Tackling Confusion and Madness: A Blogger’s Journey
Creating a Blog That You’re Serious About for Total Beginners
***Update: I’ve been blogging and improving for a few months now, and it was time to come back here and do some updates. Creating a blog is hard work and a constant learning process, so I’m sure I’ll be back here again. You’ll be updated as things change! When you don’t know what you’re doing, creating a blog can be a really difficult and frustrating process, so if there’s anything I can do to help, contact me or leave a comment and I’ll respond to you as soon as I can!
If it interests you, I put together a “Stuff I Love” page because so many people want information on stuff like this. Check it out, but only if you want to. I am now a part of some affiliate programs (which is cool!!! I included info on the first affiliate program I joined!), so don’t feel pressured.
For this update, I’ll put changes and edits next to asterisks under any point that is different or turned out to be just plain wrong!***
Okay. Back to the original post:
A Blogger and a Breakdown: Creating a Blog for Beginners
Just for the sake of doing something different, today’s post is not all about food, but rather it’s all about one confused and nearly helpless blogger (me!) setting up a self-hosted site. Obviously, I’m not an expert! In fact, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing! This is all brand new to me, and somehow I’ve been making it work. I’ve been doing almost everything by trial and error while spending a ton of time doing research (aka ‘googling crap’), and I thought that maybe it would be helpful for somebody out there to read about someone with minimal tech experience and a tiny budget getting a site up and running while taking advantage of some cool tools.
Because I care about all of you and don’t want you to get too stressed, I will occasionally break up this info with totally random pictures of photos we’ve taken on beautiful days here in Napa and in Mendocino. Trust me, it helps.
For the last few days, I’ve been really focused on updating my blog, mainly with regards to moving it to a self-hosted site. This is really the “creating a blog” that matters. Not because having a blog on WordPress or Blogger isn’t awesome. It is! But if you want to be serious about this process, the first and most important thing you can do is move your site to one that is self-hosted.
I wasn’t sure that I was making the right decision (I am extremely…shall we say…financially cautious, and a self-hosted site does cost money),but in retrospect, it was a brilliant decision! (As far as money goes, for a self-hosted site, it looks like you’ll spend around $3-$8 per month for a basic package. It’s a cost, but not the end of the world.) My blog is now more responsive and far, far more customizable. I can watch numbers, add galleries and recipes that people can easily click on and print, and take care of details that I never even knew an inexperienced rookie could do herself with what has to be the absolute minimum of pain and suffering. Sure, I’ve had hours where I thought I was going to lose my &#$&# mind, but so far, I’ve managed to figure almost everything out on my own. There was, at the beginning, one stumbling block that I simply could not get past. Fortunately, the good people at Siteground were just a phone call and five support tickets away.
Every item included here is responsible in some small way for allowing me to go one more day without running into the backyard and screaming at the stars. I’m definitely not any kind of expert; I just want to share what has been working for me. I have to believe that I’m not the only technically-impaired blogger out there.
First off, I use WordPress. I’ve been on WordPress.com for a while, and I like what they do and how they do it, so I decided to keep working my blog through them. Now, moving to a self-hosted site with WordPress really meant switching from WordPress.com to WordPress.org. If you aren’t downloading the file yourself, that doesn’t seem matter so far! If you are, you’ll just go to WordPress.org and download the latest version. It’s the only big rectangular download button on the page.
***Still use WordPress! It’s fabulous.
Next, you need a company to host your site. Practically every blogger out there recommends BlueHost, but when I tried to go to their site, it was totally down. Now, I’m not the sort of person who makes a decision and then sits around waiting for all of the circumstances to align before moving forward. If I’ve made a decision, I’m doing it now. Further research mentioned a few other hosting sites that were recommended, and I decided on Siteground. They looked really WordPress friendly, and they also offer to (with no extra charge) install WordPress on your site and migrate your information over for you! That was key. Do that. Really. Be aware: just because they get all your info over doesn’t mean that your site is up and running just the way you left it. They don’t get your theme and install it for you, you’re going to have to do that yourself and until you do, your site will look very, very different than it did before.
***Update: still with Siteground, still love Siteground! They continue to have excellent customer service and if there’s an issue, they have resolved it ASAP! Also, there are a lot of frustrated BlueHost customers out there. Not sure what’s going on there.
Here’s where I was unable to figure out how to take the next step. I was signed up with Siteground, my WordPress info was migrated into my self-hosted site, and I couldn’t figure out how to adjust my site. I tried everything. EVERYTHING! Just about lost my mind at that point. My site went down one day and I couldn’t get it back up. I clicked on everything. I tried to download file things and WordPress things, and I don’t even know what else. This was two days of me trying to understand the internet by downloading random stuff. I tried to do the support ticket thing through Siteground. They were helpful and got right back to me every time, but they were speaking tech and I was speaking crazy person. We couldn’t understand each other. I called in, got a wonderful person, and we tried switching some settings and giving it some time. (They tell you the changes can take between several and 72 hours to take effect.) NOTHING! At this point, I was basically bleeding from every orifice and vomiting pea soup, but I tried one more support ticket. I gave the wonderful gentleman my login info so he could see what I was seeing. It took a little time, but it turned out that when my site was set up, admin priviliges were set to a random user (probably a temporary login for the tech who set up my site), and not me. All he had to do was give me admin privileges and I was up and running!
I go to my site and I have that bar at the top that lets me get to my dashboard and change everything, just like the admin page on WordPress.com!! Make sure you have admin privileges! At that point, it was just a question of getting my theme back up and running, and I was good to go!
Next came the fun part: finally installing the plugins that I had been reading about! On WordPress.com (the free one), I was unable to install plugins, but now it’s as easy as clicking two buttons! “Install” and “Activate Plugin!” Figuring out how to set some of them up has been challenging, plus you want to make sure that the plugins you choose don’t conflict with each other. If you keep an eye on the top of your admin screen, your site will simply tell you when you’ve got two that don’t work together, and you can deactivate one of them! Sometimes they just start working, but most of the time you need to go into “settings” to get them going. You might need to add a meta tag or three, and for some you need your google analytics site ID, which is on your google analytics page. As far as creating a blog goes, this opened up new worlds.
If you go “admin” then select your accont from the “account” column, then your property from the “property” column, then you click “tracking info” and you’ll see it. It starts with UA and then some numbers. Whenever I decided that I wanted a specific type of plugin (like for recipes or pictures or analytics or whatever), I always looked for ones that have tons and tons of users (the bottom left has an estimate of how many people have that plugin installed), and I look at whether it will work with my version of wordpress, and I check out the screenshots. Reading what other bloggers have written, it sounds like when in doubt, Yoast seems to be a good choice!
Definitely sign up with google analytics to keep an eye on your site visitors and other stats. I mostly don’t understand it, but it doesn’t start keeping track of info in a way that you can access until you sign up, so when I do understand what’s going on, I’ll have a solid chunk of information working!
***Sign up right away! It’s free and the more info you have, the more you get out of it! It doesn’t start tracking for you until you sign up, so get on it!
So right here, I’m about to start including a ton of links. They’re here so you can click on them and check them out if you want, but if you do things the way I did, all you need to do while you’re working on your site is click “plugins” on the left side of your screen, “add new” and then search for whatever you want. You click “install” and once that’s done, you click “activate.” No need to go to the sites and start downloading files, which was what I started doing before I understood why I couldn’t get my site going. I’m an information junkie, so I love clicking links and checking stuff out, but if you do things the way I did, there’s no need whatsoever.
I’m doing a food blog, so I wanted a decent photo gallery for posts that have lots of pictures (so they look more organized and professional), and I wanted to make recipes that people could easily search and print. I chose Huge IT Gallery for the pictures, mostly because lots of people use it, it looks good, and most importantly, I understood how to set it up and get it to do what I wanted. It wasn’t the first one I tried. It was the easiest to use.
***Still using them, but I’m having some issues with images just disappearing out of nowhere, leaving big boxes with little question marks scattered throughout my site. Not a great system.
For recipes, I went with Zip Recipes. When looking at the plugins, I made sure to check out the “screenshots” tab, and Zip Recipes showed their plugin in action and I liked what I saw. Plus, it’s totally easy to set up the recipes to show the info you want and not generate boxes you need to fill out with information that you don’t have. You can insert a recipe by just clicking a button on your page while you’re writing your post. I’m not currently doing in-depth nutritional analysis of my recipes including carb and sugar quantities, and I didn’t want to feel like I had to fill out those boxes or just leave them sitting empty.
***I stopped using Zip Recipes and changed to Yummly because it’s connected to a huge group of users. However, now Yummly recipes aren’t working for me, which means I can’t access them to update or change them. Also, it looks like most of my images are now missing from those recipes. Since I can’t open or change the recipe, there isn’t anything I can do. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. So, I’ve switched to Easy Recipes, which is the plugin just about every body uses, but the free version doesn’t really let you make the recipe look good. On the other hand, it can be set to automatically share your recipe on a big sharing site, which I like.
SEO Friendly Images was another one I chose. You don’t need to do much with it, but it hangs out and makes sure it’s easy for search engines to check out your pictures. AdSense Inserter works well for my ads. I tried one that had “easy” in the title, but it slapped a big icon almost front and center on every single page that made my site look ridiculous. I’m not an ad site!
Pin It Button and Instagram Feed are good ones to get. They’ll help make sure your site is ready to share and connects with your social media. Instagram Feed shows a gallery of up to 33 of your latest Instagram images and it’s super easy to decide how many you want to display. Squirrly is awesome. I totally recommend Squirrly! You do need to sign up for the website, but it’s free for a basic package and it lets you search to see how popular a keyword you’re considering is that day and then it makes sure that your site is totally optimized with that keyword! For search engines and for people! When you do something right, it turns green. What could be easier? I’m really impressed with that one!
***Update: Pin It and Instagram still work perfectly. Squirrly only lets you analyze a very small number of posts before you need to switch to the paid version. I wasn’t ready to shell out that much cash, so I tried some random stuff and then realized that they Yoast SEO is just perfect for this. It doesn’t have all of the options that the paid Squirrly plugin has, but you don’t actually need all of them once you figure out what you’re doing.
I did sign up for Mail Chimp (another one you need to sign up for outside of the plugin, but it’s free for the basic package) and add the plug-in. It sounds like giving people an option to sign up for newsletters is a really good choice long-term, so I have that in my site already. I’m nowhere near popular enough for people to sign up for newsletters or campaigns, but maybe someday!
***Mail Chimp is great! Still use it, still love it!
SEO is a smart one to grab. And you need is a cache plug-in. SuperCacher was easy to set-up (assuming I did it right!) and it’s a part of Siteground, so a lot of the set up is pretty automatic. I did have to switch a setting or two, but those alert bars at the top of the screen told me exactly what to do. Yoast SEO is awesome. I went with Yoast for most of my basic needs. They keep showing up in my searches of really good and easy-to-use plug-ins. So far, I have had no problems!
Next, I decided that I wanted to try a different theme. I liked my theme a lot, but I didn’t love how the blog page was set up. Instead of excerpts, every blog was shown in full, which isn’t really how people want to read blogs as far as I can tell. So I chose a different free theme, Nirvana. Definitely, a paid theme is a good choice and an even better choice is getting someone to design your site, but I’m keeping things free or low-cost for now. I’ve only really been up and running and fully focused on my website and blog for maybe two months, and I have a ton of details to iron out! Now, I had a hard time getting it to look anything like the demo, but I did figure it out, which means that this must be one hell of a user-friendly theme! It took hours and hours, searches, forums, user guides, FAQs, code searches, some copy and pasting, and so on, but I got it up and running! Animated sliders and columns, floating images, and text links. If I can do it, you can bet that a whole lot of people can make this one work.
**Switched over to the Sydney theme and I love it even more. It was harder to understand how to customize, but once you understand what you’re doing and download a free plug in or two, it’s really awesome.
Hours and hours and hours of confusion and frustration later, I had a site I think I’m pretty proud of. I’m kind of impressed at what I got running! Naturally, in this day and age you want a site that looks good on your phone. My last theme looked great with basically no effort, so I just pulled it up on my phone to check it out quickly. I couldn’t believe it. It looked terrible! Just terrible! I was horrified. I freaked out for a few minutes, but realized that I couldn’t just leave it that way, so I started power researching. Lo and behold, there’s a plugin for that too! (Actually, there are a lot of plugins for that!) I went with WPTouch, and I’m really happy with it! It’s not the same site appearance or the same theme, but it looks really sharp and really nice on my iPhone! At first, it was super confusing to configure. Once I figured out that I had to switch to WPCache to make the installation guide make sense, configure that (same installation guide), and that the list of extensions that they were talking about was actually just the list they had very nicely correctly formatted and pasted immediately below the tiny list of instructions, which I only had to copy and paste a few times, I was all set! Not a big deal! Plus, with a click of a button, you can choose a theme you like for your phone to use! You aren’t just stuck with one default.
Okay! That’s as far as I’ve gotten! So much goes into creating a blog, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. My site is new, so I don’t have any real info on how this will work or if I’ve really made good choices, but I have done a lot of research and a lot of reading, and these are the choices that I’ve made for my new self-hosted site! I’ll keep you guys updated as I evolve and change things. Hopefully, my site will get enough traffic so that I have to make totally different decisions, and I’ll tell you about those! Happy blogging!
FYI: there’s a ton of helpful and really well-written stuff out there on creating and making the most of your blog. I really recommend checking out Pinch of Yum and the Food Blogger Pro stuff she and her SO have been doing that I am seriously tempted to sign up for, as well as posts by people like Moz, RecipeGirl, MarketingTechBlog, and WhiteOnRiceCouple just to name a few.
**Totally signed up for Food Blogger Pro and it was the smartest thing I could have done. It was the only paid subscription that I chose to do, and the amount of info I’ve gotten out of it has been incalculable. They teach you all of the basics of making a blog, but also all of the basics about social media, SEO, images, photography, and so on, and they even teach you how to create an Ebook and a whole bunch of other stuff. Plus you’re automatically part of a community of people who are in various stages of blogging, so you can participate in forums with everybody from total newbies to seasoned pros. They also have a blog with podcasts. If you don’t know what you’re doing, check them out. Really.
**I’ve also been having a lot of fun with scheduling my posts in advance. When you first start, that probably seems like it isn’t necessary, but if you stick with it, it will be! There are a ton of good ones. Analogy and Viral Tag are awesome for Pinterest. Tweetdeck is great for Twitter. Buffer and HootSuite are good for all the rest! You can check out my “Stuff I Love” page if you want more info on all of these!