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001weblogs

Page history last edited by Sanne Roemen 10 years, 8 months ago

(This Chapter In Dutch / In het Nederlands)


Weblogs: intelligent, simple and usually free websites

 

What is a weblog?

 

According to Wikipedia, a weblog or blog ‘is a website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order."

A weblog is ‘simply’ a website with a few unique features:

  • Easy to change: a weblog consists of a section where the owner can easily add articles and pages and a ‘front end’ where visitors can read these articles and pages;
  • Archiving and content accessibility: articles can be searched according to categories and tags;
  • The option to subscribe: Readers who ‘subscribe’ to the content via RSS are instantly alerted to new articles;
  • The option to give feedback: Readers can engage in discussions with the author and other readers by leaving a comment at the bottom of an article.

 

This video explains it well: Video ‘Blogs in plain English’ 2:59 min

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Why a weblog?

Most people would agree that it is handy to have some sort of presence on the worldwide web. Acquaintances, potential and current clients and business partners can find and approach you online or check your details to remind themselves who you are. Until recently, the obvious choice was to set up a website. However, the drawback of a website is that you need a programmer to design it for you and you need to purchase a separate content management system for updating the content. A weblog has none of these issues. All it takes are a few simple steps and your weblog is ready, at no cost. If, some time in the future, you decide that your weblog should match your corporate identity, you can always pay a builder to customise the weblog for you.

It is advisable to give your network an update of your activities from time to time. A mailing list is the obvious choice. Many bloggers use their regular e-mail application to this end. But if you have a lot of subscribers, it can soon turn into an administrative nightmare, especially in terms of managing new subscriptions and cancellations. And we’re all familiar with those little ‘accidents’ where the entire address list is visible to all recipients. The best solution is to use special (sometimes expensive) e-mail software. The advantage of a blog is that the users can subscribe via RSS or by e-mail

 

When is a weblog ‘the smart option’?

When you want to have your own ‘little corner of the web’. When you have something to say that others might find useful. A weblog can help an entrepreneur attract and keep clients. A civil servant or policymaker can use a weblog to inform people on policy and to enter into discussion with them. An activist or lobbyist can use a weblog to inform people on his/her standpoints and to engage in discussions with them. Everyone can use a weblog to build their reputation and network.

 

Who would not benefit from having a weblog?

People with no obvious reason for blogging. If you are not an entrepreneur, not a policymaker, no highly involved activist citizen, then blogging should be no more than a hobby. It takes a lot of time and discipline to use a weblog successfully for your web presence and this investment might soon prove too taxing, which would lead to neglect of your weblog. And that, in turn, will rather hamper than help your efforts to achieve your goals. If you have something important to say from time to time, you could look for a weblog to contribute to as a guest author.

 

Success factors: what is the smart and effective way of blogging?

  • What’s in it for me: Ensure that you make it clear at a glance why your readers should pay attention to your weblog. You do this by carefully selecting a name, title and subtitle for your weblog. The wrong way: johnsmith.nl - johnsmith’s corner of the web - the place where John Smith writes about his daily musings. The right way: johnsmithcropimprovement.nl - crop improvement for the Dutch agricultural sector - information on innovations and applicability in daily farming practice. Do you sense the difference? The second example instantly gives the visitor an idea of what to expect on the weblog and whether it would be worth a more regular visit.
  • What's in it for them: This applies to every piece or article you write. Base your writing on the following question: ‘How would this benefit my readers?"
  • A weblog is personal, so be frank, genuine and transparent. A weblog is a way of engaging in dialogue. Visitors want you to write on a ‘normal’ level; they want to feel that you are human. People want contact with people. A personal, informal style will bring you closer to your visitors than an impersonal and formal approach, which can quickly come across as cold.
  • Add new content on a regular basis. Your weblog has to offer something new with sufficient regularity, otherwise people won’t visit it again. So write often enough to maintain ‘top of mind awareness’ among your visitors. But don’t just write for the sake of writing! Remember it’s about quality, not quantity. You could, for example, write a regular piece of 250 - 300 words about a topic of real benefit to your readers.
  • Create links. Wherever you notice the opportunity, create a link to other places on the web. For example, if you’re writing about a conference, create links to the website of the conference, the venue, some of the guest speakers etc. Link to other relevant weblogs, and make sure that you visit them regularly as well. Respond to articles posted on these weblogs, as it will generate traffic to your own weblog in turn.
  • Subscribers are essential! So ensure that you have an RSS feed to which readers can subscribe, preferably also by e-mail. If you don’t do this, you will have to rely on people THEMSELVES to remember to visit your weblog again. RSS automatically reminds them to visit your weblog.

 

Common mistakes include:

  • Not writing enough articles;
  • No focus in terms of topic;
  • Using the weblog as a highly personal diary;
  • Writing too many articles that are too long;
  • Not adding enough links to other sites;
  • Not answering the question of ‘what’s in it for me?';
  • Not allowing readers the opportunity to leave comments;
  • Not offering an RSS feed or e-mail subscription;
  • Being vague about the sender/owner of the weblog;
  • Failure to divide the weblog into clear categories.

 

SETTING TO WORK

 

Before you start blogging:

First do a brainstorming session on your own and try to answer the following questions:

  1. What do I want to achieve with my weblog?
  2. Who are my potential readers? How old are they, what do they do, where do they live, what kind of people are they? 
  3. Where does my passion lie, what subject do I know a lot about, what would I like to share with my readers? What is my field of expertise?
  4. Which challenges, questions or problems do my readers have for which I have a solution or answer?
  5. What difference would I like to make in the lives of my readers? Do I want to inspire, inform or motivate them? Do I want to make them smarter, set them thinking or make them happy?
  6. What side of myself do I want to show? What personal information will I share? How do I want to come across? What will I rather keep private? How open do I want to be?
  7. Come up with a title and tagline for your weblog. See the example above. It would be best to use your name, because a lot of people you meet will remember your first name better than, for example, the name of your company. And people will usually type in your first name when they Google you. Write a tagline that will make it clear in a single sentence ‘what’s in it for me’.
  8. Jot down a list of about five titles of articles you would like to write.

 

Setting up a weblog: selecting a platform.

There are various platforms available for you to set up your weblog:

 

Free of charge and hosted

Free weblogs are available through platforms like http://blogger.com and http://www.wordpress.com/. ‘Hosted’ means that the platform you choose will also host your weblog. This means that your weblog will be kept on the server of that platform. You don’t have to take out a separate hosting subscription for either the free or the hosted weblog.

My personal preference is for Wordpress.com. Why? Because it is open source and you can easily move it to a hosted weblog designed around your corporate identity (wordpress.org). But the two are very similar otherwise.

 

Paid and hosted

In the past, there were rather significant differences between the paid Typepad(http://typepad.com) and the free weblog variants, but not anymore. Typepad and Wordpress do exactly the same in terms of content and technology. The difference lies in how the product is created. Wordpress is open source whereas Typepad is closed source. This means that, at Wordpress, a group of people are constantly making changes so that the system is kept up to date and a whole lot of troubleshooting info is available on the web to help you resolve any problems yourself. This is not the case for Typepad. Instead, you are dependent on the support from the company selling Typepad. There seem to be no obvious reason for using paid hosted weblogs, as the better alternatives are entirely free of charge!

 

Hosting it yourself

If you want to create a weblog with a look and feel that match with your company’s corporate identity, you can have one designed and built and then have it hosted on a suitable server. You can get the actual software for free (http://wordpress.org) or at a fee (http://www.movabletype.com). You will however need to enlist a designer to translate your corporate identity into a weblog design. You will also need a programmer to install the weblog software and apply the design to the technology. Finally, you will need to take out a hosting subscription with a suitable provider. You can compare it with a professional website with a content management system (CMS), which often turns out to be more expensive, because you have to pay an annual licence fee for the CMS.

 

Rearing to go?

If you want to get going as soon as possible, then opt for blogger.com of wordpress.com, You can always have a tailor-made weblog built to your specifications later on. Click on the relevant link and follow the steps on the screen to set up the weblog.

 

Directions for use

Setting up a Wordpress or Blogger weblog is about as easy as registering for a Hotmail e-mail account. Since these platforms are constantly evolving and are actually extremely simple to use, I will not include an entire set of instructions here. In fact, they will probably be out of date no sooner than I have written them. The best advice is: take your time to read through all the steps on the screen and don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s almost impossible to make a mistake.

Manuals we have found elsewhere on the web:

 

Blogger:

A tour through the Blogger software

A manual for setting up a Google account and a Blogger weblog

 

Wordpress.com

A manual for blogging with Wordpress

A video showing how to create a weblog entry in Wordpress

A video showing how to insert an image in Wordpress

Wordpress.tv: various videos on how to use Wordpress

 

WARNING: What you should never do!

A lot of people - understandably so - want to be able to do the typing and layout of their article in Microsoft Word, before pasting the text into the weblog. The bad news is: this is not really possible. Word adds an enormous amount of ‘hidden’ programming code, which is only compatible with other Microsoft products. This code wreaks havoc with Wordpress and Blogger, and actually all online content management systems. The layout goes haywire and the worst is that it destroys the RSS feed, so that your subscribers will no longer be alerted to new items on your weblog.

The safest option would be to type directly in Wordpress or Blogger and to do the layout in there as well. An alternative is to type in Notepad and then do the layout afterwards in Wordpress or Blogger.

 

Your own domain name

If you opt for a Blogger or Wordpress blog, your address will be: http://thenameyoucameupwith.blogger.com or http://thenameyoucameupwith.wordpress.com. The term ‘address’ should be interpreted in the most literal sense: This is the place where your website of weblog ‘resides’ and where it can be found by people wanting to visit it. Try to use your own domain name, without the wordpress.com or blogger.com ending. This is not free but will cost you no more than a few tenners a year. Choose your domain name wisely!

If you already have your own domain, for instance because you already have a website for your company, you can look into the option of a ‘subdomain’. If your website is www.karinschaafsma.nl for example, you can then have a weblog where the ‘www’ is replaced by ‘blog’. Your weblog will then be http://blog.karinschaafsma.nl.

If you do not yet have your own domain, you can apply for one. Both Blogger and Wordpress give you the option of having this own domain refer to your weblog. I highly recommend doing this. It allows you to take your domain along with you if you switch to a tailored weblog or different platform in the future. It makes you more flexible and, since your name stays the same, your visitors and/or subscribers don’t have to make any changes to keep following your weblog!

 

Blogging - how do you do it?

 

Designing weblog layout

 

Pages versus articles (blog posts)

A weblog consists of pages and articles. The difference between the two is:

  • Articles are automatically added to your page in reverse chronological order. This means that your latest article is at the top, with older ones moving down to the bottom of the page.
  • A page, on the other hand, has a fixed place in terms of navigation and can usually be accessed from all directions. So a page is used for ‘static’ information, or information that needs to be accessible from anywhere. Take for example a page with information about your company, your biography, a list of the most popular articles or a page on the history of the topic you are blogging about.

 

The structure of a weblog

Structure is created through the smart use of categories and tags. These categories and tags can be found in the navigation. It makes it easier for your visitors to find older content once you have built up a large collection of content (articles). Let’s say for argument’s sake that your subject is ‘financial advice’. Your categories might then include: saving, investing, insurance, occupational disability, mortgages, pensions. Possible ‘tags’ could include: entrepreneurs, hedge funds, disability insurance, high risks, profiteering policy.

The golden rule is that the button or link should make it clear to people what to expect when they select it. Most of the blog programs also offer an archive according to date. This is a rather pointless way of navigating, because a date (5 September 2004) gives no indication of the kind of content you can expect to see.

 

Good blogging

A lot of people feel they are not very good at writing, but most do rather well if they stick to the following tips:

  • Good titles make it clear to the reader what to expect from the article and should be as specific as possible. They also help put you in the proper position in the search engines. For example: ‘Now also possible to stay over on farm’ is a weak title. You can’t see what it is about and it is far too general for Google. A good alternative would be: ‘Bed & Breakfast on farmsteads; the major pitfalls’.
  • Turn it around! Most of us learnt to write towards a conclusion. Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that a reader will only begin to see the added value of the article after having read through most of it. In today’s world of short attention spans and lack of time, most people will skip this type of heavy reading. Try to incorporate the conclusion in your introduction and explain how you plan to motivate this. Describe the problem, the question, the issue and explain what you will do with it. The ‘what’s in it for me’ question applies here as well. Answer the who, what, why, where and when questions in the beginning of your article. This allows the reader to judge whether he wants to read the entire text. Perhaps he needs no more than the introduction, while another reader looking for more in-depth information will continue reading the rest of the post.
  • Be clear and don’t leave your reader with unanswered questions. Don’t assume that your readers know a lot - or very little - about the topic. In other words, don’t leave them guessing what you meant, but don’t be patronising either.
  • Keep your paragraphs short (5 to 10 lines).
  • Put the first sentence of each paragraph in bold; this makes life easier for readers who want to skim through the text.
  • Use summaries with bullet points or numbering.
  • Use photos and images.
  • Cross out, scrap, delete. There’s a popular saying that ‘deletion makes up 80% of a writer’s work’. Whittle your work down to the bare essentials and get rid of all superfluous text.
  • Pay attention to spelling and grammar. Careless writing might still get the message across, but readers won’t appreciate such sloppiness. If you use Firefox as your browser, use its built-in spell checker. If language is not your strong suit, ask someone else to proofread what you’ve written. In the worst-case scenario, you can always write an endearing disclaimer begging your readers’ forgiveness for the odd error. It has been known to work.

Yahoo made a beautiful guide for writing, editing and creating content for the web.  

 

What should you write about?

Another common argument against blogging is that people have no idea what they should write about. Let me give you a few examples of the types of articles that have proven to be effective. They might even give you an idea for an article of your own:

  • Instructions or explanations. For example, a manual on how to blog;
  • Tips. These are always a hit, because a lot of people search on the word ‘tips’. ‘Tips for starting your own campsite’ or ‘Tips for attracting more customers’. Even better if you mention the number of tips in the title;
  • Information or news. Describing something that caught your attention on the news or giving commentary often works well;
  • Reviews, assessments or comparisons. For example, books, magazines, products or services;
  • Lists. These are fun to read, for example: ‘Ten reasons for only reading your e-mails after 11:00’ of ‘Five ways to make a child laugh’;
  • An interview or guest article. Ask an icon from your field for an interview or a guest contribution to your weblog;
  • Case studies: A description of an example from your field of expertise;
  • A portrait of a successful person from your field;
  • A linked report. Find a handy website and briefly explain why you think it would be relevant to your readers. Remember to add your own angle to the link. An article that contains nothing more than one or more links fails to satisfy the ‘what’s in it for me’ question;
  • Throw your opinion out there. Don’t be afraid to write about something you need to get off your chest. But don’t say things in the heat of the moment that you might regret later;
  • Inspirational stories of successes, or suggestions for a better or nicer way of doing things;
  • Research. If you have researched a subject, you can always write a blog post about the results. You can then offer the full report as a downloadable PDF;
  • Forecasts. These are especially popular towards the beginning or end of the year, for example: ‘Who will be next year’s shakers and movers?’;
  • Reflection on the past year. The biggest flops or successes, the most impressive natural phenomena, the most - or least - inspiring persons;
  • Satire. If you’ve been blessed with a good sense of humour (and a flair for writing), then make the most of this talent! But beware, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, as humour can easily be misconstrued.

It can sometimes be difficult to find a topic to write about. That is why it is important that you keep a finger on the pulse of developments in your field and keep up with the news. For this, you can make use of Google Alerts or subscribe to RSS feeds for important news.

 

A handy trick

A weblog automatically posts the latest articles at the top of the page. This is handy, because it allows regular visitors to see the latest additions at a glance. The disadvantage is that older, still relevant articles disappear down the page. They can still be retrieved through the use of categories. A handy trick for attracting attention to these articles is to arrange your relevant posts in ‘TOP 10’ lists. Create a separate page on your weblog with various types of Top 10 lists: the most popular, most commented on, top 10 in a certain category. Make sure that this page is clearly visible in your layout.

 

Finding the time

A major challenge. It seems none of us have enough time to devote to our daily tasks, so how on earth do you free up the extra time to maintain a weblog? Sadly, I don’t have a magic wand to add four more hours to your week. But what I can do is offer a few tips:

  • Keep your eyes and ears open for topics to write about. Recurring challenges or problems and questions from your own daily activities can provide you with good material for an article;
  • Always keep paper or a notebook handy to jot down potential topics for your weblog. This enables you to write down an idea the moment it comes to you, instead of having to wait for inspiration when you do find the time to write;
  • Schedule a fixed time to devote to blogging. A Sunday afternoon, or first thing in the morning. One or two sessions of two hours a week are usually sufficient. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself; approaching the writing sessions with resentment won’t get those creative juices flowing;
  • You probably already spend a lot of time reading articles relevant to your field. Make a few notes while doing so and consider how you could summarise or interpret what you are reading for your readers;
  • Perhaps you are a regular writer of extensive e-mails on certain themes. These can serve as a handy source for a blog post. Some bloggers get the same questions time and again. I often get asked which software is best for a weblog. If I turn these questions into an article, I can simply refer people to it, which saves me a lot of time answering e-mails;
  • If you write from what motivates you, about things that matter to you, things you feel passionate about or make you happy, then it is quite possible to keep it up the blogging.

 

Responding to feedback (comments)

One of the features of a weblog is that readers can respond to your articles. Without that option, you can’t call it a weblog, in my opinion. Getting responses is very exciting and thrilling. I even found the first few a bit daunting. Initially, I felt that my blogging simply disappeared into cyberspace, but now I discovered I had an actual audience. And not only that, they responded as well. But then the dialogue on my weblog changed from ‘sending out information’ to more dialogue oriented. And then it suddenly became immensely satisfying.

The reactions ranged from ‘great article’ and responses concerning the content to criticism and even a few nasty remarks. The former responses, though well intended, are a little redundant. So you don’t have to respond to these. However, any content-related responses, suggestions, feedback or motivated and constructive criticism are invitations to start interacting with your readers. These responses demonstrate that people are genuinely interested in your article, that they have found it helpful and took the time to read it. And that is of immense value!

To keep your readers involved in your weblog, to ensure that they return from time to time and keep track of your weblog, it is important that you respond to their feedback. Make sure you find a balance. Respond too quickly and you might put off another reader who wanted to comment as well. Fail to respond at all and your readers will feel that their contributions are not being appreciated or that you are ignoring them.

 

Unpleasant comments on your weblog

This can happen, but is rather uncommon. It usually only happens if your weblog has tens of thousands of visitors a month, or if you are a celebrity or a rather controversial person. It can also happen if the tone of your weblog is provoking, snide or aggravating, in which case your visitors will feel entitled to respond to you in the same tone.

What are unpleasant responses?

  • Spam (ads) - wordpress filters out most of these;
  • Illegal issues - racism, defamation, stirring up hatred, promoting child pornography etc. These often fall under spam, but if they still end up on your weblog, you should delete them without mercy;
  • Rudely expressed criticism (aimed at you or someone else) - ‘No way, loser. Who in his right mind would want to use Windows for that?’.

 

If the latter happens, you will have to make a personal decision on how to deal with it. As a rule, I recommend that you apply the same principles to your weblog as you would in your regular social life. You wouldn’t want such language to be directed to you or the people you know. It is rude and unpleasant. My advice is to leave this response online and to ask the person to focus his response on the substance of the piece rather the author. Your instincts might tell you to delete the response, but, believe me, this is only a good idea as a last resort. Why? 

If someone launches a public attack on you or someone else, other readers of your weblog can intervene on your behalf. We call this social proof: if someone else says that you are great, it has far more impact than if you were to say it yourself. So also refrain from responding too quickly to such a person.

If you delete a response, or take it a step further and block the user, some people will feel the need to take things to the next level and stir up even more trouble (sometimes under a new username). These kinds of people are called ‘trolls’ and the popular saying goes: ‘don’t feed the trolls’. In other words: don’t give them any ammo. It is important that you seek a balance in this regard; other well-meaning readers should not be deterred from responding, the mood should remain open and pleasant, but you should also guard against feeding the trolls.

 

How do you encourage a lot of comments?

Firstly: How do you define ‘a lot’? I’ve heard from various angles that an average of five responses per weblog article is quite a lot. But it depends on the size of your niche; the group for whom you are writing. GeenStijl and FOK!Zine, both of which have a large and very young target group, sometimes receive hundreds of responses to a single article. Besides the abovementioned tips for writing attractive articles, there are a number of things you can do to encourage responses:

  • Guard against making your piece too ‘assertive’ and ‘complete’. We are used to arguing a standpoint in points, which we substantiate and conclude. The story has an intro, body and conclusion. Nothing wrong with that, but if you show, through your use of language and your story, that you welcome input from others, other viewpoints or additional tips, then people will be more inclined to respond (without it immediately being turned into a topic of debate);
  • Openly invite responses: You can lower the threshold if you conclude your article with a sentence such as ‘I am curious to hear how you feel about the issue, so please make use of the comments option below’. Many respondents think ‘why would the author be interested in my input?’ and you can lower this resistance by making your invitation explicit;
  • As I said before, it is wise to participate in the discussion responses. When reacting to something another respondent said, start with his name. For example: Maarten, that’s an interesting point you’ve raised. I experienced this when...’ etc. So take a personal approach;
  • If someone responds and you get the impression that they no longer return to your weblog, you can send them an e-mail.

 

Promoting your weblog

  • Search Engines. As I’ve said before, search engines simply love weblogs, which are assumed to offer updated content on a regular basis. So there’s no need to even register your weblog with search engines. But you do need to keep feeding them through regular blogging.
  • Spread the word! Tell everyone you meet that you have a weblog. Put it on your letterheads and business cards and add it to all your online profiles and e-mail signatures.
  • If you receive a question by e-mail to which you have already given an answer in a previous blog post, send the person the link to the article instead of answering the question all over again.
  • Also create links on social bookmarking websites to your own blog posts.
  • Use key words.. Use words in your heading, subheadings and body text that will help people find your article. I’ve been taught that a good article will not contain too many repetitions of the same word, because this can have a distracting effect. So I always went in search of synonyms. But for search engines it is in fact useful to repeat important words a couple of times. (Words in the headings are considered most important, followed by words in subheadings). You can also make a few words in the text bold (not too many!) because a search engine recognises these as well.
  • Create links to other relevant websites and blogs. Create links in a list in the side column of your articles themselves. If you have a lot of links to websites that get many hits, your own ranking will usually increase a little as well. The websites to which you link can see this and will more than likely pay your weblog a visit. When they do this, chances are they will also create a link to your weblog. That is even better and also has a positive effect on your ranking. NB: never write ‘click here to...’, but rather make use of descriptive links. For example: NOT like this: ‘I have found an interesting article on European agricultural policy. Click here to read it’, but LIKE THIS: ‘I have found an interesting article on European agricultural policy’. Search engines will then see a match between the description of the link and the link itself, which then gives it a higher ranking estimate.
  • Use categories and tags with each article you write. The search engines use the names of the categories and tags that are important and relevant to your weblog and for which you therefore need to have a good ranking. So ensure that these words are specific and descriptive enough. Let’s say you write regular book reviews. Your category should then not be ‘books’ (too generic) but rather ‘marketing books’ or ‘management books’.
  • Respond to other weblogs. This is a very smart thing to do. If you can find other weblogs of interest to your theme, and you make a constructive contribution in the comments section, the author and other visitors are likely to visit your website in turn. If you then also ensure that you have included your weblog address with the rest of your details, you are almost automatically guaranteed a link with your response. Some weblogs have blocked search engines from ‘seeing’ these links but this is not very common anymore.

 

Have fun blogging! If you have questions or you want to share your experiences with others, join us at our NING community. So far, it's mostly Dutch, but we are happy to receive English speakers and interact in English!

This chapter was translated bij Ansobel Coyte-King

 

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