How to Launch a Professional-Looking Blog on a Shoestring

Maybe you’d like to have a sleek, attractive blog or website for yourself or your business. Maybe you’ve looked around at some of the free blogging or lifestreaming platforms like Blogger, Posterous, Tumblr, TypePad, and and you’ve been underwhelmed by the cookie-cutter sameness of the sites you see there. If either of those things are true, today’s column is for you.

The free platforms used to be the only way for a beginning blogger to take advantage of Web publishing technology. But it’s now possible to set up a good-looking, full-featured, highly personalized blog, simply by buying a customizable site template and setting it up on an independent hosting service. It’s much easier and cheaper than it sounds. In fact, I did it last weekend, and I’m going to walk you through it.

First, though, a word about the pluses and minuses of the free platforms. I’ve used quite a few of them. What’s great about them, of course, is that they’re free, and that they let you set up an account and start blogging instantly. Blogger, Posterous, Tumblr, and TypePad all make it extremely easy to create posts—in most cases all you have to do is write an e-mail. And they let you post several kinds of material, including text, photos, videos, and audio.

What’s most dismaying to me about the free blogging platforms, though, is that all of their blogs tend to look alike, with a style that’s curiously Web 1.0. Blogger, TypePad, and are the worst offenders: you can pick from a range of templates or “themes,” but most of them look like they’re straight out of 2004. Innovation is much more alive at Posterous and especially Tumblr, which allow more customization, but those platforms lack many of the extra features—such as integration with photo-sharing or messaging tools—that bloggers need to keep up with today’s social media explosion.

Travels with Rhody screenshotIf you want a full-featured blog with a spiffy, up-to-date design, the truth is that you need professionally designed theme running on top of a powerful content management system like WordPress. The good news is that you can get these things quickly and easily. I saw a bumper sticker on I-93 yesterday that said “Websites designed for $500.” Buying a WordPress theme and setting it up on a hosting service yourself will cost you far less than that.

A quick but important distinction: WordPress is a free, customizable, open-source Web publishing software system, created by San Francisco-based Automattic, that anyone can download from and run on their own Web server (that’s what Xconomy does); is Automattic’s hosting service, where you can start a bare-bones WordPress blog and the company will host it on their servers for free. Xconomy, FYI, is built on a WordPress theme that we designed from scratch.

Last weekend I relaunched my personal blog, Travels with Rhody, using a “store-bought” WordPress theme and an independent hosting service. The whole process took less than 12 hours and cost me $70 (plus moderate hosting fees down the road). Here are the simple steps I followed.

1. I went shopping at WooThemes. Stumbling across this super-cool South African Web design company a few weeks ago was what started me thinking about replacing my old Tumblr blog. The specialty of the house at WooThemes is premium WordPress themes. They’ve got dozens to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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