How to Start a WordPress Blog [Beginners Guide]

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Last Updated: Sep 23, 2020

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If you’re new to blogging and would like to learn how to get started with a blog, then continue reading! This beginners guide explains how to start a blog with WordPress, what plugins you should install, and more.

I started blogging in 2012 and knew little about it. As a result, I made many mistakes in regards to selecting the right tools and making sure readers would find my articles.

Now that my blog’s audience has grown to over 1 million unique visitors per year, many people ask me for step-by-step instructions on how to create a blog with WordPress, how to improve the performance and load time of their existing blog, and how to make a blog SEO-friendly so that users find it on Google.

How to get started with a blog

I wrote this article for future bloggers who are starting from zero. So, I’m going to cover all the basics first, before diving into more complex subjects (such as SEO and performance optimization) in future articles. That said, I’ll still touch on those concepts a little bit here.

I hope that after reading this article you’ll be equipped with sufficient information to start a successful blog and write great content that will rank well on search engines.

WordPress is the most popular blogging platform in the world. Like millions of other bloggers, that’s what I use, and what I recommend. But even if you decide to use a different blogging platform, many of the tips and tricks may still apply.

If you choose to use WordPress, here are the steps you need to take to get started:

  • Pick a domain name and register it
  • Select a hosting provider
  • Install WordPress, a theme and plugins
  • Start blogging

Choose a Domain Name

Own domain to support your branding

You don’t need a personal domain name to start your blog, but I highly recommend it so that you can start building your brand.

If you’re looking to go the free route, WordPress.com offers a basic plan to get your feet wet. If you choose that plan, your domain name will look something like johndoesblog.wordpress.com. You can pick the part of the domain that’s in bold, assuming that nobody else is already using that name.

United Domains - Check if domain is available
Check if your desired domain is still available.

Despite the free options available, I would recommend registering a dedicated domain. I use United Domains* for all my domains because they have a user-friendly web interface and they offer some top-level domains (like .blog) that other registrars don’t.

I’ll be using United Domains for the example below, but similar steps apply to other domain registrars.

United Domains - Register domain in your name
Register the domain in your name (or the name of your business).
  1. Check if your chosen domain name is available.
  2. If so, register the domain.
  3. I would avoid choosing anything other than .com or .blog, as other domain extensions tend to be viewed as cheap and unprofessional.

I would also recommend adding the “domain privacy” option during the registration. Otherwise, your full contact information (including phone number and email address) will be visible to anyone who does a “whois” lookup on your domain name.

Spammers use the whois method to harvest contact information. But if you enable domain privacy, your contact information will not be visible to the public. To see domain privacy in action, check out the whois lookup of michaelkummer.com. Depending on your registrar, domain privacy may be free or cost a small annual fee.

As you can see, the whois entry does not contain my contact information. On the other hand, Apple’s contact information is public knowledge, so they don’t need domain privacy (as you can see here.)

Flywheel Hosting

When I started blogging in 2012, I signed up for a so-called “shared hosting” account on Bluehost. The upside of shared plans ⁠— and the reason that I chose one ⁠— is that they only cost a few dollars per month. The downside of shared hosting is performance. Since your blog is just one of many that all share the same server resources, your site won’t load as fast as it would on a dedicated server.

Now, you might not even notice the difference when you’re first starting a blog, because you’ll usually only have one or two visitors on your site at any given time. But when you start getting more traffic, and you have 20 or 30 concurrent visitors, shared hosting plans often become notably sluggish.

Slow loading sites frustrate users and negatively impact publishers. In our new study, “The Need for Mobile Speed”, we found that 53% of mobile site visits are abandoned if pages take longer than 3 seconds to load.

Doubleclick/Google

In addition to the quality of your content, page load time is an essential factor for SEO and visitor retention because potential readers might leave if your page doesn’t load quickly enough.

Flywheel - Create a new account
Flywheel – create a new account.

As a result, a few years ago I changed my hosting provider from Bluehost to Flywheel*, which focuses exclusively on WordPress hosting. They don’t do email hosting, and they don’t offer unlimited space or bandwidth. Instead, their servers are optimized for running WordPress, which results in lightning-fast WordPress hosting (not to mention incredible support and a reasonable price).

If I were to start again from scratch, I would go with Flywheel from the beginning and save the frustration of dealing with months of slow-loading pages. If you already have a blog, Flywheel offers free migration of your existing site.

Create a Site From Scratch With Flywheel

Flywheel - Create a new site
Flywheel – create a new site.

To start from scratch with Flywheel, follow these steps:

  1. Sign up for a new account
  2. Create a new site

On the site creation screen, you’ll have the option to migrate an existing site. You can also choose what data center you’d like Flywheel to host your site at. Since I’m on the east coast, I chose the New York data center. But depending on where you expect most of your visitors to come from, you could select the west coast or even Europe. The closer your visitors are to the physical “box” that the website is hosted on, the faster it will load for them. We’ll go into this in more detail later.

Next, go ahead and complete the site creation form by providing the following information:

  • Site name: You can use your domain name or something like “John’s Blog.”
  • Temporary domain: You can leave this field empty and let Flywheel generate a temporary domain name, or you can use something like “johnsblog.” Don’t worry about it too much though, because you’ll assign your actual domain name later.
  • WordPress admin username: This is your primary account for the WordPress admin interface. If this were my blog, I would probably use something like “mkummer.”
  • WordPress admin password: I highly recommend using a complex and randomly-generated password. So you don’t forget it, save it in a password manager like 1Password.
  • Choose how you’d like to pay.

Choose a Hosting Package

Unless you already know how much traffic you’ll have, I would recommend starting with the “Tiny” plan. You can always upgrade later as you gain more visitors.

You don’t need to worry about a content delivery network (CDN) or SSL certificate just yet. But once you’ve assigned your permanent domain name, you will need to enable SSL.

Once you’ve completed the signup process, it’s time to assign your new domain!

Assign Your Permanent Domain

Flywheel - Add a new domain
Flywheel – add a new domain.

On the right side of the “Overview” page of the Flywheel backend, you should see a “Domains” tab. There, you’ll see the temporary domain name you picked (or that Flywheel generated) during the signup process. In my case, the temporary domain name is dynamic-word.flywheelsites.com.

Right above it, you’ll see a big + button to add a new domain. Click on it and enter your full domain name. Do not check “Primary?” yet, but do leave “Also add www.domainname.com” checked. At this point, Flywheel may complain that the DNS record for your domain doesn’t resolve correctly. That’s fine, because we haven’t updated the DNS records yet!

Once you’ve added your domain, scroll down and make a note of the IP address of your hosting server. You’ll need to point your new domain name to that address.

Right below, you’ll see an option Flywheel calls “Privacy Mode.” If you chose to pay for your hosting plan later, Privacy Mode will be enabled until you’ve completed the payment process.

While enabled, you’ll need a username and password (which you’ll also see in that section) to access your new site. You can also activate Privacy Mode at any time to prevent public access to your site (for example, during the initial site creation or site maintenance).

Update DNS Settings

United Domains - Update DNS record
United Domains – update DNS record.

Next, you’ll need to go back to the United Domains administrative panel to update the DNS settings of your domain and point it to the Flywheel server. To do that, log in to your domain registrar (United Domains, in this example), and click on the “DNS” link next to your domain name.

On the DNS configuration screen, scroll down to “Custom Resource Records” and verify that you can see an entry that looks like the one in the screenshot:

  • Name: *
  • Type: A

If you don’t see such an entry, create one and make sure the IPv4 address points to the IP address of your Flywheel server. (Remember, that’s the address we wrote down in one of the previous steps.) If you haven’t done that, go back to Flywheel and copy that address. If you already see a */A entry, directly edit it and update the IP address.

Once done, the DNS records will take an hour or more to refresh. So, give it at least an hour. Then go back to the Flywheel admin interface and hover over your domain name until three dots appear (…) to the right of the domain name.

Click on the three dots, and choose “Check DNS status.” If the DNS check fails even after having waited for a few hours, go back to the United Domains DNS control panel and double check the IP address. If the DNS check succeeds, click on the three dots and make the domain your primary domain.

Flywheel - Check DNS Status
Flywheel – check DNS status.

You’re now ready to log into the WordPress dashboard to configure your new site, select a theme, and install plugins. To log in, just browse to yourdomainname.com/wp-admin (i.e., michaelkummer.com/wp-admin).

If for any reason Flywheel doesn’t seem like a good fit for you, another solid option is Liquid Web*, which offers similar hosting packages and has a great reputation.

Configure Your Blog

how to get started with a blog

Now it’s time to pick a theme (layout) and add additional plugins to enhance the functionality of your WordPress site.

Pick a Theme

WordPress Theme Selector

The WordPress theme you choose defines the top-level design of your blog. The WordPress theme gallery offers thousands of free themes that you can start with. Just pick one that you like and play around with it.

I know enough about coding and web design to be dangerous, but I’m neither a web designer nor a web developer. So I was looking for a WordPress theme that was lightning fast and offered drag-and-drop functionality, as well as the ability to fine-tune the design using cascading style sheets (CSS).

I also wanted to find a theme that was fully responsive, which means that it automatically adapts to fit the size of the user’s screen. Since most readers view content on mobile devices, selecting a theme with a responsive design is a good idea.

Those are a few of the main reasons why I picked Astra, a free theme with a paid pro option from the team at Brainstorm Force.

One thing that’s especially great about Astra is that it was designed from the ground up to work with page builders like WP Bakery, Elementor and Thrive Architect (which I use). Each of those tools allows you to design your WordPress site visually by adding and arranging “blocks,” which can be anything from a section featuring your most recent posts to an advertisement. Despite becoming more and more popular over the past few years, not all themes are compatible with page builders. So, it was nice to find one that was made with them in mind.

Free Themes vs. Premium Themes

The free version of Astra offers all the essentials that you need to get started, but after a while I upgraded to the pro version to unlock additional features (including more customization, typography, and layout options). At just $59 per year as of the time of this writing, I think the pro version is a great deal for the value it provides.

Astra is simple enough to use that it’s a suitable choice for beginners who are just getting started with WordPress, while still having the ability to scale up with you as your blog (and design skill) grows. However, if you’re just starting out, there’s nothing wrong with opting for a free theme at first. Just understand that the options for customization will be limited, and the design will leave something to be desired.

Once you’re ready to really start driving traffic to your blog, it’s a good idea to consider a few different premium themes. Free themes are fine when you’re creating a blog, but you’ll eventually want to find something that looks more professional.

Stay Away from Hacked Themes

Whatever you do, do not utilize “hacked” or “nulled” themes. Aside from being illegal, they almost always contain hidden malicious code that can slow down your site, send spam email from your domain, and get you kicked off of most major advertising networks. Always opt for a licensed, well-reviewed theme from a known and trusted web developer.

Install Essential Plugins

WordPress Plugins

WordPress plugins add additional functionality to your blog. The WordPress community offers thousands of free and premium plugins you can choose from, and the huge range of these plugins is the main reason why WordPress is the most widely-used blogging software in the world.

Plugins dramatically extend the power of the platform and provide WordPress users with valuable customization options that would otherwise cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to have coded by a web developer.

Best of all, installing plugins is a breeze. It only takes a few seconds and a couple of clicks, and you can complete the entire process from within the WordPress dashboard.

You’ll find that most WordPress plugins have both a free version with limited functionality and a premium version with more bells and whistles.

Here’s a list of the plugins I currently use on my blog. You may not need all of them, so I’ve split the list into essential and optional plugins.

Essential Plugins

  • Akismet: A free, widely-used spam filter for comments made by the company behind WordPress. If you have comments enabled for your blog, you’ll need to use this plugin (or another anti-spam option).
  • Any caching plugin: WordPress can be a little slow in its out-of-the-box version ⁠— especially as your site becomes more complex and hosts more posts, pages and installed plugins. Site speed is a major factor in search engine optimization, so you’ll want to install a caching plugin to help your site run faster. Some of the most popular are W3 Total Cache and WordPress Super Cache. I used to use Speed Booster Pack, but recently switched to the paid version of WP Rocket (which I’ve been thrilled with).
  • EWWW Image Optimizer: Images are big (data-wise), and they can really slow down your site’s loading speed. While the caching plugins mentioned above will help you out in that regard, you should also use an image optimization plugin. EWWW — which has both a free and paid version — significantly reduces your image’s file sizes.
  • Fast Velocity Minify: Yet another plugin designed to speed up your site. It’ll help you improve your speed score on GTmetrix, Pingdom Tools, and Google PageSpeed Insights by merging and minifying CSS and JavaScript files into groups, compressing HTML, and enacting other optimizations.
  • Google XML Sitemaps: A simple plugin that updates your sitemap (which is a list of all your pages) and automatically submits it to the major search engines at pre-determined intervals. Google’s bots also use the sitemap when they come to your page to index it.
  • Yoast SEO Plugin: An absolutely essential search engine optimization (SEO) plugin that’s used by millions of WordPress blogs. This is a critical tool for getting your site ranked on Google and driving organic traffic to your blog posts.

Optional Plugins

  • Ad Inserter Pro: If your blog grows to the point where you’re making money from display advertisements, you’ll want to consider using an advertising plugin that gives you control over when and how those ads are displayed.
  • Astra Bulk Edit: If you decide to use the Astra theme, this add-on allows you to edit certain settings for multiple posts and pages at once.
  • Astra Pro: If you’re using Astra and decide to upgrade to the pro version, you’ll need to install this plugin to activate all the extra features.
  • Astra Widgets: Another Astra add-on. This plugin installs a number of widgets specifically designed for use with the theme.
  • Code Snippets: An easy way to display code on your webpage without having to modify functions.php. Otherwise, WordPress thinks you’re trying to run a program and attempts to execute the code.
  • Gravity Forms: A great tool for creating web forms (like a contact form), but it’s exclusively a premium plugin. A decent free option is Contact Form 7.
  • Mediavine Control Panel: The main ad network I use to monetize my site is Mediavine, and I manage my account through this plugin.
  • Schema Pro: This plugin helps you add structured data to your posts, which is essential for all those “extras” that show up in Google search results (like star reviews, local information, etc.).
  • Thrive Architect: A front-end, visual website builder for WordPress. Thrive Architect helps me create the designs I want without having to use a single line of code.
  • Thrive Comments: This plugin replaces the built-in WordPress comment system with a better solution that offers more features and customization options. It also features a spam filter, so if you use this you don’t need to keep Akismet installed.
  • Thrive Leads: A highly-customizable solution that I use for adding email subscription opt-in forms to my site.
  • Thrive Product Manager: This is the “mothership” for all the plugins offered by Thrive, including the three listed above. In order to install them, you’ll need to create a Thrive account and then install the Product Manager, which you can download from your Thrive member dashboard.
  • Ultimate Add-Ons for Gutenberg: WordPress recently introduced a new default post editor, called Gutenberg, which replaced the classic text editor. Gutenberg is a block-based system, and this add-on pack installs extra block types that you can use when creating or editing a post.
  • WP External Links: I link to all kinds of external webpages. I want those links to open in a new tab so that the reader stays on my page. While it’s easy to manually set links to open in a new tab, sometimes I forget. Therefore, I installed this plugin, which forces all outbound links to automatically open in a new tab or window (depending on your preference).

A word of caution: Every (front-end) plugin you install has the potential to impact your blog’s load time. So be careful and selective when installing plugins. Some plugins can even break your page. That’s why I test new plugins on a copy of my live page, which is called a “development” or “staging” site. If everything looks good, then I install the plugin on my actual site.

Use a Content Delivery Network (CDN)

I’ve mentioned more than once in this article just how important site speed is if you want to create a blog that performs well on Google, which is crucial for obtaining organic traffic. Even if you’re not concerned with organic traffic for some strange reason, the fact remains that a slow-loading site provides your visitors with a frustrating experience.

A number of the plugins noted above will help you ensure that your blog is snappy. But you should also consider the use of a content delivery network, which is more often referred to as a CDN.

Virtually all modern websites utilize CDNs. To understand why, you need to know this one fact about how the internet works: each byte of data you interact with on the web is stored on a physical computer in a physical location. The closer you are to that computer, the faster you’ll be able to download the data (all other things being equal). Similarly, the more powerful that computer is, the faster it will be at processing and responding to your request.

How CDNs Work

CDNs speed up the web by utilizing the principles of proximity and power. Here’s how that works:

  • When you utilize a CDN, your website isn’t hosted on just one server. It’s hosted on a number of servers distributed all around the country, region, or world.
  • When a visitor comes to your website, your CDN will deliver assets (such as images) from the computer that’s closest to their physical location. That’s the proximity effect.
  • When this happens, your “main” web server (the one you pay your traditional web host for), doesn’t have to serve those assets. Instead, they’re served by the CDN. That frees up your web host’s resources to serve the rest of the page, making the whole process much faster. That’s the power effect.

CDNs are very inexpensive and easy to implement (often via a plugin). One of the most popular providers in Cloudflare, although Amazon, Google and most major web hosting companies now offer some type of included or optional CDN service.

Configure WordPress

For the most part, you can use WordPress with its default settings. However, there are some configuration options I would encourage you to review and potentially change. To do that, click on the Settings link in the left sidebar after having logged in to the WordPress admin interface (/wp-admin).

General Settings

On the General Settings page, I would recommend you take a look at the Site Title and Tagline to make sure they match your blog’s theme. On my site, I have:

  • Site Title: Michael Kummer
  • Tagline: Blog About Technology & Healthy Living

I also changed the date format to “M j, Y” (Aug 14, 2018), because it’s shorter than the default yet users from all over the world can read it. If I had opted for the standard US format, such as 8/1/2018, international readers might interpret that date as January 1st.

Writing Settings

The default post category in WordPress is “Uncategorized,” and I changed that to Misc. Of course, I had to create the “Misc” category first, before I could select it in the “Default Post Category” drop-down menu.

Reading Settings

The homepage of my blog doesn’t show any blog articles. As a result, I have created static “Home” and “Blog” pages, and I assigned both in the section “Your homepage displays.” By default, WordPress would show your latest blog posts on the homepage, which may be fine for you.

Discussion Settings

WordPress Discussion Settings
WordPress discussion settings.

The more popular your blog gets, the higher the chance of comment spam. So I’d recommend using an anti-spam plugin (see the list of plugins above) and making sure you check the following options:

  • A comment must be manually approved
  • Comment author must have a previously-approved comment

Media Settings

When uploading images to WordPress (like a featured image for a blog post), make sure they have a high enough resolution. In other words, don’t upload the exact image size you need, but something larger. All images I upload have a minimum resolution of 1200×630 pixels. Upon upload, WordPress creates lower-resolution copies of each image, based on the image size settings you specified.

Back in the day, WordPress didn’t have a good, built-in image resizing function. That meant that if you uploaded the wrong featured image size (for example) for your theme, it would show up stretched or squished.

As a result, many bloggers developed the habit of resizing images to the exact dimensions specified by their theme. The problem is that you might change your layout in the future. If your images are too small, a future theme could try to stretch them, and you’ll end up with a site full of blurry artwork that has to be manually revised.

When dealing with WordPress images, it’s almost always better to opt for larger over smaller.

WordPress Permalink Settings
WordPress permalink settings.

The way you define your permalinks is arguably the most critical setting, and WordPress offers a few options. Whatever you choose, do not use the Plain or Numeric options, because they make your URLs unreadable for both search engines and regular visitors.

I started out with “Day and name” because I didn’t know any better. Only later did I realize that readers might be turned off if they see a two-year-old article, even if I just updated the article a few days prior.

You can certainly change the permalink structure at any time, but when you do, you need to manually create “redirects.” Otherwise, your old links won’t work anymore.

After I realized my mistake, I switched to the “Post name” format, which kept my URLs short and free of distracting date patterns. Months later, I realized that I wanted to restructure my blog based on specific categories I blog about, including:

As a result, I changed the permalink structure again and added redirects for every article. My current, custom permalink structure is /%category%/%postname%/ — which includes the article’s category and post name. Had I thought about permalinks earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of time.

My advice is to think carefully about how you would like to structure your blog and permalinks before you start publishing content. Here’s my recommendation:

  • News site: Day and name
  • Single category or topic blog: Post name
  • Multi-category blog: Custom [/%category%/%postname%/]

Start Blogging

How to start a blog with WordPress

Once you’ve figured out the infrastructure for your blog, you can start creating high-quality content. I started blogging because I kept sharing the same photography and technology tips over and over again. So instead of having to repeat myself all the time, I decided to write them down and then point folks to my article if they had a question about photography or their Mac that I had already answered.

In other words, blogging has been my way of adding value by offering solutions to problems. Five years later, most of what I write about are solutions to everyday problems I run into.

I would advise you to find a topic or niche that you’re passionate about and use it as an inspiration for your blog. In the beginning, my blog covered only photography and technology, two areas that I’m passionate about. Later I expanded to health, traveling, parenting, and finance.

There’s nothing wrong with covering a variety of topics, but I have realized that not having a clear focus makes blogging and promoting the blog more difficult. As a result, I recently refocused my blog on the four core topics I mentioned above.

There are many overlaps between those three areas, and that has helped me to maintain a focus.

How to Help Readers Find Your Blog

2017 top traffic sources
2017 top traffic sources for michaelkummer.com.

There are many ways to promote your blog so that readers can find it. My next article focuses on organic search (search engines) to drive traffic to your blog. Of course, there are more ways by which readers can find your page, including:

  • Social networks
  • Paid ads
  • Newsletter (if you have a subscriber base)
  • Backlinks
  • Word of mouth

85% of my readers find my blog via a search engine (mostly Google). That’s why I spend a lot of time making sure that I optimize my articles for search engines. If my goal was to attract readers only from social media, I could potentially skip some of the steps I will outline in my next article.

Note that optimizing your content for search engines doesn’t prevent you from using it on social media as well. Thanks to so-called “metadata,” you can use entirely different headlines and feature images for social media than you use for search engines.

SEO Basics and Tips

SEO is a massive industry populated with countless agencies and tools that can help you generate organic traffic to your website. Even small blogs can easily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per month on SEO services and products. However, it’s not necessary to spend a ton of money the day you launch your blog. Understanding and implementing a few key SEO concepts and practices can help you craft great content that ranks well on Google for no cost at all.

Keywords vs. Searcher Intent

The first thing you need to understand is that Google’s goal is to deliver its users the most relevant search results as quickly as possible. Back in the day, bloggers would try to game search rankings by loading pages with keywords. Sometimes those keywords were weaved into the content itself, but often they were just pasted as a giant block of text at the bottom of a post.

Today, keyword spamming is largely a thing of the past. Google realized that simply matching search terms with keywords was a clumsy and ineffective way of prioritizing information. So in 2013, the company introduced a major change to its search algorithm (called Hummingbird) that prioritized context, topic authority and searcher intent over raw keyword matching. Its subsequent updates have continued to prioritize those factors.

What is “searcher intent,” and how does understanding the concept help you ⁠— a beginning blogger ⁠— get more traffic?

The Goal of This Page Is to Satisfy You!

A searcher’s “intent” is to find the information they’re seeking or a solution to the problem they’re facing. Take this post as an example: you probably found this page by searching for some form of the phrase “how to start a WordPress blog” or “how to start a blog and make money,” but I didn’t simply run you through the step-by-step mechanics of setting up WordPress. Instead, I interpreted your intent and then delivered a comprehensive write-up that tells you everything you need to know to achieve your goal of establishing a successful blog.

If I had stopped short of that and told you only how to install WordPress, your next step would have been to circle back to Google and run another search ⁠— perhaps for “how to register a domain name,” “how to get traffic to your blog,” or “how to make money from blogging.”

Google wants to send you to a page that gives you all that information up-front, and pages that do so effectively rank better than ones that don’t.

10 SEO Tips for Better Content and Better Rankings

The background information above is important to understand on a conceptual level, because most new bloggers think that the key to getting organic traffic is putting the right keywords in the right places. It’s easy to waste a ton of time and money chasing that rabbit, so I want you to understand why it’s an ineffective strategy.

But I also want to run down a few of the most important things you need to know about optimizing your blog for SEO right from the get-go. So, here are 10 actionable steps you can take that will almost certainly improve your Google ranking.

  1. Write great content that your readers will love. If your posts aren’t vibrant, informative, comprehensive and engaging, then nothing else on this list matters.
  2. Take the time to thoroughly edit your content. Spelling, grammar and punctuation matter when it comes to SEO.
  3. Focus less on the keywords you want to rank for, and more on the problem the searcher is trying to solve.
  4. Anticipate and answer the subordinate questions associated with the search phrase. In other words, think about what information is necessary for the searcher to act on to the answer to their question.
  5. Always include outgoing links to valuable and relevant information on reputable sites. Doing so produces trackable traffic that helps Google recognize and rank your blog.
  6. Get other bloggers to link to your posts. The number of high-quality sites that link to your domain is a crucial factor in how well your site ranks.
  7. Use any SEO plugin ⁠— but preferably, use Yoast SEO Plugin. Then, take the time to set the metadata for every post you publish. Here’s a great post from SEO guru Neil Patel that explains how to properly use Yoast SEO.
  8. Make sure you have a plan for social media, as strong “social signals” (i.e., how often you’re mentioned on social networks) correlate with improved SEO performance.
  9. Read up on basic SEO best practices, like the use of header tags and a table of contents. These are simple to implement but make a huge overall impact.
  10. Ensure that your site loads quickly. Page speed is a crucial SEO factor, with slow sites being demoted in the rankings. This is increasingly important as more users consume content on mobile devices that operate over cellular networks. You can quickly see what’s causing your site to load slowly with Google’s Page Speed Insights tool, and most of the problems you’ll see flagged have relatively quick and easy fixes.

MarketMuse: My Go-To SEO Tool

There is one SEO tool that I pay for and absolutely love: MarketMuse, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help publishers identify ways to improve their content. The traffic boost I’ve seen as a result of acting on MarketMuse’s recommendations has been enormous. That said, it is a fairly expensive tool that’s designed for professional bloggers and businesses, and it would be overkill for beginners. However, it’s definitely something to keep in mind if you start a successful blog that grows into a solid business.

I wrote an in-depth MarketMuse review titled “How to Rank on Google,” and it goes into more detail about the SEO concepts I’ve outlined in this section. Even if you’re not yet at the stage where MarketMuse makes sense for you, I recommend giving that post a good read through, as it takes a deep dive into the characteristics of top-performing content and discusses at length what drives SEO performance.

How to Monetize Your Blog

When you’re first starting out, you shouldn’t expect to make very much money ⁠from blogging. In fact, it will probably take at least a few months of consistent blogging before you’re even eligible to apply for most advertising networks, which require you to have published a certain number of articles and have a certain amount of verifiable blog traffic in order to display ads on your site. Without access to those networks (like Google AdSense), it will be difficult to monetize your blog.

So, I would move monetization to the bottom of your to-do list. Your first goal should be to focus on developing a solid content strategy and producing awesome articles that people love to read. As you’re doing that, you should be focused on the SEO concepts detailed above in order to help readers find your site and increase your organic traffic statistics.

However, once you’ve accomplished those goals, you’ll find that blogging can be a surprisingly lucrative hobby or business. There are numerous ways to go about building a profitable blog, but here are a few of the primary monetization methods that you should consider when the time comes.

Display Ads

Display ads are the text, image and video-based advertisements you see when you visit almost any site on the web (including this one). They’re the most widely used form of content monetization, and they’re fairly easy to implement ⁠— you just have to add a short snippet of code where you want the ads to appear.

You can do this manually, on a case-by-case basis. For example, if you run a blog about local restaurants in your home town, a neighborhood pub might want to pay you to show your readers an ad that links back to their website. In that case, they’d create a graphic in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator and send it to you, along with payment. You’d add that single static image to your site for the agreed-upon period of time.

But as you can imagine, there’s a lot of work involved in acquiring this type of advertising. That’s where ad networks (like Google AdSense) come into play. Ad networks take the responsibility of finding sponsors off of your shoulders, so all you have to do is offer up your space.

Contextual Display Ads

How do ad networks know what ads to display on your site? Almost all modern display advertising is contextual. That means that before serving ads to your visitors, your ad network analyzes the content of your article and matches it up with the most relevant ads in its inventory at that time.

In the case of the example above, your ad network might have ads from a food delivery company like Postmates or Door Dash. Those ads would be a great fit for your blog, which is in the local food niche. Matching up ads with relevant content increases the value of the advertising space, which allows networks to charge more ⁠— and, in turn, to pay you higher commissions.

The most popular display ad network (by far) is AdSense. However, getting approved is very difficult, and there are strict compliance requirements that you have to follow. Another popular option ⁠— and the one I use ⁠— is Mediavine, which requires that your site have at least 25,000 sessions per month (as reported in Google Analytics).

With affiliate marketing, you link to other companies’ products and services. Whenever one of your readers makes a purchase or signs up for a membership, you get a commission.

Often, when I write about products that I love on this blog (say, the best keto meal replacement drinks), I add affiliate links.

Many blogs monetize their content primarily through affiliate links. However, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind if you choose to utilize this revenue source:

  • There are federal regulations surrounding disclosure of your affiliate relationship with the companies you’re linking to. This is meant to help improve transparency and protect consumers. Basically, it means that you have to tell your readers that you’ll earn a commission when they use your links to purchase products.
  • Affiliate marketing can result in editorial bias. If you’re reviewing a product for which you have an affiliate relationship, you might be incentivized to extoll its virtues and downplay its flaws. That can cause trust problems with your readership, which will ultimately harm your business. You need to be aware of this from the outset, so that you can establish yourself as an honest broker who readers know they can rely on for truthful information. (Pro tip: doing so will make your product recommendations that much more compelling and effective.)

Many companies offer affiliate programs, including Amazon*.

Sponsored Content

One of the monetization strategies that has exploded in popularity in recent years is sponsored content, which is when a company or individual pays you a fee to publish a blog post they’ve written.

There are a number of different reasons why someone might want to publish sponsored blog posts on your site. One is to get a link back to their own site, which is an important factor for SEO. Another is simply to present their perspective, product or service to your readers.

Depending on the size of your audience, sponsored posts can bring in hundreds or thousands of dollars each. As with affiliate marketing, you’ll always want to be transparent about when a piece of content has been sponsored. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that all the information presented is truthful and accurate; since it appears on your site, you’ll ultimately be responsible if something is misleading, fraudulent or libelous.

Frequently Asked Questions

These are some of the questions I’m often asked by beginning bloggers. Feel free to email me or leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to update this list!

What’s the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org?

WordPress is blogging software originally developed by a company named Automattic. Instead of charging people to use WordPress, Automattic made it “open source,” which means that it’s free for anyone to use or modify as they see fit. That fact is one of the main reasons why WordPress is so popular: Automattic’s decision to make it open source allowed people to earn money by developing themes and extensions, which resulted in an incredibly customizable and powerful platform. Today, you can find an affordable (or even free) plugin to extend WordPress’ functionality for almost any purpose you can imagine.

Automattic owns and operates WordPress.com, which allows users to create free or paid WordPress blogs without the need to sign up for external hosting (like a Flywheel or Bluehost account) or install software. WordPress.com is the main way Automattic makes money from the software it created.

WordPress.org is where you go to download the free, self-hosted WordPress software (sometimes referred to as WordPress Community Edition or WordPress CE). Once you’ve downloaded it, you have to install it on a web server (which is why you need a hosting account).

How do you create a free WordPress blog?

WordPress.com allows you to create a free blog, but it will come with significant limitations (including limited storage and customization options). The WordPress software (which you can download from WordPress.org) is 100% free. However, you’ll most likely have to pay at least a little bit for a web hosting package (unless you happen to have an old computer you feel like turning into a server).

There are a handful of free web hosting providers, but you’ll probably find their service and features frustrating. If you’re absolutely committed to creating a free WordPress blog, I would recommend looking into Amazon’s cloud solutions*; they have a free tier, and their rates are metered (and cheap), which means you’ll only pay for the blog traffic you actually use. The one downside to Amazon is that it can be very complicated to set up.

Is WordPress easy to use as a beginner?

Very easy. It’s designed to be simple and intuitive. If you can create a Microsoft Word document, you can use WordPress. The most complicated part is the initial setup and configuration. If you’ve never dealt with web hosting or domain names before, the terminology will probably sound like Klingon at first. But rest assured, it’s easier than it seems and you’ll pick it up quickly.

How much does it REALLY cost to build a WordPress site?

Starting a WordPress blog is very inexpensive when you consider how much you’d need to pay a developer to build you an equivalent non-WordPress site. However, if your goal is to become a successful blogger and make money, you should be ready to spend a minimum of $250 to $500 during the first year.

You can easily spend more than that. I’d recommend you hold off on making a big investment at first, until you spend some time blogging and decide whether or not it’s something you really want to pursue. Also, your ideas about what your blog should be will almost certainly change over that first year, which means your tech and design needs might also change.

Here’s the bare-bones of what you need, and what you should expect to pay:

Web hosting: A decent shared hosting plan will run you about $10 to $15 per month. Anything less than that might be insufficient, and anything more than that is probably overkill at first.

Premium theme: You can absolutely use a free theme, but I think you’ll discover that they tend to be free for a reason ⁠— whether it’s an uninspiring design, limited functionality or buggy code. You can purchase very good themes for $50 to $100.

Premium plugins: There’s a free WordPress plugin for almost every purpose, and most of them work well enough to use. But chances are you’ll find a couple things for which the free version just doesn’t quite do the trick you’re looking for. Most premium themes cost around $20 to $40, although the business model is rapidly changing to monthly or annual subscriptions (which usually means you’ll end up paying more). My recommendation is to hold off on buying too many plugins at first, until you have a better idea about what you really want your blog to do.

What’s the difference between a blog and a website?

There’s no functional difference. Way back in the Dark Ages (around 2008…) people thought of blogs as being the internet form of journals. But today, almost every “website” runs on WordPress or a similar content management platform. The most notable distinction is that when people refer to a “blog,” they’re usually talking about a website that’s run by one person (or a few people), which is focused on one (or a few) topics, and which publishes a consistent stream of new content.

Is WordPress good for websites?

Absolutely. Somewhere around 30% of the web runs on WordPress. You can make any kind of website with WordPress ⁠— there’s even a super-popular e-commerce plugin (WooCommerce) that allows you to use WordPress as an online storefront. Of course, it may not be the best solution for every type of website in every circumstance. For example, if you want to launch an online store with thousands of different items, a dedicated platform like Magento will provide a more stable and scalable option.

What’s the difference between cPanel and the WordPress dashboard?

cPanel is a dashboard for managing your web hosting account; it’s where you’ll assign your domain names, set up any email addresses, monitor your storage and bandwidth usage, and so forth. The WordPress dashboard is where you’ll create, edit and publish blog posts. Note that while cPanel is popular, it’s not used by all web hosts.

How much money do bloggers make?

There’s no single answer to this question. Most bloggers make zero money, but many make a full-time living. It’s not impossible to make money with your blog, but it’s certainly no get-rich-quick scheme ⁠— it takes a lot of time, hard work, trial and error, and commitment. It’s not the kind of thing where you can set up a blog, pump out a couple of articles and watch the passive income roll in. You have to stick with it and treat it like a business.

How many views do you need to make money blogging?

Many ad networks require you to have about 25,000 valid page views per month. Display advertising is usually pay-per-click, and click-through-rates are very low. That means you’ll need in the tens of thousands of monthly visitors to see any notable income. If you have a blog that’s popular within a certain niche, you might be able to make money via affiliate programs with less traffic than that.

What themes and topics are readers most drawn to?

You can have a successful blog in any niche. I would encourage you to think more about your passion and expertise than about what makes a profitable blog. What readers will really be drawn to is vibrant, valuable content that informs, educates and/or entertains. You’ll be a better blogger if you focus on topics you know and care about.

What if the niche I’m passionate about is overly competitive or not lucrative?

Focus on what you can bring to your niche that’s different from everybody else. You have a unique perspective, and that’s valuable. Instead of trying to copy what everybody else is doing, establish your own voice, based on your own experience. That will make your content stand out.

Conclusion

Blogging is fun and starting a blog is relatively easy. If you’re not yet sure just how much time you can spend working on your site, start with one of the free blogging options before investing money. But if you’re serious about launching a blog, I recommend starting on the right platform and with the right web hosting partner.

And while it certainly does take dedication and a lot of hard work, it’s absolutely possible to start a successful blog that begins making money in the not-too-distant future. That won’t happen right away, but neither is it a pipe dream.

Whether your goal is to write about your passions in your downtime or become a full-time blogger, make sure you think about the setup and configuration options described here, as well as the search engine optimization and monetization methods I’ve outlined. Focusing on setting up your blog the right way from the beginning is the best way to build a foundation for success.

Now that you know how to start a blog with WordPress, the essential ingredient to becoming a successful blogger is persistence! It may take a couple of years for your blog to take off. Unfortunately, most bloggers don’t last that long. So stick with it and stay tuned for my upcoming article and how to make your blog SEO-friendly.

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