HOW TO: Start Blogging

I may have already shown you how to boost your blog traffic, but let's go back a step. How do I even start a blog? What is involved with maintaining a blog? What do I need to know? These are all questions that run through the mind of someone looking to create a blog for their first time. I hope to tackle these issues in this latest how to. If you are reading this and want to start a blog, you're in for a treat. If you already have a blog, stick around and you might learn something new.

Why Blog?

There are many reasons why you might want to blog. Blogs have come a long way from their typical definition as online diaries. Blogs are now viable sources for tech news, informative articles and other captivating content. My blog started out as curiousity about blog software, such as WordPress, and has evolved into a way for me to share my knowledge while learning from the comments of my readers. It also has the nice benefit of getting my name out there (self-marketing), which will hopefully come in handy when searching for a job in the near future. Heck, I have even been offered jobs before after people have seen what I have done with this site. Sitepoint has a brief explanation of the main reasons for blogging; personal, topical and marketing.

Before You Get Started

Now that you want to start a blog, you should start thinking about what you will be blogging about. You might already have a general notion of what you want to talk about, but try to get a better idea of what a typical post would be. As I mentioned in my traffic boosting post, it is a good idea to find your niche. I can't really expand upon that too much; it's all you now. If you blog about anything that strikes your fancy, whether it's tech news or gardening tips, you are not as likely to gather as many dedicated readers as if you had just stuck to one topic.

Hosted or DIY?

Hosted

At this point you will need to know whether or not you would like to start off with a hosted blog solution such as TypePad, Blogger or WordPress.com or go for a do-it-yourself approach. There is a trade-off when it comes to each choice. If you opt for a hosted solution, you are not as open to modify your theme or use that new plugin you found. You are in a fairly locked-down environment, however the upshot of using a hosted solution is that you don't have to worry about setting up anything or configuring databases - it's all done for you.

A free, hosted solution is great for the absolute beginner to get their thoughts together and determine whether blogging is for them. I recommend spending at least a month on a hosted blog until you finalize your niche and get the hang of it. If then you are serious about it, upgrade to your own webhost using some of the software listed below and get a domain name.

DIY

WordPress, Movable Type, typo, Expression Engine, Textpattern, Pivot - there are a lot of choices when it comes to setting up your own blog. While you may have to do some nitty-gritty stuff like create a database and edit some config files, there are many advantages to doing it yourself. You have complete control - you can edit the themes, create your own themes, use any plugins, etcetera. However, the chance of something bad happening is much higher. You need to keep frequent backups of everything on the server in addition to timely database backups. Maintenance is a bit more strenuous, but by using new-user friendly blog software such as WordPress, famous for its 5 minute install, you are in good hands. If you ever encounter any problems during setup or maintenance, each piece of blog software has its own community with forums or even an IRC chat room where you can easily ask for help. If you want to learn a whole lot more about WordPress, Expression Engine, Movable Type and Textpattern check out the Blog Design Solutions book.

Here's a quick break down of the more popular blog Content Management Systems. Then read Mike Rundle's comparison of WP and MT. WordPress - massive community, many themes and plugins, easy install, need to know PHP to edit themes Movable Type - takes a weekend to install, based on Perl, don't need to know PHP because MT uses simple template tags Textpattern - not too sure about this, ask Natalie Jost or Nathan Smith

If you choose to go with doing it yourself, you have several tasks before you can start blogging. You need to find a webhost that supports the requirements of the blog software you have chosen (with the exception of the Ruby on Rails-powered typo, most content management systems require PHP and MySQL support), as well as a domain name. Just to give a few tips about this process, I recommend GoDaddy.com for a domain name registrar. Once you purchase a domain name from them, they give you a call just to make sure everything is okay. When it comes to webhosting there are tons of choices. I obviously prefer Media Temple, but to be unbiased here are a few of the other competitors: DreamHost, Bluehost and A Small Orange.

The way it works is that a domain name is essentially paired with your server's IP address via the use of a DNS or domain name server. When you register a domain name with GoDaddy, you can change the DNS. There are always at least 2 domain name servers, a primary and secondary. Let's say you purchase some webhosting service with Media Temple. Media Temple has their own domain name servers, so all you need to do is tell Media Temple the domain name you plan on using during the sign-up process and they will provide you the names of the two DNS servers which you give to GoDaddy, as seen in the screenshot below. Once you have done all of this, you need to wait around 48 hours for the DNS to propagate. This is the period in which the DNS servers are being updated with the IP address of your server and your domain name. Whenever you type in a domain name in a browser, your computer first contacts the DNS server to find out the IP of the server before connecting to it directly. If the DNS server goes down, typing in a domain name won't work even if the actual server for your website is fully-functional. This is one of the reasons that you use at least 2 DNS servers, as a failsafe.

GoDaddy Domain Management
GoDaddy.com's Domain Management system. The domain name servers are circled.

I stretched this out a bit but it really is a simple process. If you have any questions about it, your webhost and registrar should be able to help you out no problem.

Installing the Software

If you have chosen a hosted solution, skip this section. After you have server space and have a domain name working, you will want to use an FTP client to log into your server. Most webhosts supply you with the login and password you need to access your server in an email after you signup. Don't have an FTP client yet? If you run Windows, take a look at WinSCP whereas Mac users might want to look at Transmit or CyberDuck. Linux users should consider Kasablanca or gFTP as their FTP client.

I can't go through the entire setup procedure for each piece of blog software, but most require you to upload all of the files into your www, httpdocs, http or other public folder on your server (varies by webhost). Then you will likely be asked to edit a file and provide it with your database information. However, that requires that you make a database first. Luckily there is a fantastic site, Tamba2.org.uk, with some excellent guides for creating databases. Some of the guides are tailored towards WordPress, but the simple stuff like phpMyAdmin and MySQL info can be applied universally. If you any questions about this part of the process, feel free to leave a comment.

Now What?

Now that you have everything setup, or have just created a hosted blog, you can start blogging. I usually start off by naming the blog with something to the point. Try to incorporate your blog's topic into the title if possible, this helps to quickly clue people into what your blog is about. Then, I generally begin making the categories that I use to organize my posts. You can also create categories with sub-categories in most blog content management systems, making it even easier to organize niche posts. Setting up site navigation early on is vital. Site organization is not something you want to figure out after several months of posting. You might want to create a category for asides, which are smaller posts usually styled differently than regular posts.

Posting 101

I can't stress enough how important it is to have well-formed posts with proper punctuation and with at least some attention paid to spelling. The biggest turn-off for most web users is a typo-ridden website. After you have that behind you, your next goal is post regularity. Decide early on how often you are going to post and try to stick to it. If you post something every day and then suddenly don't post for 5 days, your readers are going to wonder what's going on. A poorly updated website is also a big turn-off and can detract from your blog's overall atmosphere. If I can't post something every day, I try not to let two days pass without a new post. Your post frequency will obviously vary, but some regularity is a vital part of a successful blog.

Post Titles

The use of elongated, abstract post titles is one more thing that can detract from your blog. Concise, brief and effective are all words that describe good titles. Try to summarize each blog post in the title. If Google bought McDonald's your title should be something like "Google Acquires McDonald's" not "Google's at it Again." You get the idea. Speaking of post titles, setting up permalinks is another must. Blogs without permalinks enabled come off as "amateur" to most people.

Don't Reblog

If you've read this far with the intent of reblogging, then I am sorry for wasting your time. Reblogging is what's destroying the blogosphere. Rebloggers are people (so I've heard) that simply find others' content on the internet and post the same stuff verbatim on their blog, with at most a link back to the author on the very bottom. If you still want to reblog, there is a (frowned-upon) solution for you. It is alright to talk about the latest product launch, as long as you at least fit in your opinion to make it unique from everyone else in the blogosphere talking about the same thing.

Ready, Set, Blog!

Hopefully I have provided you with the basics of blogging. However, the most important concepts about blogging can only be learned through experience. So I encourage you to start your blogging career the right way, now. You have nothing to lose, except time. Blogging can get you in touch with others that share the same interests as you, teach you new things and help establish an online community. But if there is one thing to remember, don't ever blog about stuff you may later regret - Google will remember it forever.

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"HOW TO: Start Blogging" by @Stammy