GPSOLO June 2009
Creating a Blog
Blogs (short for “web logs”) are considered by many to be the new personal diaries of the Internet age, except, unlike diaries of old, blogs are very public. If you’re just looking for a way to share your interests on Inuit throat singing, that’s probably not a bad way of defining—and using—blogs. On the other hand, if you are looking to use your blog as an adjunct to marketing your practice, the blog isn’t a diary. Lawyers should view “blogging” as an opportunity to help market their expertise and knowledge to a broader audience consisting of existing clients as well as those who may be seeking assistance in the practice areas discussed in the blog. This means that the content of the blog is critically important to its success and its ongoing retention of readers.
Is a Blog Right for You?
Before addressing questions about where to host a blog, how to design a blog, and what platform to use, you need to answer the threshold question of whether or not a blog is right for you and your needs. This is a very subjective process and should not be arrived at lightly. Questions you should ask yourself include:
- What goal or goals are you trying to accomplish? Is it simply dissemination of basic information about your firm, similar to the information found in a standard law firm brochure or firm website?
- Do you want to be seen as a trusted source for specific legal news or information on a specific legal topic or practice area?
- Do you consider a blog as another part of your firm marketing plan?
- Do you want to solicit feedback on the information posted, and if so, are you ready for the consequences of these comments if in fact you allow them?
- What segment of your client and potential client base are you trying to reach?
- Is a different form of electronic or other communication—such as a traditional website or paper newsletter—better suited to the information you’re trying to distribute to your potential and existing clients?
- Are you ready to make the commitment required to maintain a successful blog by posting regularly?
If you don’t already have a firm website or if it has not been updated in some time, you may want to build your web presence around your blog. Modern blogging and content management software platforms (which also include blogging tools) allow for the creation of both static pages as well as traditional blog pages with changing content. By using a blog or content management package, you may be able to consolidate your web presence, improve its web ranking by constantly changing information, and make it easier to manage.
Good content is a way for a blog to become a trusted source. Although a blog can cover everything concerning the law, the most successful blogs are focused on narrow practice segments or niche areas. By focusing on these narrower topics, it is easier to keep the content of the blogs updated and fresh. New postings are critical when it comes to search engine rankings; those blogs that are regularly updated with new posts consistently rank higher. Internet search engines look for content that is added on a regular basis and that is linked to other posts or blogs. The constant need for updates is often a deterrent to the creation of blogs or is used as an excuse for not having a blog, but what many attorneys fail to realize is that a blog post doesn’t have to be the equivalent of major articles or papers. Posts can simply be a link to a post on another blog or news source with brief commentary from the lawyer adding an opinion about what this item might mean to the target audience.
Reid Trautz, director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Practice and Professionalism Center, had this to say about finding time to blog: “The hardest thing about blogging is not finding good topics or ideas, but finding the time to actually do it. However, like any marketing activity, often the time to do it is when you are busy. One good way is to schedule an appointment for you to blog. Then, if possible, do two or three separate posts at one time that are set to automatically post to your blog over a period of a few days.”
Making a blog interactive by allowing comments can also be beneficial to the target audience because it provides an outlet for questions as well as commentary from other lawyers with clients who may have faced a similar situation. Requiring registration and moderating comments submitted are good ways to prevent off-topic or spam comments.
Good content is a way for the blog to become a trusted source that can be relied on by those who follow it.
Do It Yourself or Outsource It?
Once you’ve decided you need a blog, the next steps are to decide (1) will you outsource the design of your blog or will you create the blog yourself and (2) will you host your own blog or will you have someone else host it for you.
Outsourcing the design. If you don’t have the time or talent to design your own blog, consider having a blogging design company such as G2 Web Media ( www.g2webmedia.com), PaperStreet ( www.paperstreet.com), or The Blog Studio ( www.theblogstudio.com) design your blog for you. These companies will design your blog for you to host via an independent web domain and web hosting provider of your choosing (see below).
Hosting your own blog. If you decide to host the blog yourself, you will need to obtain web hosting services and a domain name. You can get both simultaneously from companies such as GoDaddy.com ( www.godaddy.com), BlueHost ( www.bluehost.com), DreamHost ( www.dreamhost.com), Register.com ( www.register.com), Netfirms ( www.netfirms.com), or Yahoo! Domains ( http://tinyurl.com/apbfar), to name just a few. Many of these companies will include the domain name registration for free if you sign up for one of their hosting plans. You will then need to select a blog software package such as WordPress ( www.wordpress.org), Movable Type ( www.movabletype.org), b2evolution ( http://b2evolution.net), or one of the many blogging and content management products available (for additional suggestions, see the list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weblog_software.
Outsourcing everything. If you don’t want to go through the steps of getting a domain name and a web hosting provider, consider companies that will both design and host your blog. Companies such as LexBlog ( www.lexblog.com) or Justia ( http://marketing.justia.com/content-lawyer-blogs.html) provide true “turnkey” blog solutions for lawyers and will obtain the domain name, provide blog design, and host your blog. A middle ground to the above options is to use a service such as TypePad ( www.typepad.com), which provides the blog software and hosting but allows you the ability to design and customize your blog using their software. You can even obtain a unique domain name and have it mapped to your TypePad blog.
How Do I Design a Blog?
Whether you decide to do it yourself or have someone else design your blog, I recommend that you begin the design process by taking the following three steps:
Identify your goal or goals. What do you hope to achieve with your blog? Determine your goal, such as becoming “the” source for a certain area of law aimed at consumers or using your blog to demonstrate your knowledge aimed at other attorneys with the intent of obtaining referral work. Some attorneys use their blogs to keep existing clients up-to-date with information that may affect them, such as changes in tax laws as they apply to estate planning. Having a clear goal or goals in mind is the first step to designing your blog.
Decide which characteristics you want your blog to have. You should take a look at a number of existing blogs to see which ones you like and which you don’t. What are the specific characteristics that lead you to prefer one blog over another? This step can help you decide which characteristics of these other blogs to incorporate into your blog. Characteristics may include links to other blogs, ability for readers to be able to comment on posts, advertising, and regular use of images. Do you want the ability to have extensive control over the way your blog appears, or do you want something simple and easy? Are you going to host multiple blogs on different areas of the law or on different topics? Do you want others to be able to collaborate on posts? How about links to social media sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn? Knowing what characteristics you want to include plays a key role in the step below.
Create your layout. How do you want your blog to look on the screen? Do you want one main column and a sidebar to hold links, navigation, and blog roll (a list of links to other blogs)? Perhaps you’d like a three-column design with a sidebar on each side of the main column, dedicating one to navigation and site tools and the other to advertising. When you looked at other blogs to identify which characteristics you liked, you were also deciding which ones you found visually appealing; visual appearance can be important, and depending on your personality you may elect a bold, modern look or something more conservative. Pull out a piece of paper and sketch out what you think your ideal blog layout would look like. Make sure that you sketch those items you want (e.g., a blog roll, navigation area to go to older posts and other pages on your blog, quotes of the day, etc.). Find ideas and tips on sites such as Webdesigner Depot ( www.webdesignerdepot.com), Smashing Magazine ( www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/08/28/45-excellent-blog--designs), and Blog for Profit ( www.blogforprofit.com), created by lawyer, blog designer, and author Grant Griffiths.
You will notice that selecting your blogging package or web host isn’t included among these initial three steps. The reason for this is simple: The heart of your blog is the goal or goals you want to achieve through the content, characteristics, and layout. Once you have completed the three steps, you will have the knowledge necessary to research the different blogging platforms available and see which ones will allow you to most easily and accurately create your blog.
DIY Blog Creation
Okay, let’s say you’ve identified your goals for the blog, settled on its basic characteristics, and sketched a rough layout. Time to set it up. If you’d just as soon outsource some or all of the tasks involved, contact one of the vendors noted above. If, however, you’d like to tackle the entire process yourself, the balance of this article will present a do-it-yourself model for blog creation.
What blogging platform should I use? One of the toughest decisions you will face may be deciding which platform you wish to utilize. This decision is also where the design steps come into play: Not every blog package may support your desired design elements. As mentioned above, you have numerous choices when it comes to picking a blogging platform. There are several free blogging services that can get you up and running relatively quickly if you decide that you need only a limited ability to customize and only a smallish set of features. These free services generally provide the hosting for the blog as well as the tools to create your blog. Some examples include Blogger from Google ( www.blogger.com), ClearBlogs ( http://clearblogs.com), LiveJournal ( www.livejournal.com), and WordPress ( http://wordpress.com).
Generally, these sites require you to use their URLs (web addresses) for your blog (e.g., billsmith.wordpress.com rather than www.billsmith.com) and may restrict your blog to a limited number of design themes or features. Blogger allows URL mapping, which lets you obtain your own domain and have it mapped to your Blogger blog. However, I don’t recommend any of these for law firm use. Hosting your blog either on your firm’s website or as a stand-alone site will provide you with more options as to the blogging platform you wish to use. By using an outside web hosting company, you may find that blogging tools are included in your web hosting subscription. GoDaddy.com provides products such as WordPress, Nucleus, and pLog for its web hosting subscriptions. You can also obtain WordPress software at no cost to use on your own web hosting servers or on an outside vendor’s server. Two other popular blogging platforms include TypePad, which provides both the hosting and powerful blogging platform, and Movable Type, a freestanding publishing package akin to WordPress, which is free and can be used on a web host of your choice. Because TypePad provides both hosting and blogging platform, your blog will have a TypePad URL, although you can obtain a distinct URL and map it to your TypePad blog. There are products such as ExpressionEngine ( http://expressionengine.com), Textpattern ( www.textpattern.com), Drupal ( http://drupal.org), and others that are either free or fee-based.
A Step-by-Step Guide
The balance of this article will provide a step-by-step guide to creating a blog using GoDaddy.com as the web hosting company and WordPress as the blogging platform. GoDaddy.com is one of a number of web hosting companies that provides automatic installation of WordPress as a standard. (The full list of WordPress--recommended web hosting companies can be found at http://wordpress.org/hosting.)
Navigate to http://tinyurl.com/cxvsbg and select one of the hosting plans listed. Select one of the Economy Plans, which start at $4.99 a month for three months. Click the “ADD” button. You will be taken to a Customize Your Order page.
One drawback of GoDaddy.com is that it will try to sell you a number of add-on services. To skip these, click “No thanks. Continue to checkout. . .” at the bottom of the page.
On the right side of the Secure Checkout page, fill in the “Add a domain to my order” box. Type in the domain name you would like to obtain and use the drop-down arrow to select the correct domain extension. (The most popular is the “.com” extension.) Click the “GO” button. If the domain isn’t taken, you will receive a message that the domain is available. If the domain is taken, you will be advised that it is unavailable. You may need to try several names before finding one that isn’t taken. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the “CONTINUE” button. This will take you to the “Domain Registration Preferences” page.
Select the registration length for your domain name (one to five years), scroll to the bottom of the page, and click the “CONTINUE” button to proceed to the Secure Checkout page to complete your order. Enter your discount code, if any, and click the “Checkout Now” button. This will open the Secure Checkout window.
You will need a sheet of paper to write down certain account and password information beginning with this step. Under Section 2, New Account Login Information, you will enter the information to access your GoDaddy.com web hosting account. GoDaddy.com will assign a numeric Login ID automatically to your new account, or you can change it to a different ID so long as it isn’t already in use. You will create a Password and a four-digit PIN to provide for telephone support. Write this information down on the paper under GoDaddy.com Account Access. Complete the forms and proceed with checkout.
When you’ve completed your checkout, you will be taken to “Your GoDaddy.com order” page, which lists the details of your order. Click “View printable receipt” to print a copy of these details.
Click “Login to My Account” to be taken to a login page. Select “Hosting” from the top of the left sidebar menu. Enter your assigned numeric Login ID (or personalized ID if you changed it) and the Password that you wrote down under Account Access to log in to your GoDaddy.com Account page. This will take you to the Hosting Account Control Panel. Click “Setup Account” and accept the license agreement on the next page and click “Next.”
You will need to enter a user name and password that will be used to access your web hosting account from within the GoDaddy.com site as well as from the Internet directly. Write this information on the paper under Website FTP Access. Click the “Next” button on the bottom right of the page to continue to the Account Details page.
On the Account Details page you need to make sure that the radio button is darkened for “Select from existing” under the heading “Select or Enter your Domain” and that the domain name you purchased appears in the drop-down window. Click the “Next” button on the bottom right of the page to continue to the Options page.
Use the options already checked and click the “Next” button on the bottom right of the page to continue to the Confirmation page. If your user name and domain name are correct, click the “Finish” button on the bottom right of the page.
You will receive a message that your account is Pending Setup. Click the “View Account List” button. Wait approximately five minutes and then click your domain name when it no longer shows “Pending” under Control Panel but instead says “Manage Account.” This will open your hosting Home page. Click the “Your Applications” button to be taken to the GoDaddy.com Hosting Connection page for your account.
On the GoDaddy.com Hosting Connection page, you will find the various applications included with your hosting account, including blogging software. Select “Blogs” from the left sidebar and click the “WordPress” link. This will take you to the WordPress Installation page.
Click the “INSTALL NOW!” button to begin the WordPress Auto Install, which automatically creates the database for WordPress and installs all of the necessary files and account controls. Click the “I Agree” button to accept the license agreement and continue the installation. Select your domain in the Select Hosting window and click the “Continue” button on the bottom right of the page.
As you have already obtained your Domain, the Auto Install will bypass the Setup New Hosting step and will go directly to the Configure Installation step. I recommend leaving the “Database description” unchanged. Create a password for the database and write it and the database name on the paper under Database Password. Under “Install it into a folder:” clear “wordpress” from the field. Doing this allows users to come directly to your blog without having to append “wordpress” to your domain name.
You need to create an Admin Name and Admin Password for accessing your blog from the Internet. Enter your e-mail address and type in the title of your blog that will appear to visitors. Write this information on the paper under Blog Access. Click the “Finish” button. Click the “Log Out” link at the top left of the page.
Type in the URL of your new domain in your web browser. Your new blog should appear.
Click the “Log in” Link under “Meta” in the lower right sidebar to open the Log In window. Under “Username” enter the Admin Name, and then enter the Admin Password that you wrote down under Blog Access.
Once logged in to your blog, you will be taken to the WordPress Dashboard page. From this point you can write blog posts, change settings, and activate appearance themes once they’ve been placed in your WordPress wp-contents/Themes folder on your website. For complete instructions on working with WordPress, refer to the WordPress Codex at http://codex.wordpress.org. To get started, select the “WordPress for Beginners” and “WordPress Lessons” links.
And happy blogging!
Nerino J. Petro Jr. is the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.