Last week, I wrote a post over at the History Girls asking why some blog posts are more popular than others, based on which of my posts had collected the most "hits" over the past year. Of course, as some of the comments pointed out, a "hit" might simply be someone searching for a certain term on Google. So if their search string happens to be in your post title (by accident or design), then it will count as a hit even if the person searching has no intention of reading your post. This is either very clever or very stupid, depending upon what you are trying to achieve. It will bring readers to your blog, but many of them will be the wrong readers, so unlikely to explore further, or buy anything from the site, or come back for more. The equivalent in books is a cheap or free title, which attracts readers outside its genre but might not please all of them.
Then some people might click on your post title thinking it sounds interesting, but quit reading at the third line because they hate history (duh!), or are otherwise finding your post a bit boring. In that case, the title is probably misleading, or just didn't work quite the way you intended. Same applies to book titles - and, as every publisher and author knows, titles are not easy to get right. Finding one for "I am the Great Horse" took several months.
Other people might read your whole post - result! - but not really enjoy it much. The equivalent with a book is a reader who perseveres hoping it is going to get better, but is left disappointed at the end. That's the kind of book that gets 3 star reviews, if it gets any - right kind of book, just not as brilliant as others they have read, and in some way vaguely disappointing.
The perfect "hit" is a reader who clicks on your title, reads the post to the end - maybe twice, and either loves or hates it enough to tell a friend or retweet it to their thousands of Twitter followers. That post will naturally get more hits because of their recommendation, some maybe falling into the categories above if Twitter is used, but others who might be inspired to do same. This is the post or the book that gets promoted around the world by word of mouth, sells in huge numbers, and makes its publisher very happy.
But WAIT just a minute, I hear you say... loves it or hates it? How can something that someone hates count as most popular?!
Well, love is obviously nicer from an author's point of view - but hate is also a strong emotion, and links to blog posts/books/videos that rub people up the wrong way get passed around Twitter, just as often as those everyone loves like these popcorn kittens on YouTube. (Have you found anyone who hates that? I haven't!)
I can see this happening in a small way with my republished backlist titles. In 2013, I am the Great Horse accounted for almost half of my total backlist ebook sales over the year - and I had 12 backlist titles selling that year, most of them priced lower and some of them promoted more often. So what is selling this particular book? I can only think word of mouth - and presumably not always the love kind, since this was the book that ended my relationship with my first publisher in the UK, was not supported by booksellers in its original format, and did not make it into paperback in the US (where it sells the best as an ebook). If you want further proof, it collected a 2-star review on Barnes and Noble shortly after publication criticising it for being unsuitable for young readers because it mentions violence and (very briefly) rape. I understand it's not a very marketable book because it's difficult to shelve, so that might have been the problem. Yet it still sells the best out of my backlist, and collects some great reviews from those readers who discover it. The numbers do not lie.
So here's the unicorn's theory for writing a popular blog or a best-selling book in 2014....
Forget the safe middle ground. Forget trying to please the largest number of readers while avoiding upsetting everyone else. Forget the latest computer analysis of best-selling titles, which claims to predict with 86% accuracy if a book will be a best-seller or a flop. Write something that arouses strong emotions, give it a title that works perfectly for that particular post or book (and if you can squeeze a couple of popular search strings in there, go right ahead). Then put it out there, and let readers do the promotion for you while you try to come up with something even better.
Hmmm... off to get writing!