Matt Forney
Spread the Word!

How to Start a Blog in Thirty Minutes or Less, Part Two: Working with WordPress

Read First: How to Start a Blog in Thirty Minutes or Less, Part One: Finding a Web Host

So you’ve set up a site using WordPress.com or WordPress, and you’ve got a name and URL for it. You’re staring at the Dashboard of your brand spanking new blog, the Hello World!” exclamation silently mocking you. Where to go next?

1. Pick a theme.

First off, you’ll want to customize your site’s look. Go to the Themes page by hovering your mouse over “Appearance” in the Dashboard sidebar. The theme determines how your blog looks, giving you a basic template that you can customize however you want. With WordPress.com, you’re unfortunately limited to the themes that you see on the page, though thankfully there’s a lot of them and more are being added on a regular basis. If you’re using a self-hosted WordPress blog, your installation comes with some themes available, and you can also download more from WordPress.org and other places on the Internet.

While you can ultimately choose whatever theme you want, I highly recommend you pick one that has these features:

  • A customizable header. The header is the image that graces the top of your blog. Some themes don’t have them, but many do, and having a custom header makes it much easier for your site to stand out from the crowd.
  • At least two columns. All WordPress templates have at least one column: the space where your blog posts appear. A two-column theme has one sidebar in addition to the central column, and more columns equals more sidebars. You need at least one sidebar in order to maximize the usability and convenience of your blog. Preferably, you want a theme with three columns (two sidebars), arranged so that one sidebar is on each side of the central column, but one sidebar is the bare minimum. Don’t bother with themes that have four or more columns, as the extra sidebars just clutter the site and take attention away from your articles. If you’re on a self-hosted site, there are some themes that allow you to add or subtract columns as necessary.
  • Bylines. The byline is where the name of whoever wrote the post appears, usually just below the title. Most themes have bylines, but a few don’t, and if your blog title doesn’t have your name in it, you’ll end up confusing people if you use a theme without a byline. Hell, even having a byline isn’t enough for some people; if I had a dime for every time someone’s called me by the wrong name, I’d have enough money to send them all snail mail nastygrams. If you’re using a self-hosted site, you can add bylines manually using CSS if your preferred theme doesn’t have them, but why make work for yourself?

These three features are the bare minimum you need.

2. Add widgets.

After you’ve picked out a theme, it’s time to add widgets by going to the Widgets page, just underneath “Themes” in the dashboard. Widgets are an easy way of adding functionality to your blog, involving zero technical or programming knowledge. Perfect for lazy slugs like us.

On the Widgets page, you’ll see a list of available widgets and widget areas to put them in. Sidebars are the most common widget areas, and some themes allow you to place widgets in the footer (the absolute bottom of your theme). This is why I told you to pick a theme with at least one sidebar: so you have a convenient place to put the widgets.

Now, you might be thinking, “Matt, you arrogant prick! I thought you said you were going to skip the easy stuff!”

Yes, placing the widgets is easy enough, but only I have a time-tested order of placing them that will increase your blog’s traffic and minimize your readers’ frustration. Amazingly, if you just wave your mouse around like a four-year old smearing his feces on the walls of his parents’ double wide, you’ll get shitty results. If you’re using a theme with one sidebar, this is what widgets I recommend you use and what order to put them in, from top to bottom:

  • Search: This adds a search bar to your blog. Without it, your readers have to use Google if they want to search for one of your old posts. Search functionality is so important to a website in this day and age that it’s borderline antisocial not to have a search bar on your front page. (If your theme already has a search bar in the header, you can skip adding this.)
  • Pages (optional): This is only necessary if your theme doesn’t display pages in the header.
  • RSS Links: This adds links to your blog’s two main RSS (RDF Site Summary if you’re a geek, Really Simple Syndication for the rest of us) feeds, for Posts and Comments. This makes it easy for readers who use RSS aggregators like Google Reader to subscribe to your site. Like with the Search widget, if your blog already has a link to your posts feed (a few have links to both posts and comments, but the former is the most important one) in the header, you can skip adding this.
  • Blog Subscriptions: This widget lets people subscribe to your blog either via email (sending them a notification when you publish a new post) or via their WordPress.com accounts. While email subscriptions have been dwindling in popularity in recent years, enough people still use them that this is worth putting up.
  • Twitter: If you have a Twitter account (more on that later), this is where you should add the widget linking to it and showing your most recent Tweets. I recommend showing no more than ten Tweets at a time and no less than five; five is the optimal number in my experience.
  • Facebook Like Box: If your blog has a Facebook page, put the Like box here.
  • Recent Posts: Self-explanatory. Like with the Twitter widget, I recommend showing somewhere between 5-10 posts.
  • Recent Comments: Again, I recommend showing no more than ten comments at a time and no less than five.
  • Archives: Like with the Search widget, not having this makes navigating the site that much more of a pain. It doesn’t matter whether you display the Archives as either a list of links or a dropdown menu, but keep in mind that as your blog gets older, the list will just get longer.
  • Links: This is where you put your blogroll (pretentious term for link list).
  • Meta (optional, WordPress.com only): This has links to let you log in and out of your WordPress.com account, convenient for both you and your readers. Under no circumstances should you ever use this on a self-hosted blog, as it makes it easier for hackers to break into your site.

That’s it. This widget order maximizes convenience for your readers by letting them check for site updates and subscribe without having to scroll too far down the page. If you want to add other widgets, like a categories list or tag cloud, you can, but they aren’t necessary.

My web design motto is this: keep it professional and unpretentious.

You want a site that is good-looking, organized and doesn’t shove pointless crap in your readers’ faces. You don’t need a rotating globe showing the locations of your last 300 visitors or a 3D JavaScript tag cloud; that stuff looks tacky and it slows your site down.

If you have a two sidebar theme, this is how I recommend you organize your widgets, starting with the left sidebar:

  • RSS Links
  • Blog Subscriptions
  • Twitter
  • Facebook Like Box
  • Links
  • Meta

And the right sidebar:

  • Search
  • Recent Posts
  • Recent Comments
  • Archives

When you have two sidebars, you may have an additional design consideration: making sure both of them are roughly the same length. Having a sidebar that is significantly longer than the other can not only look awkward, it can make your site load more slowly, which negatively impacts your SEO (search engine optimization). Depending on your theme, you’ll likely have to fiddle with my suggested layout a bit before you get it just right. Also, depending on the number of links you have, you may want to break them into separate widgets by category so you can balance out the sidebar lengths more easily.

I should also mention that if you’re on a self-hosted site, you’ll need to have the Jetpack plugin installed in order to have access to some of these widgets.

3. Introduce yourself.

Your blog is just about ready for prime time (I’m not even joking). All you need to do is two more things: fill out your About page and add a way for people to contact you. There’s a third step you need to take if you’re on a self-hosted site, but I’ll cover it in the next section.

When you set up your blog, an “About” page should have been created for you automatically, and a link to it should be in your site’s header or accessible from the Pages widget. Open up that page, delete the filler text that’s in it, and describe yourself and your blog. You can do this however you like, but for the love of Zeus, don’t do the one-word sentence nonchalance thing (“Conservative. Catholic. Dog-lover. Part-time sodomite.”) unless you want to look like an unoriginal douchebag.

Why am I pointing this out? Because I’ve come across an ungodly number of blogs whose authors were too lazy to even bother filling out their About page, just leaving the default text in there like a VCR permanently flashing on 12 midnight. While this isn’t that important, giving people a brief impression of what your blog is about makes it a little more likely that they’ll stick around.

Finally, you need to provide a means for people to get a hold of you privately, usually an email address. The only thing that annoys me more than bloggers too lazy to write an About page is bloggers too paranoid to leave an email. Twitter and Facebook are no substitutes for this.

It goes without saying that you should use a separate email address for all blog-related business. Additionally, never ever write your email out on the Internet with the at sign and period, as spambots will pick it up and flood you with malware and junk mail. Spam-proof your email by writing it out like this: analtyphoon [at] butthumper [dot] com. Your readers can figure it out.

Alternatively, you can use a contact form that will allow people to email you without ever revealing your address publicly. WordPress.com added this feature a while back, and the Jetpack plugin for WordPress will also give you the same functionality.

4. If you’re on a self-hosted site, modify your permalink structure.

You probably know what a link is, but what’s a permalink?

Put simply, it’s the way your blog article and page URLs are written.

By default, WordPress uses this format for permalinks: www.vaginaldischarge.com/?p=810. Beyond being horribly inconvenient for your readers, this permalink structure has a negative impact on your SEO. Fortunately, we can fix this problem up right quick.

From the Dashboard, go to the Settings tab and select Permalinks. From here, you can change your permalink structure with a simple mouse click. There are a number of different options (including the ability to create custom structures), but for simplicity and SEO purposes, you should stick with one of the Name options: post name, day and name or month and name. Which one you pick is up to you. Some folks claim that day and name and month and name hurt SEO, but I’ve never been able to tell the difference between them, so feel free to choose what you want.

And… that’s it. Your blog is ready to go.

Read Next: Why You Should Start a Blog