Web Development 300: Blogging

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Blogging, or web logging, is a significant form of online social media, having evolved from being simple online journals to sophisticated dynamic pages on which anything from recipes and reviews to breaking news is posted. In fact, some of the biggest stories recently covered by the mainstream media were first broken, or supplemented, by material provided by individuals via their blogs. Blogs have found a role in the corporate world too; for example, companies use blogs as a convenient way for their Marketing Departments to add up-to-date information to the company site without requiring advanced web page coding skills.

When it comes to the blogs of individuals, people blog for different reasons: some people blog to hone their writing skills, others because they are bursting with ideas they want to share with the world, others want an outlet for their creativity, while some may want to showcase their photography or document their travels. Whatever the reason, most people are enthusiastic about their blogs; they do not feel it is one more chore they have to do. I think--overall--most people blog because they enjoy doing it.

In addition to the personal benefits, blogs can also serve a practical purpose: supplementing another website. For example, say you have a website that includes some sophisticated features: it accesses a database, some PHP and JavaScript scripts are coded in the pages, the CSS is just right, etc. The website is finished and works perfectly. Now you'd like to be able to make frequent small updates to the site without having to code a brand-new standalone web page, or risk making changes that could affect the existing pages. A blog serves this purpose nicely; once it is set up, you just have to write the material, post it, and you are done. You could, for instance, make a brief post in the blog to advise visitors what upcoming trade shows your company will be attending.

Another application: say the main website includes several Java applets. Instructions for how to use the applets, some background and history of their development, a chronological record of version updates, etc. can be provided in a blog post, and the main website can direct visitors to that post if they need that information. That way, new users have the option to read about the applets but returning users, who already have experience with the applets and know how to use them, don't have to scroll down, say, two pages of instructions each time they want to use the applets; the main site remains succinct, fast-loading, and focused on the task at hand.

Regardless of the reasons for having a blog, it also yields traffic-building/SEO benefits. These benefits may come from having a link in (i) the Permalinks section of the blog, (ii) the body of a post itself, or (iii) your Profile. I caution readers not to abuse these options. If you include a link to another site in most--or all--of your posts, visitors will recognize your blog for what it is: a blatant ploy to post links to another site while offering nothing of value. If you decide to start a blog, I recommend that you work on it as if it were an independent site, and develop it to become a high-quality resource on its own.

A Preliminary Step to Starting a Blog: Write Several Posts

Many resources exist for blogging; however, before rushing into it, I recommend starting your word processor and writing at least ten blog posts. Save each post as a separate file. If you can't write ten posts, or if you can write ten but then find yourself struggling to write further material, that is a good indication that you will run out of ideas quickly. In this case, you may want to reconsider your plan to start a blog. There is no point creating a blog that will quickly die due to a lack of material; too many abandoned blogs already litter the Internet. On the other hand, if you have no problem writing ten posts, and your creative juices continue to flow, charge ahead!

Writing Posts

I write blog posts in a word processor, and they usually go through several drafts before being posted. I also highlight all the words that are italicized. When the article is ready to be posted, I first copy and paste it into a plaintext editor to strip out all the formatting. Then I copy and paste the article from the plaintext editor into the blog. That way, I don't have to worry about different font sizes or styles being copied into the blog. Finally, I review the article in the word processor and make sure all the right words are italicized (the highlighting in the original document makes this step easy.)

How long should each post be? There is no definite answer. If you ask ten different bloggers, you'll get ten different answers. I think it should be as long as necessary to cover the topic as thoroughly as you think necessary--without losing focus. If you write a draft and then, as you are reading it, notice it tends to ramble and bounce between topics, that suggests breaking the post into multiple posts and dealing with each of those topics separately. My own practice is to try to keep each post to less than five pages (in the word processor), which is about 2000 words. If a post gets too long, readers may get impatient and not finish reading it. So if a post gets too long, consider breaking it up into multiple posts, each with finer focus than the original.

Another tip: if you are planning to send your blog feed out to RSS streams, you might want to avoid the inclusion of special characters or symbols in the post titles. Special characters may not display properly in whatever outlet they are being fed into; the title may look like gibberish. For example, sometimes a hyphen (-) in the title does not display correctly in the recipient page; however, a colon (:) in the title does display properly.

Finding a Home for Your Blog: Self-Hosted or Third-Party Hosted?

Once you are confident that you will have enough material to keep a blog going for a while, and are enthusiastic to get started, your next step is to find a home for it. There are many options to consider. First of all, do you want the blog hosted on your own domain (self-hosted) as part of a website you already own and maintain? Or do you want to use a service provided by a third party (third-party hosted)? Both options offer a wide variety of resources to help you improve the look and functionality of your blog. Let's consider each of these options in more detail.

Self-hosted Blog

If you already have a website, or plan to create one, and would like to host the blog on the same domain, you would be taking the self-hosted option. In this case, you will have to build and administer the blog yourself. Perhaps that is something you want to do; some people want to learn the technical aspects of operating a self-hosted blog. By setting up and maintaining a self-hosted blog, they acquire skills and experience they can put on their resume or include in their portfolio. If you seriously want to become a web developer, it is good experience to have. If a potential employer asks if you are familiar with WordPress, you can honestly say yes, because you have experience from your own blog.

To build the blog itself, there are many resources available. If you want a challenge, you could code the blog from scratch yourself. Alternately, there are many third-party blog packages available that help you get a blog up and running quickly. For example, WordPress is popular. If your web host supports the requirements, the software could be downloaded and installed and you would have a blog up and ready to use immediately. In addition, a wide variety of templates, add-ons, and plug-ins are available to further enhance your site. In addition to WordPress, several other software products are available that make it easy to create a blog, for example, Drupal and Joomla are popular software products. They are CMS software packages, not for the specific purpose of creating blogs--the ability to use these products for blogging is more of an extra.

Another factor to consider: any material posted on a self-hosted blog remains your property. Some bloggers swear that, come Hell or High Water, a writer should never give away their content by posting it on a third-party hosted service. For this reason, they insist a serious writer should always keep their material on a domain they own.

Third-party Hosted Blog

On the other hand, some people do not want to deal with the administrative or technical aspects of a blog. They'd rather jump in and start writing as quickly and easily as possible. In this case, the blogger might prefer a third-party hosting service; no web domain to purchase, no FTP software required, very little technical expertise necessary, etc. All a person has to do is write.

Like the self-hosted route, many options and resources are available for the third-party hosted route. In addition to the software that WordPress offers for self-hosted blogs, they also offer a hosted option on wordpress.com. It is free; a person need only sign up with a user name and password, and can start writing immediately. Like the self-hosted option, many resources are available for enhancing the appearance and functionality of the blog; templates, add-ons, and plug-ins are all available from a multitude of sources.

In addition to WordPress, following are several services that offer third-party hosted blogging: Blogger, Tumblr, and Typepad. Furthermore, many hosting services exist for blogs whose posts tend to fit within a particular field of interest, for example, Edublogs, Research Blogging, and Scientopia. Perhaps you can find a hosting service into which the theme of your blog would fit nicely.

Building Traffic to a Blog

Neither the type of hosting (i.e. - self-hosted or third-party hosted) nor its platform (e.g. Blogger or WordPress) makes any difference in terms of SEO factors or the development of traffic. If the blog offers good content, people are going to read it, visit it, link to it, promote it, etc. On the contrary, if it doesn't offer good content, they won't. If fifty people know about your blog and visit it, changing it from Blogger to WordPress, or vice versa, doesn't mean that suddenly one-hundred people are going to know about your blog and visit it. Likewise, if you pay for an advertising campaign, that additional traffic is going to come to the blog regardless of whether it is on Blogger or WordPress.

Traffic growth can be hastened by the same techniques used for a regular site: getting backlinks, directory submission, guest blogging, commenting on the blogs of other people, etc. Getting backlinks and directory submission are self-explanatory, and those topics have been discussed in previous posts, so I won't discuss them further here. However, I would like to elaborate somewhat on the other two techniques.

Guest Posting

Guest posting refers to the submission of posts for publication on somebody else's blog. For example, you might have an idea for a topic that doesn't fit into the theme of your own blog, but it would fit nicely into the theme of another blog. In this case, you might consider not publishing the post on your own blog but, instead, submit it to the other blog for publication.

The potential benefits of guest posting are: (i) you have created a link to your blog on another blog, (ii) the post fits into the theme of the other blog better than it would fit into your own, and (iii) the other blog may have more traffic than your own. Plus, the admin of the other blog is also trying to promote their blog so, in a sense, whatever they do to promote their blog also helps to market yours. More importantly, you have provided something of value to the other blogger instead of trying to simply build up a collection of cheap links. So, if you have an idea for a one-of-a-kind post on a very specific topic, but hesitate to write it because it would stick out like a sore thumb on your own blog, go ahead and write the post anyhow, ensure it is top-quality work, and then submit it to a blog in which it would be better suited--you have nothing to lose, but may gain some benefits.

Blog Commenting

Most blogs allow readers to make comments about a post so, if you read other people's blogs, commenting is another way in which to draw traffic to your own. Sometimes a link can be added right in the body of a comment--if it is directly applicable to the post. However, more often than not a link cannot be included in a comment; in this case, readers can still find their way to your blog through your author profile. If you have created an author profile that includes your blog URL, and log in to this profile before posting comments, it is accessible to anybody reading your comment, and from your profile, visitors may visit your blog.

I would like to point out that most blog comments are no-follow, so blog commenting offers almost no benefit in terms of PageRank. However, your goal should be to increase awareness of your blog among an audience interested in the topic. Don't spend any time thinking about whether or not comments are no-follow or not. To paraphrase comments made in my previous post, you should be looking for blogs relevant to your own interests and expertise. Then you can participate in a genuine way and provide useful information that is directly applicable to the post. Since other readers of the blog have a similar interest, they are more likely to be interested in your blog; perhaps they would add a Permalink to it in their own blog, add it to their blogroll, or write a blog post that mentions your work. The benefit is that you have made other people aware of work similar to their own. The point to keep in mind is that your goal is to make positive, genuine, contributions to another person's blog, not to spam by making scores of meaningless comments all over the blogosphere.

Before concluding this post, I would like to share an insight I read many years ago:

     "Writing is like having surgery: it is what you do when something
     inside of you has to come out. "

I do not remember the exact words, or who said them, but I agree with the sentiment, and it stuck in my head. If you feel like you are bursting with ideas that need to come out then, by all means, put your thoughts down in writing. Going a step further, making your work public, serves the purpose of sharing ideas, and a blog is an excellent medium for doing so.

In addition to being an outlet for your ideas, a blog can attract web traffic to itself or to another web site and, in this regard, the best action you can take is to make it a blog that people want to visit. If you are happy, stimulated, and passionate, it will come through in your writing; readers will pick up on your enthusiasm and your readership will grow. On the other hand, if you just sit around your room all day, don't stimulate or challenge yourself, aren't passionate about anything that, too, will be reflected in your writing: nobody will want to read you. Blogs can, indeed, provide SEO benefits to a website, but blogs with that as their fundamental reason for being tend to be poorly written and have few readers--in the end, virtually no SEO benefits. SEO motives should not be your main reason for having a blog--any SEO benefit received from a blog is icing on the cake. So, keep feeding your passions: get out, live life, and write about it.