There’s never been a better time to start a blog: the current pandemic has pushed many of our lives online, and a lot of us are hungry for new projects or entertainment. If you’re curious about starting a blog, this post will walk you through the 7 steps you’ll need to take.
Why should you trust me, a random person on the internet? I’ve been blogging for over 10 years now, ever since middle school (back then, I tried to be a fancy ~fashion blogger~ and posted cringey outfits). Since then, I’ve turned my blog into a space to tell stories and share resources on travel, running, and sustainability. My blog is even generating me some income.
I’ve learned a lot about blogging over these years, and I’ve run multiple sites. I even help manage a blog with 1 million monthly pageviews as my job! So, I want share some of the things I’ve learned to help you set up your own site as smoothly as possible, and avoid any potential snags.
Is Blogging Dead? Is it Worth Starting a Blog in 2020?
Before I dive in, I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room: is blogging dead in 2020? With the proliferation of new social media platforms, do people still read blogs?
The funny thing is that people have been asking this question for years. I myself have wondered whether blogging was still alive as early as 5-6 years ago.
I wrote an entire post on whether blogging is dead, so check that out for a more in-depth discussion. For now, here’s the condensed version.
In my opinion, blogging is still alive, BUT:
- Certain niches, like fashion, have shifted to other platforms, like Instagram (so yes, traditional fashion blogging, where you share outfit photos, is dead).
- There’s been a shift in focus: blogging is now less about expressing yourself, and more about creating helpful resources for your readers.
- To get your blog discovered, you can no longer rely on “grassroots” measures, like commenting on a ton of other blogs. You’ll need to leverage marketing tools like SEO (search engine optimization), Pinterest, and blogging Facebook groups.
The Google Trends graph for “fashion blog” vs. “fashion instagram”—you’ll notice that fashion blogging is down drastically, and that fashion instagramming has gained traction as fashion blogging declined.
This doesn’t mean you can’t share personal stories—you can—but the posts with the most reach will have those personal stories in the context of a helpful resource. For instance, back in the era of personal blogging, I wrote a memoir-style account of my first solo trip and the creepy Couchsurfing experience that ensued. I recently reshared that story, but as part of a guide to Couchsurfing.
If you’re feeling disappointed because you wanted to start a personal blog, you should still go ahead and do so! Just know that these tend to be more popular within your personal circles only, and it’ll be more difficult to grow your blog beyond that.
The bottom line? It’s still worth it to blog, especially if you plan to curate your content based on what people are interested in, and learn proper blog marketing strategies (to be discussed below).
I’ll be totally frank though: growing your blog is a LOT of work, especially in saturated markets like travel. I spend at least 15 hours/week writing posts, researching keywords, making Pinterest pins, and doing all the other behind-the-scenes work. If you’re not willing to put in the work, save yourself some time and don’t start a blog!
7 Steps Start a Blog for Free (to Make Money, or Just for Fun)
This post is called “How to Start a Blog for Free,” and I will be going over how to start your blog without spending a cent. That said, let me be upfront: if you want to make your blog look professional, you’ll have to spend at least a little money (I’d say a bare minimum of $25-$30). If you’re ready to blog long-term and use your site as a business, be ready to spend even more (at least $100).
Another disclaimer: this post will include affiliate links, meaning that I earn a small commission on any purchases you make. This doesn’t cost you any extra, and this income keeps my blog running and allows me to keep writing long-ass posts like these to try to help you!
Step 1: How to Pick a Blog Niche
The first thing you’ll need to do is to pick a topic or “niche.” You can blog about literally anything: travel, personal finance, movies, fitness, photography, politics, Pinterest marketing, gardening, sustainability. You can even blog about blogging—sites that are focused on making money blogging actually perform quite well!
Since you can blog about whatever you want, this step can be overwhelming. To help you decide, ask yourself these questions:
- What do I want to say to a larger audience?
- Which topics do I enjoy and have a lot to write about?
- What niche has the most opportunity for helpful, relevant content?
The final question is underrated, but it’s the most important question if you want to reach a larger audience and monetize your blog. If you write something amazing, but no one cares about it, you’ll have a hard time getting readers. If the niche is oversaturated, it will also be difficult to get your voice heard in the noise.
Once you pick a broader niche, it can be helpful to get even more specific. Having a more specific niche is especially important for saturated niches. Say you want to write about travel: are you going to focus on a continent, country, or city? Or maybe on a type of travel, like sustainable travel or van life? If you’re going to blog about politics, will you talk mostly about American politics? For fitness bloggers, are you going to discuss hiking, running, or home workouts? It’s okay to go outside this more specific niche, but having a more focused body of content can help you develop your blog’s brand, or what it’s known for. For instance, I write about travel in general, but I specialize in France content.
Can you have multiple niches, though? Marketing experts strongly discourage multiple unrelated niches, as people won’t know what your site is exactly about, and not everyone will relate to everything you write. I shamelessly break this rule, but I do think branding and growing long-term readers would be easier if I focused on one niche. That said, having multiple niches has saved my traffic during the pandemic. Travel content is down, but fitness content is up a lot, so my running gear posts are getting way more traffic.
It’s ultimately up to you—if you go for multiple niches, just know that you’ll have more of a lifestyle blog, and that it will be more challenging to grow long-term followers.
Step 2: How to Pick a Blog Name
Once you’ve picked a topic, it’s time to brainstorm blog names. You want your blog name to meet a few criteria:
- The name should give you an idea of what your blog is about (mine isn’t so great in that respect, but you can kind of tell that it’s a lifestyle blog).
- Your name should be short and easy to remember: 10-15 characters is ideal, and definitely aim for under 20. Make sure it also looks okay spelled out, as the letters can look confusing when put together.
- Avoid very generic names that people are unlikely to remember, like “Chasing Adventure.”
- It should be available as social media handles, if you want to have social accounts for your blog.
- Make sure that variations are it aren’t already taken (to avoid confusion with existing blogs).
- If you want a custom domain (.com instead of .blogspot.com or .wordpress.com), make sure the custom domain is available. You can also buy a non-.com custom domain (you can have basically anything following the dot, like .blog, .mangoes, etc., but .com is easiest to remember, and is recommended if you want your site to be a business). Custom domains usually cost around $15/year.
Step 3: How to Choose the Best Blogging Platform
There are many blogging platforms, but I’d only recommend two: Blogger and WordPress.org. I’ve written a post comparing Blogger vs. WordPress.com vs.WordPress.org, so be sure to check that out if you want more in-depth pros and cons.
Here’s a quick rundown on Blogger and WordPress.org:
Blogger: best for beginners (& free)
While some people scoff at Blogger, I actually think it’s a great platform, especially for beginners on a budget. I myself was on Blogger up until January 2020, when I switched to self-hosted WordPress.
I like Blogger because:
- The interface is very intuitive.
- Easy to set up; it’s owned by Google, so if you have a Gmail, you can just use that account to create your blog.
- Cheap and easy to make your blog look professional: you can get a nice theme/layout for $10-15 (or for free), get a custom domain (usually $15), and remove all the Blogger branding (for free), and no one will even know your blog is on Blogger.
- Google AdSense is integrated into the platform, so you can easily set up ads.
Basically, you can run a pretty nice-looking blog for only $15/year, and make money on it!
There are some drawbacks though, and that’s why I migrated:
- You don’t have as much control over SEO (the main reason I moved, as SEO is vital to growing your blog).
- Formatting of posts can get randomly messed up while you’re writing, or copying & pasting from another doc, and it can take a long time to fix.
- No automatic backups of posts and photos.
- No support if you have an issue (Google doesn’t care about Blogger since it’s a free product).
- Your blog can get deleted without warning, if you violate Google’s Terms of Service. There are horror stories out there about this, but the odds of this happening to you are very slim. Just know that it could happen.
WordPress.org: best for professional sites
WordPress.org is the most popular blogging platform for people who want a truly optimized and professional site. You might be a little confused, as there’s also WordPress.com. I’m not covering WordPress.com in this post since I’m really not a fan, as it costs quite a bit of money to remove WordPress branding (you can read more about why I don’t like WordPress.com in my blogging platform comparison post). But you might be wondering: what exactly is the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org?
WordPress.org is self-hosted, meaning that you need to need to first sign up for a website host. Website hosts act as storage and servers for your site. For Blogger and WordPress.com, your host is the blogging platform. In the case of WordPress.org, you have a different website host from the blogging platform.
I personally use SiteGround as a host since it was the most highly recommended in my research (it has the best performance, least downtime, and super quick support). Plans start at $4/month, and you can pay anywhere from 1-3 years upfront to lock in the introductory rate. After your intro rate ends, bloggers recommend negotiating with SiteGround to get a discount on the regular price. Bluehost is also very popular, as it’s cheaper than SiteGround in the long run (the regular rates are lower, but the intro rates are very similar).
Why would I pay this much to run a website when I used to do it for almost free? It was because of Blogger’s shortcomings in SEO, website backup, speed optimization, and support. There are also more ways to customize your site on WordPress.org without knowing code, as there’s a huge library of plugins (these tools let you install features like a table of contents, contact forms, or your Instagram feed). These might seem like small reasons, but they make a big difference if you want to grow your blog.
Of course, WordPress.org is definitely an investment. You have to pay for hosting (at least $50/year), and you need a custom domain (at least $10/year). WordPress.org themes are also more expensive (at least $40), and the interface is more complicated than Blogger’s.
The Bottom Line
As your make your decision, figure out whether you want your blog to be a business. If you want to make money with your blog and grow your pageviews, WordPress.org is the way to go. If you want a more casual blog, then I’d recommend Blogger.
You can always migrate, but just be warned that it is a real process. It took me 30+ hours to set up WordPress, migrate ~60 posts, and reformat everything (and time is money—that’s basically a week’s worth of work!). I started out casually blogging, so Blogger made sense for me then, but if I were to start all over today with my current blogging/business goals, I’d pick WordPress.
Step 4: How to Make Your Blog Look Aesthetic/Professional
Here are the steps to making your blog look nice:
Get a custom domain
Like I mentioned before, these are the domains without platform branding (.wordpress.com or .blogspot.com). A custom domain is essential if you’re on self-hosted WordPress. If you’re not, a custom domain just makes your URL easier to remember, and is more “professional.”
I use Name.com for my custom domain, and I pay around $13/year. For free WHOIS protection (usually $4.99), use the code PRIVACYPLEASE (this protects your personal information when you register a domain name). If you sign up with my referral link, you’ll also get $5 credit.
Find an aesthetic blog theme
The way your blog looks (fonts, layout, and other styling) is influenced by your theme. You can find many free themes just by googling, but the best ones will require spending a little money. If you’re on WordPress.org (NOT WordPress.com), I have a post on the best WordPress themes for under $50 (including my own current theme).
If you’re on Blogger, the creator of my WordPress theme actually offers a free minimalist Blogger theme. I would also highly recommend the themes by Fearne Creative Design on Etsy ($4-20). The owner, Eve, is the loveliest person and is so responsive to questions. Her themes are also super beautiful, and she installs them for you for free.
Before you buy a theme, be sure to run the sample website through a speed tester. If it’s already slow on the example website, you can expect it to be even slower once you upload your photos and posts.
Create a header/logo and upload a favicon
Next, you’ll want to think about your website branding. If you like designing things yourself, head over to Canva, which is a user-friendly, freemium platform that allows you to design anything from logos to Pinterest pins to resumes. Your website header (the top section of your site) doesn’t have to be fancy—it can just be the title of your blog in a nice font. You could even skip the header and leave your blog name in the default text of your blog theme.
Once you have a header, you’ll want to create a favicon, which is the small icon that appears on the website tabs (go to the address bar and look at mine, which is two bird silhouettes). For your favicon, make sure it’s something simple that will look good super small. I wouldn’t recommend more than 1-2 letters in it, if you decide to use letters. Also make sure that the proportions are 1:1, to use the max amount of space allotted.
For Blogger only: remove “powered by Blogger” and add Disqus comments
If you chose Blogger as your platform, you’ll want to do two final steps. First, remove the “powered by Blogger” branding on your site (there are lots of online tutorials on this). You’ll also want to install Disqus if you want to make it easy to comment, and to prevent spam. This is optional, as many bloggers still use the native Google commenting system, but I personally used and liked Disqus when I was on Blogger.
Step 5: How to Create Your Blog Posts
Okay, now we’re at the actual blogging part of this post haha. I’ll go over some FAQs about writing your posts:
Should I write a bunch of posts before launching my blog?
I’d personally recommend waiting to share your blog until you have at least 3-5 posts, so those visiting your blog have a better idea of what it’s about.
How long should posts be?
In terms of SEO, longer posts tend to rank higher, with the ideal length being 1000-2000 words. It really depends on the topic though—a post about the best leggings under $50 will probably be shorter than a post about how to start a blog (this post is getting ridiculously long, oops).
My posts are generally around 1200-2000 words, though I do have a couple posts over 3000 words. I generally believe that a post should be helpful to readers, and should be something you spend quality time writing, and so they tend to be longer. I actually kind of find it offensive when I click on a post and it’s too short, as it feels kind of cheap and clickbait-y (definitely avoid “fluff” posts).
How often should I post?
This depends on your strategy. There are successful blogs that post once every few months (after they’ve built up some high-quality content). On other sites, they might post multiple times a day. I try to post at least once a week, as that keeps my blog active/relevant, allows me to cover new topics, and lets me try to rank for new keywords. It’s also frequent enough that your consistent readers know you’re still alive.
Should you plan out your posts?
Some bloggers like to have a monthly editorial calendar, which is a plan of what topics they’ll address. I’m more relaxed, and while I have a general idea of what I’ll be writing that month, it often changes. This is because I have a running list of 20+ topics, and I shift my schedule based on current trends, whether I’m doing a collab post with another blogger, or just how I’m feeling.
I like to use Trello to organize and list my topics by category—it’s a free platform that’s commonly used for blog editorial calendars and workflows. I try to vary the kinds of topics I write about, so laying it out on Trello helps me see the topic I should hit next.
How do you decide what to write about?
I come up with topics based on:
- Recent travels or races
- Current trends/seasonality (for example, my fitness motivation post and this blogging post were inspired by the current pandemic). That said, I try to only write evergreen content, or things that will be relevant indefinitely. So, if I write a post based on trends, I try to do so in a way that’s evergreen, or in a way that will be easy to edit afterwards.
- What I think will be helpful to people/what I wish I’d known before doing something
- Keyword research
I generally have a vague idea of what I want to write, then I go to keyword research platforms like SEMrush, Moz, or Keysearch (I get SEMrush for free from work, so I use that). These platforms help me determine what people are searching in the topic I want to write about. For example, say I want to write about the best photo spots in Dijon, but people aren’t searching for that; instead, they’re searching for best things to do. In this case, I’d re-pivot the topic to match what people are looking for, while still keeping my original idea if relevant (the final post was One Day in Dijon: Best Photo Spots + Things to Do).
Keyword research isn’t necessary if you’re not concerned about growing your blog, but it’s very important if you are. It is an investment, as most tools cost at least $17/month, if not more (Keysearch is the cheapest, and SEMrush and Moz are most expensive). I didn’t start keyword researching until Fall 2019, and I was still able to get some posts to rank before that, but mostly by chance—I just wrote things that I thought people were looking for, based on what I would’ve liked to know myself (my first post to rank was a GPS watch comparison).
My first-ever post to rank—it’s currently in position 1 for this keyword, though there is something above it in position 0 (the featured snippet). The thing about rankings is that they’re always changing, so you have to constantly be updating your content.
I will sometimes do more personal posts that aren’t SEO-optimized, like How Much I Spend on Running in a Year or Why I’m Not Working Full-Time. These are posts I write for fun, and they tend to be more popular when I share them on my personal Facebook. While I do a lot of informational guides for SEO, the more personal posts are what really make your blog unique, and keep readers coming back (anyone can write informational guides).
I also sometimes write posts that I know won’t rank on Google (because of a lack of keywords, or the keyword is too competitive), but are likely to perform well on Pinterest. A couple examples are 7 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion and 10 Common Recycling Mistakes. These posts are also things that were really nagging at me, and I thought more people should know.
What exactly is blogging “writing style?”
It’s difficult to define what makes writing fit for a blog; the overall tone and style really depends on your blog niche. A politics or education blog would probably be much more formal than a lifestyle blog, for example.
My writing tends to be more conversational, and I like to tell jokes here and there with “haha” and “lol” thrown in. Back when I did memoir writing on my blog, my style was more literary and descriptive (here’s an example of an old post on my first marathon that’s memoir-style).
Basically, I recommend just keeping it a little more casual, unless you have a more academic/intellectual blog (avoid words like “must,” “cannot,” “therefore,” and “thus,” and use “however” sparingly). This helps readers better connect to you and what you’re saying.
Step 6: How to Grow a Blog Audience
Growing a blog audience is probably the most enigmatic part of the whole process. Here are some of the ways you can get readers:
Install Google Analytics
The absolute first step is to install Google Analytics on your blog. This will give you the most accurate picture of your stats, as the in-house stats tend to be less accurate (especially on Blogger, which tracks bots as pageviews). You can’t strategize about your blog without understanding your stats, so this step is really vital! Google Analytics tells you all sorts of helpful things, like which channels your traffic is coming from, which posts are most popular, how long people are spending on them, and more.
Learn and implement SEO
The best way to get your blog read is to use SEO. About 70-85% of my monthly traffic comes from organic search (so people just looking things up on Google). This requires the most time, effort, and money to learn and use, as you’ll need paid tools for keyword research. You can learn a decent amount of SEO for free though. Make Traffic Happen has a very digestible free intro to SEO, and Moz has a more comprehensive free Beginner’s Guide to SEO. Basically, SEO involves targeting keywords, streamlining your post format, building backlinks, and lots of other components.
SEO takes a while to “kick in,” especially if you have a new site, so don’t be discouraged if there aren’t immediate results. Even if you do everything right, you’ll likely have to wait at least several months before your posts rank.
Pinterest is actually a very powerful blogging tool, especially if your content is visual (travel, fitness, and sustainability do really well on Pinterest). By uploading a pin and linking it to a blog post, you can get lots of clicks to your site (I’ll probably write a guide about this later, but for now, check out this guide to Pinterest). It’s a whole other beast to learn though, as there’s also Pinterest-specific SEO, and other tools to leverage specifically for Pinterest (like Tailwind, a Pinterest scheduler and reshare community).
I started using Pinterest and Tailwind more seriously in January, and I got almost 1000 pageviews from Pinterest alone in February, which was 20% of that month’s traffic. This is a big investment though, in terms of time and money—I spend at least a couple hours a week on making new pins, participating in repin threads, and using Tailwind. I also spent $100+ on a year of Tailwind (around $15 monthly, but you get a free month and $15 credit with my referral code).
Pinterest is the best way to get immediate traffic, as it doesn’t discriminate between new and old accounts. The most successful blogging strategies tend to use both Pinterest and SEO.
Here’s an example of one of my pins that got lots of clicks.
Share on your personal social platforms
Whether or not you do this is up to you; some people like to separate their personal and blog life, others don’t mind mixing the two. I didn’t really share my blog on my personal social accounts until last year. Even then, I only really promote select posts on my personal Facebook. While I share most of my posts on my blog Instagram, I still don’t share them all, especially if they’re more niche. (I don’t want to be that annoying person always self-promoting).
On personal social accounts, I’ve noticed that personal posts tend to do better (for example, reflections on your actual life). So, I’ll usually only share on my personal FB if it’s more personal, or if I think the post is applicable to a lot of people.
Social sharing makes up a very small percentage of my traffic (generally 5% when it excludes Pinterest, which I don’t consider traditional social media anyways). If you leverage other marketing tools, you can absolutely run a blog that gets read without sharing it in your personal circles. You should also always focus on building your blog, rather than your blog’s social media accounts. Many people mistakenly think that Instagram is key to growing a big blog when SEO and Pinterest are much more powerful.
Make it easy to follow you
Your audience should be able to follow your posts at no extra effort to them. One way to do this is to set up an email list/newsletter.
It’s traditionally an option to automatically send each blog post to readers (Blogger has this feature through Feedburner). I wouldn’t recommend this, as the entire post is sent, and it might lead to decreased pageviews. I started with the automated updates, but I now have a monthly-ish email newsletter where I send blog updates and tips on travel, running, and sustainability. I started on Mailchimp, but I’m migrating to Convertkit since they have really nice-looking forms. Mailchimp is free up to 2000 subscribers, and Convertkit is free up to 500, but you get an extra 100 if you sign up with my referral code (and 100 more each time someone uses your code, up to 1000 more free).
Network using blogger Facebook Groups
Blogging Facebook groups have really taken off in the past year. In these groups, you can find other bloggers in your niche and participate in engagement threads. There are usually daily threads for Pinterest repins (where you pin everyone else’s pin and they pin yours) or comment reciprocation (you comment on the 5 links above you). You can also find threads for blog collabs, where you contribute an entire guest post to another person’s blog (in exchange for a link back to yours), or a section of a post (for instance, I’ve contributed a section to post called “Best U.S. National Parks to Visit in the Spring”).
These groups are especially popular for travel bloggers, and I personally am a part of Wandering Women Travel Bloggers and Female Travel Bloggers. Facebook groups are a great way to discover new blogs, and get yours discovered.
Step 7: How to Make Money with Your Blog
There are a few main channels that bloggers use to earn money. They are:
This is where you get commission on any purchases someone makes through your link. This is how I’ve made most of my money so far. I use Amazon Associates, which is probably the most popular affiliate program (I feel iffy about this, as I know Amazon is a bad company, but I do product reviews sometimes and know people will be purchasing there anyways, so I might as well make some money from those posts; I also always offer alternatives, but have never gotten any bites on those). Amazon recently slashed their commission rates though, so it’s another reason to turn to other affiliates.
Skimlinks is a great alternative, as it allows you to monetize links for many companies, like Target or Airbnb.
Once you build up enough posts, pageviews, and readers, you can reach out to companies for sponsorships. Here’s an example of a sponsored post I did on GPS running watches. Sponsorships can work in a couple main ways: you could get a free product in exchange for a post, or you could get paid to post (and a free product too, sometimes!). I don’t accept free product as payment, but it could be worth it if you were going to buy the product anyways, and if you’re just starting out.
Companies may also reach out to you, but their requests can often be self-serving. There are also a lot of sketchy companies that want you to post something they’ve written, or want to send you a cheap product in exchange for an entire post (don’t do it!). Also remember that you should NEVER have to pay anything for a partnership, not even shipping.
If you have enough pageviews, you can make a nice amount of money from ads (some people make thousands monthly). I don’t use ads on my blog because I’m not at the threshold to make meaningful ad income yet, and I don’t want any distractions on my blog. There are lots of networks to choose from, like AdSense, Ezoic, and MediaVine. Anyone can use AdSense, but Ezoic and MediaVine require 10k and 25k monthly sessions, respectively (sessions are the number of times someone visits your blog, and pageviews are the number of pages viewed; you can have multiple pageviews in one session). Qualifying for MediaVine is kind of like how you know you’ve “made it.” I’d love to reach that point myself! At around 4000 sessions and 5000 pageviews the last few months, I still have a ways to go, but I’m making progress (I’m on track to hit 7000+ pageviews this month! EDIT: I hit over 10k pageviews in the end!).
Products & Services
The final way that bloggers make money is through selling products and services. This might be an eBook they wrote, a course they put together, or blog/Pinterest consulting services. I currently don’t offer any of these, but some bloggers have lots of success with their products.
Whew, we’ve finally reached the end of this post! I obviously couldn’t cover everything, so feel free to reach out if you have questions. Be sure to check out my posts Best Blogging Platform in 2020 and Is Blogging Dead? Is it Still Worth Blogging? for more in-depth discussion on those topics.
One thing you might’ve noticed is that blogging is a heck of a lot of work, especially if you want to get your posts read by a wider audience. It was a heck of a lot of work just telling you how much work blogging really is! If you want your blog to be a business, you’ll need to treat it like one. Be ready to invest money, time, and effort. Commit to being in it for the long haul, even if you don’t see immediate results (results take time, and many blogs fail because bloggers don’t have the patience).
I hope you found this helpful in learning about blogging, how to start one, and whether it’s right for you. Best of luck if you take the plunge!
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