If you’ve taken the plunge into self-publishing, you’ve probably already learned that setting up a blog is the easy part. Tools like Blogger, TypePad and WordPress make it simple to set up your own site with just a few clicks.
It’s the next step — the branding, promotion and the actual writing — that’s the toughest nut to crack.
If you want your blog to hit the big time, you’ll need to dress up your site’s public presence. Here are Webmonkey’s tips for what you’ll need to play with the big boys and girls of the blogosphere. Soon, you’ll be swapping political commentary with DailyKos, and CoolHunting will be linking to you.
Establish a Brand
Get a domain. True, most of the really good domain names are taken. But you can still grab a memorable sounding domain if you think adventurously. And .com domains are always, always preferable to .net, .org or some country’s two-letter abbreviation.
BYOD. Once you have a good name, point it to your blog. The most professional-looking option is to alter your domain’s DNS record so that your blog appears when readers type your domain name into the browser. Most blogging software will let you “bring your own domain,” so check the documentation for whatever service you’re using to find out how it works. It may take a little trial and error (plus a day or two to propogate across the internet) but it’s worth it — what’s easier to remember, rinkodinko.blogspot.com or rinkodinko.com?
Get a logo. A well-designed banner acts like a visual hook. While custom designers charge up to $200 per hour, quality work is available at a wide range of prices. Consider these points: Do you want to adapt your logo for special occasions (Google, Reddit)? Do you have a quirky personal blog, or a professional one? Whatever you decide, be sure to avoid tall banners. If you attract sponsors, they’ll want to be above the fold. A viewer shouldn’t have to scroll down to see their ads.
Ditch the prefab stuff. Once you have a custom logo, make a custom favicon. Also, consider a custom template. There are dozens of free ones to choose from, but always alter it in some way to avoid that cookie-cutter look. Tweaking the colors is a good place to start.
Write Better Headlines
Most of your new readers will arrive at your blog by clicking on a permalink, not through your home page. This means that your headline is the first piece of content almost every one of your visitors will ever read on your site. So you’d better make that headline good.
Headline writing is a delicate art, but here are some tips:
Keep it short. 50-60 characters is ideal. 70 characters is your upper limit. Remember, spaces and punctuation count as characters.
Offer a clear takeaway. A good headline tells you everything you need to know about the post’s contents. Are you reviewing a movie or an album? The headline should say the name of the musician or the film, plus offer some insight into the cultural context of the piece and say how you feel about it. Consider these two: “The Speed Racer Movie Sucks” or “Wachowskis’ Live Action Speed Racer Update Crashes and Burns”. The first one is OK, but the second one tells you the name of the movie, who the director is, the fact that the movie is an updated, live action version of something that was probably animated in its previous incarnation — and that it sucks.
Funny only wins when it makes sense. If you’re going with a jokey headline, run it by a few friends over IM first. Take their feedback seriously. To paraphrase David St. Hubbins, there’s a fine line between stupid and clever.
The blogosphere is a crowded place, so don’t hesitate to do what you must to be heard above the din. Here are some tips for tooting your own horn with class:
Fire up a blogroll. Most blogging software lets you list your favorite blogs, so cull a list and post it. Keep it tidy — a dozen max — and on-topic.
Establish a relationship with other bloggers in your category. Sure, you’re competing with them, but they’re also the closest thing you have to colleagues. You don’t have to be best friends, or even chat buddies, but you should get to know them on a first-name basis. Exchange e-mails every once in a while. Point to an article you’ve written that you think they might like or praise them for work they’ve done. Let them know when you’ve published a link to one of their posts. Comment intelligently on their posts. Don’t ask for anything in return, just make sure they know you’re paying attention.
Publish your overflow. Share your favorite links on del.icio.us, Ma.gnolia or a Google Reader shared links blog. Set up shop on Twitter. Let your readers know where else to find you online by putting some links to these services in your bio or in your sidebar. Check out Waxy.org‘s set of “Waxy links” — a handful of small items published each day in a tidy list down the right side of the page.
Talk to your commenters. Read your comments religiously. Thank your best contributors personally and aknowledge their tips publicly in your posts. And whatever you do, don’t get sucked into flame wars. It’s tacky and it leads nowhere.
Banish the Bling
It’s easy to lose content in the clutter. Also, a lot of blinking lights and widgets will make your site load more slowly. But feel free to compromise: If your design is minimal, your sidebar can afford some decoration, and vice versa.
Prioritize your widgets. Those little links for sharing your post on news aggregators are helpful, but try to keep them within your area of expertise. If you run a daily tech news site, then Digg, Reddit and Slashdot widgets are a must. Blogging about politics? NewsVine and Facebook are good bets. Not really sure where you fit in? Consider StumbleUpon or Yahoo Buzz and see where those take you.
Tip: To keep things extra clean, try out a service like ShareThis, which offers a number of social sharing widgets beneath a single button. It requires an extra click, but your page load times and your readers’ eyesight will benefit.
Tip: As a rule of thumb for including any widget, sharing service or anything enouraging users to “click here,” stay relevant. If you’re not interested in clicking on something, why would anyone else be?
Syndicate, Track and Analyze
Remember what we said about most of your readers discovering you through links posted somewhere else? That’s where RSS comes in. If you’re not familiar with how this simple syndication standard works,Webmonkey has a tutorial to get you started.
Validate. Are your feeds well-formed? Run your feed through the RSS validators at FEEDvaildator.org and the W3C’s website and fix any problems.
Truncate (or don’t). You can choose to have your entire post — images, videos and all — go out on your feeds, or you can use your feeds to tease your readers into clicking through to the full article by publishing just the first few sentences. Whichever works for you and your audience depends on your content. If in doubt, try both and measure the results.
Track your traffic. Free services like Google Analytics or Tynt Tracer can help you see what your most popular posts are. Self-hosting? Learn to love your logs. These methods can tell you where your clicks are coming from — search engines, Digg, your RSS feeds or organic traffic to your domain. You’ll learn where your blog has the most traction on the web, and it just might be some place you’ve never even heard of.
Archive your Articles
You have worked hard to create your content so keep it for others to read. When Guy Kawasaki added Tynt Tracer to his site he was surprised to find out that a an article on the “The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint” written in 2005 was one of the most frequently copied from pages. I repeat 2005. Keep your content so you can keep them coming back.