Blogging for authors – should you be self-hosted? Part 2: two bloggers who favour self-hosting

Yesterday I discussed why an author might not want to self-host their blog and how to make the best of platform-hosted blogging. But many authors strongly advocate self-hosting – so today I’m going to ask two of them why.

First up is author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Joanna has built a formidable following among writers who want to take charge of their publishing careers and make the best of what the internet can offer. She also develops multimedia courses and she’s hit the bestseller lists with her two thrillers.

Joanna, why did you chose self-hosting?
I have control over everything – including affiliate sales and plugins that you can’t use on free blogs. Google takes you more seriously so you get better SEO results and rank better on Google.

You use a paid-for theme, don’t you? Why?
I use Thesis, which has SEO design in the back end and is very easy to customise so it looks professional. I model success and all the top blogs are self-hosted and use premium or custom design themes. Why look like a second-rate blog?

Is self-hosting and/or using a paid-for theme more hassle? Do you need to be more tech literate?
I have Joel the Blog Tech guy as help but once the site is set up, the back end is the same as WordPress. So no, you don’t have to be tech literate.

How much does this all cost you?
My hosting is less than USD $10 per month, my premium theme was USD $70.

How much do novel-writers need to worry about search engine optimisation (SEO) and what key things should they do?
You need basic SEO – good site design, so that spiders can crawl you. Free themes have a particular SEO rating and my first blog was really crappy for this until I learned about it. Then you should use an SEO plugin. I use All-in-One SEO. Also you should use consistent keywords for your niche and have a lot of relevant content.

My second self-hosted blogger is Jane Friedman, web editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Jane is a former publisher at Writer’s Digest and a prolific and respected speaker on writing, publishing, and the future of media. Her expertise has been featured by sources such as NPR’s Morning Edition, Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, PBS, The Huffington Post, and Mr. Media. She has consulted with a range of nonprofits, businesses, and creative professionals, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Work Fund, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

Jane, prevailing wisdom seems to be that self-hosted is always better. Why is this?
Because not self-hosting means:

  • You’ll have a weaker functioning site overall (customisation is usually quite limited)
  • You rarely have access to advanced analytics unless you’re allowed to install Google Analytics (which can be important, see below)
  • You’re not fully in control of what happens to your site. Over time, services ARE discontinued, bought, changed, etc.

Are these considerations relevant to novelists?
If you’re planning to be a novelist for life, yes. You should be concerned about the long-term potential, growth, and stability of your site.

Whether self-hosted or not, why might authors use a paid-for or upgraded theme – apart from being able to look distinctive? How much does it generally cost?
The cost is very little (generally less than USD $100), given that a premium theme offers robust or improved functionality, as well as better looks (and often better readability). Also, premium themes generally have better SEO tools.

How much do novelists need to worry about SEO? Do readers really find them through Google searches?
If readers buy your book, or hear about your book through any medium, they might be likely to google your name – in which case, your site should be easily found. Often, you don’t have to ‘worry’ about SEO for this to happen as long as your site meets basic standards (usually the case with any premium-theme sites) and you don’t have an exceptionally common name.

I like to say that if no one can find you through Google, it’s like you don’t exist.

Is Google all there is to SEO? What key things should writers do to increase visibility?
Not exactly, but Google is 70% of the search market. The best thing to do is to use a premium theme that focuses on SEO, which will help ensure your site is looking its best when search engine crawlers visit.

This is my SEO strategy – how does it look to you? I write attention-grabbing headlines with key words, and use plenty of tags, including my name, my book titles and keywords for my subject area (in this case ‘writing a novel’).
This looks fine! There are other steps, such as making sure your site’s meta title, meta description, and meta tags are appropriate for the type of reader you’re trying to attract. These things are also adjustable on a post-by-post basis if you’re blogging. When you get a premium theme focused on SEO, generally these fields are available for you to adjust as needed. It helps you customise what exactly appears when your single posts (or when your site) comes up in Google search (site title, site description, brief description of post, etc).

How can writers check how well their measures are working?
You can tell whether your efforts are working if you improve your search ranking for your name or book titles (how high in the listings you appear), and/or if you see your organic search results increase—something you can watch, over time, in Google Analytics.

……

Thanks Joanna and Jane – and thanks also to Catherine Ryan Howard for helping me argue for platform-hosted blogs yesterday.

Anything to add? Cautionary tales, theories…. has your mind been changed by anything you’ve read here? I’m sticking with WordPress hosting for now, but Jane’s suggestions have sent me back to my site descriptions to make them work harder at grabbing readers. If you’re going to do anything new, tell me in the comments!

If you’re new to blogging and want some basics, you might find this post of mine helpful – How I get time to blog as well as write  and Your new writing blog: avoid these faux-pas.

If you are thinking of upgrading to a bespoke theme, you might like this by Dan Blank – How I redesigned my website.

Joanna has scores of helpful posts about blogging – starting here. (And we’ve joined forces to create a multimedia course How To Write A Novel. More than 4 hours of video and audio with 86-page transcription and slides)


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  1. #1 by Glynis Smy on July 9, 2012 - 9:00 am

    Interesting posts. I am considering a new website. I am also considering moving my blog to WordPress, my Google blog has been frustrating me for some time now, and I am on the point of … grrrrrr.

    Thanks for sharing both sides of hosting. Food for thought all round.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 9, 2012 - 1:40 pm

      Hi Glynis – I didn’t know you could blog through Google. You probably get some kind of advantage for the dreaded SEO by blogging with them – or at least I’m told that you get a search advantage for being on Google +, even if you don’t do much with it. I’m assuming the same rules might apply for its blog. But I’m very happy with WordPress – and you might be able to import your old blog’s material into it as well (there’s a handy ‘import’ function on the dashboard). If I can be of any more help – with my limited experience – do let me know!

  2. #3 by Dom Camus on July 9, 2012 - 10:28 am

    Overall there seem to be two key points here:

    1) Self-hosted sites can be made to look nicer. This is a big advantage, but only if you have the money (or design skills) to actually use this extra freedom. To my eye, all four of the writers involved the debate have clean, functional but fairly bland sites. I definitely wouldn’t pick the self-hosted ones out as looking better.

    2) Jane Friedman makes what might be the only genuinely valid point I’ve ever seen in favour of SEO: a web search for your name must return your page. So I gave this a quick try with Catherine Ryan Howard and Roz Morris and… top hits in both cases even without self-hosting.

    So what it seems to come down to is: know your own requirements. If your name is “Jane Smith” or you want a page that looks like something from CSS Zen Garden or affiliate income is important to you then self-hosting looks better. If not, it doesn’t seem worth the risks.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 9, 2012 - 1:37 pm

      Canny summary, Dom – and thanks for doing the Google test for us!

    • #5 by Glynis Smy on July 9, 2012 - 3:12 pm

      It is via Blogspot, and you can now link it to the G+ group. I am so comfortable with how I can upload, that I am reluctant to move. However, I find I spend hours waiting for the blips to iron out. I understand I can move posts over. I might simply add a ‘I have moved’ link, and set up fresh postings. My patience is running out, so each day I glean info about WP and Websites. My blog is prominent in the Google listing, and only costs me $10 per YEAR for http://www.glynissmy.com so shouldn’t really complain.

  3. #6 by Grace on July 9, 2012 - 2:04 pm

    I go with free hosting, but that’s partly because I’m still in grad school and can’t guarantee 100% that I’ll always have money to pay for themes/hosting. Once I’m a bit more stable then I might consider switching to self-hosting, but for now this works for me. I’m weird though. I enjoy the limitations of the free WordPress sites because I think that they force bloggers to use themes that look more clean-cut and professional.

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 9, 2012 - 2:12 pm

      Hi Grace! Finances are an important consideration, whether you’re a student or an earning writer. There are so many services you could spend money on if you’re an author, so as far as I’m concerned every penny has to be worth it.
      Interesting point about the limitations of the free themes – although some of them look decidedly unprofessional for writers. But you can do a lot to personalise simply with your choice of photos.

  4. #8 by Stacy Green on July 9, 2012 - 2:35 pm

    Great post, Roz. My tech-wiz hubby is in the process of creating a new website for me at my domain name, and then he’ll roll the blog into that. I don’t understand how it works, but thankfully he does, and Joanna and Jane are great examples.

  5. #10 by tomburkhalter on July 9, 2012 - 5:14 pm

    Good post! The bit about whether or not you’re in it (i.e., writing, esp. novels) for life struck home with me. That’s a good bit to think about. Out of curiosity I googled my name … and I guess I actually exist! ;) Thanks again!

  6. #12 by Jami Gold on July 9, 2012 - 5:20 pm

    Hi Roz,

    Ooo, yes, I knew this would be a great article. Okay, let me touch on some of the issues here…

    Google-ability:
    Yes, a self-hosted blog with a premium theme will help you gain search results beyond your name. However, many authors aren’t blogging with topics to reach out to a wider audience anyway. So if all you’re worried about is someone finding you by searching for your name, then the most important considerations are: 1) unique name, 2) blog (over just a website–Google gives preference to blogs over static websites just because their bots have to crawl over it looking for updates more often), and 3) everything else. Any basic SEO will get a writer to come up on page one of a Google search for their name if the first two items are in place.
    The real place SEO is important is in attracting readers searching for things beyond your name/blog name, and this depends on the content of your blog. As Jane mentioned, good premium themes do all the behind the scenes meta field population for you, and you have to worry about meta data only if you want to add searchability beyond the words you use in your post (for example, adding the spelled out version of an acronym you used in the post).
    I think Google-ability will become one of the main reasons for authors to use pen names, as they want to grab all the virtual real estate (blog URL, Twitter handles, Pinterest usernames, etc.) associated with their author name. (I did a post about Google-ability here: http://jamigold.com/2011/06/branding-101-be-google-able/)

    Control:
    I think Jane summed up this issue well when she said, “You’re not fully in control of what happens to your site. Over time, services ARE discontinued, bought, changed, etc.”
    As a non-Blogger person, I’ve already seen the effects of this when Google discontinued allowing Google Friend Connect on non-Blogger blogs. I know of tons of blogs that had used GFC as the main method for “capturing” their readers, getting people to sign up for their newsletters, etc. Instantly, those thousands of readers were gone, with no real way to get them back.
    I don’t want my newsletter signups to be dependent on a service that might go away. And that means installing a plugin that will capture the names and emails in a database that goes into *my* domain space. And that means going self-hosted so I can use plugins. Even if that plugin stops being updated, I will never lose the data I have.
    Every time we go with “free,” we give up control in some way. And I’m not trying to link spam your blog comments, Roz, but if people are interested in this subject, they might want more information about the tradeoffs :) I did a post about this ownership issue here: http://jamigold.com/2012/02/goodbye-google-friend-connect-now-what/

    Premium Themes:
    Like Joanna, I use Thesis. My web host (@Techsurgeons or @jaytechdad on Twitter) includes Thesis for all their full-support customers. As Joanna said, once the site is set up, the day to day usage (replying to comments, adding new posts, etc.) is the same as basic WordPress. So someone could pay for a one-time design if they didn’t want to bother with the setup learning curve.

    I hope that helps your readers, Roz. Thanks for a great series! (And I can try to answer any questions if your readers have them. :) )

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 9, 2012 - 5:26 pm

      Jami, what a wealth of info. You’re not spamming at all – this is relevant and useful info! You’d better check back again to see if there are more questions I can’t answer!

      • #14 by Jami Gold on July 9, 2012 - 5:39 pm

        Will do, Roz. :) I’m happy to help!

  7. #15 by DRMarvello on July 9, 2012 - 6:05 pm

    All four of your examples demonstrate how there are many degrees of hosting. You don’t necessarily have to accept the vanilla installations you get with WordPress.com. You can pay extra for enhanced services and flexibility. You can also get a hosted solution with a provider who specializes in WordPress blogs and will help you fully customize your blog. Is it truly a “hosted” blog if you have full control over it? Likewise, if you outsource all the technical aspects of setting up and maintaining your blog, is that truly self hosting?

    It seems to me that the main difference between getting a hosted solution and self-hosting is that with self-hosting, you are the person who installs, configures, and customizes the software on the web server. Anything else is outsourcing the operation of your blog, and at that point, I would argue that the difference between hosted and self-hosted is minimal. Yes, web services do change over time, but unless you run your own web server farm, you face that issue wherever your sites are located, “hosted” or not.

    Joanna and Jane are doing something that many authors are not prepared to do: they have invested money in their blog. Unless Joel the Blog Tech Guy works for free, I’m betting Joanna has paid more than $10/month and $70 for a premium theme.

    I would argue that the most important thing blog owners can do is get a custom domain name and point that domain at their blog. From that point on, it doesn’t matter where you take your site, people will continue to find it. Even if you use a fully hosted solution at Blogger.com or WordPress.com, you should get a domain name for your blog. That step alone will give you all the flexibility you need for the future, even if you decide to take your content to another platform or hosting company.

    • #16 by Jami Gold on July 9, 2012 - 7:00 pm

      Hi DR,

      I see what you’re saying, but everyone knows that when we say “self-hosted,” we don’t mean that we actually have our own web server farm in our home office. :) The important distinction with self-hosting (through a hosting company) is the level of ownership and control. However, we do have to choose our hosting company carefully, as all the control and backups in the world won’t help if they disappear overnight and take all their equipment with them. As with all things, we should ask around and get recommendations.

      As for the price issue, I can only speak for the hosting company I use, but TechSurgeons’s full-support option is $15/mo (or $150/yr if you pay all at once). That prices includes web hosting, the premium Thesis theme, any URL forwarding you need (forwarding one domain to another), whois shielding (so people can’t look up your home address from your domain name registration), the ability to do all the customization you want, daily backups, etc. Obviously, if you hired a design company to help you with the initial setup, that would be a separate cost. So yes, it *does* cost something, but Joanna’s costs are what you could expect to pay.

      That said, as I mentioned in my comment yesterday and above, if someone just wants readers to be able find them when they do a Google search on their name, then you’re absolutely right that a free WordPress.com blog using their author name for the blog title and URL will be enough. It is a choice about how much we want to control and invest in our platform. And I’d be the last person to say that *everyone* should go self-hosted. :)

  8. #17 by Laura Pep Wu on July 11, 2012 - 10:00 pm

    Great discussion and topic. I started with .com, now I’m self-hosted and wouldn’t look back :) I wrote about the differences between WordPress.com & WordPress.org here as well as my experience with the two here: http://www.30daybooks.com/in-a-nutshell-the-difference-between-wordpress-com-and-wordpress-org/ Thanks for starting a fab discussion Roz!

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