Just like a city needs roads and sewers, a blog needs its own infrastructure. Until you’ve got the basics in place, there’s no point in busting a gut to increase traffic: even if you succeed in bringing new readers to your blog, you won’t keep them coming back. So make sure you begin by getting your house in order by covering off the essential elements in your blog’s set-up:
- A powerful blogging platform: Even if you start out thinking that your blog will be a modest undertaking, choose a blogging platform that will give you room to grow because it will be a minor or even major pain to switch platforms later on. That means choosing a platform that lots and lots of people use (so you know it won’t disappear, and can find lots of how-to guides online) and that you find relatively easy to use. I usually recommend that people start with a hosted blog on WordPress.com; this makes it easy to get started, but you still have the option of moving to a self-hosted WordPress blog at a later date if you want more flexibility. (This blog runs on WordPress software, but is self-hosted on a Linode server; an easier self-hosted option is Hawkhost.com.) I hear lots of great things about SquareSpace, and I also use Drupal for a number of sites (but wouldn’t recommend it as the starting point for non-geeks). If you are more interested in ease of use than extensibility, look at Tumblr or Posterous. I’d stay away from Blogger and TypePad, at least for now. Here’s a handy overview of some of the main options.
- Custom URL: If you’re serious about building your blog, invest in your own domain name. It costs about $10-$20/year, depending on your registrar (we love our new domain registrars at Hover) and it ensures you have an address that you’ll be able to use forever (as opposed to http://yourname.LatestHotBloggingService.com). Many hosted blogging services (including WordPress.com) support custom URLs and will even register them for you (just make sure that their registration agreement ensures you get to take your domain with you if you move to another host or service).
- About page: A good about page tells readers something about who you are and what your blog covers. The tone of your about page should be similar to the overall voice of your blog, but make sure that the first paragraph or two covers the key elements many readers will be looking for: your name, your job title (or if it’s not a work related blog, the personal context for your blog) and the themes or topics your blog will cover.
- Contact page: This should tell people how to reach you, in whatever form(s) you prefer: e-mail, Twitter, phone or other channels. Just remember that if you are hoping to get media coverage, it really helps to make your phone number(s) available in case reporters want to reach you.
- Positioning line: Include a positioning line on every page that tells people (briefly) what your blog is about. Mine is “love your life online”.
- Twitter handle: You want people to mention you by your Twitter handle if they are tweeting your posts, so make sure your Twitter handle (and not just your latest tweet or tweets) are visible on every page of your blog.
- Tweet this/like this buttons: Because Twitter and Facebook are major sources of traffic for many blogs, it’s very helpful to customize your blog template or install a plugin that adds a “tweet this” button to your bog, and another than adds the Facebook “Like” button. You can also use a plugin like AddThis that gives people the option of saving your content to a wide range of social networks and services, but I prefer focusing on driving those Facebook and Twitter shares.
- Subscribe links: Make it easy for people to subscribe to your blog by offering a very prominent Subscribe by RSS link, and a prominent Subscribe by Email option. (If you use Google’s FeedBurner service to drive your RSS feed, which I highly recommend, it offers you an easy way of providing a subscribe by email service, too).
- Customized template: There are lots of terrific free templates available for major blogging platforms like WordPress, but it’s nice to do something a little bit unusual. Look for a theme that isn’t too widely used, or better yet, customize an off-the-shelf theme with an image header or logo that you create yourself (or have created for you). You can go even further down the customization path by using a theme like Thesis, which is a highly extensible theming tool, but that might be overkill if you’re not the kind of person who enjoys tinkering.
- SEO-friendly permalinks: SEO (search engine optimization) is a dark art that you will want to study over time: the more friendly your blog is to search engines, the more likely it is that your blog posts will turn up in Google search results, and thus, the more likely you are to attract new readers. But when you are first setting up your blog, you can do one thing to boost your SEO out of the gate: set up your permalinks so that they reflect the name of your blog post (e.g. http://alexandrasamuel.com/productivity/13-essential-ingredients-for-your-blogging-setup) rather than random numbers (http://alexandrasamuel.com/?p=13881). Google considers the URL when it is figuring out what a web page is about, so having keywords in your URL will really help your posts get found. To learn how to adjust the permalinks for your blogging platform, just google “permalinks” and the name of your blogging software (e.g. permalinks WordPress).
- Categories: Choose 4-12 major categories that you will use to classify your blog posts. These categories should be broad enough to encompass a range of posts, but specific enough that they actually help to describe the content people find. Ideally (again for SEO reasons) they will be keywords that people search for when they are looking for the kind of content you are providing. You can add new categories over time, put blog posts into new categories, or even change the names of your categories, so think of this as a starting point rather than a permanent commitment.
- Analytics: Even if your blogging platform comes with its own analytics tools, install Google Analytics. It’s free, it’s powerful, and it’s widely-used, so you’ll find lots of good advice on how to use Google Analytics to fine-tune your blog’s performance and build readership.
- Plain text editor: Make sure you have a plain text editor on your Mac or PC so that you won’t be tempted to write your posts live on your blog (where an accidental click could lose your work in progress) or worse yet, in Microsoft Word (which will leave a million kinds of junk characters in your text when you copy and paste your latest into your blog). Draft your posts in your preferred program (I use Evernote for this, as for all things) then copy and paste into a plain text editor (I use TextEdit on the Mac, you might use TextPad on a PC) and then copy and paste from there into your blog.
These are the essentials you want in place before you start your campaign for world domination (or at least, domination of the blogosphere.) You’ll find that there are endless ways you can and will continue to tweak your blog as it goes — the trick to getting started is to make sure you have the basics in place, and then ensure you actually spend some time writing (or podcasting or posting photos) instead of endlessly perfecting your setup.
Are there other essential blogging elements you think I’ve missed? What would you put at the top of the must-have list for a newbie blogger who already has the essentials in place? I’d love to hear your suggestions in comments or via Twitter.