Are you about to start your first blog? Maybe you’ve just got going, or you’re a few months in. You’re worried that you’ve missed something important – or you feel like you’re not seeing the success you should.
That may well be the case … but I’ve got you covered.
Like every blogger, I’ve made a few mistakes. I’ve had my share of frustrations, wasted time, and wasted money.
Like all successful bloggers, I kept going! It could’ve been easier, though – and I want to share some of my lessons learned so that you will succeed even faster than me.
Here’s what I wish I’d known before I started my first blog.
There’s a lot of info in this article, with plenty of practical, actionable steps for you to take, so I’ve split this post into four main parts:
- Part 1: Getting Your Blog Set Up Right
- Part 2: Focusing Your Blogging Efforts
- Part 3: Making Your Blog Run Smoothly
- Part 4: Having the Right Mindset
You might want to bookmark this post or even print it out for easy reference.
(Although it’s a long post, it’s not an exhaustive list. If you’ve got a “lesson learned” to share that doesn’t appear here, please feel free to leave it in the comments.)
Part #1: Getting Your Blog Setup Right
Having the right setup for your blog, and the right tools, is essential. As your blog grows, you don’t want to be limited by using a hosted blogging platform – or by accidentally losing all your files or having your blog hacked.
1. Self-Hosted WordPress.org is Better than Free Hosted WordPress.com
If your blog is just a hobby, and you’ve no intention of making money from it, or using it to support your business, then of course you can blog on WordPress.com – or Blogger, or any other platform of your choice.
But if you want to monetize your blog, you should really be using self-hosted WordPress. That means buying your own domain name and paying for space with a web hosting company. Getting this setup might sound a little daunting – the truth is that there are plenty of great web hosting companies that make the process very straightforward with a “one-click installation”.
You should check out these comparison articles:
- Self Hosted WordPress vs Free WordPress.com (Chart)
- WordPress vs Blogger – Which one is Better? (Pros and Cons)
Top Tip: If you’ve started blogging elsewhere, and you’ve only written a couple of posts, the easiest way to switch is to simply set up your blog afresh and copy the posts over. If you’ve got an established blog with a number of posts and comments, check out WPBeginner’s guide on How to Properly Move Your Blog from WordPress.com to WordPress.org.
2. Your Choice of Web Host Matters
Don’t just choose a web host because a friend’s using it – or because you’ve got a coupon code. Do a bit of research and make sure you’re choosing a host that’s right for you and your blog. (This probably won’t be the very cheapest web host you can find.)
I’ve seen bloggers suffer serious problems because of choosing a poor hosting company. Their blogs go through frequent periods of downtime, the response time from technical support is abysmal, and inevitably, their traffic nosedives.
No hosting company is perfect, and you’ll find that everyone has negative reviews. Here are some recommended WordPress hosting companies (and reviews from their users) here.
Top Tip: If you’re not happy with your current web host, switching might be less of a pain than you think. Most WordPress hosting companies offer free migration services – just ask the support team for your host, if you’re not sure! If they can’t help you, here’s a guide on moving your WordPress site yourself with no downtime.
3. Backups are Super Important
Have you ever had a friend or fellow blogger tell you to backup – right now? Chances are, they’ve just suffered a catastrophic loss … and they really wish they’d kept frequent backups. Don’t make the same mistake.
“Backup my blog” is the sort of task that sits on to-do lists for ages, especially if you’re not quite sure how to go about it. Promise yourself that you’ll back it up today – or at least this week. The easiest way to backup your blog is to use one of these seven plugins.
Top Tip: Store your backed-up files in the cloud, so that if your computer dies – or if you’re away from home when your site suffers a catastrophic failure – you’ll be able to retrieve them easily.
4. You Should Be Worried About Security
If you’ve only recently started blogging, you probably feel almost invincible. Hardly anyone knows your blog exists (though you wish they would). It might seem laughable to think that your blog could be hacked – why would a hacker even try?
Hacking attempts are often automated, though. Your blog could get hacked regardless of how new and obscure it is … unless you’ve taken active steps to protect it.
Top Tip: The best way to keep your blog safe is to use Sucuri: they keep your website safe, and if it does get infected with malware, they’ll clean it up. I use Sucuri on my website, and you can read my full Sucuri review.
5. Build Your Email List from Day One
Although RSS subscribers and social media followers are great, what really matters is how many email subscribers you have. So how do you go about building your list?
One great starting point is to create an incentive—a reason for someone to subscribe (beyond “you’ll get my awesome blog posts!”). You need to give them a compelling reason to hand over their email address – and a portion of their attention.
These incentives are called lead magnets. A few example of lead magnets can be:
- A short .pdf guide or ebook.
- A “cheatsheet”, checklist, poster or other quick-to-use resource.
- An audio recording or video that isn’t available to the general public.
- A short online course that teaches them something.
- Here are 9 highly effective lead magnet ideas to grow your email list.
You can go even further and create a number of different incentives, tailored to different pieces of content on your blog. These are called “content upgrades” and they’re very effective because they offer more content on something that the reader is already engaged with.
Once you’ve got your incentive in place, make sure people know about it!
Hopefully you’ve already got a sign-up form in your blog’s sidebar – but how many people actually notice that?
You’ll want to consider using:
- After post forms – great for catching people’s attention when they’ve enjoyed a piece of content and they’re deciding what to do next.
- Slide-ins – because they move, these are more eye-catching than a form that just sits in your sidebar or footer.
- Floating header and footer bars – these scroll along with the user, so they’re always visible on their screen (without covering up your great content).
- Pop-ups – although some bloggers are reluctant to use these because they think they’ll annoy readers, pop-ups can be extremely effective at increasing your email sign-ups.
- Welcome gates – these take over the whole screen when a user first arrives on your site: a sure-fire way to provide a warm welcome and to get attention.
- Contact forms – you can add a check box to your contact form to let people sign up for your email list, and/or add a check box for this when they leave a comment.
Top Tip: If you really want to get serious about building your email list, check out OptinMonster, its a tool that I built to help grow my own email list. Thousands of people use it to convert website visitors into subscribers. You can create all sorts of email sign-up forms and split-test them.
Part #2: Focusing Your Blogging Efforts
Some beginners start out blogging about whatever happens to be on their mind on any given day – especially if they’re building a personal brand under their own name (like syedbalkhi.com) instead of a blog that could be run by a team (like WPBeginner.com).
To build a strong readership, you need to focus on topics that fit sensibly together – and that your readers actually want to read about. These suggestions will help you do that.
6. Get Clear About Categories vs Tags
Whatever blogging platform you use, it’ll probably allow for both “categories” and “tags”. Some bloggers use these almost interchangeably – which isn’t correct – and others fail to make good use of them.
Categories are like a table of contents for your blog. They list the major topic areas that you cover. For instance, a blog on personal development might have categories like “Time Management” and “Health”. Every post you write has to have a category (if you don’t set one, the default is “Uncategorized” – make sure you change that to something more relevant to your blog).
You can put posts in two or more categories, though if you find you’re regularly doing so, it might be worth considering combining two categories together, or turning some lesser-used categories into tags.
Tags are like an index for your blog. They’re much more granular than categories, and some tags might only be used for one or two posts on your entire blog. A personal development blog might have tags like “Pomodoro Method” or “Early Rising”. Posts don’t have to have a tag.
You can have multiple tags for one post. Make sure you don’t use them in a spammy way (having multiple very similar tags to target slightly different keywords) – this looks bad to readers.
For more on categories vs tags, check out WPBeginner’s post Categories vs Tags – SEO Best Practices for Sorting Your Content.
Top Tip: Don’t try to come up with a whole list of categories on your first day of blogging. Instead, think of three or four that you’ll commonly use – and gradually add more over time, when required.
7. Add and USE Google Analytics
One of the very best ways to know what to write about next, or which older posts to invest further time in, is to use Google Analytics. This free tool provides you with a huge amount of data about the visitors to your blog: where they’re coming from, how long they’re staying, what posts they’re reading, what browsers and devices they’re using, and more.
Adding Google Analytics is straightforward – but many new bloggers don’t even bother. For full step by step instructions on signing up for Google Analytics and adding the code to your blog (which can be easily done via a plugin), check out How to Install Google Analytics in WordPress for Beginners.
Once you’ve installed Analytics, make sure you use it! I know this sounds obvious – but a huge number of bloggers get it installed then never look at their data.
Top Tip: Set aside a regular time each week to login to your Google Analytics dashboard and look for useful trends. The post linked to above, on installing Google Analytics, also includes some useful suggestions on what sorts of insights you can look for.
Part #3: Getting the Most from Your Content
Don’t simply rush posts out onto your blog and leave it at that: otherwise, you’re not going to be able to compete with established blogs with high standards. Instead, make sure you get the most from the posts you’ve written.
8. Publish Quality Posts, Consistently
Some new bloggers think they need to publish every day – or even several times a day. That’s not true. What matters is not the quantity of posts you produce but the quality of those posts.
Readers like to be confident that your posts are worth their time. After all, wouldn’t you rather read one great insightful post every week instead of having to go through a rushed, badly structured post every day?
To help your readers know what to expect, make sure you publish posts on a regular, consistent basis. Don’t publish three posts a week for a month then nothing for the next month.
Top Tip: Create a content calendar to help you plan upcoming posts. If possible, get ahead with writing your content – that way, you won’t need to rush posts out at the last minute.
9. Get to Grips with On-Page SEO
You might be thinking of SEO (search engine optimization) in terms of getting links to your site from other sites – and while that’s important, it’s definitely not the whole story.
Your on-page SEO matters too – and it’s fully within your control. This means using:
- Keywords – thinking about what someone might type into a search engine in order to find a post on your topic. You can research the keywords that people are actually using with the Google AdWords Keyword Planner, and you may want to adjust your post’s title or content a little to be a good fit for reasonably popular keywords. (A “keyword” can be a whole phrase, not necessarily just one word.)
- Interlinking – adding links to older posts (or going back and updating old ones to link to newer ones too). This isn’t just good for your SEO – it helps readers to engage more deeply with your blog. Each time you write a post, make sure you include a link to at least one other post or page on your blog.
- Meta tags – if you have an SEO plugin like All in One SEO Pack installed, you can easily set the title and meta description for your post. This title shows up in search engine results and in the browser tab for the post. The meta description normally appears in search engine results too. Both should contain your target keywords; they should also be enticing to users.
- Sitemaps – An XML sitemap is for search engines, telling them all the pages that exist on your site. It won’t directly boost your search engine ranking, but it will help the search engines to crawl your site more easily. You can find out more, and learn how to create one, here.
- Google Search Console – This free service, previously called Google Webmaster Tools, lets you perform various useful functions – like submitting and checking your sitemap, checking and setting the crawl rate for the site, viewing lists of URLs that Google was unable to crawl, and much more. You can access it here.
Top Tip: If this all seems a bit overwhelming, try getting to grips with one item on this list at a time. Look online for a tutorial or step-by-step instructions, or ask other blogger friends how they’re putting that aspect of SEO into practice.
10. Guest Posting Gives You Access to a Huge Audience
Many very prominent bloggers grew their blogs rapidly by guest posting.
Chances are, you’re already familiar with the term “guest posting” – but in case not, it simply means writing for someone else’s blog. You’re a guest there and you normally won’t be paid for your contribution, though some sites do pay guest authors.
Many new bloggers think that they need to achieve a certain level of success before guest posting. In fact, even large blogs are very open to guest posts from new bloggers.
They care about how well you can write, and how much expertise you can offer, not how many readers your blog currently has.
In the early days of your blog, when you might have a few dozen or a few hundred readers, guest posting can give you a much greater reach. Your post will be seen by thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of readers – and at least some of them will be interested enough in who you are and what you offer. This means you’ll get some significant, very targeted, traffic to your blog.
You can learn more about guest posting effectively here:
Top Tip: Guest posting is also a quick way to boost your credibility. Once you’ve written for a large blog, you can include this on your site – perhaps as a mention on your About page, or in a section “As Seen On” in your sidebar.
Part #4: Making Your Site Run Smoothly
However great your content, people won’t stick around to read it if it takes forever to load. Make sure your site is running as quickly and smoothly as possible.
11. Running a Caching Plugin is Important
This is a very easy mistake to make when you’re new, because chances are, no-one’s bothered to tell you about it!
You need to run a caching plugin on your WordPress blog to speed it up.
Caching can sound a bit complicated, but all you really need to know is that caching plugins store your website’s pages, so that they don’t have to be reloaded from scratch for every visitor.
Slow websites aren’t just off-putting to readers – they may even end up counting against you in Google’s rankings.
12. Optimize Your Images for the Web
Images are eye-catching and engaging, but they can also slow your site right down. If you add images to your blog posts, make sure you’re uploading them in a form optimized for the web. That means:
- Crop images to avoid excess white space around them and/or to focus on the important element (if you’re using, say, a photo).
- Resize your images before uploading them. If you want a 500px wide image at the start of your blog post, don’t upload it as a 2000px wide image and resize it in WordPress.
- Use .jpg for photos and other color-rich images. It’s OK to use .png for small icons and navigational elements, as it’ll give a higher-quality result (.png file sizes are larger than .jpg file sizes).
Top Tip: If you need to optimize a lot of existing images on your blog, you could try WP Smush – but it’s definitely best to resize images yourself and re-upload them where possible.
13. Your Favicon (aka Site Icon) is Important
This is something else that’s very easily overlooked when you’re new to blogging partly because it’s so tiny. Your favicon appears next to your site’s name in the browser window, like a mini logo for your site. If you don’t set a favicon, a blank page icon appears here instead.
The favicon helps make your site look professional. It’s part of your brand, and while users may not consciously notice it, they will notice its absence!
It’s very simple to upload a favicon, whatever WordPress theme you’re using: you can find full instructions on creating and uploading your favicon here.
Top Tip: When creating your favicon, use the main colour from your site’s logo and potentially the first letter of your site’s name. It will be tiny (16×16 or 32×32) in the user’s browser, so do make sure you preview it at that size to make sure it still looks good.
Part #4: Having the Right Mindset
Aside from the technical and tactical issues I’ve covered above, one struggle many new bloggers have is getting into the right mindset for success. Blogging isn’t a quick path to fame and fortune. And it’s definitely not something you can just dip in and out of whenever you feel like it (unless you have no intention of making money at all).
14. There are No Overnight Successes
When you’re building your blog, there are probably quite a few bloggers you admire or even envy a bit. They may look to you like they’ve stormed a path straight to the A-list – while you’re working hard every day but only seeing slow growth.
The truth is that “overnight successes” have often spent years in obscurity, working hard to grow their blog. Many times, they’ve had previous blogs before the one that catapults them to success – and these early blogs were failures. “Passive income” in blogging doesn’t really exist – anything that looks like passive income will require a lot of up-front work and probably some ongoing maintenance.
Top Tip: If you do want to succeed reasonably quickly, it’s important to view your blog as part of a business, rather than as a business in itself. Think about how exactly you plan to make money, and if one option isn’t working, try another.
15. Good Time Management Skills are Critical
When you start blogging, chances are you already have a lot of other commitments in life. Perhaps you’re working full-time or studying. Maybe you have a young family. This makes it particularly critical to manage your time effectively.
Even if you’re able to work full-time on your blog, you need good time management skills – otherwise you’ll end up wasting days procrastinating or doing busy work.
Everyone’s different when it comes to time management, but you might consider:
- Reading a popular book like David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
- Using an app or online tool to manage your to-do list.
- Working in short bursts with breaks in between (the Pomodoro method has 25 minutes focusing followed by a 5 minute break).
- Batching together certain repetitive tasks, like moderating comments and answering emails, so you do them a couple of times a day rather than every few minutes.
- Doing your high-energy work (like writing content) at the time of day when you’re at your most focused.
Top Tip: Above all, be conscious of how you’re using your time. Read this article on how I added 5 more hours in my day.
16. Negative Feedback (Usually) Isn’t About You
New bloggers often worry about how they’ll handle negative feedback – particularly nasty comments on their blog, aggressive tweets or angry emails.
The truth is that all bloggers get (some) negative feedback. You simply can’t please everyone – and some readers will have unreasonable expectations, like expecting you to provide all your content for free and never charge for anything.
Often, negative feedback isn’t about you at all: it’s about the person commenting (or tweeting, emailing, etc). They’ve had a particularly bad day or week and they’ve decided to take it out on you.
It’s often tempting to respond angrily – but don’t. Take a few deep breaths, and step away from the keyboard if you need to. Sometimes, a gentle, understanding response can win you a very loyal fan … you may well also get an apology.
Top Tip: Don’t dismiss every piece of negative feedback. Watch out for trends – for instance, if you frequently get comments that point out typos or question your facts, then perhaps you need to spend a little more time on quality control before publishing your posts.
If you’re an experienced blogger, what do you wish you’d known from day one? If you’re fairly new to blogging, what are you struggling with right now? Drop a comment below to tell me.