Google told me to put this blog on a diet

The screen real estate around these words should look a little neater now–not much thanks to my own editing instincts. Instead, I needed a scolding from Google.

That came from its PageSpeed Insights tool, a page you can use to check the performance of your own site or any other. It’s been around for years, but I didn’t think to use it until after I finally connected this site to Google’s Search Console webmaster tool last May (yes, even though I’ve been blogging here since 2011 and am supposed to be a professional tech journalist) and saw a prompt to try PageSpeed Insights in my results.

The results were not flattering: a mobile performance score of 47 out of 100, with desktop performance better but still subpar at 89. Scrolling down revealed a variety of flaws in this blog, some that I could correct with the limited tools of a free WordPress.com account and some that I could not.

I started with the first obviously fixable thing, image sizes. Google suggested that I convert such frequently-downloaded elements as the background image to “next-gen formats” like WebP or JPEG 2000. But instead of switching to files that Apple’s Safari browser can’t display, I opened the original photo for the background (a view of the Blue Ridge from a bike century ride in 2006) in my Mac’s GraphicConverter app and exported it with a lower image-quality setting that cut its size by a third at no visible cost.

That did not impress PageSpeed–my mobile score actually dropped to 44–so I moved on to the third-party code that Google reported had been getting in the way of my own content. It listed Facebook as a major offender, accounting for 207 milliseconds of delay. Removing the Facebook widget that you formerly saw in the right-hand sidebar boosted my mobile score to 53, with the desktop score essentially unchanged at 87.

(PageSpeed Insights scores fluctuate up and down with each test, so don’t get bent out of shape if yours drops by five for no apparent reason, at least not until you run the test again.)

Then I removed the Facebook and Twitter share buttons and elected to toss all of the share buttons except the tool to e-mail a link to the page. That edged the mobile score up to 58 and pushed the desktop score up to 96.

This pruning got me to look again at all the ads you see around here–and think about how low-rent so many of them are. I turned off the three “additional ad placement” options that had been salting each post with extra banners. That may cut into my ad revenue, but it’s already so thin I’d rather that my professional presence online not look quite so janky.

Having spun myself up fully into Marie Kondo mode, I returned to the sidebar and removed the Twitter widget (PageSpeed Insights had blamed Twitter code for 119 ms of delay) and some non-interactive links that only cluttered that part of the page.

The results of all this effort as calculated by PageSpeed Insights just now: scores of 76 on mobile and 99 on desktop. I hope you notice this blog loading a little quicker–and I trust you appreciate how this exercise has also rid my blog of Facebook’s tracking.

Here’s my Web-services budget

The annual exercise of adding up my business expenses so I can plug those totals into my taxes gave me an excuse to do an extra and overdue round of math: calculating how much I spend a year on various Web services to do my job.

The result turned out to be higher than I thought–even though I left out such non-interactive services as this domain-name registration ($25 for two years) and having it mapped to this blog ($13 a year). But in looking over these costs, I’m also not sure I could do much about them.

Google One

Yes, I pay Google for my e-mail–the work account hosted there overran its 15 gigabytes of free storage a few years ago. I now pay $19.99 a year for 100 GB. That’s a reasonable price, especially compared to the $1.99 monthly rate I was first offered, and that I took too long to drop in favor of the newer, cheaper yearly plan.

Microsoft Office 365

Getting a Windows laptop let me to opting for Microsoft’s cloud-storage service, mainly as a cheap backup and synchronization option. The $69.99 annual cost also lets me put Microsoft Office on one computer, but I’ve been using the free, open-source LibreOffice suite for so long, I have yet to install Office on my HP. Oops.

Evernote Premium

This is my second-longest-running subscription–I’ve been paying for the premium version of my note-taking app since 2015. Over that time, the cost has increased from $45 to $69.99. That’s made me think about dropping this and switching to Microsoft’s OneNote. But even though Microsoft owns LinkedIn, it’s Evernote that not only scans business cards but checks LinkedIn to fill in contact info for each person.

Flickr Pro

I’ve been paying for extra storage at this photo-sharing site since late 2011–back when the free version of Flickr offered a punitively-limited storage quota. This cost, too, has increased from $44.95 for two years to $49.99 a year. But now that Yahoo has sold the site to the photography hub SmugMug, the free tier once again requires serious compromises. And $50 a year doesn’t seem that bad, not when I’m supporting an indie-Web property instead of giving still more time to Facebook or Google.

Private Internet Access

I signed up for this virtual-private-network service two years ago at a discounted rate of $59.95 for two years, courtesy of a deal offered at Techdirt. Absent that discount, I’d pay $69.95, so I will reassess my options when this runs out in a few months. Not paying for a VPN service, however, is not an option; how else am I supposed to keep up on American news when I’m in Europe?

LastPass Premium

I decided to pay for the full-feature version of this password manager last year, and I’m already reconsidering that. Three reasons why: The free version of LastPass remains great, the premium version implements U2F two-step verification in a particularly inflexible way, and the company announced last month that the cost of Premium will increase from $24 a year to $36.

Combined and with multi-year costs annualized, all of these services added up to $258.96 last year. I suspect this total compares favorably to what we spend on news and entertainment subscriptions–but that’s not math I care to do right now.

Things I have learned from writing 500 posts here

With Thursday night’s post here, I joined the 500-post club. That club is nowhere near exclusive, should not confer any special benefits and hopefully has no existence outside the 500-post badge WordPress.com popped up on my phone. But writing 500 posts still seems like a notable milestone, even if it took me close to five years to reach that mark.

500Here’s what I’ve learned from it–or, if you prefer, how little I’ve learned from it:

Write regularly: Apathy is the death of all blogs, and after the first few months I found myself letting two weeks or more go by without a post. I seized on the idea of writing a weekly recap of where I’d written, spoken or been quoted, and that in turn meant I’d have to write something–anything–else each week to avoid having this become a completely self-promotional exercise. That’s mostly worked since, except that I often wait most of the week to write that extra post.

Write quickly: This is the one outlet I have online where whatever I write gets published instantly, with no further delays because an editor wants to look it over again or schedule it for a better time for reader traffic. I have no minimum or maximum word count. And yet I still overthink a lot of posts here, as if it’s still 3 p.m. on a weekday in 1998 and I have another two hours before my editor will want to see the top of the story.

(As my editors in this century can attest, this happens often with my paid assignments too.)

Popularity can be a total mystery: It’s been wonderfully instructive to see my how site’s stats change (most of my paying clients provide no such insight), then to realize how little those ups and downs match my own efforts to promote my posts on social media or by adding a link to a story elsewhere. Instead, my most-read post this year was an item about setting the time on my wife’s sports watch that I wrote on my iPad in a fit of nerd rage (note what I said above about writing quickly), and which I don’t think I’ve ever bothered to promote since.

WordPress 500-post badgeOther booms in popularity have come about when other sites have pointed readers my way (thanks again, Loop Insight!) or when enough other people on Twitter have shared a link to something here.

Try not to anchor yourself to one site’s algorithm: The emphasis is on “try”–Google’s search drives an overwhelming amount of the traffic here. But at least this site exists outside Google’s orbit and those of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other first-tier tech giants. That’s what I wanted when I set up shop here: to have a home base, as Dan Gillmor has been saying for years, that isn’t the property of a company vying to create its own online empire. (WordPress.com is still big, but it’s not trying to become everybody’s social network, messaging system, or shopping mall.)

Ads can be annoying for publishers too: I don’t like seeing schlocky or noisy ads anywhere on the Web, but I really don’t like seeing them here. But I have no more and maybe less control than many other small publishers–my only options are to hide ads from logged-in WordPress.com users or to show “additional ad units,” with no option to decline auto-playing video or those “around the Web” remnant ads you’ve seen at 50 other sites this week.

And yet I keep the ads on, because they make me a little extra money–and they continue to educate me about a part of the business I have little to no visibility into at my regular outlets.