A question from a reader:
I have given it some time and this “blog” thing seems to be more than just a passing fad, so I’m thinking I would like to try my hand at it. I like your site layout a great deal; categories are nice. But, I know nothing about it, and find it intimidating to learn. So, lets say you were starting a brand new blog, “No, I’m Shamus!” or something; taking what you know after running a successful blog, what steps would you go through?
If I were going to launch a blog this very moment, and if my intention was to start from zero and re-create the success I’ve enjoyed on this blog… hm.
I guess my first move would be to get a domain name.
The downside is that domain names cost money. It’ll be a few bucks up front for the name, and then a few more bucks a month for hosting.
If you don’t want to get a domain name, then you can go with a free blog host like WordPress.com or Blogger. This will make setup very, very easy. (Disclaimer: My wife does themes and blog setups for people, and she hates blogger.com with a passion and begs you not to use it. Never have tried it, myself, but there you go.)
The downside is that your blog will be under this other domain:
(Or something like this, I can’t remember and I’m too lazy to check.)
That’s a bit harder to remember. I like being able to tell people “Shamus Young dot Com” and know that they can find my blog. It would be more difficult if I had to tell them “Dub dub dub dot Word Press – yes word, not world – dot com, forward-slash Shamus Young”. It’s harder to pass on, harder for people to remember. If your blog is later successful you might decide you want to make your own theme, or put ads on your site, or blog about certain controversial or risque topics, but you won’t be able to do so while in the WordPress.com or Blogger.com stable.
If you find yourself successful and decide to move to your own domain name:
You’ll lose all of your page rank. Right now, if you search for “Twenty Sided Dice”, my blog will appear near the top of the first page of results. There are a lot of searches like that where I rank well. Part of this is being popular, part of this is simply being around for a long time. Those search results contribute to my readership somewhat, and improving your page rank takes time. Moving your blog means starting over, even if you take all of your posts with you.
Regardless of whether you decide to join a stable or buy your own domain, I very, very strongly recommend using WordPress as your blogging platform. I realize this might be confusing, but there’s WordPress.com, the blog host, and WordPress.org, where you get the blogging software. If you use WordPress.com (the host) you will automatically be using WordPress (the software) but you’ll be using a slightly gimped version that will prevent you from adding your own themes and such.
WordPress handles all of the housekeeping stuff for you. Making a post in WordPress is not very different from making a post on the average internet forum. Give it a title. Write the text. Hit publish. Have strangers point out all of your typographical errors. Rinse. Repeat. WordPress generates all of the archive and category pages for you, as well as the comment system, RSS feed, and the search functionality. All automated. Pretty nice.
Now, the basic tenets of blogging, which were taught long before I ever began this little show I’m running now:
1. Post regularly
Creativity comes in bursts for most people, but most of us consume entertainment at a steady pace. If you make ten posts on Monday and nothing for the rest of the week, visitors will ignore a lot of your Monday content (they will get full and leave before they’ve read everything) and will then get frustrated with the lack of content for the next four days. (Slight aside: Cyber-slacking is a major source of traffic. I think over half of my visitors read this site from work.) They may even get out of the habit of visiting your site. If they follow you via RSS, your Monday dump will feel “spammy” and they might stop following your site. If you write ten things on Monday, put two of them up on Monday and then one or two a day for the rest of the week.
2. Moderate your comments
Your comment threads will reflect your moderation policy, or lack of one. If you allow jerks to run free and abuse people, they will set the tone. Newcomers will show up and figure, “Ah! So that’s how things work around here.” Remember that the default, natural state of all comment threads is YouTube or 4chan. If you want something better than that, then you need to weed out the idiots, trolls, crazy people, and jerks. This is particularly hard when you’re getting started and you don’t get much in the way of feedback. If you only get three comments, it hurts to kill one of them, even if it’s just “lol u suck”. But being poor does not mean you should treasure the bricks thrown through your window.
3. Have a topic in mind
All too often I’ve visited blogs to find their last few posts are something along the lines of:
1. An esoteric rant on an obscure subject with no handles for the uninitiated
2. An angry political tirade
3. What I had for dinner last night
4. My girlfriend / boyfriend / parent / roommate is such a jerk
I’m not saying these blogs shouldn’t exist. It’s a big internet and all. But these blogs are usually intended for friends. If you’re thinking about reaching out into the great big mass of strangers, then they will not care about your roommate until they care about you, and they won’t care about you until you say something interesting.
Having said that, I think a lot of people undervalue their job knowledge. I always love reading about different jobs. (Restaurant server anecdotes are always funny to me.) Write about something you know or care about, and you’ll probably attract like-minded people. No matter how mundane your job is, there are probably people who wonder what your job is all about. Same goes for hobbies.
4. Be careful with your theme
Blogs are strange beasts. We naturally want to decorate them as a way of expressing ourselves. “This is what I like.” Your colors, your style, your taste. At the same time, the purpose of the thing is to be read. A floral pattern might reflect your personal taste and personality, it’s it’s a pretty rotten background for text. This led to the bad old days when people had midi music on their webpage. You like the song, it speaks for you, and everyone else shuts it off the instant they find the controls, assuming they don’t simply flee with the back button.
Today, this advice might be summed up with “pick three or less colors, and don’t go font crazy”.
5. Take care of your archives
It might seem funny to give a post a title like:
And then the post itself begins with, “…some dude hit my car and tried to blame me, even though I was parked.”
That’s amusing, but it will be murder when you try to find it three years from now. Categories and post titles seem like trivialities when you’ve been blogging a month. They are basic tools for survival when you’ve been blogging for a year.
I am struggling with this myself. My categories are in shambles. My “postcard” posts are filed in different places, Spoiler Warning needs its own category, a lot of old posts talk about programming but are filed under “projects”, etc etc etc. It’s very hard to file and sort posts when you have thousands of them. And I curse my past self whenever I see some non-descriptive title and have to read the post to know where to file it.
But doing this will make it easier to…
You know why TvTropes is so impossible to leave? Because their site is an endless procession of promising links. Once you have a good bit of content, fill in details by linking to your old stuff and steer people towards your best work.
7. Use images
…and RE-SIZE them!
I won’t single anyone out for this, but some blogs I’ve read have this thing where the author will upload some 2048×1536 monster image, and then use image tags to re-size it down to your typical 800 wide blog format.
You want images, because images are fun. But you want them to load fast, because slow-loading pages are not fun.
8. Don’t expect a mega-launch
Lots of people email me: I’ve just launched a blog and I have big, HUGE plans for this and I think your readers will love it! Please link me!
I only rarely look at these and never link them. There’s no reason for me to send people to somebody’s “HELLO WORLD!” blog-launch, and statistically, odds are very, very good that the blog will be abandoned before that introduction post even leaves the front page.
But this is good. It’s better to grow slowly. Make your mistakes in front of a small crowd before you face a big one. This blog rolled along in relative obscurity for a year or so before it really took off. It’s simply a lot more likely that you will build a readership than be granted one by good fortune. And if you don’t want to write unless you’ve got 10,000 readers, then day-to-day blogging is going to be a tough gig for you. No matter how mega-big you make it, you will always be looking at the next order of magnitude and wishing you could get there.
For growing an audience slowly, link to more popular blogs in the hopes of starting a conversation and getting a link back. (Usefully, obviously. Don’t just put links in at random.) Leave comments on other related sites. If people like what you have to say, they might click on your name and discover your site.)
That’s my advice. Good luck.
EDIT: Apparently you CAN have your own domain but still use WordPress as a host. I did not know this. Read the comments below for more details.