I have been thinking quite a bit recently about what people need to do before they start a blog. I know that one should say that blogging doesn’t necessarily suit everybody, but, to be honest, if there is novel in every person then there should be a blog too.
So, if you are thinking about starting a blog for yourself, here some stuff you might want to consider first. Warning: this is a huge post.
1. Why blog?
What exactly is the purpose of your blog? It doesn’t have to be anything profound, but it might be a good idea to have a sense of purpose. Is there, for example, a particular niche that you want to cover? Are you blogging for you, or your organisation? The answer to these questions will inform a lot of the issues discussed later on in this post.
If you want lots of people to read your blog, it’s best to find a fairly specific subject to write about. Something 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. 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.
2. Read more blogs
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!
There are two main routes to go down when it comes to a feed reader, 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 Mac user, I use NetNewsWire, 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 and Bloglines. These have the advantage of not requiring any software to be downloaded, so you might be able to get away with using them at work.
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. You can get a very good version of a river of news using Google Reader.
Which feeds should be subscribe to? 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. Twitter is a good source of interesting blogs too, when your contacts post stuff they have spotted online.
You can’t read every word of every feed, 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.
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.
There are essentially 3 things to do to read more blogs: a) choose a system you are comfortable with; b) subscribe to everything in sight; c) scan first, don’t read.
3. Choose your platform
The system you use to blog with is important, because if you blog often, you’ll be spending a lot of time in there. 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, it is to my mind 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.
It’s also a good idea to decide whether you want to host your own blog, or let someone else do it for you. 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, 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.
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. It’s worth giving these a go: try Windows Live Writer or BlogJet a go on Windows, or Ecto or MarsEdit on the Mac.
4. 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, 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.
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.
Another way of providing links is through tagging. You’ll notice that a lot of posts on many blogs 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. Other blogs have an internal tagging system, like this one, which works in a similar way.
Comments are important. You really ought allow them on your blog to 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 to track your comments around the blogosphere. Some blogs offer the ability to have email alerts when people respond to a comment you’ve made – again, I have this function on this site. Not only is it useful for readers, but it also produces some interesting stats!
Links and comments make the blogosphere go round. Make sure you’re fully engaged with them.
5. Keep 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) 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 WikiSpaces, BackPack, PBwiki or Stikipad. I use WikiSpaces myself for various things and it’s a great, simple solution for those that are new to the world of wikis.
Your news 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. I use my Moleskeine all the time for jotting down ideas for posts – as much as I love the web, lo-tech is just as effective sometimes.
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 stick with the one that works for you. Your blogging will become much easier, and the ideas will flow!
6. Presentation matters
Before we get onto the subject of blog design, I think a decent 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, generally speaking, though I do try. The one thing I do do, though, is try and grab logos and things from other sites to use to brighten things up when I am writing about them.
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 have thousands and are desperate to show them off
- Make it clear where people can subscribe to your blog – a little orange (or even a big blue) 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
- Nice touches like MyBlogLog communities so people can see who else reads you
- Links to your presence of other social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook etc
There really are tonnes of options to have a look at – check out what your blog engine will let you do. This can be an area where having your own, self-hosted blog can help, as it gives you far more flexibility in designing your blog and sticking cool stuff on it.
7. 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.
8. Further Reading
Not really tips from me, but the eighth item is a list of cool posts about getting your blog off to a good start.