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Hey there, y’all! It’s time for another installment in our Blogging Success Series, and this time we’re going to move beyond the fancy philosophizing and get into some practical stuff. This is going to be one humdinger of a post. In case you’re just joining us or want a recap over the first three episodes in this series, you can check out a list of posts in this series over on this page. So far we’ve talked about Briana’s key to blogging, some tips for choosing topics to blog about, and that all-important question of, “How do I make time to blog?” Today I’m going to rant about how to make your blog look good and professional. Trust me, I know that I have not fully attained this yet, and I keep learning new things and tweaking my own style, but I’ll share some things that I’ve learned (and that I personally like seeing when I go to someone else’s blog). Hopefully my ideas will help you.
1) Start with a nice clean design that is easy to make changes to. My blog is a self-hosted WordPress.org site, which means that I pay for my own hosting and domain name and get to make whatever changes and run whatever ads on my site that I want. For the guts of my blog (the framework), I use Genesis; and I’m currently using the Foodie theme on top of that (the “exterior” of the blog). I have been very happy with all my choices, and you can get links to them all over on this page and learn how I went about setting them up in this post.
Genesis and Foodie are very user-friendly and easy to work with, even if you’re not tech savvy (I’m not). Foodie has a very clean, minimalistic design that is easy to customize. I’ve been very happy with it. It’s important to start with a design that you like the look of and that is easy to change. Trust me, if you’re just starting a blog, you’ll probably make a lot of changes in the first few months. I’ve actually kept my basic design the same for a few months now, so I feel like I’m maturing in my blogging. Haha… That being said, don’t be afraid to change if you need to. Keep changing until you find something that clicks.
Be sure to choose a theme that will fit with the look you want. I find that clean, open space showcases my recipes well. As a reader, I tend to gravitate toward blogs with clean lines (versus cluttered ones).
Part of the reason I chose Foodie was that it comes with a built-in recipe page. Meaning that whenever you add and categorize a recipe, it will automatically be added to the recipe page in its correct category. This is really handy, especially if you don’t know how to code something like this (um, me!). Now that I’ve progressed a little, I’ve added some other ways for people to find my recipes as well. I used the EasyIndex plugin to create an automatically-populated complete picture index that I LOVE. I also have a page full of neat categories that are automatically populated when I post recipes with those tags (low-carb, low-fat, single-serve, egg yolk uses, peanut butter recipes, etc.). Tags are a great way to categorize things to find later.
2) Create a look. Part of the reason that big name bloggers are so successful is that they have created a brand for themselves that people can instantly recognize and easily remember. You need to create a unique look for your own blog! Creating a look can be done in several different ways:
- Make a catchy, easy-to-remember name, and use it for everything. I am…ahem…an embarassing example of what not to do. When I first started out on Blogger, I created this mouthful-of-a-moniker: “Capall Equine Photography and Training”. OK, a) what the world does “capall” mean? (it actually means “horse” in Gaelic, if you really want to know), b) what’s an equine?, c) what are you training?, d) I thought you were a recipe blog? Yeah…there really was a method to that madness, but let’s just say that the blog ended up taking a direction I was not expecting, so the name fell flat pretty quickly. When I switched to my new website about 8 months after starting my blog, I named it after myself. Simple as that. Two words: Briana Thomas. It’s easy to remember, it’s cohesive, it’s me. I don’t think my identity is going to change any time soon. If and when I get married (I’m 19 years old, for those of you who didn’t know, so it could happen eventually. Well, some would debate that fact…), I won’t be changing the name of my website. I’ve created a brand using my name, and changing it now would be confusing. I like stamping my website with my name because it gives people instant recognition when I share recipes to Facebook groups from my personal Facebook account. You definitely don’t have to do the same thing I did, but consider using some part of your own name in the name of your blog (for examples of this, see the Coers Family Blog or Mrs. Criddle’s Kitchen).
- Create a basic graphic logo and use it where you can. Check out my ice cream cone up there ^^. My cousin drew that for me. He’s awesome.
- Take a good picture of yourself and use it across your different platforms (for a cohesive look, again). Put it in your sidebar so people can connect a person with the blog. Create a Gravatar with it (this is a great tool for bloggers, and it will show up when you comment on other people’s blogs!). Use it for your Pinterest and Facebook accounts.
- Create a cohesive color scheme. Something classy, please. You can have varying colors, but I suggest keeping them coordinated. I love teal, so I work with teal, grey, and black, mostly.
- Use coordinating text styles, and please keep them easy to read. Be careful using text that is too “scripted” (like Edwardian). Scripted texts are really hard to read. You want people to be able to catch titles at a glance.
3) Take good pictures. Pictures sell more than anything. Clean-cut, bright, appetizing pictures are what catch the eye on Facebook/Pinterest, etc. Good pictures are also your ticket to getting accepted onto recipe-sharing sites like Foodgawker, which is a good way to get your name out into the greater blogging community so other bloggers can see your stuff and include you in roundups and the like. And speaking of roundups, other bloggers are more likely to add you to roundups if your pictures look good, not only because their own posts will look better but because hobnobbing with people who look like they know what they’re doing adds a certain level of credibility to their own endeavors.
Don’t feel like photography is your strong suit? Hang around another week because there’s a photography post coming your way next time!
4) Make nice graphics. Blogs need good graphics: banners, buttons, etc. Keep your banners clean, with easy-to-read text (that’s a biggie), coordinating colors, and simple lines. Keep the style consistent with the rest of your blog. If you don’t have a good eye for design (and even if you do), make it a habit to look at other people’s work for ideas. Jot down what looks good on other people’s blogs and what doesn’t, then put your notes into practice on your own blog. You don’t need fancy software to make nice graphics: Canva.com is a great, free online program for designing cool stuff. I use it for most of my graphic design stuff. Picmonkey.com can also be good but doesn’t have as many options.
Here are some graphics you might want to consider including on your blog, either in posts or in your sidebar:
- A nice vertical image for the beginning of your posts that tells people what to expect from each post
- a long pinnable image for each post
- a social media share image for each post
- Eye-catching (yet simple) Facebook and Pinterest buttons in your sidebar that link to your own Facebook and Pinterest pages…I have a simple social icons widget near the top of my sidebar (Simple Social Icons plugin), and I also made myself some larger, colorful buttons in typical Facebook and Pinterest colors for the middle of my sidebar.
- A meet-the-blogger image for your sidebar
- Buttons to popular pages for your sidebar (I currently have both a Healthy Desserts and a Healthy Ice Cream button in my sidebar, among others)
- Assorted affiliate banners in your sidebar (make sure these are properly disclosed), as well as in your posts, where applicable
5) Make your images as wide as the post. This really helps your blog look neat and well put together. Look at most big, well-known blogs and you’ll see this in practice. I’ve noticed that a lot of new bloggers keep their pictures really small. Don’t do that – we want to see what you’ve got to share! Go big or go home. If you’re scared to show us your pictures, then put extra effort into making those pictures look good. I set all my pictures to display at 650 pixels across, which is about right for my blog. Of course different templates will vary in size.
If you’re keeping your pictures small because you don’t want your page to load slowly, a) resize your pictures before uploading them to your blog, and b) get a caching plugin to help reduce load time (WP Super Cache is a good one). I use Lightroom to edit my pictures, and I resize all my pictures to 750 pixels wide when I export them. You can resize using many different softwares; Picmonkey.com is a free website that will let you do this.
6) Make the first image in your post clickable to the post itself. Or rather, make any pictures that will show up on your website’s home page clickable. It is my pet peeve to go to a website’s home page, see a portion of a post that I want to read, click on the picture displayed, and not get taken to the post but rather get taken to just the picture itself.
The way my blog is set up, the first picture in a blog post along with an excerpt of the post gets put on my website homepage. I make that picture clickable, and I link it to the post itself, that way when people click on the picture from my homepage, they are taken to the post that picture is a part of. I know it’s a small thing, but it annoys me when other people don’t do this.
7) Make post layouts consistent. Have a method to the way you set up your posts, and do it the same way every time. Consistency goes a long way in creating a professional feel to your blog, plus it helps you write posts faster because you know where everything needs to go and you don’t have to spend lots of time thinking, “Now where should I put my pinnable image?”
8) Please, please, puh-lease use proper grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Incorrect grammar is another pet peeve of mine. Sloppiness is just that: sloppiness. You don’t think anyone notices? Trust me, I notice. I’m definitely not saying that I always write things perfectly (and if you see an error anywhere, please point it out to me so I can fix it!), but I took plenty of writing and grammar classes in school and I paid attention. I have nothing against stylistic fragments, but if you didn’t write something wrong on purpose, please correct it. Try to get the easy stuff right at least, like there/their and its/it’s. Other common mistakes include unclear pronoun reference, comma splices, incorrect possessives, and run-on sentences. Try to let a post rest at least one day before editing it; editing a post in the same session as writing the rough draft will not allow you to catch as many mistakes as you will when you look at the post with fresh eyes. If you don’t trust yourself to catch your own mistakes, maybe you should consider hiring someone to edit your posts for you.
Problems with capitalization often show up when you make graphics for your posts. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to capitalize titles, dietary classifications, and that kind of thing. Here’s the cool thing: you don’t necessarily have to follow capitalization rules if you’re bending them for the sake of style. Writing in all lowercase can look nice sometimes. However, the key is (here it comes again) consistency. If you capitalize one dietary classification (Low fat), capitalize them all (Low fat, Sugar free, Gluten free). That’s the general rule of thumb I go by unless I have a specific style in mind that I want to express. Just be purposeful about the way you do things and you should be all right. Mistakes happen when you don’t mean to make them.
Helpful pages for food blogs – there are a few pages that I think every food blog should include in its menu bar:
- A homepage…and make sure that clicking on your header takes you to the homepage as well. This is just kind of a given for every website.
- A recipe page organized by category (i.e. desserts, drinks, entrees, etc.) – the Foodie theme has a recipe page that is automatically populated, which is very handy for food bloggers. You can see mine here.
- A comprehensive recipe index – all your recipes in an easy-to-see picture format according to category. I used the EasyIndex plugin to create a complete food index here and an index for my non-food posts here.
- A page dedicated to helpful equipment you use (with plenty of affiliate links, which we’ll talk about in more detail later. This page can help bring you some income.). You can see mine here, only mine is a little more specific to the genre of food I specialize in: Trim Healthy Mama friendly recipes.
- An About Me page where people can get to know the face behind the blog…personal connection will keep people coming back. You can see mine here.
- A contact form in case people need to get in touch with you.
What should I have in my sidebar?
This is an interesting question, and the answer will definitely vary according to personal preference and the purpose of your blog. I’ll give a few generic suggestions below, and then I’ll add a few other things that I have found to be helpful for my blog in particular:
- A “meet the blogger” picture and a little text if desired…keep it simple.
- Social media buttons linked to your Facebook/Pinterest/other social media pages. I have the Simple Social Icons plugin right under my blogger profile, and I also have some bigger, more eye-catching buttons further on down in my sidebar that encourage people to check out my Facebook and Pinterest pages (I made these bigger buttons myself using Canva, a free online graphic design website, and linked them to my Facebook and Pinterest pages).
- a search bar for your website
- links to any products you might have (I have a button for my 12 Cozy Soups ebook)
- links to specific pages on your blog that people might enjoy
- Ads (if you’d like to make a little money from your blogging endeavors)…we’ll talk about these in more detail in a later post.
- Affiliate links (again, if you’d like to make a little money)…again, we’ll talk about these more later.
Some things that have been helpful in my own sidebar, specifically:
- a button for my 12 Cozy Soups ebook page
- buttons with links to my ice cream recipes as well as my healthy dessert recipes
- a button for my page that divides recipes according to dietary restrictions as well as unique categories (like single-serve recipes, peanut butter recipes, s’mores recipes, etc.)
- a button for my Blogging Success Series page
Think strategically about where to place things in your sidebar. Keep important things, like social media icons and maybe some ads for your own products, near the top. I have some of my affiliate banners near the bottom of my sidebar, which usually ends up being down by the recipes in my recipe posts.
Are ads worth the clutter?
Here’s a question worth contemplating. I personally do not care for the look of ads, but they provide over half the income I make from blogging. The way I see things now, those ads are a necessary evil for me because they allow me to make enough income off my blog to warrant spending time creating new recipes. They pay the bills. That’s a fact I can’t get around right now.
Some tips to keep the clutter minimized:
- Work with a good ad network. I’m currently with The Blogger Network; those guys have been awesome to work with, and their ads generally look more classy than the ads I used to get through Google Adsense. Adsense is a good beginner-level ad network that is easy to set up (and it doesn’t require a minimum number of pageviews per month, like the free version of TBN does), but the revenues aren’t as high as TBN, plus you don’t have the support and the better-looking ads that come with TBN.
- Don’t run ads side by side. Often, ad networks won’t even allow you to run ads right next to each other. Break them up with other stuff. This might just be my personal preference, but I think it looks better this way.
- Don’t run too many ads. My rep with The Blogger Network convinced me to put 5 ads per page on my site (apparently this threshold is where one starts to see great results in revenue), but that’s the maximum I’m going to use. Four of those ads are in my sidebar, and one comes before the comment section in each post. On pages where there is no comment section, all five ads are in my sidebar.
I hope this post gives you some practical things to work on to better your blog. Did I forget something? Disagree with something I said? Comment below with your thoughts!