Posted March 13th, 2003 @ 04:31pm by Erik J. Barzeski
Everyone and their brother's got a blog now, and when I was starting out, I had to learn some things the hard way. So, I've compiled a few of the best tips I could find into a couple of hints. Many of them deal with MovableType, but they can be applied to any CMS or blogging package. They're the tips I wish I had when I was starting out, and I hope that you find them helpful as well.
Hint 0: Pick Your Software
Blog software varies. Blogger and MovableType and Radio all offer different feature sets, as do a number of other blog packages. Choose the one that not only fits your skill level and wishes, but also those you may have in the future. You may not want comments now, but will the software you choose support them in the future?
Perhaps one of the best ways to choose blog software is to look at the software powering the blogs you enjoy reading. Look at how well it those blog apps can be customized and tweaked. Look at how well they're supported. As a general rule of thumb, more users = more support, so all else being even, you're better off with a "bigger name" blog app.
Features you may want include:
- Multiple authors
- A Web or mobile interface
- Built-in syndication (for all articles and/or categories)
- Option to assign entry to multiple categories
- A commenting system (so guests can leave comments)
- A TrackBack implementation (so you can let other sites know about you and other sites can let you know about them when linking).
- An email sent every time one of the two items directly above occurs
- Searching of entries (for you and your readers)
- Archival by date, category, etc.
- Easy templating
- Text formatting (so you don't have to learn even a little HTML)
- Integration or the ability to use another scripting language (PHP is used on this site) or technologies
- Photoblog capabilities
- etc. etc. etc.
For what it's worth, the rest of this article deals primarily with MovableType (MT), but a few of the comments apply to other packages. I haven't used them, however, so I don't even know that I'm aware which apply and which don't.
Hint 1: Archive Paths
This link explains it a bit more, but the long and the skinny of it is that MovableType and some other blog software, by default, create all of your files in your archive directory. I wasn't comfortable with having files named 000001.php through 439641.php all thrown together in one place, so I changed my archiving preferences. The link above takes you to "<archive_path>/2003/02/22/grrrr_site_organization.php". The URL clearly tells me the title of the article and the date it was published.
Changing the URLs of your articles - called "PermaLinks" - after you've started is a royal pain in the ass. You'll piss off everyone who's ever linked to, visited, or been linked from you. I learned this the hard way. You'll spend hours redirecting people trying to get to your old URLs to your new ones. It's just not worth it. Think about it and then go forward with it. They're called PermaLinks for a reason.
Please note that this has nothing to do with the look of your site. Any blog software worth its salt will let you change that around without affecting the content - or URLs - quite easily.
To accomplish what I've done in MT, you'll need to set your archive paths to resemble something like this:
<MTArchiveDate format="%Y/%m/%d">/<MTEntryTitle dirify="1">.php
Do this in your "Weblog Config" -> "Archiving" preferences.
Again, look at blogs that you like and observe their archiving formats. Perhaps you're a fan of keeping everything in one folder after all, but naming the files. Or perhaps "2003/03/10/000321.php" is a perfectly acceptable filename.
(Note: Since the release of MovableType 3.2 and the automatic "basename" feature, this has changed.)
Hint 2: Syndicate
Syndication via "RSS" (Really Simple Syndication) or RDF or XML or - whatever - is a good thing. For more information, visit http://freshsqueeze.com/products/pulpfiction/ or http://backend.userland.com/rss#whatIsRss. It's a fairly simple thing to set up, typically, but the discussion of what the difference between versions (0.91, 1.0, 2.0, etc) and types or filenames (RDF, RSS, XML) is beyond the scope of this little guide.
The biggest considerations you may have to make with your RSS "feed" (as it's called) is whether or not to include the full entry. By default, MovableType pushes only an entry's first 40 words in the RSS file. I've modified my feeds to include the entire entry except when I have an unusually long entry - in those cases I include a link (<a href="..">) to my entry. My goal was to get people with aggregators to visit my site occasionally without forcing them to for every article.
If you offer an RSS feed with comments, also offer a feed without them. Not everyone is interested in the comments, nor do they want your article posted as "new" in their RSS aggregator when someone comments. In that light, try to not make many typos, because every time your RSS feed for an article is updated, it will show up as new in most RSS aggregators. This annoys people.
Here's how I've set up my RSS 1.0 file to handle the "Click for More" business:
<title><MTEntryTitle encode_xml="1"></title> <link><MTEntryPermalink encode_xml="1"></link> <description> <MTEntryBody encode_xml="1"> <MTEntryIfExtended> <a href="<MTEntryPermalink encode_xml="1">"> Read More (<MTWordCount> Words) </a> </MTEntryIfExtended> </description>
Hint 3: Categorize
Most blogging packages offer a "categories" feature. Categories allow you to mark one entry as "Family" and another as "Work." Some packages allow you to assign an entry to multiple categories. Sit down, think about what topics your blog will cover, and write down a list of categories. Then add "Miscellaneous" to the end, and put those categories on your site.
Choosing a good set of categories up front encourages you to keep your blog focused. If you find yourself writing about a topic without a category (or the "Miscellaneous" category), add it at a later time. The goal is to avoid having to rearrange your entries every week. Try not to be fickle - you can waste a lot of time trying to decide whether an entry is "Personal" or "Family" or "My Pets" (or all three).
Many packages can also archive by category. If you visit /archives/men_and_women/ you'll find all of my posts to the "Men and Women" category (which I use to talk about anything dealing with gender, sex, etc.). That's not only useful for you, but it's useful for your friends as well. They may not care about your "My GameBoy" category but your "My Friends" category may be of great interest.
Hint 4: Get Your Name Out
Some people prefer their blogs to be private, read only by a few close friends and family, and that's fine. However, if you, like me, want to take part in global discussions and open your site to the comments, criticisms, praises, and minds of others, you'll want to get your (blog's) name out there.
One of the most effective ways I found to getting my blog's name out there - again if you care to be read - is to simply leave comments on the sites whose authors you share a common interest. Leave your email address and your blog's URL in the form and not only might the site author check out your blog, but others reading his comments may visit as well. You may also "TrackBack" to interesting articles - I have yet to not follow a TrackBack from one of my entries. Many others could say the same.
I spent a few weeks building up some content before I felt comfortable leaving my blog's URL in comment boxes. I didn't want someone I admire, an author of another blog, to visit my site and think "Gee, four entries? Bah." Perhaps that doesn't matter - later content and comments would bring them back. But I do know that I've gotten some TrackBacks and comments from people with questionable commitment. I don't like getting a TrackBack from a blog that might not exist in a month or two. Something to consider.
One last thing to consider: keeping a blogroll - a list of the blogs you enjoy - visible on your site. If you link to blogs you enjoy, those bloggers may be more likely to link back.
Hint 5: Be Polite
It's possible to piss off or at least annoy the blogging community pretty easily. For example, one chap routinely sent four or five TrackBacks (I presume as he edited his articles). This resulted in a lot of extra work for me - I had to delete his "extra" TrackBacks every time he decided to quote or link to one of my entries.
Here are some other "sins" of blogging:
- Not sending a TrackBack (or "ping") if the author has that feature enabled. It's enabled because they like to know who is linking to them. Oblige them.
- Don't display people's email addresses. MovableType, for example, uses a person's URL over their email address, and has an option for "anonymous" comments. Use it. If you're emailed the comment, you can follow up via email with the poster, but the link from their attribution will be to their Web page.
- Attribute your quotes with links. This one is common sense: nobody likes to have something they said plagiarized.
- Link to PermaLinks when possible, not to a blog's home page.
- Don't steal bandwidth. If someone has a nice picture, and you can legally put it on your site, do so. Otherwise, link to it but don't include it in your blog. You are taking their bandwidth. Either put it on your own site or don't include it in your page.
- Don't post private emails without permission. Mail on a mailing list with public archives? Fine. Private email sent to you? Not so fine. If you must, remove email addresses and other identifying information where possible. Also carefully consider posting the intimate details of other people's lives. Your own are fine. This is common courtesy and isn't blog-specific of course.
- Some bloggers link to Amazon associate URLs to get a little income. I don't care one way or the other, personally, but others do. Consider, at least, how people use the site. Is losing 100 readers worth the $2.12 you get from Amazon?
- If your blog software supports a search feature, make it readily visible.
- Avoid endlessly fiddling with your entries - editing, etc. - because in many news aggregators, this causes the entry to show up as "new" again. That's annoying.
Hint 6: Be Yourself
Even actors cannot stay in character 24/7. The few that can are a rare, rare breed. Odds are, you aren't one of them.
Be yourself. It's the easiest thing in the world once you get the hang of it. Say what want to say, how you want to say it, when you want to say it. If you agree, say so. If you don't, say so. Support your arguments - advice that applies anywhere of course - and enjoy what you're doing. Amuse yourself. People that share your interests will or won't come.
If you were your only visitor, your blog should still be something you want to do.
Hint 7: Get Help
Just some software, forums, and links I've found useful:
- MovableType documentation
- MT Support
- Beginner's Guide to TrackBacks
- MT Plugins @ The Girlie Matters
- Brad Choate's MT Plugins
- PHP.net's quickly searchable documentation
One last note: I plan to update this article as appropriate. Please email suggested updates, corrections, etc. to me instead of posting comments. Thank you.