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Thursday
Apr122012

Blogiversary Week: Helpful Blogging Tools

Apps, platforms, widgets and hosts...if you're a blogger, chances are you've done your best to make the most of these clever tools.  Some are free, some cost money, but all of them have one thing in common...they're very techy!

That's where it gets challenging for us right-brained, creative thinkers.  We'd much rather be sewing or painting something than spending hours figuring out the inner workings of the internet.  We'd much rather be thrift-store shopping than learning new script and code.  But this is the world we live in...and if you want to blog about your latest DIY adventures, then you're about to get married to the world of IT.

Think of it like a wedding in Vegas at an Elvis chapel. It happens quickly and chances are you'll wake up the next morning asking, "What the heck did I just do?"

When I started A Happy Place Called Home I had minimal experience with web design...but after a year's worth of dabbling here and there, sampling various features for my site, there are a few tools that have stood out to me as winners.  I'd like to share them with you so that hopefully you can dabble less in the IT world, and thrive out there in the blog-o-sphere.

1.  Squarespace.com

I started with Squarespace because this is the meat-and-potatoes of my blog.  This is my platform...and as a new blogger with no web design experience I lurrvvveee Squarespace!  Perhaps someday I'll find that I need something else, but for now I am so very happy that somehow I found this lovely hosting company.

When I started exploring options for my website I began my exploring Blogger and Wordpress, but something about the process of setting up themes was just completely over my head.  Maybe I'm just dumb, but I grew frustrated by the fact that I couldn't figure out how to customize things the way I wanted to.  I knew it was possible to do so, since I've seen it done by other bloggers, but I'm the kind of girl that likes to just click, click, click, and have something be done...and it just wasn't happening.

After trial and error with Blogger and Wordpress I thought I could maybe try one of those "build your own website" thingies from hosting companies, like GoDaddy and Bluehost.  Back when I was in college I had used something similar to set up an online portfolio, so I figured it couldn't hurt and I set up a little Bluehost account.

Let me give you my honest opinion about Bluehost...if you're a new blogger, save yourself the trouble and leave them to folks who are IT savvy.  It was a nightmare for me.  Their site builder was nothing but coding, and calling tech support was like playing Jeopardy.  All of their customer service people spoke to me like I knew what they were saying.  The call would go something like this...

Me:  Um, hi...I'm having trouble with this, uh, button thing that looks like a little suitcase, er...when I click on it, it just reloads the page and...uh...what should I do?

Them:  Absolutely!  That's just the {insert IT babble here} that's designed to do {insert IT bable here} and all you need to do is {insert IT babble here} and {insert IT babble here}, then click {insert IT babble here} and reload {insert IT babble here}.  Then your {insert IT babble here} will {insert IT babble here}...and then you're all set.  Is there anything else we can do for you today?

Me:  Err...??

Them:  Thank you for using BlueHost, and have a great day!

Me:  Err...??

Now here's the deal, I don't want the BlueHost people to take this the wrong way or come after me with a lawsuit...so I'm going to throw out the word "allegedly" since I hear that makes it okay to express your own opinion about a particular service.  I'm not saying they're bad folks, they just speak a different language than I do...that's all.

Boy did I ever give a sigh of relief the minute I was through with BlueHost.  I've never had that problem with Squarespace.  In fact, I've never even talked with anyone at Squarespace.  They have a wonderful Q&A section that walks you through step-by-step for nearly everything you could have a question on...plus they have tech support through email (which sounds crazy, but it's so wonderful!) where they've answered any additional questions that I had.

Best of all, I was able to completely customize my website without knowing a single thing about HTML or CSS coding, because everything through Squarespace is drag-n-click style!  Hmmm...did I mention that I lurrrvvve Squarespace? 

But here's the catch...I pay for my hosting through Squarespace.  In fact, my first year I paid $40.00 per month for their services because they were user-friendly, and they came with all of the bells-and-whistles (like form builders, unlimited storage, built-in site analytics, IPhone/Android app, month-to-month payment options, and unlimited site pages with options for journal pages (blog), photo galleries, standard text pages, discussion forums, link lists, drop box, etc.) So yeah, I paid for the service, but I've never had regrets about the cost.  

Now I get that $40.00 per-month could be considered a lot of money just for a blog, but I've got some good news about that.  A few weeks ago I received an email from Squarespace informing me that they have lowered their prices.  Yes, I said lowered...as in sliced...as in cut-in-half!  It was amazing!  I'm mean, who does that?  They didn't cut any of the services, just the prices...so now I pay $20.00 per-month for their month-to-month plan.  

Okay, I'll seriously get off of my soap-box now, considering this post is already about to break 1000 words and I've only covered my blog platform.  You'll just have to watch the video for their demo, or take a run with their free trial.

2.  Buffer

Okay, I promise not to go too crazy with this one...I'll just stick to telling you what it does...well, at least I'll try.

Buffer is a free social media app that helps me tweet even when I'm not tweeting.  Some of you might think less of me for "cheating," but before you make your final decision of me, let me just remind you about my 40 hour-per-week job.  My boss wouldn't be a big fan of me tweeting all day, or updating my status...so I turn to Buffer to help me get my social media updates to each of my followers at times during the day that they could actually benefit from them.  Besides, I still write every message that goes out, I'm just scheduling it for a future time rather than updating my accounts right-away.  This keeps my status updates from getting lost in never-ending social media feeds, and allows my updates to be seen.

Now allow me to be the first to admit that I totally stink at social media!  It's not my strong-suit, but all I can say is that I try.  Sure there's waves of posts and tweets, followed by waves of silence...I get it...and trust me, I'm working on it.  Hopefully someday I'll be able to be a social media rockstar--and hopefully someday I can ease myself off of Buffer, but for now it allows me to keep my readers up-to-date with all of the latest happenings...even when I'm at work.

3.  Linky Tools

Here's to Brent, the creative mind behind the site Linky Tools!  This service is priced at $2.00 per month and generates the code you'll need to host link parties.  But here's the thing...there's a lot more you can do with this service than just host link parties.

I use this service to create an image-based library of projects I've done on my blog.  Check out my Idea Notebook for an example.  You can also use Linky Tools to host a Blog Hop where your visitors can grab the code for your link party, enter the code within their own site, and your link party list will become visible on their site too.  This means readers can hop from blog-to-blog, viewing the content you've designed for them.  

One more thing about Linky Tools that you should know...you can also subscribe to their email marketing service which allows you to customize auto-emails that will be sent to anyone who shares a link within your link party.  It doesn't spam them, but it gives you an opportunity to send a quick message highlighting upcoming events they might want to participate in.  Definitely worth a few dollars per month, at least in my opinion.

4.  LinkWithin

If you're wondering how bloggers get those little pictures to pull up at the bottom of each post that recommend other posts to read, well this is it!  LinkWithin is a free service that allows you to generate this code.  Plug this code into the bottom of your post and it will search through the content of your website for similar keywords, then recommend those posts to your readers.  

It's very simple to use, and I like that it includes the first image from each post as a way to draw the readers attention. I've even found this tool helpful as a reader of blogs.  Whenever I visit blogs that use this tool I always find a number of great articles that would have otherwise been buried in the archives of the blog.  Sometimes I get so caught up with it that I spend hours on the same blog.

I know, I know...I'm such a sucker for pretty pictures and strong titles! 

5.  Blogging with Amy

Ahhh...my little gem, Amy!

If any of you watch baseball, Amy is the closing pitcher.  She's the valuable player that coaches keep warmed up in the bull-pen to send in for the kill during the last few innings.  Amy is my star...my knight in shining armor...my oracle for all things blog related.

I follow a lot of blogs.  You probably will too once you dive into the blog-o-sphere.  99% of the blogs I follow are home decor, DIY, craft, or sewing related...and then there's Amy!  You see, Amy blogs about...wait for it...blogging!  It's pure genius, and I have learned so many great and wonderful things about blogging that I wouldn't have learned anywhere else.

Here's an example...you see those "grab buttons" on the side of my page?   ...Blogging with Amy

But it doesn't stop with just step-by-step "how to code" tips...seriously, I've been blogging in this series all week, but her series puts mine to shame.  I know there are other bloggers like Amy out there, so my recommendation to you as a new blogger is to follow Amy, or someone like her.  Learn from the best when it comes to the technical aspect of things, or you'll completely burn yourself out trying to figure these things out!

Summed Up:

Like it or not, if you want to blog then you'll have to become comfortable using platforms, widgets, and apps to improve your content for your readers...but that doesn't mean you'll need to be an IT wiz! Search for tips that other bloggers have provided, and your time as Director of IT will be manageable.

Here's a quick reminder of this week's agenda.  We're almost to the end of the series, and tomorrow I'll be hosting a link party (with my LinkyTools, wink, wink) where you can all share your tips, advice, and your latest projects.  Thanks for checking in!

Words with Friends:

Here are some posts I rounded up from some of my fellow bloggers, outlining their tips, recommendations, and personal experiences with blogging.  Enjoy!

ps...Just a side note...none of the companies or sites mentioned in this post paid or perked me to write these reviews.  These are just my honest opinions, based solely on my personal experiences with these companies.

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