Weekend PM

Why Substack Is Great for Newsletters and Not for Blogs

Update on April 14, 2021: All the issues mentioned in this blog post (except for the SEO, I think) were fixed by Substack over the past couple of months. The platform is more mature and has a lot to offer if you’re a blogger. So, check it out!

Six months back, I moved to Substack from my self-hosted WordPress blog as I was spending too much time fixing and maintaining things than writing. I even wrote an article about it!

Substack is a great platform for writers. It has helped several amazing writers to focus on their content without worrying about the technical complexities.

Adding to that, Substack started some really amazing initiatives like the writer fellowship, providing writers with financial and legal support, etc.

It has also made writers and journalists generate some amazing revenue numbers as well. According to a recent article, Dispatch – a Substack publication recently hit $1 million in annual revenue.

I love Substack for what they’re doing and what they stand for. But, in the last six months as a user, I also came across a few drawbacks that could hurt content discovery for small bloggers like me.

Incomplete slugs

The slug of the post URL is often incomplete. If you create a post under a title, the entire title of the post is not captured as part of the URL. Only a portion of it is captured as part of the slug. Also, there is no way to change the slug of the blog post. This might seriously affect the SEO ranking of a blog post.

If you look at it from Substack’s perspective, it makes sense. Substack posts are often delivered via email and need not be discovered organically. But, they haven’t thought of the use cases of small bloggers who have to rely on organic traffic (through SEO) to gain subscribers.

Keywords and SEO insights

Even though I had a lot of operational issues with WordPress, I loved their SEO plugins like Yoast which provides so much insight on an article from an SEO standpoint. But, with Substack you just write and publish. You can’t configure your keywords or set a custom title for your post targeting the search engines.

I recently compared my organic traffic percentage when I hosted my blog on WordPress vs. on Substack and the organic traffic after I moved to Substack has decreased. Maybe it is just me.

Here’s a comparison of acquisition channels from months Nov 19 to Apr 20 (last six months of hosting Endangered on a self-hosted WordPress instance.) vs. acquisition channels from months Apr 20 to Oct 20.

Additional note that I did not write every week during Nov 19 to Apr 20 whereas wrote a new blog post every week from Apr 20 to till date.

You can see from the image that the organic search fell from 9.52% to 4.53% when I started using Substack.

Custom domain

One of the highly asked features by Substack users. Despite ‘.substack’ providing a sense of exclusivity, nothing beats a custom domain. Almost all blogging platforms provide the option to connect a custom domain. Until recently I thought Substack did not have the functionality that supports the linking of custom domains. But, they offer the feature to Substack publications with a large following. For example, publications like The Dispatch, Lenny Ratchinsky, A Media Operator, etc.

I’m not sure why the option isn’t available for all Substack publications. But, making it available for everyone would be a game changer.


Content discovery

Content discovery is not great in Substack. If done right, it can help new as well as established publications gain new subscribers.

In platforms like Medium, a good piece of content can have a viral effect and bring new followers to the writer. But, in Substack there is no way you can do that. You can shine only if you have a strong following outside of Substack. It is hard to get readers of other Substack publications to read your content or get them to subscribe to your newsletter.

Apart from featuring top writers on their website, there can be a daily/weekly editor’s choice featuring 5-10 writers.

They’ve recently introduced the option to find Substack publications owned by people you follow on Twitter. But, a feed with good articles (along with the ones curated by the editors) would not only bring budding writers to the limelight, but will also offer readers a variety of topics to read from

Established publications can also use this feed to gain paid subscribers. They can enable their free articles to be part of the feed to attract readers and convert them into paid subscribers.

If you’re someone who wants nothing but a great newsletter delivery system, then Substack works like magic. It helps you publish rich content, manager users, and schedule newsletters to your subscribers. It also allows you to charge your customers once you hit critical mass.

But, at this point, I don’t think Substack is for me as I am a small-time blogger who wishes for more people to discover my articles and eventually become my subscribers in the near future.