Where to Blog?

ScreenShot00739

The Newbie Blogger Initiative (NBI) for 2016 is fast approaching. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s an event run by experienced game bloggers to encourage other people who want to get started blogging themselves, and also to help those who have already started in the last year and who could benefit from some advice or exposure.

I started this blog back in October 2013 as result of the NBI, and you can read my thoughts on that experience in Reflections on the NBI. The next year I wrote an article that addressed some of the worries people often have when they’re thinking of starting a blog, To Blog or not to Blog? Then last year, I wrote an article on deciding how broad or narrow to make the topic of your blog, Blogging: To niche or not to niche?. I guess I’m very slowly building up a “Lessons Learned” series on blogging, based in part on my own experiences, and also drawing on what I’ve observed happen with the rest of the community.

This year I want to look into the topic “Where to Blog?” I think it’s good to get into this early, so that people who have yet to actually start their blogs for NBI get some input while they’re still mulling over the options.

Basics of Blogging Platforms

If you’re actually thinking of starting a blog, you probably know some basics about blogging platforms already. But just in case you don’t here’s a brief guide…

Free Options

There are many free options for blogging, but the following are the big two:

  • WordPress.com powers this very blog, Thinking Play, and many others such as The Ancient Gaming Noob and Gaming Conversations. It’s completely free-to-use, though you can pay for extras like doing advanced customization of the look of your blog, or getting rid of the ads that sometimes appear. I personally don’t pay a penny, so you can see that the free service provides pretty much all that you need for a fully-featured blog like this one.

  • Blogger powers blogs like Gamer By Design and I Have Touched the Sky. It’s also completely free, and as far as I know there are no extras that you could pay for even if you wanted to.

Both of these will allow you to quickly and easily create a very nice blog. The startup process will be simple and probably take less than five minutes. You can choose a “theme” to get a look and layout that you like, and perhaps tweak it in various ways to make it your own. Then you’ll be all set up to start writing posts, easily including pictures, YouTube videos etc if you want.

Paid Options

The free options are very good, but there are two paid options worth mentioning.

  • Self-hosted WordPress – is like WordPress.com, but instead of using the service provided by the company, you create your own independent website, and have complete control over how you customize it, and what you do with it. However this means more work, takes more tech savvy, and entails paying ongoing costs, usually at least a few dollars a month. An example of a self-hosted WordPress blog is Herding Cats.

  • Squarespace is supposed to be a hassle-free paid option, in which you pay a monthly fee, and don’t have to worry about technicalities. The current version of Contains Moderate Peril uses Squarespace, though in previous incarnations the site was a self-hosted WordPress one.

So… does it matter which?

As you can see, all of these free and paid options are perfectly viable, and you will be able to express yourself to your heart’s content whichever you choose. For many people, just picking the option you like the look of will work out perfectly well. However, there are various issues that might become important in some circumstances, and that are at least worth knowing about in advance.

WordPress v Blogger

Both WordPress and Blogger are capable, and most likely either will meet your needs well enough. There are a few possible gotchas though, depending on what exactly you’re planning on doing.

  • You can customize Blogger sites much more than those on WordPress.com, without paying anything. To make large scale changes you might well need to understand HTML, CSS and Javascript though. Something you can do without too much knowledge is to embed “Javascript widgets”. For example you could embed a chess puzzle like this in a Blogger blog, or a self-hosted WordPress, but not on WordPress.com, even with paid features.

  • WordPress.com’s social and community features seem to be far better than Blogger. It’s very easy for a WordPress.com user to keep track of all the conversations they’re having in comments on blogs there for example. It’s also easy to “Like” posts, and follow blogs with the built in WordPress.com Reader. This extends to many self-hosted WordPress blogs as well, as they can choose to use plugins that hook them into the same ecosystem.

  • You’re allowed to put advertising into Blogger sites. In fact Google makes it easy to put Google Adsense ads in there, as they would get a slice of the money. However in practice putting ads into hobby blogs is largely pointless, and the sums of money made are usually tiny.

  • WordPress is focused on WordPress, while Blogger is just a small part of Google. Some worry that means Blogger doesn’t get updates and new features too often, and even fear that someday Google might decide it’s not important to the company, and pull the plug entirely, as they did with Google Reader and numerous other services.

Why Pay?

Let’s focus on self-hosted WordPress versus the free WordPress.com as a way to understand why anyone would consider paying, when the free services seem to be excellent.

  • WordPress.com comes with a large selection of themes for the look of your blog, and “widgets” and “plug-ins” that add extra features. For example in my sidebar you can see a bit of my Twitter feed, provided by a so-called widget. For many people this selection is plenty, but out in the world at large there are vastly more themes, widgets and plugins available for use in a self-hosted WordPress, and which have not been approved and made available on WordPress.com.

  • On a self-hosted WordPress, you can change the very workings of WordPress itself. This is exactly what many of the plugins do, in some way or another. If this sounds powerful it is… If it sounds complicated and potentially dangerous, yes it can be that as well!

  • You have total ownership and control over your site. For example WordPress.com doesn’t allow ordinary users to put advertising on their blog, and it has fairly strict rules about affiliate links to Amazon and such like. Similarly on your own site, you can say what you want, without any consideration of anyone else’s rules about what is acceptable content.

Why Free?

There are many articles out there that extol the virtues of going for a self-hosted blog. They claim that you can thereby make a properly professional site, perfectly in tune with your own needs, and with so little hassle and expense that it’s hardly worth thinking about the free options at all. They’re the blog equivalent of gamers who speak dismissively about noobs, casual players and F2P games. So are free platforms just for noobs and losers?

Well there are some big advantages to free that may not be obvious at first glance.

  • The cost of hosting a blog is proportional to your traffic. It might be a few bucks a month to start with, but if you happen to get a lot of readers, it can go up considerably. Also bear in mind that you have no control whatsoever over how many people decide to read your blog, so ultimately you have no control over your costs.

  • The cost goes on as long as your blog continues to exist. Many wonderful blogs and podcasts have been taken offline because the owners didn’t want to carry on paying the recurring costs, especially as they may have moved onto other hobbies themselves, perhaps because of life changes. It’s rather sad if something that you may have worked on for years vanishes from the world like that. It’s also a little antisocial, as others contribute to your blog in comments, link to your posts from their own blogs, engage in debate with you, and so on.

  • If you’re blogging as a hobby, “professionalism” is overrated. Do we regard Wilhelm with less respect than Jessica because one is on a free platform, and the other self-hosts?

  • There is a middle way, which may be appropriate for some. For example like Braxwolf you could use WordPress.com, but pay a little extra for your own domain name. Or like Wilhelm, pay to stop advertising appearing on your blog. With such things, it is possible to enhance the “professional” look of a blog, while keeping costs low, and ensuring that the blog could stay online with no cost at all, should that become necessary.

  • It is possible to move from a free blog to a self-hosted one later. This becomes even easier if you were using your own domain name from the outset.

  • With a self-hosted blog, you will likely need to worry about keeping things up to date, as there are frequent changes to WordPress itself, and to the themes and plugins which you’re using. While this is not too hard, you probably already have far too many computer things you need to keep updating, and extra work is not something you need.

  • The unusual plugins that are not available on WordPress.com, and which might be your reason for self-hosting in the first place are also the most liable to get broken by changes to WordPress.

Final Thoughts

Personally I highly recommend that people stick to free platforms, unless they have very clear and specific reasons why they simply can’t do what they need to do there. If for example your blog will be pointless without the use of some specialist plugin that is not available on WordPress.com then you will have to bite the bullet and self-host. Otherwise, I say don’t risk that someday – due to cost reasons of all things – you have to let your words become lost, like tears in rain…

NBI 2015 Screenshot Safari – Lothlorien

ScreenShot00346

The city in the trees, Caras Galadhon in Lothlorien.

This is my entry for the Landscape category of the NBI Screenshot Safari. One of the nice things about this event is that it’s given me an excuse to look over all my gorgeous LOTRO screenshots. It’s hard to pick just one view of Lothlorien, never mind pick just one landscape from the entire game!

I like this view because it both gives a sense of the essence of the place – otherwordly beauty combined with simplicity and naturalness – and also helps to understand how it’s physically laid out. It’s one thing to read about mallorn trees, flets, and a city in the trees, and another to visualize what Tolkien intended. LOTRO does a remarkable job of bringing it to life.

This post is part of the Newbie Blogger Initiative 2015, a month of events to help new bloggers get off to a good start. Read more about the Screenshot Safari event here. You’ll find links to other screenshot posts in the comments at the bottom of that post, and via the #NBI2015Safari hashtag on Twitter.

Blogging: To niche or not to niche?

archery target

The Newbie Blogger Initiative 2015 is upon us. Last year I asked “To blog or not to blog?”, this year I’m going to address the topic of what scope your blog should have, including such matters as:

  • Why do people so often recommend finding a niche?
  • What makes a good niche anyway?
  • If you have a niche, does it make sense to wander outside of it periodically?
  • When, if ever, does it make sense to start a second blog?

What’s so great about a niche?

I believe the recommendation to seek a niche started out being made with professional blogging in mind, and has almost by accident become standard advice even for people who have no such aspirations.

If you are blogging for professional reasons, either to make money directly from blogging or in support of your regular (non-bloggy) business or career, this advice makes a lot of sense. Most small businesses of any kind do well to find themselves a specialized niche and serve that market better than anyone else does. You don’t have the resources to be good at everything, and having the second or third best offering in several different categories is not a great recipe for getting sales for a product or readers for a site.

Many things can work in your favor when you’re operating in a niche. When people search for info related to that niche your posts have a chance of appearing near the top of the Google results, and you have a decent chance of being found and read. When sticking to a niche you communicate a fairly clear identity, and you may acquire an aura expertise. The chances are you actually will, over time, become something of an expert, even if you’re not one already.

I should add that if anyone is actually thinking of blogging about games as a way to earn a living I would strongly caution you against that. Most probably that idea is complete madness, not far off thinking that it would be a good idea to head off to LA and become a movie star.

However if you care about the same kinds of things that it’s necessary for a business to care about (getting traffic, connecting with specific groups of people, establishing your credibility etc) the same logic could mean finding a niche is the way to go for you.

What makes a good niche?

Finding a niche is standard advice not only in blogging but in business. Like a lot of business advice it’s also somewhat dangerous in being too vague and generalized. Finding a niche that is actually a good one is rather difficult for a number of reasons:

  • If your chosen niche is too broad, you don’t achieve any of the supposed advantages of sticking to a niche anyway.

  • If your niche is too narrow, while you may become the go-to guy in that area, too few people care about the niche for it provide you with what you need. (Be that customers, pageviews, comments, kudos, friends, or whatever it is you’d like to have.)

  • If your niche is a brilliant choice and just the right size, several people probably thought of it already, and they’ve got it sewn up with the head start they have.

However there are certain mindsets that will help you to at least recognize a good candidate if you should stumble across one, for example…

  • There is some problem you have, or some thing you want to know about, and you’ve scoured the net for info on it but couldn’t find anything satisfactory. Well, you have possibly found a gap in the market, and maybe it would make a good niche for you.

  • You come across some exciting new thing, but no-one else seems to be talking about it. Possibly it’ll get big, and it would be a good thing to get into “on the ground floor”.

  • You happen to be interested in two seemingly unrelated topics, but see a connection between them. Possibly fertile ground for a niche.

  • There’s a topic that is well covered, but you have a different take on it than anyone else. Maybe you see the humor in a topic that everyone treats seriously. Maybe you face unusual challenges in playing, and can comment from a different perspective. Such things might make for an interesting niche.

Why not a niche?

If you are blogging as a hobby, there’s a good chance that sticking to a focused niche will go badly for you. The things you’re interested in change over time, you exhaust what you have to say about a narrow subject, you may get bored of games and genres you used to love, it gets to feel all too much like work. It’s hard to think of a blogger that started out with a very particular niche who didn’t regret it afterwards and end up broadening out.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to have one blog that wanders between highly disparate topics as the whim takes you. But it might be a good idea to make the topic as broad as “my geekish hobbies” or “my thoughts on popular culture” rather than anything more restrictive.

Nevertheless, even if you plan to go fairly broad, it might be worth considering having some kind of a niche to help provide a theme for part of your early blogging. That would likely help you get an initial foothold in the community and acquire some regular readers.

Going off topic?

Whatever your topic, and however broad it is, should you stick to it religiously, or allow yourself to wander off-topic from time to time? In my experience of reading blogs, occasional diversions off-topic don’t have much effect either for good or ill. But if a blog starts to often talk about subjects I’m not interested in hearing about, I will mentally downgrade it from “a must-read” to “one to check out sometimes”. I don’t know how much that applies to how other people react, but I’d guess it’s fairly typical.

There is however a special kind of “off-topic” that does work well. That’s the kind where the topic, though not related to the normal subjects covered by the blog, is still a shared interest between writer and reader because in fact that topic is of interest to pretty much everyone.

Almost anyone can relate to topics such as:

  • Dealing with a health problem
  • The excitement and hassles of moving to a new city
  • Sadness over a death in the family
  • A hilarious thing your child did

For me, and I suspect for most people, if you post about such things that will likely have me feel I know you better, and feel more sense of personal connection with you.

If you like your privacy or prefer a more reserved approach, that’s also fine. But if you do want to share such things from time to time, it certainly won’t hurt your blog and most likely will benefit it.

Two Blogs Good?

Given what I’ve said so far, you can probably guess what I think about having two or more blogs. If you’re going to write about a bunch of different things that nevertheless are often interesting to the same kind of person, you can and probably should do it all in one blog. I don’t know why people who love Tolkien also love technology, but they usually do. So you could probably get away with a blog that pored over the Lord of the Rings in detail while also discussing your favorite gadgets and apps. However as far as I know Tolkien fans aren’t known for having an interest in geology, so if you wanted to talk in-depth about volcanoes, you probably need another blog, Mount Doom notwithstanding.

Unfortunately in reality matters might not be so clear cut. The world is not divided up into neat categories and it’s easy to move in baby steps from one area to a closely related one and then on and on in that way until you end up somewhere far away from where you started.

Personally this an area that I’ve struggled with. It seems reasonable enough that people interested in reading my thoughts about MMOs are also going to be interested in my take on fantasy or science fiction. But once I start writing about fiction, what about detective fiction, or historical fiction? Once I’m doing a few types of books, why not nonfiction like history and biography? Or once I’m discussing science fiction, what about actual science and technology?

The compromise I’ve come up with is to have this blog (Thinking Play) which is about play in a broad sense, along with closely associated interests like fantasy & SF, and a second blog (Planet Pasduil) where in theory anything goes, and I can do a brain dump of any thoughts I deem worthy of writing down. The jury is out on whether this a good plan. But if you’re going to have two blogs, you probably want to mention that fact pretty often so readers will actually know about it! It’s easy for even people who’d be very interested to not spot the odd post or tweet where you mention the other blog.

Summary

In conclusion there are lots of advantages to finding a niche if you care about getting certain kinds of results, but for a hobby blogger that’s often going to be too restrictive to stick to over the long run. You might well want to name and design your blog with that in mind, so that you can wander over a wide variety of topics in the future, even if you don’t plan to do that right now.

Archery target photo by Ann Oro (flickr)

NBI 2015 Screenshot Safari – A Hobbit in Bag End

ScreenShot00971

When a hobbit finds himself in the home of the famous Bilbo Baggins, it’s a “Look where I am!” moment, and definitely time for a selfie. Bilbo and Frodo are no longer living in Bag End, but I managed to get past Lobelia and put my feet up for a bit.

This post is part of the Newbie Blogger Initiative 2015, a month of events to help new bloggers get off to a good start. Read more about the Screenshot Safari event here. You’ll find links to other screenshot posts in the comments at the bottom of that post, and via the #NBI2015Safari hashtag on Twitter.

A Year of Blogging

TP Blog Trophies

Today is the final day of my first year of blogging at Thinking Play! My first post was published on Oct 17th, 2013, though I was working on the site for a couple of days before making everything public.

I’ve had previous attempts at blogging about various subjects, but I don’t think I’ve ever kept going for a whole year before. The difference this time around is undoubtedly due to the excellent advice and wonderful community provided by the Newbie Blogger Initiative.

Thanks NBI!

The NBI of course is actually people… so most especially thanks to Roger Edwards of Contains Moderate Peril and Doone Woodtac of XP Chronicles who ran the NBI 2013.

Thanks also to everyone who’s taken the time to follow the blog, comment on posts, tweet or share them, or just hit the “Like” button from time to time. Without that bit of encouragement and feedback, quite likely I wouldn’t have persisted in my blogging efforts.

It’s knowing that there are people finding the posts interesting and enjoyable, and wanting to have conversations about the topics, that makes the whole thing worthwhile.

A Year in Numbers

As of drafting this post on Thursday October 16th, there are 25 posts, with 151 comments, 52 likes and 47 blog followers on WordPress.com. There have been just over 6,000 pageviews recorded by WordPress. I wish I knew about the amount of reading that happens via RSS feeds, but if there’s a way to discover that, I haven’t stumbled on it yet.

There also 6 draft posts that were started but not finished yet, including this one.

Page Views by Month

One Year WP View Stats

Top Pages for the Year

One Year WP Top Pages

Followers

One Year WP Follower Stats

Planet Pasduil

One thing worth mentioning is that I’ve also started a second blog, Planet Pasduil. The jury is out on whether it’s actually a good idea to have two blogs rather than putting everything in one! Planet Pasduil covers everything I feel like writing about that doesn’t belong here. So far the topics most covered are books, reading and technology, but in theory any topic is fair game. The posts there tend to be more frequent and shorter than here. If you like what you read here do pop over and see if Planet Pasduil appeals to you as well. If you share any of my non-game interests I’d enjoy having your company in both places.

The Future

One year over, the blogging journey continues. And it continues among the fellowship of bloggers, which is what makes the journey possible, enjoyable and worthwhile.