Setting up a Blog: A Guide For Noobs

So Wanderstitch is just over a year old now, and  I’m pretty pleased with how that first year turned out  – sewing-wise AND social-media-wise. Although the blog now looks and functions pretty much how I want it to, it was a long journey to get to this point. I spent a lot of time researching what I needed to do in order to get a blog up and running, and a couple of you guys have asked me for advice on this topic so I wanted to share with you all my experience and learning, to hopefully help others who also want to set up their own blog but are a total noob like I was.

It was a steep learning curve – I’d literally never blogged before IN MY LIFE or had the remotest idea of how I even go about starting. It was all new and exciting talking about launching a blog and how fabulous it would be to have people read it, but I soon realised that I had to actually had to put in the work to get this off the ground myself. How do I even get stuff I write on to a web page? How do I control where stuff goes, visually, on the page? How do I make stuff happen when someone clicks on something? How do I get pictures on there?

Now I’m not a complete div by a long shot, but we didn’t get taught this sort of stuff when I was at school. I remember when dial-up internet first became a thing – you couldn’t use the phone at the same time and if you picked up the handset you got that awful noise which signalled that someone was online. Kids today probably don’t even remember that lol. I’m sure there are eight-year-olds out there that could get a blog running in their sleep, but I found it quite a task to try to find my way and get a website to take shape. I mean, where do you even start? Well, hopefully this blog post will be a good starting point!

I don’t profess to be any sort of IT expert or technical genius, this is just my journey told from the perspective of someone who didn’t have a clue but managed to get everything up and running.

Get yourself comfy, grab a cuppa, and let’s begin.

So – you’re thinking of stating a blog? Yay! Don’t be scared. You can do this. If I can do this, you can too. TRUST ME.

First thing’s first

For your first task, you’ll need to choose a blogging platform. This is the software that you use to publish your fabulous content to the internet. The most used ones out there are WordPress and Blogger. I chose WordPress for my blog, purely because that’s the one platform I’d actually heard of, and that was a good enough reason for me at the time. I later discovered that WordPress is in fact the more popular out of the two.

Whichever platform you choose will provide you with the interface you need to create posts, upload photos and generally just keep everything ticking over. Here’s a snapshot of what the WordPress dashboard looks like:

You can see that there’s all the different sections down the left, for writing posts, responding to comments, or uploading your fabulous pictures. This is basically the ‘behind the scenes’ view of your blog – it’s where you create your content, how you control where stuff goes on your website and how it looks.

WordPress.com, or WordPress.org… is there even a difference?

BIG FAT YES there’s a difference. And quite an important one, which is really going to affect your blog in lots of ways.

In a nutshell –

  • WordPress.com = lower cost, lower maintenance, but lower control over the website. This is the simpler option of the two, ideal for someone who wants a blog but doesn’t really want the upkeep. WordPress will host your site for you.
  • WordPress.org = you’re on your own, basically. But in the words of the great Fleetwood Mac, this means You Can Go Your Own Way. You will have to find someone to host your blog yourself.

For your blog, you can either choose the free WordPress.com option – which is easier for a beginner but you don’t have a lot of control over how your site looks and functions – or you can use the more expensive and more labour intensive WordPress.org option and have the power to do whatever the hell you like with your site (within reason, obvs). The best way to summarise the differences between the two is to point you to this wonderful summary on the WPBeginners website.

The downside to having all the control over your site is, of course, figuring out how you actually use your power to do ALL THE THINGS.

Because I’m always up for a challenge (and don’t like being told what I can and can’t do) I went for the WordPress.org option. **Most of the things I write about below aren’t applicable to the free WordPress.com platform, as you don’t need them/can’t have them anyway**

So after I had chosen my platform and thrown myself in to the deep end, I needed to start getting things together – and with any newborn creature, it needed a name.

What’s in a name?

A domain name is basically the website address that people type in to get to your site. In my case, that’s Wanderstitch.com. Think carefully, because a domain name is for life, not just for Christmas kids. (or at least as long as your blog lives). Obviously, you can’t have the exact same name as something that’s already been taken by another website, and I’d advise not having a name reeeeeeeally similar to something existing either because they might get just a smidge narked off and things could get ugly.

If you have a wordpress.com blog (the low-maintenance route), your web address will end with wordpress.com – eg www.wanderstich.wordpress.com. With a wordpress.org blog, you can ditch the wordpress.com bit and have your own extension on the end, like a fully grown website. You can choose from lots of extensions – you don’t have to have .com any more, you can have all sorts of cool ones:

You have to pay for the privilege of choosing your own name, and you have to renew it every year. Which means you have to pay for it every year. If you don’t renew your domain, someone else can buy it and you might have then lost it forever (or they might hold it to ransom unless you pay them A MILLION POUNDS to get it back). Domains are somewhere in the region of £15 for the first year, you might get it at a bit of a discount but it’ll probably increase a little for the second year.

So where do you buy the domain name from? I went the easy route and bought the domain name from the hosting provider I planned on using because I thought it would be easier to have everything in one place – it actually doesn’t make a difference, mine are separate providers now – so go with whoever’s offering the best deal. Some of the biggest ones are GoDaddy, 123-Reg and Fasthosts.

The host with the most

So what’s hosting and why do you need it?

Hosting is where your files for your website are stored on the internet. Basically virtual storage space. You know how you can rent a home? This is basically the same, you’re renting a little bit of a server somewhere in nice, quiet Nepal. Well probably not Nepal, but the server could actually be anywhere in the world. I learned the hard way that you really, ABSOLUTELY, get what you pay for with hosting. The cheapest option will be the cheapest for a reason. I chose Fasthosts for my hosting when I first launched, again because I’d heard of them and when you’re lost at sea and not completely sure what you’re doing, familiarity is a beacon of light. I signed up to their basic web hosting plan for £2.50 per month – after all, I wasn’t sure whether anyone would actually READ my blog, so I didn’t want to be wasting tons of money each month on something that might be a complete flop. Plus you have to sign up for 12 months, and I didn’t want to realise after three months that actually nobody wanted to read my blog, and I was just wasting money every month until the term was up.

What I didn’t realise at the time, is that cheap hosting deals are actually rubbish, and you get what is essentially a dodgy landlord. To put it in real-life terms, you think you’re renting out a three bedroom house all to yourself, but when you arrive you find that there’s a family in each of the three bedrooms already, and you have to sleep on the sofa. And you can never get into the kitchen to cook, or the bathroom to shower. Your friends can’t come over to visit because there’s nowhere for them to sit. Looks like you should have paid the slightly higher rent and gone with the other landlord, hey?

What this translates into is a slow website, sometimes not even loading at all for some users – as every website that’s hosted on the same server as you is competing for a limited set of resources. I have a free monitor on my site which would check my site on a regular basis and drop me an email when it found that my site wasn’t loading – basically, one of these emails would land in my inbox at least once a day, sometimes multiple times a day – and sure enough, if I visited my site it wouldn’t load and I’d get the white screen of death and/or some new and extremely unhelpful error message.

And if I was getting frustrated at this, you know for sure that visitors to my blog were feeling the same and may not even bother coming back. Not cool.

The subjects of the emails in the screenshot below are ‘wanderstitch.com is not loading’ and ‘wanderstitch.com is still offline’. I’d get this second one if the site had been down for a considerable amount of time, sometimes even many hours. Then, I’d randomly get an email saying ‘wanderstitch.com is back up!’ Gee, thanks. It’s not like I’m paying you for keeping my website up or anything.

**If you’ve followed the blog from early on – I apologise profusely if you had troubles accessing the site for the first few months while I figured out what the hell I was meant to be doing** 

In the end I changed my hosting from Fasthosts (please don’t go with them, I really can’t recommend them) and went with Siteground instead. I chose Siteground based on some google research for WordPress specific hosting (yep, that’s a thing) and their name came up as one of the most popular sellers.  Going from £2.50 a month to about £6 a month seemed a bit of a leap (especially as you have to pay for the year upfront with Siteground), and I was wary that the service wouldn’t actually be any better. I signed up for a trial period, and waited the 24-48 hours for the whole thing to migrate from Fasthosts to Siteground. Then something odd happened. The many, MANY emails that I used to get saying my site was down stopped coming though. I would visit my website and it would load. Every time. Not only would it load, but it loaded pretty quickly too. I’ve literally had to do nothing to my site maintenance-wise since switching hosts, whereas before I was always trying to troubleshoot the latest error message of the day. And I haven’t had a single one of those Jetpack Support emails saying my site is down. OK so I might have actually learned a fair bit in the early days by digging around the website files trying to fix something that had apparently gone wrong, but I thought you had to know all this complicated stuff in order to run a blog so I just kept going, and learning. Turns out you DO NOT have to know all this stuff to run a blog – choose a good host and you won’t have to do a thing except basic maintenance from your dashboard.

I feel pretty, oh so pretty

Once you’ve actually got a website up and running technically, then comes fun bit of making it look pretty. The easiest way to do this is with a theme. A theme is like the user-friendly version of coding the website yourself – it presents all the options to you in the form of drop-down box selections, tick boxes for things you do and don’t want, and basically just makes the whole thing 100% easier. Think of it as a translator between yourself and the language of coding.

When you first get your WordPress site up and running, you can choose from a selection of free WordPress themes. I applied a few of these themes to the website just to see how it looked, but knew that I would eventually want something a little bit different rather than something loads of other people had. If you do a google search for ‘WordPress theme’ you’ll return a shocking number of results – there are a LOT out there. Some good, some not so good. Some VERY expensive.

To start with, as I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to actually lay out money on a website that no one may read, I chose a free theme that I downloaded from the internet. What I didn’t realise at the time, is that the quality of the coding of the theme matters – think of it a bit like putting worn and used parts in your shiny new Ferrari. Yes, the website/car may look pretty flash on the surface, but starting adding dodgy coding/parts into it and it may not start first time, it might take ages to get up to speed and it could break down on you at any moment. Before using a theme, you can check its stats on themecheck.org and it will give you an idea as to the quality of the theme.

If you like the look of a theme that another WordPress blog is using, you can enter their URL on this WordPress Theme Detector and it will tell you which theme they are using, if it’s a commercially available one (as opposed to one that’s  been custom designed for them).

You can drop serious dollarz on a website theme. At the point that I realised that I should choose a quality, paid for theme instead of the rogue free ones, I started looking around and found Pipdig. I now use their theme ‘Aruba Nights’ – I’ve had it for many months now and not had any issues with it. I had to pay a one-off fee of £39 (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you add it to the cost of the domain name, hosting and everything else I was getting a bit nervous at spending all this money…). One thing to double-check if you’re looking to buy a theme from someone is whether you get free updates and whether you get free support. Some themes have an annual recurring payment charge if you want to keep receiving the updates and the support (ouch). I have actually used the Pipdig support and they come back to you pretty quickly – it was for simple things such as ‘how do I make all my pictures on  a certain page be portrait instead of landscape?’ and ‘how do I change the number of pictures that display on a page?’. Both times they answered my question perfectly – for a newbie, some support will be really handy so make sure you get access to someone who can help you with the theme if you get stuck on something. I’d definitely choose a theme that you get free updates with as well, otherwise your theme may get outdated and incompatible with other parts of your site.

Pipdig have a lot of pretty themes, whenever they release a new one I often get tempted to buy it (just to keep things fresh, y’know) but I have to remind myself that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the one I’ve got and I could spend that money on fabric instead…

My Plug In Baby

Think of plugins as a bit like apps for your phone. Sure, you can still use your phone without them, but you can do a lot more stuff and make things much easier with a few apps.

One of the most important plugins I use is WP Smush – what this does is smushes down my high-resolution photos into a much smaller, more web-friendly size so that they don’t take ages to load for all you lovely readers. The plugin automatically compresses the photos as they are uploaded to my WordPress dashboard, so I don’t have to resize each photo manually.

Other handy plugins I use are Vaultpress (which backs up my site in case something goes horribly wrong), Jetpack (which handles my email subscriptions and a few other things) and WP Optimise (which, funnily enough, optimizes stuff to keep the site in tip-top shape). Remember that with the free WordPress.com blog option, you cannot install any plugins.

One word of warning with plugins – yes they can be fabulous and make wonderful things happen on your site, but the more plugins you have, the more things your website has to load each time. Having too many plugins can slow down your load times for your viewers – it’s better to buy a quality theme which has all the functionality you need, rather than add on 20 plugins to a basic theme.

All good in da hood?

Once you’re off the ground with your website, there’s a number of checker tools you can use which analyse your website and highlight any problem areas that need attention.

The main one I use is GTMetrix.com – you just input the web address and wait for it to do its thing.

When I first ran this checker, there was a lot of angry red on the results page. Slow server speed was a big culprit, due to my rubbish hosting before I switched provider. Nowadays, being a very photography-focused blog, it’s my images that need work (see that big ol’ fat ‘F’ grade at the top…. lolz).

I’m not a bad student though, there’s a lot of A’s in there! You can see that the top two results are the ones that need the work. If you click on each one, it allows you to click a little ‘what’s this mean?’ box. Sometimes these explanations are helpful, sometimes they may as well be written in hieroglyphics.

Sometimes you start looking into their recommendations and it becomes very clear very quickly that unless you’re a website developer you’re suddenly waaaaay out of your depth. But it’s handy to know where the problems are, at least, and make sure that there’s nothing seriously awry.

Another tool I used was Google PageSpeed Insights. It works the same as GT Metrix – you just enter the URL and off you go. I find this one handy because it goes that little bit further than GT Metrix – it tells you where the problem areas are, but then also gives you the resources that you should use (instead of what you currently have) to correct the problem – see the bit at the bottom that says ‘download optimised image, javascript and CSS resources for this page’. Again, it’s my images that are letting the team down – note to self: sort ’em out.

Now I don’t totally know what to do with optimised Javascript and CSS resources (this would require a bit of googling on my part) but I have used their optimised images without drama – basically you just upload them to your WordPress library, and replace the original images with these optimised ones. Job done.

I would use these checkers to monitor whether so-called optimisation plugins were actually optimising – I’d compare the website speed score before and after installing the plugin. If the score got better, the plugin was obviously doing its job and it got to stay, if it made things worse then it got ditched.

You made it to the end!

Well guys, I hope this post has helped in some way… it in no way covers EVERYTHING (because I don’t know everything, and there’s literally whole books written on using WordPress) –  this is just my year’s learning summarised into a bit of a Sunday morning geek-out sesh. Hopefully it’s given you an idea of where to start to get your blog going, or helped to convince you that if you go one step at a time, it’s not actually that scary to run a blog.

YOU CAN DO IT 💪🏼(and if you can’t do it, let me know and if I can help I will!)

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21 Comments

  1. February 25, 2018 / 8:29 am

    Hi Sarah
    Very informative and clear post. I also started blogging about a year ago and had to learn everything myself. So I am always on the lookout for new info and I found some in your post, especially about the themes. Thanks for sharing, Wis

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 25, 2018 / 3:08 pm

      Hi Wis!
      Well done to you on getting your blog going yourself – yay for self-learning! I gathered most of my info through internet research, though at one point I did consider buying a book. Some of the books on WordPress are HUGE and that put me off a little, so I just continued reading bits and bobs as I came to each new hurdle.
      I’m really glad the post was useful for you! 🙂

  2. Angela Dent
    February 25, 2018 / 9:07 am

    Woweeeeeee! Such a helpful post with so much useful information. Thanks for taking the time to share.

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 25, 2018 / 3:08 pm

      Ahhh yay! Thanks Angela 🙂 Glad the post was useful to you!

  3. February 25, 2018 / 9:22 am

    Great blog post, thank you 🙏 I’m still on the free version, taking the easy way! I’ve thought of upgrading & your post has helped demystify it for me… I’m not sure if I’m encouraged or put off though 🤣😅 … I think I need to invest in a laptop, I do all my blogging on my phone!
    Looking forward to seeing your Paris pics 👍🙏

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 25, 2018 / 3:11 pm

      Glad you liked the post! 🙂
      Ouch for doing all your blogging on your phone… I definitely find it much easier on a laptop. I used to use the WordPress app on my phone on the commute to work, but couldn’t get on with it and instead bought a little Windows netbook thing which is much easier.
      Haha, it’s not too bad to go to the self-hosted version – promise! You just need to go one step at a time and it will be fine! Scouts honour! I’m always happy to help if you get stuck 🙂

  4. February 25, 2018 / 9:45 am

    Interesting…and baffling too. Why pay so much money? What does it actually get for you? lol I’m just bumbling away happily on my free WordPress package, and apart from realising some time back that the limited storage was filling up VERY fast with all my photos, I have no concerns with it. I’ve switched to keeping my pics in IMGUR now, and just drag across so they’re not actually stored on the blog. Seems fine to me.
    What actually is the direct benefit, apart from prettiness, to the pricier options?

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 25, 2018 / 3:20 pm

      It’s more about the control you get with the self-hosted version – for example, I have an Etsy shop, and rather than just sell on their platform I could also integrate a shop into my blog so that people can purchase items directly from me rather than through Etsy. I wouldn’t be able to do this with the free version. Also I didn’t want the ads at the end of all my blog posts that WordPress put on the free version.
      When I set up the blog, I wasn’t sure where it would take me in the future and I didn’t want to have to change my blog address further down the line (to remove the .wordpress bit) if I found that I needed to have a self-hosted site after all.
      Long story short I’m a bit of a control freak so I was happy to go the self-hosted route and feed my need for control 🙂

  5. Brenda Kathleen Holmes
    February 25, 2018 / 9:57 am

    An interesting post. I’m not a blogger, nor aspire to be, but it’s good to have an insight to how it works.

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 25, 2018 / 3:21 pm

      Thanks Brenda, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found it interesting 🙂

  6. Alison
    February 25, 2018 / 1:27 pm

    Really interesting post, thank you.

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 25, 2018 / 3:24 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the post Alison! 🙂

  7. February 25, 2018 / 1:32 pm

    Great post. Informative and clear. Really interesting 🙂

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 25, 2018 / 3:24 pm

      Yay! Really glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  8. February 25, 2018 / 2:09 pm

    Great post Sarah. I’ve been going just over a year too. I started off on Squarespace and changed to WP.org last November. I used Pipdig for a transfer and am now also with Siteground on the Grow Big scheme. On that scheme there is back up included, so wandering if I need anything extra? I’ll look into it and at Vaultpress I think. At the moment I don’t use Smush as I process all my pics in Lightroom and re-size as I export them.
    Thanks for the other links to GT metrix and Speed Insights.

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 25, 2018 / 3:30 pm

      Ah it sounds like we’re using pretty much the same set-up Diane! Great minds think alike hey 🙂
      I’m also on the GrowBig plan, which you’re correct does include backups. I’m not sure how the backups work though, as I had Vaultpress set up before I moved over to Siteground. I’ve always found SiteGround to be really helpful though so I’m sure they would explain it to me if I asked them!
      Plugins-wise, I also use Akismet (it’s an anti-spam thing) and Yoast SEO, both of which seem to be ok.
      I really need to sort out my photos so that I don’t get the angry red boxes on GT Metrix 😀
      Glad you found the post useful – even if it only helps one person, my mission is accomplished! 🙂

  9. February 25, 2018 / 8:47 pm

    Great post Sarah, and good to get some insight from a successful blogger. I’ve had my blog just about a year and while I did consider self hosting I’ve been happy to go with wp.com as I have a very low (as in zero) budget! Probably like many I decided to do that until I saw if it would take off or not. The thing I want to know is how to generate traffic? Is being on wp.com costing me readers? I have a few precious followers but I’m not gonna lie, I’d love some more, how do you do it?

    • Sarah
      Author
      February 26, 2018 / 8:12 am

      Hey! Really glad you enjoyed the post and found it useful 🙂
      Yes I think you’re right, wp.com is a good option to use first to see if you want to make the jump to self hosting later on.
      Using wp.com in itself is not costing you readers – but I’d just double check a few things. Is the theme you’re using user-friendly – can people navigate their way around it to find what they want to read? If they’re looking for a specific post (maybe they’ve seen something you’ve made on IG for example) is there a way for them to easily find it? With some of the WP.com themes I saw, I found that I didn’t like the layout and they didn’t have the functionality to have some of the pages I wanted – I have a ‘Things I’ve Made’ page on my blog where you can see, at a glance, everything I’ve made in a little gallery. So maybe get a few people who haven’t seen your site before (and therefore don’t already know their way around it) to spend a few minutes on it and let you know how they find using it?
      While I think of it, do you have a place on your blog for people to enter their email address to subscribe? Either on your homepage or at the end of your posts? That will definitely help boost your subscribers, if you make it easy for people to sign up. Also when you publish a new blog post, be sure to tell the whole world about it – Facebook, IG and any other platform you’re on too – don’t be shy! People can’t read it if they don’t know it’s there 🙂

  10. Beck
    February 26, 2018 / 12:39 pm

    Great post Sarah, thanks for taking the time, this must have taken quite a while to put together! I would have loved this last summer when I started my blog 🙂 But I still learned a lot – I had never heard of GT Metrix (I’ve just scored an F on my images too!!!) and you’ve given me insight into a couple of plug-ins I hadn’t heard of!!

    • Sarah
      Author
      March 2, 2018 / 3:49 pm

      Haha yeah it did take a fair while… I started out with my main points and then the post just kept growing, and growing, and growing some more… 🙂 If it helps even just one person, it’ll be worth it!
      Ahh those bloody images hey, I really do need to sort mine out lol. One of those projects I never have time for – I’d rather be sewing!!

  11. Kim
    March 3, 2018 / 9:40 am

    Wow, what an informative post! Thanks for sharing your experiences, it might just inspire me to finally start a blog!

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