So long to the Business Blog

Sometime this summer I will be shuttering the Business Blog, my WordPress website that I’ve used to provide tips, tricks, and tools to business researchers across the planet since 2004. What follows is a lengthy discussion of highlights and challenges of using WordPress as a library research guide for 15 years.

A Screensot of the Business Blog

Why am I shuttering the Business Blog?

In Summer 2019, Ohio University Libraries will be moving our web content from our self-hosted WordPress CMS to the university’s officially supported Drupal content management system. We’ve decided that it is more efficient and strategic to focus on creating better web content and developing for unique collections, rather than using staff time to maintain servers and applications. While we may lose some flexibility, we are excited about sharing our web presence with the rest of the university and contributing to the university’s continued web improvement. Our library’s development priorities will be on showcasing collections, enhancing discovery, and improving the overall web experience, not on making sure the LAMP server is running.

Where is my Business Blog content going?

I’ve given considerable thought as to whether I could just host the Business Blog on my own server. This self-hosted blog that you’re currently reading runs on WordPress, and I have several years’ experience getting under the hood to tweak, customize and fix things. However, I’ve decided that I don’t really want to be my own server admin for such a critical service, and it wasn’t a good use of my time to do so. I’d rather focus on content, not keeping the site running.

As such, I have begun moving a lot of my more popular content to Libguides. I’ve used my years of Jetpack statistics as well as Google Analytics to better understand what content is being used consistently, and have prioritized migrating the most useful content. I’m not moving the entire site over, but just the most-used content. I have a backup of all content just in case I get requests for an old page, or if I need to re-purpose an old industry guide for a new class. It’s a fairly time-consuming process, but the move has enabled me to rethink how my content is organized and displayed.

I am learning a lot about how I can best leverage Libguides for my instructional and research content and I am having a lot of fun at the same time. My new site on Libguides is a work in progress. I’ll write more about the processes and decisions I’ve made in setting that up at at later time. In the meantime, I have a huge list of content to add and improvements to make. I’m also excited about using what I learn about Libguides to help my colleagues improve their content.

In addition to the more static guide pages, I’m also using the blog feature on one of my main guide.. This has proved valuable to point researchers to one-off tips that don’t necessarily merit creating a full page. Springshare’s blog format could use some improvements, but it at least works. Readers can follow the blog via email, or subscribe in their RSS reader such as Feedly.

What effect has the Business Blog had?

In Fall 2010, I closed the Biz Wiki, and started using the Business Blog exclusively for my business research content. Prior to 2010, WordPress was a better blogging tool than a content management system. From 2004 to 2010, I primarily used the Business Blog as an actual blog that pointed researchers to cools sites, or to content I created on the Biz Wiki. In 2010, after growing frustrated with the MediaWiki software that powered the Biz Wiki, and seeing the potential that WordPress now offered as a CMS, I moved all content and used WordPress to power all of my instructional and research content.

Since I started collecting statistics with Jetpack in 2008, the Business Blog has amassed more than 1.9 million hits. 2016 was my best year, with 281,525 views during the year.

annual total hits by year for the Business Blog

My best month was in January 2017 with over 41k views. The highest daily count was 5,965 views. From the chart below, you can see that the majority of the traffic is tied to the patterns of the academic calendar, with large increases in usage at the start of the semesters.

all time view statistics of the Business Blog

It also doesn’t hurt that my site has been a top hit in Google for “business blog” for several years, and search terms such as “industry financial ratios” drive thousands of researchers to my site each month. The site has had more than 50k views in 2019, despite the fact that it’s been dormant since January. I’ve stopped linking to the site and am pointing students to my Libguides content, yet people are still finding the site either from Google, from old links, or from prior association .

Seeing the site grow over the years has been a great experience. I was driven to create great content for my primary audience, and its’ been awesome to see how my content has helped researchers beyond Ohio University.

What’s been the coolest thing about using WordPress for my Business Blog?

I gave a presentation at the 2014 Computers in Libraries Conference on using WordPress as a research guide (PDF). Five years ago I talked about how flexible WordPress was and how good it was for me to use to showcase my instructional and research content. I still believe that to be true today.

One of the really cool features in WordPress is how you can use the category and tagging features to display related content. As an example, a page such as “Company Databases” can be dynamically populated with posts from a certain category. Using a custom template for the page, you can have the page, which actually has not content, display pages from a certain category. When you wish to add another post, or in this case a database, to the page, you just give the post the appropriate category.

a screenshot of company research databases page

Likewise, you can also use the category and a tag and use the URL to display content based on your site organization. This was especially useful with my video tutorials. Rather than did through my site to manually link them on one page, all I had to do was to link to the url, such as businessblog/category/videos/?tag=simmons-oneview. In this example, it fetches all posts that are in the video category and tagged as “simmons” as shown below.

an example of using categories and tags to display custom pages in WordPress

Finally, I think the ability to display related posts, using one of the huge variety of plugins, provides a great opportunity to drive your site users to other content. As shown in the Simmons Oneview image below, because the database post and the related posts were all tagged and titled similarly, the very relevant content was displayed below the research database description. This meant that users could find relevant instructional videos or other related content to help them with their research. While the potential is there, I don’t have good documented evidence that my primary users, undergraduate and graduate business researchers, have used the related posts as I had intended.

a screenshot of  a business blog posts showing related posts

What’s been challenging about using WordPress as a research guide?

Probably the biggest challenge I’ve had with the Business Blog is the length of pages and posts that I inevitably create. The challenge with business research is that there isn’t just one place to find the answer; researchers often have to consult multiple resources for the many facets of business research. I suppose I could have divided the content up across multiple pages, but then that assumes I would be able to successfully direct all users to the multiple parts of a research or industry guide.

Late in the Business Blog’s life cycle I started using anchor links to drive users further down the page. I had found that when meeting with students, they were frequently asking me questions that I had answered two-thirds of the way down an industry guide page, or they just weren’t using resources that I said were “essential” because they were below the fold. An example of these anchor links is in the image below, and I think the anchors had mixed results.

a screenshot of a business blog post showing anchor links

Another frustration that developed over time was the difficulty in changing the sidebar content. In WordPress the sidebar is associated with the page template. Without the use of plugins or a custom page/post template, it is difficult to change what is displayed on the side of the page on the fly. This meant that since I only had a few different page templates, most of the pages and posts looked the same.

What’s my best memory of the Business Blog?

Because the Business Blog content was so easily found in Google, I’ve been fortunate to talk to countless librarians who contacted me with questions. I’ve had veteran librarians who had just taken over business duties ask for advice about building collections and selecting databases. I’ve met numerous people at conferences tell me how much they appreciated my blog and my videos. On more that one occasion, new business librarians have told me that my content helped get them their first jobs. It’s those connections I’ve made through my Business Blog and my videos that I’ve appreciated the most.

What have I learned from 15 years with the Business Blog?

The blog format for my content has allowed me to be a bit more “loose” with my content. I suppose that since blog posts are created when a need is identified (i.e., I am getting a lot of the same questions or I have 400 students working on the same project) , and since my blog posts are targeted to specific questions, I’ve been less formal in my writing. I was writing in the first person long before I read books about writing for the web.

I’ve also tried to use my own pictures whenever possible to give students a glimpse into who I am as a person. Using my own images has kept the site and content fun for me, and hopefully helps the users see a less serious side of their librarian. These pictures would typically be used as featured images for the blog posts. A selection of pictures, with my cheesy captions to keep things light, is in the gallery below.

What’s next?

I’m really going to miss having a website that is unlike any other business librarian’s guide. I have a bit of a non-conformist streak at times, especially when it comes to adopting what everyone else has as the only option. The Business Blog was successful and was working for me long before Libguides came along. There’s a lot of history there and I’ve put a lot of sweat equity into that site over the years.

As I migrate content to Libguides, I’ll use the things I’ve learned from 15 years of trial and error with the Business Blog to help shape how I organize and present the content to my students, faculty, other librarians, and other random researchers from the Internet. I had initially thought I would hate moving to Libguides, but I’m finding that the platform now has features that surpass the capabilities of my WordPress site. I’m giving up some flexibility (and obviously losing my Google Page rankings), but I’ve come to terms with that. I’m looking forward to creating even better content in the months and years to come and spending less time worrying about theme and plugin incompatibilities. I’ll follow up soon with a progress report.

I’m still so 2010

wordpress-logoWordPress 4.1 was released today, and I’ve just now upgraded.  The automagic distraction-free writing is pretty cool and there appear to be a few more neat things on the wp-admin, dashboard, and publishing side.

The new 2015 theme, however, at first glance doesn’t really get me too excited.  The idea behind the theme is to really let your content shine and “take center stage”.  I’ve been thinking more about reviving this old blog, and perhaps a new theme will get me inspired.  Unfortunately it looks like the 2015 theme gets rid of the header image and is pretty minimalistic in the default sidebar content.  I’m sure it looks great on a mobile device, but without the standard customizable header image (found in TwentyTen, which this site still uses) I feel the blog loses a bit of personality.  Maybe I’m just out of touch with the new hip blogging kids since I haven’t blogged in so long……

 

Using WordPress P2 theme as a communication tool in our organization

This week we had a soft launch for our new internal WordPress blog, running on the P2 theme.  I’m hoping it will be a better way to get our local knowledge out of our inboxes and on the web so that all public service workers, even students, will have access to the same information.

An internal blog is nothing new to us, having used for a while in 2005.  We moved from a WordPress blog a year later to a MediaWiki wiki because at the time, the wiki offered better organization of content.  Our departmental wiki later merged with an organization-wide wiki, and now it’s incredibly hard to find the content that is relevant for our department.  The wiki has grown too big for our department to use effectively, resulting in our searches returning false drops of someone else’s content.

Another problem with the wiki is that there isn’t a good way to view the most recent content.  In a public service environment, we need to let communicate among our staff about printing outages, tough research assignments (with links to resources), workarounds for tech/computer issues, etc.  In our big organizational wiki, the current issues get lost in the mix of archives of staff meeting minutes, cataloging procedures, and internal policy documents.

Therefore, we’ve started to blog again like it’s 2005.  We’re using WordPress again, but any blogger knows that the platform has come a long way in  decade.  To make it easier for our staff and students to post, read, and comment, we are using the P2 Theme, which allows you to post and comment directly on the home page.  Users don’t have to visit the admin page within the blog to add content, which will hopefully make it a lot easier for all staff to participate in the conversation.

Our blog is just in it’s infancy, so I can’t really report about its use right now.  However, I found WPUniversity’s articles on using WordPress for project management (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) very useful. Also, WPCandy has a nice list of plugins to use to enhance your P2 installation.

Matt Mullenweg discusses how P2 Changed Automattic.

A quick overview of the P2 theme is shown in the video below.

Also, Beau Lebens of WordPress.com explains the evolution of P2 and the future of O2.  It’s really neat to hear how the folks at Automattic use P2 for 80% of their communication.  Email is almost forbidden and highly frowned upon within the organization.

What can library managers learn from the WordPress official creed?

wordpress-logoAutomattic, the company that owns WordPress.com, is an interesting study in organizational culture, hierarchy, and work.  The Year Without Pants, a book I’m currently reading and learning a lot from, shows the inner workings of this very different (and very cool)  company. In the book’s pages, I picked up on the WordPress creed, which can also be found on Matt Mullenweg’s blog.  Looking at this from a library manager’s point of view, there’s a lot we can steal from those words.

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

I will never stop learning.

  • We should cultivate a culture of continuous learning whereby employees have access to exploration and experimentation, readings, webinars, conferences, professional development, and lively discussion with colleagues.

I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me.

  • We should empower employees to work beyond their comfort zone and encourage work with colleagues outside their department.

I know there’s no such thing as a status quo.

  • We need to know that change is always on the horizon, and we should do our best to welcome (and encourage)  change, while also helping employees adapt to change.

I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers.

  • Libraries  have to be a customer-focused business in order to remain relevant.  Our strength these days is not necessarily in our resources, but in how we care about our communities.   The people who use our libraries are our biggest advocates, so we must be passionate about listening to our patrons to understand their needs.

I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything.

  • There actually is an “I” in Library, but still.  Good teams get things done.  Bad ones just get in the way.

I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation.

  • Libraries are one of the most powerful ideas of any generation.  What we do is for the common good, to educate, to make the world a better place.  No one gets rich being a librarian,  but they reap their rewards in other ways.

I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.

  • Communication with colleagues, patrons, peers, neighbors, customers, vendors, IT support, library boards, politicians, stakeholders,  etc.  is an essential function of our profession.  We need to make sure our staff are good at talking and writing.

I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day.

  • It’s not a sprint, but that doesn’t mean you should dawdle either.  Our profession continues to change rapidly, and if you aren’t at least moving, you’ll be left behind.

Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

  • In libraries, no problems are insurmountable given enough time, staff, or money. Unfortunately, we don’t often have enough of either, so we have to get good at improvising and solving problems with creative solutions.

Get your knowledge out of your inbox and on the web

In only a week, my answer is now #6 on Google
In only a week, my answer is now #6 on Google

In his book, Trust Agents, Chris Brogan describes how people can become experts by sharing their answers on the web with more people.  I believe librarians should be doing this as often as they can in order to showcase their expertise, and it’s something I try to do whenever practical.

Brogan describes the process as follows (pp. 25-26):

  1. Receive a question requiring your expertise via email.
  2. Respond with an email but put answer in a blog post as well.
  3. The answer is out of your email and on the web for others to learn.
  4. Repeat this process many times.
  5. Your answers are now in Google.
  6. Now you’re an expert on the web.

A week ago I received an email from a student looking for market share and brand share information of the energy and sports drink market.  I recognized that this would likely be a question others were interested in, so rather than simply replying via email, I put the answer on my Business Blog and sent him the link.  He replied back a few hours later with his appreciation (which rarely happens, btw).

In a week’s time, my answer to the one patron has been viewed 103 times and currently sits as the #6 Google search result for “energy drink market share” and #7 result for “sports drink market share.” While all of the resources listed in my answer are from subscription databases (it’s impossible to get a good data on this topic without them) I do suggest that non-OHIO patrons check with their local libraries.  Hopefully my post will send other libraries some business while also demonstrating librarian expertise and the value of libraries.

I admit I have an email problem

The article  “Is there Life After Email?  Yes, and it’s Amazing.”   states that most business email is sent to either “cover your ass” or to “show off”.  I’m guilty of striving for excellence in both areas.

In the CYA statement, the author says that “Email is broadcast to entire divisions simply to ensure no one can say they didn’t hear about a decision.”  Yes, if someone complains they didn’t know about something, I am  guilty of re-sending them the sentmail from days or weeks ago.  It’s hard not to get a little satisfaction by passively rubbing their nose in the old email they were copied on.  For good measure, I’ve even highlighted portions that they should have read way back when.  This is one of the reasons I hardly expunge my sentmail folder.  Pretty silly and a little evil, eh?

The author also states that “for people who don’t actually make things for their job, email is the only visible, tangible thing they make all day. ”  Guilty as well, though I haven’t been one to measure how many email I send in a day.  Rather, I measure the size of my inbox.  It started at 5 on Monday, rose to about 30 yesterday, and is now back to 7 (hence me taking a time-out from email for this quick blog post).  If I have to stay home with a sick kid (which happens quite a bit with 4 boys), I’m able to “catch up” on email. Often this means my co-workers are on the receiving end of a full-on email bombardment that compares to the Normandy invasion.  It’s probably not fair to them, but it’s the work that I’m able to do remotely in that moment.   The problem is, those emails get responses, so the volley continues back and forth until one of us calls an email truce or silently surrenders.

Regardless of what my colleagues or I think about email, it is still a necessary technology in our line of information work.  We’ve used blogs, chat, wikis, twitter, and other technology to communicate within our organization and with those we serve, but none of those is ever adopted as universally as email, nor have they taken any traffic from the well-entrenched technology.  However, one colleague has me thinking again about using a WordPress P2 blog for non-essential/non-time-critical communication such as project updates, meeting minutes, or just personal “what I’m working on” or “I need help” conversations.  Has your organization used a P2 blog, and how did it work?  Perhaps we will investigate and/or give it a try.

 

 

A little snag in upgrading to WordPress 2.8

Upon upgrading to WordPress 2.8, everything looked like it ran okay.   When I tried to log in, I had got an error the prohibited me from entering my WordPress Dashbord.   The error I got was:

Fatal error: Call to a member function on a non-object in <path to my blog>/wp-includes/theme.php on line 387

I tried quite a few different things to get this fixed, such as disabling the plugins in PHPMyAdmin and even renaming the plugins directory itself.   I then got a wild idea to rename the themes directory to something like “themes_old”.   Upon doing that, my blog didn’t display (since there wasn’t a theme to display it) but I was able to access my Dashboard by typing in the URL.   I then created a new themese directory and uploaded a theme to try and everything worked.   My un-scientific conclusion from this is that the theme I was using , Connections Reloaded, was having some sort of issue with WordPress 2.8.   Everything seems to be working as it should now, although I now have to look for a new theme.

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