People often ask what content management system (CMS) I recommend for blogging, and my answer is always the same: WordPress. The CMS not only works to manage your blog, but you can get creative and construct a marketing website on WordPress, as well. This flexibility, among other features, has led it to be the most-used CMS on the web today—nearly 50% of websites that use a CMS rely on WordPress.
It's also a great platform for SEO, according to Google's own Matt Cutts, who uses WordPress for his personal blog (over Google's Blogger platform). Plus, because of its popularity, there are an endless number of designs and plugins to choose from, along with developers who can help you implement and customize your WordPress blog to your heart's content.
With that in mind, as you set out, I'd recommend using WordPress.org to download WordPress and host the CMS yourself. Although using WordPress.com is a good alternative to having to maintain your blogging software, hosting it yourself will give you full control of everything, most especially design and functionality.
Without further ado, here are the top tips, tools, and resources you need to start a WordPress blog on the right foot.
Choosing a Domain
If you're just getting started, your first goal will be to choose a domain name. Your goal should be to get a .com name when possible. This is by far the most popular and memorable website TLD (top level domain) available to you.
KnowEm is a service that allows you to search for people using specific usernames. For example, let's say that you wanted to do some personal branding with your blog. You could enter your first name-last name combination (e.g. kristihines) to see what is available in the common domain name space.
In addition, you can use this service to see what is available on over 500 social networks. It can keep you from buying a domain name that you later can't match up to a Twitter profile, Facebook page, or other social media entity that's important to you.
Once you've decided on a domain, you will need to register it. Popular services for domain registration include NameCheap, GoDaddy, and Network Solutions. If you want to go with another domain registrar, be sure you check to see if they are accredited by ICANN.
Choosing a Hosting Company
Next on your to-do list is to choose a hosting company if you don't already have one. This is the company that will host your WordPress blog's software, database, and content.
There are lots of hosting companies to choose from, ranging from $2.99 per month to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month. Pricing generally depends on how much space you will need for files, how much traffic you anticipate that you will receive, and how many additional services you want to go along with your hosting account.
When researching popular hosting solutions, you'll always find people who love them as well as people who hate them. You'll rarely find a company that has nothing but great reviews.
Here are some tips on how to choose the best hosting company for your WordPress blog.
Look for hosting companies that have specific WordPress hosting solutions. They will be the ones that have the best server configurations and support specific to WordPress hosting needs. They will also be the ones most likely to offer one-click or automatic WordPress installation.
Find out what support options are available for support. Ideally, you will want to have at least one form of support that is available 24/7. Phone is best for emergencies, but help desks, contact forms, and chat are helpful as well.
Check out the hosting company on Twitter. Lots of people turn to Twitter to submit support requests – you'll want to find a host that is responding to these requests.
See what additional options are available to fit your needs. Does the host routinely backup your files? Can they help with security issues? Can they fully manage your WordPress software if you do not want to do this yourself?
Ask people you know who have self-hosted WordPress websites what host they use and what their experience has been, especially when problems arise.
Choosing Security and Backup Options
You have three options when it comes to the security and backup of your WordPress blog.
Choose a hosting company that will monitor your site's health for you and routinely backup your WordPress installation
Use WordPress plugins that will secure / monitor your website and create regular backups
Choose a service to handle these things for you
If you don't want to spend hours trying to remove malware from your WordPress website or scramble to update it again after your files get corrupted, then you will want a service to handle these things for you. If your host won't do it, here are two companies that will.
Sucuri offers security protection for your WordPress blog. They will scan your blog regularly for malware, clean up any malware or hacks that manage to break through, and remove your blog from blacklists if needed. The pricing for one website starts at $89.99 per year.
VaultPress (by the makers of WordPress) offers daily backups and automated restoration of your WordPress blog, from the software files to your database, themes, plugins, and uploads. The pricing for one website starts at $5 per month.
Having these two services provided by either your host or the companies mentioned above will give you the peace of mind that if something should happen to your WordPress blog, you'll have someone to turn to.
Choosing a Theme
WordPress themes allow you to change the design of your WordPress blog. Here are some tips for choosing the best WordPress theme for your blog.
Look for responsive themes. Responsive themes allow visitors to your website to see your blog content on any device including desktop, smartphone, and tablet browsers. Google also recommends using responsive design because it allows visitors to your website to have a great experience by serving the same URL for any device without redirects.
Look for theme creators / developers that offer support. This way, if you have any issues with installation, maintenance, or customization, they will be able to help (usually only available when you purchase a theme).
Look for themes packages if you plan to create more than one WordPress blog. This way, you can have lots of designs to choose from.
Look for themes that match your basic personal / business branding colors.
Popular premium WordPress theme providers include StudioPress, ElegantThemes, DIYThemes, Organic Themes, Press75, and Themeforest. You may also want to search for WordPress themes specific to your industry, such as ProPhoto and Photocrati for photographers.
If you want to go further and customize the look of your WordPress theme, but are not a designer, you can choose a theme and then find a developer that can customize it to match your brand. StudioPress, for example, offers a list of recommended developers.
Choosing Your Plugins
WordPress plugins allow you to enhance the functionality of your WordPress blog, from helping with spam to optimizing for search and social. While you don't want to overload your WordPress installation with too many plugins, you do want to make sure you have the essentials covered. Here are some top recommendations based on functionality.
Comment Moderation - Inevitably, if you have comments on your blog, you will receive spam. If you want to stick with the base WordPress comment system, then the plugins you'll need are Akismet and GASP. Both will help moderate comment spam. You can also reduce spam by using third party comment platforms such as Disqus and Livefyre.
Contact Form - Allow visitors to your website to contact you about your blog and your business by adding simple contact forms like Contact Form 7 to your blog, or a more advanced one like Gravity Forms or Formidable.
Content Optimization - Getting people to read more than just one post is the goal. Plugins like Yet Another Related Post Plugin will automatically create links to related posts, and SEO Smart Links will link to specific posts based on the keywords you set up.
Search Optimization - WordPress SEO by Yoast is everything you need when it comes to search optimizing your blog posts.
Social Optimization - Digg Digg is a popular social sharing plugin that will enable you to quickly put social sharing buttons in each of your posts. Be sure to enable at least use Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.
Speed Optimization - To keep your site ready for a heavy amount of incoming traffic, use W3 Total Cache. This will improve user experience and page speed, and is recommended by most popular WordPress hosting companies.
As you add plugins to your WordPress installation, look for the settings for each to configure them completely and correctly. Plugins that offer individual settings may appear under almost any of the menu items in the admin dashboard, but primarily show up under Tools, Settings, or in their own menu.
Importing Content to WordPress
If you are moving from one content management system to another and have content to import into your WordPress blog, then you will want to refer to the Importing Content section of the WordPress Codex. It includes directions for 50 popular blogging platforms including Blogger, Drupal, Joomla, Moveable Type, Ning, Tumblr, TypePad, and other WordPress sites.
Updating Your Settings
Inside your admin dashboard, you will see a settings menu. Here, you will find the main settings for your blog. In particular, you will want to check / modify the following.
General Settings - Update your site's title, tagline, and timezone.
Reading - Choose whether the front page of your blog will be a specific static page or your latest posts, select the number of posts to show in your RSS and homepage, and choose whether to offer the full text or summary of your posts in the RSS feed.
Discussion - If you are using the base WordPress comment system, be sure to check next to "comments must be manually approved" or "comment author must have a previously approved comment". Also indicate that any comment with a link should be held in moderation. These settings will prevent spammers from posting comments to your blog.
Permalinks - Make sure that your permalink structure (URL structure) is set up to show keywords from the title of the post / page, also known as the Post name setting. You may also choose custom structures that include the category of the post or date along with keywords from the title.
Setting Up Common Pages
Before you launch your blog and start publishing posts, you will want to add a few common pages to your site. These are ones that visitors expect to find for various reasons.
The basic two that apply to any blog are the About page and Contact page. Depending on your business, you may also want to add a Products, Services, or Hire Me page as well. As your blog grows, you may also want to add an Advertise page to earn revenue from ads, an Archives page to help organize content, and other pages that will help visitors find the things they want on your blog.
Setting Up Widgets
Last, but not least, you will want to set up your sidebar widgets. These should include a short paragraph about your blog, an opt-in form for your email list, social profile links so people can connect with you, and a list of recent or popular blog posts. As time goes on, you may also add advertising banners and other items.
Depending on your WordPress theme, you may also have widget options for specific areas on your blog such as the homepage and footer. Your WordPress theme should give you instructions on how to set these up.
Note that you don't want to be excessive with third party add-ons in your widgets. Anything that has to load from another website (such as a box that shows your latest tweets) might slow your blog down, so use your discretion.
Bonus: Adding Automation
Now that you have a WordPress blog launched, considering adding automation to your blogging workflow in order to make your time more effective. Here's a short list of automation that you can enable using Zapier, a tool that not only integrates with WordPress but plugins like Disqus, Gravity Forms and Formidable, as well.
Wrapping It Up
We hope that this guide will help you create a successful WordPress blog right from the start. If you have any other tips, tools, and resources that you recommend, please share them in the comments!
You might also enjoy this article: "Past the Pop-Up: 10 Email Marketing Tactics You've Never Tried".
Credits: Gear photo courtesy Sonny Abesamis