You must self-host. You mustn’t use an off-the-peg theme. You mustn’t, on pain of ethernal damnation, have links in blue Times Roman.
There’s a lot of strident advice about blogging. Even that remark about blue Times Roman came from serious advice on a high-profile site trying to tell quivering newbies what they should do. Perhaps blue links matter in some quarters, but what matters to an author who wants to connect with readers? Should you be spending money on hosting, and on customised, SEO-friendly blog themes?
Today and tomorrow I’m going to examine both sides of the electric fence. Four bloggers, evenly split between self-hosted and not. On the ‘not’ side are me and Catherine Ryan Howard. On the self-hosting side are writer and author entrepreneur Joanna Penn and digital publishing guru Jane Friedman.
In a way I speak from both sides. I started with a self-hosted blog, when a friend insisted I camp out in a corner of his webspace (because he felt it was infra dig to be anything but self-hosted). And it didn’t go well. More about that in a moment.
You’ve lost me already. What does all this mean?
Quick tutorial – your blog is kept on a server so anyone in the world can read it and lots of people can access it at the same time. With self-hosting, you pay for disk space (also known as a domain) and you can put whatever you like on it – blog software of your choice, websites, pay buttons, video, anything. With platform-hosted, like WordPress.com and Blogger, your files are kept by WordPress and Blogger, you can’t customise the design or have pay buttons or video – although paid upgrades will allow some features. It’s like the difference between renting a house – with landlord’s furniture and rules – and owning the whole space outright.
Just to confuse you, there’s a version of WordPress for use on self-hosted blogs – WordPress.org.
With freedom comes responsibility
The biggest difference between the two is, obviously, freedom. This can go rather wrong. When I was self-hosted, I imported a cool plugin that broke my entire blog. I would never have got up again if not for (another) expert friend who was prepared to poke around the upper, scary database levels and unravel the damage. (Note to self: self-hosting is not for the insanely curious.)
The other problem is security. Most blogging systems are open source – which means the code is available for anyone to read, and hackers can find the loopholes easily. WordPress.com and Blogger don’t let you change anything that threatens security, but on self-hosted blogs there are no padlocks. My self-hosted blog got hacked – which might or might not have been because I was sharing with a friend of less secure habits. But after the stress of that I decided I was out of my depth and didn’t have time to sort out software and security headaches. I rebooted on WordPress.com, which has been able to do everything I need.
Obviously you don’t want your blog to look like everyone else’s, but there are only a limited number of visual templates (themes). However, there’s a lot you can do to customise. My blogs all use the same template, Fusion, which I’ve tweaked with my own headers and logos. You can buy upgrades to let you customise even more, but everything I’ve done is free.
But themes aren’t just about the blog’s appearance. Themes also allow you to draw in new readers through the hocus-pocus of SEO – search engine optimisation.
Here, the paid-for themes have an advantage as they are designed to worm their way more effectively into search pathways. Tomorrow I’ll discuss this in more detail with Jane and Joanna, but there are ways you can optimise your free non-self-hosted blog:
- use attention-grabbing headlines with key words
- optimise post URLs – Google looks at post URLs, so I make sure mine show the headline, not the post date or number. Your blog will probably have an option for changing this
- use plenty of tags – you’ll see my posts all have shoals of tags, including my name, my book titles, and general tags like ‘write a novel’. Those tags are not for you, reading this page – you already know every post is related to writing novels. Those tags are for Google. Make sure each post contains the keywords for the specific post and the keywords for your blog in general.
Buy a URL
I also bought my own general blog URL and pointed it to the free one. The rationale is that when someone hears about you they search for you.com or yourbook.com. (It’s usually .com they plump for first, even if you’re as English as Earl Grey tea). So the actual web address of this blog is nailyournovel.wordpress.com but for a few dollars I bought nailyournovel.com and through a very easy process, pointed it at this blog. I did it for My Memories of a Future Life too.
Anyway, I promised you a second opinion on platform-hosted blogs, so here’s Catherine Ryan Howard, of the indefatigable and unfatiguable Catherine, Caffeinated…
How did you start?
‘I started off with Blogger.com, but I always felt there was something about Blogger templates that said ‘amateur’. This was back in late 2009 so chances are they’ve improved since then but when I went to WordPress, it felt like a whole new level of professionalism and the choice of themes was just fantastic. I think it’s a credit to WordPress that I’ve had enquiries about who designed my blog – people think it’s been done professionally but it’s a free WordPress theme (Bueno) I love how easy WordPress.com blogs are to use, how easy it is to integrate them with the rest of your online activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc) And my all-time fave WP feature is their custom menu, which enables you to link to external sites (or wherever you like) from the menu at the top. For example, on top of my blog I have a ‘newsletter’ tab, and when you click it on it, you’re brought to the MailChimp sign up form.’
Is there anything you pay for?
‘The only thing I pay for is the domain upgrade, i.e. www.catherineryanhoward.com instead of www.catherineryanhoward.wordpress.com.’
What limitations are there on a WordPress-hosted blog?
‘Paypal buttons is the big thing – you can’t sell anything on your WP blog although you can have a donate button.’ (editor’s ahem!… it’s possible to fudge it – see the How To Write A Novel course in my sidebar…)
‘Also a lot of external widgets don’t work. BUT I think this is a tiny price to pay for such a great, easy service that lets me have a professional home online for very little cost.’
What about SEO?
‘I don’t worry about SEO at all. Not one tiny bit. Maybe I should, but I’m quite happy with the way things are for me and my blog at the moment. The only thing I want – and I have it – is for my blog to be the first result when people google my name. I think if your blog is the core of your business, you should worry about things like that. But for a writer, their books are the core – or should be, anyway.’
Roz again… I couldn’t agree more. So here are my tips for making the most of a non-self-hosted blog, if we can use such a horrible term…
- Tag your posts with an eye on SEO
- Get your own URL
- Check your URLs show your post headline, not just a date or a post number
- Find a theme that you can shape to look distinctive (so people really feel it’s your online home)
- Remember your online presence isn’t just a blog – you reach much further if you use social media as well.
If you blog, what platform do you use and why? Do you have any thoughts on self-hosted versus platform hosted? Share in the comments…. and come back tomorrow when Jane Friedman and Joanna Penn give their reasons for self-hosting.
The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book! You can read it here and you can add your name to the mailing list here.