Several of the questions we receive pretty regularly revolve around blogging: How do I get started? What’s the best platform for a casual blogger? How can I make money off my blog?
I thought I could lay out some of our basic thoughts here for beginners, to help fellow travelers or anyone who is interested in publishing their thoughts online.
Full disclosure: I’ve been using WordPress.org for the better part of 6 years now, including this very website, and I (Jason) currently work for Automattic, the parent company of WordPress. I’ll do my very best to be fair and cover more than just WordPress, though I do know far more about it than the other options! What follows is our personal opinion and experience, and is not endorsed by or paid for by any company (including Automattic).
Before I get started on the how, there are a few things I should cover concerning setting your expectations and why you may want to start a blog:
- You probably aren’t going to make a lot of money from ads on your blog, and if that’s your primary goal for blogging, it’s not likely you’ll last long at it. Making a significant amount of money off a blog can take several years – if it ever happens at all. We’ve all heard stories about how “blogger X has made a six figure living just from their advertising!” This is most likely a pipe dream for 99.9% of bloggers, but there are a few that do make a living, usually from a combination of advertising and sponsorships, plus selling other items like ebooks. These blogs typically have well over 100,000 views a month, and most have numbers even higher than that.
- Advertising on your blog as a secondary goal is fine, just have realistic expectations going into it and be ready to work very hard to build the number of followers you’d need to generate any kind of substantial revenue. Advertisements probably won’t even cover your web hosting at first (if you decide to host it yourself), but it might cover that cup of coffee while using the free wi-fi at a coffee shop!
- Don’t blog because you feel like you have to, just to please someone else, or to fit in. Blog because you want to chronicle your journey for yourself, stay in touch with family or friends, or help others! Blog because you want to gift your advice, adventures, and trials with people who follow you. If you don’t feel like posting, DON’T – and don’t feel guilty about it. Channel your passion into your writing and readers will share your enthusiasm as it jumps off the screen at them. Churn out your blogs out of obligation and they will be able to tell your heart isn’t in it. Don’t feel like you have to write a novel for every post. Sometimes a paragraph is plenty. Other times a picture is worth a thousand words. Video blogs are also very effective and can be fun to create! It’s your story to tell – share it in whatever way feels best to you.
- Don’t get discouraged right away if you’re pouring your heart out and nobody sees it. You may not receive any blog comments at first, but that’s okay – this is mostly for you, remember? Don’t give up if you truly love to do it. Tag and categorize your posts from the very beginning so people can find them by subject matter later on. Don’t forget to post your blog on social media sites too, and let people respond to it in their preferred method of communication. Give your readers a place to subscribe via email. Comment on other similar blogs and chances are they’ll follow you back. Add your blog address in your signature if you participate in forums online. Email a link to your blog to your friends and family. Over time your readership will grow through all these efforts.
Ok, enough of the why – on to the how:
Blogger has always been a popular choice for getting started quickly with a blog. This Google-based service is free, and offers a minimal amount of customization.
If you have everything tied together through Google already, this can be a great starting point. After the initial setup (naming your blog and selecting a design template) you can start posting immediately. You do have the option to modify your layout to include a sidebar, footer, and header, as well as adding ‘Gadgets’. These are utilities created by Google and third-parties to access information from other services or sites (like Facebook, Twitter, etc).
Another neat feature is the ability to tie your blog to your YouTube and Picasa albums. This can make adding images and video a snap. Since Google owns all these services, it also means you have to post media through Picasa or YouTube if you want it on your blog. They prefer you use their products, and back you into that corner for hosting your photos and videos.
Yet another positive aspect people find with Blogger is the ease of including Google Adsense in their sites to make a little advertising money (see #1 above: a little money – not millions!).
Overall, Blogger is an easy-to-set-up system, with easy-to-use features. The biggest complaint I hear about Blogger is that you are required to be tied into Google’s other services: Google+ is included everywhere on Blogger, as is YouTube. Don’t use them? Tough – it’s part of the deal.
Another easy blog setup option is Wix. Wix is a quick fix that looks pretty and requires next to no technical know-how to set up, but ends up being a little too generic for my liking.
With Wix, you select one of their pre-made design templates and you’re ready to go! Minimal customization options mean you’re more locked into a predefined style than with other services, and you can’t change your template later without losing all your content. Not good if you’re someone who likes to change the look of their blog! Wix also doesn’t allow you to export your data if you decide you want to shift your content to another service later – you’d have to cut and paste every blog into the new software.
Wix, as well as Squarespace and Weebly listed below, is not open-source (meaning it was entirely developed by a team of their in-house developers) and since they control all the templates, updates, and hosting, it cannot be customized or improved by anyone but them. Their quality control may be higher because they manage all aspects of the user experience, but it also means there may be less innovation and fewer options for plugins (functionality add-ons), like you’d have with an open-source platform.
Very much designed for the ‘click and edit’ user, Wix is set up for you to make all of your layout choices before you start writing. This isn’t always a bad thing, just not my cup of tea for our writing style, which is more stream of consciousness – our individual blogs’ layouts tend to evolve as we write and add photos. In Wix, you start by editing a post that Wix creates for you, replacing their text with yours and their images with yours. Figuring out how to add all of the options is also not intuitive enough for my taste.
That said, Wix is VERY visually helpful through the setup process. If you are scared of basic HTML and doing any layout design, Wix is a good option.
Squarespace is a newer option to the blogging world, and is very similar to the Wix model: pick your template and click to change their predefined content.
Squarespace uses a ‘click-to-edit’ model, meaning you have no special ‘Edit’ screen where you work your content. This is a very visual way to built out content, and provides some neat options. They have also partnered with Getty Images, so you can easily insert stock photos (I usually prefer using our own, though, since we are traveling after all, and taking lots of photos!).
The biggest negative for Squarespace over the others seems to be a lack of a free version of the software. At the time of this writing, it costs $8-$30/month, depending on your needs, which includes hosting and a domain.
Weebly is a drag-and-drop website and blog creator and very popular for its ease of use. There is a free account option, or for $4/month you can use buy or bring own domain name, remove Weebly’s branding and have access to their premium support. You can make some minor style changes to their design templates and have a little more control over your content than some of the other services listed above, but you still can’t export your content to something like WordPress if you change your mind later – at least not without majorly reformatting it all.
Weebly can help if you want to create a relatively simple website as fast as possible, but if you want to start adding widgets and tools to the site, you’ll likely come up short. For blogging purposes, it also lacks the more advanced features of something like Blogger or WordPress.
WordPress.org , the free software you install on your own domain name and hosting, has the largest community of developers, making plugins and themes for everything you can imagine – and then some! WordPress was created on an open-sourced platform, unlike the other services listed above, allowing software developers, web designers, and other creative people to further enhance its usefulness by contributing their creations. This is what we use for our Snowmads.com website and blog. You can see some of the open-source plugins we’ve used on our site, like the nomad map and photo galleries.
We picked this platform because of the flexibility it offers us in coding our own plugins and themes, or just modifying what is already out there. If you go this route, be sure to pick a theme that is popular and well-reviewed by the community. The downside of open-source is that not all themes are designed and coded well, and may not be debugged by the time you use them, or supported by the developer after you spend money on it. The same goes for plugins.
This choice isn’t for everyone. With WordPress.org you will have all of the freedom you want, but you are also responsible for all maintenance, setup and updating. That means if you break something, it’s largely on you to fix it, or pay someone else to. There is, however, a huge community willing to help and a massive backlog of solutions you can research – you just have take some time to wade through it to find your answer. If you like to tinker and learn, this is an immensely powerful solution that would allow you the flexibility to do whatever you want with your website now and in the future. If your website takes off, you can include any kind of advertising you want (as long as it’s legal!) and aren’t tied to Google Adwords.
If you want most of the benefits of WordPress, but without the responsibility of hosting and setting it up yourself, head over to WordPress.com.
WordPress.com provides free hosting, has over 300 themes available, and is constantly growing, thanks to the open source community. For a great example of a WordPress.com blog, take a look at our friends, the Nealys on Wheels. There are some limits of WordPress.com versus .org – you can’t upload plugins or themes from the WordPress.org community, for instance – but many of the most popular features come built-in and ready to use.
There is a learning curve with WordPress (both versions), but once you’re comfortable with it, you’ll find it offers far more customization options within your posts than the other options I listed. Again, this is a good and bad thing for beginners – too few choices can be frustrating, but so can too many!
Pretty much any way that you can imagine the layout of your blog and posts is possible in WordPress (.org or .com). Getting there just may require a few more steps than the “point and click” or “drag and drop” of the other systems. Once you know it, you’ll be happy to have the flexibility to define your blog exactly like you want it, but getting to know WordPress is something you have to decide whether you want to commit some time to.
Another consideration worth mentioning is the risk of investing your time and money into trendy, newer blogging websites that may not stand the test of time. Many people fled LiveJournal after it was sold to a Russian company in the mid-2000’s, with many changes implemented to their advertising and privacy policies that users didn’t like. Blogger doesn’t seem to be in any danger since Google is not going away, but there’s always a chance they’ll decide to get out of the blogging arena with their history of ending popular features. WordPress has been around since 2003 and is still growing steadily – it’s a pretty safe assumption they aren’t going anywhere or making any major changes in the near future.
So what’s my personal suggestion for anyone, regardless of skill level? Start with WordPress.com. If you decide that the system won’t work for you, all you have invested is a little time. If your blog grows and you want to move your content over to a .org installation on your own server someday, it’s pretty simple. Most other blogging platforms don’t allow you to export your content to another system. As an added bonus, WordPress.com support is pretty awesome, if I do humbly say so myself! 😉
I feel pretty confident that anyone can try this at home, regardless of their level of web aptitude. Please feel free to ask questions below, correct us if we made any false statements, or share your experience with various blogging platforms!