Topsite Travails

Topsites are terrific. At least, I think they are. I appreciate the special combination of promotion and social proof that the right topsites can offer that I created the Nature Blog Network just to make sure we nature bloggers had one to call our own. Clearly, NBN has grown beyond the preliminary topsite but the list itself still gets much more interest than the blog, map, calendar, or any other page or feature we cook up. Obviously, I’m not the only one who thinks topsites are terrific.

Unfortunately, one important element of online society appears less than enamored of topsites. Webhosts hate them. At the best of times, topsites seem to chew up critical CPU cycles, clogging up servers and burning through bandwidth. Even worse, Turkish spammers and Russian hackers alike agree that messing with topsites can be fun; I’ve been on the losing side of both brands of malfeasance.

Webhosts hate topsites so consequently, the Nature Blog Network has moved around a bit. Now that a webhost dedicated specifically to hosting topsites had to shut down due to the aforementioned problems, we’ve come full circle to arrive at my favorite host, Downtownhost. With hope, our stay here will be long and pleasurable. But if the topsite component of the NBN begins to bring our newest server down, we’ll be faced with some difficult choices. So I’d like to get a sense from you, the community, about how essential you think the topsite component of this network is.

Please answer the following poll honestly and elaborate on your preference in the comments section. If you’re wondering, my preference is to keep the topsite as long as possible. This is what I’ll fight to do even if it means moving to another host down the road.

How Important is the Topsite to the NBN Concept?

View Results

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  1. September 10, 2009 at 2:56 AM | Permalink

    It is the toplist that brings most traffic to the site. Therefore, for all participants it helps giving maintaining page rank.
    I think the site would loose a lot without the toplist.
    What I would like to see are a summery of the latest blogpost in the sidebar of the main url.



  2. September 10, 2009 at 9:54 AM | Permalink

    If I’m correct in recalling the historical order of things, the NBN wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t've been for the toplist. The toplist was created, people joined, suddenly it felt like a community, and the blog, etc, was born of that. I think the topsite remains motivation for people to add the badges to their own sites to promote the NBN, and probably for a large majority of the sites on the list, it is the only reason they have any interest in the NBN – I don’t get the impression that the blog sees a lot of regular traffic from all 800+ members.

    Currently the NBN is the go-to place for nature blogs, the most complete summary of this genre of blog on the net. Now, it might be that we could do away with the “top” part and just keep the “list”, perhaps in alphabetical order, available for browsing either as a complete list, by category, or alphabetically. This would still serve the primary purpose of the site, I think, but may not be as heavy on bandwidth, etc, if that becomes a problem with webhosts.

    I like Gunnar’s idea of including a teaser of the blog somewhere prominent on the toplist page. I actually wonder how many people who visit the toplist remain blissfully unaware of the blog. I’m not sure where it would be possible to slot it in where it would be eyecatching without being intrusive. Maybe even just right above the “Community” paragraph, but in a dark box a la “Follow the NBN Blog on Facebook”?

  3. September 10, 2009 at 11:13 AM | Permalink

    To continue what Seabrooke mentions. Yes, the NBN blog does not get enough promotion and as she says most people on the Network is not even aware it exists. Mike inbound to the blog vs the toplist! What does it tell you?
    There is no obvious RSS button for subscription, the different categories can not easily be found. I wrote a post about Facebook for birders/naturebloggers for the NBN blog toolbox posts some time ago that can’t be found now. What is the point with a tool-box posts if they can’t be retrieved? Also the series with interviews of bloggers are exceptionally good value to read over and over again. But how to find them?
    Also in the side bar, one should be able to find the latest posts as I mentioned above.

  4. September 11, 2009 at 1:30 PM | Permalink

    I had a hard time voting on this. For me it’s not essential, but it is important. Just not ‘the most important.’ So I voted unimportant, though this overstates the case. Of course it’s not ‘unimportant’ to me, just not the most important.

    Semantics, semantics!! In the long run I think the other comments are probably correct that a lot of traffic would be lost without the toplist. And I hope it stays. But if worse comes to worst I personally could live without it. Not that I’d want to, but I certainly could.

    The one downside to it I think is that it’s too easy, like much of the web, to let statistics become more important than anything else. With tools like Google Analytics, etc., you can analyze your sites to death using ‘just numbers.’ And yet I don’t think that most of the NBN community would say that the most important thing to them in life is numbers. But statistics, whether toplists or something else, can seductively lead people, at least me, to overvalue them.

    My guess is that we’d all survive without the toplist if we had to.

  5. September 11, 2009 at 1:37 PM | Permalink

    It was the toplist that brought me here. I do check the blog (sometimes) and have it on a feed so I tend to watch even if I don’t always actually come all the way over, but it’s the list/ranking that makes this a unique place. Without it, the blog may survive, but the sense of inclusion will diminish. Being part of something is why most people are here (and the list delivers that in an easy and accessible and informative way).

  6. September 11, 2009 at 4:52 PM | Permalink

    Certainly a list of the sites involved is important but I voted unimportant because of the ranking aspect which I actually think is a negative. I want to be able to discover new sites through the list but whether or not I’m interested in those sites doesn’t depend at all on how popular they are.

    There are plenty of ways for an individual to find out how much traffic one’s own site is getting if that matters. Other than mild curiosity (and amusement such as when I declared myself first and last when I was the only one in my category) I don’t understand why anyone would care how they compare to other sites. Is it a competition to be #1? Are people supposed to feel superior or inferior to the other people below or above them?

  7. September 11, 2009 at 6:48 PM | Permalink

    I think the thing about the ranking is that it provides some sort of element that makes the site more participative. I appreciate it can have a negative effect, and I agree it’s not a competition. However, a flat listing is going to be pretty tedious and will reduce traffic to the overall list. I’ll freely admit I come to see how I am ‘doing’, but in doing so I also see other blogs around me, see who is a ‘fast mover’ and check out blogs that way. If the list simply had the new blogs added it, but didn’t otherwise change I’d almost never look at it. Just being honest here. I’m not so interested in the numbers (or specific ranking) as there are other tools for that; but it’s like a gentle game, like watching the ebb and flow of the tide. It never really changes, but occasionally you spot a piece of driftwood and investigate further.

  8. September 11, 2009 at 8:08 PM | Permalink

    It is not competition. However, it is fun to see how the blog is climbing in position on the list and to some extent an inspiration to blog more frequently. No blogposts for a while and automatically a drop….

    My blog is quite new, and I used Facebook and Twitter extensively to promote it. As John mentions it is a thin line when such promotion becomes annoying self-promotion to your followers. You must interact as well and share other people’s blogs by retweeting or linking on Facebook (the latter is not used by bloggers much, but it is very effective). I started a tweet club for birdbloggers on Twitter. In short it works like this.
    1. You submit weekly one of your best blogposts that you think will be of interest to many people. It can be something from the past you want to dust off or something completely new. It often has a great picture or video with Wow-factor. Or it something extremely usefull for other readers. Long texts without photos no matter what the subject don’t fare well in this initiative in my experience. The idea is to catch new readers with something catchy. Once they are regular followers they will be able to read longer posts.
    2. You submit in the comment section of my latest tweet-club post.This week here.
    3. When the next tweet club post is posted you should tweet all the other participants contributions up to three times spread out during the week.
    4. Between the tweets and retweets of the partipants and their followers most the posts get 100 or more clicks.

    As for now I am hosting the club, but I may leave it on rotational basis once it gets larger. As for now we are on issue #004 with #005 being published either today or tomorrow.

    The same principal can be used for Facebook. I take the participating blogposts with most clicks and link one daily on my Facebook profile wall. If you do the same, before you know it you shall be getting traffic from other people’s facebooks as well.

    This is a very fast way to get traffic. But obviously it helps if you write posts that people feel inspired to share with others.

  9. September 11, 2009 at 8:35 PM | Permalink

    It seems so simple — I didn’t realize such complex machinations were going on behind the scenes. My compliments to the entire NBN team.

    Here’s my ideas:

    (1) Periodically feature blogs at top somewhere prominently, regardless of ranking. Everyone should have there day in the sun.

    (2) The “teaser” would enhance utility of site, I agree.

  10. September 11, 2009 at 9:12 PM | Permalink

    I voted unimportant. I do think it is useful to have a catalogue of nature bloggers to make it easier for bloggers to find other blogs in similar niches, and the NBN should serve that role. However, the catalogue doesn’t necessarily have to be in toplist form. A toplist does draw traffic to NBN, and it does encourage a bit of healthy (or unhealthy) competition among bloggers. However, the toplist may not be as beneficial to blogs that are low in the rankings, with nearly 900 blogs on the list. Especially if the toplist software is making it difficult to find a hosting service, it may be worth exploring other options.

    One possibility would be to allow users to submit their sites and select a certain number of tags, and then allow users to search the listings based on the tags. This could be done with (or without) community ratings, testimonials, etc. Another would be to have a random listing so that blogs farther down in the rankings would benefit, too. I’m not sure how either of those would compare with a toplist in terms of server demands. But I do think it would be worth exploring whether there is an effective way to perform the networking service without the demands of a toplist.

    With plenty of advanced statistics packages freely available, there are other ways for bloggers to gauge how much of an audience they’re attracting.

    I agree with Gunnar and Seabrooke about the need for better promotion of the NBN blog. Maybe a sidebar widget at 10,000 Birds?

  11. September 11, 2009 at 9:19 PM | Permalink

    I love the discussion here. Without jumping right into the middle of it, I would like to note that the idea of promoting the blog more aggressively is excellent. However, because the toplist and blog operate on different platforms, a wordpress widget won’t work. We need a basic HTML solution. Any suggestions?

  12. September 12, 2009 at 12:02 AM | Permalink

    Mike – What about making the standard NBN button that everyone uses point to the blog, instead of the toplist? Then design a separate numerical rank button that would point to the toplist, if folks wanted to use that instead or in addition (I’m thinking of the rank button that Fat Birding uses). People who didn’t want to emphasize their rank could use the standard banner to point readers directly to the NBN blog, while those who wanted to display the rank could use both buttons.

    Also – the button itself could definitely use a little TLC and a fresh look. Maybe 3 or 4 different sizes and possibly a photo background. Something to make the button splashier. Also – by default the image is quite small, and when enlarged it gets blurry. I’ve seen the blurry button on a lot of member blogs. I think a small amount of work on the buttons could pay big dividends in terms of increasing click-throughs from member sites.

    Regarding the toplist, I really like it, but I also read the blog regularly. I think some kind of a daily featured blog randomizer in the sidebar would be great (however, the math indicates that even if sampling without replacement, individual blogs would get featured very infrequently this way because of the number of blogs on the network).

    I also think the idea of some form of subject tagging would be great, so that we could find blogs by narrower criteria than the broad “natural history” category for instance.

    Thanks for all of your hard work on the site, and good luck with finding a good home for us!

  13. September 12, 2009 at 10:52 AM | Permalink

    Although it’s not important to me, personally, I think the toplist is what brings us together as a community, and I’m not confident the community would exist without it – at least, not this early in its life cycle.

  14. September 12, 2009 at 1:45 PM | Permalink

    I had to vote ‘unimportant’ simply because the other options were less accurate, although calling it unimportant is false. But that’s the option I have. (Making note that the poll is flawed in that way…)

    I think the toplist is cool–certainly another way to view another kind of ranking, but that it’s generated only from page views and not feed views clouds its accuracy. Then again, popular blogs do not necessarily make good blogs, so the ranking doesn’t mean as much to me as it might to others.

    And I strongly suspect a great deal of the toplist viewing is coming from members looking at their own rankings… Though I could be wrong.

    I follow the blog, LOVE the blogger spotlight articles, always check out the new list entries when the summary is posted, and keep up with other NBN activities that way. I’d like to see more original content like that (e.g. a regularly appearing series of posts coming from members–like the spotlight series, only not ABOUT the blogger but BY the blogger [as a random example]).

    Overall, NBN is a great resource and community. Kudos to the founders!

  15. September 13, 2009 at 9:02 AM | Permalink

    The blog is the best part of the Nature Blog Network. I second Matt’s suggestion to make the button point there instead of to the top list (and this might be a good time to institute the change; I came here because my own button disappeared when you moved servers). I also agree with what Seabrooke says: you need some sort of directory, but not necesarily a top list. I’m wondering if there’s a hosted service you could use?

  16. September 13, 2009 at 9:19 AM | Permalink

    One thing that comes to mind is that for me the main toplist has become less useful as the member numbers have grown. With 900 blogs being ranked it gets a little silly. Blogs are being ranked by fractions of visits. The difference between blog number 300 and 700 are marginal.

    One of the things I find frustrating about the “stats” page is that it does not show my rant within my category, only within the entire 900 which is the less useful rank in my opinion.

    So, I don’t know if this is possible but one solution to reduce server load would be to dump the huge primary toplist which has become less useful and then split the smaller category toplists onto separate servers. When people come to the site they could click on a button for which toplist they want to see and then only those results would be displayed off the corresponding server.

    Not having the main toplist would be a change but I don’t personally think it would hurt the overall traffic to the site. In fact, I think forcing people to choose a category of toplist to view would expose more of our blogs to more people so it could be a real win-win from that perspective.

  17. September 13, 2009 at 9:24 AM | Permalink

    Interesting points. Alas, I don’t think we can point the button link to the blog instead of the topsite. I also don’t know how to offer multiple badge options. The badge is the counter that drives the topsite ranking. I’m open to any technical support from members that know their way around this particular platform.

    Jason, we’re all for more member generated content. Your idea of a weekly guest post sounds great. Tell us more. What would yours be about?

  18. September 13, 2009 at 11:50 AM | Permalink

    Since I voted “unimportant,” I’ll add that my favorite parts of the NBN site are the interviews with bloggers and some of the discussions about blogging.

  19. September 13, 2009 at 11:56 AM | Permalink

    My heartfelt appreciation to all that the NBN staff does in performing what is largely a thankless job.

    That said, I believe the toplist rankings generate unhealthy competition for higher rankings. Since rankings are based solely on visitor counts, there is an incentive for NBN bloggers to utilize numerous marketing tricks, or worse, artificial ‘hit generating’ sites, to increase rankings. Since higher rankings generate more traffic, use of these techniques is rewarded even though no effort was made to actually increase the quality of their blog content. I’ve even seen NBN bloggers giddily post images of the toplist showing their blog when it “hit the front page.”

    Everybody has their own definition of what consititutes a “good blog,” but honestly, in browsing through certain categories, I’m puzzled by the rankings that some blogs have – both good ones that should rank higher and vice versa.

    I’d like to see a directory of nature blogs that doesn’t rank them, but instead uses keyword categorization to group blogs with similar subject matter. The user can decide for themselves which of those are “good” and which aren’t. If blogs must be ranked, it should be done by some mechanism other than hit counts that are so easily influenced by artificial means that have nothing to do with quality or true readership.

    Ted C. MacRae

  20. September 13, 2009 at 8:48 PM | Permalink

    LOL! You caught me with my britches down, Mike. I should have seen that coming.

    What would I post? If I had to do it right now, I’d offer a photographic/creative piece centered on autumnal migrations, possibly with a hint of urban wildlife and/or drought considerations thrown in for good measure. As an off-the-cuff idea, that’s pretty close to what’s hot on my mind.

    Although the idea of a regular member post was totally random, I thought it coupled nicely with the regular blogger spotlight feature. In one case, you get to know the blogger; in another, you get to know at least a small snippet of their work.

    Let me add that Ted stated with more eloquence what I was trying to say: The toplist engenders a sense of competition while a directory of bloggers might spawn more a sense of community. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re just different.

  21. September 13, 2009 at 8:51 PM | Permalink

    How would a directory be different than a toplist as far as function. Can’t people use the toplist as a directory currently?

    If you were to do an alphabetical listing directory I can suddenly see there being all these new blogs that start with the letter A.

  22. September 14, 2009 at 12:19 AM | Permalink

    It seems unlikely that existing NBN blogs will change their names to “AAA Bugs/Birds/Blooms R Us” :) Even if new blogs try such gimickry, there is no implied validation of toplist status for blogs that begin with the letter A like there is with the current visitor count-based ranking.

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