Jacques’ #crimechat answers on blogging: the questions you posted in #crimechat March 22, 2013 answered below:
Before I answer your great questions, I would like to tell you a bit more about blogging, search engines and how to get rich quickly.
When people ask me if they should start blogging, I usually answer ‘no‘. Obviously that doesn’t make me the most popular guy, but, if they are honest (and some are!), after a while, they will realise I had a point and the are glad I made it. For the simple reason that about 95% of the blogs (and websites!) out there fail. The most read opening line in the blogoshpere? “Sorry … it’s been a while since my last post“. Just don’t become that statistic. Now, we can argue about the definition of ‘failing’, but in general the lack of regular updates, few visitors and readers and hardly any comments are all signs of ‘failing’. No matter how good the older posted articles are, readers will abandon that blog after a while. Yes, new readers might find it, rave about it, but if there is no interaction, no fresh content, they will look for greener blogs. In short, a big part of your online success is continuity. You have to go for the long haul…
I compare a blog with a little enterprise – yes, it’s about writing. But it is also about maintaining your blog, interacting with your readers and other writers, competition of other blogs that rank better in the search engines (why?) etc. Nobody realises that when they (want to) start a blog. Sure, you can be up and running within five minutes, but it is better to start walking. And then to keep walking. When Alice asked me about blogging and my help, one of my first questions was: “Why do you think you will be able to keep adding articles?” As he explained, he has a vast archive that needs to be disclosed. Only then I became interested, as that was assurance there would be regular updates: the archives after three years speak for themselves (close to 1.000 posts!).
After these “discouraging” words, Alice told me that most questions come from existing bloggers – so, somehow you dived in anyway – good for you! But perhaps you hit a wall. Or you’re struggling with maintenance. Or you heard about SEO, but nobody gives you a simple answer – and certainly not for free. Let’s see if I can help you here.
SEO (search engine optimization)
It is pretty simple. Just provide Content. Did you notice the capital ‘C’? Let me spell it for you: C.O.N.T.E.N.T. Keep writing. Original, Authentic Posts. Just don’t stop, as the search engines need (!) content to index and rank your blog. If you mainly post pictures or videos, make sure you add tags and some introductory words, but other than that keep posting, keep blogging.
There are 3 search engines (SE) that matter: Google, Yahoo and Bing. Together they provide 95% of traffic to sites – Google obviously being the massive gorilla – between 70 and 90% of traffic comes through them – you better stay friends with them (whether it is a good thing that one party dominates the market is a whole different (consumer) question …). Those engines use up to 200 variables (algorithms) to calculate rankings in a secret formula – clearly, the main one being …. content. Which makes complete sense – you’re not only a blogger, but also a user: you want the fastest and best answer to your query (you will even change search engine if you feel you don’t get the right answers any longer).
Another ‘algo’ is incoming links: try to get links from related (!), relevant blogs to yours – and link to relevant sites yourself – after all, you want to inform your reader, so outside-content might help him appreciate your content better. Again, think like a user – not always like a blogger. SE’s think from the reader’s perspective – not the blogger’s.
Here’s another algo: if you registered your own domain, and you’re serious, renew it for more than 1 year – Alice did and it tells the world you mean business. There are almost 200 other ones – but none of them beats ‘content’. In the early days we could trick the SE’s: stuffing texts with keywords, making it look relevant – sites shooting to the top in the search results. But the SE’s got smarter – they had to: weeding out the poor and fake results. Now they tweak a few settings on a regular basis and sites plummet – literally putting some of them out of business! Yet, still we see geniuses and wizards offering quick results, as they found a backdoor and if you act now… And of course, they game the SE’s for fast traffic, as they know that perceived backdoor will be closed soon – usually shortly after you bought their stuff, that is. But, you writing serious articles will always beat your competition that gave up months ago, that tried to trick the SE’s or that didn’t come up with original content. The classic turtle and hare story.
You’re unique. Just like anybody else. But, you might be a bit more creative than most. Or, your experience and perspective add to otherwise ‘regular’ stories. Find your voice, look at (your) topics from different angles (interact with your readers!), ask friends and colleagues – have them review your site (regularly?) and listen to their critique. We don’t need more of the same on the web – you can help it make better.
Sometimes you’re just stuck. No inspiration. No motivation. No interaction – so, why post? Well, you’re in for the long haul, remember? Success doesn’t come overnight (so, you don’t get rich quickly either – sorry: at least that got out of the way now). One way to overcome your slump is to create a file with topics. An excellent tool for that is Evernote – just capture ideas and notes and organise (‘tag’) them – when you read a ‘competing’ blog, you might come up with a new, better angle (be courteous, link to the original post – Google likes it as well). Another way to overcome writer’s block: interview some people and post once you really need it. Or invite guest bloggers. The point is, you need to keep adding original content – on a regular basis (continuity being one of the SE-algos – see my answer below as well).
On with the answers!
Q: Can I rename pages & categories? I have changed my mind about how I wish to split up my blog sections.
A: Sure you can. Depending on your platform (Blogger, WordPress) it is either in the dashboard or there are plugins to do so. But rather, think about your blog before you start to write your first post! Really, take some time, draw some structure (like a tree or menu bar). It will be so beneficial as you will get a much better idea about (potential) topics as well. Plus, it saves you the changes afterwards (including links that might stop working, 404 errors (page not found) etc. As explained, it is a small enterprise or shop: think about the layout first.
Q: Is it better to post on the same day and time? Should I schedule posts?
A: Not really – if you monitor your traffic (we use Statcounter) you could find a ‘best’ day or time to post. But it depends on your blog’s topics – and that of the post, of course. Other than that it is generally considered better to post ‘regularly’ rather than randomly – so, post twice a week as opposed to 2 posts on the same day. And yes, you can schedule posts (in WP itself) or with some plugin – that way you can even publish when not near to a pc. Just make sure to make regular backups – otherwise you may lose any scheduled posts as well!
Q: If I do not post over the summer will that affect my blog’s ranking?
A: In general (see before), try to post ‘regularly’ – spread posts, schedule them. Even during holidays you can publish – sure, readership will probably be lower than normal, but search engines don’t take days off – they will index anything you post and appreciate that fact (though nobody knows how much). Reversely, if you have some ‘big’ post, that you want to monitor and expect to get feedback on, postpone it until you’re back – or even after summer. Don’t leave comments unanswered for more than a few days.
Q: Do I write stories on a blog or posts on a blog? What is the terminology?
A: A post can contain anything you like to share: a story (anecdote), instructions (manual, recipe), images, videos – or any combination thereof. So, your site/blog consists of (blog)posts. Also, usually a blog has some general info: “About”, “Contact” – those are fixed ‘pages’ (as they hardly ever change). And, hybrids are common as well: a company or shopping website, with a blog-section – which is then used for news, updates and interaction (comments).
WordPress is perfectly suited for that – just review some themes and their functionality (this is a popular marketplace with high-quality themes at very affordable rates (just realise that most themes will not fit your requirements completely – modifications will be needed, taking time).
Q: What is the ideal length of a post? Word count?
A: There is no ideal length as such, but 400 words seems to be some internet average – based on the online attention span. However, if you post a video, you do not need that many words as an introduction. Other than that, just write engaging posts. Stay on topic, but don’t write too formal – the more accessible your content is, the more readers you will attract – and hopefully turn into regular visitors or even subscribers. However, long is not bad at all – as long as you provide valuable information. And if you feel your article/post becomes too long, just split it – post part II a few days later. Also, the Yoast SEO plugin indicates the number of keywords vs. total words – that gives you some guideline.
Q: Is there a “best frequency” for posting?
A: Not really – quality over quantity, so only post when you really have to say something: offering relevant information to your readers – and the SE’s. But then, posting only once a month might be too little – try to at least double it – that is just 24 posts per year – see the ‘Original content’ part in the introduction for ideas for posts. Also, ask friends and readers what they look for. Reread your previous posts – maybe you can write a follow up. Take notes (while browsing) for future inspiration.
Q: Does every post need a picture of a short video clip?
A: Not for SE’s – but readers tend to go for visual clues when scanning your blog – and yes, you are a reader yourself (of other blogs), so try to figure out why you click link A – but not link B. Also, on your own blog, experiment – post similar articles, but leave out a pic in one of them. Then use your stats (Statcounter and/or Google Analytics) to check which posts get more clicks. Did I say you run a small ‘enterprise’? Just realise, that big sites like Amazon tweak their pages continually… So, if you want to take your blog a bit further, these might be aspects to look into.
Q: What SEO plugin is the best?
A: We prefer Yoast as it indicates with a color per post how well it is optimized. However, it didn’t work in conjunction with a theme on another site, so we had to pick another one – there are several good alternatives.
Q: I never used a SEO plugin. Should I?
A: Yes. Your ‘competition’ does, so you should as well. Invest in reading a manual, browse a forum: don’t give others an edge. Again, it is not that difficult – and as said, Yoast SEO gives clear indications how well your posts are optimised.
Q: What is Wordfence and is it better than Akismet?
A: They both are good, but different beasts. Akismet (by the WordPress creators) filters comment-spam and is very good at it – saving you a lot of work (please note: Free for personal use only). Wordfence provides active defenses: it blocks intruders (hackers that try to log in into your admin panel), it scans your files for bad links and malware. It alerts you about attempts and a lot more – it really is one of the better security plugins – I strongly suggest you install it, although it might take some time to tweak it to your needs/situation. And the paid version gives you even better protection.
Q: What is the difference between widgets and plugins?
A: A plugin needs to be installed adding any functionality you need for your site. A widget comes with WordPress itself or your theme, allowing you to add standard functionality to designated areas (like footer or sidebar): a quick contact ‘form’, recent posts etc. Usually they only provide a few options – which limits potential mishaps, but speeds up you designing your blog.
Q: How many plugins can I have on my blog?
A: Less is more. The more code you add, the more you have to update and tweak. Also, any plugin might break anything in your site – so always check after installing a new plugin (the more popular plugins are more reliable), but any update could insert a problem. Also, steer away from obscure or brand new plugins, there might be safety issues. And, try to find newer alternatives for ‘old’ plugins – if a plugin is not updated for more than a year or so, it might not work 100% with the latest WP versions any longer – potentially leaving you vulnerable for hackers as well.
How to start:
Q: How do I start a blog?
A: Find your passion – if you don’t have any, you will not be able to overcome the slumps. Then, make a plan: research, find what others put out there, try to find a niche – even if it will be a tiny niche, you can become the ‘specialist’ in it – simply because the big topics are over-saturated already. So, find an angle, be authentic – people like to interact with real people so they will come to you as long as you share something valuable (information, knowledge) in an accessible way. Share first, hopefully reap later.
Once you know what you want, you could be up and running within 5 minutes: Blogger.com (by Google) allows you to create a blog with a few clicks. Same goes for WordPress: good solution if you want to start blogging, but realise it is somewhat limited: you can not install any plugin or theme you like. Also, your URL is always a subdomain on WordPress. WordPress also comes selfhosted: WordPress.org (most hosting companies provide an installation package as well). Obviously, this is the most time-consuming route: you need to install and update (!) not only WP itself, but also all plugins and themes. And yes, it all works with a few clicks, but not everything always works together smoothly – requiring fixing. Also, it is not free: your domain name is about $10 a year, decent hosting starts at $50 p/a. But, it gives you the most options and freedom – it’s all a matter of your needs – and aspirations. Also check out this review for more information.
Q: How long does it take to build a blog?
A: Always much longer than you imagine. If you want to build something serious, it needs attention almost daily: even if you don’t post anything, you might have to follow up on comments, make a back-up (or check if it went well overnight), research for new articles, check your rankings, tweak SEO, etc. Yep, a true mini-enterprise.
Q: Can I transport things I have on Facebook and Twitter to a blog?
A: I figure you can import things, yes. Also, there are plugins that let you display your FB posts or Tweets on your blog. However, I prefer to reverse it: post on your blog and then share it on FB or Twitter. Simply because you then have more control over your content: it is yours, under your control. Search engines will index your articles and link to it – they do not do so (or only in a limited way) with your FB or Twitter content. If you ever want to switch from FB to Google Plus (or use both), you could easily do so if your content is in your blog – it will be much harder if it resides on FB.
Q: Do I need a professional webmaster?
A: No. Start small – but only after you have some sort of clue what you want to do – and where you want to go. Researching before you start will make a big difference later on. Talk to me, talk to Alice, ask on Twitter.
Q: What are the best tools for bloggers?
A: Your imagination, your creativity. Other than that, Evernote is very useful for notes – available online and for desktop, mobile and tablets – their WebClipper works very well. Also, make sure you make regular backups: Dropbox.com is good for that – there is a plugin that links to your account for regular backups. Or you could use a service like Google Drive for which there are plugins as well.
Q: Can you write a short how-to to get pictures/clips on my blog?
Q: Is there a trouble shooting list for uploading pictures/video clips?
Self-hosted versus a blogging community:
Q: What are the advantages of Tumblr, Blogspot and others? Are they all the same?
A: Tumblr is mainly for posting pics – people can like and reshare your posts, but there is no direct interaction. Good at what it does, but not for blogging. Blogspot (= Blogger) is Google’s free blogging platform. Obviously it will be indexed by their SE (although WP blogs are indexed very quickly as well – usually within a week or so). It is limited/restricted in order to keep it manageable and secure – so if you just want to post articles, it will be enough for you – people can comment and share your posts. Basic and solid.
Wordpress is the most popular blogging platform (both hosted and self-hosted) because of its flexibility – and the number of themes and plugins offered. It’s not perfect (requires regular updates) but it does a good job – and because of its popularity, lots of support can be found online. There certainly are smaller players out there, but you might need to research the pros and cons first.
Q: Is it better for rankings to be selfhosted?
A: Hard to tell – but if you plan to build a serious blog over the next years, it is better to keep it on your own ‘real estate’ (= domain) – no switching needed after a while, everything points to one url. And you have the most flexibility when it comes to plugins and themes.
Q: Are ads on your blog better for SEO or rankings?
A: Not as such – however, Google has its own ad-serving program (just like Yahoo and Bing) but it would result in a major outcry if it was ever disclosed they do favor sites which host Google’s Adsense program (perhaps another reason why they keep it their algorithms the best kept internet secret). So, officially: no.
Q: What does ‘nofollow’ do?
A: It tells the SE’s not to follow that link so the link will not be indexed.
Q: Must my blog have columns in the theme?
A: Columns were introduced in newspapers for readability. It is rather tiring to read page-wide lines – you rather so avoid them. Most themes are column-based anyway (3 or 4), enabling you to ‘play’ with your layout: navigation, sidebars etc.
Q: What is the best spot for my menu? On the top or in the margins?
A: Depends on your number of menu-links – now here comes in planning before you start your blog: try to figure out what you are going to need and select a theme that can grow with you: some themes offer both top and sidebar menus. Or they allow a widget in which you can place a custom menu. Research, visit other blogs, take notes and see what works for you (or not) as a reader. It most likely will do so for others as well.
Q: What are the best background colors?
A: You need contrast, so readers with glasses still can read your posts. Obviously, black on white is most common – but boring. Reversely, white on black is almost non-readable – I usually don’t bother reading them (or I use ctrl-A to high-light text – that reverses the text, but obviously ruins the site – and experience). Any decent theme comes with color-schemes and options. Play around, try to create some ‘house-style’ that you can stick to for a while – it gives your readers an instant (visual) reference.
Q: On average, how much scrolling do people do before they stop reading a blog?
A: Impossible to tell – if you write compelling posts, they will stay – if not, you lose them after the first paragraph. In case you wonder about page-length, look into ‘pagination’ – long pieces will be split (and require clicking to the next page). Also, in longer pages, add a ‘to the top’ link – that way your readers can reach your menu easily. Or, split a long post into several episodes – post them at intervals (scheduling?) so that readers come back. Just make sure to include links to all episodes – navigation is key in keeping readers on your blog: provide links within your articles as well – rather offer them 3 different ways to reach a related article than making them search – think like a reader! (some themes now come with ‘related posts’ functionality – initially it was available as a plugin only).
The answers to Sheri de Grom‘s questions are here:
1. How do I get all blogs to appear in my reader? Is it possible to move blogs that I receive via e-mail notification to receiving them in my reader only?
A: Yes – just unsubscribe from the emails – usually there is a RSS link at the bottom. Then find the blog in your reader or go to the site and click on the Orange icon – this will add the ‘feed’ to your reader.
2. Once blogs come through the reader, is it possible to have access to the like, Twitter, Facebook, etc. buttons the same way I do when the blog comes through via message notification. I particularly notice when I read from my iPad that the Share this symbols don’t appear.
A: That is an iPad issue – not all links work – most likely because of security restraints. Please check with Apple if they will ever allow links like that.