I was recently forced into changing the design of this site, because the little piece of software that controls its appearance was no longer supported. (Rats.)
This turned out to be a good thing, because it made me think hard about what I wanted on my site. I mulled over what helps or irritates me on other people’s blogs and websites. (A blog is just a type of website that has new content added regularly. They’re all websites.)
I had to update both this site, which I write as a publishing consultant & editor, and my author site at belindapollard.com. I discovered things that are relevant to both authors and editors, which is why I decided to write this article for both!
I make no claims to having achieved perfection, and I’ll keep on tweaking my sites. But I thought I’d share my learnings with you in case you’re looking to start a website/blog, or update one. It might give you a headstart.
We’ll look at:
- The platform I’ve chosen
- The 7 ingredients
- A behind-the-scenes look at the basic toolkit I use for my own websites.
Choosing a platform
This website is created using WordPress, a type of free software that is adored by search engines (leading to better traffic stats), and also very powerful in terms of the many different ways it can be customised.
I’m no techie, but I drive this website myself. I am a Webmaster [insert canned laughter here]. Yep, once you clamber up that initial learning curve, WordPress is so simple a trained monkey or a Belinda Pollard could use it. 😉
If you are already on a different platform such as Blogger et al and you love it, I wouldn’t be changing, because there’s few enough hours in the day as it is. But if you’re starting from scratch or not happy with what you’ve got, may I suggest: Go for WordPress.
The 7 Ingredients I will suggest here apply to any website on any platform (even though I can only tell you how to implement them in WordPress).
Ingredient 1: A search window
This might seem a trivial addition, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve torn my hair out when trying to find an article I KNOW is on a person’s website, but they have no search function available.
Why does it matter?
The reason I’m looking is often because I remember reading an article there sometime in the past, and I want to link to that article in a blog post I’m writing. That’s not a visitor you want to frustrate! People who provide deep links to something useful or interesting you’ve said on a particular page of your site are pure gold for your search engine credibility.
There’s also the obvious benefit if a reader (for authors) or potential client (for editors) is trying to find out more about what you’ve said on a particular topic.
Author/blogger Molly Greene was surprised how much her stats improved when she added a search function to her homepage. (And, incidentally, I found that post to link to by using her search window!)
So, supply a search window to increase the chance of both beneficial connections with people and valuable backlinks from other websites.
For WordPress users, most themes have one baked in, and you only have to activate it. Mine is at the top right of my site when you’re viewing it on a computer or tablet (on a smartphone, it slides to the bottom of the page). I found it in Appearance > Widgets and dragged it across to the top of my primary sidebar.
(BTW, if you have encountered the No Search Window frustration on someone else’s site, a techie friend of mine revealed how Google can help. Let’s say I was searching for “kittens” on yahoo.com and they didn’t have a search window thingy, I could enter this in Google search…
[That’s a colon between the word “site” and the website URL.]
Voila! Google delivers all occurrences of kittens on Yahoo. Good, huh?)
Ingredient 2: A navigation system
It doesn’t necessarily matter what it is, so long as you supply a structure for people to find their way around the best material on your site. This becomes especially important if you have a site with lots of content — information that people are always referring to.
Even if you have the simplest of author websites, we still need to be able to find your books, your About page, and your contact details.
Otherwise your site becomes like one of those houses on the television shows about hoarders, where there’s not even stepping room between the piles of stuff. How can people find your treasures if you don’t give them a pathway? 😉
It might be:
- Menus at the top
- Menus at the side
- Boxes in the sidebar with lists of your recent posts
- Lists of your popular posts
- Lists of your categories or tags, so that articles on particular topics are grouped together
…or all of the above!
When we have these navigation systems in place, we increase the chance that a casual visitor will stay a while, and look at more of our pages.
Why does this matter? Apart from the obvious human-connection benefits, search engines rank our sites partly on how long visitors stick around, and how many pages they look at. Longer visits + more pages viewed = a better chance of being discovered by readers/clients.
In WordPress, I found my navigation items here:
- Menus: Appearance > Menus
- Lists of categories and popular posts: Appearance > Widgets (drag the appropriate widget to your sidebar and choose the display options).
Ingredient 3: Links to your social profiles
You’re probably active on at least one social network (or soon will be). Make it easy for people to find you.
Many WordPress themes have this baked in. Mine has it under Appearance > Widgets. I just had to enter the URLs for my social profiles, and then drag the widget over to my sidebar. (I also changed the colour, but that’s just because it’s my business colour.)
If your theme doesn’t have one easily available, go to Plugins > Add New and search “social profiles”. There’ll be lots of options there.
I also added a couple of other social thingies:
This one shows a counter. Some people see the number as adding credibility, so I just go with it (even though I actually think many people can have a very useful Twitter presence with a small following). I got the counter from these guys: http://twittercounter.com/pages/buttons
This one showing my recent tweets is generated within Twitter itself and configured by the Jetpack suite of thingies in WordPress. If it’s not showing as an option in Appearance > Widgets, go to Jetpack > See the other 27 Jetpack features > Extra sidebar widgets > Configure, and you can find it there as Twitter Timeline (Jetpack).
Read the instructions carefully; it has a link you click to generate the widget within Twitter itself, and then you need to copy and past the long string of characters and delete everything but the one long number in the middle. (That sounds odd, but fear not, it’ll make sense when you get there.) Here’s the WordPress support link, if you’re still having trouble.
On my author website, I’ve added the Goodreads widget, which shows some of the top reviews for my mystery/thriller Poison Bay. Read this article from WordPress support for tips on how to add this widget and configure it the way you want.
Making your social presence visible:
- Helps people follow you on social networks.
- Allows people to easily give you credit when they share one of your articles.
- Gives the feeling that you are present and active, especially if they can see that you’ve posted something in the past few hours. (This is particularly handy if your blog posts are a little, um, old-ish. 😉 )
Ingredient 4: Social sharing on your posts
Don’t confuse this with Ingredient 3. Instead, this is those little boxes at the bottom of your post that allow people to instantly share your work with their social networks.
You need both Ingredients 3 and 4.
Some WordPress themes have social sharing buttons baked in. I configured mine under Settings > Sharing, after activating them in Jetpack > Publicize.
If your theme doesn’t supply them or you don’t like the Jetpack options, go to Plugins > Add New and search “social sharing”.
You’d be surprised how adding these little buttons will boost your traffic. You don’t even have to be on all these social networks. Your readers are on them, and they share them with their own networks.
Make it easy for them to help you.
Ingredient 5: An email list
It’s so essential to be building an email list of the people who are interested in you and what you have to say. It’s a personal connection that is much more powerful than any social media presence.
I have been quite hopeless at building this over on my author site at belindapollard.com, and should be made to go and sit in the Naughty Corner for the oversight. 😉 But I’m working on it now.
If you are just starting, set up an email list people can join, from the beginning.
This article has a good list of the reasons why it matters, and some options for how to get started.
Ingredient 6: An About page
We really do need to have a useful and informative About page. Unless we are on the run from the FBI, it also needs to have a bit more detail than one single, bland paragraph—but of course, without giving weirdos so much information that they can find our homes, know which nights we’re out, and where our kids go to school!
People who do the detour to your About page really are interested in you, so it’s a golden opportunity to make a friend and possibly a reader/client.
It’s a place where we can show some personality, as well as providing useful (or maybe just funny and/or surprising) facts.
The one over at my author blog has had a bit of work recently, and I’ve added links to various other pages on the site. As with everything online, it’s still a work in progress!
My About page here on this site is seriously in need of an overhaul. I’m thinking along these lines:
- Changing it from third person to first person.
- Reshaping it to be quite specific about the specialist editing I do, including books I’ve worked on. I’ve been too broad and general with it previously, not wanting to exclude any potential clients. But that policy violates a major rule of good marketing—the more targeted the message, the more successful it is.
- Adding a short list of the articles that visitors have so far found most useful.
Because an About page is so personal, feel free to find a format and content that really suits you. Browsing around the About pages on other people’s blogs and websites can be a good place to find inspiration.
Ingredient 7: Contact page
Make it easy for people to connect with you. One of them might be a literary agent, you never know! (It does happen.)
This page could include an email form, and a listing of all your social profiles. Or it can be very simple, like mine is currently.
I seem to get more contacts since I switched from the email form to simply listing an email address. But I do use an address that is not my main address, to help keep the messages separate from my normal mail. Do beware that just listing your email address as I have done can leave you open to spammers. I switched because the contact form I was using wasn’t working properly all the time. I don’t see my current Contact page as a perfect solution.
My website toolkit
Design can be a big decision for many of us. There are lots more options out there these days.
I’ve gone for a traditional style blog at belindapollard.com, with the articles appearing one under the other. I’ve also made the photos a bigger feature, because most of them are my own photos. It’s a much lighter, brighter theme than the one I was using before at this site.
Here, on the other hand, I decided to trial a “magazine style” blog, since this is a content-rich site with many articles that readers can browse. I’m still tweaking the layout, but I like the fact that a visitor can see there’s so many different things to look at, from the moment they arrive.
If you’re looking for ideas for where to start, these are the basic tools I use.
I use Hostgator.
What I like about them:
- Affordable prices
- Easy access to WordPress software—it is a swift upload from their Quick Install section
- Lots of how-to videos that are Actually Useful (who knew such a thing was possible??)
- Good support through online chat — I’m many timezones away from them, but have never waited more than a few minutes to talk to someone. The answers they give are understandable to a non-techie like me, and they don’t make me feel stupid.
I have now switched to the Genesis framework and Studiopress premium themes.
What I like about them:
- Simple and straightforward interface, so I can find where to do what I need to do. It’s much simpler than the one I was using before.
- Good stuff baked in to the themes, such as a place to automatically enter the same info at the end of each post; social sharing and social profiles; different colour options, etc etc.
- Nice designs and lots of them. This site uses the News Pro theme and my author site uses the Lifestyle Pro theme.
Spam filter: Akismet
At the time of writing, these dudes have stopped 116,000 spam comments from appearing on my site. (Man, those spammers are industrious—if they only put that much energy into making an honest living. 😉 )
Akismet is free for non-commercial websites, and there’s a small charge if you’re using the site for business. Look for it in Plugins > Add New.
I use AWeber.
I had a free list for a while, but switched to AWeber to give me the ability to:
- send newsletters
- send autoresponders (a series of emails about a particular topic)
- create pretty sign-up forms
- track what’s happening with my emails, such as whether they’re getting opened, forwarded etc.
Some of my friends use Mailchimp and are very happy with it, but after investigating the differences, these are the main reasons I prefer AWeber (your mileage may vary):
- I can make different sign-up forms for the same list, to suit different locations on my website (for example, the one at the bottom of this post is plainer, because I feel like the one with the picture of the dog would be disruptive there).
- I can track who signs up from different forms and which articles are prompting the most sign-ups, to see what I should write more of!
- I can send an email to just a section of my list. For example, if I created a new resource for beta readers, I could send a note to all the people who have opened my articles about beta readers, as they’re the most likely to be interested. As an author, I can differentiate between what I say to subscribers who’ve read my book versus subscribers who haven’t. Handy.
What are your experiences with a website or blog? Any good tips to share? Or are you just getting started? Share your story in the comments below.
Featured image via Bigstock/kuleczka