Archive | January, 2008

Blogging Software

We’ve been talking about blogging for the last week or so. We’ve covered various aspects of building a web site. Today, we’ll talk about blogging software.

I’m no expert on all the choices available in blogging software. One of the most popular options is WordPress, which you can get at www.WordPress.org. Note that if you don’t want to host your blog on your own site, you can host it at www.WordPress.com.

Installing WordPress is fairly easy, but you do need to follow the directions. You have to have a web site that lets you create a database. (Most all hosting services let you create an absurd number of databases on your site.) It’s easy to do–they provide a tool to create it. Then you just take the information that tells WordPress where your database lives on the internet and edit a few lines in the right file and post it to your web site. WordPress gives complete directions on how to do this.

Many hosting services give you a automatic installation option for WordPress, which makes the whole operation a five minute procedure that is supposed to be fail-safe. As Craig noted today:

As for getting a blog on your site,if your site has cpanel with Fantastico, then installing WordPress on your site is extremely simple.

Then you just configure the controls, and you have a great blogging platform right on your site.

WordPress gives you many different “themes” which let you customize the look and feel of your site. You can choose colors, fonts, graphics, and all that sort of thing. Or if you know PHP and CSS, you can hack into one of their themes to do whatever you want.

I know there are other blogging software packages, but it’s been quite awhile since I looked into them, and things have changed since then. WordPress has many “plugins”. These are extra little tools you can add to your blog to do special things. I don’t have a lot of plugins on my blog, but I am using the Akismet spam filter, which is extremely good.

Liz noted this:

BTW, there’s another option for blog hosting. I write my family blog on Blogger but then Blogger posts (publishes) it to my own website via FTP. All the blog content files live on my site; I can back them up, etc. Let me know if you want me to write down the specifics.

Randy sez: That’s very handy! That gives you the best of both worlds. You don’t have to install the blog on your site, but you still get the content there. I went to the Blogger web site but didn’t see any details on this. So Liz, can you give us some details? Is there anywhere on the Blogger site that explains how it works?

Gerhi pointed out something I hadn’t noticed:

Randy, Mary DeMuth’s home page looks great but it is not search engine friendly. If you look at the source code you will see that the only ‘content’ on her home page is in the meta description. That is not enough.

Randy sez: Yikes, you’re right! I didn’t look at the source code until just now (using “View Source” on my browser). Looks like there is some AJAX going on under the hood. I don’t know if Google can index this kind of content, but I verified that it does not index the content on Mary’s site. (I did an exact search for a long phrase that I clipped from one of her pages. There were no results on Google.)

That’s it for today! Tomorrow, I’d like to switch gears and talk more about what you do WITH your blog in order to use it as a marketing tool. (This does not mean that your blog is going to turn you into a shameless hussy. It does mean that your blog will raise your visibility in the world so that people who are interested in the kind of things you’re interested in will easily find you. That is marketing at its kindest and gentlest. I think it’s the best kind.)

Posting Your Web Site

We’ve been talking about blogs for several days now. In recent days, I took a quick detour into the nuts and bolts of web sites, because I strongly believe that a blog should live on an author’s web site, not on one of the free sites that host your blog. Yesterday, I posted a long, long discussion of what goes into creating a web site. At the end of that process, either you or your web designer will have a bunch of HTML files that live on your computer (or your web designer’s).

What happens next?

Remember that a web site isn’t visible to anyone until it’s “hosted” on a server somewhere. People can then point their browser to that server and see what’s on your site.

But how does it get to the server in the first place?

The answer is that you have to upload them to the server, using “FTP” software. (“FTP” means “file transfer protocol” and you don’t have to know very much at all in order to use this software.)

Most web development software has “FTP” software built right in. DreamWeaver, FrontPage, Freeway, and even the free NVu package all have it. Typically, you have a folder on your computer that has all your HTML files. You want that to go to a similar folder on your server. So you point your software to the source folder on your computer and to the destination folder on your server and tell it to transfer the files. The FTP software does everything else. Of course, if you have a webmaster doing your site, they’ll handle that.

Once you’ve transferred your files to your server, there’s nothing more to do. Your web site is live and anyone in the world can see it.

If that sounds too simple, it’s because this part of the process really is quite simple. The only tricky part is getting the exact folder on your server. Different hosting services use slightly different naming conventions, so you just have to ask your hosting service to tell you how to do it. One reason I like GoDaddy is that they have a 24/7 help service that you can call to get things straightened out. I’ve sometimes had to wait on the phone for a bit, but they’ve generally been extremely polite and helpful.

I’d now like to respond to some of the comments that folks have posted here in the last few days.

Carrie wrote:

Domain name, check.
Site design, not even sure how.
Content, not ready yet.

Oh Randy, I hope you’re right about this.

Randy sez: Carrie, I’m right. Listen, you can do this. You’ll need help along the way, but there are millions of people who’ve made web sites, so how hard can it really be? There is somebody, somewhere who knows how to do anything you can imagine. (I am not that someone, by the way. People sometimes email me to ask if I’ll design their web site. I tell them that I’m too expensive. A typical web designer charges $50 to $75 per hour. My hourly rate is unfortunately a lot higher than that, and I’m not any good at graphics, so it would be crazy to hire me.)

Karla asked:

My question is, what if you have a website and provide a link to your blog but your blog isn’t actually “on” the site? Would that be OK for us starving artists just starting out? Blogger is so easy to use. I also have blogs other places, and blogger seems to be the most user-friendly. (Homeschoolblogger.com is, too. But that limits your audience pretty much to homeschoolers.)

And what should go on our website? I think you’ve written about this in the past. I know that I should have a place for people to sign up for a monthly newsletter (or weekly, however you want to do it). I know it should include a short bio, market your books, and have the blog. Anything else?

Randy sez: Yes, it’s perfectly OK to host your blog on Blogger and just link to it from your site. You will be giving up some traffic, but it’s not a crime. You can do anything you want, as long as it suits your purposes. As for what should go on your web site, you should decide early on what you want your web site to be about. It can be a small “brochure site” that is all about you. That won’t be very useful for marketing, but it will be the moral equivalent of a business card, and will give people a place to find out more about you, if they already know your name. Alternatively, if you have expertise in some particular topic, you can post some free information on your site, and it will act as a magnet to bring in people who never heard of you. This latter approach is a far more powerful marketing tool, but it’s also more work. You have to decide what’s right for you.

Lisa asked:

I have a website and a separate blog through WordPress. How difficult is it to host my blog with my website w/ a consistant design like your site?

Randy sez: Hosting your blog is not difficult. You just need to get some appropriate blogging software (we’ll discuss this soon). Then you need to change the look and feel of your blog so it matches your site. You can either pay a web designer to do this or do it yourself if you have the skills. (For my WordPress blog, I had to make some minor revisions to the WordPress PHP code and the CSS files. “PHP” is a programming language that creates HTML codes. “CSS” means “Cascading style sheets” and makes it easy to style your web site. Both of these take some serious work to learn, which is why it may be useful to hire somebody to do these revisions for you.) It took me about an hour to revise the WordPress files to look very similar to the rest of my site.

Lynda wrote:

What would a moderately priced web site cost?

Andrew answered:

The problem with answering it is that “moderately priced” is completely relative. You can spend anywhere from $100 to $10,000 and it would be considered moderately priced depending on the client. If you’d like to tell us what you want in a site, I can tell you approximately how much *I* would charge for designing it for you. I base my fees completely off the time I’ll spend on your site and that is generally $50 – $75 an hour depending on what kind of work it is; HTML encoding, actual server-side or client-side scripting or graphic design.

Randy sez: I would agree with Andrew that those prices are typical. A good web designer will ask you a series of questions up front to make sure they’re creating the kind of site you want and need. Questions like this:
1) What is the purpose of your site?
2) How much content do you want to put on it?
3) How often do you want to change the content?
4) Are you technically able to make changes yourself?
5) Do you want to do ecommerce on your site?
6) Do you want a simple design or something fancy and pretty?
7) Does your content need to be searchable, or is it OK to just be beautiful?
And many more . . .

Mary wrote:

For a site similar in scope to mine, prepare to spend between 3,000–6,000 bucks. It’s expensive, but well worth the cost in terms of looking professional.

Randy sez: Mary is a professional writer with a number of books published. For a writer at her level, this is a reasonable price for the beautiful site she’s got, along with the built-in ability to change content herself (she has a lot of Content Management System features on her site.) By the way, the link Mary gave in her comment didn’t work because it had a comma in it. The correct link is www.MaryDemuth.com. Check it out!)

Pamela wrote a word of warning:

I hired someone to do my web site (www.carouselcommunications.com), as I liked her company’s own site. I told her what I wanted, in the way of a new logo, color scheme, and pages. I wrote the content. She showed me a great design after one of her designers spent hours on it, gave me more than I expected, and I went with it. However, she did not tell me she was using Flash to create the site. She did this at her own choosing, which I didn’t know until after the site was finished.

I was unfamiliar with that program and didn’t know until after I gave the OK that Flash doesn’t allow for making easy changes and other things I wanted done. It was too late to go back and start over, so I kept what she’d designed. I now feel like my hands are tied with making changes (I have to pay her to do it), and she also says that “she” owns the web site, that I don’t. All information I didn’t know up front. I am hoping we can eventually come to some agreement, as I want to take over control of the site.

So BEWARE in hiring others to do your web site. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying, ask a lot of questions and be clear about everything you want and expect, up front.

Randy sez: This makes me ANGRY when I hear this. A web designer should ask questions before they build a site. Pamela has a gorgeous site. Check it out! But she can’t make changes to it. It’s written in Flash, and by the way, my understanding is that Flash is not searchable by search engines. That makes it almost useless to a writer. You want the search engines to be able to read the content on your site. Otherwise, they’ll never send anyone to your site, because they won’t know what’s on it. I just did a search on Google for “Pamela Cosel” and didn’t see her site in the first three pages of results. (I did see several pages on MY web site that mention her, because she comments on this blog sometimes.)

I have no idea what kind of recourse Pamela has, but this kind of thing happens quite often. I have no idea what the web designer means when she says she “owns” Pamela’s site, but I can’t imagine that she owns the domain. Pamela should own that. The web designer might own the presentation of the content, but that’s probably the extent of it. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know for sure.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about that pesky blogging software. There are several options, but I’m not terribly familiar with any of them except WordPress. So I’ll be interested to hear from those of you who use other software. You can post a comment here to tell us what you’re using.

Creating Your Web Site

We’re in the middle of a series on blogging, starting from the very beginning. So far, we’ve talked about:
1) Why it’s good to put the blog on your own domain, not somebody else’s.
2) How you register a domain.
3) What it means to “host” a web site.

Today, we’ll talk about how to actually get pages onto your web site, once you’ve found a place to host it. Again, this discussion is very elementary, so those of you who are knowledgeable may want to skim this or just wait till tomorrow.

In order to put pages on your site, you have to do several things:
1) Create the pages on your computer (or on the computer of your web master).
2) Transfer them to the computer (the “server”) where they’ll be hosted.

I’ll talk about #1 today, because you have a LOT of options, and no option is right for everybody. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the issue of how to transfer your pages to your server.

Many people don’t know this, but you can put simple text files on your web site and they’ll work just fine. Want proof? Take a look at this page. It’s the most recent issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine.

If you click that link, your web browser will show you a page of straight and simple text. I created it in a text editor named TextWrangler which is free on the Mac and is one of the best text editors out there anywhere. On Windows, you can use a program like NotePad to produce text files, although NotePad is clunky and primitive. I’m sure there are great text editors out there for Windows, but I don’t know what’s available.

The important thing for our purposes is that it’s possible to create pages on the web without knowing any of those fancy codes. Of course, you won’t have any pictures or pretty fonts or nice formatting. You’ll just have text. But sometimes that’s all you need. That’s all I need for my archive of e-zines. If that’s all you need, then you don’t need fancy software to write your web pages.

Now, OF COURSE, you’ll usually want more than that. Text is text is text is BORING.

You’ll want pretty fonts. You’ll want nice page layouts. You’ll want forms, pictures, sound, movies, and maybe even dancing girls. You can get all of those, but in order to do so, you need to learn the codes for them. The name for these codes is “HyperText Markup Language.” This usually gets abbreviated as “HTML.”

Let’s unpack that a little. The “HyperText” part means that pages are linked together, and you can move between them by clicking on the links. A “Markup Language” is a set of codes that lets you put in all those fancy things, using nothing more than a text editor. That’s right. You can create any web page using just a simple text editor, IF YOU KNOW THE RIGHT CODES.

The problem is that those codes can get fairly complicated. But the nice thing is that, in principle, they are human readable. They’re just text. If you want to see an example of what they look like, click on the “View” menu on your web browser. You’ll see a bunch of menu items, and one of them will have the word “Source” in it. (Different browsers name this different things. On my browser, it’s called “View Source.”) If you select that menu, a new window will pop up on your screen showing a bunch of strange looking text. That is the HTML code for this web page. Notice that, even though the codes look very strange, they are all text. You could have typed all that in, if you knew how.

Most people don’t actually type in their HTML code directly. Most people use software to do it. There are many programs to create HTML pages. I use DreamWeaver, which runs on both Macs and PCs and is quite expensive. DreamWeaver is available at this web site. Many people like FrontPage, a mid-priced Windows-only program created by Microsoft. I used to use Freeway on the Mac, which is also mid-priced. There are also free programs, such as NVu, which runs on both Macs and PCs and is quite good. You can get NVu here.

So you can find software to help you come up with the codes. But there’s another problem. Even if you know all the codes, you still might not be good at graphic design. And modern web sites are expected to be “pretty.” They should have nice graphics and a pleasing layout. If you aren’t any good at graphic design, then your site is going to look ugly.

What’s an author to do? Personally, I don’t want a site that’s fancy. I have my reasons, but mainly they boil down to simplicity and the need to be able to make changes rapidly. So I hired a graphic designer to create a look for my site. She sent me an image showing how the site would be laid out and what colors and fonts to use. I did the rest. I wrote the HTML code to make the site look the way my designer designed it. If I want to change the design later, I can hire a new designer to give me new graphics and a new layout, and I can quickly rebuild the site. That’s my solution to the design problem.

Your solution may very well be different. A lot of authors don’t want anything to do with those pesky HTML codes. They want to hire somebody to do it for them. That’s a valid solution. It costs more, and it means that you can’t easily make changes, but it’s a valid solution and it may be right for you.

The problem with that solution is that you probably want to make changes to your site. You may want to make changes every single day, as you add new articles. What you’d really like to do is to hire a graphic designer to make you a pretty site that you can easily add articles to. Wouldn’t that be cool? Yes, very cool. That kind of site is called a “content management system” because it lets you manage the content yourself. The most common kind of content management system is a blog.

This is why I believe blogs are great for writers. You can hire somebody to set it up once. Then it’s programmed to let you add new stuff to it whenever you want.

By the way, take a look at the right margin of this page. About midway down that column, you’ll see a header that says “Pages”. That’s the beginning of a section that contains links to articles. If you wanted, you could have 20 or 30 or 100 articles there. I have only three. The important thing for you to know is that I added those using the blogging software. I didn’t have to write any HTML codes for those pages. I did it all from my blog.

So the moral of this story is that you can have a web site that is nothing more than a blog, and that might very well be all you need. Or possibly, it might be 90% of what you need, and you can hire a web designer to do a few other pages for you (such as one page for each of your books). As an example of a web site that is “just a blog” with nothing else, check out James Brausch’s site. James is a leading internet marketer (you’ll see that I copy some of the aspects of his site, because he’s thought hard about how a blog should work, and I follow his lead.)

If you need to find a web designer, how do you go about it? Here’s a simple procedure that will lead you to a web designer who will do a great job that you love at a price you can afford:
1) Look at the web sites of other authors and make a list of the ones that you really love.
2) Send an email to the authors on your list asking them who their web designer is and how much their site cost. Authors are usually willing to tell who their webmaster is and will tell you all the webmaster’s flaws and virtues. They will often also tell how much the site cost, though they sometimes don’t want to admit how much they paid. If they got a real bargain, they’ll be happy to tell.
3) Make a list of the webmasters and sort it by how expensive they are, from cheapest to most expensive.
4) Contact the cheapest webmaster on the list and ask for an estimate for your site.

If you follow this procedure, you’ll only be talking to webmasters who have successfully done a site similar to what you want, and you’ll get the best price.

It’s a good idea to know what you want in your site before you contact a webmaster. Do you want a traditional “brochure site” that shows off your books? (This is not very effective for marketing yourself.) Do you want just a blog? (This should be quite inexpensive.) Do you want some combination of the two? (This might be your best bet.) Do you want a “pretty” site that’s weighed down with tons of slow-loading graphics, or even worse, a Flash page that loads slowly and annoys site visitors? (This is generally your worst bet for marketing purposes and is often very expensive. Strangely enough, many authors choose this option.)

If you have a webmaster design and create your site, then they’ll take care of putting it on your server. If you build it yourself (with or without a webmaster’s design help) you’ll need to know how to transfer it from your computer to the server. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.

Hosting Your Web Site

We’re in the middle of a discussion on blogging for writers. In previous days, I’ve talked about the importance of putting your blog on your own domain and how to get a domain. We also took a few days to brainstorm up some ideas for the name Gerhi should write under. Looks like Debbie Thorkildsen is the winner. Debbie, email me privately with a Word document containing a page of your novel, and I’ll critique it.

OK, on to web site hosting. How do you do it?

I realize that with a title like today’s, I am in for a storm of comment spam from every hosting company in the world. I think my spam filter is up to it, but if not, I’ll delete any pesky posts that get through.

In order to put a blog on your web site, you need to have two things:
1) A web site
2) Blogging software

You have a ton of options for each of these. Today we’ll talk about how to get a web site. This may take a few days, but once we get through that, we’ll talk about blogging software.

So how do you get a web site?

A web site needs to be “hosted” somewhere. That just means that the files for your web site have to exist on some computer somewhere in the world, and then you need to inform the internet authorities of where that is.

A little techie talk is in order, and I’ll dumb it down to the level that I understand it: Every computer in the world that’s connected to the internet has something called an “IP address.” Computers on the internet can talk to each other if they each know the other’s IP address. An IP address is typically 4 numbers separated by periods. Something like this is a valid IP address: 192.24.18.255. Each of the four numbers needs to be between 0 and 255.

Humans, however, don’t like IP addresses. They’re hard to remember and boring. Humans prefer to work with addresses that contain words. So the web works by having a giant “phone book” that converts human-readable addresses such as “www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com” into computer-lovable IP addresses.

We talked a few days ago about the fact that you have to “register your domain” with a registration service (such as GoDaddy or one of the many others). When you do that, the registration service inserts your human-readable address into the “phone book” along with the IP address of the computer where your web site lives. The registrar then passes that information all around the world so that all the internet service providers can get the translation information. Once that’s done, anybody with a web browser can get to your web site.

Here’s roughly how the process works when you want to look at a web page:
1) You type in a domain name (such as “www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com”) into your web browser.
2) The web browser sends that domain name to the Internet Service Provider (ISP).
3) The ISP looks in the “phone book” and finds the IP address corresponding to the domain.
4) The ISP transmits the request for the web site to the appropriate computer on the internet (called the “web site server”) that holds that web site.
5) The web site server sends the requested page back to the ISP which forwards it to your web browser.
6) Your web browser translates that page into words and pictures and displays them on your screen.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes, and I’m sure it’s more complicated that this, but that’s very approximately what happens.

When you “host a site,” you need to put the files for the site on some particular web site server and then inform your registrar of the IP address for that server.

In principle, you could do this yourself, but most people choose to pay a small fee to somebody else to do it for them. I use GoDaddy to do this, since they are inexpensive and have not given me much trouble. (GoDaddy handles BOTH domain registration AND web hosting, as well as many other services.) There are many hosting services, and you can scout around to see which is best for you.

So the first step in hosting a web site is to identify a web hosting service and sign up with them. In my next post, I’ll talk about what happens next–putting the web site on the web site server.