The Blogger’s Primer

For many, blogs are a part of life. You might keep your own blog or choose to visit several other blogs through your daily reading. You may even sit back and think, "Gee, I’d like to blog but I just don’t think I’d be any good at it." This article aims to give you a good jumping-off point from which you can successfully launch yourself into the blogosphere.

A blog is not a technology, a technique, or a cool trick. A blog is form of content site; what’s important is the information it presents, and the ways in which that content meets the readers’ needs.

Burgeoning bloggers need to consider first the areas on which they’ll blog, and which audience or reader the blog be suited to. The next consideration is to ensure that your blog can be easily found by readers, through search. The technology behind the blog, and the platform on which its based, is the final part of the equation.

Given such a content-centric order of priorities, this article will take a slightly unorthodox approach. First, we’ll briefly explore the concept of the blogging: what it is, and why people do it. We’ll then discuss readership, and how your blog content can be used to attract and retain a targeted readership. Once that’s done, we’ll look a little more closely at one of the key means of attracting readers: search. I’ll explain a few of the techniques that can ensure your blog is crawled and indexed by the search engines. Lastly, we’ll discuss the question of blogging platforms. There’s a wide range of blog software on the market, but hopefully this discussion should help you choose a tool that suits your needs.

Why Blog?

Blogs are, very simply, "Web logs" that document, usually in a personable way, relevant occurrences, happenings and events, the way a personal journal might record occurrences in an individual’s everyday life. The critical aspect of blogs is time: blogs tend to be updated frequently (perhaps every few days), and they often present content that is time-relevant.

Other than that, blogs are an open format. Around the Web, you’ll find blogs that focus on just about every topic you can name. Some blogs — Little Green Footballs or Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, for example — consider political issues.

Chaplain Lewis and A Baghdad Dweller look at the war effort from different perspectives. Johnny Gulag and Root Prompt, like the SitePoint Blogs, bring Web development topics to the world. Other blogs are no more than the personal diaries of individuals. Basically, if you have an interest that can sustain frequent "reportage," then you might consider blogging about it!

Whatever the topic, certain universal principles apply to how blogs are most effectively implemented and managed. Let’s consider those principles now.

Readership

To begin, let’s look at one of the more abstract and intangible aspects of blogging: readership. What is it? How do we get it? Where do readers come from? These questions are important, as it’s the readers that keep blogs alive.

"Readership" refers to the visitor-base of your blog: its audience. In this section, we’ll consider readership from two angles. First, we’ll see how your can attract readers to your blog; second, we’ll discuss the ways in which you can retain those readers and encourage them to make repeat visits to your blog in the future.

Acquiring Readers

You have an interest, and, through your blog, you want to share your thoughts with all those people around the world who share that interest. But, how can you reach these interested people? What will prompt them to visit your blog?
Bloggers have at their fingertips a number of tools that can help them establish, and continue to build, a solid readership.

Word of Mouth

Most Americans, Canadians, Australians and Europeans now have access to the Internet. Many use the Web from home, but those who don’t are often able to get Web access at work, through Internet cafes, and so on. This means that you can easily tell your friends, family and — most importantly for blog growth — other bloggers about your new blog. You’ll be surprised how many people are interested in what you have to say, and would go out of their way to read your blog… if they only knew you wrote.

Other Blogs

One of the most effective ways to promote a blog, which costs no money at all, is to read other blogs. The blogosphere is literally filled with other people covering topics that are similar, or related, to yours. Find those blogs. Read them. Comment on their entries. Link to their stories. Contribute to them and they may contribute to you.

There’s a key difference, however, between contributing to a blog and merely creating a message as a vehicle to link to your own blog. This may be a post to the effect of, "Hey, I wrote about this on my blog at www… Go see it!" Bad, bad, bad. Such posts are called comment spam; they’re frowned upon, and are almost always weeded out by the blogger.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts among bloggers are those of trackbacks and pingbacks. Without getting too technical, trackbacks are a method by which one blog notifies another that it has referenced a post on that blog. Many blog entries will provide a "trackback URL" — a specially formed URL that can be used by Blogger A to notify Blogger B that his or her post has been referenced on Blogger A’s site. You would not use this URL to link visibly to a post on another blog, but, depending on the blogging platform you use, there may be a way to include trackback URLs in your entry.

Pingbacks are very similar to trackbacks, though they require no interaction from you. Not all blogging platforms support pingbacks. WordPress supports it, and Textpattern was working on something very close to it the last time I checked. Pingbacks can more easily be understood as a technique that allows the "auto-discovery" of blogs that have linked to yours without using trackback.

Consistent Content

One of the rules I use in linking to other blogs through my own "blogroll" (a sort of list of friendly or related blogs) is that those blogs have to be updated at least once every other week. This is minimal. Preferably, the bloggers I link to will post content every few days; ideally, they’ll post every day. Everyone understands that people have lives outside of their blogs and sometimes may take vacations or lose the motivation to blog for a short time. But, on the most successful blogs, content is posted every day or every other day. This keeps things fresh. It makes readers want to come back every day to find out what you have to say today.

Of course, all of these techniques take time: they don’t create success overnight. Successful bloggers are persistent. Developing a readership takes time. The truth is that no one will know about your blog until they are somehow made aware of it. The magic comes when people start finding out about your blog, bookmarking it, and coming to visit regularly.

The methods above will get visitors in the door, which is an important first step. But they won’t keep readers coming back. Let’s discuss reader retention now.

Retaining Readers

There is one thing, and one thing only, that will keep your readers interested: content.

Think about some of the sites that you visit every day. Why do you visit them? Maybe you visit CNN.com every day because you want to know what’s going on in the world today. Perhaps you visit Yahoo! Fantasy Sports because you’ve started your own fantasy sports team. Or perhaps you stop at Fark for a daily laugh.

Whichever way you look at it, whatever the sites you visit, one thing is true: we visit sites that give us something in return for our time and effort. For this reason, it’s important to provide good content regularly to keep your reader interested in coming back.

So what defines "interesting" content? What will hook your reader? Here are a few answers.

Current Entries

By "current entries" I mean entries that are relevant to today’s issues. If you keep a tech blog, you will probably have poor results if you write about Windows ’98. Very few people use Windows ’98 — or care about — Windows ’98 now. They care about Windows 2000 and XP. So perhaps your time and effort might be better spent focusing on those operating systems. If you like to write about politics, you probably won’t get much in the way of readers if you talk about George Bush’s (41) tax hike of 1993, though politics is a funny animal and you might just prove me wrong.

The bottom line is to keep your content focused on and relevant to life today.

Relevant Entries

This is similar to the first point, but with a twist. There are two kinds of bloggers: those who blog for themselves, and those who write for others. The first kind of blogger writes as an outlet for themselves; the second type tries to meet the readers’ needs. The problem comes when the first type tries to be the second type and fails.

It takes time to establish a readership. If that’s your ambition, great — but walk before you run. Be prepared to put in the effort and be excellent in what you do as a small-time blogger. Focus on your readers — address topics they want to read about, and make your posts relevant to their experiences — and success will come in time.

Proper English

This is a pet peeve of mine: bloggers who like to write in camelcase ("I wEnT 2 ThE mAlL aNd HuNg OuT wItH Jj") and bloggers who don’t have a firm grasp on the English language ("dat" is not a word. Neither is "holla").

Blogging is all about writing. Your writing may be the only way your readers may ever know you, so don’t allow your writing to let you down. If the only thing your readers know about you is that your last blog post was uneducated, unplanned, directionless drivel, your reputation may be hurt for a long time.

Be Yourself

Sun Microsystems sums this up very well in its corporate blogging policy:

Another way to be interesting is to expose your personality; almost all of the successful bloggers write about themselves, about families or movies or books or games; or they post pictures. People like to know what kind of a person is writing what they’re reading. Once again, balance is called for; a blog is a public place and you should try to avoid embarrassing your readers or the company.

In other words, talking about yourself is okay! It’s encouraged! But I don’t want to know about your trip to the mall unless something about it impacts me — be it a funny exchange or something you may have encountered that speaks to something in my life.

Superficially, blogging seems an easy thing to do. But it’s a little more difficult (though it’s not necessarily difficult) to blog well. Blogging takes effort and concentration. All the effort that you put into your blog will be transparent to the world outside. You may have the best design on the Web, created by a world-renowned designer who has provided all the eye-candy you can think of, but if the content isn’t relevant, that design won’t make a shred of difference. Your eye-candy might win a few click-throughs, but it’s not going to keep them.

Building For Search

Now, let’s go into the more technical aspects of blogging. Here, we’ll consider some of the underlying aspects of search technologies, search engines, and what I like to term "smart code", or "smart HTML." As a blogger, it pays to understand some of these concepts in at least a basic way.

There is a key difference between the visual Web that most humans see and interpret, and the semantic Web that computers interpret. Since the Googles, MSNs and Yahoo!s of the world are computers, it’s a good idea for the blogger to try to see the world through their eyes.

Incidentally, this argument can easily spill into another area of Web development that’s at the forefront of conversation these days: accessibility. I’ll try to avoid that particular topic here, to instead focus on how blogging can be affected by poor markup, including poor linking, and poor post subject lines.

Markup

Markup is the HTML and CSS we use on Websites — the styling behind our sites. Most blogging platforms handle most of the markup in terms of themes, stylesheets, templates, and so on, which does reduce the blogger’s markup burden. However, you do control your blog entries. You decide which words will be italicized, boldface, or (God forbid) blinking.

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo! read your site from top to bottom, left to right, and ignore the things they don’t understand. Some of the most important features that they do understand are:

<h1> - <h6>

These are header tags. Most blogging platforms give you space to enter a subject line, which then becomes the heading for the entry. This is pretty transparent, but some people may want to put other headings within their entry. This is perfectly fine, although certain factors should be taken into account. Search engines interpret header tags as headings (naturally) and, thus, as being very important. Headings are prioritized: <h1> is the most important and is usually reserved for page headers and titles. <h2> is less important than <h1>, but more important than <h3>, and so on. For what it is worth, the most commonly used entry header in WordPress is an <h2>; entries that use headers should use the <h3> tag and below.

The content of these titles is considered very important in search, so it should be used to effectively attract search engines. Use descriptive text for your titles and you’ll achieve better search results. A subject titled "Another Day" will not be likely to receive many hits. However, a subject such as, "Microsoft has Ruined Another Day", will achieve significantly more hits (including mine!).

<a>

The anchor tag is the key ingredient in a hyperlink. Now, if you coded a link like this, <a href="http://www.espn.com">ESPN.com</a>, the link will appear as: ESPN.com. But it’s important to remember that search engines look very closely at the text of links, in this case, "ESPN.com". This description tells the search engine — and your users! — what the linked page is all about, and serves as a keyword for searches. Use your text wisely to garner the best search results, and you’ll attract a greater readership. Also, be sure to link often and to lots of places. The more you link, the more reciprocal links (links back to your site) you’ll receive.

Tag Semantics

A good place to get a basic idea of standards-compliant HTML is at W3Schools.org or, if you are a glutton for technical reading, the official XHTML 1 Transitional Spec. However, some of these sites don’t explain why a given tag matters more than some others. Once, if a user wanted to display font as boldface, they could simply use the <b> tag, which meant "bold." On the semantic Web, this tag is replaced by <strong>. To the human eye, they do identical things, but on the semantic Web, the difference is much more apparent.

The difference lies in the concepts of display and emphasis. "Bold" simply means "boldface the selected font." "Strong" means "put a "strong" focus on this as a point of importance." The same is true with the <i> and <em> tags. They both display as italics, but the <em> tag denotes a special emphasis.

Search engines pick up on these nuances. If the blogging software you use endeavors to maintain standards-compliance, they may provide you the tools to help you write compliant entries. WordPress, for instance, provides Quick Tags that can be used for this purpose.

Permalinks

This term is a fancy word invented by bloggers to denote the absolute URL to a single entry. It’s a permanent link at which the story can be found even after six months have passed and the story has disappeared off the front page of the blog.

Some search engines don’t like URLs that incorporate a lot of variables, for instance, <a href="post.php?post_author=administrator&post_id=474">Permalink</a> This link can be described as a non-search engine friendly URL: many search engines don’t see anything past the ?.

MoveableType and WordPress both offer methods of creating search-engine friendly archives and URLs. But even if your software does not provide an easy method to do this, so long as the site is hosted on a non-Windows server running a mod_rewrite-enabled Apache server (which, quite honestly, describes most Web hosts), then search engine friendly URLs can be generated. It won’t always be easy, but it can, and really should, be done.

There’s a lot that can be done to create a blog that will be well-indexed, and earn a good Google PageRank and Yahoo! position. But in addition, effort will need to be made to incorporate keywords — "buzzwords," if you will — into your posts to ensure that you will be recognized by the search engines for making topical posts. This is by far the most critical aspect of blog growth, as far as I’m concerned. It pays to take an extra minute to make sure all your links use descriptive text, your headings aren’t vague, and, perhaps, that they aren’t too specific either (which can narrow your search audience)!

Blogging Platforms

What’s a blog without software? Let’s take a look at some of the platforms available to the blogger, and see what you can expect in the way of installation and maintenance tasks, monetary investment, and ease of use.

MoveableType

MoveableType, or MT as it is commonly referred to, was the de facto blogging platform used for years on many blogs. It is well-developed and has a huge user base from which plugins (small scripts that enhance the functionality of the system) and templates can be drawn.

MoveableType has recently lost a large number of users to other blogging platforms due to an alteration to the product’s licensing. The 2.6.x stream makes use of some older technologies, but is freely available as a piece of software that can run multiple blogs, have multiple authors, and is free. However, with the release of the 3.x version of the software, licensing restrictions have cost MT quite a few users. The makers still provide a free version, but it’s limited to a single author powering no more than three blogs.

No official support is provided for the product. MT offers supported versions starting at $69.95, depending on the scope and size of the blog. On the plus side, they have incorporated a feature that allows for the creation of dynamic pages — a feature which significantly speeds up a blog. With the 2.6.x version, and the standard install of 3.x, pages had to go through a "Rebuild" process after every entry; this could take a long time as blogs grew and contained more entries.

MoveableType is available for install on your own hosting space, but I’m warning you right here and now… at times, it can be very difficult to have it installed. Because MT is written in Perl, it’s crucial to check and make sure that every one of the necessary libraries is available on your server, and that every file has correct permissions based on its install location. Recently, I installed an MT-powered blog and spent 3 hours on the task. Unless you have time and patience, this may not be the right software for you.

TypePad

TypePad is essentially a hosted version of MoveableType. A new user signs up for an account from $4.95 per month, and is supplied with a blog almost instantaneously. Features include mobile blogging, TypeList features (the ability to keep personalized lists of your choice), photo management, Trackback support, valid out-of-the-box XHTML, and more. They do offer a 30 day free trial and no setup is necessary.

Blogger

Blogger is a Google-owned platform that is fantastically easy for beginners to quickly jump right into. It’s free, and it takes new users only a few minutes to register and get the system up and running. There is also the added benefit that users can host their own Blogger-powered blog or allow Blogger to host it for them.

I have found a couple major issues with Blogger. Corporate networks using methods of network analysis and monitoring, such as SurfControl, like to flag most Blogger blogs as adult sites. Added to that frustration is the fact that, for readers to comment (and remember: commenting is the currency of the blogosphere), they must register an account with blogger or be satisfied commenting as ‘Anonymous’. I typically recommend users avoid Blogger.

WordPress

WordPress is fast becoming the most popular blogging software available. WordPress is freely available, supports unlimited users and is also available in a (misnomer here) Multiuser version, which can be used to power multiple blogs with different administrators, much like MT’s multi-blog setup.

WordPress provides a huge user base with a considerable amount of support via its Forums, Codex, and plenty of user blogs all over the Internet. WordPress’s plugin and theme systems are simplistic and installation can be done in the user’s own Web space in as little as 2 minutes.

The downside of WordPress is (in my opinion) the disorganization of the various WordPress-sponsored mailing lists, forums, bug trackers, CVS, SVN… the list goes on. But that’s the WordPress organization issue; not a problem with the software itself.

Textpattern

Textpattern is a maturing platform that has a slight learning curve when it comes to expandability. Some of the key features on which many bloggers rely are opposed, on principle, by the developer of this software — particularly trackbacks. It, too, is a free software app and can be used on the blogger’s own Web space.

Summary

Blogging is a learned art, but the learning curve is not steep. And quite certainly, in your blogging experience, you will pick up on things that I have not picked up in mine.

While the abundance of platforms makes getting into a blog easy, it won’t make your blog successful. Before you start downloading software, think about what your blog will focus on, who you’re writing for, how you’ll meet their needs, and how regularly.

The blogosphere is a growing industry, with more bloggers coming out of the woodwork every day. I hope you’ll be one of them!

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