What is Content Ownership?
When the publishing platform Medium was ascendant a few years ago, there was an uptick in both individuals and companies using the platform to host their blogs and find new content. Medium simplified the act of creating a blog. Its sleek design was reminiscent of reading an online magazine and its use of tags and comments ensured discoverability and engagement were built in. In other words, your content could find its audience among the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Medium users searching for something new to read without you having to put in extra effort into building site authority or growing an audience organically. (This doesn’t mean an audience was guaranteed to read your content.)
Many startups soon started migrating their corporate blogs to Medium, which allowed them to set up blogs in a few clicks while mapping them to custom domains (think blog.company.com). But the flexibility stopped there: blogs couldn’t use their own web analytics provider (they only had access to Medium’s rudimentary analytics reports), they couldn’t customize their designs (ensuring corporate blogs on Medium looked like Medium blogs, which strengthened the Medium brand), and Medium logos were still visible on corporate blogs, ensuring readership and traffic from any blog post remained within the Medium ecosystem. Soon, Medium started prompting content creators to put their content behind paywalls (even making it confusing for content creators to opt-out), which led large publications like freeCodeCamp and individual developers alike to move off of the platform.
Since Medium bloggers didn’t have control over decisions that affected how their content was delivered and how their blogs were designed (among other things), the platform is said to have limited “content ownership”, which in this instance means to have control of both your content and the site that hosts your content. For example: if you have a self-hosted site or a managed CMS that you pay hosting for, it can be said you have “control” of the site because you control the user experience and can make changes to many things yourself. You can customize layouts, map the site to a domain of your choosing, change SEO metadata, add web analytics, add third-party scripts (like a chatbot or newsletter sign-up form), and can publish your site without external branding. (Caveats: all hosting providers have a Terms of Service that lists what type of content is permissible on their service and they reserve the right to remove content that doesn’t meet their terms. Also, unless one is self-managing their website but using a managed CMS, there are limits to what changes can be made on the backend due to shared hosting.)
Why does content ownership matter?
Proponents of content ownership recognize that all content can’t be on self-hosted or self-managed platforms. Content creators grow their audiences on social media platforms like YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, and Instagram, all platforms that limit which content creators have access to different features and have guidelines on what types of content can be posted. These platforms have been key in helping content creators build their reputations, create brands of their own, and push their businesses forward. (And for developers, it’s helped devs find speaking engagements, writing opportunities, and even new jobs.)
What content ownership proponents do suggest is to have at least one corner of the internet that is firmly under your control: a personal website. Why? Because content platforms rise and fall in popularity over time, a content creator may outgrow a platform, and a platform can go offline without warning, taking your content with it. (See: Xanga, MySpace, Vine, among others.) A personal website or email platform should allow you to migrate your content and your audience to another platform of your choice, ensuring that you can continue to serve up your content and reach your audience independently of the platform. (No matter what platform you use, be sure to back up your content regularly. Here’s why.) And, most importantly, you have control over the user journey; you can help your site visitors find more relevant information on your site after they've visited a page or read a blog post. You're not solely creating free content that benefits a platform (usually run by a company) and helps that platform increase its traffic.
If you care about any of the following, you should consider having a personal site:
Showcasing a body of work that grows over time across multiple platforms
Building a business or becoming a consultant
Building a newsletter
One of the main reasons why people choose to set up blog-like sites on blogging platforms is their ease of use: you don’t have to tinker with a new tech stack, a server, or costs. But building a personal website does not have to be labor-intensive nor does it have to be expensive. Learn more about selecting the right blogging platform for you. And if the idea of setting up your site SEO seems daunting, check out my 2-hour long “Developer’s Guide to SEO Audits” class to help you get started!
Does this mean that we shouldn’t publish on other platforms?
Not at all! Millions of developers use Twitch, YouTube, Polywork, and developer platforms like DEV Community and Hashnode which help developers build their networks. (I personally use Polywork and DEV Community a lot to cross-post existing content — I’m a huge fan of both! Here’s more about what cross-posting is and how to do it without sacrificing SEO.) I also use Twitter extensively to reach developers. But I use these platforms strategically and don't depend on any of them exclusively to publish my content or engage with people.
If you have greater aspirations about how your want your work displayed or presented in the long term, create a personal site that you have more control over in addition to these platforms. While many of these platforms make it easy to set up an online presence, having access to an audience is contingent on a platform remaining popular over the long term. You’ll also be able to control what analytics you choose to collect, branding, and other design elements that can evolve as your tastes and needs evolve. If you already have a site? Be sure to funnel audiences you’ve reached on these platforms to your site, too! Your site should continue to function as your "place" online.
In summary, content publishing platforms are useful and beneficial in any developer’s content strategy. They make it easy to publish without worrying about the underlying infrastructure, making design decisions, or otherwise having to maintain a site experience. They also help users find and discover new content and participate in new conversations.
But they don’t have to be a replacement for a personal site. A personal site is best for developers who care about content ownership and have aspirations for presenting their work (projects, demos, etc) in a more holistic way as well as attract opportunities, customers, clients, and more. A personal site ensures that the content you create always has a home online and that it is presented in a way that aligns with your goals, and it is resilient against the rise and fall of platforms due to changing trends. If you have a personal website and are active on other platforms, be sure to drive people back to your site so they can learn more about you and find relevant content.
Are you working on a personal site and need help figuring out your SEO? “The Developer’s Guide to SEO Audits” will show you how to improve your SEO step-by-step using free tools that can help you identify issues with your site performance and SEO metadata. It includes an 8-page PDF with resources and a content summary!