Reflecting on using Stock Photos for Blogging

This is yet another post I will produce without a stock photo at the top.   I didn’t realize that the modern definition of a blog is that it must have some graphic content at the top (and ideally also in the middle somewhere).   Often this is some stock photo that the author would select from millions of available photos the one photo that somehow relates to the content of the post.

I have been reading many blog posts, mostly on LinkedIn where the photo is the only preview available besides the title.   I see a similar indexing pattern used here on “Freshly Pressed”.  At least WordPress adds one additional piece of information in the index: the first tag assigned by the author.    The combination of the photo, the title, the few words of the first sentence, and the tag is all that the reader has to entice them to read an article.    As I reader, I admit that most of the time I will explore a post by an unfamiliar writer because of something compelling about the stock photo.    In contrast, for a familiar writer that I’m following, I don’t need the photo to encourage me to read a new post.

From my latecomer perspective of not realizing that stock photos at top are the standard for blogging, I think about whether I should add stock photos to my posts.

One thing one will notice from my blogs is that I tend to write long posts.   Visually, my posts are very dense with no formatting other than paragraphs to break up the thoughts.    This is a direct consequence of my motives for blogging.   My motive is to engage in an activity that involves writing down my thoughts as they flow out from an initial idea to start the process.   For example, I started this blog post with a simple thought of my reluctance to use stock photos.   Other than that, I have no idea up front where this blog post will lead.   I’m not really trying to set out to convince anyone of anything.   I’m just exploring the idea of why I would resist the notion of adding stock photos to my blog.

The primary source of enjoyment I get from blogging is the writing.   I get a lot of satisfaction from the mere achievement of sustained writing a topic.   The satisfaction is the creation of a lot of text.   A stranger may just scan through my blogs without reading any content and just look at the length and density of words.   He may come to the conclusion that this author likes to write.    A little deeper inspection of the content will probably lead the stranger to conclude that this author likes to write on his own personal reflections rather than on diligently researched topics.   That stranger would get it right.     He may even conclude that this is an author that is not really motivated to find readers, and he’d also be right.

When reading other writers’ blogs, I’ll usually read the comments.   The comments of course span a wide range of reactions.   One of those reactions is the occasional (but rare) comment about the style of the post.  In particular for long dense posts, there is an occasional comment about the post being too long and dense for the reader to get through.   The comments complain about the point not being made early enough or that there was too much unrelated material.

I can infer that some of these complaints about the style of writing of other posts would equally apply to my own posts.     For anyone who may be reading, be assured that I’m aware of your annoyance.   Eventually, I’ll get motivated to write for more popularity.   That’s not my goal at the moment.

I write blogs instead of published articles in part because what I blog is not really ready for publication.   I don’t have any well formed and defended position that I feel needs to be widely read.    Although I started blogging late, I’ve been paying attention to the concept since it was first introduced.   I’m stuck with that early impression of blogs being informal scratch-pad area for unstructured thought.  What I recall about that earlier definition is that the blog provides the inspiration for the author to pursue a more serious future writing effort that would be meant for publication.

I did pay attention to the evolution where now blogs are largely treated as competitive alternatives to the established publications that one once sought to get published.   Many blog posts are fully developed to qualify for publication in older media but the author finds a larger audience by using blogs.    Many bloggers are motivated by the idea of publication, to get their blogs read by the widest audience possible.   In the past, they may have been submitting newspaper or magazine articles, or writing books.   Many do in fact continue to write for these older media, often relying heavily on previously blogged content.   But in some cases, the blog platform provides more success compared to other media.   I admire their achievements.

It is this goal of being published and to be read by a wide audience that drives the layout of their blog.   The blog should look like a newspaper or magazine article.   It should not be too long.   It should be broken up into sections with headings or separated by some quote from the article.    It should include some graphic.  In particular, it should have some relevant and high quality graphic at the very top.   That graphic is a high quality photograph, often carefully staged to invoke a particular effect.

I have no objection to all of these practices.   As a reader, I enter unfamiliar posts mostly because of the photo.   I read to the end those posts that are short and with a well designed layout of breaking up text with headings and images.    The blogger succeeds in getting me to do what the blogger wants: to read his entire blog.   My entry into the blog gets counted as a page view.   Occasionally I’ll award it with a “like” although that probably is more about agreeing with the basic premise than about the specifics in the blog.    Sometimes I will add a comment.

These practices for layout and design of a blog post are successful for the goal of reaching a wide audience.   My own experience as a reader confirms the effectiveness of this approach.    When browsing a catalog of blog posts, I will choose to read post with interesting photographs, and I’ll read the entirety of the post if it is not too long and not too dense.

My continuing to not follow these better practices is not due to ignorance.

One thing I remind myself is that when I browse for blog material to read, I’m looking at a list that is arranged in some order.   The blogs at the top of the list are usually very popular or recent.    I’m just more likely to read blogs that have a certain pattern that makes them popular.   I’m more likely to read an author who writes very frequently because his posts are shorter and much more specific to the point point he’s trying to make.  The frequency of posts makes it likely I’ll find something of that writer on any particular day.

There is a much larger population of blogs that will never show up in the list to browse.   I will rarely encounter bloggers who write infrequently or who write to tiny audiences.   I’ll never see these blogs, and chances are that these blogs are not adhering to better practices for presenting popular blogs.   Perhaps even there is a deliberate strategy to be hard to find in order to take advantage of a public forum in such a way no one will notice.

One observation I have is that many blog sites have a long history.   The only content we’ll find by browsing are their most recent contributions, and even then only if that content was published recently.   A blogs home page will show a long history of many blog posts that could have equally or more interesting content.   Those are not visible from browsing from a list.

Both readers and writers approach blogging based on the model of a the periodical (magazine or newpaper).   A reader will obtain the periodical based on the what is on the front page or cover.   He will then scan content within just that one issue for content that he is interested in reading.   If he finds a few interesting articles, he may be more inclined to select the same periodical for a future release.  In blogging terms, the reader decides to follow a blog.

The interesting part of this model is that despite finding interesting material in a periodical, the reader is rarely motivated to seek out older issues for similarly interesting content even when the material is not particularly time sensitive.   A good article should remain interesting for a long time and yet it is mostly lost because the periodical has more recent issues.   The reader can keep sufficiently occupied reading just the latest published blogs.

There is a different category of readers.  These readers choose content that is relevant for a topic they are currently researching.   These readers are the ones who will find old articles based on references in other articles.    In modern web technology, the reference may be a simple hyperlink.  In print it is a reference to an issue and page number, or it may simply be a reference to a particular author or title. The inquisitive reader will seek out this reference based on this minimal textual information.   For this type of reader, the graphic at the top, the title, or even the opening lines are irrelevant to his selecting the piece to read.

This reader also will be more motivated to read the entire content despite a dense organization.    Whether the reader is seeking to learn from the author or to find something to discredit the author’s argument, the reader is motivated to read the content in its entirety.   It is likely this reader will find the above good practices for popularity to be distracting.   This reader is mostly interested in the content of the message and how it relates to the readers understanding of the same topic.

An author may deliberately choose to seek out motivated readers rather than casual browsing readers.   In most cases, the population of motivated readers is going to be very small compared to the population of casual readers.   Also, the motivated reader is going to want a lot more information than the casual reader.

The blogger for the casual reader audience will design his article to be at the top of recommended reading lists.   This blogger will also take pains to have a style that will encourage a reader to like the post, to share it, and to follow the author for future posts.

The blogger for the motivated reader will design his article to be discovered by that motivated reader.   The article will have more content to provide more opportunities for someone else to find a reason to reference the work.   The content will strive to satisfy by providing a relative abundance of material that can present a convincing argument or provide enough material for the reader to respond to.    Writers for motivated readers seek a style that provide ample opportunities for other writers to make reference to the content.

The alternative to the periodical approach to blogging is a library approach.   The library approach introduces works to reader usually by references from other works or by searches of catalogs for certain key phrases.   In the Internet era, the references are in the form of hyperlinks from other author’s works, and searches are available from the very successful search engines.

I am more motivated by the library approach than the periodical approach.   I write with the motivation of being found by directed searches from readers who share similar interests and who may agree or disagree with my perspective.    The practices for attracting casual readers offers little advantage for my readership goals.   Instead I’m more obsessed about getting found in web search queries that are relevant to my topics.   I want people to find me if they are looking for this kind of material.   I also want people to not find me if they are looking for something else.    So far, my blogs rarely get suggested by Bing, Yahoo!, or Google.   I assume part of the reason is that the search terms that would find my posts are infrequently used.   On the other hand, I’m sure part of the problem is that I have not yet mastered the technique to increase the relevance of my blog to these search engines.

In any event, I look at other blogs from this perspective of writing to satisfy someone’s query.   I evaluate the other blog styles in terms of how that style would work for me.  This evaluation is what leads to a complaint specific about the obligatory stock photos at the top of the posts.

For example, I recently saw a blog post with a recurring stock photo of a wide-eyed person with some tape across his or her mouth.   There are remarkable number of faces but with the same message that somehow the person is being silenced.   What makes the image compelling is that the photo is high quality, the face is very attractive, and the expression is very affecting.   The problem is that the article turns out to be some complaint of some frustrating experience.

I am immediately disappointed because I read into the stock photo a kind of executive summary or an abstract of the content of the article.   To my way of thinking, if an article starts with a photo, the article should discuss all of the messages and implications of that photo.  In the above example, the article should say who this person is, who applied the tape and why, and what is the consequence.   If a photo is at the top of an article, then the photo came first and the articles should talk about that photo.

The popular practice is the opposite of my thinking.   The article is written first and then as a finishing touch a vaguely relevant photo is selected to append to the top of the article.    In most cases I am so disappointed by the disconnect of the message content of the photo and the message content of the blog post that I wonder whether it would have been better to not post a photo at all.    In a deep sense, I feel like I’ve been tricked or conned into reading an article.   Even if I find the article interesting, I’m annoyed by being lured into the article by a misleading photo.

It appears most people are not annoyed by the disconnect.   In fact, it seems the photo influences the reader’s impression of the article so that the photo is a big part of the reason they decide to share or like the article.

For me the disconnect is very distracting.  I could leave a reasonably interesting article with a negative impression based purely on the superficial irrelevance of the photos, graphics, and other elements to break up the text.

These good-practices of blog layout remind me of commercial interruptions of television during the 1960s and 1970s.   We tuned in to watch the show, but then have to endure a long opening theme song having more to do with advertising the show than to do with anything about the specific episode, followed by frequent interrupts for some sales pitch.   The broadcaster’s strategy worked in keeping us seated in front of the TV for an hour to watch about 40 minutes of content.   I suspect that formative experienced trained me to be annoyed by irrelevant filler material.

As for why I don’t put stock images on my blog posts, the biggest reason is that I’m lazy.   I get my enjoyment out of writing for an extended period of time.   When I get to a stopping point, I stop.   I will go back and reread the content for editorial changes, but my focus is on the words of the post fitting the overall theme that emerged during the writing.  When that is completed, I’m done.   I publish.  I am not interested in spending time to make the post look pretty and even less interested in spending time browsing photos for something that might be compelling and relevant.   I accomplished my goal by writing.

That said, there are other reasons for avoiding stock photos.   I’m very concerned about disappointing a reader by messages in a photo I have no intention of covering.   I’m also very concerned about annoying a reader with an image that had only the one purpose to lure him to my blog.   If I have any readers at all, I want them to be lured in by my content.

I want readers to find me by search terms or by references from other writers.   If no one is interested in what I’m writing, then that is fine by me.  My goal is not to have a huge population shortly after publishing a new post.   My ideal is for someone to find an article from years past that happens to be relevant to what he is thinking about currently.    I fantasize about a future point when someone will reference something I wrote years earlier.

It is not a problem if that fantasy never occurs because I still met my objective of writing down my thoughts.  But it would be fun to find someone discover my earlier writing.   The reason why I blog in a public site instead of writing in a private notebook is to introduce the possibility of being discovered much later.

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