I met the news that my blog, Bloggasm, had been nominated for a 2008 Weblog Award with a mixture of amusement and apathy.

I had watched last year as my RSS feeds became clogged with the incestuous link trolling common with such contests. The Weblog Awards, like others of its kind, are based on a popular vote, guaranteeing that most of the hundreds of blogs nominated will campaign almost daily to squeeze every available vote out of their readerships. Inevitably, entire factions would take up arms and do battle across several award categories. In truly heroic fashion, bloggers would sacrifice their own votes and direct their readers to vote for another blog in their category to head off others in the opposite faction.

So other than simply noting that I had been nominated, I promised my readers that I wouldn’t campaign for my award. Judging from a blog search, I’m in the minority.

Blog awards, as they’re traditionally practiced, differ greatly from more mainstream media awards. The George Polk Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, focus on specific articles or series — best investigative reporting, best local reporting — and are chosen by a panel. Most major blog awards, on the other hand, issue blanket awards based simply on blog niche — Best Liberal Blog, Best Pet Blog — and are determined by a popular vote.

But if an award is simply a popularity contest — with the winner typically being the one who can drive the most readers to the polls — can it adequately identify exemplary online content?

A Popularity Contest

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Nikolai Nolan

Nikolai Nolan launched what is arguably the first major blog awards, the Bloggies, in 2001 while he was still in high school. Though the blogosphere was quickly expanding by that point, it was still a fraction of the size it is now and it was much easier to keep track of most of the major blogs.

“It was such a small community,” he told me in a phone interview. “However, there was a debate over the popular blogs and whether they deserved to be popular or not, because some of them weren’t as good as the less popular ones. So I thought that if there’s an award ceremony for blogs, then people could put it up for a vote and see just which blogs really are the best and choose a good sampling of both popular and lesser known blogs.”

That first year he hosted the contest on his own blog, and there were so few votes that he was able to count them by hand. In later years, he would move the awards off-site, expand the number of categories, and even present the awards at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

At the beginning of every January, Nolan opens up the awards to a nomination process, allowing participants to nominate up to three of their favorite blogs in each category. At the end of this period, he selects 200 random people who supplied their email addresses when nominating and allows them to pick their five favorite blogs in each category. The blogs that receive the most picks become finalists and are then put up for a popular vote for the second half of the month. Unlike the Weblog Awards, each participant is only allowed to vote once.

I asked Nolan why he didn’t have categories for specific kinds of content and whether this made the contest more of a horse race than a way to identify quality blogging.

“In the early days with the Bloggies, I did have a few more specific categories, such as best theme,” he replied. “There was also a category for best article or essay about weblogs, but I dropped it because it just didn’t get a whole lot of nominations. Overall, I find that blogs are like one whole unit, like novels themselves. I wouldn’t rule [more specific categories] out for future years, but in general the format of just nominating blogs themselves has worked out well, and I don’t feel I need to change it at the moment.”

Nolan argued that the Bloggies don’t always reward the biggest blog but instead the blogs that campaign the hardest. And he said that he has created categories for smaller blogs — Best Kept Secret, for instance — that allow them to compete on a more even playing field.

Categorical Approach at Weblog Awards

Kevin Aylward, the administrator for the Weblog Awards, has taken a similar approach by creating several categories based on a blog’s popularity; in previous years he used the ranking system of the Truth Laid Bear but this year he utilized Technorati’s authority rankings to divide the blogs into groups (my blog made it into the Best Large Blog category).

Aylward told me that he launched the Weblog Awards in 2003 partly in response to the Bloggies because of problems he perceived in the Bloggies’ selection process.

“They had some major issues that I saw,” he said. “One was that the same little group of people were nominated and winning every year, and the process was totally closed from public view. And they had an issue in their second or so year where a couple people hijacked the whole thing to get their favorites into the finalists.”

Aylward blogs for conservative site Wizbang, and for the first few years right-of-center bloggers dominated the awards — some saw it as a counterpart to the Bloggies, which were won mostly by liberal blogs. But as the years progressed the Weblog Awards became much more evenly balanced — it’s not uncommon for liberal bloggers to secure wins now.

Alyward said that contests like the Weblog Awards are excellent at alerting readers to new blogs they haven’t heard of before, and that an award nomination can be a positive sign for more obscure blogs right before they become incredibly popular.

When I asked whether popular blogs had an unfair advantage in winning the awards, Aylward claimed that allowing participants to vote once a day served as an “equalizer” for the underdogs.

“I figured out pretty much in year one that there’s sort of an ‘Instapundit conundrum,’” he said. “If you were in a category with high traffic sites, they [could link] to the voting and send their 100,000-people-a-day readership to vote…How would you compete? What I figured out from experience is that maybe [the popular blog] would link to it once, and a bunch of people would go and vote, but they wouldn’t send much back. So having one vote a day for about a week, if you have a smaller more dedicated readership it sends people back every day to vote.”

Bloggers Respond

Jay McDonough told me that he doesn’t expect to win a Weblog Award for his category and that winning isn’t the point. His blog, Swimming Freestyle, is nominated for Best New Blog and he’s just happy for the free exposure the nomination is bringing to his site.

“The fact that I was nominated and chosen as a finalist, I was over the moon about that,” he said in a phone interview. “And the notion that some folks might find it and decide they like it and want to stick around is at this point the whole thing for me. I don’t anticipate winning and I’m happy — thrilled — to have been nominated and see my traffic increase as a result.”

Encouraged by a friend in the Democratic National Committee, McDonough began writing and contributing to political websites a few years ago. In October 2007, he finally launched his own blog, Swimming Freestyle. Though his previous blogging for other sites mainly focused on politics, his own blog was more eclectic and freeform, including ruminations on politics, music, poetry, the arts, and even architecture.

“I’m getting creamed in these Weblog Awards right now, but with any luck, some of the folks that are taking a look will hopefully be interested in coming back,” he said. “There’s obviously an advantage to being a popular blog; you get a lot of readers and they turn out and vote for you. But I’m small potatoes compared to these guys, even the best new blogs, so for me I’m trying to think of this thing as an opportunity for discovery.”

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Jason McIntyre

Not all the award nominees I spoke to were following the awards very closely; there were some like me who weren’t campaigning for it at all. Jason McIntyre had only been vaguely aware that his blog The Big Lead had been nominated for Best Sports Blog. He launched his site in February 2006 with a few friends and after coverage and exposure from several mainstream outlets it has grown over the years to around 2 million page views a month.

“We’re just honored to be nominated,” McIntyre told me after saying he didn’t know much about the award. “We’re thrilled with that, and it’s cool and I’m not going to be putting up a link every day. If we win, we win; if we lose there’s no prize at stake. Whatever, I’ll take it.”

Using a Jury to Decide

Not all blog awards are put up to a popular vote, however. Gabriel Gonzalez has worked for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international public broadcaster, since 1991. In 2004 he helped launch the BOBs (Best of the Blogs), a blog award that at the time spanned across seven languages — now that number is up to 11.

“What does this mean?” he wrote in an email. “We only accept blogs in languages we can read and understand. We have native speakers [at Deutsche Welle] for all 11 languages that check all the entries to the BOBs. They are experts for their blogospheres and they also search for the best possible jury member for that language.”

For an entire year the judges for each language scour the blogosphere looking for potential award nominees (MediaShift editor Mark Glaser was the English-language judge last year) and then they’re flown into Berlin to discuss their picks. Because most the judges don’t speak all the languages and therefore can’t actually read all the nominated blogs, each judge has to make a comprehensive presentation on their nominees and explain why each blogger’s writing was exemplary.

The BOBs are unique because the main awards are chosen by a jury and the online audience can vote in a parallel reader’s choice set of awards.

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Gabriel Gonzalez

“We have 16 categories in the BOBs,” Gonzalez said. “Every category has two winners. One is chosen by the public through voting, the other chosen by the jury. If you do just a popular vote, it would be just a popularity contest. You don’t necessarily find the best writing or blogs through that. Plus there could be (and usually always is) too much abuse [in online voting]. A contest based only on a panel is too elitist, too authoritarian. We feel that a combination of both methods is the best way to find and promote the best blogs and podcasts in different blogospheres.”

By allowing both options, Gonzalez hopes this creates an equilibrium, so that the BOBs reflect readership trends (through the popularity vote) and yet also try to recognize the more obscure bloggers who may not have the sizable audiences — either because they’re not as good at marketing themselves or they don’t post as often — needed to win a popularity contest.

I asked all the award creators whether they had plans in the future to create more specific categories to recognize individual posts or series. All three said they were open to the idea but were skeptical whether such categories would gain much traction. Given the fact that two mainstream contests — the Polk and the Pulitzer — are now considering more online content, it may not be too long before a blogger takes home an award for “best explanatory blogging” or “best localized blog series.” Until then, the survival of the fittest — or rather, of who can drive the most votes — will determine most blog awards.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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