I’ve been blogging on Sweet Miles for almost three years now, longer if you count other sites I’ve had, and I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on things. I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means, since I am always learning and have plenty of things to improve on. I do however work full time for a web design shop within an advertising agency, so I can confidently say that I have learned a thing or two about digital marketing. We preach to clients all the time about the benefits of adding a blog to their website, and all the ins and outs of what it takes to maintain a successful website. I spend my 8-5 working with websites and digging into SEO, and love to pass on some of the things I’ve learned that relate to blogging.
I’ve had several people ask me how to start a blog, and what my suggestions are, so I thought I’d put together a fool-proof guide. This is going to be directed toward self-hosted blogs, not blogs that are running on wordpress.com or blogspot.com. Self-hosting your blog will allow you to not only have total control over your blog, but it will also allow you to run advertisements through ad networks, have much greater SEO success, and be taken more seriously by readers, and companies looking for influencers.
Tips for Starting a Self-Hosted Blog
Decide what you will blog about and why.
Why are you starting a blog? How often do you intend to post? Will your blog belong to a certain niche or will you just be blogging on more broad topics? What is your “why” for blogging? It’s one thing to say you’re going to start a blog, it’s another to actually DO the blogging. And it’s ANOTHER to actually blog often enough to establish a readership.
Pick a platform.
I always recommend WordPress. WordPress is very easy to learn if you intend to use it strictly for blogging. Overall, WordPress is much more versatile than other platforms out there. You will also have so much more freedom as your blog grows. WordPress is kind of the industry standard when it comes to blogging, so you may as well learn it from the get-go. (Other developers out there may argue with me over the industry standard comment, but what I mean is that WP is so, so commonplace, and has an enormous amount of support available. Basically, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.)
Purchase a domain name.
You can do this through multiple places, but you’ll typically purchase it from the same place you purchase your hosting plan. (Unless you already own your domain name for whatever reason, and then you could always opt to transfer it) I have used GoDaddy in the past, as well as BlueHost, and SiteGround. HostGator is also great. Side note – make sure your domain name is something you can live with, something easy to remember, something not too long, and something that’s either the name of your blog, or closely related to your blog.
Purchase a hosting plan.
I currently have my blog hosted through SiteGround, but I’ve previously used (and use for the hosting of another site of mine) Bluehost. When you’re trying to decide on a hosting company, there are many things you want to consider, and it’s important to do your research, and read plenty of reviews. Anyone can call themselves a hosting company, so don’t be tricked into the cheapest plan you find. Just my two cents. You also want to look into whether or not they have dedicated WordPress hosting. It’s not a huge really, but typically they will have their servers configured to better handle WordPress sites, and staff who are very educated in WordPress support as well, which is always a plus. Hosting that is optimized to handle your WordPress site will also help with your overall speed, an increasingly important factor in SEO. (Like I mentioned before, often times your domain name and hosting can be purchased together, and you can usually get a good deal if you do it with the same company. For instance, some companies will give you a free domain name for life plus a discount on hosting service. Otherwise, you can always transfer your domain to your hosting company, if you don’t want to deal with two separate accounts. I have done this both ways. It really doesn’t matter where your domain lives, but I’ve found it to be easier to keep everything under one roof for renewal purposes.)
Once you have your domain name and your hosting set up, you will then install WordPress. This is usually as easy as just a few clicks, and a good host will have detailed instructions on how to do this. They will basically hold your hand through it. I have been very impressed with SiteGround, and found everything to be super easy and obvious. You can read more about why I recommend SiteGround HERE. You’ll probably see WordPress as an install option once you’re logged into your CPanel.
Locate your File Manager for future customizations.
One of the greatest benefits to self-hosting your blog, is the unlimited access you will have to all of your site’s files. On your CPanel, you will find your File Manager. You’ll be able to customize every square inch of your blog if you choose to. Your File Manager will be like your home base. It is where your css and php files, theme, plugins, content, images, etc. live. Anything you could possibly need, you can most likely find in your file manager. Need to switch out your favicon icon? Easy, pull it down from your file manager and switch it out. Want to change the font color in your post titles? Pull down your css file and edit it. These are the types of things you can’t control if you don’t self-host. The free themes that come pre-installed on WordPress only allow so many options if you aren’t self-hosted.
Think about how you want to be personified.
When you start thinking about your blog design, and customizing your theme, you’ll want to consider what “look” you’re aiming for. If your goal is to eventually work with companies, you’ll want to look clean, simple, and put together.
Choose your free theme or purchase one and install it.
Time to make it you! WordPress comes with a handful of free pre-installed themes, or you can install one on your own. I am using the Foodie Pro Theme from StudioPress, and have customized it to my liking by editing my css files. You will be able to use your file manager/cpanel to pull down your css files and images (don’t mess with this if you don’t know what you’re doing, or pay someone to do it for you). Depending on the theme you purchase, you may also need to purchase a framework. Think of it this way – WordPress is the car’s engine, your theme is the paint job, and your framework is the car’s structure. The paint job can easily be changed and set on top of the framework without having to start from scratch. Whenever you need to update WordPress, having a framework keeps your theme much safer. This way, when updates run, you don’t also run the risk of messing up your theme. I use a Genesis Framework (by StudioPress) and love it. **ABOVE ALL ELSE – make sure your theme is responsive, meaning it will scale across all devices. Mobile search, and the amount of people in general who browse the web from their phone or tablet is huge.
Decide how you want your blog set up.
Do you want users to first come to a landing page or your blog page immediately? As in, do you want all of your blog posts to be displayed, or do you want like a “welcome page” first? You can change this under Settings –> Reading. You will also need to pick the overall layout of your theme, meaning, content/sidebar, sidebar/content/sidebar, full width content, etc.
Decide how you will handle comments.
Will you allow them to be public immediately, or do you want to be able to approve them first? Do you even want to allow comments at all? Change this under Settings –> Discussion.
Install Google Analytics and an SEO plugin.
You can either use a plugin or install it manually before your closing </head> tag on the pages you want tracked. It’s much easier to use a plugin, especially if you aren’t well-versed in this sort of thing. I love the Yoast SEO plugin. Definitely worth looking into.
Which brings me to…
Install blogging plugin essentials.
A plugin is like adding on a new functionality to your blog. Plugins are usually made by third-parties, and you can easily install, activate, and deactivate whenever you choose to. (So like the car analogy earlier, a plugin would be like adding on a bluetooth component after you purchase your car, or adding a new sound system.) A few of the plugins I use or have used in the past are: Akismet, Alpine Photo Tile for Instagram, Comment Reply Notification, Comment Luv, Genesis Simple Edits, Hello Bar, Pinterest Pin It Button, Simple Share Buttons, Top 25 Social Icons, User Photo, W3 Total Cache, WP Popular Posts, WP SpamShield, Yoast SEO. Plus a few others. I still haven’t found a great email subscription plugin that I love, so I’m not even going to mention one. I don’t LOVE JetPack, but some people do.
Spend a few minutes on basic SEO for your blog.
Set up your page title tags, meta description for your blog, etc. Also set up your permalink structure to reflect your post titles, instead of category/year/month or however it defaults to. It would also greatly benefit you to learn what H1, H2, and H3 mean. If you’re serious about improving your SEO, learning what these tags mean will not only help you better organize the layout of your posts, but it will help search engines better read and understand your content.
Set up your widgets.
If you aren’t familiar with WP, then you probably don’t know what a “widget” is. Widgets are like small blocks of content you can place on the sidebars and footer of your blog. Plugins usually become widgets on your blog, if that makes sense. You can edit and rearrange your widgets in your Appearance –>Widgets.
Get a handful of posts under your belt. You can start promoting your blog anytime! But, we always recommend starting with 3 posts.
Make your About page.
You want to make it inviting, personal, and genuine. Link to your social media accounts, other posts worthy of mention, or any other call-to-actions. Also make your Contact page. Your main blog roll, an about page, and a contact page should get you started. I’m sure my About page isn’t perfect by any means, but it somehow always ends up at the bottom of my to-do list.
Make your main menu consistent and easy to understand.
This is just a pet peeve of mine. But you need to decide to either have menu items with drop-downs be clickable, or not clickable. The most annoying thing is hovering over someone’s About page in their menu and having a drop-down with either “About” or something else, when BOTH the main menu item AND the drop down sends you to the same content. If you’re not sure where to set up your menu, you’ll do it under Appearance –> Menus, then you can add your menu items, and nest or link them accordingly. You can make your menu items go to pages, links, categories, and even certain posts.
Think about your niche.
What sort of content will your target audience be attracted to or be searching for? Begin to get into the habit of writing your post titles for SEO. (If they’re posts you’re hoping will eventually show up in search engines) You’ll also want to think about image SEO (alt text, file names, file size) and other blogpost SEO must-haves. If you need help with what these are, shoot me an email. Happy to help. A lot of your post SEO can be done through a plugin, like editing your URL and post title/meta.
If you are hoping to utilize Pinterest, you’ll want to make sure you have a “hero” image on each post – a main image that captures what your post is about that you invite your readers to pin. I’m terrible at this, but I do try to remember to do this on certain posts. Sponsored posts will sometimes asks for this or something similar.
Get your blog set up on a blog feed reader service such as Bloglovin’ or Feedly.
I don’t *think* you have to “register” your blog on either of these, but I’m a member of Bloglovin, so I DID set mine up and “claim it.” Bloglovin’ and Feedly are great ways for readers to easily follow multiple blogs. Basically they pull your RSS feed and display your most recent post(s).
Set up an email address for your blog.
This is a great idea if you intend to work with any sponsors or email anyone other than your mom. You would never want to put on your about page, “contact me at: email@example.com. Either set up a gmail account with your blog name, or set up an email account through your host.
Set up social media accounts for your blog, or make your personal accounts into your blog accounts. Whatever you decide, consistency is key.
Make a content calendar, or make a plan to blog X amount of times per week.
You don’t need to blog multiple times a day, and you don’t even need to blog every day, but figure out what works best for you, and try to stick with it. Once you establish regular readers and start to grow your traffic, you’d be surprised by how much people will depend on regular, new posts. SEO wise – quality is still well above quantity, so if you’re producing great content just a couples times a week, or once a week at the very least, that will serve you better than producing crappy, poorly thought out blog posts every day or multiple times a day. There is no magic recipe for how MANY blog posts you should produce to be successful, so don’t get caught up in the numbers. If you’re blogging good content, being SEO aware, sharing your content, and interacting with other blogs within your niche, the readers will come.
Look into post-scheduling or social media scheduling.
Programs like Buffer, Hootsuite, CoSchedule can do wonders for your productivity. I currently don’t use them, mainly because I barely have time to shower everyday, which should be all the more reason to use them, but I have loved Buffer in the past for social media purposes.
Invest in a good camera.
Blogging isn’t necessarily about perfect photography, but I assure you that the blogs I frequent the most often have high quality images, more often than not. And the ones that don’t, have hilarious personalities that don’t even make me think twice. I don’t bust out my nice camera for every post by any means, but if it’s a post I’m really proud of, or a paid post for sure, then higher quality images are definitely a must. If your end goal isn’t to impress anyone, then don’t sweat it. But the better your images, the more likely someone will be willing to pay you to blog about THEIR product. Plus, your images stand a better chance at being pinned, or clicked on in google image search.
Don’t be so hard on yourself!
Blogging should be fun. Don’t let it stress you out. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
I think this should be enough to get you started! I hope it made sense, and if it didn’t, feel free to reach out.
*Affiliate links were included in this post, and if you make any purchase through them, I will receive compensation. As always, thank you so much for supporting Sweet Miles. Diapers aren’t cheap, ya’ll.