I've actually gotten a few emails from people wanting to know how I set up my blog and how to get started. So here's my definitive post on the subject. I certainly hope that it helps bring a lot of new bloggers into the world!
Things You Need To Blog:
1. Something To Say (In Fact, Many Many Things To Say)
This is a crucial point that many people fail to think about. A blog is not a one-time deal. If you want to be successful, you need to come up with interesting things to say on a regular basis. Yes, there are bloggers who only post once every few weeks, but they tend to not have as strong a connection with their readers or with other bloggers. This is what I would heartily recommend to all potential bloggers: Give yourself some pre-blog homework. Come up with a list of at least twenty on-topic ideas that you think you could write at least a few paragraphs about. Yes, you'll have occasional deviations from your stated topic, but you need to be productive enough to write at length over and over, at least every few days. If writing has always been a long and difficult process for you, you may just exhaust yourself trying to write a lot. So you should definitely try it out by coming up with topics, and write several pieces before you ever start the blog.
2. A Clear Writing Style
I used to joke that in college I got A's on my papers because they sounded great and profs tired of awful writing were simply grateful. You need to figure out what your writing style is and develop it. Some bloggers are extremely professional and rarely use colloquialisms or idioms. Their writing tends to sound more like a newspaper than a conversation. Some bloggers are friendly and outgoing, spilling the beans on everything in their lives. Some pople (like me) tend to swear and call people bums. You shouldn't try to force a style that doesn't come naturally to you. This will quickly become tiresome to read, and difficult to write. So don't worry too much about aiming for a style in particular - just aim for consistency.
3. Free Time and a Spellchecker
I see the demise every day of good blogs done in by the time requirement it takes to blog. This is partially tied to the style of writing you use in your blog - specifically, that bloggers who tend to write long articles also tend to run out of time to write them in. If you can't find the time to keep up with your favorite blogs, you don't have the time to blog, because it is also essential that you keep up as a member of the blogging community that you belong to. This is not to say that if you are busy, you can't blog. Lots of bloggers produce short one-off posts several times through the week with an interesting idea or a neat link they found. That's not a problem. But it takes time simply to think of interesting things to say, unless you become one of those bloggers who merely reposts links. That is not interesting, but it does take significantly less time. It is also essential that you leave enough time in your day to edit the posts. I like to write my posts in Gmail as a saved draft so that I can come back and look at them later. It is also essential that you spellcheck and revise. Many things that seemed funny (or looked as if they were spelled correctly) the first time don't look so great on the second go round, or after you have already used that joke on somebody else. So please, for the sake of all of us, revise anything longer than a paragraph or two. The intervening time may also give you some more ideas as you think more about the topic (since it is impossible to simply leave your topic with the computer and walk away) and the post will become more interesting and have more depth.
4. Decide How Much You Want To Reveal
It is standard practice that you shouldn't reveal where you work, and many bloggers are cagey about where they live. Obviously you shouldn't give out your address, but you need to decide what level of scrutiny you're comfortable with into your life. Your financial life is often another story. Bloggers who in real life wouldn't dream of telling someone how much their sweater cost will reveal everything down to the penny on their blog, protected by anonymity. So if you intend to have full financial disclosure, it's smart to go the other way on personal disclosure. Think also about what reaction people you know might have if they find your blog. While you may not agree with your sister's recent purchase of a Maserati on her credit card, you probably shouldn't get too vituperative about it on your blog lest she find it in the future and tattle on you. Not that you can't talk about people you know, but don't use their real names. Remember, using your real name is a choice, but you can't make that choice on the behalf of people who don't even know your blog exists. Most bloggers use pseudonyms for the close people in their life who can't help but make cameos in their blog.
The technical aspects of blogging:
1. Pick a host. The most popular are Blogger and TypePad. You'd have to check out the features if you want something specific but both are similar in their general presentation of the blog. The host will provide several different templates with different designs and colors, so you can check out those, but you can play with that later.
2. Decide on a design. Look at other blogs and pick out some designs that you like. It's kind of a pain in the butt to change to a different template after you've picked one, so make sure that you at least like the format. Colors can be changed but it's harder to switch to a three-column format from a two, or what have you. One thing that I changed over time was the amount of stuff I put in the sidebar. At first I wanted the site to be fairly clean, and not have a lot of stuff over there. But over time I realized that the actual length of the sidebar didn't matter, because the length of the main site increased as I wrote more and longer entries. And I messed around with the width and all that. But generally my own observations of my reading habits of other blogs is that I only notice bad design when I don't much care for the writing. Good writing makes a bad design less noticeable. So I wouldn't sweat too much about this, just pick a template that you like and you can change it later.
3. What about AdSense?
Adsense is a neat little tool. Unfortunately you aren't going to make much money off it unless you get a lot of traffic. Some bloggers basically cover their sites in ads, and I think that that is distracting, but I'm not against the practice in general. You will have to evaluate your own opinions on it, but just mind that it won't make you much money anyway. Whatever your position on ads, make sure that your content is interesting enough to make it worth the while - don't run the page just for the ads. (If you're still interested, sign up with my thingy on the right and I'll give you a hug!)
4. How to edit your blog's front page
The blog sites generally have a straight HTML template, which is entirely generic - meaning you can't just plug in what you want and it will create it for you. You'll have to get to know your blog template's inner workings somewhat intimately to really edit it up. The Blogger Template Help is pretty comprehensive, and since HTML is a universal language, not one owned by any one company, what works in HTML at Blogger works in HTML elsewhere.
5. Track your readership
You definitely need Site Meter. This handy little app is free and will tell you how many people visit your page, where they came from, and much more. Don't focus too much on numbers - even for the best and most interesting blog, it simply takes time for people to notice that you exist, and even more time for readers to evaluate you and decide you merit a spot in their bookmarks or blog rolls. You can also sign up for Google Analytics (whose most useful feature is telling you how many people are returners or first-timers) but that may take some time to get approved. Site Meter is also updated in real time, although I wouldn't recommend spending so much time looking at your traffic reports that you see this for yourself.
Ways to get readers and increase site traffic
1. Comment on other blogs.
No, really. This was one of the pieces of advice given to me as a young blogger, and it has really paid off. You need to be active in the community - and a good way to get people familiar with you (and what you're like) before you start to blog is to comment on other people's blogs using the name that you'll address yourself by when you start your blog. I go by my actual first name, but you can do whatever you like. This doesn't mean that you should post inane comments on every article on pfblogs. Your comments should be well thought out, insightful, interesting to read - in short, everything your blog articles should be. Then, once you have your blog, you can start putting its address in the appropriate box when you comment. You would be surprised how many hits I routinely get on my page from people who clicked through from a comment I made. This is another reason that it's very important to comment often, well, and widely - don't just restrict commenting to the blogs that you routinely read. If you see something comment-able on pfblogs, go for it! The worst that will happen is that the blog owner will click through to see who you are. Commenting is also how you establish yourself as a known personality in the community - so it would also help if you comment on the sort of thing you're likely to write about. People who are interested in the same posts you are, are likely to be interested in your blog.
2. Get listed on pfblogs.org
This is much easier than you think. You just send an email to the webmaster with your blog's name, its URL,and its feed URL. I was added in under 3 minutes. Who says there's no good people anymore? Getting listed on pfblogs.org is a great way to expose your blog to people who probably wouldn't otherwise have found it. Also, if you post regularly, you'll become a familiar face. Becoming a Friend of pfblogs.org is not necessary to be listed, but it's both a good thing to support them as they support the community, and it's a good thing for your traffic. Being a Friend means that you get higher billing on the sidebar on the main page, and if you post regularly you'll also end up on those automatically-generated blogrolls that many people have from pfblogs.org, which generally shows the 20 blogs who most recently posted on pfblogs - you'll note they all have stars. When I get a click through from a blog I haven't heard of, it's usually from that automated blogroll - free traffic! It's okay to ask to be listed before you have many posts - but I'd have one or two so they can verify you're personal-finance related.
3. Write interesting headlines and first lines
This is related to the above point. As you may have noticed, pfblogs.org only shows the first fifteen or twenty words in your post. So having an interesting headline and eye-catching first line can definitely grab people's attention and get them to click through to your page. However, this is not to say that you should mislead people about what's actually in the article. Just don't start out the article with a meandering, listless sentence.. because people will assume that the rest of the article is probably that boring.
4. Write about things that are a little off the beaten path
If you write an article about your Roth IRA, and you then google "Roth IRA", is your blog going to be in the first 10? No. Because 10 kajillion people have already written about their Roth IRA. Yes, this is a topic that is highly appropriate for your blog, but it isn't in general unique. However, you would be surprised at the number of click-throughs that I get from people searching for various topics related to tattoos, all because of that one post I wrote about tattoos. I don't know how many people stuck around and read more, but it's definitely getting a wider audience. So be aware of the type of words that you use, since your post will definitely get picked up by search engines. Use specifics (like the name of your mutual fund, instead of "my midcap fund") and that will ensure that people searching for that find your page.
5. Link to other blogs and specific articles
This is similar to what you will achieve with commenting, but the other way round, since the other blogger will notice traffic coming from your site. You should definitely have a blog roll - a list of blogs that you read and like - on your own blog. It's generally common courtesy that if somebody puts you on theirs, you put them on yours, assuming you know about it. So don't be discouraged if you put a bunch of well-known (and very busy) bloggers on your roll and don't hear back from them, or get a reciprocal listing. But it means that these other bloggers are more likely to read your blog, and much of your traffic and comments will really come from other bloggers, not from anonymous lurkers. It is no accident that the most frequent commenters on blogs are other bloggers - it's all part of the community. Linking to a specific article written by another blogger is also a way to throw in your ideas into the discussion, but in a way that adds something new without restating the argument. Often, lengthy comments on someone else's blog could really be put on your blog with a link back.
6. Participate in or host carnivals
Carnivals are a great way to get noticed as a serious blogger. Since one generally submits a long and well-thought-out article, this can be your showpiece. You can submit the same article to more than one carnival, although I wouldn't recommend trying to get the same article into the same carnival more than once, even if it's great. Also, keep your submissions on target with whatever the carnival is about. There's no shame in writing an article on spec for a specific carnival - if it's good, you'll get readers who might not otherwise have linked to you. A good place to start is the Carnival of Personal Finance, one of the biggies. Check out blogcarnival.com for other carnivals. If you can sign up to host a carnival, that's good too - everyone else will be pointing readers towards you for that day. It can be hard to get a hosting date though as many are arranged months in advance. But hey, by then you'll have a large blog which will attract even more people!
7. Stop caring about how much traffic you get
If you try so hard to structure your blog to get maximum readership that you decide what to write and how to act based on what gets eyeballs, your blog is going to become stale. Have faith that what you write is interesting enough to attract readers. Not every reader likes the same style, so you can't cater to them all. Just write however you want, and gradually you will attract readers with your specific style. For example, I don't often read blogs which are fact and news oriented - ie, I don't really care what this company or that company is doing. I prefer to read blogs about people's actual lives. But on the other hand, there are people who could not give less of a crap whether you made your IRA contribution on time. So don't worry about pleasing everybody - just BE interesting and someone will be interested in YOU. And be patient, especially if you're an infrequent blogger. It felt like I had had my blog forever, because I posted so frequently in the early days, and sometimes I got frustrated that nobody was reading me. Then I started to not care, and look where I am today! (Well, in the same place, but nevermind.)
This post is dedicated to JLP of AllFinancialMatters, who offered me the basics of this advice as a young blogger and gave me my first big traffic boost. Other bloggers - Take a young one under your wing and see if you don't get one of these one day. =)