The following is an answer from Merlin Mann from 43 Folders responding to my one question interview question of what he’d do differently if he had to start his blog over again.
I would have bought a reliable crystal ball — which would have presaged that, in the not-too-distant future, 43 Folders would not be “just a blog.”
If I’d thought ahead a little, I would have realized that stuff like a wiki, forum, job board, etc., would all be a good fit, and that I’d better build out around the idea that the highest value for readers would be in having those pieces work well together — seamlessly, in context, and very much not like a blog plus a few strap-on subdomains.
Maybe most importantly for the primary “blog” portion of the site, I wish I’d realized that the date and time of a “post” were usually its least important attributes. Unlike a news site or typical “funny thing my kittycat did” blog, the content is evergreen — it’s not wedded to “now” or “then” for its context and relevance — so I wish I’d better planned how to make it easy for people to navigate around their interests, rather than having to undertake a backwards death march through time. It’s like having arranged your library of books by cover color.
Other than that? I dunno. These things are always a crap shoot, and it’s very hard to know how “successful” any unfunded, unadvertised, and unmarketed website will ever be; with money and marketing, of course, you can make *anything* popular these days. But we knew that.
So, for the one-person operation (with an exiting site), I think it really pays to watch stats and search traffic, listen to comments, and then try to evolve around the way fans _and_ strangers are trying to use your site. Visitors are unconsciously teaching you lessons every day, and it’s wise to make sure you glean those fields as often as possible, and then turn it into smart site changes.
Finally, be picky about the shortcuts and cheese that you choose to quickly get “popular.” Link begging, black hat SEO, and other games tend not to help much in the long run if you truly want to grow a site that’s about content and voice. Resist the urge to chase the ghostly shadows cast by statistical popularity. It’s a cargo cult, and when you overdo it with the money- and Google-worship, your IRL readers will know it. And tell you. And often just leave.