This moment, right here, is where I get asked the most questions on how to start a blog or website. Unless you have traversed these internet waters before, it can be quite overwhelming. After I went through the process a few times for myself and for my clients, I started a checklist of essential accounts and services to setup before launching a blog or website.
Rather than keep that list to myself, I thought I would share my list of essential blogging accounts and services.
Definition of Essential
One could argue that only two or three of the items below are actually “essential”. That argument would be true. There is actually very little you absolutely need to launch a site.
However, I mention these additional accounts and services because I believe they help you or your clients have a more holistic view of your website. In most cases, having a site is more than just a place to publish content (though that is primary goal). These sites are a digital extensions of your personal or business identity. Information and insight on how people are using and viewing your site can be invaluable. You also need ways to get your content in front of people.
This is why I consider everything below as essential tools to help your site thrive.
A domain name is the URL visitors type into a browser to visit your site. Like a house address, a domain name is how people find your site on the internet.
There are dozens of domain name registrars out there and most web hosts offer domains as well. Personally, I never register a domain name with a web host. There is nothing wrong with doing so, but I like to keep my domain name and hosting separate from either other in case I decide to switch companies for either.
People most often register their domain names with GoDaddy. Probably because they have the best name recognition with sponsorships and advertising and because they are cheap. Having used them personally, I would honestly urge you to look elsewhere. On multiple occasions, both my clients and I have unknowingly signed up for unnecessary extras or upgrades. GoDaddy’s multi-paged process is loaded with gratuitous checkboxes to capture your money. Sleazy…
There is a better way! iWantMyName (affiliate link) is a godsend of simplicity. You might be a bit more for your domains, but it is well worth the ease. Trust me. Not to mention they have a large variety of domain name extensions for really creative URL names (more on that in a bit).
A web host is the place where your website’s files physically reside. So if a domain name is like a house address, then the web host is like the actual house.
There are hundreds of web hosts in many flavors. Shared hosting will meet the needs of most users, unless you are dealing with some extreme situations (advanced configurations, high traffic, etc.).
With that said, I have experience with a number of shared hosting provides… I have personally used BlueHost, HostMySite, and MediaTemple and I have also worked with GoDaddy, WebHost4Life, and DreamHost for clients. Some have been more nightmarish than others, but all have lacked in way or another.
I eventually found WebFaction (affiliate link) and that is where I have landed for now. Much like iWantMyName, their simplistic approach to web hosting is refreshing and their support is responsive, knowledgable, and usually helpful. It most certainly meets the needs of my blog for now.
More recently I have worked with clients on Pagoda Box and WP Engine.
Pagoda Box is very intriguing and fun, but be sure you’re comfortable with server level configurations before you check them out.. If you’re looking for a PHP version of Heroku, then really give them a look.
WP Engine (affiliate link) is probably the most impressive hosting provider I have ever worked with. The absolute best support and WordPress hosting there is. Be sure you check out my full review of them for all the details.
I will mention that I have also heard great things about Site5, but I have no personal experience with them.
Analytics & Monitoring
The old saying, “knowledge is power” is never more true than it is with analytics. Google Analytics can give you incredible insight into how visitors are using your site. Anything from what posts and pages they view the most, to how they are discovering your site (ie. searches, social media, etc.), to how they are engaging with your site, and how your site is performing. All of this information is so valuable to know how to better shape your site to your visitors.
WordPress also does their own stats via the Jetpack plugin, which is viewable in your WordPress admin dashboard. To utilize their analytics, you will need to sign up for a WordPress.com account, even if you are using the self-hosted WordPress.org installation. This is secondary to Google Analytics, but their metrics are very informative as well.
Google Webmaster Tools helps you monitor your site. I use Google Webmaster Tools mostly for tracking the health of a site by monitoring for trojans and malware and for monitoring how Google sees my site, which can help boost your SEO ranking.
Make sure you have a branded email of some sort. Either snag yourself a generic Gmail email address or use Google Apps, which will give you a branded email address with your domain name (ie. firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you are running a WordPress blog or engaging with other publishers who use WordPress, then you most certainly should sign up for Gravatar. Gravatar create a globally recognized image, so your brand will be consistently displayed the same way no matter where you are interacting with people online.
Bitly is a URL shortening service. Instead of having a super long URL, it turns it into the shortest possible URL. This is nice for tweets and for emails. What is even better is that Bitly provides analytics on your shortened links. This can help you gauge what your visitors or followers are most interested in, which can help you tailor the content and resources you are offering them. You can also use a custom domain for your shortened links. For instance, I use the domain via.mn for all my links. It is not necessary, but adds that nice, branded touch.
Buffer is a smarter way to help you share content and resources through your Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn social media accounts. Buffer allows you to add links or thoughts to share at specific times you choose. For example, if you have a new blog post and you want to remind your followers to read it a few times throughout the day, you can tell Buffer to share your blog post at 10:00am, 2:00pm, and 7:30pm. You can also add other resources you might want to share, like a link to a cool new website or a handy app for design or development. Buffer helps space all that out for you without you having to give it a second thought.
FeedBurner takes your blog’s RSS (which is how people subscribe to your blog with apps like Google Reader) and adds analytics and delivery options. Again, just more information to help you gain insight into how people are using your site, and in this case, your RSS feed.
Blogging can be as simple or complex as you want. All the extra insight is overwhelming for some, which can take the fun out of blogging for them. For others, there is no such thing as too much information to help them refine their site and content. How deep you go is entirely up to you.
Most of all, I hope this is a guide or a checklist for others to help them get started with getting their blog off the ground.
How about you? What accounts and services do you consider “essential” to your workflow?