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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.