Blogging Tip #7 – Looking good

Presentation is the key to tip #7. This applies to both the appearance of your blog site as well as the standard of your writing.

Picking up the latter point first, I think a good standard of writing is vital. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, just competent. I’m basically talking spelling and grammar here. There is nothing worse than reading blogs full of weird spellings, txt spk, un-punctuated sentences and, my personal number one bugbear, errant apostrophe’s. So check your words before you write them. It makes you look more professional, and like you care more, as much as anything else.

See if you can include some graphics or images to accompany your text to enliven the appearance of your posts. I’m pretty useless at this, as you can probably tell by the text based nature of this blog so far. The one thing I do do, though, is try and grab logos and things from other sites to use to brighten things up.

Templates and themes

How your blog looks is important. Don’t believe people when they claim otherwise. Often the argument goes that as people are going to be reading you through your feed anyway, what does it matter? The answer to this, of course, is that people have to visit your site before they can subscribe, and if it is some multi-coloured nightmare with scrolling text and other horrible c1997 type stuff, they aren’t going to be subscribing to anything. Here’s a quick list of stuff you might want to bear in mind:

  • Make sure your site is reasonably standards-compliant so that as many people as possible can read it. Check it with the w3.org validator
  • Ensure that the site won’t take too long to load – so not too many fancy graphics!
  • Try to keep things clean and simple – ensuring that your navigation is obviously separate from content, otherwise people will be confused
  • Let us know who you are: let’s have a photo and some contact details on the blog home page
  • Don’t have a gigantic blogroll on your index, which makes the page go on and on and on. Have a separate page for links if you are desperate to show them off
  • Make it clear where people can subscribe to your blog – a little orange RSS icon never goes amiss!

The other issue is what your blog system allows you to do to tart up your blog to add a little extra content which might well enrich your readers’ experience. Why not consider:

  • A list of recent posts towards the top of the page
  • A recent comments list
  • A Flickr badge showing the latest photos you have uploaded
  • An update from del.icio.us on the latest sites you have bookmarked
  • Clickable icons for readers to subscribe with their aggregator of choice

There really are tonnes of options to have a look at – check out what your blog engine will let you do!

Blogging Tip #6 – Keep notes

Number 6 out of the 10 tips on blogging is on keeping notes. Writing blog posts that are interesting and well-informed isn’t easy. Sitting down in front of your blog editor waiting for an idea to come is pretty hard. Ideas for posts, though, can hit you at any time. So you need to be ready, with a system for taking notes that you’re comfortable with.

While you are browsing the web, or reading through your RSS subscriptions, you’ll often come across posts you like and want to have another look at later, or maybe just save a quote from it and the link back to the post. I used to keep a copy of a text editor (like Notepad on Windows) open all the time to copy snippets into. This is still a pretty good system, but there are far easier ways of doing it.

Google Notebook is great for storing post ideas. You can select text on a web page and then insert it automatically into a notebook entry – no need for copying and pasting. You can have several notebooks (I have one specifically for this blog, for example, as well as my personal blog) and divide them up with headings. It’s possible to turn them into pseudo-wikis too, by inviting friends to edit them and making them public as web pages.

Similar ways of storing notes like Notebook are the other free wikis that are available, like WikiSpacesBackPack, PBwiki or Stikipad. I use WikiSpaces myself and it’s a great, simple solution for those that are new to the world of wikis.

Your reader will probably provide a clipping, sharing or news bin type feature, where you can store or mark posts for future reference. You could also post interesting tidbits to your del.icio.us account.

The advantage of these solutions, being web based, is that they are accessible from anywhere. But if you would prefer a system saved on your own computer, or a USB key, say, then you don’t have to stick with the text file option. TiddlyWiki provides a full wiki experience inside a singe HTML file you can run on your PC without being connected to the web. It’s worth mentioning here, though wildly off topic, the GTDTiddlyWiki for fans of Getting Things Done, which is great.

Of course, you can always just write things down. Get a nice notebook, like a Moleskeine maybe. Or just fold a sheet of A4 into quarters and use the different sections for organising your notes.

So it’s really important to have a system you like for holding onto posts and information you’d like to use later. Part of the joy of RSS is the fact that you can access so much more information than before – but keeping a handle on it becomes harder. Fortunately the tools are out there to help you. So try them out and stic with the one that works for you. Your blogging will become much easier, and the ideas will flow!

Blogging Tip #5 – Link, link and comment

Linking makes your blog grow in popularity. There are three reasons for this. One, it makes your blog posts more useful if they provide links to what you are talking about, rather than making people hunt stuff out themselves. Second, the people you are linking to will realise you are talking about them and come and check you out. Thirdly, doing plenty of linking will do your search engine profile no harm at all.

Links really are what drives the blogosphere. If you get linked to by one of the big boys, like a Scoble, or a Rubel, or even a Dale, then you’ll find your traffic goes through the roof. It will also give you a boost in the search engines. So if you are generous with your links, giving people credit where it’s due, providing readers with plenty of extra reading material, it’s got to be a good thing.

Sometimes, links to your blog can mean disaster. I’m talking about a link from a site like Digg, or Slashdot. Both these sites have an eponymous ‘effect’ that can spank your site’s bandwidth and possibly bring your blog down. This might not be a problem if you have a hosted blog, but if you pay for your hosting like I do, you could end up with a big bill! That this has never happened to me is testament to my policy of writing deliberately uninteresting and non-linkworthy posts. Honest.

What if you have seen an interesting story but don’t have much to add? There are two ways of dealing with these. One is to set up an account at del.icio.us – where you can bookmark pages for further reading. You can then set up a daily posting, so that your links appear in a bulleted list in a single post every day, thus making the stuff you are reading available to your readers too. The other method would be to create a link blog, a separate blog where you dump either full text or stripped down versions of the posts you read.

I prefer the del.icio.us method.

Playing tag

Another way of providing links is through tagging. You’ll notice that a lot of posts on this blog have tags, links at the bottom of each post that send you back to Technorati, a blog search engine, to look up a certain key word. These are a great way to get traffic as anyone who searches Techorati for those keywords will come across a link to your blog. It’s already the biggest source of traffic for this blog.

Comments

Comments are important. You must allow them on your blog, let people give you feedback or start a conversation. Receiving comments on your blog are a great sign that people are taking notice of what you are writing. Treasure the comments people leave – and always do the courtesy of responding, even if it is just with a ‘thanks!’.

When you link to someone else’s post, why not leave a comment there while you are at it, linking to your blog or even the specific post where you mention it? It’s a good way to get some more traffic. But only do it when you actually have something to say, otherwise you are effectively spamming people’s comments. That’s bad.

You can subscribe to comment feeds with most good blog engines (well, I know WordPress allows it). This can be a great way of tracking conversations you are interested in. You can use services like CoComment as well. Some blogs offer the ability to have email alerts when people respond to a comment you’ve made – why not see if such a thing is available for your blog?

Links and comments make the blogosphere go round. Make sure you’re fully engaged with them.

Blogging Tips 3 & 4 – Feeds and Niches

Two quite quick items here, so I will cover them together.

Feeding frenzy

I discussed earlier the importance of the feeds which other blogs produce – so you must make one available for your blog. If you want to be read, you need to make it as easy as possible for people to do so. That means making your content available in as many forms as possible. RSS feeds have become the standard way for most people to read blogs, as it is just so much more convenient. So, make it clear you have one. Have a nice large orange badge on your site somewhere. Advertise your feed in your site wherever you can – put it near the top so people can subscribe quickly and easily without having to hunt for a link.

If you host your own blog, you can pipe the feed through a service like Feedburner, which allows you to much better monitor the levels of subscriptions and readers you have. it also lets you add little features to your feed, like links to add the post to del.icio.us and how many people have commented on it. I use this service on this blog, and it works like a dream. Feedburner also provides you with loads of little ‘subscribe’ buttons for specific aggregators to make it even easier for people to subscribe.

One feature that Feedburner also provides is the ability to distribute your feed via email. Some people like getting their information this way, and given that the service is free, there is no reason why you shouldn’t implement it. Even better, this is a service that will work with hosted blogs, like those at WordPress.com.

The importance of RSS can be seen in the way that the latest generation of browsers, such as FireFox 2.0 and Internet Explorer 7, have RSS heavily integrated into them. For example, in FireFox, I just have to click a link to an RSS feed, and it immediately brings up FeedDemon so I can subscribe to it. Great stuff.

One last point on providing your feed. Some systems allow you to issue either a full feed, partial feed or even just a short summary. The aim is that people see the shortened version of your article, are interested and so click through to your site, increasing your hit rate and maybe visiting your advertising, if you have some. I think this is lame. I want to read a whole feed in my aggregator, not mess about clicking links and whatnot.

Nichely done

If you want lots of people to read your blog, it’s best to find a subject to write about. Something pretty specific that marks you out a bit from the crowd. Personal, journal-type blogs are nice, and can be interesting, but unless people know you, why are they going to read it?

Pick a topic you’re interested in, whether technology, or Web2.0 or something to do with your line of work. For example, my day job is working as the risk manager for a local council in the UK. Now, I’ve googled on the topic and I can’t find any risk management blogs out there, so that might be an interesting niche to blog about. Maybe some day I’ll get round to it.

It doesn’t even have to be a topic you know a lot about – blogs where the blogger learns about stuff as they go long can be cool too.

But when you start out, why not try out a few different topics. Widen your scope to start with, to find out which you like writing about the most. That way, you won’t annoy the people who subscribed to a blog about web based office applications only for it to change to being about toilet paper manufacturing after a month.

Blogging Tip #2 – Use tools you like and trust

Second on my list of tips was to make sure you are using the systems that suit how you work. What sort of things am I talking about?

How do you blog?

A blog is of course just a website, and you could write your blog by updating some HTML pages by hand. Some people probably do. But there are a wealth of systems out there that will help make your blogging experience easier, as well as making things more fun for your readers. There are some decisions to be made, though. Do you want to have your blog at a hosted service (like this one is) or have your own webspace, and domain name and install a system there? Do you want to pay for anything? Do you like editing your posts through a web page or would you like to have the peace of mind of an offline editor? I’ll go through these questions in more detail.

Systems, systems, systems

There are many blog engines out there, online services which act as content management systems, theoretically allowing you to concentrate on the content while the engine does all the hard work for you. Some of the more famous and popular ones are Blogger, WordPress, TypePad, Drupal, TextPattern and many more. I use WordPress, both at this site and on my personal blog. I genuinely think it is the best platform there is, in terms of features and ease of use. Most services offer a free version, whether only as a trial or forever so it’s worth playing around with them. Many also offer the ability to import the posts you have made in one system into another, so you can carry your experiments around with you.

For a beginner though, it is probably best recommending starting a blog at either Blogger, WordPress.com or Typepad to start with.

To host or not to host?

Well, it’s certainly a question. The difference is basically one of time and effort. For example, if you go down the hosted route, there is no installing of possibly complicated software, no web hosting costs, no domain name renewals and so on. But if you did host your own blog, you would get the chance to customise your blog engine’s installation, using plug-ins and other third party extensions, you could completely redesign your site’s look or use one of thousands of available templates. You could also implement an advertising programme to try and earn some money back on your investment. Using a hosted service also often means you can’t have your own snappy URL, and it might be the case that your chosen address for your blog is no longer available, which can be very annoying!

It is probably fair to say that the best option for the beginner is to try out a hosted service, as mentioned above, like Blogger, WordPress.com or TypePad. Then, when your blogging really takes off you can consider having a domain of your own and can start to experiment with your chosen blog engine.

On or offline?

All the main blog engines come with an editor built in. These are webpages you visit to either enter new posts or to edit existing ones. It means that you can do it wherever you are and you don’t have to bother installing new software.

But sometime that just isn’t enough. There are a whole heap of blog editors out there – effectively stripped-down, blog-enabled word processors, which sit on your machine like any other application and which allow you to type at your leisure – maybe at a laptop without an always-on internet connection. It means you can save posts and mull over them before you send them to your blog. And you can generally do that by just hitting a button. No copying-and-pasting required. They can also do other cool stuff, like uploading images for you, or adding tags to your posts, or presenting you with a preview of what your post will look like online.

I use offline editors for almost all my blogging – the almost being when I am away from my desktop PC at home. To be perfectly honest, I do not know why I prefer doing it this way, I just feel more comfortable with it and I believe that others do too. Maybe it’s the case that, despite flat rate always-on broadband connections, typing into a browser still makes me feel rushed.

The editors I have come across so far are as follows: BlogJet, Qumana, Zoundry, Live Writer and w.Bloggar. All bar BlogJet are currently free. There are others: RocketPost sounds great but doesn’t work; and Ecto has been buggy recently.

Summing up

Don’t rush into a choice of blog engines. Try out a hosted service first before splashing any cash. Do try using an offline blog editor if you find it helps you post more coherently!

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Blogging tip #1 – Read more blogs

So, the first bit of advice I gave was to read more blogs. How exactly can you do that?

The joy of RSS

The great thing about blogs is that they produce RSS feeds. And the great thing about RSS feeds is that they mean you don’t have to visit every web site you want to read. Some people are subscribed to hundreds, maybe even thousands of blogs – and to bookmark and visit those sites would become a nightmare. RSS feeds mean you don’t have to – you just subscribe to the site and every time it’s updated, the new material gets sent to your reader application (also known as an aggregator) automatically. And it’s not just blogs that produce these feeds – many news and other sites do too. Soon you’ll find yourself spending as much time in your reader as your browser!

Which reader?

As with all software issues, it just depends on what suits you. There are two main routes to go down, either desktop based, where you download some software onto your machine, or browser based, where you visit a web site which displays your feed within your web browser. If you only read feeds on one machine, then it might be an idea to use a desktop app. If you travel around and use lots of different computers then the flexibility of a browser-based option might suit. Personally, as a Windows user, I use FeedDemon, a desktop application which can synchronise with the NewsGator online service, so I get the best of both worlds. Other online options include Google Reader, Onfolio and Bloglines. These have the advantage of being free (there is a small fee for FeedDemon) so are a good bet for someone just starting out.

How you arrange your feeds is another thing to think about. Me, I just line them all up in one big list. But you can generally put them into folders or tag them so you can group similar feeds together. Another way of viewing feeds is as a ‘river of news’ – with all the entries in chronological order on one screen that you scroll through. I like this style because your attention is grabbed by content, not by who you might be reading, so some interesting stuff gets thrown up that you might otherwise miss. Proper river of news support is missing from FeedDemon right now, but you can get a very good version of it using Google Reader.

Which feeds?

All of them! Seriously, the key to this is not to be selective in the feeds you subscribe to. You never know when something really interesting might pop up on them. As to where to start looking, Technorati is a good place to start – have a look at the top 100 list or the top favourited list and subscribe to those feeds you think might be interesting. Not because they are popular, or well regarded (though that is important) but because these guys often generate a lot of links out of their blogs to other people’s, giving you yet more feeds to check out. Some bloggers have link blogs (like Scoble), or updates from their del.icio.us accounts (like Steve Rubel), providing yet more tidbits. Also subscribe to sites like TechMeme and Digg to spot bigger stories as they come over the horizon.

One way of quickly building up a good list is to import someone else’s list of feeds, or blogroll, into your reader. I’ll shortly be making one available for download from this site to help any newbies out there get up to speed.

Aargh! How can I read all this stuff?

You can’t, so don’t. Instead, scan, scan, scan. This is why a ‘river of news’ view is cool when reading through feeds. Flip though them all, don’t read every word, just look out for the things that interest you. Most readers have a method of marking posts for later review, whether by chucking them into a news bin or marking them with a tag or star. That way you can go back to them for further reflection and to pick bits out to quote in your own posts.

Listening in

These days it’s not just text based blog posts that can be delivered to you through RSS though. Podcasts are audio files, usually in .mp3 format, which you can download and listen to, whether at your computer or through your .mp3 player. You have to be more selective with these, as, unlike blogs, you can’t scan them! Subscribe to the blogs first, then, when you find you trust the author/s, start downloading the podcasts too.

Summing up

There are essentially 3 things to do to read more blogs: 1) choose a system you are comfortable with; 2) subscribe to everything in sight; 3) scan first, don’t read.

Good luck!

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10 Tips for Startup Blogs

Here’s a list of good stuff you can do when starting out with a blog. I’ll follow this post up in the future tackling each of them in a little more detail. If you would like to discuss starting a blog in more detail,then do leave a comment or send me an email!

1. Read more blogs

What you get out of your blog depends entirely on what you put in. Good, interesting blogs do not evolve in a vacuum. Read as many blogs as you can. Not only will you pick up on useful tidbits to improve your blogging, you are exposing yourself to new ideas and content you can discuss yourself. There are plenty of blogs-about-blogs. This might smack a little of navel-gazing, but with any new form, evolution comes through discussion and collaboration. Pick up new ideas and put them into practice. Listen to what experienced bloggers have to say.

Subscribe to anything you might think may interest you. Don’t discriminate in the blogs you subscribe to. It won’t take up more than a couple of seconds of your time to scan them, if there’s nothing to interest you. But there might be that one article that pops up in a few month’s time that makes it worthwhile.

2. Use tools you like and trust

A shorter way of putting it would be ‘USE WORDPRESS!!!’, but that would be a little prescriptive. Choose a blog engine you like and trust. Make sure it has the features you want available. make sure its intuitive for you to use. Does it fit in with your methods of working?

Is it worth having a look at an offline blog editor – does it make life easier for you?

3. Make sure your blog has a feed

People who blog without RSS feeds don’t deserve to be read. They probably aren’t even blogs. Blog engines that don’t produce them don’t deserve to be used. No-one has the time to look at individual blog sites, that’s what the aggregators are for. Never presume that your content is so great that people will go out of their way to read it. Make life as easy for your readers as possible. Check out services like FeedBurner and see how it could improve your experience – and that of your readers.

4. Find a niche – and evolve it

There’s no point writing on some esoteric subject from the off. What are the chances of anyone coming by you? Write about a few things that interest you to start with. Focus on the one you have your eye on, by all means, but include other stuff too.

Really importantly, be regular. Keep the posts coming. If you are going to be away, let your readers know. The last thing you want is people thinking the blog is dead and unsubcribing. It’s a commitment to be taken seriously.

Over time, your blog will evolve, and its niche will become clear, if you want one. It’s an organic process. But unless you are a total weirdo, if stuff interests you, the chances are that there are other people on the web who will be interested too. But you have to cast a wide net to begin with.

5. Link, link and comment

Link to everyone you mention in a post – it’s common courtesy and makes your blog infinitely more useful. No-one would want to read a blog, only to have to switch to Google to find what you’re on about. Use trackbacks to let people know you are reading them and commenting on them. Use comments on other blogs to make salient and constructive points. But don’t do it for the sake of it. The more interesting your points, the more likely people are to sit up and take notice, and subscribe to your blog.

Make sure your blog allows comments, otherwise you are just having a conversation with a mirror. Always respond to comments people leave on your blog at the start, when there aren’t too many, so that a relationship can be formed with your readers. If someone comments on your blog, do them the courtesy of commenting on theirs. The key words are reciprocation and collaboration.

6. Keep notes

You never know when they might come in handy. Always keep a simple text editor open, like Notepad on Windows, so you can tap stuff in as it occurs to you. Keep a notebook. Use an email account as an idea store, or a service like BackPack, PBwiki or Stikipad. Ideas for blog posts can come from anywhere, from a conversation, an email, a book, a magazine or newspaper. Keep your eyes open and keep a way of recording what you see handy.

Have a separate link blog, or use a service like del.icio.us, that you can post quick links to interesting articles on. This has a dual advantage – you can save items for later viewing, and you provide your readers with details on what you’re reading, offering them an insight on your perspective and where you are coming from.

7. Make sure your presentation is good

Some people disagree on the need for good spelling or grammar, but I think it’s essential. I find it puts me off reading, as all I can think about is the mutilation of the English language in front of me. It’s true that the brain tends to skip some spelling mistakes, and no-one is error free, but its a good idea to read stuff back to ensure it makes sense. Capitalise sentences. That’s a big one for me. Avoid swearing, it can needlessly put off readers.

Your blog site should look nice too. Regular readers will be subscribers, but to attract new readers it’s a good idea to look like you know what you are doing. Try to avoid the most common templates that are available, make yours distinctive.

Try and make your posts stand out too. If there is a relevant image available, use it. Sign up to Flickr and post your own photos. Set up a random photo generator near the top of your page, it creates interest and makes people stick around.

8. Be interesting, controversial even, but not stupid

Don’t blog about things you shouldn’t. Don’t leave yourself or (even worse) others open to personal criticism because of what you post. If you don’t fully understand an issue, don’t blog on it – yet. Read more, take in other people’s views. Don’t make yourself look an idiot. Don’t flame people. What’s the point? You can disagree with others while remaining polite. It isn’t hard. Don’t deliberately take an extreme stance to provoke reactions. The most likely effect this will have is that people will ignore you.

9. Be funny

Hey, why don’t I take my own advice?! Everything that is good has jokes. Even the most bleak books, TV shows, films have jokes in them to make them classics. Even if it’s a black, dry seam of humour, it keeps the reader interested and coming back. Another way of putting this would be Don’t be boring. Don’t take yourself, your posts or your blog too seriously. Laugh at yourself. Respond positively to criticism.

10. Stick at it

No-one’s leaving comments. No-one is trackbacking to your posts. You don’t register until the 300th page on a Google on your name. Welcome to my world! But don’t give up. Think about why you started your blog. Was it for fame and adulation? Yes. Was it to get an enormous Google PageRank? Yes. Oh. Well, that isn’t going to happen, at least for a long, long time, or until you get a job at Microsoft or Google. Instead, focus on the smaller positives. Maintaining a blog keeps you in touch with friends and family who might read it. And if you only have a small number of readers, well, you owe it to them to keep going. Plus, your blog posts are improving your skills as a writer, which has to be a good thing. But most of all, you are taking part in a collaborative project, the blogosphere, which is on a quite remarkable scale. Someone, somewhere, is listening.

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