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 choose from, serving a range of Web publishing needs: straight personal blogs, photo or art portfolios, small-business sites, even full-on news magazine sites. When you buy a WooThemes theme, you get not only the template that dictates where posts will show up on your home page and how to navigate between them, but also a variety of custom plugins (software scripts compatible with WordPress) that you can use to add extra functionality.

I fell in love with one of WooThemes’ newest creations, a personal blogging theme called Antisocial. Contrary to its name, it’s designed for people like me who basically live online and make extensive use of social-media tools. (Although maybe that is being antisocial, on some level.) Among its features is a column of colorful buttons down the left side of the page that lead blog visitors to your Twitter feed, your Facebook page, your Flickr photostream, and the like. There’s also a built-in VCF business card so that visitors can download your contact information directly into their address books.

Cost: $70. (WooThemes has a two-for-one sale going on, so Antisocial’s real cost was only $35.)

2. I set up a Web hosting account at Fused Network. This Toronto, Ontario-based Web hosting company came highly recommended by the folks at WooThemes. Like most hosting providers, they provide shared space on their servers, free access to basic Web publishing tools like Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and WordPress, and up to 10, 20, or 30 gigabytes of transfers (i.e., Web traffic) per month, depending on the package you choose. Unlike most hosting providers, Fused is inexpensive. You can get started there for $9.95 per month, compared to $20 per month at MediaTemple. Other services provide higher monthly transfer limits, but unless you think your blog is going to be inundated with traffic, 10 gigabytes a month is plenty.

One thing I like about Fused is that—in contrast to some hosting providers I won’t name here—it seems to be a fairly small and responsive company run by real people. I signed up for an account on a Sunday morning. I got unreasonably impatient after a couple of hours went by and I still hadn’t received my account details. I sent Fused a support request asking what was going on. I got back a charming note saying that everyone had been away at church. (My account details followed soon after.)

Cost: $9.95 per month. (If you buy a theme at WooThemes, you’ll get a coupon code that makes your first month of hosting at Fused free. So my real cost here was zero, at least until next month.)

3. I installed WordPress at Fused and uploaded the WooThemes Antisocial theme. The tools at Fused include a program called Installatron that lets you install free, open-source software like WordPress on your shared server with just a few clicks. The next step is to replace the basic theme that comes with WordPress with the custom one you purchased. For this, you need an FTP program—I downloaded a free one called FileZilla. This allows you to plop all of the PHP scripts, stylesheets, functions, and images, that came with your custom theme into the “public-html” or “www” directory on your new Web server. WooThemes has a helpful video that walks you through the whole theme installation process.

Cost: $0.

The WooThemes Antisocial calendar and tag widgets4. I fiddled with the theme options to give my new blog a personal spin. Most WooThemes themes come with a variety of options for customizing the layout, color scheme, and behavior of your blog. WordPress makes it easy to select your favorites using the “Theme Options” panel. I chose a nice burnt-orange color scheme for Travels with Rhody. I set up the navigation scheme so that visitors can browse my posts by category. I added a few free WordPress plugins, including one that shows the latest photos I’ve uploaded to Flickr, and another that shows my most recent tweets at Twitter. (Adding plugins to a WordPress blog is easy: you just download them from the free WordPress plugin directory, FTP them to the plugin directory on your server, activate them in the WordPress administrative dashboard, and use a drag and drop interface to arrange them inside the “widgetized” areas of your WooThemes theme.) I also took advantage of several of the custom widgets that came with the Antisocial theme, including the social-media widget that handles the aforementioned button column, as well as the tagging and calendar widgets.

Cost: $0.

5. I created a logo. Every professionally designed blog needs a slick logo. Fortunately you don’t have to hire a Web designer to make one—you can do it yourself using any number of free graphics programs, as long as you’re willing to learn a few tricks. I used GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, which you can download here. I liked the look of the generic logo that came with the Antisocial theme, so I fiddled around with GIMP’s text, fuzzy selection, gradient, drop-shadow, and rotation tools until I had something similar that I liked, and then uploaded it to WordPress using the Custom Logo area of the Theme Options panel. The key thing when making a logo is to do it on a transparent background and save it in a file format that supports transparency, such as PNG or GIF. I found some useful tutorials on creating logos in GIMP here and here.

Cost: $0.

6. I started blogging. This, obviously, is the hard part. Once you’ve got a nifty personal blog, it helps if you have something to say. I plan to use Travels with Rhody just as I always have—as a place to collect and share article links, photographs, random discoveries, and thoughts about journalism, technology, and my other passions. For example, I just blogged about my participation in a recent Web Innovators Group panel in on how early-stage startups can handle their own public relations. The panel generated quite a bit of heated discussion among the actual public relations professionals who were in the audience, and I wanted to respond, but it’s the sort of inside-baseball stuff that isn’t really appropriate for Xconomy. Whatever you decide to write about, I guarantee that the stylish, sophisticated themes available from WooThemes will make you feel like a pro.

Cost: Priceless.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

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

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