Getting the Most out of Your Blog

Content management systems help businesses, individuals and pretty much everybody else get fresh, easily updated content online in a user-friendly way. Hundreds of thousands of blogs based on content management systems go live every day. Even so, it’s pretty rare to see a really professional looking blog, despite the fact that it isn’t that hard to create one. In this article we will look at how to use and manage your blog effectively, and hopefully not make the errors dozens of bloggers make.

Where Do You Start?

This is trickier than it seems. I would say ask yourself if you need a blog or content management system at all. If you need to frequently update your content the answer may be yes. Blogs are the easiest way to edit content and to add new content. All of the PHP/MySQL code is already done, and you can even edit it if you like. Once you have decided you need a blog the next thing you must consider is which content management system you should get.

There are thousands of blog engines. Some cost a few hundred dollars and claim to do everything, while some cost nothing and (hopefully) do everything. The first blogs that I noticed used the Mamboforge CMS. It’s no longer used that much any more, though some people still use the original Mambo. It was great and free but you had to pay for all the extras. Mamboforge is more or less being replaced with Joomla, which is simply Mamboforge with a new name, and free add-ons, and a lot more. 

The most popular CMS is WordPress. It is totally free, and does everything. Jessica Michael has written about phpnuke and CMS here and here; please check them out. Phpnuke is great and she previews them excellently; she even has great screen shots of the CMS. She also talks about some of the basic technical skills needed to run a CMS.

On my sites I have used Wordpress and Drupal and I am working on using Joomla. Wordpress is by far my favorite. I have also worked with people who use movable type, mamboforge and nucleus. Any CMS can work for you depending on your budget; You could even build one tailored to your organization’s special needs. We will cover some of the things to look at before picking a CMS.

How many people will be contributing (in any way at all) to the blog? This is a very important consideration if you are using open source. Since blog engines like MT2 and Movable Type have only single user licenses for the free versions, if you want more than one user on the blog you have to buy the commercial license. Now let me say that unless you are a true Crichton (meaning you know a lot about everything), a one man blog is a bad idea. Writing, editing and programming skills are all needed to run a blog and it’s not common to find ALL three skills in a single person. Most of the time writers cannot properly edit their own work, and if you are doing everything on your blog it is possible that you may not get content from varied perspectives.

I discovered that for a CMS, it is possible to make do with one technical  person (programmer/coder) and one creative person (writer/editor). You could have the rest of your contributors sending in posts via email or just give them contributor access to the CMS. This all depends on the size of your blog. For example almost all Developer Shed sites are powered by content management systems. The more people you have on your blog as contributors, the bigger your blog will get. The bigger your blog gets, the more content you have, and the more relevant your site becomes on the search engines. Let’s look at one word my in-house programmer never lets me forget.

Extensibility

Open source is the best form of CMS you can get, unless you have an in-house programmer and you custom build your CMS. It is not always the "best" idea to get a blog engine with the hood locked. You want your CMS extensible so that you can change things, edit modules, change functions, themes, appearances — basically anything you want. You don’t have to be the coder putting in extra wiki modules or sticking in a captcha module when spammers flood your site; you can have a contract programmer, or you could use your site admin (note that if you don’t have a site admin, that may be a very big problem).

Open source CMS packages like WordPress, Joomla and probably Phpnuke allow you to do pretty much anything you want to do. This helps when you want to add your blog to an already existing site and you need the blog to have the same look as the existing site. It also helps when you want to add totally new functions to your blog, such as wiki modules and other modules.

Extensibility is the single most important technical factor you should consider when picking a CMS. If it’s not open source you need support. The next thing to consider if it is open source is the size of the supporting community. The bigger the community behind your CMS is, the less work your programmer has to do. It’s silly to reinvent the wheel; all that support is free, and you get tons of plug-ins and add-ons for your blog engine. All these add to the extensibility of your blog engine.

Another important factor to note before picking your open source CMS is the kind of programming language that is under the hood. Most use PHP/MySQL code to write all the applications. If you are customizing, ensuring that the code is built in a form you are familiar with is very important. I reiterate, getting a non-extensible CMS for a large sum is not necessarily a good idea; getting a free non-extensible CMS is not a good idea either. Now we can leave the technical aspects and go to how to write for blogs, and how to manage your writers and yourself.

Writing For Your Blog

Content is King, and the whole point of your CMS is getting fresh content to your users in a timely fashion – and also in a fashion that won’t demand you overwork yourself. I subscribed to Debbie Weil‘s newsletter. If you can get past the "buy my book" parts you should be able to pick up a few things on how to write for blogs. Another excellent resource is www.divinewrite.com, as well as Jill Whalen‘s site. Pretty much anything on SEO copy should give you the basics of writing for search engines, blogs , copy or otherwise. I’m going to share with you a few tips I got from Debbie Weil; others I got from reading and working on tech blogs. After this list of tips I will list three of my favorite blogs.

Write Frequently

If you can do this, you are a true blogger. Most blogs update daily, some update three to four times a week; several bloggers do twice-daily posts in the first two to three months. Blogging consistently will ensure that you get crawled frequently; you get good marks from the algorithm for activity and people see you as a source of news for a particular topic. This means that they check you regularly and link to you.

The best part is that, as you write in volume, you will start ranking high for pretty niche keywords, because if you write frequently you will "accidentally" start writing on niche keywords. Some blog entries are 250 words; a lot are far shorter. Hundred-word posts are pretty common, though if you have a short post it’s a good idea to put in a large picture or a podcast. Think of blog postings as snacks instead of full course meals.

Of course if you are like Developer Shed, with 1500 words or more per "post" (more like essays if you ask me), then you will probably get away with weekly updates. Note that each one gets divided into four pages (at least) so that’s still a lot of volume for the spiders to crawl. Writing frequently can only be done if you are an expert in the topic on which you are writing, or if you have contributors who are experts. You also have to actually love the topic. Blog writing is intense, but it has a major pay-off at the end of the day.

It is good to speak informally when blogging. You can describe how your dog died and relate it to whatever topic you are writing on (for more on how to write informally check out Mr Katz). You have to be "real," yet while you are being real you have to be grammatically correct (for your editor) and politically correct, so keep your prejudices for happy hour. Seriously.

It’s a fine balance because you have to let the readers see that this is really you, but you don’t start speaking Caribbean Calypso (or whatever it is you speak) like you do when in your neighborhood.

Use the More Tag

The more tag is a "continue reading" link that breaks your article into two parts. It allows you to stuff loads of posts on your home page in a neat and ordered manner. This keeps your posts from getting all stretched out on the home page. 

Now I get to give you some of my favorite tech blogs, so here we go.

www.gizmodo.com

www.wired.com (is this a giant blog or a giant website?)

www.bruceclay.com/blog (she’s very good, I mean she beat www.searchengineland.com to make my top three).

Happy blogging! 

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