In the beginning, most bloggers are just having fun. You blog about whatever strikes your fancy on any given day.
After a while, you realize you want to get serious about your blog. You want people who see it to hire you for good-paying blogging gigs — or maybe you want it to become a money-earner of its own. You start sticking to a niche topic, adding photos, and trying to improve your blog’s design and usability.
That’s when you need to get serious about the tools you’re using to make your blog look great, and to get the word out about your blog.
I did a post recently about some of the tools I use to run my writing business, and got requests for a followup on blog tools.
As it happens, we got a lot of questions about the best blog tools and plug-ins at the end of the WordPress Crash Course I recently held on Freelance Writers Den…so here’s a recap of the conversation I had with our two WordPress experts — Brandon Yanofsky of B-List Marketing and Joseph Putnam of Blog Tweaks.
Here’s our list of the coolest plugins and other tools for serious bloggers. Most of these are free, but a few cost a bit. If you’re serious about blogging, you’ll need to invest a modest amount to look pro — and it’ll be worth it.
- A paid host. Free hosting is lamesauce. Your free host could change the rules, kick you off, go out of business, or otherwise mess up your life. Plus having .blogger or .wordpress in your URL brands you as an amateur. As Joseph pointed out in the Webinar, there’s another dark side to staying on free hosting: One day, when you get serious, you’ll have to transfer your site over to a paid host, a process in which your RSS subscribers have to subscribe over again. So you may lose some or all of them. If you’re on a free host, get a paid one now, while your blog’s subscriber base is still small and you have less to lose. It won’t get easier later. Joseph and Brandon both like BlueHost, and I’ve been using Dreamhost. But whatever host you look into, make sure they have terrific, 24/7, rapid-response type support help. That’s the key to sanity.
- A paid theme. I learned this one the hard way with Make a Living Writing, which is still stuck on a free theme, which I discovered can’t do a very nice-looking tag cloud and loads a bit slow, I discovered. Brandon likes the StudioPress themes, while the Den and my writer site are now on WooThemes, which I’m liking. We agreed buying a theme from one of the big providers with good support and a big family of different themes created on the same platform is the best way to go, as it makes it easy to switch to a different theme later.
- Mailchimp. Monetizing your blog is all about collecting email names and then marketing to your email list. To do that, you need a pro email-marketing provider. Mailchimp is free for your first 2,000 subscribers and has a ton of features. It’s easy to understand and use, and you can style your emails with your blog site’s colors, embed links easily, and much more. Honestly, I don’t know why every startup blogger in America isn’t using them — you just have nothing to lose. Plus, their techs work for bananas and sign their emails “eep!” They’re more fun.
- Paypal. I’m still surprised when I find writers who don’t have a PayPal account hooked up to their bank account. Increasingly, clients want to pay through PayPal, and you can use it to sell your own products, too. I also sell some through e-junkie, which has more flexibility for setting up limited-time discounts.
- MorgueFile. We got into a big conversation about where to get free photos, and my recent favorite is MorgueFile. Why? You don’t even have to attribute the photos, which is nice as that little credit line clutters up your blog post. I can’t always find what I want on there — but the photo above is from MorgueFile. Nice, huh?
- Akismet. Now we come to the free WordPress plug-ins you need to make your site work well. Akismet is the best spam-killer out there.With Akismet, you should be able to set your comments free — that is, get rid of Captcha and other barriers, or having comments ‘awaiting moderation.’ Akismet will kill 99% of your spam and you can just relax.
- WordPress Popular Posts. Many bloggers make the mistake of having a “recent posts” widget, but that’s not what you want. You want popular posts. We don’t care what you’ve done for us lately — we want to know the most amazing and commented-upon posts you’ve ever created. This plug-in will keep your best stuff at the top of your home page forever. I can testify I still get about 800 hits every month on my most popular post thanks to this plug-in.
- CommentLuv. This little add-on automagically pulls up the headline of a commenter’s own most recent blog post and puts it at the end of their comment on your blog. In other words, CommentLuv makes people dying to comment on your blog because it gives them a really useful link. It greatly ups the number of comments you will get on your blog.
- Sexy Bookmarks. You’ve seen it everywhere — the one where a row of social-sharing buttons is half-hidden at the bottom of a post, and as you mouse over it, they pop up. That’s sexy! Which is why they call it Sexy Bookmarks. Unfortunately, I can’t get it to work on the free theme here (see why you want a paid one?)…but if it’ll work on your blog, use it. Really encourages people to spread the word about your blog.
- Wibiya toolbar. If for any reason you find Sexy Bookmarks doesn’t work, you can use the social sharing bar I use on this blog, the free Wibiya toolbar. You can customize it a million ways…you’ll note I just added Google+ to mine since it’s the new, hot place in social media. It also appears in an animated way just after your page fully loads, so it’s a little bit sexy, too.
- Intense Debate. Brandon informs me Intense Debate now works with CommentLuv (I used to have ID and it didn’t a while back, which is why I got rid of it). But I gather they’ve made friends now, so check it out. Intense Debate allows you to easily thread comment responses and otherwise style up your comment area.
What are you favorite tools for awesome blogging? Leave a comment and let us know.