Joining a Niche Conversation, Part 1: Determining the Top Blogs In Your Niche

So you’ve decided to start a professional blog and you know it’s important to “own your niche”. That means that to successfully blog a niche, you need to learn from successful blogs. However, unless you’re following tech or gadgets niches, do you even know what the top blogs in your niche are? And how do you even define a “top blog”? Is it the one with the most pageviews? The one earning the most income?

Answer: It’s up to you to decide because it really depends on how you’ll define your own success, and thus how you decide what a top blog is. However, there are some metrics, ranks and resources that I use in combination to help me decide what the top blogs in a niche are.

Metrics/ Ranks

  1. Alexa rank. This rank is a relative measure of web traffic to a website. It’s considered to not be particularly accurate simply because measurements of traffic to a site are made via Alexa’s installable browser toolbar. Basically, if there are people who visit a site and do not have the Alexa toolbar, then their traffic is not accounted for. The smaller an Alexa rank is, the “better” it is.
  2. Google PageRank (PR). This rank is applied to each page of a site and is Google’s measure of the “value” of a page. The value is determined by some complex algorithm that only Google knows for sure. However, it does factor in the number of quality in- and outlinks on a page. Of course, as many of us bloggers found out late last year, Google thought we were all too obsessed with PR and did a shakeup, making the algorithm even more difficult to determine. Some of us gained, some lost, to our dismay.
  3. Backlinks. The number of links back to each of your site’s pages – from other sites – is arguably one of the most important measures of success. If lots of other “authority” sites are linking to you, then you are controlling the conversation. The drawback is that each major SE (search engine) has its own algorithm and thus the numbers can be wildly different. Google tends to be conservative, Microsoft very liberal, and Yahoo in the middle. At least the last time I ran my own “acid test”, which was around last summer.
  4. Technorati rank and authority. Technorati offers two measures of “importance”: rank and authority. The rank is similar in essence to Alexa’s but is relative to only those blogs that Technorati tracks. (Technorati does not track non-blog sites whereas Alexa does.) Technorati’s authority measure gives a sense of backlinks for a site. The larger the number, the more “authoritative” your site is.
  5. Pageviews. Pageview has long been an important metric to many bloggers and webmaster, simply because it’s such an atomic, simple measure. Though in and of itself, it’s probably meaningless. Pageview trend graphs are more valuable than the pageview count of your site on any given day. And a breakdown by URL is even more valuable (something that you get with both free and premium versions of Performancing PMetrics). Pageviews coupled with search traffic counts (below) can give you a better picture of the health of your site.
  6. Time spent. Some pundits decided last year that the average time spent on a site, per session, is more important that pageviews, and the lemmings followed along – including ad networks. Problem is, all sites are not created equal and to put this metric above pageviews isn’t always fair.
  7. Return visitors. For ecommerce sites, a valuable measure of success might be the number or percentage of returning visitors, since it’s often easier to sell products or services to such visitors. For a true blog, return visitors are also important.
  8. Search traffic. For some sites, including those that mask themselves as “blogs”, search traffic is more important than return visitors.
  9. RSS subscriptions. There’s a premise that people who use RSS readers are likely more technically savvy than people who do not, and that they’re more likely to be bloggers. Thus, they’re also more likely to link back to your articles. Whether this is true or not, when calculating ad payout rates, some ad networks do factor in the number of RSS subscriptions that a site has. Unfortunately, some networks only take into account Bloglines subscription numbers based on a premise that bloggers prefer that application over others. Depending on whom you believe, Google Reader is now more popular. Or not.
  10. Comments. For some bloggers, engaging the readership is far more important than anything else. The number of comments for the site is thus an important metric.

These are not the only metrics/ ranks but I’ve found these the most useful. I tend to use a combination of metrics, depending on my purpose. Keep in mind that some of the metrics mentioned above simply won’t be available to the general public.

Resources for Tracking the Conversation in Your Niche

While the above metrics/ ranks give you many options for defining a blog’s success, how do you actually find the top blogs in your niche?

Well, once you decide which metric/ rank is the most important, you’d have to start a list of blogs then refine the list. Or you can use a number of resources others have built and track the “conversation” that way. Or you can build your own custom tools. Here are some options:

  1. Text Link Ads Blog Juice Calculator. Text Link Ads put in a lot of work to come up with their custom Blog Juice Calculator. This resource considers the values of Alexa Rank, Technorati Authority, Bloglines RSS subscriptions, and the number of registered backlinks. You could use the Blog Juice Calculator to rank a large set of blogs within a niche, then produce a shortlist of the most “authoritative”.
  2. Popurls. Popurls is a brilliant way of easily monitoring the conversation in the blogosphere. The problem is that it’s not focused on any given niche. And it can’t be customized. Not surprisingly, there are many niche-focused clones. Someone even came up with a WordPress theme that clones Popurls, and which can be customized. I’ve produced several clones (e.g., with this theme. They’re publicly accessible but were customized for my own use so that I can monitor several niches one at a time. Of course, I have to figure out what “top blogs” to add first, and modifying later is a pain. Also, they are not robust and will occasionally show error messages. I’m working on a more robust WordPress-based setup, which will be released to the public (if it ever gets done).
  3. Techmeme/ Megite. Techmeme and Megite are two very similar web applications which show a clustered river of news in the tech niche. While both look very similar, Megite appears to be a bit more advanced. Regardless, the best I can figure is that both use “clustering” algorithms based on a set of keywords, applied to a growing set of URLs. However, the primary sites are “authority” blogs and news sites. Unfortunately, no one has come up with a clone of these – that I’m aware of – and I haven’t been able to reverse engineer the clustering algorithms beyond the theoretical.
  4. Social media sites. The simplest way to track a niche is to go to your favorite social media/ social voting site, choose the niche you’re interested in, and monitor the content submitted there daily. The problem with this is that there’s a lot of “noise”, and good new blogs are not always well-represented.
  5. Custom solutions. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you may have to build a custom solution. People who know me know that I’m a huge fan of the visual plug and play interface of Yahoo Pipes. Building a  Pipe, in my opinion, is so much easier than writing code from scratch – even for me, an experienced programmer. I’ve previously buil two Pipes that utilize the Technorati API to monitor the top blogs in a given niche. It’s one of the simplest ways to build a custom solution. I just sort blogs in a specific niche by Technorati’s “authority”, after searching for either keywords or tags. And they worked. For a while. Unfortunately, Technorati started changing their API, and Yahoo Pipes is still in beta (afaik), so Pipes modules are often being deprecated, thereby wasting my development time. Once Yahoo Pipes leaves beta, I’ll redo my pipes, then clone them – one per niche.

In a future post, I’ll provide a tutorial that covers the Technorati API, followed by another with a sample Yahoo Pipes integration.

9 thoughts on “Joining a Niche Conversation, Part 1: Determining the Top Blogs In Your Niche

  1. I agree with you. It’s an otherwise valuable tool, but I wish it took into account more than just Bloglines. I think originally, many more technically-minded bloggers used it. But it’s a fair amount of work to upgrade the tool. Still, it might happen.

  2. @Raj

    I think the Blog Juice Calculator could be more effective it it did not depend so heavily on Bloglines. None of my friends even use it. I think it would be more effective if they remove that from the calculation. That, or reduce the amount of impact it has on the overall score.

    I think it is unfair to judge based on one particular RSS feed reader. I just can’t take it seriously. Just my thoughts.

    Most of my subscribers at Tech In Demand use Firefox’s subscription feature. I just feel like certain blogs will get penalized. Certain blogs will attract more users for Bloglines than others.

  3. JMowery: Thanks!

    Update: I forgot to point out that I often use TLA’s Blog Juice Calculator (mentioned above) in tandem with my own custom solutions. In fact, I use it as a “shortlist filter”. I’ll cover exact details of custom solutions in upcoming posts.

  4. Thanks for mentioning the Alexa trends. I forgot to mention that. It’s a nice, quick way to check the relative health of a blog, in terms of traffic. While it’s not 100% representative of true traffic to a site, the trend graph can prove very valuable.

  5. Nice resource, Raj.

    I like to look at Alexa and Technorati rank. Also, I look at the Alexa trends. The trends can help you find smaller but quickly growing blogs. It’s great to catch a newer blog and become a active participant before it becomes an A-list blog.

  6. There are two things that concern me regarding doing Pipes tutorials:

    (1) It’s still in beta and the dev team often comes up with more efficient ways to code a module. So X weeks from now, some modules might be deprecated. You can use old Pipes built on them, but you have to learn a whole new way to do the same thing. It gets tiresome after a while.

    (2) Some people actually think using Pipes is hard. I haven’t figured out how to deal with that b/c I thought Pipes was so much easier than coding.

    Nevertheless, I’ll come up with some tutorials.

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