It’s easier to keep coding on the “great" product than try marketing on an indifferent market. The outcomes were always the same; lack of marketing meant guarantee of death. It was time to grow up. Marketing first, code second. No more exceptions. To start marketing, I needed traffic. But from where?
Ten years ago, spamming generic content guaranteed search engine traffic. Not anymore. I needed to create something Google would rank:
I write emails all the time. How hard could it be to write content? I’ll write a technical summary about DeepMind’s AI Bot AlphaStar. Can’t wait for all that traffic.
I started with a short research phase. Reading two research papers jumped to five, ten, forty. I watched lectures and read anything related to AlphaStar. Frustration boiled. "Just stop procrastinating and just write!" So I wrote. A lot. But something was wrong. Over a few weeks, I crammed words into sentences. At a cursory glance, they even looked like paragraphs ... But they weren’t paragraphs.
Being cutesy about a technical topic resulted in verbal diarrhea. 3,792 words of shit. I suddenly understood why good technical summaries were rare. Summarizing technical material is hard.
Good writers have something to say. I had nothing to say.
“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald
 Bad pun, but I couldn't help it.
Writers battle the world of indifference. A writer's biggest challenge? Can they hook readers from the first sentence and entice them to the last? My first attempt failed. Humbled, I began writing something personal I knew about. Using spaced repetition as a software engineer. Still, easier topics don’t mean completion. For two weeks, I wrote, revised and rewrote. From draft to publishable and back to draft. Tuesday’s best paragraphs were deleted on Wednesday.
Content marketing guides brush over this fact; great content requires countless iteration and revisions.  Maybe the answer was to care less about the content, because I cared too much. I spent countless hours in self-doubt, uncertain if my work justified ten readers. A lingering thought remained though, would I have read this? Yes. Then go finish writing.
 I also kind of suck at writing. In no way am I implying my content is even “good” compared to the greats.
I finally finished. I posted on Reddit. And the Internet's visceral response? Worthless. I whined to myself. "I don't want to do any more bullshit marketing; I just want to code."
It took me a day before I had the courage to post it elsewhere. This time my bruised ego only allowed low-traffic sites. Rationale? No one will see you bleed.
I hit submit to a small Anki site. After posting, Gmail alerted me that someone commented. My asshole clenched. I opened the email.
Thanks for sharing this very interesting (and motivating) read. You should also post this in the unofficial user forum at https://www.reddit.com/r/Anki
I stared at the comment. It was genuinely kind and my psyche needed it. But it also felt like a mean joke … post on Reddit ... again? Granted, a different subreddit …
Fuck it. I clicked r/Anki’s submit. It received numerous upvotes, nice comments, and I was joyous. I had 300 visitors that day from Reddit, which was about 250 more than I could have imagined. This was a great day.
I'm eternally grateful to those with constructive/kind comments (not just for me, but for anyone). Had it not been for them, I probably would have been too scared to post again. I went back on Reddit, bought a gold pack and gifted gold to the kind comments.
HackerNews (HN) is a high-traffic tech syndication. It’s one of my most frequently visited sites. I was also deeply scared of submitting. I’ve witnessed comments rip much better content to shreds; my ego wasn’t ready for that. That weekend, I had been awake for 36 hours (another story). At the 36th hour, sleep deprivation shut out my fragile ego and reasoned I should submit to HN before sleeping.
It saw four probable outcomes:
Being delirious makes anything seem logical. I hit submit and passed out.
Twitter was oddly the first site I visited after waking up (I rarely visit Twitter). On my feed, Garry Tan (famous person, I am a nobody who follows him) had ALSO written about spaced repetition. Sigh. I felt self-deprecation? bemusement? Out of all the possible topics, my article now had to compete with garry’s writing? We even picked the SAME cover image!
Wait... What?! Holy crap ... Did Garry tweet your article!?
Immediately after I fell asleep, my submission had quickly gathered upvotes. Garry had tweeted my article after seeing it on the first page of HackerNews.
Being on the first page of HN is akin to winning the lottery; it’s random. Sometimes readers upvote your submission, sometimes they don't. I have no idea why I won. But winning gets you traffic. A LOT.
Traffic immediately peaked after posting; 2,000 visitors in the first hour. (Detailed logs below). Considering 300 visitors made me happy, this was downright euphoria and madness. After realizing what happened, I jumped up and down like a kid on Christmas for a good five minutes. My downstairs neighbors hated me.
About a month later, my follow-up article also got on first page (which was ridiculous lol). Thankfully, someone had posted my follow-up article.
Disclaimer: I have seen much better content not get traction on HN, so marketing just for HackerNews is probably ill-advised. I don’t expect this post to get traction from HN because of two reasons
I was surprised how hard and long it was to finish articles. I’m too self-conscious about my writing, resulting in many revisions with diminishing returns. That being said, discovering someone liked your material is exhilarating. These three articles got more traffic than I could have imagined.
Plenty of non-writers have trouble finishing their articles. If you’re not a writer and finding difficulty finishing, start a writing routine. I learned a lot about writing routines the hard way. Even professional writers have difficulty finishing, don’t be discouraged! I wrote the last sentence for my future self.
For those just starting, learning lessons from my mistakes:
In short, learn from my mistakes.
Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others. - Otto von Bismarck
There were a few books I used as writing mentors. It’s helpful to have a good gist to avoid common mistakes. I've also included links to Derek Siver's summaries to prevent you from reading/procrastinating make sure you start.
On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Nobody Wants To Read Your Shit by Steven Pressfield
The Elements of Style by William Stuart
Daily Rituals - How Artists Work by Mason Currey
Other recommended tips (and/or gleamed from writers):
Good luck! Writing is a painful, but rewarding process. I hope this motivates someone to finish that article that's been stuck.
Visitor Statistics (as of 6/6/2019)
|Article Name||Date Published||Initial Views from HN (2 Days)||Initial Views from Reddit (1 Day)||Initial Views On Medium||Total Views on Medium||Total Views on Site (Cumulative)||Total Views (Combined)||Average Daily Visits (Lookback: 7 Days )|
|How Anki Saved My Software Career||3/27/2019||~13k||455 (Multiple subreddits)||1,302||~2k (38% Medium, 62% External)||21,339||~23k||25.14|
|Takeaways from OpenAI Five||4/22/2019||50||246||1,868||~3.5k (31%, 69% External)||892||~4.5k||3.14|
|Strategies and Tips for Anki||4/29/2019||~11k||808||N/A||N/A||17,793||~18k||61.85|
I received a second wave of traffic from a HackerNewsletter.
- Based on unique users, not total views. - Google Analytics was changed to UTC to match Cloudflare's default UTC Timezone. - Data was exported from Cloudflare via API, Google Analytics's API wasn't straightforward, so that was manual. - If interested, here's a quick script to export from Cloudflare. You'll have to change the variables for it to work, but it should give you the gist (if you have pandas). - % Blocked/Missing is calculated as (1- Google Analytics / Cloudflare). I initially tried graphing just Cloudflare / Google Analytics, but the numbers were really erratic. - 2019/3/30 was when How Anki Saved My Software Career hit HN's first page. 2019/5/5 was when Strategies and Tips for Anki hit HN's first page.**
You should not use Medium as your primary blog! Have your own blog and import articles into Medium. You need to be in control of your own distribution platforms.
I published with two different publications, FreeCodeCamp and Towards Data Science.
Medium gives Read Ratio analytics. My writing needs improvement. I debated not showing this, because I'm a little ashamed.
I was surprised a tweet from @garrytan brought ~300-500+ additional visitors
What's magical is waking up to the first page of HN with an article you wrote (YESSSSSSSSS, AHHH) and an influential Twitter celebrity that you follow has shared it (OMFG NO WAY). Thank. you. so. much!
— Jeffrey Shek (@shekkery)
March 31, 2019
Split an article into multiple parts.
One thing I learned early on is that, on the internet at least, the title you give to an essay has a huge effect on its spread. -Paul Graham
How Anki Saved My Engineering Career
Takeaways from OpenAI Five (2019)
Everything I Know: Strategies, Tips, and Tricks for Anki
When I started blogging, I didn't know what a backlink was. Now, after reading so many SEO articles, I'm listing things I learned. Most SEO blogs are trying to sell you something. It's infuriating to find information, since it's hidden behind six filler paragraphs, a popup, or some other dark pattern.
The bolded bullet points are the most important. Some decisions should be made before writing.
Have a robots.txt!
Make sure that your logos have alt!
<img src="your_logo.gif" alt="Name Of Your Brand">
Decide on the URL slash structure of your links & articles.
Decide if you want https://www.brand.com or https://brand.com
Any external links should be passed with a target="_blank". Do this so that a visitor stays on your page, otherwise, you'll likely lose some visitors. If you click on any links here, they will almost always open a new window. If they don't, I forgot a link.
<a href="https://www.senrigan.io/blog/" target="_blank">External Link In New Window!</a>
Your page must load fast on mobile.
Update your previous content and update w/a "Last Updated". Google prioritizes updated content (it also keeps track of changes).
Use a subfolder for your blog, NOT a subdomain.
Being on the frontpage of HackerNews means you get a lot of additional links back to your content.
Black Hat SEO
Most of the highest value links were from link syndicators like Flipboard, Diigo, HN (because I posted there!), Pinboard.
Most of social media gives links with a "nofollow", which tells Google "this is an external link, but I don't vouch for it".
After three months ... Using Google Incognito + [keyword]
Anki's Tip and Strategies
is bringing in an additional daily ~62 views a day. Hopefully this number increases as content ranks better.
The medium-term marketing strategy is about creating marketing flywheels. Can I create useful content that boosts previous content? Can I do this enough till growth compounds?
|Article Name||Total Views (All Sources: Medium.com And Direct Traffic)||Newsletter Signups||Signup Rate Per 1000 Views|
|How Anki Saved My Software Career||~23k||26||1.13|
|Takeaways from OpenAI Five||~4.5k||2||.45|
|Strategies and Tips for Anki||~18k||19||.947|
The average industry rate is ~1.19% for full-screen-can't-see-shit popups. The rate per 1000 views would be 11.9 signups. That's a 10x increase. That's insane.
Netlify and Gatsby (React) power this site.
Gatsby gives great mobile performance out of the box..
If you're using Gatsby and Netlify, make sure you fix the trailing slash 301 issues!
If possible, create your blog as a static site. This is harder than WordPress.
All things being equal, prioritize publishing content first and not an over-engineered tech stack.
is a great community!
How To Get Published in FreeCodeCamp
Mode's SQL Introduction
General Blogging Tips
Use a Table of Contents
Have someone proofread your content.
When you're done with a feature article, publish it to smaller traffic sites first. This will make sure there are no major gaffes (titles misspelled, key factual errors, blind spots, etc) that hurt an article's credibility.
Have someone hold you accountable on deadlines. It'll force you to limit the scope of an article.
Engineers like to joke about the ninety-ninety rule. It constantly happens in writing software.
The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time. - Tom Cargill (Bell Labs)
I was surprised to find the 90/90 rule also in writing. Everything took more time than I estimated, procrastination was rampant. My brain was constantly distracted by content I could write for other topics.
Brain: and then you can write about this other subject and code that, and then you should ... Me: BRAIN! Please! I JUST need you to focus for two hours! Brain: Okay.
~ Two minutes later ...
Brain: And you should write about this more INTERESTING topic, and you have this awesome idea, so you should buy that domain name before it's taken because buying a domain name is the most URGENT thing to do RIGHT NOW at 2:35 AM Me: Sigh. Brain: HEY CAN YOU HEAR ME? SOMEONE IS PROBABLY GOING TO SNIPE THAT DOMAIN NAME IF YOU DON'T BUY IT. Me: Sigh ... Takes out credit card.
Each article took over sixty hours to research, write and do revisions. My article about OpenAI 5 and this article took particularly longer.
Don't worry. This is on the high-end of time committed. Experienced writers can create good material in less than twenty hours. Having a strong outline ahead of time is ... recommended.
Links and Projects Readers Emailed Me
**Some people emailed me for feedback for spaced repetition projects. I know how hard marketing is ... so take a look if you're interested! I have no affiliation, just passing it forward.
It normally takes six months before Google indexes new domains and content. I focused on creating content first, because building a product without external discoverability is a guarantee of death.
The next published content won't be an article, but will be a free and open-sourced tool applying open-sourced machine models for writing. I know I'm being vague, and machine learning is full of hype, but revisit in three weeks. As always, I'm sending this to newsletter subscribers first.