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Friday, April 8, 2011

How To Start A Blog | Template And Design Basics

This is the second lesson of a series on How to start a blog. In Lesson 1 I covered the two best platforms for beginners - Blogger and Wordpress; and setting up a blog on This lesson of How to start a blog will cover template and design basics.

By now, you should have a blog set up on Blogger. I won't be writing about Wordpress because I am not familiar enough with the platform to be useful to you.

One word of caution. I know it is human nature to not always follow directions. If you decided to set up your blog on one of the many FREE blog platforms, be careful. Blog networks like have pretty templates and easy to use interfaces, but they also have traits and restrictions that can be counterproductive to your goals as a blogger.

On Xanga, you are limited to the ads you can place on your blog, unless you purchase a membership. Plus, your blog address will be: - this can make you very hard to find on search engines, being a sub address of a site. Blogger addresses don't seem to matter when it comes to search engines. The biggest concern is that your URL may be hard for people to remember, unless they are really dedicated to your blog. Getting your own domain name is a step you should eventually do, but it is not necessary now.

So, be careful where you set up your blog. You don't want to wind up squirreled away in a dark and lonely corner of the Internet. And you don't want to have your ability to place ads on your blog restricted or denied.

When you first set up your blog on Blogger, Blogger will assign a default template to your blog unless you selected something different during the initial setup stage.

To change your template, you can access the link by clicking on DESIGN on your Blogger Dashboard or the DESIGN link at the far upper right of your blog page. When you click on DESIGN, you should see a series of tabs and your blog layout.

By clicking on the link TEMPLATE DESIGNER under the tabs, you will access the area where you can start to customize the look and feel of your blog.

A few tips I've learned about templates. Stay away from black or dark backgrounds and light colored or white type. (See photo above) This may look cool, but it is hard to read. White type tends to blur and be less crisp. Unless you really want a dark image to your blog or plan to feature mostly pictures and/or videos, white on black is hard on readers. Since most of you will be creating a blog to "write", you want to find a blog template with a white background and dark type. The type can be black, but a dark gray or other dark color will work.

Also avoid backgrounds that are have any degree of transparency behind your blog post type. Unless your entire background picture is black, this is another annoying distraction to readers. A busy picture beneath the type is very hard on the eyes. If you want an example of how bad this can be, go to just about any woman's MySpace page. You'll find plenty of eyesores there.

Font selection is mainly a preference. There are only about seven fonts that work on blogs and websites on the Internet, so you won't be able to scroll through hundreds of fonts like you can on MS Word and find something with a special sense of style. The inherent limitation of fonts on the Internet reduces the "boob factor" - a person's tendency to make bad decisions. Who would want to read a blog written in a cursive font? Not many and not for long.

Also, if you are in the Template Designer and you want to insert a picture in your header, test it out for size by using the PREVIEW button. Sometimes a picture will be too large for a header. What this does is it can force your content down. You want your blog title to be visible "above the fold" - this is the area that a visitor first sees when they come to your blog before any scrolling. Once they scroll down, they are going "below the fold".

I write exclusively on a small laptop, which is the type of device I'm sure many of my readers use. If you have a desktop computer with a giant monitor, you don't get the look and feel that many of your readers will have when viewing your blog. If you do work from a desktop computer, ask a friend to let you view your blog on their laptop. If you notice that type is overlapping or pictures are running into your gadgets, you can make the adjustments and check them on the laptop. The basic rule is: If it looks good on a laptop, you're good everywhere else.

Basic Layout

Blogger used to have pretty much two choices in the past. You could have your links and gadgets on the right or on the left, depending on the template. Now, you have multiple options. You can have area for links and gadgets on either side of your blog or on both sides. Choosing the layout is based on what you want to put on your blog and how you want it to appear.

If all you want to do is rant, you can choose the template that has no area for links and gadgets. I chose the layout that puts all the extras on the right. It's a personal preference. I feel that having the links and gadgets on the left is a distraction to the reader, since we read left to right in English.

I selected the layout that had the option of a large column on the right for links and gadgets, but also the subdivided dual columns below that. My layout has the option to add links and gadgets at the bottom, too.

Once you have your template selected and your layout chosen, you can begin adding links and gadgets to your blog.

Links And Gadgets

You need to be in the DESIGN area of your blog. It should look like this:

This is a snapshot of my Design area. Obviously, I have a number of items already in place. I believe the only gadget that Blogger puts on your blog automatically during setup is the Archive gadget.

The "must have" gadgets you want to add to your blog are the Archive (if it is not already there), the LABELS and SUBSCRIPTION LINKS.

When you select a gadget, it will appear right under the link "Add A Gadget." From there, you can drag it anywhere you want. All gadgets will re-size automatically to the space you drag them to. Use the PREVIEW button to see how the gadget looks before you save it. 

Archive Layout

Archive should be self-explanatory - it gives readers a way to look up what you have posted in the past. You can title the archive anything you want. There are three options for archive design - Hierarchy, Flat List or Drop Down Menu.

I prefer the Hierarchy option for a couple reasons. When you have that option, all of the post titles for the current month are visible. It is easy for a reader to scroll down and scan the list. This makes use of an old retail adage, "The more they see, the more ya sell."

Choosing the Flat List option only shows the month and the number of posts for that month. Using a Drop Down Menu makes readers click more than they are willing to when they are looking for something. Plus, most readers don't "know" what they are looking for on your blog. They are browsing. If something catches their eye, they'll click on it. Using the Hierarchy archive makes it easier for a visitor to scan titles of previous posts and possibly spend more time on your blog.


Add the Labels gadget. On your post interface, down on the bottom right of the viewer, you'll see the Labels area:

Think of labels like file folder tags. They are general categories. In the beginning, there won't be any labels on your posts. However, as you add labels, they are stored. You can see your list of labels by clicking on SHOW ALL. A list of all of your current labels will appear and you can select all of the labels that apply to the current post you are working on.

You can have as few or as many categories as you want. Posts can have several different labels. ALWAYS add a label(s) to your posts.

Your list of labels will grow organically. You create them as you build blog posts. Don't overdo it with labels. You don't want to create a new label for every single post you create. Doing that will make the labels useless.

Take a look at my posts and my labels. Labels can be found on the bottom of the post. A visitor can scan my list of labels, which I have called TOE TAGS and click on categories that appeal to them.

Most of my posts have multiple labels. If I write a satirical piece about the government, it would be labeled: Humor, Government, In The News, Obeservations

Multiple labels allow a reader to get to the same blog post through a variety of channels. If they want to laugh, Humor gets them there; if they want to see what I have to say about our government, Government will get them there; if they want to see the way I think, Observations will get them there.

Create the labels you think will best help your visitors navigate your blog.

Subscription Links

This gadget makes it easy for your new fans to follow you. It will send your post to one of their favorite readers or via RSS feed. As soon as you post, your new offering will appear on their reader or on their RSS bookmark.

You definitely want this gadget on your blog. Place it as close to the top of your gadget area as possible. You don't want this buried down at the bottom of your blog posts, archive list or ads.

Link List

This is the last gadget we'll add today. It's optional, but it is a good gadget to add.

A link list is where you put links to sites or posts that your like or want made available to your readers. I haven't added many links to my site, yet. However, because I write a lot about mental illness and plan to write about addictions, I'll have links to national sites like AA, NAMI, etc.

If you can't think of a link to add to your site, add my site to your blog. If you add a link to my site on your blog, email me with your blog address and I will add a link to your site on a blog post of student sites. A link to that post will appear at the bottom of every single lesson in this series. Free advertising.

When you add a link, you can title the link anything you want. As an example, if you wanted to add my site to your link list, you could title it a variety of ways. I prefer (hint, hint). But you could put, Thoughts From Roger, A Big Dummy... anything you want. The last suggestion came from my dad.

When you add a link, you want to make sure you have the complete and correct URL. The easiest way to add the URL is to copy it and paste it into the slot where the URL goes. All web addresses must include the http:// portion of the address.

Your homework:
  • Add today's gadgets
  • Write another post
  • Label it
  • Add a link on your site
I want you to start getting the feel for the editor's screen on Blogger. Experiment. You can always use the Preview button to see what you did before you save it. If you accidentally Publish something you don't want, return to the Posting tab and select EDIT POSTS. You'll get a list of the posts you've published and you can delete or edit the post from there.

Now you know how to start a blog and perform template and design basics.

Lesson 1: How To Start A Blog | Blogger and Wordpress Are The Best Platforms
Lesson 3: How To Start A Blog | Best Practices

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