So You Want To Start A Blog, eh?

There are many sites out there that will host a blog where you simply sign up, then start typing.  Of course, you really aren’t in control of things, are you? On some blog sites, you can’t even advertise. If you want to be in total control, you have a couple choices.

First is to build your own server, install the required software, get it hooked up to the Internet, and patch it often. That is a little too much control for me! The second way to do it is to give some lucky company money to host the server part for you. This is the option I chose, and mostly what this blog will cover. For the cost of a years hosting, I figure would just about cover the electricy costs of having a server plugged in, not even counting purchasing the server, etc.

This second option comes with several ways to do things, the first of which is to research the blogging software you want to use for it’s requirements. Then find a service provider that meets those requirements. For example, some forum and blogging software runs on certain versions of PHP with MySQL on the back end. If you sign up for a service provider, and they don’t run both of these, you can’t get your software running. Of course, the second way to do it is just sign up with a provider and hope for the best. I use GoDaddy, not because of any particular reason, feel free to use whatever you like. This blog isn’t a step by step tutorial on how to set up a particular blog on a particular provider, but rather a generalized tip site that hopefully should apply to practically any blogging software on any provider. It is somewhat Windows based as far as some tools that get mentioned go.

The blogging software I chose is WordPress, not that it matters much for this conversation. It runs on PHP with MySQL. Oh, by the way, it’s free.  There is a free WordPress hosting site you can use if you like, again with no advertising, unless you fork out some extra dough.

After I downloaded the blogging software and extracted it, I put in on my website, and followed the directions to get it installed. I needed to get into the hard-to-navigate GoDaddy interface, create a MySQL database. I also added a DNS alias for the wordpress site that linked to the directory I installed the software into, i.e, if the directory on the server looked like this,

/mygreatblog

then my alias was mygreatblog.mysite.com, which points to that directory. Yes, GoDaddy has some fairly good tech support to walk you through stuff like this.

GoDaddy, and I assume other providers, won’t let you use an outside email address for your software to send to. For instance, if you want your visitors to email you about anything,  you need to set up an email for the domain you have registered for them to send the email, and forward that to your regular email if you like. So if my regular email is myemail@gmail.com, and my domain with GoDaddy is mysite.com, I need to set up a myemail@mysite.com, and forward that to myemail@gmail.com. Sounds like a runaround, but that’s what I had to do. Call them for help if you do this, it saves time.

After I got the blog software installed and everything set up, I decided to take a shortcut. I immediately started looking around through different style templates until I found one I liked. It is a simple style, and had plenty of room around the sides to put some advertising. I read somewhere that you should get users to your site before you put in ads, so that is what I did. Once I saw folks visiting the site, I decided to put up the ads. That is when I discovered something that I probably should have known, but didn’t. You see, the author of the style I chose apparently never wanted advertising in his style.

All that advertising room, and none of it was set up to place an ad there. Bummer! If I ever set up a blog or forum again, it probably won’t be by a style or template from someone else that I add. At least when you start with the default style, and go about modifying that, you can usually find mounds of help. In my adopted style, I found mounds of things to try that didn’t work, because this style was so heavily modified, it was almost completely non standard. And since apparently no one else besides me used this style, I found no help whatsoever on fixing it. I eventually got the ads on it, but after days of frustration. I learned a lot, but I undoubtedly would have been much better off starting from scatch.

One tool I found that significantly sped up fixing things ( I wish I found it sooner!) was FireBug for FireFox. I use Internet Explorer, so a bonus to the program primarily for FireFox (you can set it up as a link/bookmark/favorite for other browsers) is that I was looking at the blog with 2 different browsers. One of the many things FireBug does is, it visually shows the elements of the web page you are trying to edit. You load up the page, then right click whatever it is you are trying to edit, and then choose, “Inspect Element”. This splits the screen horizontally, with the bottom showing the code that produced what you right clicked on. It will also show the CSS in a frame on the right side. As a bonus, as you move your mouse over different elements in the code, it highlights those areas in the top section of the screen for you! As you click around the elements in the code, the CSS on the right clues you into what to look for in your CSS file, with the line number of the section that has the settings for that element. If you see yellow in the highlight, that is the margin on that element/class. If you see purple, that is the padding.

Tool: FireBug
CoolTool Factor: 5 Stars out of 5

Also, when looking at FireBug, you may notice in the CSS box on the right, that your changes show up, but have a line through them to cross them out. Surprise! CSS may look like functions in its syntax, but unlike functions, the names don’t need to be unique. Meaning you can define the same element or class multiple times, and the last one read, wins. If you scroll down, you can usually find where the change really needs to take place. Score another one for FireBug for showing you that!

What I do is, and there are probably reasons why people set it up another way, is gather up these various sections, and try to merge them into a single section. I also have been known to rearrange them into the same structure FireBug shows, starting at the top, and working my way down. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve saved looking through the CSS file by doing this. I also clearly mark each section with several lines of comments, like,

/**********************************   Header   *********************************/
/**********************************   Header   *********************************/
/**********************************   Header   *********************************/
/**********************************   Header   *********************************/
/**********************************   Header   *********************************/

Man, that really helps when scrolling through a huge stylesheet file to quickly zero in on exactly where to make changes!

Another quick tip, if you have a second monitor and your video card supports 2 monitors, editing code in one monitor while refreshing the page in the second one speeds things up considerably. The only drawback to this? Now I want three!!!

One tool I force myself use is the W3C validation checker. You put your website into it, and it scours the code sent to the browser for errors. I had injected most myself by copying codes for links and such, not realizing that they needed to be lower case. So I kept pasting in stuff like <A HREF=”HTTP://mygreatbog.com”>My Great Blog</A>, when it should have read
<a href=”http://mygreatblog.com”> My Great Blog</a> Most other errors were injected by the Style I added as well, another good reason to think twice about using someone elses’ style. Once this tool finally says you’re good, the urge to happy dance is great! They give you an icon to put on your site to show validation, which may help increase your all important search engine ratings.

Tool: W3C Validator
CoolTool Factor: 3 Stars of 5

Once you have your blog online, unless someone adds a comment or clicks advertising, how do you know who is visiting your site? Enter Google Analytics. With this free tool, you can see on a map what cities people came from, or even find out what page referred them to your site! Warning, it becomes addictive looking at all this!

Tool: Google Analytics
CoolTool Factor:5 Stars of 5

I use Google Adsense to advertise. I tried to use Amazon, but they denied me, pointing to an exact rule I violated. I responded back by pointing out that I wasn’t in violation of their wording at all! They never responded. Their loss, right? Google Adsense is much more ‘little person just starting out a blog’ friendly, Adsense it is for me! One caviat, adsense allows 3 regular ads per page, with 3 additional ‘link’ ads. Don’t plan on having adsense fill up your page with advertising. There are other limitations, and you need to read the current rules, or Google may cut off your ads. And whatever you do, don’t click on your own ads, or encourage visitors to do so. Read the rules!

Tool: Google Adsense
CoolTool Factor: 4 Stars of 5

Once you have your site ready to go, for any search engine to take you seriously, you must generate a sitemap. I figured I’d do it myself, and compare it to a tool that did it. The tool won. Hands down. In nanoseconds it generated all kinds of links around my site that I would have forgotten.

You really should get multiple browsers to see how your site looks in each. I go to the portableapps.com site for things like this. They have little applet type versions of software designed to run off a usb thumbdrive. (Mac or linux users need read no further, these are Windows apps). While I don’t use these on a thumbdrive, I do put them on my harddrive. While they do have an installation routine, they are designed not to dump files everywhere on your drive, and instead puts them into a single directory structure. What this means is, once the directory structure is set up, you can copy it to a thumb drive or another computer as is, without having to reinstall.

There are portable app versions of the FireFox, Chrome, and Opera web browsers. They also have things like notepad replacements that have syntax highlighting for HTML, CSS, and most popular programming languages. They have a portable version of FileZilla ftp software I use because it encrypts my password for GoDaddy (FTP/ES), and is easy to use. Also other goodies like infrarecorder portable that is actual free CD/DVD recording software that is bloatware free. The list goes on and on, it’s all free, and doesn’t clutter up your registry or throw files everywhere. Highly recommended.

Tools: PortableApps
CoolTool(s) Factor: 5 Stars of 5
Once you get your site up and running, if you want to make changes to the layout with CSS , you may not want to work on the live site, because someone may be visiting your site at that time.

There is an easy trick to do this without setting up an alternate site. What you do is, load up the site in your browser, then save the source code as a .html text file. You also download the .css file to the same directory you saved the html file to. Don’t know where that lives? Open the html file in a text editor, and find the line that points to the CSS file. It should be near the top. It should say something like,

<link rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css” media=”all” href=”http://myblog/mysite.com/myblogsoftware/theme/style.css” />

Just copy the http://myblog/mysite.com/myblogsoftware/theme/style.css part and paste it into your browser address bar to download the code, then save it into the same directory as where you saved the html file. Now, erase all the path to the css file in the html file, so it says something like,

<link rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css” media=”all” href=”style.css” />

and save it. If all goes well, when you double click the html file, it will open in your browser, looking just as if you had your actual on-line site open. You can edit the CSS file locally, and make all the changes to that you want without effecting the actual site that folks may be viewing. Almost like magic! When it looks just like what you want, you copy the CSS file to the real site, and instantly your site is updated.
As previously mentioned, FileZilla is free, and supports encrypting your password. Straight FTP sends your password in clear text, and once someone gets that, they pretty much can trash your site. Add the graphic interface, and other features, and you have a pretty good tool. Once connected to your site, if you right click on a file, and select edit, it will download the file and load it up in the default editor. You can change the default to whatever you like in the options. Every time you hit the save button, FileZilla recognizes it, and offers to let you send it back up to your site, and remembers the correct place, even if you have changed directories. Way cool.

Tool: FileZilla
CoolTool Factor:4 Stars of 5

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