Last week Jewel shared several reasons why she started her blog and why you should too, hopefully you read it and now you're convinced your should start your very own blog. So you’re now ready and excited to get start, but wait, before you can start writing your first post you'll need to decide how complex and customizable you want your blog to be.
Ready, Set, Blog
The easiest way to get going is using a mainstream blogging tool such as Tumblr or Blogger. These tools provide limited customizability but what they lack in complexity they make up for in easy of setup and use. In fact it took me just a couple minutes to start a blog and post a sample visualization on Tumblr, while Andy Cotgreave was able to do the same on Blogger in just under 3 minutes, check out his #3minwin video walkthrough. You'll even find that both of these services provide you with a unique web address just for your blog.
If you found that these tools cover everything you want in a blog, feel free to stop reading here. If however, you're willing to invest a bit more time into your blog's look and feel, continue reading to see the lessons I learned setting up my first blog.
Baking a blog from scratch
If you decide you want your blog to be a bit more customizable and feature filled, you will probably want to use something other than Tumblr or Blogger. I'll show you how to do just that by recounting a bit of my beginner blogging experiences. Along the way I’ll also share some thoughts and experiences from successful data bloggers Ben and Robert, including- naming your blog, choosing a publishing platform, deciding on a host, and introducing yourself to the world with your first post. If you aren't familiar with Ben Jones of DataRemixed, who’s the Tableau Public Product Marketing Manager and Robert Kosara of eagereyes.com, who’s a Research Scientist at Tableau, make sure to visit their blogs and follow them on Twitter at the links above.
How I got started
In the last week of 2013 I decided to finally start a blog, I had been contemplating it for almost a year and finally realized that the time had come. If you’re still unsure of whether to start a blog, make sure to check out this earlier post in our Blogging Month series.
Now that I knew I wanted a blog I had to sit down and actually research all the specifics on what that all would entail, I wanted to get it right the first time. Starting a blog, I imagine, is a bit like preparing for a newborn, you have to name it, choose what the nursery will look like, buy the clothes, toys and furniture, and finally once it’s born pour your heart into it.
Choosing a Platform
Since I have several friends and co-workers with blogs I already had an idea of what blog services are available. The elephants in the room are Blogger, Tumblr, and Wordpress, but I decided to go with a relative newcomer, Ghost. I’ve always been a fan of supporting new technology and doing things the more novel way. As such I wasn't afraid to try this new service, I already saw that it supported embedded vizzes and after a bit more research I found a couple great themes that would work well with my photos. The best part was that it has responsive design, this means the content dynamically adjust and re-sizes depending upon the resolution of the device you’re using, you really can’t beat it's automatic support for mobile devices.
A few things to note when picking out your blog platform, make sure it is customizable to the point you’ll be happy with it. There’s nothing worse than getting everything setup and then realizing that you can’t adjust the colors, fonts, comments, or some other format of your blog. The best way to make sure the platform will conform to your liking is to look for other blogs using that particular CMS that look the way you want yours to look. Do some research, and if you find that the available options don’t meet your requirements you can always decide to build a website from scratch, although I don’t recommend doing this if you've never worked with HTML before. Creating content should be easy, and having to build pages and modify navigation each time you add a post can be discouraging.
Both Ben and Robert use WordPress for their blogs, here’s what they have to say on why they chose it as their content management system (CMS):
Robert: I actually tried many different ones, and even started writing my own. I initially started using Drupal, which ran my site for five years or so. Then I got tired of it and switched to WordPress. For a blog, WordPress is just the much better choice. It’s very mature, actively maintained, and very well organized.
Ben: I use WordPress, and I chose it because it seemed the least complicated to learn, and a fairly popular choice for bloggers.
Even though they both use WordPress as their CMS, they chose to host their sites differently. After choosing your blog platform, selecting where to host it can make a big difference.
Selecting a hosting service
Every site on the internet has to live somewhere, a computer or server has to take requests from your readers browsers and send them a copy of your blog content. Since this service provider is responsible for your blog's reliability, make sure to choose one that is well established and has a solid record of up time. Here are a few things Robert suggests you consider when choosing your host:
Robert: Reliability is a huge issue with shared hosting. I went through half a dozen shared hosting providers before switching to a VPS (at Linode). Some just slow to a crawl at certain times, others have database connection issues, etc. At one place, the DB server would crash every few days. Also, security is a major issue when you’re on a shared machine with thousands of your best friends. Cost is a minor issue, since they all charge roughly the same for the same kind of service.
Consider your blog platform of choice when selecting a host, most have a preferred provider.
Google is the host for Blogger and provides all the necessary updates and support. You’ll also automatically be provided with a
WordPress.com is a very popular host for WordPress blogs and can get you up and running in just a couple clicks, however at this time it doesn't support embedding live Tableau visualizations so if you're planning on including those you'll need to look for a different host. Check out brand new blogger Bernardo's experience with WordPress.com on his Data Knight Rises blog. If you’re still set on using WordPress, almost all major hosting providers have a 1-click install option that will get you up and running quickly yet still provide the customization you might want in the future. Ben hosts his WordPress blog on MediaTemple, while Robert manages his WordPress site on Linode. Here’s what Robert has to say regarding his choice of host:
Robert: I run a virtual private server (VPS), but I generally tell people not to do that. I like to tinker and I have a bunch of things running there, so it makes sense for me. But there’s a huge danger in tinkering forever and never actually getting to the writing. I generally recommend people set their blogs up on wordpress.com or tumblr, so they don’t have to worry about keeping stuff up to date, performance, etc.
Here’s why Ben chose to use MediaTemple as his host:
Ben: I wanted the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my blog, and I was willing to spend a small amount on it. MediaTemple had good reviews, and I have some connections that work there, so I felt confident in the quality of the service I would get.
Since I chose to use Ghost as my CMS and it’s a fairly new entry into the market, my hosting solutions were a bit more limited. Plus it uses node.js and this means it won’t work on most common hosting solutions. Lucky for me the Ghost developers just launched their own hosting service as I was starting my blog, and with a few clicks I had a fully configured Ghost blog ready to go at Ghost.io. The best part is that the hosting is optimized for Ghost, it automatically updates to the latest version, and still allows for custom themes and modification. The lowest cost package costs $5 per month and the first month is a free trial – so you definitely have nothing to lose giving it a try.
If you’re a tinkerer you can choose to setup your own personal server at home and host your own site. I actually considered doing this as an experiment since I had an extra computer lying around and found several easy to follow guides on specifically configuring Ghost. Ultimately, what caused me to change my mind was the way in which my server would have to communicate with the outside world, I would have to convert my home internet into a business account and buy a static IP address from my internet service provider, this was going to be cost prohibitive. Not to mention I would be responsible for troubleshooting everything should my site go down, including power failures, hardware malfunctions and any other issues my personal server or ISP encountered. Robert seems to share the same sentiment - Better go with a platform hosted by people who know what they’re doing.
What’s in a name?
Once you know what you’re going to be blogging about, what CMS you are going to use, and which host will be serving it to the internet, you will need a name. Along with a name for your blog you can also choose to buy a matching personal web address that will make it easier for other to find. If you want your blog's name and web address to match make sure to check for availability first since most common words and phrases on the .com and .org domains have already been purchased. All of the web address registration sites should have the same address availability list, if you find that yours is taken pick a different name. Or if you’re attached to a particular name you can always choose to buy it on one of the less common .net, .me, .co, etc. domains that are constantly being added. The cost for a web address typically ranges from $5 to $20 and will only apply to a single domain, which you'll have to renew each year.
I ended up buying several different names that I thought would be catchy and interesting yet were still available with a .com domain, I used both Register.com and GoDaddy.com to search for availability. One thing to keep in mind when you purchase a web address is that your personal information, including address and phone number will be available publicly since you are now the owner of a piece of web real estate. You can choose to mask your information by paying another $10-15 for privacy protection that will instead use a generic name and address. The governing body overseeing web addresses and domains is called ICANN, visit their site for more information on why they collect and store your information.
Naming your blog can be quite difficult, my first few ideas were already taken so I had to dig a bit deeper.
Here’s how Ben settled on his blog's name:
Ben: I made a short list of blog names I liked, and asked some family and friends about what they thought. DataRemixed was met with the most positive reaction. I had originally planned to go with dataincites.com, but that seemed to be confusing to some. It was really important to me at the time that my url didn’t include any 3rd party service provider name, like “blogspot”, etc.
Here’s how Robert came across his name:
Robert: I don’t have a good reasoning, but I have a little story. When I started thinking about starting a blog/website, I was living in Vienna, and there was a little arts thing called “equal eyes.” That name bugged me because it made no sense, but it also intrigued me. One day while I as eating lunch, the word “eager eyes” popped into my mind. I didn’t even think about it, I just registered the domain right away. I still have no idea if it sounds goofy or interesting or whatever, but it has worked well for me.
Final Step – Your first blog post
Now that you’ve done the hard part and gotten everything customized, setup, and named, there’s only one thing left to do… introduce yourself and your blog to the world.
I already had a list of potential topics for my first few blog posts, but as with everything I needed to first introduce myself to my potential audience. Readers would probably be coming back and linking to specific posts but for the select few that actually wanted to get to know me and follow my blog, they would expect to see a “Hello world” post. I kept mine short and simple, I thanked the people that encouraged me to start blogging, outlined the topics I would be covering, set expectations for how frequently I would be posting new content, and gave a disclaimer that this was going to be an experiment for me.
Ben’s first blog post was about his “childhood hero, Wayne Gretzky. It included some details about myself, but it also included a visualization, so I suppose you can say I tried to both [introduce myself and provide content]. That’s true of a lot of my blog posts actually, I try to use the “long-form” freedom of my blog to do what I can’t do on social media alone: explain the full context of the visualization.”
Robert started his blog with “a rant about the shallowness of visualization discourse, which is a bit of a theme on my blog. But it really doesn’t matter what you write, nobody’s going to read that first one. Posts 2-2,000,000 are the ones that count.”
One last thing to remember, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
You may find that you abandon your first blog, either because you lose interest, don’t have time or choose not to post anything. You can always come back, clean out the cobwebs and try again, and if you’re looking for motivation here are a few final words from Robert:
Robert: Pick a thing, start doing it, and keep going. Nobody’s going to read it for the first year, so be prepared for that. There’s lots of other stuff out there for people to spend their time on. But build up good material and people will start taking notice. Also, make sure to tell people about it by tweeting, posting responses on other people’s posts, and just emailing people about it. They might point to your blog if they like it, or add it to their blogroll.
And a summary of what Ben has learned about blogging in the year since he started … where else but on his blog.
Happy blogging and please share your favorite blogging platforms, server hosts and domain registries with us by leaving a comment below.