So you’ve been reading blogs for a while, and you want to know how to start a blog. It’s really easy, it pays off long term in your career, and it’s a great way to meet awesome people. I’m going to tell you all the things I wish somebody would have told me way back when I got started blogging in 2002.
Decide Why You’re Starting a Blog
People decide to get into blogging for different reasons. Understanding exactly why you’re doing it will help you determine what kind of blog you need to write and how you need to set it up:
- Make Money Blogging: the easiest way to make money blogging is to blog for an existing industry site. In the database industry, this means MSSQLTips, SearchSQLServer, SQL Server Pro or SSWUG. They’ll pay you by the article right from the start – but only if you qualify as an author. These sites need to make money in order to pay you money, which means they’re looking for established writers (or else they’re paying really low rates). Go to their site, go to the Contact area, and send them an email talking about what you’d like to write about. As of this writing, at least one of those editors is paying new authors (as opposed to established big-name DBAs) around $100-$250 per article. It will be a long, long, long time before your own blog will be paying you anywhere near that much money.
- Blogging for Name Recognition: If you want to get a lot of eyeballs quickly, sign up for a blog author account at an established site like LessThanDot, SQLBlog, or SQLServerCentral. They won’t pay you to blog, but because those sites already have huge readership numbers, they’ll get you the most name recognition in the least amount of time. Starting your own blog is going to mean toiling unappreciated for months or years before you hit the “big time” – or whatever that means for blogging.
- Blogging for Career Success: If you want to make a personal investment of your time in order to gain long-term career traction, then start by writing your own blog under your own domain name. It’s not going to pay off for a while – in fact, it’s going to cost you around $100 per year, and it’s going to suck up some of your time. I’m not saying this is an either-or proposition: you can write both for yourself and for other sites. (That’s the approach I took when I got started.) I highly recommend starting with your own personal blog under your own control, though, to build your own brand and benefit your career.
If you’re going to blog to make money or gain name recognition quickly – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – then you can stop reading here. The hosted blog site will handle the plumbing for you.
If you’re going to blog for yourself, then listen up and repeat after me: “I am blogging for my long-term career success.”
As you read through the rest of this article, there’s going to be times when the advice will seem odd, but we have to circle back and remember why we’re blogging: for our personal long-term career success. Not to make money quickly, not to get our name out there overnight, not to make compromises on our integrity in order to get popular, but for our long-term career. So now let’s get started with some of that questionable advice….
Don’t Expect Overnight Success
Whether you define success as visitors per day, money from ads, or the number of paparazzi camped outside your door, you are not going to be happy with your success metrics for months or years if you start your own blog on your own domain name.
If you want to achieve any of those things, I’d suggest that instead of blogging under your own domain name, go blog for one of the big existing blog sites. There are some brilliant people blogging over there, and success over there is contagious. If you like one blog at SQLServerCentral, for example, odds are you’ll go subscribe to more of them, or at least check them out. You can piggyback off guys like Andy Warren just by blogging for the same site as him – your name will be on the site near his stuff.
The downside is that you don’t really own that. You can have a falling out with somebody, you can get pissed off, you can get pissed on, or the site might get bought by somebody that decides to festoon ads all over your content. If you decide to publish a book later, and you include snips of your blog entries in the book, you won’t have to worry about content ownership. Perhaps the worst problem, though, is that when a company wants to associate their name with your good content, they won’t be paying you – they’ll be paying your blog host. In my personal case, I was approached by a company (Quest Software) who wanted to hire me as an evangelist. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity if I hadn’t been running my own blog with a large following, but on the flip side, Aaron Bertrand got hired as an evangelist for SQL Sentry even though he blogged at SQLblog.com.
Why You Should Start a Blog Under Your Own Domain Name
When you decide to start off on your own, it’s really tempting to use a blogging service like Blogger, Live Spaces or WordPress.com. These sites have all the plumbing already set up for you, and they take care of all the tricky parts about web hosting. On the other hand, you end up with a blog domain name that looks like this:
The problem with that is that you never really own it. The provider can change how your blog looks, change how it works, or just plain go out of business. A company that seems huge today may be nearly gone tomorrow, and it’s already happened in the blogging business – think GeoCities and Tripod. When you get fed up and want to change blogging providers, your web site name will change to:
You’ll start over from scratch in the search engine rankings, people will have to move their bookmarks, and you’ll lose a lot of what you’ve worked for. If you’re going to take the hosted service route, just save yourself a lot of heartache and go right back to the first step where we talked about writing for a SQL Server blog community site.
My recommendation: spend $10/year to get your own domain name like www.myblogname.com. I use GoDaddy.com for my registration, and I use Namedroppers to help pick domain names. Give Namedroppers a list of key words that you might want in the domain name, and it’ll mix and match to show which ones are taken and which are available.
It can be intimidating trying to pick a web site name – there’s so many choices! – but I recommend that you….
Use Your Real Name as Your Blog’s Domain Name
When I first started my site in the 1990s, I had WickedLife.com. At the time, I was into the goth thing (I know, I know) and I thought it was the coolest domain. It was catchy, people liked it, and I had a little following going, but times changed and I stopped being wicked. I realized that wasn’t really the image I wanted to project, and not everybody was going to think it was cute, so I switched to BrentOzar.com.
Back then, I wasn’t blogging about SQL Server – I was blogging about systems administration. Then I got a couple of read-eared slider turtles, and I started writing about those because I couldn’t find any good information on the web about them. I got most of my hits from people searching for how to set up their aquariums, what to feed their turtles, or how to take care of them. I also wrote about a server monitoring program called ServersAlive, and I wrote ASP templates for other sysadmins to track their database servers. Then, over more time, the site’s focus shifted to SQL Server, and here we are today – a lil’ consulting company.
The beauty of using your real name as your domain name is that the site always reflects YOU – your interests, your personal focus, and your career. You don’t have to worry about rebranding some blog, worrying about whether people will find the new one, getting your readers to read a different blog, yadda yadda yadda.
Right now, you might be really deeply excited about SQL Server or .NET, and you might want to pick up a cute, funny domain name like SQLServerTriggerMaster.com. What happens five or ten years later when you’ve started working with Oracle or MySQL, or when Microsoft changes the product name?
This recommendation isn’t a hard and fast guideline. An online persona like SQLAuthority or SQLAgentMan works for some guys too. Other guys start up a different blog for each of their technology focuses. Whichever approach you take, though, don’t just include technology without personality.
I’ve talked to a couple of startup bloggers who’ve asked about what they should or shouldn’t include on their blogs. If you want to talk about it, you should blog about it. If you’re worried that your potty mouth will cause people to avoid your blog, I give you TheBloggess.com, one of the funniest blogs I know. She is gut-bustingly funny and censor-bustingly nasty. If she tried to clean up her act, I’d unsubscribe.
Would you want to go out to lunch with somebody who only talked shop, constant shop, and nothing but shop?
Nah, me neither. I like knowing that the person on the other end of the intertubez is a real human being with a real life that has great days and crappy days. I know other blog readers who say they don’t want any of that personal stuff, and I point those readers toward sanctioned, cleaned-up blogs hosted by corporate sites. If you’re writing a personal site, it should have personal stuff. Not too much stuff, though – I want to know you have kids, but I don’t want to know when they did their first #2 in the toilet instead of the diaper. Save a little something for the family reunions.
I’ve also been asked what to write about in terms of SQL Server content. The big rule of writing is to write what you know. The more you know about the topic, the easier the words will come out. If you try to write about a subject that you don’t already know, even if it’s CLOSE to something you already know, you’re going to have to spend time learning it and getting it right before you can write about it. You don’t have that kind of time, because you need to…
Blog At Least Once a Week
If you’re not expecting to spend an hour a week updating your blog, hang it up. Look at your calendar right now and point at where you could work in that hour a week. If you can’t do it, throw in the towel. Or maybe consider blogging for one of the commercial sites that I talked about early on, because they’ll be thankful to get your blog entries whenever they get ’em, and they have enough other bloggers to make up for your periods of quiet.
In reality, blogging sucks up a lot more than an hour a week, and you can’t just budget a single hour on one day a week to do it. You’ll be responding to comments as soon as they come in, answering questions, tweaking your blog look and feel, etc.
I have a routine that makes it easier: I’m hard-wired to wake up at the crack of dawn, and Erika sleeps in for a few hours. On the weekends, I still can’t sleep in, and if I’m in a writing mood, I’ll spend that time writing blog entries in advance or checking up on my web site metrics. Sounds vain to look at your own metrics, but I’m not doing that to find out if I’m in the “in crowd” yet. I like to find out where my users are coming from, because people will write articles on their own blogs or web sites, and those articles might include a link to me. I can see in Google Analytics when people are coming to my site from another site, and then I can go look at that other site to see what they said. (Brent Ozar is a narcissistic as-HOLD ON A MINUTE….)
Just because I’m writing on the weekends doesn’t mean my blog entries come out on the weekends, though, because you need to…
Post Your Blog Entries on Weekdays
Internet traffic curve looks like this:
Weekdays are high, and weekends are low. It sounds creepy to say that you should only post blog entries when people are looking, but here’s the sad fact: some of us get in on Mondays, look at an avalanche of blog posts that hit over the weekend, and we just hit Mark-All-As-Read. If your blog comes in during the day while we’re working, on the other hand, it stands a better chance of getting read. That doesn’t mean you have to be sitting by the computer waiting to hit Publish: good blog software like WordPress will let you schedule posts ahead of time.
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, the 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
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 your WordPress dashboard, click Plugins, Add New, and search for WordPress SEO Yoast. After it installs, click Activate, and you’re in business.
Use Google’s Webmaster Tools
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 Analytics 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.
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 here’s some of my favorite plugins to take your blog to the next level.
Some of your readers will subscribe to your blog using RSS feeds. I won’t explain RSS here, but the short story is that even if you use Google Analytics, you still won’t know how many people are subscribed to you unless you get a free FeedBurner account. FeedBurner, also owned by Google, gives you easy-to-read statistics about how many people have their virtual eyes on you.
The FeedPress plugin changes most (but not all) of the links on your blog to point to your FeedBurner feed, which gets you the statistics. If you’re using a custom WordPress theme to change the way your blog looks, that theme may have hard-coded links pointing to your own WordPress theme. (I had that problem here on my own blog.) We won’t cover hand-editing WordPress themes here, although I will touch on that later in the article.
When I read blogs, sometimes I’ll leave a comment if I have a question for the author, if I disagree with something, or if I just want to thank the author for doing a great job on the topic. But I’ll never know if the person responded, because I rarely go back to the same blog entry again to check for updated comments.
The Subscribe to Comments plugin solves that problem by letting commenters check a box to get emailed whenever a new comment is added to that entry. That way, if a user posts a question and then I answer that question in the comments, they’ll get an email notification. That quick feedback helps viewers know you’re paying attention to their comments.
Nice blog you got there.
It’d be a shame if something happened to it.
Rather than paying the mafia for protection, sign up for Vaultpress and they will automatically back up your blog whenever data gets added.
More Plugins I Use
Once you’ve got the basics in place, here’s a few more you can play with that I’ve found helpful:
- GoCodes Link Shortener – run your own short-links service inside WordPress. Useful to give audiences short resource links for your presentations as described here.
- Search and Replace – if you need to change a lot of links or words in your old posts, you can do it on the database side fast.
- W3 Total Cache – WordPress ain’t fast. The more plugins you add, the more queries it runs on every page load. Your site will quickly fall over when someone famous links to you. W3 Total Cache helps by caching pages, database queries, and more.
I’ve covered the mechanics of setting it up, and I’ve left the look and feel for last. Hey, isn’t that how we IT people always work?
How to Make Your Blog Beautiful with Themes
WordPress uses a “theme” system to bundle images, CSS files and PHP templates into a single package (well, zip file). You can browse through the official WordPress theme gallery, or you can search the web for “WordPress themes” and find all kinds of good stuff. Go browsing around, find one you like, and then make sure you really, really like it exactly the way it is.
Don’t ever, ever, ever edit a theme.
Unless you make a living doing CSS work, unless you understand the intricacies of browser rendering engines, unless you put absolutely no value on your time, don’t ever open the hood and start monkeying with the theme.
Want proof? Check out this screenshot of SQLServerPedia by Stuart Ainsworth (who blogs about SQL Server at CodeGumbo.com):
That’s SQLServerPedia, and no, it’s not supposed to look like that. It looks fine on Firefox on a 22″ monitor, looks fine on IE on a 19″ monitor, but it looks like boiled hell on IE on a 22″ monitor.
Why does it look like that? Because us Questies couldn’t find a theme that was “just right”, so we worked with our graphics department to throw all kinds of things into an existing theme. It’s been a long, hard slog through CSS files and PHP templates, and it’s never freakin’ done. Fix one thing, and three other things pop up. I’m a SQL Server DBA, not a CSS guru, and it’s frustrating to have stuff like this get in the way of the technical stuff I want to accomplish, like writing and editing articles.
I’ve run into this same problem on my own personal blog. Every year or two, I’ll get itchy about the way the site looks, and I’ll want to change the theme. Mix things up a little. Keep it fresh. Whatever. So I go around looking for templates, and I’ll find one that’s really close, and if only I could change one thing…bam, the CSS nightmare starts.
Even worse, when you tweak a theme, you can’t upgrade to newer versions of that theme without rebuilding your tweaks. Theme editors sometimes update their themes by popular demand for certain tweaks (like easier resizing, or maybe different numbers or positions of sidebars) and you’ll want to use their free upgrades – but you can’t, not without investing more hours in a text editor. Blech.
My recommendation: pick a theme that meets as many of your criteria as possible, and then stick with that theme the way it is. So what criteria do we use to judge a theme?
Fluid Width versus Fixed Width
Fluid width themes will automatically expand when the reader has a big monitor. Fixed width themes are stuck at around 1024×768 or 800×600. The theme on my site right now is a fixed width theme, and here’s what it looks like on a 22″ widescreen monitor:
For an example of a fluid width site, check out Amazon.com. No matter how wide your monitor is, Amazon will suck up the whole thing:
There’s pros and cons to each approach. If I could find a fluid width theme I really liked, I’d use it, but they’re surprisingly hard to find if you want to use photos across the top. Decide early on which style you want, and don’t ever try to change a fixed one to a fluid one without professional web guru help. (And I don’t mean me, because I’ve lost days of my life to that thankless task.)
Don’t Worry About the Images
Most themes come with a stock photo across the top or down the side. Maybe it’s a happy couple, maybe it’s a house for sale, maybe it’s a goth kid with an eye piercing – ignore it. It’s easy to swap out photos.
For photos across the top of your theme, you can use your own photos, or search Flickr. Use Flickr’s advanced search and at the bottom of that search form, check out the Creative Commons options. You can check the box for only searching Creative Commons licensed content, and reuse those photos on your own site – as long as you’re not trying to make money, and as long as you give them credit for their photos. (Pay attention to the licensing.)
No matter what kind of site you’re doing, you can easily find funny images to put across the top, but…
Don’t Use Themes with Irregularly Shaped Pictures
Some themes can’t be easily edited because they threw so many graphics into it. This Japan-Style Theme has all of the big warning signs:
There’s all kinds of curved images in here, buttons with graphical backgrounds, transparent leaves on the background, you name it, it’s got pretty graphics. Problem is, if you want to swap one part of that out, it’s going to be a huge pain in the rear.
If you’re a graphic artist by profession, then show your stuff. If you’re a database administrator, any attempts to be a graphic artist are going to look – well, they’re going to look like a DBA trying to learn Photoshop. ‘Nuff said.
Know a Little About the Theme Designer
Themes come out, new browsers come out later, and the abandoned themes don’t always work well with new browsers. Ideally, find a theme that has been out for a while and has been updated at least once so that you know the original developer still cares about it.
When I got started, I chose my themes when they met these criteria:
- The author cared enough to put a page on his own web site about it. Some themes are just on the WordPress gallery, and nothing else – the author doesn’t even have a home page. You can bet that theme will never be updated again.
- The theme had a changelog. Holy moly. I’ve used SOFTWARE that doesn’t even have a changelog.
- The author had a web forum for support.
These are way above and beyond what a normal WordPress theme has, but keep your eyes peeled and you can find a gem like this.
Wait – This Sounds Like a Lot of Work!
I think picking the right visual theme is harder than setting up the blog plumbing! But if you focus on the mechanics first, get the site up and running, and make sure it all works, then changing the way it looks is easy to do along the way. You can experiment with different themes all the time without having to blow up and rebuild your blog – WordPress makes that part easy.
Enough with the technical details – let’s talk manners.
Ask Before You Use Real Names.
I deal with a lot of questions about how SQL Server works, how to improve performance on a server, how to improve a product, and so on. Ideally, I’d blog about all of them, but sometimes people don’t want me to mention their questions or name names. Before you say, “John Smith emailed me asking how to kill a process in a database,” ask them if it’s okay to use their name in the post. If not, just post a general blog article about how to kill a process.
Hint – here’s how to make that easier. When someone asks me a technical question, I like to kill two birds with one stone by writing the email reply knowing ahead of time that I’m going to copy/paste it straight into my blog.
Think Before You Trash Talk a Product
A while back, I threw Windows Home Server to the mat and body-slammed it, comparing it to the Ford Pinto. If the Microsoft Windows Home Server team decided they wanted to hire me later, and searched my site, they’d probably recoil in horror. Granted, I never want to work for the Windows Home Server team – nothing against that product, it’s just not a career goal I’d want to check off. But that’s not all – that team might include somebody whose career will intersect with mine. Or maybe somebody influential out there like Donald Farmer is madly in love with Windows Home Server, and he’ll never treat me with kindness again.
It’s a small world.
Take me, for example – a little over a year ago, I was having all kinds of problems with a database product. I wrote up a review of it, and I started it off by saying, “I hate badmouthing a product on the internet because it’s permanent.” A few months later, when I was in the job market, I ended up interviewing at one of that company’s competitors, and their executive specifically mentioned my review. He said he’d been impressed by how balanced it was, and that I’d clearly thought through it – that I wasn’t just writing, “So-and-so-sucks-butt-wind.” If I’d have written a slam-the-product article, I bet I wouldn’t have gotten the job I have today.
Don’t Disable Comments on Your Blog
John Gruber of Daring Fireball does this and gets away with it by saying that everybody who reads his blog is only there to read his thoughts, not the thoughts of other readers. He wants people to go to his site and absorb every single word on every page, and not get distracted by somebody else.
If you’re just getting started blogging, don’t try that. You come off like an asshole who isn’t interested in reader feedback or opinions. (God, I love blogging for myself, because I can use words like asshole.)
Some browsers have spell check built in, but if you’re not using one of those, copy/paste your blog entry into Microsoft Word before you post it. Look for little squiggly lines under the words, and fix those. It’ll look much more professional.
I know bloggers whose blog posts are completely correct – perfect spelling, good grammar, correct capitalization – but their emails make me think of Mr. Period at Penny Arcade. That’s totally okay – as long as your blog posts are at least relatively period-populated, you’re good to go. We’ll work on your emails in another series of blog posts.
And that’s a wrap!
Get out of here and go write a blog.