Blookist — not just another blogging platform

Visit Blookist and the most inspiring part of their website is in an obscure place — the address bar. “You don’t need an excuse to be creative”, it reads. Still in beta, Blookist is a new kind of publishing platform. That was how its co-founder and CEO, Adrian Zuzic, described it to me when he got in touch recently, asking if I would be interested in reviewing their startup.

Blookist is the content-appreciative publishing platform we had all been waiting for.

At first, I was confessedly disinterested: was this just another Obtvse, another Svbtle, or another Ghost? At a time when blogging platforms seem to be cropping up at every nook and cranny, why did I have to pay any attention to Blookist? Was this another ambitious platform started with enthusiasm that would lose direction halfway through?

As I looked around, however, it was hard for me not to realise this was not a blogging platform; it was something more, something unique, and, most importantly, something promising. I signed up for free immediately and over the next couple of days began to explore this further. It had caught my attention. Continue reading

How I threw SEO out the window

Like a bane, search engine optimisation, (SEO) has long driven bloggers looking for visitors towards a meta-tag-heavy, Flesch points-restrictive style of writing. That needs to change.

When I started blogging seven years ago, I had to adopt the same practice and, while there is no doubt it worked, I always felt it hindered my style of writing. There is some sense in such optimisation, but the actual method of weighing writing is far too inhuman.

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Do not use big words, but the right ones

An impressive vocabulary is like a charming cup of tea. An exhibitionist vocabulary, on the other hand, is about as discombobulating as it is feckless. And it often works against itself, failing to make a point.

Big words

I have often noticed a trend in starting writers and — worse still — in those who have a newfound admiration for reading fat books they really could not care less about if it were not for that one peer they hope to impress.

People got out of their way to use big words: words not often used in daily life, with usually an extremely-specific meaning, and which preferably have complex pronunciations and/or spellings.

I attribute this to a sense of pride for, firstly, having come across that word; and, secondly, for assuming a lot of others do not know it. To many, however, it is usually a case of using a perfectly common word which they think is special simply because they had never heard of it before.

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Ideas of March

As much as I want it to be, the title you see above is not my own. It comes from Chris Shiflett, a wholly interesting person, whose blog I have been following ever since he spoke of Svbtle and Obtvse last year, which I found because of an article Daniel Howells wrote which I have no idea how I found, but I remember thinking it was worth my while.

Ideas of March

In any case, things like these are what define blogs: in essence, peepholes into people’s minds. This made me want to re-visit an article Chris Shiflett had written almost exactly three years ago, where he spoke of a “blog revival” that was needed as a result of many conversations (for good or bad) moving from blogs to Twitter.

Dustin Curtis wrote about something similar happening on his own blog as a result of Twitter. While I tweet too, I have thankfully not been drawn away entirely from my blog (for some of the reasons I will mention below). The ‘idea’, for lack of a better word, is to write a post called the “Ideas of March”, list why you like blogs, pledge to blog more and use the hashtag #IdeasofMarch elsewhere on the web.

Why do I like blogs?

There are many reasons why I like blogs. First of all, I would not be blogging if I did not like to do it. But here are some deeper thoughts:

  1. A blog is your house on the internet. You may be on Twitter, Google+, Facebook or wherever else, but none of those websites are truly ‘yours’. You have your space, much like you do in a pub or a library, but you still have a home do you not?
  2. A blog can be deep with utter disregard for public opinion. You do not need to sway with the public because on your blog you speak your ideas like they are yours. And they are, so why not? On social media, you invite shallow criticism that is really a dime a dozen, but on your blog, you can rest assured whoever comments or contacts you cares deeply for or against your ideas. They may not agree, but if they have nothing useful to say, it is highly unlikely they would spew meaningless words — something not uncommon on social networks.
  3. Blogs let you have meaningful discussions. I have often found that while I can comment on a fellow blogger’s article, some comments I have to make start looking dangerously longer than the original article itself. Then I chose to write an article in reply instead: on the one hand, it shows the other writer I care enough about their words to take the time to write my views in depth; on the other it helps create a rapport and link between blogs and people the way no social network can.
  4. Blogs hold you responsible; and that is a good thing. Your profile elsewhere on the web may not be sterling. But on your blog? As bloggers, we are rarely careless enough to paste something we are not very fond of for the rest of the world to see. Oftentimes, what we write are our finer thoughts spoken in finer words than usual. So a blog chronicles our better moments, expressions, times and thoughts. Should anybody stumble upon our blog, they would most certainly get a better impression of us than, for instance, an image our social networking profiles may paint of us.

I am not going to round of this list with a fifth point, because I think these four quite clearly state why I value anyone’s (your) blog over their (your) Twitter, Google+, Facebook etc.

Pledging to blog more?

Although one of the requirements of ‘Ideas of March’ is taking a pledge to blog more, I will not be doing that. If you have time, you can leisurely read my previous article on why, starting 2014, I have decided to join the slow blogging movement.

For those who would rather have me condense that blogging manifesto of mine, the points are simple: I have blogged far too long (seven years, including my sub-domain on WordPress) sometimes trying harder than necessary to blog on a strict schedule. While it paid off in terms of my website visitors, pretty low bounce rates and a fairly high subscriber count on both email and RSS, I decided to call such furious blogging quits.

Instead I opted to write more slowly and carefully thought-out articles, regardless of length, fewer times a month, but still often enough to be considered ‘regular’ by any definition of the word. In brief, slow blogging is to blog only when you really want to and have an idea, opinion, or thought you really want to share, as opposed to blogging just to stick to a schedule — which I fear is what pledging to blog more will make me do.

I think, like slow blogging, the ‘Ideas of March’ movement is something every blogger should do. If nothing, it helps you pause and reconsider why you have a blog at all; at its peak, it’ll help you love your blog more. The way I see it, if Voltaire or Galileo or Leonardo DaVinci or even Nietzsche were here today, they would have embraced blogging wildly. And half the internet would have disagreed with them by principle.

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Steering clear of the pitfalls of guest blogging

The concept of writing for others and having others write for you are time-tested ones. Around the end of last month, Google’s Matt Cutts spoke about guest blogging and how it might hurt more than it might help if not looked over carefully. My thoughts on this issue are pretty similar, but here are Mr Cutt’s:

A lot of new bloggers end up finding ways to measure themselves and their writing: subscribers, hits, comments, and, perhaps most misleadingly, the number of guest blogging pitches they receive.

Guest blogging has two faces: the submitter’s and the publisher’s. And, while both intend to reach a larger audience (i.e. the other’s audience), they also hope to get noticed by search engines and other such institutions who might end up being a gateway to writing for bigger publishers that actually pay.

But, as Mr Cutts points out, guest blogging can have a more sinister intention in mind: blind SEO. When two or three dofollow links become the reason why the rest oft he article exists, something is definitely wrong.

Every blogger — including myself — has receives at the very least a handful of such requests every few months that state they (the writer/s) have original, unpublished content they would like to offer exclusively to us to publish and yaka yaka yaka. And then they come to the point: could we publish it for them and have at least x number of dofollow links in the body?

Bloggers just starting out are probably the biggest victims to such near-spam and they publish that content quite happily, not realising that they are hurting their own blog’s image in the process.

Today Made’s, Garett Moon, has also written well about how guest blogging has become about the link instead of the ideas. I stopped accepting guest writing except from people I know since mid-2013 and, although my guest articles content has come down, I do not see my visitor count being affected all that much. And since I made this website more personal, I stopped accepting guest blogs altogether unless under special circumstances (often decided on a per-request/submission basis).

With so many people out there fighting to get their content published, it was only a matter of time before some of them found rather lowly means to achieve it. Although Mr Cutts talks of being OK with nofollow links as a sign of a sincere gust writing, I fail to see the harm in demanding dofollow links — especially when you are not being paid to guest blog. So the final decision ought to rest entirely on the quality of writing and the substance.

Further, some bloggers look to mass market guest-authored content they can make an offer to publish; the problem with this — apart from it being rather desperate an attempt — is that it is a clear indication that none of those articles were tailored for your site, so why should you want it at all? Guest blogging should be exclusive in that content ought to be made for your website, not that existing content must be given solely to your website: there is a river of difference between the two.

None of this means guest blogging should be shunned altogether; its intentions are pure and they still exist, but we just have to be a lot more careful about what we publish for our own good.

 Cover image: Flickr/Cameron Conner 

From start to finish: details and tips on how to write a blog post quickly, yet thoroughly

As promised in my recent article, I am going to dedicate this one to detail my blogging method. Generally, how to write a blog post so that it saves time, not takes it all away. Many people have asked me specifics before, and, over conversations with other bloggers, I learnt that this is one of the most frequent questions established bloggers get: how exactly do you blog?

When you come down to it, the thing is pretty simple; but some dumb it down so much that it loses meaning. A lot of thinking does go behind a blog post, and my intention today is to explain to you exactly what I do and how I do it. Particularly, the physical process of turning an idea into an article.

If, in my last writing I was unclear that I would talk about the mental approach rather than the physical technique, I apologise. In this one, we will surely talk about doing things — typing and things along those lines, yes. And I hope to keep this article quite short.

(Also note that, in an attempt to address the largest possible group of people, I will be focusing on writing on a WordPress blog. Except for a couple of specifics, however, the process should largely be the same.)

An idea strikes

Like everything else, blog posts too begin with ideas. At the start, it is one at a time; then it floods like a barrage gave way.

That is when you will need two apps I strongly recommend to all you serious WordPress bloggers. Firstly, get the WordPress app (download for Android or for iOS — or download your blogging platform’s app; Blogger, Tumblr, they all have one). Secondly, get Pocket (download for Android or for iOS — other options like Instapaper may serve just as well, although not on your pocket).

It is a universal rule that you get topics to blog about when you are in no position to actually blog. So twist this rule of nature using the two apps above. Ideas that come from offline go straight into your WordPress app: create a new post, title it and leave a note to yourself in your blog. Here is the screenshot I had used in my previous post, just to jog your memory:

Title your post, leave your idea as a note to yourself in the post body. Do not forget to save it as a draft before exiting, lest your post be published.
Title your post, leave your idea as a note to yourself in the post body. Do not forget to save its status as a draft before exiting, lest your post be published.

When you have time to blog and you sit before your computer, voila, WordPress is updated.

Some prefer to use dedicated note-taking applications for this. But in this case I find that complex and unnecessary because you end up noting down in one app and having your phone around when you blog, and copy things over between your blog and computer (or even across apps within a computer if that is the case). The method I have explained above works beautifully.

But what if your idea strikes while online? You can use the Press This bookmarklet in your WordPress Tools > Available tools menu if you are on your PC, but, if you are on your phone, switching to your WordPress app may not be the most time-saving option.

You can instead save to Pocket using a pre-determined tag. I use the tag #ToBlog which is not intuitive, so I never use it anywhere else by mistake. When I need to look things over, I quickly search for all #ToBlog saves and I have the stuff I want.

Organise your dashboard

This is an integral part of blogging. Other services may call it different names, but as a namesake I will call it the dashboard (which is what WordPress users are familiar with).

To focus on your blogging, let no part of your dashboard cry for attention. I have gone the extreme minimalist way and re-designed my dashboard to look something like this (hold on while I jump to my administration home and take a screenshot — there you have it):

Screenshot (115)
The VHBelvadi.com desk is the same as the WordPress dashboard, but it has been fully customised to suit my needs with lots of quick access links. Please click to view it large.

You may not be able to make yours look exactly like this without some unnecessary effort (for most personal bloggers, anyway) but the point is not so much in the looks as in the pending notifications, alerts, messages, errors and the like. Deal with it as they come. Approve comments, make them private or public, reply — the whole aside process.

Now you are set to write and do nothing else.

The writing process: how to write a blog post

a. Where to write

This is a big question to many bloggers. Some of us bloggers hated the original WordPress writing area. And most bloggers hated it because everybody else hated it too. The new version, with the distraction-free writing option, is something I am quite fond of. But I never use the distraction-free editor because I cannot add tags, featured images, excerpts without switching around and that takes time. (I sometimes do these things halfway through an article.)

If you still hate the WordPress editor, try an alternative such as JustWriteBlog for Chrome. I do not use it myself, but have tried it and found it usable on a regular basis. (Why do I not use it then? I do not see the need for an alternative to my VHBelvadi.com desk — not yet, anyway!) Alternatively, ScribeFire for Firefox is an equally trusted and (perhaps better looking) option. It is also available for Chrome as well as for Safari.

b. Know your WordPress editor shortcuts

If you use an alternative editor to the default WordPress editor, skip this section; if not, you will have some fun here.

When typing an article, know that all the regular shortcuts work. But make sure the cursor is clicked within the visual editor area. Hit Ctrl+B to embolden; hit Ctrl+I to italicise; hit Ctrl+Z/Y to undo/redo; similarly Ctrl+C/V/X will copy/paste/cut; and Ctrl+A will select all text.

Deeper shortcuts include several things you can do with the combination of Alt+Shift+shortcut where the shortcut (key) can be any of the following: D to strikethrough, N to spell-check, U to start a bullet list, O to start a numbered list (that is O, the letter, not 0, the number), M for image, and Q for quoting.

This is what my editor looks like. As you see, it is not the distraction-free mode because I then lose access to the areas on the right here. Besides, I have re-designed it to be pretty minimal, so there is not a lot of distraction stemming from this screen. More details typed into the screenshot (including a type -- sorry) so please click to view large.
This is what my editor looks like. As you see, it is not the distraction-free mode because I then lose access to the areas on the right here. Besides, I have re-designed it to be pretty minimal, so there is not a lot of distraction stemming from this screen. More details typed into the screenshot (including a typo — sorry). To view it exactly the way I do, please click on the image.

You can also hit Alt+Shift+W to go full-screen (distraction-free editing) and once there, special shortcuts work, such as Alt++ to increase width of the text area, and, conversely, Alt+- to decrease it. If you messed it up, Alt+0 will return it to the default dimensions (and it is 0, the number, here and not O, the letter).

Hitting Ctrl+number will quickly format your writing. 1 goes to heading 1 style, 2 goes heading 2 all the way to 6; then 7, 8 and 9 will turn it into regular paragraph text, pre-formatted code or address text.

Also make it a habit to hit Ctrl+S to instantly, temporarily save as you write, so that you do not lose your work.

Mac users, remember the eternal lesson: Ctrl = Cmd. Also, not all of these may work on all browsers.

c. What single button do I use most?

I am a big fan of the preview button at the top-right. Some lucky people can hit Ctrl+Alt+I to preview instantly. This gives me an idea of how my post will look once it is published for the world to read. I do not have to return to bulk-edit my work after publication, because that would be a foolish thing to do.

Using the preview capability helps not only to keep track of the post length (sometimes 2,000 words seem short in the editor) but reading in the actual format and design that the article would ultimately be read in, in my experience, makes it a lot easier to manually spell-check.

d. Add any images

It is generally a good idea to add images to your writing. It acts as a buffer between large chunks of text and gives your reader some rest. Five images in a 500 word article is too much, but three or four for a 1,000 word article is a good measure.

I add images at the very end, because doing so while writing is not only distracting, but also time-consuming. This, of course, is unless I have to make references to any content inside the image.

e. Tag, file and save

Finally, tag your post. My limit (and a good limit, unanimously accepted) is no more than five tags. Two things to remember when you tag your posts are, first, whether each tag represents the whole article rather than a portion of it. If you have only two words that truly represent your article, tag it with just two words.

Second, avoid long, spaced out, phrase-like tags. These are not only unnatural but may backfire by narrowing down your results too much; on the contrary, try not to be too vague either. For instance, I have tagged this article with the words blog, wordpress and technique.

h. Copying from elsewhere

I know a few people write their articles on text editors like Word. When you copy and paste across softwares, things get real jazzy. But the dangerous part is sometimes code is added to your copied text that does not make a visual difference when you look at it, but its presence is quite harmful for robots indexing your website.

Once you paste, WordPress has a handy tool called the remove formatting button. In the kitchen sink (Alr+Shift+Z) it is the sixth button (next to the paste from Word button with a W). Hit that and, even if you noticed no changes, you are good to go.

Publish or schedule it

Ah, the end.

You can publish your article right away, of course, but if you were feeling particularly energetic and wrote three in a day, you would not want to throw them all out at once, so hit schedule to post at your preferred time and date.

Then sit back and talk to your readers. It’s the second most rewarding part of blogging.

 Cover image: Flickr/Christine and Hagen Graf  VHBsign

Personal blogging ethics and know-how

Two things prompted me to write this article: a couple of blogs that I follow, and the fact that I have never addressed the personal blogging scene very often in my considerable years of blogging.

Firstly, I will not detail the incidents themselves, but you might gather they broke or gravely bent these rules; and, secondly, I believe strongly in sharing what I have learnt with people who can put aside their ego and listen.

What can I expect from following all this, and when?

Now that that is done, here are a bunch of things most personal bloggers will never bother to practice because they are not blogging on a professional capacity. But these are things that you, as a personal blogger, should adopt.

Following what I detail below will help you create a more targeted community. It will help robotic evaluations better grade your blog and hence what you write will reach people you meant it to. It will, in general, make you blog more active and keep you on the safe side of the data gathering line i.e. those rules which are used to determine, across the internet, whether your writing is worth others’ time and is to be shared, or whether it is to be blocked.

What will I gain from all this?
Photo courtesy: Jacob Botter

How long will it take for results to show? Well, that depends on you and how strictly and closely you follow this.

Does it really work? It worked for me. I have several thousand people reading what I write, among my daily unique visitors, visitors who stay to read multiple articles, subscribers and other contacts, minus 40% of the total of them. So, if it worked for me, I do not see how it will not work for you.

You can continue reading, or stop right away for one of two reasons: you doubt me, or you hate me. I doubt you’ll doubt me given that you are on my website. But if you stop reading before the first point here because you posses a heated feeling of dislike towards me, you are the loser. (Look at what I did there.)

1. Site indexes and sitemaps

Amidst the enthusiasm of creating a blog or website, many first-timers (including me several years ago) think the work is done when the site is live and people are visiting it every now and then. What gets you more public attention, however, are robotic elements that cannot read your wonderful, flowery English.

Sitemaps literally tell these robots something like, “Here, this is my site and these are all the places you can go from all these places. These are interesting bits, so make sure you keep them on your list.” Well, not quite, but you get the point.

How do you make one of these sitemaps/indexes? If you are on WordPress, a sitemap is already made for you at /sitemap.xml and it conforms to the Google protocol.

In spite of this, it is always a good idea to create a human-readable site index if your blog has a complicated set up. To create a site index for a blog that is laid out, say, with a static home page and a blog page with five categories and three pages and some custom organisation, create a formatted list like I have done below and save it at /siteindex.

  • Home
  • Blog
    • Category 1
    • Category 2
    • Category 3
    • Category 4
    • Category 5
    • Custom organisation
      • Category 2
      • Category 5
  • Page 2
  • Page 3
  • Page 1

 

Ooh, sitemap!
Photo courtesy: INPIVIC

2. Revisions after publication

Depending on your blog (its size, popularity and so on) different robots index it at different frequencies. For instance, larger group blogs are indexed almost continuously, personal blogs with larger readerships, such as this one, are indexed anywhere from once to several times a day; smaller personal blogs may often only be indexed weekly or if you blog at a snail’s pace (nothing wrong with that) your site will be indexed just as fast — or slowly, perhaps.

This means, first of all, that smaller blogs have greater latitude in terms of how often they can keep correcting and rewriting their posts. Larger blogs almost always cannot. So far, I have never done it myself.

This is also an ethical question. Spend enough time in the blogosphere and you will learn a very important practice: once a structural or contextual change has been pointed out, mark it down at the head or tail of the article; making revisions or corrections after the fact is frowned upon, and rightly so. It is often equated to denying a statement made publicly.

If you have made a mistake that has been spotted, once you acknowledge that mistake; and if it is something all your other readers should know as well, simply add to the article a small note or update. Adding will not hurt site indexing as much as overwriting or completely re-writing.

3. Never lose target

You may be a personal blogger, but a targeted website gives authentic reason to follow you. If you write about your day with your stationery very often, do not give it up in favour of metaphysical posts.

Sometimes you just have to hit within the dartboard.
Photo courtesy: Raghul Selvam

This is something I myself had to do very recently. Ever since I shifted my focus to increasingly personal-style articles, I have been confusing readers, robots and aliens alike. For instance, several prestigious and lesser-known educational institutions alike have linked to my articles on how I use various software and hardware for college, especially this Evernote for college article. Why link to me and not just as often to, say, Engadget or Mashable? Authenticity and consistency.

Authenticity in that I am in the same position as my readers and it only makes sense to read a thing or two about college from a college-goer rather than a forty-year-old man who went to college when things were radically different and could not wrap his mind around how things work no matter how tech-savvy he may be.

Consistency because it has helped me establish my blog as a trusted source. It has been verified by Google, the largest indexer around, and several blogging communities; what this means is that people trust what I write (and it is a responsibility to keep that), and people will read what I write.

This helps gain an audience no matter how small you are as a blog or website. I, for one, enjoy hearing more real people’s opinions about gadgets and their experiences than that of a large website with 70 articles a day frequency. Why those large websites then? There are some things smaller bloggers cannot cover, like exclusive WWDC updates or live blogging of some uber-costly events.

So you get the point: write with a scope and stick to it. Because, no matter how differently you may think, a single bloggers views are not only considered more connect-able with than an organisation’s, but also more trustworthy. Think of it as listening to an opinion about company X’s product from a lay user as opposed to an employee of X.

4. Article length is extremely important

Google is getting intelligent by the month. Why do I fixate on Google? Because Google is the largest, and often, what Google creates other search engines try to follow in a bid to keep up. And a key element of Google’s verification of content trustworthiness is article length.

If somebody asked you a question with an answer simple enough, you would hardly try to point them to a 600 page book to read. Similarly, Google not only checks frequency (too often is as bad as too infrequently publishing) but also on word length. For starting blogs with lesser readership, you will need to work on serving readers’ interest as quickly as you can.

Would you read an advertisement this long?
Photo courtesy Charles R. Forker

As your reader base grows (and by this I refer to your regular reader base) you can increase your article length. This not only is a surefire indication of trustworthiness, it also ranks you higher when indexed. That is why I have come to view writing longer articles as a privilege more than anything else.

My articles are routinely 1000+ words in length. My important articles (those I know will attract more readers) have gone as high as 3000 words, or are at least 2000 words on average. Why bother writing so long if nobody reads it?

So start with a modest length of 500. Try not to go below that. 500 to 600 at first and go as far as 1000 once you have readers. Readership coupled with long articles that are actually read implies credibility.

5. Categories and tags are your both friends and enemies

Now watch me. Michael Schumacher. Because I said Michael Schumaker (and there, I said it a second time) it does not give me the right to tag my article as Michael Schumacher.

This is known as false tagging or (in case of categorisation) false categorisation. You may have a genuine reason for doing this (e.g. it’s April first) but the rest of the world cares little. Misrepresentation of data contained in your article will give you the blogging equivalent of a jail term.

Most services briefly ban you from being listed, so the only way people will find out about your blog over the next month or even year is by your telling them — not very promising.

Looking for a nudge in the right direction? I have tagged this article blog, personal, sitemap, and word count; and I have filed it under blogging.

Your everyday blogger isn’t filthy rich.
Photo courtesy Happy Bushra

6. Squash your expectations

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but whatever high expectations you had about blogging are not going to come to you anytime soon. The only reason I have no problem blogging religiously is because my blog can pay for itself, or at least because I come from a background of blogging for both a larger conglomerate and having run for many years an established popular science website.

But of course, that was not in my nature, so I handed the reigns to somebody else, shut down that website and decided to concentrate on building my personal website here on VHBelvadi.com. It is also why I never state that I was editor of a popular science website before. I wanted to build this one on my own, not by stealing readers.

What I mean to say is that unless you had been blogging for profit or had been a terribly popular blogger within your niche, the chances are slim that you will get more than a few hundred readers even at your peak. My average, at the start, was a puny 500 readers a day. And, ads or no ads, you will not get enough money to do anything right as a personal blogger.

My overall point is that by putting aside these unrealistic aims, you will be able to concentrate on realistic ones and gain a community around your blog. Also, do not go by comments: they do not mean a thing, really.

You can also read my previous collection of tips targeted towards personal bloggers. Or you can disregard my advice completely. But these are simple no-brainers that just work. If you don’t feel like blogging, you will enjoy this article I wrote a long time ago, aptly titled, “I don’t feel like blogging.”

Happy blogging. Send me your blog addresses and I’ll definitely drop by sometime!

  Cover image by Lisa Risager from Denmark   (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons  VHBsign