How to Start a Blog
Lesson 4 – Configure Your Blog
In This Lesson, You Will Learn:
- How to choose an awesome theme for your blog
- What are plugins and how to install them
- “Must-have” plugins to boost your traffic
- SEO Preparation: Hot tips for great search engines results
- The 4 pages your blog MUST have before you start
Before You Start Your Blogging Lesson #4
To make sure you get the most out of this training course, make sure you read the Before You Start Guide on the How To Start a Blog page prior to commencing this lesson.
Let me tell you right up front – this is not a very exciting lesson. However, the things I’m going to teach you in this lesson are the exact steps that I do for every single WordPress blog site I build. They are crucial if you want to get maximum results from the search engines when you start publishing your blog posts.
This is a once-off exercise that will not only make your blog site look amazing, but also optimize your blog for best performance in the search engines. Your website and all your blog posts will benefit every day from the work you do here – so go and grab yourself a cup of coffee or your favourite beverage and settle in.
Full Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item or service, I sometimes receive a small commission. I only recommend products that I have used myself and the small commission I receive, helps fund the ongoing development of new lessons for all my readers.
How to Choose a WordPress Theme
I used to hate trying to choose the best WordPress theme for a new site – it used to take me hours (and sometimes days). So I totally understand that this can seem like quite an overwhelming task for beginners. With thousands of themes to choose from (and every time you see one you like, you find a better one) how do you pick the best WordPress theme for your new blog site?
Let’s start with some basics.
What is a WordPress Theme?
In simple terms, a WordPress theme is a collection of files that control how your website looks and behaves. It controls various design aspects such as the colours, layout, fonts, headers, footers. Some themes go a step further and also give you added functionality as an editor by using “visual editors” – which allow you to create some of the more advanced design effects without knowing how to code.
Not All Themes are Created Equal
The bad news is that for every great theme, there are 10 crappy ones – and you often can’t tell until you’ve installed it and started to use it. Or worse, you won’t notice that you’re losing valuable search traffic because the theme you installed (or purchased), isn’t optimized for search engines.
Free vs Premium WordPress Themes
I could write a 5,000 word article on this topic alone and everyone seems to have a different opinion on this but I’ll give you my view and share what works for me.
Free WordPress Themes
Free WordPress themes are great for starting out. They are quick to install (you can browse and select a free theme from with your WordPress admin area) and will have you up and running with a great looking site in no time (in most cases).
You’ll also find that the free WordPress themes are also “leaner” in terms of extra features and “bloatware” which, in many cases, means your site will be fast and responsive without all the unwanted crap!
However, while on my blogging journey, I’ve discovered two things that I highly value when choosing a WordPress theme: Support and Security.
- Support: Free themes generally have little support when things go wrong (and they do). And you tend to waste a lot of time trying to figure things out on your own (I’ve lost hours I’ll never get back).
- Security: Unfortunately these days, there are countless hackers out there with nothing better to do than hack into sites with weak or out of date security and destroy all their hard work. Free WordPress themes are not updated as regularly as premium themes and security is one area that tends to suffer. It’s one of those things that most people don’t think about when they’re first starting out and it’s usually a very hard lesson they have to learn 6-12 months in when they lose their site to an attack.
At the end of the day, it’s entirely up to you. I’m not against free themes by any means, but if you’re going to use a free theme, do your research, ask around and read the reviews.
To save you some time, here’s my personal top 5 free WordPress themes:
This is a cool modern theme with a clean design. Being a multipurpose design, it’s well suited to all types of blogs and websites. It includes a responsive design (so it also looks good on hand held devices such as your phone) and includes social icons for sharing your content on social media.
Spacious is an incredibly spacious multipurpose responsive theme coded & designed with a lot of care and love. You can use it for your business, portfolio, blogging or any type of site. It has 4 page layouts, 2 page templates, 4 blog display types, 13 widgets areas, 5 custom widgets focusing on business template, an awesome slider, primary color option to match your logo & website, boxed & wide layout, light & dark color skin, translation ready and many more. You can get free support in http://themegrill.com/support-forum/ and check the demo at http://demo.themegrill.com/spacious/
Customizr is a versatile and easy to customize WordPress theme, instantly giving a professional look to your online presence. Designed with visitor engagement in mind, it allows anyone to create a beautiful, fast and mobile friendly website compatible with all browsers and devices. Customizr works fine with major WordPress plugins like WooCommerce, bbPress, JetPack and many others. Top rated by hundreds and with a very active community of users and developers, the Customizr theme is a safe and reliable design option to publish your WordPress content.
Masonic is a responsive and retina ready WordPress theme suitable for blogs and has beautiful masonry layout. Theme has options like primary color, link color, custom CSS etc. which you can change from Theme Customizer. Also, supports Breadcrumb NavXT plugin. Get free support at http://themegrill.com/support-forum/ and check the demo at http://demo.themegrill.com/masonic/
Hemingway is a clean, beautiful and responsive two-column theme for bloggers. There are very few blogging themes that are as simple and nice as this one. Big clean typography is the heart of this theme and will certainly provide your readers easy and astonishing reading experience.
Premium WordPress Themes
Simply put, premium WordPress themes are themes that you pay for. Almost all premium themes come with priority support and are updated on a regular basis. One thing to watch out for when buying a premium theme is the pricing model. Some charge on a subscription basis and others are a one-off fee. Some also allow you to use your theme on an unlimited number of websites and others will restrict you to a single site only. (Personally, I pay on a subscription basis, which gives me priority support, updates and the latest security patches)
Here’s a few of the benefits of using a Premium WordPress theme:
- Support: Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned blogger, having access to priority support will save you hours of Googling around looking for answers.
- Premium design: In most cases you’ll find that the quality of premium themes is better, simply because the designer has money coming in to invest in a quality product.
- Advanced Features: such as simplified control panels to make customising the site easier, additional plugins which are designed to work with the theme and enhance the functionality (such as newsletter subscriptions, social sharing, related posts etc.)
- Security: Really the most important point. Industry standards are constantly evolving and improving. As a general rule of thumb, premium themes suppliers tend to be a lot more security conscious and make sure their theme meets the (or exceeds) the industry standards.
While I don’t like to admit it, I have paid for loads of premium themes over time and while the majority have been great, I’ve been burnt a few times as well. So if I can share any wisdom, it’s just make sure you go with a reputable company (such as the ones I have endorsed below)
Here’s my favourite Premium themes:
- Divi – by Elegant Themes
This is the only theme I’ve used for the last year or so and I use it for all my sites (and customer’s sites). It’s a really versatile theme and you can have an amazing looking site up and running in no time at all. It comes with a bunch of pre-built layout templates that look just awesome! The Divi theme is sold on a subscription model, starting at $69 per year. This also gives you access to their entire library of 88 themes, which you can use on as many sites as you like – so it’s actually really good value. You can checkout the Divi demo and see for yourself.
- Extra – by Elegant Themes
Another great theme by the team at Elegant Themes. It uses the same page builder as the Divi theme, so it’s easy to use and also comes with a load of page builder templates to get you up and running in a flash. This theme is more suited to magazine style blogs where you have a lot of different categories covering a wide variety of topics. Checkout the Elegant Themes site for information and a live demo.
- X Theme
A hugely popular WordPress theme with an almost endless amount of configuration options. It comes with a drag and drop style page builder which makes creating great looking pages really easy.
I haven’t personally used this one, but it is up there with the most popular premium themes available on the market, so I thought I’d better add it to my list. Avada has its own custom page builder, pre-built templates and loads of sample content you can use. While the theme only costs $59, you’re only allowed to use it on one site and you have to pay for additional support after 6 months. Checkout the live preview.
This is another one that I have not had the pleasure of using to date. However it’s getting great reviews and over 10,000 sales! Based on my research, the support team value their customers highly and appear to be very fast at getting back to customers. Oshine is a pretty cool multi-purpose WordPress portfolio theme with 23 unique demos which you can customize for your own use – making it very fast to get a great looking site up and running in no time. Oshine has been rated as one of the ‘Best Portfolio & Photography’ themes in many popular blogs. Find out more about the Oshine WordPress theme here.
What are WordPress Plugins?
WordPress Plugins are basically add-on modules that you can upload to your WordPress blog to extend the basic feature set of WordPress. They allow you to do new (cool) stuff without you having to know how to code. You can add cool things like photo galleries, video libraries, shopping carts along with features such as added security, image compression, newsletters etc. There are literally thousands to choose from, which is one of the reasons that WordPress is so popular, because with all the themes and plugins, you can build a website for almost anything!
Where can I Find Plugins?
When it comes to finding plugins to enhance your WordPress blog, the choices are almost endless. That said, 99% of the time, I can find all the plugins I need from WordPress.org, which you can also access directly from within admin section of your blog site. Simply select “Plugins” from the menu on the left, then “Add New” and you’ll see the screen below, from which you can search the entire WordPress.org plugin library. It’s that easy!
Don’t get Carried Away
Once you’ve got a handle on how to find plugins and install them, it’s very easy to get carried away with all the “whiz-bang” features some of these plugins can add to your site. So a word of caution before you rush off and start installing every fancy pants plugin you can find: Too many plugins can slow your site down and (in some cases) cause your site to crash. Before installing any plugin, make sure you absolutely need it and and you’ve checked out some of the feedback from other users.
“Must-Have” WordPress Plugins
This is my list of “Must-Have” plugins that I use for every blog site I create. They form the underlying foundation of your blog site to ensure your blog will be optimised for search engines traffic, security and speed from day one. All the plugins listed below can be installed directly from your WordPress Admin panel, as shown in the previous section “Where Can I Find Plugins”.
I have spent countless hours installing and testing all the major competing plugins to ones I have shown below, and based on my findings these are the ones I recommend. Note: most of the plugins below have an paid upgrade to a “Pro Version”, however I have never found a need to upgrade – the free versions have always worked fine for me.
- Yoast SEO
The Yoast SEO plugin will let you easily control how your site and each of your blog posts will appear in Google’s search results, analyse your content to show you how “SEO Friendly” your writing is (including your keyword usage), setup your blog’s XML Sitemap and many more essential features to help your blog rank better in the search engines.
- WP Smush
This is a really cool (and automatic) way to compress your images and photos you use in your blog posts. A lot of beginners don’t realise how important it is to compress images before you add them to your blog. Images (and especially photos) can be very big files and will slow your page load times down. This not only causes impatient readers to leave, but Google also uses page load times as one of its ranking factors. With WP Smush installed, you don’t have to do anything – it automatically compresses your images for you in the background when you load them. Job done – it’s really that easy!
- WP Fastest Cache
Another “set and forget” plugin that will boost your page load speed site wide. WP Fastest Cache does two key things:
- Create a cache (or static copy) of each page, making them load much faster without having to go to the WordPress database to load your blog content each time a visitor (or Googlebot) loads a page on your site (note: if your hosting your site with SiteGround, then you can turn off the cache feature, as SiteGround have developed a custom cache plugin that is specifically designed to work with their hosting platform – and it’s much faster too!)
- Google Analytics
A really quick and easy way to integrate the Google Analytics tracking code into your site. I’ll cover Google Analytics in more details a bit later, but all you need to do is follow these instructions from Google, get your tracking code and enter it into the plugin.
At the end of most blog posts, you’ll have a section for readers to comment on your article. This is great way for readers to provide feedback and for you to maintain contact with your readers. Unfortunately, you will also get loads of spam comments, from ‘robots’ and/or people who are either posting links to viruses or just trying to plug their wares. This plugin is designed to automatically detect these spam comments and either delete them for you or flag them for you to review later. I’m always impressed at how well this plugin manages to determine what is spam and what is genuine – but nevertheless, it will save you countless hours sifting through spam comments.
- UpDraftPlus (backup)
In short, this a really simple way to backup your WordPress blog. You absolutely MUST backup your site (yes, SiteGround do this for you automatically, but this allows you to store a copy of your backup ‘off site’ for safe keeping and quick access, should you ever need it).
- SG CachePress (for SiteGround members only)
If your blog is hosted with SiteGround, then you need to install this plugin to use their “SuperCache” feature. Definately worth doing as it will make a massive difference to the overall speed of your site.
- Really Simple SSL (only required if your blog site is running https – see section below on http vs https).
If you have switched your site over to https, then this plugin will take care of all your WordPress settings for you. It will make sure that any requests to the http version of your site are redirected to https, ensure all internal links are updated correctly and fixes some technical issues that WordPress can have with SSL. This is another “set and forget” plugin, so once it’s installed and activated, you can forget all about it!
WordPress SEO Preparation
What is SEO
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is all about making your blog/website rank as high as possible in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). If your blog posts rank on the first page in Google, then you’re going to get a hell of a lot more traffic (and money) than if you’re sitting on page 10 where nobody will see it.
While it’s true these days that search engines aren’t going to be your only source of traffic with Social Media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Google+ etc. being another great way to draw visitors to your site, if your SEO is on point, you can still draw millions of visitors each month via the search engines. Never underestimate the power of a first page rank in Google – it can be the difference between a few extra dollars a month and that six (or seven) figure income you’re dreaming of.
No SEO = No Traffic = No Money
Why is SEO so Important?
If I’ve learnt anything over the last 10 years, it’s that the effort and time you invest in your initial SEO preparation and ongoing efforts to continually tweak and fine tune your SEO is fundamental to the success of your blog. Period.
The majority of SEO work you will do will be during your research, writing, editing and promotional activities, however the work you do now is paramount to laying the foundation for all the other SEO you do. For example, the “Permalink” setting I talk about below, will impact the SEO results of every blog post you write. So, please, take your time to execute on the tips I’m giving you in this section as it will have a permanent and positive impact to every blog post you write.
The WordPress permalink setting controls the way your website URL appears. Each page or post on your site has a unique “address” or URL. This URL structure is how both search engines and people can access all the pages on your site. There are two main reasons why you need to change this setting from the default (“Plain”) to “Post name”.
- Using post name will give every page an easy to remember (and link to), “human friendly” url. For example: if I was using the “Plain” setting for this page, it would look something like: https://myblogcoach.com/?p=789. Now, change that to the “Post name” setting and it looks like this: https://myblogcoach.com/configure-wordpress-blog – it looks natural and is easier to remember.
- Search engines love keywords and using your page name to form part of your URL and including targeted keywords in the page name will give your page or post a boost in the search engines for your target keyword.
An XML Sitemap is basically a file that contains a list of every page, post and images on your entire blog site. The search engines will read this file (after you submit your sitemap to Google) and use it to index your site so they can include all your content in the search engine results. If you don’t create a sitemap and submit it to search engines such as Google and Bing, then you risk not having all of your blog posts and pages listed in the search engine results when people go searching for your awesome content.
The XML site map also tells the search engines other things like how often to check back for changes, which pages you may not want to show up in the search results and so on.
It’s dead easy to setup. Just install the Yoast SEO plugin, go to the SEO menu in your admin control panel and select “XML Sitemaps”. Make sure the “XML sitemap functionality” is set to enabled. For now, that’s all you need to do. I’ll cover some of the more specific settings a bit later.
HTTPS or HTTP?
If you’re asking yourself, “What the hell is HTTPS?” – that’s cool, it’s a very common question. Basically, the “s” stands for secure. So why is this so important? Well, there are a few key reasons why your blog site should be secured with a security certificate (which you can get for free by the way – go back to Lesson 3 – What is Blog Hosting for the details).
- All data sent between your blog and your visitors is encrypted. This is especially important when people are entering their personal details into your site (such as a ‘contact us’ page, or email subscription and especially if your accepting credit card details).
- It builds trust with your readers and shows you take their privacy and security seriously.
- Google now gives sites using SSL certificates a small boost in the search engine results.
- It’s cheap (free when you host your blog with SiteGround.com) and easy to install (the majority of blog hosting companies will do this for you)
Once more thing to keep in mind when switching to https. If you’ve already got an established blog with good organic search traffic, you may suffer a small hit in traffic for a short period of time (a few weeks to a month). Google will need to reindex the https version of your site which can take a little time. This is why if you’re just starting out with your blog, it’s best to get a security certificate installed from the start.
Google Analytics is a seriously powerful (and seriously cool) website traffic analyser. It monitors all the traffic that comes and goes from your blog. The dashboards and details statistics it offers can tell you where your visitors come from (Google search, social media, direct, referrals etc). You can then break it down even further and analyse your traffic by country, demographic (age, gender etc), device (mobile, tablet, desktop) and soooo much more.
I used Google analytics daily (in fact, hourly on some days). The mobile app is really handy, you can monitor visitors to your blog in real time and see who’s on your blog, what posts they are reading, how long they stayed on each page/post, bounce rates – the options are endless.
Once you start getting some organic traffic to your blog, you’ll be hooked!
But, before you can delve into the wonderful world of Google Analytics, you’ll need to first setup your Google Analytics account and then integrate it with your blog site. Google have some great step by step instructions and a training video on how to create your account and start using Google Analytics – just follow the link and you’ll be on your way.
Once you’ve created your Google Analytics account, you’ll need to integrate a special code (provided when you setup your Analytics account) into your blog site. There are a number of ways to do this, but the quickest and easiest is to use a great plugin by MonsterInsights (originally developed by the team at Yoast) which makes it dead easy to add your Google tracking code.
Google Search Console
Prevously known as Google Webmaster Tools, this is another one that’ you’ll need (and want) to spend a fair amount of time getting to know. The Google Search Console is where your SEO begins – it’s where you submit your XML sitemap to Google, check for SEO errors, analyse what keywords people are searching for in Google to find your site, and how you rank for these keywords.
And that’s just the start, Google Search Console will become one of your daily go-to tools to help you track how your blog is performing and where you need to focus your efforts.
The 4 Pages Your Blog Must Have
Personally I hate writing “About Me” pages. There, I said it. Think about it, you’re building this exciting new blog site, your creative juices are flowing, with so many ideas for your all the awesome blog posts you’re going to write – who wants to write a boring “About Me” page?
But here’s the brutal truth – your “About Me” page is probably the most important page on your blog site. Think about it for a second. A complete stranger arrives on your site, starts reading your amazing blog posts that you have spent countless hours (or weeks) writing. They like what they’re reading and want to believe in what you’re telling (or selling) them and/or are thinking about buying your product or service, but who are you? Why should they trust you? Do they relate to you? Or is this just another scam site?
Your “About Me” page is a golden opportunity to connect with your readers, to show them that you are a real person. It builds trust and gives you the change to demonstrate your authority by telling them your ‘back story’. Share your hopes, dreams and what drives you. Tell your readers what got you to where you are today and why they should trust what you are telling them.
Your “About Us” page will be one of the most viewed pages on your site, so take the time to share your story with your readers and let them know who you are and why you rock!
If you need some inspiration, here’s a great article with 12 examples of great “About Us” pages.
It also helps build your sites Trust-Rank which is vital if you want to get serious about your Google search engine results. Check out this awesome article from Brian Dean about how important Trust Rank is and how to boost yours.
This one is pretty self explanatory. The key to a good contact us page is to keep it simple. Don’t have any advertising or other distractions on the page. At minimum, you need a nice simple form, with 3 fields:
Try to avoid creating a lengthy form with lots of questions. Once you have their email address, you can contact them directly and ask them all the questions you like. Remember, new visitors to your blog don’t know you and won’t want to handover lots of information (personal or not).
Depending on your business (and where you run it from), you may also want to include phone number(s), physical address and your email. The more information you provide, the more trust you will have with your readers.
Oh, and if your adding a form for people to contact you – MAKE SURE YOU TEST IT. You would be surprised how many sites I’ve looked at for my clients that have contact us form that doesn’t work (it wasn’t setup properly)!
OK guys and gals, listen up, this one is important. The Federal Trade Commission (commonly known at the FTC) was setup over 100 years ago to protect consumers from scams and ‘dodgy’ dealings and promote healthy competition for goods and services to give consumers a wide variety of options and keep pricing low. That’s it in a nutshell.
What does this mean to you?
Well, there are laws that you need to abide by if you’re going to be selling or promoting products or services on your blog or website. I think the biggest one for a lot of bloggers is that you need to be completely transparent if you’re promoting affiliate products. There are millions of sites out there, writing up “amazing” product reviews (on mostly crappy products) in order to trick people into buying them, just so they can get more affiliate commissions.
There is nothing wrong with promoting other peoples products to earn a commission. Hell, that’s where I make a lot of my my money from. And in turn, it enables me to keep working on this site and adding more great content for you guys. BUT, firstly, I always disclaim that some of the links in my articles may contain affiliate links AND (more importantly), I only promote products and services that I believe to offer the best possible value for money.
The FTC has made it very clear that they will penalize sites for non-disclosure. This can result in hefty fines and possibly having your beloved blog site shut down for good.
So I just need an affiliate disclaimer page then, right?
Wrong. You absolutely need an affiliate disclaimer page, but you also have to make it clear on every page where you’re earning a commission for promoting a product or service that you may be paid for doing so.
The plus side here, however is that in being completely transparent and upfront with your readers, they are more likely to support you and actually use the products and services that your are recommending.
You’ll see at the very start of this lesson, I disclose that I may receive a commission for some of the products and/or services I recommend in this lesson. That’s all you need to do. Its all about being open and transparent with your readers.
For more information and specific examples, check out this great article by Danny Brown.
Congratulations – You’re Half Way There!
If you’ve been following the lessons in order (of course, none of you are cheating right? 🙂 ), let me just say congratulations! I know how much work is involved in getting to this point. But the good news is, that in the second half of my how to create a blog training course, we move into the fun stuff!
Before you move on however, let’s take a quick recap on what you should have completed so far:
- Researched and selected your Niche (blog topic)
- Completed your keyword research
- Registered your domain name
- Setup your blog hosting & got your WordPress site up and running
- Chosen and installed your WordPress theme
- Installed the list of “must-have” plugins
- Completed the SEO preparations steps
- Created the following pages:
- About Me/Us
- Contact Us
- Affiliate Disclaimer
So if you’ve completed all these steps then well done to you! That’s an awesome effort!
Also, if you have a questions on any of the training so far, please leave a message in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you.
Lesson 4 Complete!
Before proceeding to the next lesson:
- Checkout the Divi theme demo
- Choose and install a theme for your blog
- Install my list of recommended plugins
- Setup your XML Sitemap
- Create the 4 “Must Have” pages.