Trailblazing Your Blog, Backward and Forward

One of the reasons blogs can be so engaging is that they evolve and interact through time. We get to see how things change. In that sense, many blog postings can be considered snapshots of a world, event, or issue in progress.

However, each posting also stands on its own, residing at a unique and permanent web address (URL). When looking at a single, static posting, it can be difficult to follow the tendrils that stretch forward and back in time to other postings in that blog. Which postings were the precursor to this one, and which were the follow-up?

One way to make it easier for people to engage with your weblog over time is to make sure you blaze a trail for postings that bear a direct sequential relationship. And I can attest from my many hiking expeditions, a well-blazed trail can be easily followed in either direction.

Here’s how you can do it, in your blog…

It’s really simple. Basically, it all comes down to using links for navigation, and for narration — to move a “story” forward. It allows readers arriving in the midst of your narrative to easily backtrack (gain context) or catch up (learn the latest).

  • Backward blaze: A link to a previous directly relevant story, worked into the narrative. For instance, you might note in your blog entry: Last week, I wrote about my problems rebuilding my Mustang’s engine. Here’s how I solved the vexing transmission problem today…” The underlined text would be a manually created link to the previous posting. So a reader might think, “What problems? Oh, let me see the earlier posting…” and follow the blaze back down the trail. Lots of bloggers make backward blazes, it’s pretty common.
  • Forward blaze: This is actually the part of blog trailblazing that often gets overlooked in weblogs, thus leaving hapless readers stuck in a kind of time warp. A forward blaze is a link inserted after the fact into the body of a previous posting to alert readers that the story has developed further. When you do see these, they generally take the form of: “See this update…” either at the top or bottom of the posting.

AMY’S ADVICE: If you’re providing an update to something you wrote about earlier, always link back to the previous posting(s). Then, edit those previous postings to include links forward to the latest posting.

The forward blazes (links that you add to previous postings) are especially crucial because people can enter your weblog at any page, and most of them probably have never seen your blog before. They have little or no context. They don’t know what you wrote before, or what you’ve written since. And often, blog categories don’t provide enough specific guidance to help people follow a particular ongoing story within your blog.

Even more importantly, older blog postings are more likely to rank highly in conventional search engine results.

That is, if you wrote a post two years ago which proved wildly popular and garnered many inbound links from other blogs, Google might rank that post very highly in the search results for a relevant keyword — even though it definitely does not represent the latest information or your current views on that topic. If you happen to have changed your mind significantly since then, you’d certainly want people who enter your blog via that two-year-old posting to know that there’s more to the story.

In that case, you’d create a forward blaze (link) to the next or latest posting on that theme. This is crucial because, if your latest missive is very recent, Google may not have indexed it yet. True, it might have gotten into Technorati’s database, but Google generally moves slower than feed-based aggregators. So while your new posting might be drawing traffic from Technorati, traditional search engines like Google and Yahoo are far more popular.

If you want people to know what you’re up to, you need to go where they are. And if they’re relying on Google to find you, where they are may well be deep in your blog’s past.

RECENT EXAMPLE: I edit the Poynter Institute’s group weblog E-Media Tidbits, and just today I did a little bit of trailblazing there. Today I wrote this article, which is an update to this earlier posting by Fons Tuinstra. Check out both articles. You can see that if someone arrived at the older posting, I’d certainly want them to know that the situation had completely changed.

Yes, blog trailblazing is extra work – especially when you’re conscientious enough to do it in both directions. I know that I don’t always do it every time I should. Still, though, from your audience’s perspective it’s worth the effort. You’ll only gain a following if you literally make it easy for people to follow you.

I wish blogging tools would automate this process – so that if you blaze a trail backward from a current post, the older posts along that trail would automatically get “update to this story” links inserted at either the top or the bottom. If you’ve seen a blogging tool like this, please let me know.

NOTE: Of course, I was tempted to refer to this linking strategy as “leaving a breadcrumb trail” – until I realized that, in the geek world, “breadcrumb trail” usually refers to a user interface navigation technique, so the geeks would probably nitpick my choice of words. And, anyway, the expression “breadcrumb trail” comes from the folktale Hansel and Gretel – in which the trail of breadcrumbs failed miserably. Not the context I wish to convey here.

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