When I am not designing stellar websites for clients, I spend my time writing a food blog, and every now and then, I give talks to other bloggers about improving their blogging.
I had the opportunity to give a talk recently in San Francisco to a group of new and veteran food bloggers about ten things that they could do to make their blog more awesome. These little tips cover a broad range of blogging sins and traps. The PDF of the full presentation is available to download.
I am saying it. Free stuff, while awesome in its lack of cost, is still just that: a freebie. Often it is a watered down version of a premium product or a way for someone to advertise themselves. Think about it. That “free” image you are using? You have to link to someone and give them credit. The “free” font service you use? It puts a badge at the bottom of your site.
Many free services require you to link back to them with either a link or a badge. These links can cause confusion to your readers (what exactly is the point of your site and why are you sending them elsewhere?), and you don’t want to confuse your visitors.
“Free” images are often not free either. If you are using a photo someone else took without paying for it, are you sure you aren’t in violation of copyright or the creative commons license under which it was shared?
One last thing about freebies and blogging: are you still using a free domain for your blog, such as yourname.bloggingservice.com? It is time to grow up and upgrade. These domains look free, which isn’t a good look for someone blogging for business. Domain names are a nominal cost. If you are using a free domain because you added a blog to your website after it launched, upgrade to the version that lets you use yoursite.com/blog. You gain instant credibility, so what is stopping you?
Your blog sidebar should not be longer than the content of your blog landing page (the page that lists your most recent posts). Content here should be things that directly support your blog. To decide if something belongs in your sidebar, you should ask yourself three things:
Doesn’t that feel better? All that extra weight is gone, allowing visitors to focus on what matters most: your content. If all else fails, just follow these sidebar best practices.
Speaking of content, blogs are often the wild west of web content. The pages for the rest of the site are carefully planned, but the blog is just allowed to grow wild. This is no bueno. You need to take charge of what is getting added to your site.
Start by giving your categories a good, hard look. If your blog posts fit into more than one category more often than not, you are doing it wrong.
Tags, when used correctly, can improve SEO and organization. Often, things that you use as categories can be used as tags instead. Think of your blog as Ford. Your categories are the models of your cars, and tags are things like the color, transmission, and other optional features.
Finally, have a plan, but don’t be married to it. Aim for regular posts. Maybe weekly, maybe monthly. If it needs to change, that is ok. If the topics you cover gradually evolve, embrace it. A plan is a good place to start, but it can make a mighty awful trap.
It’s all about building community and sharing the wealth. I know you want to get your message out there, and that is fantastic. Go shout it from the rooftops. But who is going to engage with that? If you don’t support your fellow Internet citizens, engage in dialogue, and make the Internet a worthwhile place, why should people stick around and keep reading?
So, make friends in real life (that’s my good friend Brandy & I – we met because of our blogs!). Comment and respond to comments. Support others. Encourage them. And they will likely do the same in return.
There are a couple of ways you need to stay up-to-date. First is with your technology, and second is with your appearance.
Yes, it really is that important to keep your plugins and blogging software up-to-date. Hosted platforms and many web design firms can handle this for you, but it is important that you keep up. The majority of the updates to WordPress address security concerns and bugs that have been found and by not updating (or having someone you trust update) you are leaving yourself vulnerable to hackers.
Also, your readers can tell that your website still parties like it’s 1999. And that is so not awesome. Visitors expect experts to keep up with changing technologies and design styles. That is not to say that you have to spend money on a redesign every year, but keep your eyes open because design trends change, and you need to be ready to upgrade when your site starts to look dated.
I am just going to highlight a couple of imperatives.
You need to inject a bit of yourself into your blogging. I don’t care if you are writing for a corporation; you need to be present in the writing. Giving your stories a human side and a real life context make you relatable. And yes, a little bit vulnerable. But that’s okay. I promise it will pay off.
A few ways I put myself out there: I shared with my readers some information about my health, a cake I ruined (I am supposed to be a professional!), just being silly, and a picture of my prom date and I at our 10 year reunion. I show them how I am human, they can relate to me and a connection is made.
As a designer, these are my two biggest pet peeves on the Internet. First, you can’t make images bigger. Once pixels are gone, they are gone. (Despite what you saw on CSI, you can’t do this unless you have hours, a supercomputer, and sophisticated software). If your image is tiny, find a different one – or roll with it – but don’t try to increase its size.
Second, you need to make your image fit your blog. If the image is too big for the space, and it sticks out and overlays content (see the image on the right) it looks like you broke your website (that’s bad!) Sometimes, an image is so large that it overwhelms everything else on the page, it just looks silly. Even if you don’t have fancy image editing software on your computer, a simple photo editor such as iPhoto or Picasa will work just fine. There are even free web-based image editors that you can use.
Really. Just write. You have something to say. If you are stuck for ideas, Andy Crestodina has some great tips on creating posts from content you already have.
How much fun you can have certainly depends on your topic and audience, but if blogging becomes a dreaded chore, your audience will be able to sense it. So make sure that you enjoy writing and that you enjoy your subject matter enough that you can think about it often.
If you had to give advice to bloggers what would your one piece of advice be?