Designing a Blog

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Designing a Blog

Postby MattLarkin » 31 Aug 2011, 08:16

I've seen lots of talk about developing a blog following, which is great. But what about some more on the physical design of a blog?

Currently I'm using Wordpress but I was able to seamlessly replace my existing website and purchased domain with it on GoDaddy. I have experience with web design, but none with blogs. So I'm seeking advice on how to find and customize a good theme.

What features, plugins, or widgits are the most important?

Other advice?

I've noticed I get a huge amount of spam comments, such that I had to turn on comment moderation for the first time someone posts. And still I get way more spam than real posts, but at least now only I see them. Is this a problem for everyone?
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby Sommer Leigh » 31 Aug 2011, 08:38

I could talk about this topic for ever and ever and ever. I'll try to be brief :-)

Wordpress and Blogger both have excellent spam control - so if you're getting spam in your comments, there's something not configured right. The spam should be filling up your spam folder only. Wordpress uses Akismet so I'd check out your settings for that. I don't use free wordpress anymore so I can't remember what this looks like on the free side, but I can check into it tonight when I'm at home if you want me to.

If you're using free Wordpress, you don't have access to plugins created by anyone but wordpress staff. If you end up moving to Wordpress.org and self hosting your site, you'll hvae access to a HUGE library of plugins, and I can give you some good recommendations as well as sites with good plugin reviews.

Deciding what you need on your blog is easy - go check out all the blogs you really love to read and see what they have. Then copy what they do. You're not cheating :-) Most blogs have similar, if not the exact same, layout and information on them. People come to expect this. People know that there should be a short blurb about the blogger in one of the sidebars. THey know that there should be a FriendConnect box there too. Here are a few tips though:

1) Make sure your name is in the little profile box on the sidebar, even if it is other places in your blog, this is where people go to look at who you are and how to spell your name.
2) Make sure your email address is there too.
3) Include easy, graphical links to your rss feed (so people can add you to their feed readers) Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and/or whatever other social sites they can find you at.
4) Whatever is in the top half of your blog that shows up on a normal monitor screen without scrolling is the most important information on your blog. It's the snap shot people will look at to decide if they are going to stay or not. If there is any information in this snapshot that you feel is unnecessary, move it down.
5) I see your blog is a black background with white text. Take caution with this. For quick updates it's no big deal, but studies show that people have a hard time reading white text on black background - it puts a lot of strain on the eye and some readers won't come back if it's too tough to read. The ideal is usually black lettering on a light background, but the colors are up for debate so long as it's dark writing on light background. Stay away from yellow as it also causes more eye strain than other colors.
6) Don't worry too much about how your blog looks, concentrate on content and developing a habitual schedule. Your blog will morph as you do. I've gone through many designs and I will probably go through many more.
7) Useful Widgets: Calendar and Archives. Most people don't care about recent comments but if you have access to a widget that shows your most popular posts, that can be very useful.
8) Keep it clean. It can be tempting to fill up your sidebars with awards and buttons and other ephemera, but don't. The more cluttered the harder it is to read. Put only the most relevant and useful to your readers and keep it up to date. Put other stuff on a different page.
9) There aren't any rules. These are just guidelines and ideas, but anything goes. Really it does. When I give advice about blogs and when I build them for people, I always encourage people to do things they like about other blogs. THinking as a reader is the best way to make YOUR readers happy.

I have a series on my blog called College of Blogging where there's lots of good info, if you're interested.
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby MattLarkin » 31 Aug 2011, 09:02

Thanks Sommer, that's a big help.

Sommer Leigh wrote:If you're using free Wordpress, you don't have access to plugins created by anyone but wordpress staff. If you end up moving to Wordpress.org and self hosting your site, you'll hvae access to a HUGE library of plugins, and I can give you some good recommendations as well as sites with good plugin reviews.


Now I already have a domain name: mattlarkin.net. If I were to move to WordPress.org (assuming I was willing to pay how much?), how would that work? Would I keep the same domain?


Why is Calendar useful?
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby Sommer Leigh » 31 Aug 2011, 09:40

MattLarkin wrote:Thanks Sommer, that's a big help.

Sommer Leigh wrote:If you're using free Wordpress, you don't have access to plugins created by anyone but wordpress staff. If you end up moving to Wordpress.org and self hosting your site, you'll hvae access to a HUGE library of plugins, and I can give you some good recommendations as well as sites with good plugin reviews.


Now I already have a domain name: mattlarkin.net. If I were to move to WordPress.org (assuming I was willing to pay how much?), how would that work? Would I keep the same domain?


Why is Calendar useful?


You would keep your own domain name, you'd just purchase hosting by another company. For example, I use AN Hosting because they have a built in support for Wordpress blogs. It walks you through the steps of setting up your domain with your wordpress.org site. It's pretty much a website/blog, and it looks like regular free Wordpress but with a LOT more options. That is both good and bad - you have to go out and find a template you like made by someone else and there are thousands of them out there, most free, some are professionally designed. It's all pretty easy but overwelming at first. If you have a wordpress.org site you can use the Google Friend Connect and other flash based widgets.

Having the little calendar widget somewhere, either in the footer or on the sidebar, is nice for readers who are like "Last monday Matt had this great blog post I want to link to," and they can click right on the date. The calendar also shows which days you've posted on by making them hyperlink blue. Readers surf blogs differently and some people prefer this method. It's not necessary to have available, but I personally lean toward having as many options for readers as possible when it comes to accessing my posts.
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby MattLarkin » 31 Aug 2011, 10:41

Sommer Leigh wrote:You would keep your own domain name, you'd just purchase hosting by another company. For example, I use AN Hosting because they have a built in support for Wordpress blogs. It walks you through the steps of setting up your domain with your wordpress.org site.

Well, my hosting is still good for another 11 months or so. So I'm not sure, though it sounds very tempting.
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby MattLarkin » 01 Sep 2011, 15:42

Okay, so I already had hosting with GoDaddy.com from when I bought my domain name. That's where my wordpress site is now--they also had built in support for Wordpress blogs. The link there takes me to Wordpress.org, and I think I had to make an account there when I started. So that means I'm already past the free level? I don't need to pay additional fees?

Sorry for being a little confused here. I've really only just started looking into blogging technology, so the advice has been really helpful Sommer.
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby Sommer Leigh » 01 Sep 2011, 17:27

Don't be sorry, this stuff is all confusing. It took me several years of messing with different blogs to get my head around it all. I looked over your blog and it does look like it is a .org blog, but it is hard to learn it all overnight, so expect it to take some time. The upside is you have so many options available to you! The theme you are using is just one of thousands. I've spent countless hours pouring over themes and plugins to find good ones. Themes are up to your personal taste, but I can give you some pointers on good plugins.

Unfortunately, .org blogs are each very different so I can't help you much on setting things up on the back end without looking at it myself. I do know that you will need to configure your Akismet settings manually and get a wordpress.com key to activate it. It's sort of confusing, but you'll need a wordpress.com account (not a blog, slightly different) to get the Akismet key, that is if you haven't already done this part. But if you are still getting loads of spam, then your Akismet is not configured correctly. Akismet is awesome and will block 99% of spam once it is set up right. My Akismet settings are under my Plugins menu. Yours probably are too.

You also need to figure out how to do your own backups. This is the biggest downside, in my opinion, to having a .org blog. You do your backups through your host site (GoDaddy) and there are good help files on the wordpress.org site for how to do it. I do a backup of mine every time I run an update on a plugin or on the wordpress software or if I'm testing out new plugins. Badly written plugins or plugins that aren't compatible with your theme will crash your blog. You want to be able to restore it if that happens. This has happened to me only once, but once was enough.

This is the only thing I suggest figuring out right away, the rest of the settings and the options you can learn slowly as you want to. You can also have a Google Friend Connect on your .org site.

Some plugins I highly recommend trying out:
LinkWithin - this is how you get the "You might also like..." links at the bottom of posts like on my blog and on Nathan's. It doesn't work great until you've got a dozen or two posts for it to sort through, but I love it on my blog and on others.
Photo Dropper - this lets you add photos that are registered Creative Commons and includes the correct citation for the owner. It's an excellent and legal way to use photos off the web.
ReplyMe - This plugin sets your comments so that any responses to a comment will be emailed to the original commenter.
Sociable - Adds tiny icon links to different social sites to each post. So someone can post to Twitter, Facebook, send by email, print, and about 100 other social sites. Handy.
TweetMeme Retweet Button - Puts a little green Tweet button on each post so someone can easily tweet a post you've written.
WordPress.com Stats - Sets up pretty in depth statistics for your blog that look like the stats the Wordpress.com users get. I like it.


These are just a few, there are lots and lots that I love or have loved in the past. You can find these and many others by going to your "Add new plugin" or "install new plugin" under your Plugins menu. Do a search for these plugin names or any terms you're interested in. You can do a search for "Photo gallery" and get a hundred plugins for photo galleries. I also like to google top 2011 plugins for different bloggers who have reviewed plugins put out this year. This is how I've found most of the plugins I like. When you open up a plugin page for more information, you can see comments left by other users and if they've commented that the plugin crashes their site a lot, you know to steer clear. I also steer clear of plugins that don't put a lot of description and How-to with their plugin.

phew. Ok, that's a lot of info, sorry. Please feel free to shoot me any questions you might come across now or in the future. I'm always willing to help if I can :-)
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby MattLarkin » 02 Sep 2011, 05:36

Thanks again, Sommer. I tried downloading a few themes, but those I tried to upload always came in with errors and display nothing in the preview.

I'm going to be checking out your College of Blogging for more info.

I set up Akismet based on your first post. No more spam so far, so I was able to turn off comment moderation.
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby Sommer Leigh » 02 Sep 2011, 06:03

Some themes are crap, unfortunately, but there are a lot of good ones too. I've also found that the preview isn't a good indication of what your blog could look like with the new theme. It does its best to put all your components in the right place, but each theme is so different that it doesn't do that great a job.

I like going to wordpress.org's site, going to their themes here: http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/ and searching. A lot of the most popular themes are really fantastic. They are all free and while some aren't great and some are pretty specific, I've seen people do amazing blogs with these themes. Just an idea.

Glad it's working out for you so far!
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby MattLarkin » 03 Sep 2011, 09:33

Hey Sommer, thanks for all the help. Would you mind taking a look at the changes I've made to see what you think? Same goes to any other Bransforumers:

Incandescent Phoenix Home Page
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby Sommer Leigh » 03 Sep 2011, 12:14

Oh wow it looks way better! I like it a lot! Great, great, great theme you picked out.
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby CathyYardley » 03 Sep 2011, 14:11

Hi Matt,

I like the look of the theme! I do some promo work -- freelance, and some publicity -- and I've been an author for awhile. I've got a few suggestions, but they're just my opinion...

1) Because you're participating in the platform-building campaign, I'm assuming you're using this website to build your platform.If that's the case, I'd say you want your name to be big and the "Incandescent Phoenix" to be smaller. You want to emphasize your name and build that recognition. Also, because there's nothing else phoenix-y about the look/feel, I'm not entirely sure what the connection there is.

2) Personally, I think the RSS sunflower thing looks cool but it's a little overpowering -- totally overshadows the smaller social media icons. Again, you want to think: what do I want the reader to do here? You've kind of got a lot going on.

3) Right now, I can read an entire review on the home page... if I'm really curious, I can look at the comments, but there's no prompt for me to add a comment of my own unless I'm on the post itself. Same with sharing. You might consider just cutting it down to an excerpt with READ MORE... then they go to that to read the whole thing, have an easy ability to share (your social media sharing buttons are on the post page, too) and comment. And this is a teeny thing, but I'd leave off the "read all my reviews" link at the bottom of the post.

4) I don't think the post calendar adds much to the site, and it feels sort of cluttered. You might consider losing it. Again, think: what do I want the reader to DO? What's most important? I'm guessing it's read the blog post, then either read other posts (the tags at the bottom ought to help with that); then either subscribe via RSS or connect via social media, so you'll probably want those emphasized.

5) You might consider consolidating your bio page a little. I like the details; I think it might be smoother in just one set of paragraphs, rather than FAQ style. I'm assuming you're going to refer to agents/editors to see this? Do you currently have representation? Unless the FAQs are for review policy or something, I think it's better to fold these facts into a straight bio. (That's easier to adapt when you're doing things like guest posting, too.)

6) Totally love your story description! I'm not a huge fantasy reader, but I'd read that... I'm working with an alternative history fantasy author right now, doing freelance editing. Just curious -- are you looking to shop this book, still writing it, or is it for sale self-pub? The "works" page didn't make that clear, and frankly, I'd have wanted to buy it, which makes it frustrating not to know! :P

Great start here. :) Congrats!
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby MattLarkin » 03 Sep 2011, 14:20

Hi Cathy, thanks for the input.

MOONRISE is scheduled to be reviewed by a freelance editor. I currently expect to self-publish before the end of the year, but plans change.

I'm familiar with CSS/XHTML so I could modify that to achieve some of the things you mention. However, I am not familiar with the WordPress template coding, so some things are beyond my reach without finding a template that already does them. For example, the template determines whether to display the whole posts, comments, and such, and I don't know how to modify that.

You know, my first bio page was just two paragraphs. They felt sparse and only loosely connected, so I thought the headings might help, although I also see your point.
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Re: Designing a Blog

Postby TaylorNapolsky » 16 Sep 2011, 14:54

get a tumblr! It is intuitive and easy. I have one and I just use it as my regular blog. There are many, many themes to choose from. Look at how cool tumblr is http://www.taylornapolsky.tumblr.com
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