Create and get the most out of your new WordPress blog for free.
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Everyone has different needs when it comes to delivering content to readers over the web. If you just want to get your word out, you may be happy using one of the quick no-setup blogging services like WordPress or Blogger. Their basic services are free, you can dive right in to creating your blog content, and you know you’ll be on a strong reliable network. But you’ll have limited customization, branding, and optimization options, you may not be able to include all of the content in your website that you’d like, and the upgrade and support options these services offer could have you paying more down the road to run your website than you expected.
This website blog guide is for those of us that are looking for more control over the content and customizability of our websites. With more control comes more complexity, but this guide also keeps simplicity in mind. Everything mentioned herein can be accomplished in your web browser with clicks and by filling in prompts and forms, and no special coding knowledge or experience is necessary. And all of this without burning a hole in your wallet!
Let’s get started on the road to building a better blog by exploring the following topics:
Choosing a Webhost
I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t go out and spend money right away on a webhost with a guaranteed reliability and proven track record, but that’s not the way I would begin. If you’re just starting out you’re going to be doing a lot of experimenting and discovering what works for you and what doesn’t and it’s good to know that there are many free hosts out there that you can play around with. Webhosts, free or not, will usually impose monthly bandwidth limits and limit the amount of data you can store on their servers, so make sure you choose one that offers adequate numbers in both of these areas. Read the terms of the host as well, to make sure the content you plan on including on your website doesn’t break any of their rules. Browse the web and find out what other people think about the host – positive or negative reviews might help you in your search for a good host, although, as is often the case, it’s easier to find people talking about bad experiences than good.
Once you choose a host, test it out! Get some content set up on their server and run it through online performance tests (described in more detail in the performance section). Access your content frequently and make sure it’s performing up to your expectations at all times. If you’re having issues and there is a way (via forum, email, etc.) to contact your host do so and see if and how they reply to get a feeling for how your host treats its individual customers. If you’re finding something not to your liking that turns out to be a deal breaker for you, it won’t be difficult to transfer your work over to another host and start the testing cycle again over there. I chose free hosting from SquirrelHost to begin this article and so far the experience has been decent.
The Content Management System (CMS)
Several content management systems exist, many of them very good. If you choose a webhost that offers one click installs of a variety of CMS’s, which many do, try out a few and see what you like and don’t like about them. WordPress is the CMS/blog platform this article will be highlighting, but most of the information presented here is applicable to any of the CMS systems, with the differences just being in the details. Many are built on top of php and mysql, and most webhosts include these options (although in the past I’ve played around a bit with WordPress’s little unassociated sibling FlatPress, which is interesting to look at if your host doesn’t include a database). WordPress is widely used and well supported by its parent company and its user base, and thousands of plugins have been developed for it to customize and extend its functionality. It’s easy to install, and once it’s installed updates and plugin installs are a simple click away. It’s organized well and is relatively simple to learn to create content in and administer, and it’s particularly well-suited for blog style websites that maintain a consistent layout for most of their pages.
What happens when your webhost’s server crashes and they can’t recover the lost data? What happens when a hacker compromises your blog and makes all sorts of unwanted changes? What happens when YOU accidentally (or not so accidentally) make some kind of change to your website’s code that causes everything to start displaying error messages, and you have no idea how to fix what you broke? It can be devestating if you lose all of the valuable content you have created for your website and have to start from scratch recreating it. Therefore, a good backup and disaster recovery plan is essential, and that’s why it’s listed up here as one of the first things to do.
Many webhosts will have a global backup strategy, and if things go south in the areas that they are responsible for they may be able to get you and everyone else effected back up in a short period of time. But you can’t expect or rely on the webhost to automatically do these things for you. Options are often provided in your host’s administration panels that can help you to manually or automatically perform backup operations on your files and databases, so poke around and see what is available. Plugins are also often available to help with your backup strategy. I’m currently using the free version of UpdraftPlus, which allows me to schedule automatic backups of my blog and save them up into into Dropbox. I opted to create a new dropbox account at this time to use for all of my website work, including the storage of these backups. I’m not terribly excited about the limited options available in the free version of this backup solution, but it does have simple backup and restore buttons and as long as it’s doing its job properly and consistently it should suffice.
A Domain Name
While you can follow through this article creating your new website without taking a dollar out of your wallet, a domain name is THE one option that I do recommend that you spend a few dollars on. Your own domain gives you a brand of sorts that you can always hold on to, both as a web address and as an email address. Let’s say your webhost shuts down and you have to find a new one. Bye bye goes all of your website’s traffic and page rank and all bookmarks and links other people have made to your blog break. But if you have your own domain all you would need to do is point it to your new host and it would be business as usual. And even though there are a ton of ridiculous top level domains out there whose sole purpose is to attract traffic, having a domain does still add a certain level of credibility to your website. Domains can often be picked up on sale for ~ $6 for the first year from registrars like NameCheap.
If you’re using a good CMS, there will not be much you’ll need to start creating your website. Your CMS should be taking care of most of the backend details and delivering well structured pages that work cross-browser. It will provide ways to upload images to add to your pages, with maybe some simple image cropping options. It will provide you with code and WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editors for writing your content. Still, there are a few extra tools that it’s nice to have at your disposal.
If you think at some time you’ll need to do more than simple image cropping, you’ll want to grab some image manipulation tools. There are plenty of apps out there to choose from that will run on any of your devices. For windows, PhotoFiltre is a nice and small, fast, free app that has the power to do most of the things I need on a regular basis, and if there’s something that it can’t do I’ll open up GIMP to handle it. It’s also good to know that there are plugins and tools out there like Smush.it that you can use to compress your images without even having to open an image editing tool. Every image that loads from your blog pages takes time to download and eats up your webhost’s bandwidth, so you want them to be as compressed as possible. Alongside compression, you want your images to have appropriate dimensions as well, so don’t go uploading full 10 megapixel images to your website when you’ll only be displaying them in a small box next to some text – resize them appropriately first so they’ll only be as big as necessary.
Your CMS and your webhost both likely offer several options for managing your files on the web server. There may be times, however, where it’s nice to have a standalone ftp client for transferring and viewing your files, and I typically use WinSCP for this task.
Having a good theme for your website is very important. It’s the overall theme that people’s minds will digest at first glance when visiting your blog, and you want that impression to be a pleasant one. But what constitutes a ‘good’ theme is also very subjective, as what one person finds appealing will most certainly be disliked by someone else. Fortunately, there are tons of free WordPress themes available to choose from, so you can likely find one that will appeal to you.
So many web pages I visit nowadays look cluttered, with the content I came to read smushed into a small area surrounded by things I’m not interested in that move the focus away from and diminish the value of the actual content. Remember, your visitors visit your website for your content. Designing your website with the visitor’s overall experience in mind might mean the difference between a quick hit and run on a single page vs a longer more exploratory visit and perhaps sharing of your blog with others.
Keep a few key attributes in mind as you search for the theme for your blog. Look for a clean, consistent structure that is easy for visitors to read and navigate. Find a theme that keeps the real content as the focus of each page, with plenty of breathing room between content and other page elements. I’m not a fan of designs that cut off half of the page when you narrow your browser, so responsive themes appeal to me that nicely rearrange content for any size of browser window from mobile devices to big screens. A theme with simple customization options is also handy for those that don’t want to go digging into code. The F2 WordPress theme is one theme I found that fit my tastes and the attributes I was looking for nicely.
Content is the number one reason why your blog is going to get visited, so you need to produce quality content that a reader will find valuable. Make sure each blog post has a topic, and stick to that topic. Make sure you are using proper spelling, grammar, etc. You have a variety of fonts, sizes, and styles available, so make use of them when appropriate to make things stand out and to add variety to what is being read. Make sure your posts have some meat to them – If you have something to say that only takes a couple of sentences, it’s probably better shared via social media.
Images are important to a blog. The web is a media wonderland, and readers have come to expect to see more than just simple text when they visit your website. Some blogs use a header image to grab a user’s attention, and many nice headers can be found if you search around. But a header image is not enough, it’s nice if every one of your blog posts includes at least one image, something that relates to the topic or subtopics of the post. Such images will give your readers an idea of what they’ll be reading about at a glance. They help to keep the readers interested, able to quickly identify key sections of your blog posts, and they also give the readers eyes a break from the sizeable amount of text they’re consuming as they browse the web.
There are lots of places out there to score free images to include in your blog, like pixabay and Clker.com. Sometimes it’s tough though to find the image that really fits your topic well, and to make sure that what you’ve found is legal to use on your website. If you search long enough you can usually find something free. If you don’t have the time to search or you can afford it there are several good stock image providers out there that have large collections and charge a fee per image downloaded, that you can then go and use however and wherever you want, royalty free.
Remember that widgets in a sidebar are content too, even if they are not the focus of the page. Try to keep your sidebar, footer, etc. content relevant, both to the content of your page and from the perspective of the reader. Don’t add tons of external links that are irrelevant to the content of your page and point people away from your website. Don’t include login or administration stuff that probably nobody but you will ever use. Don’t duplicate navigation or link elements that you’ve already made easily accessible elsewhere in your page. DO add links to related posts that a user reading the current page might also be interested in reading. A plugin like Yet Another Related Posts Plugin can work well for this.
An about page doesn’t have to be long, just provide the reader with a little information on what your website is trying to accomplish and a bit of history on your company or website if there is any. Add some information about yourself as the author of the website as well. Links to other information about you or your blog could be shared here as well.
And finally, a contact page should give readers the feeling that if they would like to contact you there are options available. Here you could give them a form like that provided by the Grunion Contact Form plugin to send you an email, you could share links on how they can contact you through various social media channels, or you could give them access to actual email or mailing addresses or phone numbers if you feel that that is necessary.
It’s good to have some website testing tools at your disposal. GTmetrix and WebPageTest are both good places to use to evaluate the performance of your blog. These places offer basic ‘grades’ of how well your webpages are performing and let you drill down into details and hints on how to improve parts of your website that are not optimized. Just don’t obsess too much over areas that aren’t getting the best grades unless they truly seem to be slowing down your website considerably. Adding your blog into Google Webmaster Tools also gives you lots of information and many options to optimize how Google views and indexes your website.
Content Delivery Networks (CDN)
I chose to use Cloudflare as my CDN. It’s free, it’s easy to set up and it offers additional performance and security options on top of the usual content delivery. It also provides its own statistics to see how much bandwidth you’ve saved. Cloudflare has its own wordpress plugin. It’s important to use it to make sure Cloudflare doesn’t break your website’s ability to distinguish ip addresses of visitors. The plugin also provides an easy way to activate Cloudflare’s development mode for your website – Cloudflare caches your static content, so if you’re working on some big changes to your static content and want to see them right away on your blog you will need to enable development mode (either through the cloudflare website or through the plugin).
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
When people search for the topic of your articles in one of the big web search engines, you want them to be able to find your article. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process in which you try to optimize a post in your blog so that when a reader performs a search on keywords found in your article the search is more likely to display your article at the top of the list of results. The higher your article appears in search results, the more organic traffic your blog will receive, so you want to appear as close to to the top of the list as possible.
Yoast has an excellent guide on SEO for WordPress blogs. It’s a good read if you’d like to learn about the kind of things that influence search engine rankings. Some of the simplest things that newcomers might not even think about, like the title of your blog posts, are a big part of SEO. Other recommendations like putting good alt tags on your images and adding your blog’s main keyword to them are not only good for SEO but are good practices to follow in general.
Along with the guide, the WordPress SEO by Yoast WordPress plugin is a very good tool to add to WordPress. Simply installing this plugin will enable several optimizations, including adding missing meta tags search engines look for to your pages and improving how search engines crawl through your website. Beyond that, there are lots of options and preferences available to get even more out of the plugin. One thing you will notice after installing this is on the wordpress editor page you use to write new posts, there are new elements that help you to write your posts better – items to help you see what your page will look like in search results, to build better titles and descriptions for your posts, even to analyze your page to make sure you haven’t missed anything important. What great placement, encouraging you to optimize for SEO as you are creating your blog’s posts!
Have you seen the little headshot images that now often appear to the left of Gooogle search results? Google authorship is what makes that happen. On writtent.com they explain how the use of Google authorship improves your blog not only in terms of SEO but in many other areas as well. It’s pretty easy to set up – all you need is a Google+ account and a little bit of code added to your blog. If you’re using Yoast’s SEO plugin it takes care of the code for you once you fill in your matching Google+ name as your author name in your blog’s settings and include your Google+ profile information in the field provided for it. Once you’ve got it set up, you can use Google’s Structured data testing tool to verify everything’s connecting up properly.
Syndication and Social Sharing
Feeds and Email
OK, so maybe somebody that visits your blog decides that it’s not complete rubbish and that they’d like to see more of your fine work. They’re going to expect you to provide an easy way for them to follow your blog’s updates.
Google’s Feedburner is a great way to offer RSS Feed and Email subscription options for your readers. Why would you use a service like feedburner when feeds are built in to wordpress and there are wordpress plugins available that can manage email subscriptions? My answer – reliability. Feedburner and similar systems are built to be good at doing what they do, and while they are busy reliably delivering content to your users in a timely manner they are also lightening the load on your hosting server.
Setting up feedburner to “burn” your feed is a simple process, enter your feed url and follow a few pages of setup questions and you’re done. Activating additional feedburner features like email subscriptions and auto tweeting updates only take a few additional clicks. Setting up your blog to use feedburner for it’s feeds is also relatively simple, as there are plugins aplenty to redirect your blog feeds and feedburner provides code if you want to create links to your new feeds manually.
Now, Google has been doing things over the past couple of years that indicate that they may be planning to discontinue feedburner. Hopefully they don’t, as feedburner is a great free tool to utilize for your blog. But if it does happen, the good news is that there are ways to export your feedburner email subscribers so you can import them into other email subscription services. Another thing you may want to consider if you have your own domain is setting up a feed subdomain and using feedburner’s MyBrand option to point your feed subdomain to your new feedburner url. Using this method, people that subscribe to your RSS feed are linking up to the feed url under your brand and your control. Then, if you ever need to change feed services (and your new feed service supports pointing your feed subdomain’s DNS CNAME at them, which several do) all you will need to do is point your subdomain to your new service and all of your existing RSS subscribers will be unaffected by the change.
Syndicating your content to social websites is another great way to gain followers. Most people belong to at least one social sharing network, and in many cases they will find it easier to follow your blog’s updates if they’re visible in the place where the readers spend most of their time. So give them access to twitter and facebook and anything else you think will help to bring new traffic into your website and keep your interested readers reading. It takes just minutes to sign up, so if you don’t have accounts in any of the social networks go start a few. You want to take advantage of opportunities like this that require little effort and may help to increase the traffic and visibility of your blog. And while you’re at it, you could use a plugin like Tweet, Like, Google +1 and Share to allow your visitors to easily participate and share your content with their networks.
If you use Facebook or Google+ often to communicate with friends and family, it’s probably a good idea to keep your personal profiles personal and create a seperate Facebook or Google+ Page specifically for your blog. Ken Morico explains in his article how and why you should have a facebook page seperate from your main profile to promote your blog. DailyBlogging has a good quick howto on what needs to be done to create a new Google+ page for your blog. Then, after you’ve created your special pages, if you add google +1, like, or sharing links on your blog, remember to link them to your new pages instead of your main accounts.
When you add a new post to your blog don’t forget to go promote the post on all of your social networks to keep your followers there informed. Posting a quick blurb about your newest post on each network will take a little extra time, but if you find it’s taking too much of your time there are plugins and services that can automate these tasks. HootSuite, dlvr.it, and Buffer are a few of the services out there that are worth investigating, each offering unique ways of distributing content to and managing your social networks.
AdSense is great in that it can deliver ads to your website that are relevant to the content of the articles they’re placed with, but if Google’s approval proves to be too difficult to acquire or you’re just interested in looking elsewhere there are plenty of other ad companies out there, including media.net and Chitika. Different ad companies work in different ways and deliver a variety of content, so search around and see what kind of services are available. And whatever ad service you choose to use, it’s VERY important to read the terms and rules of the service and to follow all of the guidelines they give you. Ad services can cease your affiliation with them at any time if they suspect that the ad traffic your blog is generating for them does not align with their goals, so be careful about how you place those ads.
You should now have an idea of how to get started in building a blog website. Excited about trying some of the things you learned? Great! Go out and create you new website, grow your site’s content and readership, find an ad network that’s right for you, and my best wishes to you on the success of your new blog!
Did you find this article useful, or maybe it at least got you thinking about some aspect of your website that you hadn’t thought of before? Any essential steps to starting a blog that you think I missed? Feel free to comment and let me know what you think.