Blogging 101: How to Start a Blog, Find Readers and Achieve World Domination in 10 Easy Steps
Oh.. wait.. I guess I shouldn’t be so casual. I read your blog, so I feel like I know you really well, but im really just some random stranger who you most probably think is kind of stalkerish. But im not! so lets start again.
I have a question to ask you, but it is not your usual advice smackdown question.
(You know what? screw this. Back to the friendly-I-know-you-to-well-but-you-probably-think-im-a-crazy-person speak)
This isn’t actually a smackdown question, but I thought I would email this address as you probably check it daily. Yeah?
I am starting up a blog. I am usually to shy to bare all the gory details of my life, but I’m moving overseas soon. I thought it would be a good idea to document the highs and lows of the move and how I try to squish my life around this giant thing. But I need help! I have a blogger account, which is free (and that’s fine for me to start off with) but how do I get people to come and read my blog? I’m not the kind of person that likes to go and blatantly advertise my life on other peoples accounts. I also only have two posts at the moment, so its not the most interesting thing in the world.
I noticed on your blog that you had comments into your second month. What did you do? I also would like to know the process of getting your own site. I know you use type pad and have probably brought your own domain name (ok.. starting to feel kind of stalkerish!) but how do you go about this? did you buy one right off the bat and decided this is what you wanted to do? or did you use a free one for a while to get used to the whole concept of blogging? Did you pay somebody to design the page (which looks great btw) or did you score a free makeover with a friend?
I would love any information you are willing to share, as you have excellent writing skills! (and I secretly want to be able to write like you do, and I also look up to you. But im not going to say this because I don’t want your head to get as big as your belly 🙂
Well, so maybe you didn’t mean it as a Smackdown question, but it’s a question I get a lot, so…I’ve promoted it to Smackdown Worthy. (Your embossed certificate is in the mail.)
Let’s break this down into two parts — first, the logistics of getting your own domain and some general design advice, and then the much more complicated question of How To Get Eyeballs To Your Blog.
Back when I started blogging — and lord, we didn’t even call it blogging, we were ONLINE JOURNALING, yo — I was inspired by a handful of journals I’d already found and read, all of which were hosted on their own domain and used Moveable Type. The sites were gorgeous and had great domain names and I decided that if I was going to start a site, I wanted my own domain and I wanted to be able to stay at that domain forever and not URL hop. I chose Typepad for exactly this reason: it was built around Moveable Type but saved you from having to host your blog or install any software, AND you could map domain names. (Meaning I could buy amalah.com and have it map and point to amalah.typepad.com, so no one would ever know the pain of typing ALL THOSE EXTRA LETTERS.) (Now you can do this with both Typepad and WordPress.)
I’m not super-familiar with the latest version of Blogger, so I don’t know how easy it is to move a Blogspot blog to your own domain later on. At the time, you essentially had to abandon your old blog, import everything and then leave a sad-little “I’ve moved!” entry at the top for all eternity at the old site. I imagine they’ve improved this — anyone?
Now, when it comes to registering your own domain — the #1 Most Important Thing I Will Ever Tell Anyone Ever is to pleeeeeeeeeease spring for a PRIVATE registration. It does cost extra, but it. Is. Essential. If you do not specifically sign up and pay for a private, third-party registration, your VERY PERSONAL INFO is available to ANYONE who does a WHOIS search on your domain name. Your full name, your home address, telephone — anything you provided to the registrar when you bought the domain — is added to the public, open and searchable WHOIS record for that URL. I use GoDaddy.com to manage my domains, and a private registration is a measly extra $9 a year. Treat yourself.
(Any blogger out there with their own domain who isn’t sure if they did that private thing or not? Check here. If your address pops up as the owner, HIGHTAIL IT over to your registrar and find their private registration option.)
(One bit of secondary, not-as-important bit of advice — before you register a domain or sign up for a hosting plan, pick your blogging platform, and find out what registrars/hosts make the whole domain mapping or install process easy for their users. Poke around FAQs and Tech Support sections in search of step-by-step instructions with screenshots, or talk to other bloggers and find out who they used.)
Now, when I started amalah.com, I didn’t have the kickass design I’ve got now. I used a basic, ready-made template that Typepad offered. (A template that, bizarrely enough, was ALSO light green, pink and white. Hmmm.) I played around with the templates A LOT back then, figuring out how to change colors and fonts and upload my own masthead images. Whenever I got bored, I redesigned the site. I upgraded to the top tier Typepad account that let me really get in there and muck with the code, and while I am not a programmer by any means, I taught myself CSS and HTML and only seriously messed things up five or six times.
Eventually (this year, just shy of the site’s fifth anniversary), I plunked down money for a professional design. (An insanely reasonable amount, I must add — much less than I’d actually budgeted for.) I was tired of my own crappy graphic skills and my multiple amateur redesigns and code-monkeying had left me little choice but to blow the whole thing to hell and start over, and I figured I deserved to have it rebuilt right this time.
If you are planning to spring for a professional design, start with friends or friends of friends with sites you like. (You’ll want to approach a designer with a handful of stuff you like to give them an idea of the aesthetic and layout you want.) Find out who designed their site, and if they did it themselves, ALWAYS offer to pay them for a makeover. If they are willing to do it for free, great, but it’s a arduous, time-consuming process (plus if you think you’re going to be picky and ask for a lot of tweaks, just realize that you’re going to be a pain in their ass and they deserve to be compensated for putting up with you).
Okay. Now on to the REALLY important stuff, whether you’ve got your own domain or a humble Blogger account — how the heck do you get people to read (and comment) at your blog?
One quick note here, about the comments you mentioned seeing on my old, ancient archives…I deleted a LOT of my early entries. Early, embarrassing, badly written, commentless entries. Poof!
The two most important weapons in a newbie’s arsenal are: your blogroll and your comments. So your blog is about moving overseas? Find some expat blogs! Link to them. Use these links to get to their blog (instead of a RSS reader) so the referral will show up in their stats, and sooner or later some of them will click through and check you out, and possibly add you to THEIR blogroll. These don’t have to be Big Popular Blogs — you’re more likely to get linked and noticed by smaller to medium-sized bloggers. (Oh, and please don’t email blog writers and ask if it’s okay if you link them on your blog. It is. Really. You don’t have to ask. Conversely, never straight up ask that anyone link to you. That’s considered rude.)
The same goes for comments. If you want comments, YOU MUST COMMENT. Don’t think of it as “advertising” yourself — think of it as participating in the community. Be it the expat community, the people-sort-of-around-your-age community, the fellow-cubicle-dweller-with-lots-of-time-to-dick-around-on-the-Internet community. Keep your comments witty but relevant. Avoid both the simple “Ha! I totally agree!” mindless comments AND the “Ha! I just wrote about this too! Here’s the link!” annoying self-promotion comments.
When you get a comment, either click through to the commenter’s blog and return the favor, or reply in some other way (i.e. via email or publicly in your comment section). I did this for YEARS, y’all, until my comment numbers crept up to a level that replying and reciprocating became a full-time job in and of itself.
I still try to publicly answer questions or clarify anything that’s been misunderstood, but I can no longer reply personally to all my comments, just like I can’t really link to everyone who links to me or, some days, even come close to answering all my email. It…can really suck, honestly, know that I can’t be a super-great and accessible community member, but that’s NOT to say that commenting on a popular blog means you’ll automatically be ignored. I AM extremely familiar with most of my regular commenters — at Blogher I immediately recognized a slew of them when they provided their Internet handle — and if your comment makes me laugh (or cry), I will definitely click through to check your blog out. As will many of my other readers. I found a TON of blogs that I still read and am friends with the authors through their hilarious comments on other blogs.
It’s a fine line with commenting — you want to be genuine and thoughtful and not overtly self-promote-y, but…commenting IS a great way to show off your voice and writing and what you’re all about beyond your own blog. Use it wisely.
And finally, it’s tempting when you first start your blog and are unsure if you’ll ever get any readers, to 1) tell lots of people in real life about the blog without making sure you’re really okay with that, or 2) write about people in real life, assuming they’ll never see it anyway. There can be problems with both scenarios. Perhaps you don’t realize until too late that it’s stifling to know your coworker or mom are reading and you can’t write as freely as you’d like. Perhaps your coworker tells another coworker without asking you and ugh, you really didn’t want THAT coworker to know about your blog.
And of course, no matter how anonymous you are or how few people you tell about your blog, DO NOT WRITE ANYTHING ABOUT ANYONE WITH THE ASSUMPTION THAT THEY WON’T ONE DAY FIND IT. Trust me, they will. And they will take it badly. Stay as anonymous as you want, but keep yourself accountable. Think before you hit publish and weigh the possibility of very hurt feelings or a damaged friendship against whatever satisfaction you’ll get from that post going live.