Sunday, November 8, 2015

How to Blog, Part Four...Choosing a Theme





Within any blog platform that we have talked about before, you will have many choices of themes. The mistake many people make is to choose what looks like the easiest and quickest theme that comes along and call it “good enough”, when they should be looking a lot deeper than that.
If you are only looking at a blog to be read, it is not as important as choosing a theme with the proper components to use as a sales site. However, looking at the future use of the blog at some point down the road is more important than just putting something out there to get started.


The colors

Most blog themes allow the colors of the page to be changed, even on Blogger. The colors should always reflect the topic of the site. The topic of gardening would usually suggest something in green and brown tones, in other words, earthy colors. A topic of cars or mechanical things usually works best with "tool box red" and black, or even yellow and black. More general topics can never go wrong with something in shades of light blue, as that is usually the color that is easiest on the eyes as a background.

Of course, if you have a particular logo with colors in it, you want to always choose a background with accents, rather than clashes with, your logo colors. If you use a photo in your header, you want to choose something that will go well with the rest of your site. Any other add-ons, such as photos and banner ads, can usually be chosen for their colors, so that they compliment the colors in your site.

The one thing that nearly everyone agrees on is that dark background colors and bright text are hard on the eyes, and yet there are many themes out there that are designed specifically for these colors. For topics like rock music, motorcycles, and "dark" subject matter, this can be appropriate, but be careful of the layout. Don't overwhelm people with long blocks of text to read. Try to keep the text bright, larger, and to a minimum. Make sure you leave plenty of paragraph breaks, and use lots of images to break up the dark background. Those images can be photos, or even banner ads. Adding changes of color to any background helps to break up the monotony of long blocks of text, and makes the page more visually appealing.

The fonts

Anyone can do the research to see what the easiest fonts are to read, but usually something in Century or Arial (or something close, like Verdana) is the easiest to read. I have seen many themes that include some form of fancy script, and usually will not even waste my time trying to get through it. That isn't just my opinion, but that of anyone who has ever done marketing studies to attract the most people. In some cases the font can be changed within a theme, but depending on how the blog is set up, it might be easier to just choose a different theme.

The size of the font is also important. I have seen some sites that have such small font, that I refuse to even read them, let alone try to follow their posts. ALWAYS... think about who your readers are, and what devices they may be using to read your site. Normally, the older people get, the worse their eyesight becomes. If your target audience is an older age bracket, then choose something with a font that is large enough to read without a magnifying glass! Again, some font sizes can be changed in the theme, but it may take tweaking the code (only doable in the dot org version of Wordpress). If that is beyond your current expertise, then the easiest thing is choose a better theme!

The layout

Themes come in all sorts of varieties, and all kinds of standard layouts. In many of them, you can choose how many columns you want (which also includes the sidebars). Most blogs will only need two columns, which means a wider post column, and a narrower sidebar. Studies have shown that is it most advantageous to put the wider column on the left, as people generally read left to right, and their eyes go to the most important information first. For casual blogs, that is normally enough.

For certain marketing applications, where the author intends to use a lot of sidebar gadgets/widgets (they are same thing, and are only called different names by the different blog platforms) containing ads or other information, they may want a third column. That could mean a narrow sidebar on either side of the post, or in some cases, a wider post column to the left followed by two sidebars on the right, or even vice-versa.

Gadgets or widgets are the little building blocks of most blogs, and most are already programmed to do certain things, such as add a subscribe form, a search form, add social buttons, an archive of past blog posts, etc., while others are more generic, allowing you to add your own text or html language to perform other functions, such as adding a payment button. Typically, they will remain standard and show on every page of your site without having to install them on every page. On Wordpress blogs, you can install plug-ins to give you many more choices regarding how the widgets show up, but most bogs will not do that.

The placement of the widgets is also important, especially when you get into marketing. Most blogs will only allow the placement of the widgets in certain places. Here's an example of a glitch we have run into...

Because of the way sites display on mobile devices, the sidebars do not always show up at all, so if you have ads in them, or even a list of your archived posts, people on mobile devices will never see them! The only thing most of them see is your header (often without your header photo) and the main blog post. The only way to get people to see these other things is to include them in the body of every single post you write, which takes a lot more work!

Here's something else we just noticed this morning... when we looked at one of our blogs on my smart phone, and clicked on the "View as web page" link at the bottom of the post, it showed the widgets in the side bar, but still failed to show the footer widget at the bottom of the page! I think this is an error in the way the blog was set up. Why it reads widgets on the side and not on the bottom is anyone's guess... but things like this happen! And it's why you should always look at your site on various devices and different browsers, to see how it is showing up! Either one could change the font style, the layout, and affect other things. Your goal is design the site so it appears as well as it can across the board, on all browsers and all devices if you expect to hang onto your readers!  

Some blogs will allow you to add a widget to the top of your post, but that still doesn't mean it will show up on a mobile device. This is where the technology on one hand hasn't caught up with the technology on the other hand! Before mobile devices came along, there wasn't a problem. But as of a few years ago, the number of people accessing the web through mobile devices passed the 50% mark, and today, they are far in the majority of all users. If we don't satisfy the needs of the mobile market, we will automatically lose most of our readership, and if we are monetizing our sites, we also lose a good percentage of potential income!

Much of the problem lies in the smaller size of the mobile screens. In order to keep the fonts somewhat readable, the information can't all be jammed onto the screen at the same time. The engineers and designers have decided that the best way to alleviate reading problems is to show only one column at a time. But some sites and themes will allow the rest of the site to be seen if you keep scrolling down past the initial post, and others won't. The latter seems to block ALL widgets, regardless of where they are placed... even at the top of the post column.

This is something that I hope the industry in general will correct as time goes on, but for now, we have to figure out ways to do "work-arounds" to these problems. It could mean testing each theme on a mobile device before we actually choose on that will work the way we need it to work!

It would be impossible to come up with a list of all the browsers, devices and themes that are completely compatible with each other, as the developers are fixing many problems after the product has been released and tested by the public.

In summary

I have mentioned the main things to watch for in choosing a theme, and why you have to be careful in what you choose. I have seen many third-party paid themes and plug-ins designed for Wordpress that the developers were too much in a hurry on to test them out thoroughly. Often the greed for profit over-rides the need for perfection, they leave it up to the public to do the testing, and make the corrections as they are reported to them. 

As always, if you have a question on anything, post it in the comments. I will take a look at your site and make my recommendations on it free of charge.     

How to Blog, Part Three...Choosing a Site Platform



Although there are many ways to create a blog online, I’m going to discuss only two platforms, WordPress and Blogger, and discuss the differences between them. They are without a doubt, the two most highly used platforms on the web. I have been using both of them for several years now, and have been studying marketing practices and techniques long before that (15+ years as of this writing). I been using both platforms for marketing purposes, and as such, have more “in-depth” knowledge about how they work and why you should use them.
I won’t get into how to set them up, or how to create a domain, as there are plenty of other sources for that directly from the providers. They teach mostly the technical end of getting the blog to do what you want it to do, but leave out the psychological part of why you should do it, and how it will look to other people. What is not said is how to operate a blog properly for real readers, so that it becomes something that the public actually wants to look at and read. But it helps to know what’s available and how it “should” be used.

Before we begin, let it be known that ANY blog, especially free ones, have one main rule… that it be used primarily as a means of communication between the user and the public. Although it is physically possible to do, if you were to set up a blog as a static site without allowing comments, and with nothing but sales hype on it, the owners of it will likely shut you down before you ever get started good. The only way they can't is if the program is installed on your own domain. Then the blog is basically "your" property, and they can't shut down your domain! 
Some (like Blogger) will allow sales to take place, as long as the main intent is to provide useful articles (posts or pages) on which comments are active and the public can communicate freely with the site owner through those comments. WordPress (the free dot com version) will only allow their own advertising, unless you own the (also free) dot org version of it on your own domain. In the latter case, you can do whatever you want with it.
Let’s discuss WordPress first. This is an “open source” program, meaning that there is no specific “company” behind it, but rather it is a collaboration of many developers all over the world. There are over 600 programs of this type and growing all the time, including things like OpenOffice, and many web building programs, audio and video programs, and many other specialized programs.

This can be both good and bad. In one sense, everyone looks out for everyone else, and works for the benefit of all, but in another sense, because it is not a product which a traditional company would depend on, and from which only certain ones make money from it, there is no direct incentive to fix things that a user may find wrong with it.
It has been my experience that just because you may find all sorts of plug-ins, themes and apps to go along with it, doesn’t ensure that they will all work to the level at which they are hyped, and getting support for them may not always be expedient. After all, most of them are developed by certain individual programmers, who develop both free and paid versions of these products. Some may do it as a “sideline” to another job, and you may have to wait hours, if not days, for them to even respond to you.
Also, WordPress is devleoped in two different versions, one for the free blog market at WordPress.com, and one for use on domains at WordPress.org. Believe me when I say that they are NOT the same product, although most parts of them are interchangeable to some degree! I have had occasion to use both, and although some themes may be common, the components within them may be set up totally different. Some of the themes may “look” alike, but behind the scenes, on the control panels, they ARE different… sometimes radically different!
The dot com version is meant for the general public, most of whom are beginners at web work, and the developers don’t want anyone messing with the background code of the site, which would obviously affect everyone using it. They present what they want you to use, and if you don’t like what they offer, it’s your tough luck! You can try a different theme, but that’s about all you can do. You can’t get into the code at all, nor do they allow any of the 20,000+ plug-ins to be installed to get it to do what you want. On the bright side, they do take care of their own updates for you. But be aware, there are many things that you can do on the dot org version that you will not be able to do on the free dot com version!
If you read into the user agreement of the free version, it basically says that they DO NOT allow any other advertising on the free site except what they put on there themselves. That means that you CANNOT do anything to sell a product, either your own or through an affiliate. After all, they are providing you with a free site to use (actually a sub-domain of the main WordPress site) at their expense, and if anyone is going to make money, they want to be the ones to do it! Other than individual developers selling certain themes, plug-ins and apps to go along with it, there is no other way for the platform developers to cover their expenses. They are providing not only the programming for the site and support for it, but they also have to provide the servers on which millions of these free sites are hosted for you. That all costs money.
They will allow a donation (to you) payment button on the free site, but they don’t even make that easy to install. You can’t just use the provided code from the payment processor. You have to jump through hoops by using only the button image, and then create a link from that directly from the blog editing window. It won’t even work in a widget. You have to add it to a page or post of your blog. I know, because I just had to do this for a customer. If you try to add the code to a widget, the button may work, but it messes up the operation of all the other widgets! What a pain!
However… WordPress does provide a platform at WordPress DOT ORG for use on privately owned domains, and that is a world of difference away form the free version. Once you download that version to your domain, you basically OWN it, and have free control over literally everything! You can get into the root code of the site and tweak it to suit your needs. You can obtain countless additional themes from third-party developers (some free and some paid), countless additional plug-ins (some free and some paid) to manipulate anything about the site, and other apps for mobile devices (again, some free and some paid). If you mess something up totally, all you have to do is reload the platform and start over again. And on this one, you CAN export the files to your own computer as a backup and the import them back into a new platform or even another blog, including Blogger, so they have to you covered, no matter what.
In fact , it has become so popular that most hosting companies provide a quick way to install WordPress (dot org) right from their “C” panel, where you set up other things on your domain, such as email accounts and much more. OR… you can install it from the WordPress.org web site. But you still need to know how to get into and operate your own “C” panel for other things.
And because you own both the platform and the site, you can do whatever you want with it as far as advertising or selling! The down side is, because you own it now, they won’t update it for you, so expect to get into the dashboard to check on your site nearly every day to watch for manual updates to plug-ins, themes, and occasionally, even the platform itself. If you fail to monitor the site and perform the necessary updates (required to keep up with changes in other things, like Microsoft updates) it can affect the performance and security of the site.
Now…let’s discuss the other popular blog platform, at Blogger.com…a Google product.
Blogger is totally free platform, owned and backed by one of the largest companies in the world, with a learning curve that is much easier than WordPress. It has several differences, the main one being that there is NO version for you to "install" on your own domain, although Blogger provides a method for you to create your own domain for your blog right on the dashboard. You can create a domain and do a quick redirect to a Blogger site, but the blog platform is still not “yours”. Blogger still owns it and has final say on what you do with it. However, they are more “liberal” with their permissions.
The main one is that if you read the user agreement, you will find that you CAN use it for selling! In fact we have had sites out there for years that have both affiliate links as well as our own payment buttons on it. But we follow rule number one, in that we provide informative articles and allow readers to comment on them. As long as you allow those key ingredients, and don’t break any other rules, you should be fine.
There are many other blog platforms out there, and I cannot cover all of them. It used to be that social sites were not blogs, but features have improved to where the definition of what is a blog is becoming very gray. Many social sites have new features that blur the line even more. The problem is that many of them get cluttered up with so many other posts and ads that are forced on you and your readers that your own content gets lost among all the other garbage, and many people don’t want to be bothered by all that social nonsense… they just want to read about what YOU are doing. Also, you have no control over much of that clutter or the rules you have to play by. With your own site, YOU have control.
So take a look at each of the free platforms. If you even “think” you might want to make some additional money with your blog (after you get used to running one), then stay away from the free WordPress (dot com) blog. It not only won’t let you make any money but it’s features are very limited. You can stay with free by going to Blogger.com and still make money if you do it right, OR you can set up your own domain and hosting and install the free WordPress.org for use on your own site... or... you can set up a Blogger blog, and then purchase a domain right from your dashboard. If you choose one of the other blog sites that allow you a page or a sub-domain of their main site, then I am limited on my ability to help you because I don’t use those other sites.
I have found that in nearly everything in life it always pays to use the best if you can afford it, and since these are all free to use, along with being the biggest and the best in the fields, then how can you go wrong? The communities that use them are HUGE, the support is there, and anything you want to know can be learned from reading the tutorials, watching the videos on both their own sites as well as YouTube, and either one of these will do what you need to do. If you are “technically challenged” then I would suggest Blogger. If you like to play around with everything you get to see how it works, thenWordPress.org on your own domain is probably what you want.
But no platform of any kind will attract or keep readers if you don’t follow certain standards, and those include everything from the colors of your site, to the size and style of the font, to the overall layout and navigation, to your own spelling and grammar.
No one wants to read a site with a bunch of mis-spelled words, run-on sentences with no paragraphs, bad grammar, or poor writing style. In the next few posts we are going to get into what makes a blog look good and attract readers who want to subscribe to read even more of what you have. If you can’t hang onto them with the basics, then you might as well forget about trying to sell to them with anything else. I can’t give you that kind of education. I can only advise you on what works. If you need to go back to night classes to learn how to talk correctly and spell properly, then that’s on you. I can only tell you that blogging isn’t texting, and no one wants to read a bunch of gibberish and spelling shortcuts. You’re not just messaging your friends here. This will be out there for the world to see, and they won’t tolerate sloppiness in what you deliver.
“Nuff” said.

How to Blog, Part Two, Keyword Density and Relevance




Now that you have an idea of why keywords are important, the next thing is learning how to use them, In Part One we discussed how to find the keywords related to your topic that people are using to search. We discussed how to use them in your site URL, site title, and tag line, right on down to the paragraph headers.

Keyword density…

Now the question is how many times do you have to use them in your posts or pages. The reason that makes a difference also relates to relevance. Using too few keywords will result in the search engines thinking that the words only showed up as a fluke, and don’t really mean much to the rest of the article. Using too many of them, and it will think you are “keyword spamming” the article just to get your site recognized by the search engines… and any experienced marketer knows that doesn’t work anymore and will actually reduce the ranking of your site. Maybe at one time in years past it did work, but the software engineers who program the search engines have gotten smarter of the years, and stopped allowing that a long time ago!
How many times you should use your keywords in the article really depends on how long the article is, but generally, if you use them about three to five times in the article, that will be a good balance. You want the article to read “naturally” as though a human wrote it. If you use too many keywords too often, it comes across as though a robot wrote it that was only looking for high density. The search engines are smart enough to know the difference these days, and they are getting smarter every day.

Keyword relevance…

In the "old days", there was a thing called “meta-tags”… hidden html language that couldn’t be seen on the page, but instructed the search engines as to what the site was about and how it should run. The problem was that marketers would abuse the meta-tags, and load the keywords meta-tag with anything and everything that they thought would get them traffic, even if it had nothing to do with the page it was on!
Eventually, the search engine programmers got smart and decided not to play those games, as it made for unfair competition in the search results. Today, most meta-tags are ignored, except for the description. Although they have tried to improve the situation by adding a snippet of text from the page, rather than leave the search listing blank, it still can't replace the manual act of adding your own "best first impression" and/or "most compelling sales message" in the description form on your site. We'll discuss that more later. How much importance is placed on a site is much more dependent upon “real world” relevance, in such areas as
  1. How the site ranks in importance to the rest of the internet. This is decided by many things, but included is the amount of traffic the site gets, how many other sites are “talking” about it (having the URL linked within their pages) and also how often it gets fresh content.
  2. Having fresh content is extremely important because a static site that is simply put “out there” and then ignored by its owner will soon go down in importance because it is getting stagnant, and no one is using it. It becomes “irrelevant” to the world. This is why blogs have become so popular. Having new posts written is great, but also, every comment that is made on a post creates fresh new content, a sign to the search engine that this site is being used and is still relevant to the rest of the world. And the best part is, the owner of the site doesn’t have to do it, so it lessens his workload! His readers do it for him!
  3. The site has to be relevant within itself, also, to gain the respect of the search engines. Having just the right amount of actual search terms (keywords) within all parts of the site, tells the search engines that it really is about what the public is searching for and they will bring it up higher in the search results.
Part of being relevant is also in how the description is written. The search engines are now programmed so that the description contains an excerpt of some relevant text within the article. That helps the search engines to know that the article is important, plus, that description shows up below the search listing on the web, to tell the reader what the site is about. Because many people today think that “all” the meta-tags are ignored, they wrongfully assume that the description meta-tag is also ignored. As a result they allow the search engines to randomly pull a part of the text from the site which may or may nor mean anything to the reader.
We’ve all seen search result listings that show nothing but a bunch of gibberish under the URL line. Sometimes it is so bad that it actually drives the potential visitor away rather than attract them! The webmaster is missing two of the most crucial aspects of any selling… the first impression and the sales pitch!
A description on the search listings is the very first thing a potential visitor is going to see when he searches for what he wants. Leaving that most important “first contact” to chance is a mistake that I see WAY too often! If you don’t say something in that first introduction to grab the reader’s attention, he won’t click on that listing and you may have lost him forever! That's WAY too important to leave to chance!
Those who know how to use html and have access to the code of their site can easily insert a description meta-tag in their header. But most of the free “public” sites and blogs won’t allow access to their proprietary code. So they normally will have a form box somewhere in their settings to insert a description line that will show up on the search results on any search engine.
It is the site owner’s responsibility to make sure that the description line is the most important first impression and sales pitch (rolled into one) that they can make it. If it doesn’t entice the reader to click on that listing to find out more… then that potential visitor may be gone forever! Whether you are looking to build your readership or are actually selling a product… the technique is the same!

If you have any questions on this, please...let me know in the comments, and I will answer ASAP.

How to Blog, Part One...Know Your Keywords and How to Use Them!



The one thing that inexperienced bloggers tend to forget is how people are going to find their blog. If they are just doing a blog for family to watch, then it may not matter, but if you want to attract readers to your blog, then you have to follow the same basic rules of marketing as anyone who is running a high pressure sales site. Both require following certain rules. The name of the game is traffic, something that both will need, whether selling something or not.
Some of the most important rules are created by the search engines, like Google, Bing, Ask, Yahoo, MSN, AOL and many, many others. No matter how good your site looks to readers, if you don’t make the search engines happy, they won’t match your site to the keywords that people type into the search forms on those sites.

Keyword tools…

How do you know what people are going to look for? The answer lies in certain software that marketers all know about, but few others do… especially if they have never blogged or had a web site before. This software can tell you how many times a month certain words are searched for, and that is the main thing you need to know. Some software can also tell you many other things, including related words and how many times they are searched. In general, the better the software (cost-wise) the more information you can find out.
There are many professional-grade pieces of software, most created by professional marketers, as they are the only ones who know what a marketer needs. Still each one may have their own idea about what they need. But even a beginner can learn how to find out what words people use to perform searches, and do the research for free.
Google, being the largest and most popular search engine on the planet, had created a free research tool available to the public. Originally it was created for their Adwords paid search listing program, but anyone could use it. That is no longer available without signing up for an Adwords account, but social bloggers probably won’t have a need for that if they don’t plan to do any advertising or selling. Still, you have to know what keywords people search for.
I did a simple Google search for “free keyword tool” and found several sources listed below. Some of these may overlap, but look through them and try out each one.
Keep in mind, any effort on the web is rewarded by the amount of time you put into it, and even blogging requires a certain amount of research before you even start. If you fail to learn your job, you will always appear to be an amateur at it, and will never get the results you wish for.
To help you decide which of these free online tools to use, always check reviews by Googling the name of the tool with the word “review”, and find out what others say about it. To find out more about each one, always watch any tutorials associated with it, and also search for the name of the tool on YouTube and look for tutorial videos on how to use it.
  1. Duct Tape Marketing has a list of eight free keyword tools.
  2. Internet Marketing Ninjas has a list of twelve free keyword tools.
  3. Pamorama has a list of five free and five paid keyword tools.
If you look on down through the search results, you will see many other free keyword tools. We use another professional-grade tool, MicroNicheFinder, that costs around $100, but as always, you get what you pay for. Beginner’s or casual bloggers won’t need as much detail as a professional tool provides.
Knowing how the search engines match sites to searches is the first thing to learn. They have a very common sense way of doing that, starting at “the top” and working down.
  1. The first thing they look at is the URL of the site. Does it contain the same exact words that people are searching for? Being able to use the exact words people would search for in your topic is helpful, but if you can’t figure out a way to use the keywords in the URL, there are ways to compensate.
  2. The title of the site is the second thing the search engines look at. Your site title can be different than your URL. If you aren’t able to find a URL with your ideal search terms in it, then you should definitely try to work words that relate to your topic into the title of the site.
  3. Your tag line, or sub-title, is the next thing the search engines will look at. Some people also refer to it is the “slogan”, although I have seen sites with a sub-title AND a slogan. However you use it, you should definitely work your search terms (keywords) into the highest points of your site as you can, especially if you couldn’t work them into the URL.
  4. Post and page titles are the next item the search engines will look in, to see if it can find matching keywords there. Blogs will automatically attribute certain “H tags” to certain areas of your post or page, but you can use the dashboard to over-ride their decisions. For beginner’s, an H-1 tag is always a header…larger font in bold type, to really stand out. Next is the H-2 tag, normally used for sub-headers, slightly smaller font than the main header, but still bold. The H-3 tag is normally used as a paragraph header… one more step down in size, but still bold. They continue down in size and importance to H-4, and in some cases down to H-6, but the search engines only look as far as H-4 tags.
  5. The next step in their search are the words in bold print, normally reserved for words that are very important. You should never have to choose a bold font for normal paragraphs, as it can cause the search engines to ignore the entire text, or cause it to think that “everything” is a keyword, in which case it can think it is being “spammed” with keywords (an illegal practice) and will actually demote your search listing! If the theme that you are using has too small or too light of a font for the paragraphs, then choose another theme. (We’ll talk more about readability in a later post.)
Once you learn how keyword tools work, the information might amaze you. Just the difference between using a plural word as opposed to a singular word can make a difference of tens of thousands of searches per month. Knowing a simple difference like that can “make or break” the success of getting readers to your site!
Now that you understand how and why keywords are important to your site getting found by the search engines, we also have to discuss two more things before you ever write your first post… and that is keyword density and relevance… both of which are also important to how the search engines will rank your site in the listings. These will be discussed in Part Two of our series, so stick around.