In part 1, I talked about the basics of why you might want to blog for yourself (instead of a third party) and how to pick your domain name. In today’s installment, I’ll cover what blog software you want to use and how to configure it.
Use Self-Hosted WordPress to Run Your Blog
There’s a bunch of ways to get your domain name up and running on the interwebz, and I think WordPress is the best because:
- It’s open source, so it’s likely to stick around for a while
- It’s absurdly popular, so there’s a ton of documentation on it
- There’s a bazillion plugins to extend it in cool ways
The easiest way to get started is to use a hosting company. BlueHost, GoDaddy, and Hostgator offer one year of web hosting for around $100. (There are many more hosting companies, but I’ve used these two for a couple of years and been very happy.) Between this and your domain name, we’re talking about $110 per year, which is a lot more than a free hosted solution, but this is an investment in your career.
After setting up your blog, it’s tempting to start working on the way it looks so that it suits your personality. I’m going to hold off on that particular topic for now because it’s a monster, and it involves designing and building a personal brand. I think that’s really important, but it needs to be a separate article. Instead, I’m going to keep going and hit the technical side of blog setup first.
Configure WordPress for Search Engine Optimization
Ugh, that phrase Search Engine Optimization is so slimy. It’s an industry of snake oil salesmen. I hate it. But here’s the reality: if people are going to find you, you have to show up in search engines, and there’s a few easy tweaks we can make to WordPress to help Google do a better job of analyzing your content.
With the WordPress default setup (as of this writing, WordPress 2.6 in late 2008) the default WordPress link to a blog post looks something like this:
That means nothing to me, and it means nothing to search engines either. Go into WordPress, Settings, Permalinks and choose Custom. Put this in the edit box:
And click save. (There are some people who don’t recommend using the year & month fields, and skipping those is completely OK too.) That will make your blog post links look something like this:
That makes more sense to end users, and it’ll make more sense to Google too. Search engines use lots of bits of information to determine exactly what is on the web page it’s looking at, and the URL is just one part of that complicated formula.
Show the Full Post in Your RSS Feed
(Thanks to Jason Massie of StatisticsIO.com for reminding me of this one!)
Go into WordPress, Settings, Reading and set “For each article in a feed, show” to “Full text”. That puts the full text of your blog posts in the RSS feeds. RSS feeds are a convenient way for readers to stay on top of dozens or hundreds of blogs without pulling their hair out.
The other option is to just show the first paragraph or so in the blog post, and then force readers to click on a link to visit your blog site. Readers hate that because it slows them down, and the whole reason they use RSS in the first place is to read more blogs faster. Readers (me included) will simply unsubscribe from a blog that pulls that trick.
Why would people ever use that option? Because they have ads on their web site and they want people to see the ads. We’re not that kind of people, remember, because we decided early on that we were blogging for career development, not to make $15 per month.
This does some behind-the-scenes housekeeping to make WordPress blogs more accessible to search engines.
To install it, go to the All-in-One SEO Plugin web site and download it. Unzip it and FTP the contents to your web site’s /wp-content/plugins directory. WordPress automagically detects plugins in any subdirectory of that, so I like to make a subdirectory per plugin to keep the housekeeping simple. After uploading it, go into WordPress, Plugins, and scroll to the bottom where it lists plugins that can be activated. Click Activate on this plugin, and you’re in business.
It works great out of the box, but if you’re really ambitious, you can pay attention to these fields when you write a blog:
Title – the text that appears in your browser’s title bar. If you look at the top of your web browser right now, the title of the program window is “Best WordPress Plugins | BrentOzar.com SQL Server DBA”. If you scroll down and look at the text at the top of the article, though, the page starts with “How to Start a Technical Blog, Part 2: WordPress.” The All-in-One SEO Plugin makes this magic happen. There’s a lot of weird science here, but in a nutshell, the Title should be very search-engine-friendly, whereas the blog article title should be short, funny and friendly. Don’t take this as the gospel truth, by the way – this is just what I hear from our SEO guys.
Description – the text shown to users when they see your web site in search engine results, like this:
Keywords – a few words or phrases that really describe what the blog post is about. For example, in this blog entry, I might use these keywords:
- WordPress plugins
- configuring WordPress
Whew – what a pain in the rear, right? I know, I rarely screw with that stuff too. But before you abandon hope, forget manual configuration – there’s a few more plugins we can install that’ll make it much easier for people to find your blog.
Use the Google Sitemaps Plugin and Google Webmaster Tools
This builds a sitemap file that Google’s bots use to analyze the contents of your entire web site without having to actually scan your entire web site. It’s a map of your site, and for each page, the Google Sitemaps plugin notes how often that page has been updated. That makes it easier for Google’s bots to find what’s new on your web site more frequently. This is only anecdotal evidence, but I can say that before I had a sitemap, my blog’s front page wasn’t updated very often in Google – say, maybe once a week if I was lucky. Now, Google updates its cache of my site’s front page every single day. That’s helpful because I blog about recent technology news, and when people search for information about breaking SQL Server news, they can find it on my site easier – instead of not seeing it for a week or more.
Next, tell Google about your newly created sitemap. Go to Google Webmaster Tools and set up your web site. Tell Google about your site’s sitemap, and check back a day or two later. Google Webmaster Tools will tell you about any problems it’s encountered on your site (which shouldn’t be the case if you haven’t done anything nasty in WordPress) and provide you with some interesting metrics about how many sites link to yours, how many people are reading your RSS feed, and so on.
That’s only scratching the surface of metrics, though. To really dive in, Google gives us another free tool…
Use Google Analytics
Go to http://analytics.google.com and sign up for web site reports about your site. Google will give you a small snippet of code to put on your web site. The easiest way to make that happen is to install the Google Analyticator plugin for WordPress, which will automatically insert the Google ad tracking code on every page.
Even if you don’t care how many people are reading your blog, I’d suggest setting up Analytics because if you start caring down the road, you’ll have a nice in-depth history of your site’s activity. It doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t slow your site down, and doesn’t affect your readers.
Google Analytics tracks a ton of metrics about your site. Here’s some quick definitions:
- Visits and Pages/Hits – Visits is the number of people who came, and pages (or hits) is the number of pages that were viewed.
- Bounce Rate – the percentage of people who saw one page and left. Obviously, you want that as low as possible.
- Avg Time – how long people are spending on the site. I don’t think this is really useful for the site overall, but it IS useful when you’re comparing your pages. I like to know which pages people are spending the most time on, because that means they’re reading it carefully and digesting it.
- Entry pages – Entry pages are where people came in, and no, it’s not always your home page. Search engine users will land on whatever page they found in the search engine, and referred people (folks who clicked on a link to you from some other site) land on whatever page the other site linked to.
- Exit pages – The last page the user saw before they screamed in horror and closed their browser (or clicked on a link to go somewhere else.)
I’m a DBA, so of course I love to slice and dice my data, and that’s where Segments come in. Segments break up your audience into groups like Search Engine Traffic, Referrals (people who clicked into your site via a link) and Direct Traffic (people who came straight to your place). If you’re just getting started, then you won’t have too much data to slice and dice, but just make a mental note of that capability and come back to it in six months.
That’s a Good Start
Even if you don’t do anything else to your blog, you’ve already made a big difference in your ability to be found by readers. But there’s a whole lot more, and in my next post, I’ll list the rest of the plugins and techniques that I use to help people interact with me.