So you’re thinking to start a blog. That’s great! If you ask me blogging is one of the most enjoyable, exciting things that you can do online. There is something that is simply amazing about creating your own content, putting it online for people to find, and then discovering that those people are enjoying what you have created.
In this guide to start a blog we’re going to begin at the very basics, and work through each of the steps that get you up and running with your first blog. I’m going to cover:
- What is a blog, and what are they used for?
- Choosing the right topic to blog about
- The important difference between hosted and self-hosted blogs
- Choose and buy the right domain name for your blog
- Choose a web hosting provider for your blog
- Get WordPress up and running for your blog
There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started!
What is a Blog and What are they Used For?
The term “blog” originated from the term “web log”, which was used to describe a particular type of website on the internet.
A web log was typically a website consisting of a basic layout with content displayed in a reverse chronological order (most recent first). Most web logs were personal in nature and maintained by a single author (called a blogger) who would write new entries (blog posts) on any topic they wished.
Blogging experienced rapid growth in popularity due to the appeal of having a low cost (or free) creative outlet where one could express their feelings on topics ranging from their hobbies, what they ate for lunch that day, the latest news and current events, to what funny tricks their pets were doing.
Blogging also allowed people to communicate with other like-minded people over the internet and form communities around their favourite topics.
The rise of blogging also corresponded with the dot com bust of the early 21st century as many unemployed people turned to blogging to occupy their time and stay connected to former colleagues over the internet. Thanks to the availability of free software and online services anyone could start a blog at no cost on any topic they wished. Many of the blogs started during the dot com bust are among the most popular websites on the internet today.
Choosing the Right Topic to Blog About
Blogging can be an enjoyable hobby as well as a great way to make some money for yourself. But one of the problems a lot of bloggers face is choosing a topic to blog about.
Here are some tips to help you choose a topic for your blog.
Follow Your Interests
Take it from me, if you have no passion or strong interest in a topic you will not be able to make a successful blog about it. I’ve started dozens of blogs in the last few years and the ones that were topics I didn’t feel strongly about soon became a chore and were neglected. Most of them I shut down but a few are still running with no new updates being posted.
Just because a topic is popular or has money making potential isn’t enough to motivate most people to write about it day after day. Choose a topic that you love and it will shine through in your writing and make for a high quality blog that will draw an audience.
Use Your Experience
Choose a topic that you’re already experienced in. It might already be obvious to you that this will likely also be a topic you are passionate about and have been working with for several months or years already.
A mistake some new bloggers make is using their blog as a journal of learning. Although there is some value in keeping track of your progress as you learn a new topic, you’ll soon find your audience to be very small.
Simply put, not many people really want to read about an inexperienced person as they learn a new topic. You might find some readers out of the people who are less experienced than yourself, but if you’re just starting out in a new topic this is going to be a very low number.
Focus, But Not Too Much
Most new bloggers are one man bands, producing all of the content for the blog themselves. There are only so many hours in a day or week that you can devote to blogging, especially if you have other commitments such as a career and family.
Choosing a blog topic that is too broad will make it difficult to keep up with major blogs on that topic who have a paid staff of writers to cover all of the news and developments that are occurring every day. For example a new gadget blog run by a single blogger would have little chance of competing with En-gadget or Gizmo-do. But if you focus your blog on a specific gadget such as the iPad you can go a lot deeper into the topic than the major sites and establish yourself as an authority.
This can be taken too far though. Be careful not to focus your niche down so far that you’ll run out of topics to write about.
Competition Is Good, Unless There Isn’t Any, But Even Then It Might Be A Good Topic
Does that seem confusing? Let me explain it better.
Although a lot of topics already have hundreds or thousands of blogs writing about them that doesn’t mean that you can’t start a blog on those topics. A lot of competition in a topic can mean that there is good potential for success.
To stand out in a crowded topic you need to write consistent, high quality blog posts that are unique in some way. This is where your passion and experience will shine through, allowing you to write in a more enthusiastic voice and go much deeper into the topic than other blogs.
If a topic has no existing blogs that might be a warning sign that there is no audience for that topic. Having no audience will make it unlikely that you’ll make any money from your blog, but if you just want to blog about your passion and don’t mind that your only audience is the other 10 people in the world who share that passion then don’t let a lack of audience stop you.
But because the world is such a large and complex place there are always going to be blog topics with large potential audiences that are currently not being written about. Being the first to blog about these topics can set you up as an authority and help you rank very well in search engines for related keywords
Plan Before You Launch
A final step before you settle on a blog topic is to plan out your first blog posts. I like to sit down and do a mind mapping exercise to see how many blog post ideas I can come up with for the topic. My rule of thumb is that I need at least 30 to 50 ideas within 10 minutes before I will consider starting a blog.
That might seem like a lot but remember that a new blog needs a strong launch and a long pipeline of upcoming posts. If you can only think of 10 post ideas you’re going to run out of posts to write in the first few weeks. The exception here is if your blog will include a lot of commentary and analysis on news in that field. For example a sports blog will have news every day or week that can be written about.
This also ties back into passion and experience. Topics that you are already interested in and have spent months or years actively pursuing will give you an almost endless supply of topics to write about.
The Important Difference Between Hosted and Self-Hosted Blogs
A blog needs blogging software and a web server to host it. There are two directions you can go here – hosted or self-hosted.
A hosted blog is a service such as WordPress.com or Blogger.com. These services let you sign up for your own free blog that is hosted on their servers.
Advantages of a hosted blog:
The advantages of a hosted blog are:
- Quick and easy to set up, usually within just a few minutes
- Free, no domain name registration or web hosting fees
- No ongoing maintenance such as updating software or applying security settings
Disadvantages of a hosted blog:
The disadvantages of a hosted blog are:
- Can’t use your own domain name unless you pay extra
- Limited customization’s without paying extra
- Can’t add on other website components such as discussion forums
- Difficult and sometimes prohibited to monetize, for example by adding advertising
A self-hosted blog uses software such as WordPress.org and is installed on web server space that you purchase from a web hosting provider.
Advantages of self-hosted blogs
The advantages of self-hosted blogs are:
- Uses your own domain name therefore allowing you to establish a strong brand
- Unlimited customization’s through the use of free or paid visual themes and plugins
- Unlimited expansion of your website to include discussion forums, newsletters, e-commerce, and much more
- Freedom to monetize your website however you wish
The disadvantages of self-hosted blogs are:
- Responsible for your own installation, although this is made easier thanks to automatic installation scripts provided by most web hosts
- Ongoing maintenance and upgrades, although there is plenty of support available from other members of the WordPress and blogging communities
- Some minor costs involved with buying a domain name and web hosting
What is WordPress.org?
WordPress is free, open-source blogging software written by a community of programmers. It can be downloaded for free from WordPress.org and installed on your web server.
WordPress comes with all of the features you need from blogging software, including:
- 100% web-based interaction, you can do everything with WordPress through your web browser
- The ability to write blog posts as well as create static web pages
- A comments system so that your readers can leave comments and you can respond
- Huge community of users who contribute free themes and plugins for you to use to change the look and features of your WordPress blog
- Spam protection
- And much more!
I strongly recommend that you use a self-hosted blog running WordPress.org
Before you begin setting up a WordPress blog you first need to choose a domain name for your blog.
Choose and buy the right domain name for your blog
What is a Domain Name?
A domain name is the web address or URL that you type int
o your web browser to navigate to a web page. For example google.com is Google’s domain name.
The .com part of the domain name is referred to as the top level domain (or TLD). There are many TLDs in which you can register domains such as .net, .org, and .id, but most people tend to stick with .com as it is the most well known.
Different countries also have their own TLDs such as .au (Australia) and .uk (United Kingdom). You can consider buying a domain within your country’s TLD but be aware that many countries have strict requirements about who can buy domains (eg, Australia only allows .com.au domains to be purchased by genuine businesses). However a local TLD can also be a positive if your audience is all local.
How to Choose a Domain Name?
Choosing a domain name can be difficult especially when you discover just how many domain names are already taken by other people! For example you might want to start your blog about flowers, but discover that flowers.com is already taken.
So instead you need to get creative and think of other alternatives such as myflowersblog.com or sarahlovesflowers.com. Another option is to use a nickname or a completely made up word for your domain.
The best domain names are those that either tell a visitor what the website is likely to about (eg sarahlovesflowers.com is probably going to be by someone named Sarah who loves flowers) or use recognizable brand names (eg nike.com).
I analyzed the top 100 blogs listed on Technorati to find clues as to how to choose effective domain names. You can read the full results here and the follow up post here, but the conclusions are:
- Shorter is better, in both character count and word count. Aim for 2-3 words max and no more than 15 characters.
- Even a long domain name can rank well if it has a strong brand, eg CNN, Washington Post or LA Times. If you can build a strong brand through great content and marketing then nearly any domain name will work for you.
- The .com TLD is the most recognizable for the average internet user, so it makes sense for sites to prefer to use .com domain names. If you are planning to use a different TLD for your blog it is a good idea to also secure the .com name in case visitors mistype it.
- Sub-domains, sub-folders and hyphens make website addresses harder for people to remember and recommend to their friends.
Take a moment to brainstorm some domain name ideas for your blog. Here is a video series by SEO expert Glenn Murray on how to choose a domain name.
The domain name you choose can be very important to your blog’s success. But don’t get too hung up on it. If you change your mind after you’ve already started your blog it is not too difficult to migrate your blog to a new domain name.
Also, even a poorly chosen domain name doesn’t necessarily mean your blog will not succeed. If your blog offers valuable content that people want to read then it can still be a great success.
Buying a Domain Name?
Once you have chosen your domain name you can buy it from a registrar. Here are some popular domain registrars you can choose from:
- Go Daddy
Remember, even if you’re buying a domain name for a different TLD it pays to also buy the .com domain name.
You might also notice that those domain registrars sell web hosting as well. The following section contains a few other options that you can buy web hosting from if you wish. Domain names and web hosting accounts don’t have to be managed by the same company, but it does make things easier sometimes.
How to Choose a Web Hosting Provider for your Blog?
You need to purchase web hosting from a web hosting provider in order to install and run your WordPress blog.
Now there are free web hosting providers out there, but I will not recommend using any of them. Free web hosting providers are usually run on low cost, low powered server hardware. They overload the servers with hundreds of customers and this means poor performance and frequent downtime. Furthermore they often force you to run banner ads and popups in return for the free hosting. Stay away from free hosting providers!
You might also be wondering what sort of disk space and bandwidth you’ll need for your blog. A WordPress installation is only a few megabytes in size, but this will grow over time particularly if you use a lot of images.
But don’t worry, it can take years and hundreds of blog posts before you start to use very much disk space at all
Every time someone visits your blog it will use some of your web hosting bandwidth. The more graphics and images your blog has the more bandwidth each visitor will use.
Again don’t worry, it can take thousands of visitors a day to start using very much bandwidth.
Fortunately both disk space and bandwidth are relatively cheap. You can get “unlimited” plans from some web hosting providers, but even the most basic plan will include plenty of disk and bandwidth. Here are some web hosting providers to consider:
Get WordPress up and running for your blog
How to get WordPress Installed on your Blog
Fortunately installing WordPress is made easy because the web hosting providers have automatic installation scripts for customers. The exact steps vary between hosting providers so just check out the help or support pages for your web host and follow the instructions they provide.
After the install has finished you can now log in at http://yourdomain.com/wp-admin and start using WordPress.
Here are some steps that you should take first for your new WordPress blog.
Secure the WordPress Admin Account
During the WordPress install process a single user account named admin is created. This account has full administrative access to your WordPress blog and should be protected.
Configure the General Settings
The default settings for a new WordPress blog are adequate for most blogs however some important changes should be made now before you start writing your blog posts.
Click on Settings in the left-hand sidebar of the Dashboard. The General Settings page is displayed.
Enter a Tagline (or sub-heading) for your blog. Try and choose something meaningful and descriptive, but not too long.
When you are finished configuring the General Settings click on the Save Changes button.
Configure the Permalink Structure
Permalinks are the URLs or web addresses that visitors click on or enter into their web browser when they visit your blog. Choosing the right Permalink structure is important as it can help both the reader and search engines such as Google and Yahoo determine what the blog post is about based on the URL.
Click on Permalinks in the left-hand sidebar of the Dashboard. The Permalink Settings page is displayed.
The default Permalink structure for a new WordPress blog is /?p=123 where 123 is the sequential number of the blog post. A WordPress blog will function correctly with this Permalink structure but it is not ideal for visitors and search engines.
Although several other default options are available and some of them include the title of the blog post in the Permalink structure these options can be too long due to including date information in the Permalink as well.
The optimal Permalink structure is one that includes only the title of the blog post. Click on Custom Structure and enter /%postname%.
When you have chosen your Permalink structure click on the Save Changes button.
Activate the Essential Plugin: Akismet
One of the biggest downsides to having a blog is spammers who leave comments on your blog posts. These spam comments are at best confusing and irrelevant, and at worst outright offensive.
The first step in combating comment spam is to activate the Akismet plugin for WordPress. Akismet is written by the same people who develop WordPress and blocks most comment spam from reaching your blog posts.
To activate the plugin we must first get a WordPress API key. Open your web browser and go to wordpress.com. Click on the Sign Up link at the top right of the page and fill in your details to create a WordPress.com account.
Don’t worry we aren’t creating a WordPress.com blog here, just an account. This is achieved by selecting Just a username, please at the bottom of the sign up form.
Once you have filled in the form click the Next button. WordPress.com will send an email to the email address you entered in the form containing an activation link. Before you can proceed further you must click on the activation link to finish creating your WordPress.com account.
WordPress.com now sends you a second email confirming your account activation. Included in this email is the API key that is required for using Akismet. This API key should be kept secret just like your passwords.
Remove the Sample Post
When WordPress is first installed a sample post titled Hello World is automatically posted to the blog. Before you start writing your own blog posts you can remove this sample post.
Click on Posts on the left-hand sidebar of the Dashboard. The Edit Posts page is displayed. Hover your mouse cursor over the Hello World post title and a sub-menu appears underneath it.
Click on Delete to remove the post.
Write your About Page
When WordPress is first installed it creates a sample About page for your new blog. You can use this page to tell visitors about yourself and your blog.
Click on Pages in the left-hand sidebar of the Dashboard. The Edit Pages page is displayed. Hover your mouse cursor over the About page title and a sub-menu appears underneath it.
Click on Edit to open the WordPress visual editor for the About page.
There are a lot of options to learn about in the WordPress visual editor but for now just type in some information about your blog and then click the Update Page button when you are finished.
Writing blog posts in WordPress
Now that your WordPress blog is installed and configured it is time to start writing blog posts!
Before we begin it is important to first log out of the admin account and log in with the blogging account you created earlier with the instructions on How to Protect the WordPress Admin Account.
To log out from WordPress click the Log Out link at the top right of the Dashboard.
You are taken to the WordPress log on page where you can enter the username and password for your blogging account to log back on.
The WordPress visual editor is a complete writing and editing environment that runs entirely within your web browser. You can use the visual editor to create Posts and Pages for your WordPress blog.
To launch the visual editor click the New Post link at the top right of the Dashboard.
Add New Post page is displayed.
Enter a title for your new blog post. Choose a title that is meaningful and tells your reader what to expect when they read the blog post. Then write your blog post in the content area.
New post is published to your blog and the Edit Post page is displayed for the post that you have just written. You can click the View Post link to see what your blog post looks like.
Congratulations, you’ve just started a blog!