How Sailing Taught Me About Social Media and SEO
Sailing is a major passion for me. It brings me joy and fulfillment. I would never have expected how it would teach me about SEO, digital marketing, and social media.
It Started in The Summer of 2006
I was boat-less with limited access to sailing except for the occasional weekend on a friend’s boat. I was missing sailing. On top of that, it was August, no one was around, and I was borrrrrrrrrred.
Learning By Doing
At the time, I was working for a leading digital agency. Social media was in its infancy, and clients asked me how they should take advantage of this burgeoning new medium.
I was supposedly a digital strategy expert, but I felt that whatever answer gave, I was making it up. Sure, I had well-informed opinions and I was up on the latest news but I had no real hands-on experience.
So I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by starting a blog on sailing.
Even if it never took off, it would give me hands-on experience with social media and partially scratch my itch for sailing.
I can be a little impetuous. “Act quick and figure stuff out as you go” works for me, so one Sunday afternoon in August 2006, I got started on making this real.
First, what blogging platform to use? I decided to use Typepad rather than WordPress. At that time, it wasn’t clear who would win the blogging platform war and Typepad was easier to use. I named the blog Messing About in Sailboats, based on the famous quote:
“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Wind In The Willows -Kenneth Grahame
I launched the blog on August 19th, 2006, with a brief post outlining the blog’s purpose. For the next few weeks, I diligently created 2-3 posts per week on various sailing-related topics. I also figured out who the leading sailing bloggers were and reached out to them. They were very encouraging and linked back to me. There was a small but committed community of sailing bloggers.
It was much more work than I anticipated, and the returns were depressing. I was getting very little traffic, and, more importantly, I was disappointed with my writing quality.
My posts were earnest, informative, and well-intentioned but dull, dull, dull. They lacked a point of view. The blog was not getting noticed, my posts had few comments and no shares, and the analytics showed that the blog was flatlining.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
By September, I was contemplating jacking the whole thing in. After all, I had a big important job, so how could I justify this distraction? I figured that I would give it one last shot to see if I could make an impact.
I had this one unwritten post that was nagging at me.
It kept bugging me to write it, but I was feeling a little chicken about putting it out there.
It had occurred to me that the best writing about sailing was not happening on the established sailing websites. Sailing websites like Sailingworld.com, were the web versions of leading sailing print magazines.
Other than a few digitized articles, what they offered their readers was very limited and not all engaging.
They had little original, online-only content and few ways for readers to interact with each other or the publication. They were generally disappointing, given the potential of the medium.
More importantly, web-only upstart sites like Scuttlebutt and Sailing Anarchy, where the real conversations about sailing were happening.
Overall, I felt that the traditional sailing web sites kinda sucked.
So I wrote that in a post called “Why do sailing websites suck so much (blogs excepted)”
A Sh*tstorm In A Teacup
In a small way, it created a bit of a kerfuffle.
First, I slammed the traditional websites and promoted some of the best bloggers. I told the bloggers how they ranked in terms of sailing website traffic.
While the traditional websites paid no attention, the other bloggers were amazed by how highly they ranked and re-posted the post.
Secondly, the post caused enough controversy to generate 20 comments.
These included multiple backlinks. The comments also kept the conversation going for a while.
Third, it eventually started a conversation with one of the leading traditional sailing publications. They wanted to set the record straight, creating a real discussion about the issue.
In my small way, I had started a conversation with a bunch of strangers about something important to me. I felt encouraged and decided to stick to the blog.
Many of my subsequent posts celebrated other sailing bloggers, creating a lot of cross-linking and mutual sharing of each other’s content.
The next thing that happened blew me away.
About a month later, I randomly googled “sailing websites”.
My silly, little blog was #1.
Yup, I was the number one ranked sailing website (according to Google).
And my traffic was climbing as a result.
Although I didn’t stay #1 for more than a month, I was on the first Google page for sailing website search results for several years.
This laid the foundation for Messing About to become one of the leading sailing blogs.
I stuck at the blog for another six years until I started a business in 2012. As I was creating a new venture, I decided that I couldn’t afford the time to blog anymore.
Over those six years, the blog became well-known in the sailing community.
The site was visited by well over a million visitors and led to all kinds of amazing opportunities, not least meeting the partner with whom I started a business.
I loved running the blog, and I learned so much.
Learning SEO and Social Media From Sailing – My Lessons:
1. Act first. Figure stuff out as you go. If I had thought it through and realized how much time it was going to take, I would not have started Messing About In Sailboats.
By ignoring my rational self I would have missed so much. Sometimes, taking the plunge and working out the rest as you go is better.
2. Don’t be afraid to make some noise. Provocative content might polarize your readers but it’s better to be noticed than to be boring.
While I feel that I have written better posts than the “Sailing Web Sites Suck” post, it generated enough consternation and discussion to break through. It put me on the map.
3. Connect! From the start, I reached out to other sailing bloggers, who were welcoming and supportive. Later on, in the life of the blog, I made connections with photographers, editors, writers, and so many people whom I would not have otherwise met.
This created a virtuous cycle of content and links that increased my SEO ranking. More importantly, it was fun and rewarding.
4. Be generous. The success of this post was as much due to the praise I heaped on other bloggers as the controversy I was trying to stoke.
Until I analyzed the web traffic of the various sailing websites and blogs, none of these hard-working bloggers realized how much of an impact they were really making. By giving them something of value they gave back in spades.
5. Foster the conversation. Much of this post’s success was due to the number of comments.
This happened because I responded quickly and as thoughtfully as I could with fairly long responses. The comments created backlinks and sustained interest in the post for several years.
The Google algorithm liked this a lot.
6. Keep going. Once I got the #1 rank on Google for sailing websites, I kept on the front page by being diligent and creative in posting 2-3 times per week.
In the six years I ran Messing About, I learned more about social media than any book or training course has ever taught me.
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