I hope you enjoyed the last post in my Blogging 101 series. This time around we’ll be talking about starting a self hosted WordPress blog and all the basics that need to be covered when starting a self hosted blog. This is a LONG post, so grab a cup of coffee or tea and lets get straight into it.
Choosing a domain name
The first step in starting a WordPress blog that is self hosted is choosing a domain name. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, your domain name is important as it becomes part of your brand identity. Ideally you want the domain name to be short because it makes it easier to remember, and easy to spell too.
I suggest brainstorming some name ideas and putting together a short list of options before researching name availability. If however you have an existing blog and are migrating to a self hosted WordPress blog I highly recommend staying with your existing blog name where at all possible.
Once you have settled on a shortlist of name options you will need to begin researching the availability of your domain name. There are a number of tools out there that make this easy. Domainsbot is a great tool which makes researching domain name availability easy, and it will also check the availability of the name for Facebook and Twitter at the same time.
Selecting a hosting company
While it’s often tempting to go with the cheapest option available don’t. Do your research first.
When I initially moved Delicious Everyday from WordPress.com to a self hosted WordPress blog I chose BlueHost. It was cheap and it was recommended on the WordPress.com website so I thought that was a good indication of their support. In fact their support was good until I ran into performance issues, and well, I have to say their support was extremely lacking and all the blame was put back on to me, my configuration and the number of plugins I ran. After wasting weeks trying to rectify performance issues to no avail I finally decided that it was time to move to a new hosting company.
I have since moved to MDD Hosting. Before I settled on MDD however I had signed up with another hosting company, and part way through transferring my website to their domain their servers went down for 18 hours!!! Let me tell you, it was a horrible experience and I lost all access to my emails for a couple of days. And when I tried to contact them to find out was going on I was given little to no information. Needless to say I sent them a swift request for a refund and spent a bit more time researching a new hosting company before I finally settled on MDD.
After reading several hosting company reviews (try sites like Web Hosting Jury and Host Jury) I kept seeing positive feedback for MDD. But I dug deeper, because as we know from news stories regarding TripAdvisor there are unscrupulous companies out there that do pay for positive reviews, and didn’t take the positive reviews as genuine at first, which is the mistake I made the first time round. After conducting some research I found the reviews were genuine and I also spoke to MDD and discussed my requirements before finally signing up.
It’s important to talk to your hosting company BEFORE signing up. Explain what you want, explain your stats if you are migrating an existing blog/website (page views, unique visitors, wordpress database size etc) and most importantly talk to them about support. This will give you a good, albiet not always accurate, indication of their services. Finally, before clicking sign up ask around about the hosting company, Twitter and Facebook are great places to ask, and see what feedback you receive. If it all checks out then you should be good to go. Just make sure that the hosting company you select has a money back guarantee period (usually 30 days) if it all goes pear shaped.
Interestingly since my move to MDD I actually use more plugins now than when I was on BlueHost and my site is more than twice as fast. In fact, according to Google Webmaster tools (which I will explain in another post) when my site was running on Bluehost it took an average of 22 seconds to load and now the average is under 8 seconds. I should also mention that the 22 seconds my site took to load on BlueHost was already enhanced by the fact that at the time I was utilising a web acceleration tool called CloudFlare (I will explain more about this in another post) but now, on MDD I don’t use it.
Now while I’ve talked about BlueHost and MDD Hosting I am not suggesting that either hosting option is right or wrong for you and your unique requirements. I merely wanted to explain my experience so hopefully you don’t make the same mistakes I did. The most important point to take away from this is research, research and more research. Read reviews, ask around and talk to the hosting company before signing up. Also ask them about their money back guarantee period.
In addition to reliable support and performance I also suggest ensuring that your host includes CPanel (a website admin interface). PHPMyAdmin (enables you to manage your WordPress database) is a useful addition too, and most good hosting companies include this. Alternatively there are a number of Plugins available to assist you with WordPress database maintenance, and in fact I’ve only ever had to use PHPMyAdmin once, so if you don’t feel comfortable at the thought of using tools like this you don’t have to. Also look for, and ask, whether one click install of WordPress is available. Finally, if you are planning on migrating an existing blog ask whether they will handle this for you too and what the charge is for that service.
Hosting Company Selection Checklist
Conduct independent research – ie ask around on Twitter and Facebook
Talk to the hosting company
Is CPanel and one click WordPress installation included?
Will they manage the migration of your existing website? What is the cost?
Installing WordPress and migrating an existing blog
If your hosting company offers One Click WordPress install, well, it really is quite simple, simply enter a few basic details and your install is done for you. If one click install is not available, visit the WordPress website which provides detailed instruction on Installing WordPress.
Once you have configured your WordPress blog the final step is to choose a Theme, which essentially styles your blog. There are over 1,400 themes available on the WordPress website, however there are also hundreds of premium (paid) themes available. I initially started out with free themes but eventually settled on Thesis, a premium theme, which is what I use today. Another popular premium theme is Genesis, which for example ProBlogger uses.
One of the great advantages a self hosted WordPress blog has over a WordPress.com blog is the availability of plugins. There are over 18,000 plugins available. But what is a plugin? Basically, a plugin is something you install into your WordPress blog that provides an extra piece of functionality you require. For example there are plugins that add the ability for visitors to your website to share your post on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, there are plugins that report on your visitor statistics and there are plugins that change the way you moderate comments. If there is something you wish WordPress could do there is probably a plugin that will provide that functionality.
When starting out there are a few plugins that I consider essential. Everyone’s idea on essential plugins will differ, but here are my picks. They are:
Caching plugins improve the performance and speed at which your blog loads. There are countless caching plugins available, however the main ones are W3 Total Cache, WP Super Cache and Quick Cache. I use W3 Total Cache and find it improves the speed at which my website loads. W3 Total Cache can look complicate to deal with though, so if you don’t feel overly techy I’d look at WP Super Cache and Quick Cache first.
Backup, backup, backup. The importance of backing up your website cannot be stressed enough. Last year, being the accident prone person I am, I spilled water all over my laptop, and lost ALL of the data on my laptop. This included the originals of thousands of photos I had taken for Delicious Everyday, all of the photos I had taken while on holiday in New York, Vegas and Fiji last year, and more upsettingly the one photo we had of my fiance proposing to me on the beach in Fiji. The strange thing is I always insisted on backups of Delicious Everyday, but not of my laptop because I quite simply thought “it won’t happen to me”. Well it did. Don’t take the same attitude with your blog. While a good web hosting company should take regular backups of your website don’t just rely on them. Install a good backup plugin. I use BackWPup. The thing I like about this backup plugin is that your backup is moved to an external server for storage, ie DropBox, Amazon S3, which means that if for some reason your host server goes down you have an external copy of your hard work.
A Sitemap Plugin
Google XML Sitemaps will create a map of your site which helps search engines, such as Google, index the content on your blog enabling people to find your blog through search engine searches.
This goes hand in hand with backing up your WordPress site. Securing your blog is essential because the last thing you want is for someone to hack into it and mess with your hard work. I use a number of security plugins, each performing slightly different tasks, but what works for me is Limit Login Attempts, WP Security Scan and Website Defender.
Limit Login Attempts does what it says, it blocks people if they try to log in to your Admin page too many times and sends you an email to let you know of the unauthorised login attempts and provides the IP address (which you can use to ban the visitor – my spam plugin suggestion which enables you to ban visitors by IP address).
WP Security Scan scans your WordPress setup and advises of potential security issues and options to resolve them. Website Defender is not actually installed as a plugin, however it runs on your web server and monitors your WordPress installation for changes, and when changes are found it emails you an alert so you can review the changes (ie new files appearing in your WordPress installation, plugins being installed or uninstalled) to check that they are legitimate.
Social Bookmarking Plugins
Social Bookmarking plugins enable your readers to share your content with people on Facebook, Twitter and hundreds of other social media websites. There are hundreds of different plugins available and which one you choose really depends on what features you want. I use AddThis Social Bookmarking Widget. The one thing I liked about this plugin over all of the others available is the reporting features which enable you to see exactly how many times your content has been shared and the viral uplift (i.e. shares that occurred as a result of the initial share).
What the heck are 404’s I hear you ask? Well, 404 errors are where someone has tried to visit your website using an incorrect link or address. For example they might have been trying to visit a particular page and have typed in the address incorrectly. In that case they would receive a 404 error telling them that WordPress could not find the page they were looking for. What a 404 plugin can do for you is record the 404 errors you are receiving, and also enable you to setup a redirection (i.e. if someone else uses the incorrect address you can redirect them to the correct page automatically). More importantly 404 plugins are useful from a SEO point of view because if visitors to your website receive a lot of 404 errors this can negatively impact your Search Engine Ranking, which of course none of us want. As far as 404 Plugins go I use 404 Redirected, which has a wonderful feature where it will automatically try to correct 404 errors for visitors and redirect them to the page the plugin thinks they were looking for. Pretty neat huh?
Spam and the internet are quite simply two things that go together. There are plugins that can make managing spam, or blocking the amount of spam you receive, easier though. One I consider an absolute essential is Akismet. While Akismet is great, I have found that quite a bit of spam can still slip through the cracks, so I also use Spammer Blocker. Spammer Blocker takes spam management one step further where it enables blocking of the senders of spam (ie their IP addresses). I’ve found that since using both of these plugins the amount of spam I receive is almost non-existent.
P3 Plugin Performance Profiler is a fantastic plugin that, well, monitors the performance of the plugins you have installed and reports on the impact they have on the speed of your website. Run the Auto Scan and at the end of the scan you can see exactly what plugins are running slowly and the impact that plugins have on your page load time.
Did you notice a type of plugin conspicuously absent in the above list? You may have noticed I didn’t mention a statistics (i.e. reporting on how many page views your receive) plugin as an essential plugin. Why? Well, while statistics plugins are great, and it’s wonderful to be able to see your page views within WordPress there is a penalty for that, and that penalty is performance. Stats plugins typically add quite a lot of overhead to your blog, and with the amazing reporting features of Google Analytics I don’t see a need for a stats plugin within WordPress itself. You can actually get so much more out of Google Analytics than a WordPress Stats plugin, so for that reason that is what I use for my reporting. I will cover Google Analytics, and some the amazing things you can report on with it, in a future post.
Well, that’s it. One mammoth post, however I sincerely hope you find it useful. So tell me, what are your tips on choosing a web hosting company and what are your essential plugins?