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Promoting Your Blog – How to Start a Blog Part 5

EVERYTHING (7)

 

This is part 5 in a 5 part series on How to Start a Blog. This post will deal with promoting your blog, managing your blog, and growing your readership. Also see Part 1 – Choosing a Blog Name, Part 2 – Choosing a Platform and a Blog Host and Part 3 – The Basics of Blog Design and Part 4 – Creating Great Blog Content.

I feel a little bit like a fraud writing this, because obviously I’m not some huge blogger with huge readership, and clearly, The Pioneer Woman should really be writing this post.  (I’ve heard her give the speech – it boils down to “Be Yourself!”  which apparently works well if you are the redheaded wife of a wealthy Oklahoma rancher but the rest of us might need a little help.  Another variation on this is, “Write great content, and people will come.” NO!  There are thousand of great blogs out there without a ton of readers.  Honestly, a big part of your blog really taking off is timing and luck.  Sorry.)    But truly beginning bloggers often have NO IDEA how to get anyone besides their mom to read their blog, and I can give you a few tips.

When you’re talking about growing readership, it’s probably best/easiest to think about the various ways people could find your blog, which boils down to three – search for it, follow a link to it, and go to it directly.    I’m going to take these in reverse order, because that’s one of the perks of having a blog.  You get to do basically whatever you want.

Growing Your Blog: Direct Traffic

This is anybody who visits your blog by typing in your URL (or blog name in Google, looking for you.)  This is someone who isn’t looking for your content, they’re looking for you.  Your mom, your BFF from Jr. High school, your friendly coworker.   This is the relationship step.  Leverage the relationships you have and build new ones.  Tell your friends about your blog.  Share it on your Facebook page (sometimes – don’t be that person who does nothing but shill on their personal Facebook page.  It’s one of the most irritating things ever.)  If a friend asks you for a tip or a recipe, email them the link to your blog.  Self promote, but don’t be a jerk about it.   Have the link to your blog in your online profiles – on message boards, on Facebook, on Google plus.    And build new relationships – this is what social media can be great for – I participate in a couple of Facebook groups for bloggers that really builds community; I’ve made friends on Twitter, I’ve participated in local blogging groups and fundraisers and press events, and I’ve gone to blogging conferences.  Meeting people face to face and having real conversations is the best way to build a relationship, and once someone knows you (especially if they met you in the context of your blog) they are more likely to become a reader.  I have met some wonderful and lovely people through blogging whose friendship goes beyond our blogs, which is really kind of wonderful.  Build relationships  to build your blog – build your blog to build relationships.

 

Growing Your Blog: Referral Traffic

This is when someone finds your blog by following a link to the blog, whether it’s a link you’ve posted yourself, or a someone else linking to you.  Obviously, some of this (like people linking to you) is related to direct traffic (the relationships you have), and some of it is linked to search traffic – someone finds a post and recommends it, but there are a few ways to get your links out there.  The first is content aggregators  – the biggest one of these is Pinterest.  These are sites whose sole purpose is to collect links to places elsewhere on the web.  Pinterest is a MAJOR source of traffic for a lot of bloggers, and particularly if you are blogging in a Pinterest-friendly space (food, fashion, design – anything with a strong visual component) it’s essential that your posts are Pin Friendly (good, crisp, pinnable images associated with every post).  There are also topic-specific content aggregators, like Fridgg, Foodgawker and Tastespotting for food.   It’s worth submitting your content to those. Finally, participate in the online community – find forums and message boards dedicated to your blog topic, and link to your blog to answer questions that are raised (just make sure you are following the terms of service of the forum).  Make yourseld, and your blog, a resource for people interested in your topic.

 

Growing Your Blog: Search Traffic

I’m not going to go into a great deal of depth about search engine traffic, because there are literally entire sites devoted solely to SEO (that’s Search Engine Optimization).  Basically, you want your content to be findable if someone searches for it.  One of the first things you should do when you start a blog is start an account with Google Webmaster tools.  Webmaster tools gives you some information on how much of your site is indexed and where any errors or issues arise when google is crawling your site.   Another thing to do is make sure you submit your sitemap to google and the other search engines – there are plugins that will do this for you.  Finally, when you are writing, think about the reader and how they might find your post – what kind of search terms would lead someone to this post, and incorporate these search terms in your writing (without being mechanical or overdoing it.  Remember, content is king!)   You want to avoid some well-known google penalties (link sharing is one of these – don’t accept paid links, or participate in link exchange schemes, where you are linking to someone in a way that isn’t organic.) Finally, there are tools and plugins that can help you with SEO  – one of the best of these is the SEO Plugin by Yoast – which will scan the content of any post you’re writing in respect to a chosen key word and tell you how your SEO is checking out.

 

In order to measure your traffic, Google Analytics is the gold standard for data mining, but don’t let it rule your life.  Remember, why you started your blog, and stay true to yourself.

I hope this series was useful and moderately interesting.  Next week we’ll be back to the domestic front!

 

Creating Great Blog Content – How to Start a Blog Part 4

EVERYTHING (6)

 

This is part 4 in a 5 part series on How to Start a Blog. This post will deal with creating great blog content. Also see Part 1 – Choosing a Blog Name, Part 2 – Choosing a Platform and a Blog Host and Part 3 – The Basics of Blog Design and Part 5 – Promoting your Blog.

When it comes to blogging, content is king.  You can have the best name, the fastest hosting package, and the most beautiful blog design anywhere, but if you don’t have something to say, then blogging may not be for you.  I can’t tell you what to write about  – you may want to just have a personal blog, or be the world’s expert on the appearance of cats in 19th century Scandinavian literature, and those are both OK!  But I can give you some advice – mostly on things to avoid.

Blog Content: Writing

It is entirely possible to have a blog with no written content, but that’s probably better off as a tumblr. (I think – that’s mostly what tumblr is for, right??) (So sorry, so old).  Chances are if you want to have a blog, you want to write something.  I don’t pretend to be the world’s expert at teaching writing, but I have a few ideas on what can make your blog writing better.

  1.  Find Your Voice.  I know that “your voice” is a cliche, but I think voice is what separates blogs from other forms of publications.  The key to the blog is you – how you speak, how you communicated.  I think most of the best blogs are written in a conversational tone, and that’s what I strive for.  People don’t have quite the same expectations for reading on the internet that they have for reading a book, or even a magazine article – the internet is inherently a more casual meaning, so a more conversational tone is appropriate. (And yes, I do speak like this in real life.  I told my husband this morning that I was in no mood for pedantry before I had my coffee.  I would never prosper in a national election because I’m not “of the people” enough, and my kids are the same way.  What you see here on the blog is what you get.)
  2. Don’t be sloppy.  Yes, the web is casual, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put the effort into your content.  Check spelling!  Try to have good grammar.  Do not say things like “I was balling” when you mean you were bawling.  Read over your posts before you hit publish, and again afterwards.  Think about whether you are being clear, concise, precise in your language.  Use the best words you can to say what you want to say.  Practice!
  3. Read other blogs in your niche.  It’s helpful to read other blogs in your niche so you can get a sense of what’s out there and start developing opinions about what you like as a reader.  You’ll also get ideas about tone and content from reading other blogs, and they may influence your style.   And don’t limit yourself to blogs – read newspapers, magazines, journals and books.   When I’ve been reading a lot of Laurie Colwin, I start writing more like Laurie Colwin (which may, by the way, be my highest aspiration in life).   Read the good stuff.  It will make you a better writer.
  4. Don’t plagiarize.  I don’t think I can say this enough.  DO NOT PLAGIARIZE.  It’s OK to take stylistic tips from other writers, but if you copy their words you are plagiarizing and infringing on their copyrights.  It is OK to quote small amounts (with proper attribution) for the purposes of adding additional commentary, but don’t just cut and paste.  It’s BAD.

A note about recipes and copyright:  Recipes are not copyrightable (and it’s copyright, not copywrite.)  That means that the ingredients and methods used in a recipe can be freely copied.  HOWEVER, the actual expression of that recipe – the words  used to describe it – are copyrightable.   Of course, there are only so many ways to say “beat egg whites until stiff” so it’s hard to claim a copyright in that, but “Beat eggwhites until they stand up like the Sierra Nevada on a January morning” is copyrightable.  Don’t cut and paste.   The next caveat is courtesy – even if you’re not illegally copying someone’s work, it’s nice to give a nod to where you got an idea or a recipe.  It’s good form.  It makes you part of the community and conversation.

 

Blog Content: Images

You could have a blog that is all writing, and some people do, but the web is inherently a visual medium, and adding images to your posts is going to make them better and more accessible.    It also allows your blog posts to be added to sites like Pinterest, which can be a great way to publicize your site (more on that tomorrow).   The ideal is, of course, to take beautiful images yourself and use them on your blog, but sometimes this isn’t practical, and you need to find or create images in another way.

YOU CANNOT JUST REPOST A PICTURE BECAUSE IT TURNS UP ON GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH.  It’s illegal, and it’s wrong, and the ways for this not to be a violation of the image creator’s copyright are few and far between.  There are a few legitimate places to get images, though.

  1.  Flickr – You can’t just use any photo you find on Flickr, but you can use images that have a “Creative Commons” license (there is a search function on Flickr which allows you to limit searches to photos with a Creative Commons license.)  Make sure to read the terms of the license – most require that you give attribution to the image creator, some don’t allow use for commercial purposes (which your blog is if you accept advertising), some allow derivative works (editing the image) and some don’t.
  2. Royalty-Free Stock Image sites.  Some require a small fee to use an image, some are fully free.  This list is a great resource for free photo sites.   Again, it’s important to read the terms of the license you’re being granted.
  3. Create an image.  You can create an image using clipart and text in many image programs, including some free online ones.    I like Picmonkey for creating images (and also doing some light editing of my own photos.)  Probably my favorite resource for creating images for blog posts (like this one, where a photo would be less than compelling.  What would it be a photo of?  A computer?) is Canva.  Canva has different layouts, sizes designed for Pinterest, Facebook, etc.  and a large gallery of free (plus some low-cost) images to use in your creation.

A note on frequency of updating – some places advise you to post every day, some multiple times a day.  Depending on the topic of your blog, this can be totally sustainable.  But my advice is post as often as you can create solid content.  Nobody likes filler posts.

To summarize:  DON’T PLAGIARIZE!  Create your own stuff.  Try to make it good.  I hope this was at least a little helpful as a resource for creating blog content.
Tomorrow: Publicizing your blog.

The Basics of Blog Design – How to Start a Blog, Part 3

EVERYTHING (5)

This is part 3 in a 5 part series on How to Start a Blog.  This post will deal with blog design and the elements to include.  Also see Part 1 – Choosing a Blog Name,  Part 2  – Choosing a Platform and a Blog Host,  Part 4 – Creating Great Blog Content, and Part 5 – Promoting your Blog.

Now that you have a blog and a place to put it, you might want to start thinking about what your blog is going to look like. Web design is a huge business, and I do not pretend to be an expert, but I do have a few pointers in this are.

CHOOSING A BLOG THEME

When you set up your blog, on WordPress or Blogger or wherever, you will be prompted to pick a theme.  A theme is really just the building block for hyour blog design.  If you’re familiar with coding, you can adjust your theme to look nearly however you want, but it’s best to start with a theme that’s close to what you want in the beginning.  Here are some things to think about when choosing a theme.

  1. Look.  Whatever you do, pick a theme with a fairly minimalist color scheme – it’s easier on the eyes, looks cleaner and more professional, and will make your content pop.  Remember MySpace?  Where people decorated their profiles in any manner of horrible designs?  Where’s MySpace now?  That’s right, it has been essentially replaced by Facebook, where everyone’s profile is blue and gray and white and uniform.  It’s not boring to have a plain web design – it’s good sense – it makes the blog less confusing and more readable.  In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with black text on a white background, though  white on black can also work.
  2. Layout.  You’re going to want at least one sidebar on your blog.  A sidebar holds things like ad units, navigation, introductions – these are called widgets (more on those later).  Sidebars are static while your main page changes (so are headers, but if you put all your stuff into a header, your content will be lost beneath it.) The number of sidebars is up to you – some people do one sidebar only, or two sidebars on one side, or one sidebar on either side (which is the layout on The Domestic Front.)  I’d shy away from having more than two total, though, for the minimalism reasons I cite above.
  3. Responsiveness.  Responsiveness is how a website layout changes depending on which device you view it from.  Some themes offer responsive design – they have a different layout on a smartphone than they do on a desktop.  A non responsive design will make everything smaller.  As more people view the web from mobile devices, how your theme appears on such devices becomes increasingly important.
  4. Price and Support.    Some themes are frequently updated and have teams of developers working to fix bugs and answer any questions.  These themes frequently cost money.  Some themes are free, but don’t have that support.    You have to decide your budget and how much tweaking/customization you will want or need support for.  (You can always start with a free theme, and upgrade to a paid theme late

On The Domestic Front, I use the free theme Atahualpa, which has the advantages of being free, very customizable, and well-supported.   It is not responsive though, and that’s why there’s a mobile view that uses a different theme (Montezuma, from the makers of Atahualpa).  I like Atahualpa because I can do a lot of customizations with a menu in the wordpress dashboard, rather than going into the code editor. I don’t like it because sometimes I need to go into the code editor, and Atahualpa is so flexible that there are a lot more moving pieces than there are in a simpler theme.

To choose or change your theme in wordpress, you go to themes under the appearance menu from the dashboard.  You can search for available themes from that menu, and add them to your database from there.

 

 

ELEMENTS TO INCLUDE IN YOUR BLOG DESIGN

Once you have your theme, you want to think about the elements of your blog design that you will include in the framework of your theme.  These are some essential elements that should be included in any design.  Elements included in the sidebar are called widgets.

  1. Header. I touched on this before, but most themes come with the ability to add some sort of header across the top of your blog.  The header should include your blog name and/or logo, so people know where they are.  A logo doesn’t have to be fancy-  it can simply be your blog name, written out.   When you’re designing your header, think about the first impressions it makes of your blog.
  2. Navigation.  This is huge.  You’re going to have great content, and you want people to be able to find that content.  On The Domestic Front, you can find content through the category menus that drop down across the bottom of the header, the dropdown archives in the left sidebar, the search box in the left sidebar, or the recipe and post index which is linked at the top (with the other pages.)   I want to make my content easy for  people to explore.  I should probably also have a tag cloud, but I think they look to messy.
  3. A Search Box.   This is really a subset of navigation, but if you don’t have ANYTHING ELSE on your site, have a search box.  Wordpress comes with a search widget pre-installed and available to incorporate in your design.  Use it!
  4. About Pages.  Every blog should have an about page, where people can find out more about you and what the mission of the blog is.  I have two – the small widget in the right sidebar and the page that links from the top menu.  Your about page should also contain an email address if pe0ple want to contact you directly, and ideally your contact information should be available on the front page of your blog.
  5. Boring Legal Stuff.  Lawyer hat again (not legal advice, blah blah blah).  You probably want to have some policies – if you plan to do any giveaways, you’ll need to have written rules, so it’s helpful to have a set written up to link to.   I also have some disclaimers available, though I recognize that TDF is probably more thorough about this stuff than 90% of blogs out there.  You should 100% have a privacy policy – they are required in the State of California and most ad networks require you to have one, too. There are privacy policy generators available, or you can find one you like and copy it.  (TDF’s privacy policy)   The privacy policy should be linked to on the front page.

 

OTHER BLOG DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS

Fonts – you want your blog posts to be readable.  Don’t use a script font.  Also, don’t use Comic Sans or people WILL make fun of you.

Links – it’s good  form to include a blogroll of links to other blogs in your niche.  Many people don’t nowadays, but it’s a nice way to be part of a blogging community.

Social Media – I suppose you could have a blog without the corresponding social media accounts, but it’s probably not the best idea.  Make sure that people on your blog know how to find you elsewhere.

Posts per Page – Think about how many posts per page you want to display – more will cause your site to load more slowly and give people an “infinite scrolly” disease.  I think the best is between 3 and 5 for longer posts, and no more than 10 for shorter posts or excerpts.  If you include full-sized photos in your posts that appear on the front page (some themes allow thumbnails), limit it to 5.

Tomorrow – Blog Content!

Choosing a Blog Host and Platform – How to Start a Blog in 5 Steps Pt. 2

EVERYTHING (4)

This is part of a series on how to start a blog.  This post deals with choosing a platform and blog host.  T. Also see Part 1 – Choosing a Blog Name, Part 3 – The Basics of Blog DesignPart 4 – Creating Great Blog Content, and Part 5 – Promoting Your Blog

Now that you’ve got your name all set, you need a place to put your blog – a hosting provider or platform.   Below are a couple of options to consider when choosing a blog host.

1.  Blogger

When doing anything web-related, the first name most people think of is Google.  Google provides a free, very comprehensive blogging platform known as Blogger.  Any blog with a url like blogname.blogspot.com is a Blogger hosted blog, but there are some other blogs using the Blogger Platform (Tartelette comes to mind) that use their own URL’s and link structures, which I would recommend for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.

2.  Wordpress

The other major blogging platform is WordPress (which, full disclosure, this site uses).  Wordpress comes in two flavors – WordPress.com and WordPress.org.  Wordpress.com is similar to Blogger, in that your default domain is blogname.wordpress.com, your blog is run by Automattic (the company that owns wordpress.com), so you don’t have total control, and there are some limitations on what you can put on your page (wordpress.com doesn’t allow for scripts to run, and doesn’t allow you to place ads on your site in the free version.  The other flavor of wordpress is wordpress.org – WordPress.org provides a free, open source blogging platform software, but you need to host it on your own (or a shared) server that you pay for separately.  When you use a wordpress installation from wordpress.org, you have total control over your blog’s content – everything except the hosting.

Which to choose? 

Blogger is comprehensive, and if you have or are a talented web designer, you can really customize it.  However, there are  a couple of disadvantages to Blogger – one, your site is run by Google, and if they decided to shut down the blogger service (it’s happened before – remember google reader?)  you’d be SOL.  Second, Blogger doesn’t give you the same kind of control that WordPress (which I’ll get into below) does.    Finally, I personally don’t find Blogger to be as user-friendly  as WordPress.  When I started TDF (then Savour Fare) in 2009, my only coding experience was a little bit of html knowledge.   I found wordpress.com to be very simple to navigate.  I’ve started several Blogger blogs over the years, and they never look or function quite how I want them to.  There are lots of very professional, very successful blogs that operate on the Blogger platform, and you may find it suits your needs.

Personally, I will always recommend WordPress.org with a separate hosting provider as your ultimate hosting solution.    This is for several reasons:

  1.   As I mentioned, I find the wordpress interface to be very intuitive and easy to navigate.
  2. Using WordPress.org gives you total control over your site – I have my site on a shared hosting space, but I can go in at any time and copy or move files from the server where my host stores them to my computer, to another host.  I have backups emailed to me regularly, and if my hosting provider goes out of business, I can easily move my blog to another provider.
  3. WordPress software is constantly adapting.  Wordpress is what most of the big bloggers use, and where the users are, so go the coders.  There are thousands of coders writing bits of code for wordpress installations called plugins. You can find plugins to add almost any functionality to your wordpress site that you can imagine – and it saves you from having to write those bits of code.  I have plugins that back up my database, that add coding to my recipes to make them printable and searchable, that make my site run faster, that guard it against hackers, that switches my theme to make my site more mobile-friendly when someone accesses it from a mobile device.  I had to know next-to-no code to add all this functionality to my site, because there are so many coders out there working to create it for me.  And if a plugin doesn’t work the way I want it to, or is incompatible with an updated version of wordpress, I can simply find another that does the same thing.
  4. WordPress is infinitely customizable.  Apart from the plugins I mentioned above, I can really go in and tweak my website however I want.  I can switch themes, and change the layout or the format within my theme.  I can add fonts, and images, and extra widgets and colors.  As I said, I was a coding newbie when I began this site, but over the years, I’ve picked up quite a bit (googling “How to add analytics to your blog header” or whatever it is you want to do frequently helps.) If I hired someone who actually knew what they were doing, I’d have even more options.

But I don’t want to commit the time and money to paying for hosting – I’m just starting this gig. 

If you’re blogging just as a hobby, choosing  Blogger as your blog host is probably fine (though you may still like wordpress better.)  If you are blogging as a hobby but you might want it to be more, I’d start at wordpress.com, because a) you will become familiar with the wordpress interface and 2) if you do decide to migrate to wordpress, the migration will be simple and painless (really!) because the database structure for wordpress.com and self-hosted wordpress is the same – it’s a simple matter of exporting and importing.

Mapping your URL

Even if you do decide to  start with a free platform like Blogger or WordPress.com, I’d STRONGLY suggest you map that URL you bought to your blog, so that your domain doesn’t end in blogspot.com or wordpress.com.  On Blogger this is free – Google provides instructions here.  On WordPress.com, this costs an additional $13 per year, and the instructions for setting it up can be found here.   If you map your domain, your blog will have the address yoururl.com instead of yoururl.blogspot.com or yoururl.wordpress.com.  That means, if you ever decide to change your platform (by moving to self-hosted wordpress, for example) all of the addresses for your posts and their links can remain the same, which is hugely important for making your site findable on search engines, and for making any links that anyone has made to your blog remain viable.   You can just set up a redirect for your URL (so that typing in yoururl.com will send a user to yoururl.blogspot.com) but by taking the extra time to map the domain, you’ll be able to maintain all the addresses for every page on your blog, if you decide to move.

Self-Hosted WordPress

If you do decide you want to go for self-hosted wordpress, you’re going to need a blog host.  There are a million hosting companies out there (and you will find a million complains about each one – it kind of goes with the territory). The blog host I’ve been using for several years (and one of the most economical ones for bloggers that are just starting out) is Bluehost.   I don’t have 100% uptime, but the downtime is short and typically not at peak hours (like my site will be unavailable from 2:06 to 2:12 am, and since most of my visitors are based in North America, that’s OK.)  Bluehost’s plans are affordable and they offer decent support.  At some point, I may outgrow Bluehost (though they do offer higher end plans (where you’re sharing server space with fewer sites, or not at all)), but I think it’s a great, affordable blog host for a blogger that is just starting out or just moving to a self-hosted blog.

Once you’ve signed up with a hosting account with your host, you will have to add your purchased domain to your account, and then change the nameservers your domain is pointing to to the host’s nameservers (your hosting company will tell you what nameservers to use, and you can change the name servers at your domain’s registrar).  The DNS (domain name server) changes will take up to 24 hours to go into effect, but once they do, you’ll be able to start building your site.

Most hosting companies use cPanel as a control panel, which can look incredibly confusing, but most of the cPanel features never get used.  Look for a piece on the cPanel that allows you to install wordpress.org into the public folder of your primary domain – Bluehost makes this process incredibly simple, and you can get wordpress installed (for free) through Mojo Marketplace without leaving your cPanel.   You can also download WordPress directly from WordPress.org  and then upload it and install it to your site using the file manager feature on cPanel.  Once you have set up wordpress, you will rarely have to use your cPanel again – you can make most changes – such as adding plugins or changing your theme – directly from your site’s wordpress dashboard.    If you’re migrating an existing wordpress.com blog into your new site, you can do that using the export feature from the wordpress dashboard on your old site and the import feature on your new site.

Of course, if all of this is hopelessly complicated and you’re not interested in learning it at all, there are companies who will set up a blog for you (bluehost offers these services for example). One that I would recommend is my friend Andrew Wilder at Blog Tutor.

 To summarize – when it comes time to host your blog, you can use a free option, like Blogger or wordpress.com, but my recommendation is to use a third party host with the wordpress.org software installed on it.  If you don’t want to pay for hosting from the start, I’d begin the blog at wordpress.com, since migration to a self-hosted site will be easier later.  If you do elect to begin with a free site, take the time to map your URL to your blog, as it will give you more flexibility later.  Finally, you have lots of options for hosting companies, but one of the most affordable for beginning bloggers is Bluehost.

Hope this was helpful and not TOO confusing.

Next up:  Blog Design (really what elements to include – I’m not a graphic designer).