How to start your awesome blog (for the absolute beginner)
A few weekends ago, I presented a couple of sessions at PodCamp Pittsburgh 9. The first was Blogging 101, a novice-level session.
You’re thinking of starting a blog. Hooray! Clearly, you’re one smart cookie, someone who has a point of view to share with the world. Fortunately, it’s very easy to launch a blog, and in this session, we’ll show you how to do so quickly and (relatively) painlessly.
- Planning your blog and and your focus
- Naming your blog and getting a domain name
- Setting up your blog — what to include and what to leave out
- Choosing a design to fit your content
- Writing your first post and adding photos and video
- Getting the word out and tracking traffic
- Key pitfalls to avoid
This session is for beginners who are thinking of starting a blog or website and want to start on the right foot. We’ll cover the basics, enough to get you up and running with the least amount of frustration. More advanced topics will be covered in the Blogging 201 session.
By the end of this session, you will know how to launch your blog and how to start connecting with readers.
Here’s a video of the session, plus the written notes I prepared ahead of time. The notes don’t exactly match what I said, but they’re the general gist. In the talk itself, because we had a small turnout, I had the chance to answer lots of questions from the audience, so check out the video for that extra material.
Why blog? I’m not going to tell you all the possible reasons why one might want to blog, because there’s already some reason that has brought you here to this room today. You have an idea that you want to blog. So great! Let’s figure out how to make that happen.
Setting up a blog for yourself or for a work situation is easy enough that you can follow a few steps and be on the right track. So it doesn’t require a whole bunch of planning and prep.
And in fact, if you start into planning and prep, you might get bogged down by questions that don’t have answers, or by the possibilities of new things that sometimes make things scary. So I believe it’s often best not to overplan or overprepare.
But there is a minimal, least bit of planning that is good to do, to help you avoid a few big problems. So, Here’s the littlest, least bit of planning that you should do.
Answer for yourself:
- What is inspiring you or causing you to blog?
- Who is your blog for?
- Where might your blog take you?
Answering these questions will make a few decisions easier down the road, so it’s worth thinking them out. And writing the answers down — actually taking up pencil and paper, or pen and paper, or chalk and chalkboard, whatever, and writing your answers down.
The answers might be super obvious. Or they might be less obvious, or maybe you feel you have multiple answers to one or more questions. All of that is OK. Write it down.
If there are answers, push yourself a little bit after the first easy answers, in case there are harder answers hiding behind them. Sometimes the real answer is harder to articulate. But remember, this planning is just for you, and no one else really needs to know. Go ahead and write down the true and little known reasons and ideas, so you can use them more later.
As a general thing, I believe it is OK to blog for no reason at all, or for only a little reason, or for some reason you can’t articulate. Push yourself a little, see if you can get something down. and if you can’t, just lunge ahead without that. It will come to you later. You will find out as you go.
The next thing you need for your blog is a name. The name is both very important and not important. For first impressions, names are useful. They can set a tone. And for helping people remember you, names are also helpful. But over time, names become less important that the meaning the the identity of the thing that is named.
For example, think of the name Google. When Google was new, the name was a little helpful because it was fun to say and different, and because it was kind of like googol, which is a real thing that is the very large number 10 to the 100th (1 with 100 zeroes). But now, google is a big company and a search engine, and a verb meaning to search the internet. So the name eventually means whatever it means.
Still, you need to pick a name. This is where the answers to our least little planning questions earlier come in. If you know what you’ll be doing and writing about on your site, and who you’ll be creating it for, then that can help you narrow down your name choices. So be guided by that information.
It’s OK to use your own name as the name of the site. If you think it might evolve over time to be a site for you to use to do work-type stuff, like publishing books or selling items, then that is an even better reason to use your own name.
Whatever the name is, you will also need a domain name for the site. A domain name is the .com or .me or .org or .info name that your site will be known by on the web. You will choose a domain name that no one else has, and you’ll register it. That means, you’ll open an account with a registrar, which is one of the companies that maintains a list of some of the domain names that exist, and you’ll pay them a fee every year to keep your domain name on their master list, and to connect it up with the rest of the internet.
Once you register a domain name, you renew that name every year. So you’ll pay maybe $15 to register the name, and then $15 every year on the same date to continue using it. Be very careful not to let it lapse! Someone might take it, and then charge you more to let you have it back.
GoDaddy is one registrar. There are many others. They are pretty easy to use and not overly expensive, so try them.
You’ll go to GoDaddy and search for the name you want, and they will let you know if it’s available. If it’s not, think up a second name and try again.
.com is a fine extension to use (actually called a top level domain) but others are also good. The more professionally you’ll be using your blog, the more you should try to get a .com or .org. But If this is more of a personal adventure for you, .info is good too, or .us.
Some top level domains are expensive, like .tv. So choose those only if you have a clear idea in your mind. Don’t pick one because someone else has the .com because people might confuse you.
Avoid choosing a domain name that’s easy to get wrong. Avoid punctuation like dashes or underscores, or funny spellings. You want people to find your site and not end up somewhere else.
The domain name is how people find the site, but the site still has to exist somewhere. The site will have files, and data, and that needs to be stored. You need storage. We call that storage HOSTING.
You can host your blog yourself, or you can use a service that handles the hosting for you. And the difference is very like the difference between building a house or renting an apartment: How much control do you want, and how much maintenance can you handle? Do you want to be responsible for building the place and taking care of the plumbing and heater? Or do you want someone else to worry about all that?
But on the other hand, do you want do be able to add on later, tear down a wall and build a killer hot tub? Or are you OK with having only a few choices of layout and no choice about the built-in appliances?
It’s the same with hosting. If you host your blog yourself, you need to work mroe to maintain it and keep out malware and spammers, and make regular backups and upgrades. But you have more flexibility with which designs and plugins you can use. You can do whatever you please.
If you use a hosted solution, you don’t have to worry about security or backups, but you have fewer choices on design and on how much you can extend your site.
Either way, there will be some recurring costs. Basically, the more you want to do, the more it costs. The simpler you need things to be, the less it costs.
This will help: Know that you can move your site later without too much trouble. It’s ok to start with a hosted solution that’s nearly free, and later once you have a little traction and know what you want, you can move your existing posts and domain name and everything to a different hosting setup for more flexibility.
Can I assume that most people here are just trying out this blogging thing and want to have a simple solution, so they can get up and running?
Here’s what I want to suggest:
I suggest you use WordPress.com. WordPress is the most widely used blogging service, and the most widely used web software even, not only for blogs. And WordPress.com is how you can use that without having to learn anything about setting up hosting. If you use that, you can be up and running very quickly indeed.
You will create it as something like myawesomesite.wordpress.com, but you can right away switch to calling it mydomainname.com or whatever you register. And then later, if you move your site anywhere else, you will take your domain name with you, so you’ll take all your readers and traffic with you. So everything will be golden.
If you’d like to try something else, we’ll talk more at the end of this session, or you can catch me over lunch or tonight, or email me. My business cards are up here for you to take.
What’s nice about a hosted solution is you can start your account, and you right away have a site for your blog, and you can just start blogging. That’s what I recommend you do.
You will not want to do that though. You will want to pick a design. This is not your optimal choice, but it is natural, because that is what the site will lead you to want to do. And because you will not like the default layout.
This is the default layout when you start a new blog on WordPress.com.
Are you ready?
This is it.
It is … less than inspiring.
And what we always want to do when we start something creative and interesting and hard, and something we care about… what we want to do is stop and do anything else. So you will want to spend some time looking at fonts, and picking color schemes, and maybe rearranging the books on your shelf or filing your nails, or watching a few inspiring TED Talk videos…
What you will want to do is anything but write.
What you should do is write.
So let’s compromise.
Write it on paper or whatever. Write it anywhere. It does not need to be long, and it does not need to be awesome. It doesn’t need to explain why you are starting a blog. In fact, don’t explain. Write as if this is your second blog post, or third or sometime far in the future. Write as if you’re writing to an old friend, someone who knows you so well you barely need to explain anything at all. You’re just letting them know what’s on your mind, what happened today, or this new interesting thing you found.
Go to write a new post.
Write that down, wherever. A napkin or the back of an envelope.
Once you have that, we can go back to the computer.
OK, back at WordPress.com and your new blog.
You click either at the Get started link or the New Post link. There are other ways to get at this, don’t worry. Just try and get back to the dashboard and find something that says New Post. And click that, and you’ll be starting your new first post.
So then you’ll be here.
This is the post editor.
Skip the title for now, and put your post in. If you wrote it on paper, type it in here. If you typed it into Word or whatever, copy it from there and paste it here. It’s fine.
Once you’ve finished typing or pasting it, think about the title. What is this about? What would help people want to read it? Don’t worry to much about it, just write a title that’s short and interesting.
Then click this button at the bottom, and publish it.
Hooray! You’ve written your first blog post!
OK, now that there’s something on your site, you can think about how you want that thing to look. You’ll get to the theme chooser by going to Appearance, then Themes.
There are lots of designs you can choose from.
Here’s where the least bit of planning comes in handy again. Think about what design will work best with the post you just wrote and the kinds of posts you’re expecting to write. Think about what design will appeal to your readers. There are many designs, and it’s hard to pick. Just sort through, grab one, find another in a few days. It’s ok. It’s like dating. There’s no commitment. Just try one.
WordPress will guide you through setting it up. You can usually customize them a little with colors and fonts.
Be aware, the more you play with design, the less time you have to write new blog posts.
Eventually, you will settle on a design. Maybe give your self a time limit. Then stop. Now you can launch.
Launching is no more or less complicated than deciding that your site is ready for the world.
But is the world ready for you?
OK, now you have a website. Ta-da!
You next need to let people know it exists. Do this. Talk about it. Send the link to Facebook and wherever. Be bold in sharing it.
Know that not everyone will immediately read it. People will not often read it. This is very normal.
But still keep writing it. Writing about what interests you, what you’re excited about. Just write.
- a logo
- copyright and trademark (except don’t violate others’)
- being perfect
- How often should I post?
- How much should I write?
- What should I do if someone comments?
- What should I do if no one comments?
- How do I make an anonymous blog?
Pre-dawn: https://flic.kr/p/danfDs Ed Yourdon
Why photo: https://flic.kr/p/7TTw8w Mike Gifford
Hello my name is anonymous: https://flic.kr/p/7NudQf Quinn Dombrowski
Stop He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: https://flic.kr/p/4huoc7 Rich Anderson
Domain name extensions: https://flic.kr/p/a1hppa Tristan
Office to rent, needs floor: https://flic.kr/p/8t6LoX Michael Cannon
Saturated writing: https://flic.kr/p/ynRUT Tnarik Innael
Shuttle launch: https://flic.kr/p/2VvBe6 Austin
Don’t worry be happy: https://flic.kr/p/6F41y6 Emergency brake
Question everything: https://flic.kr/p/iVLZt Duncan Hull
Any questions?: https://flic.kr/p/2eVMS6 Michael Janssen