I remember the day I decided to start a blog… and for days (weeks?) after, I was immersed in the Internet, researching the ins and outs of blogging. What theme should I use? What plugins do I need? How do I manage my social media? The possibilities were mind-boggling to a beginner. I was as blank as that first page I opened in WordPress.
Garden Betty has since grown into a small but smoothly running business, and I continue to fine-tune its engine every year. I thought it would be helpful to assemble all of the resources that have kept me organized over time and will get you organized too, from backing up your blog to managing your finances.
I’ll start by saying that a self-hosted WordPress blog is my platform of choice, and for many reasons — the most important one being its amazing ability to expand as your blog and brand expands. There are countless themes and endless plugins that can do nearly anything you want, and while you won’t use them all in the beginning, it’s good to have all those tools in your arsenal once you do get there. Start with WordPress now and you’ll save yourself the headache of migrating to another blog platform in the future.
Since tech is ever shifting, this list will evolve over time as I find more resources worth mentioning!
Being a code geek for the last 15-plus years means I’ve dealt with my share of hosting companies. When I develop sites for clients, I often have to set them up on a reliable server that’s also user friendly. Bluehost is exactly that. The company is a one-stop shop offering free domain registration, affordable hosting plans, unlimited space and bandwidth, and — most conveniently of all — one-click installation of WordPress on your site. It’s the perfect place to start for anyone.
This is the theme and framework that I’ve used on Garden Betty since day one. You can find a lot of free themes out there, but Thesis stands above all of them for its ease of use and impressive customization. Even if you don’t know your way around HTML, the dashboard makes it all make sense when it comes to changing column layouts, font styles, headers and footers and more. The company behind Thesis also has extensive documentation on their site for customizing the theme, as well as tutorials on utilizing all of its features to improve page rank in Google.
If you’ve already got your hosting, blog, and theme figured out and just need to register your domain, Namecheap is my pick for fast, easy, and affordable domain registration. There’s no jumping through page after page of unneeded upgrades and services before you reach your shopping cart, unlike that other registrar (the “daddy” of them all) that tries to make the process as confusing as possible. In contrast, Namecheap has a clean and no-fuss interface, domains offered at around $10 per year, and all the usual features like whois privacy.
Every blog comes with a built-in RSS feed — a special URL that users add to their newsreaders to pull up all of your blog posts. FeedBlitz takes it one step further by combining a full-featured RSS feed with several other marketing features, such as RSS tracking, email subscriptions, and autoresponders. It also allows for ample customization, from branding and social media sharing to monetization options and related content links.
I originally used FeedBurner for this service, but when Google abandoned it, I switched to FeedBlitz and wished I’d made the switch sooner. FeedBlitz is much more robust and reliable, and though it’s a paid service, it’s worth every penny. If you’re still using FeedBurner for your RSS management, I highly recommend migrating your users to FeedBlitz (which, thankfully, they make a simple and straightforward process).
On a side note, I strongly discourage the use of snippets or summaries for RSS feeds. While it seems like a good idea to redirect people to your site to read a post, it really does a disservice to the loyal subscribers who download content for offline reading, or just prefer to read everything from their newsreaders. Save that extra step and give them your whole RSS feed.
If you’re signed up to my mailing list, you may have noticed this little link at the bottom of your emails. Mad Mimi is the service I use to automatically send every new blog post to my subscribers’ inboxes, as well as manage multiple mailing lists and a database of thousands of addresses. With all that sensitive information online, I feel highly confident in their delivery and security protocols.
Mad Mimi offers a full range of features for online marketers: RSS emails, drip campaigns, customizable templates, drag-and-drop design, subscription management, reports and tracking. I love the friendly interface and how quickly their support team responds to questions. If you’re serious about marketing, Mad Mimi should be a part of your arsenal!
With years of work behind Garden Betty, it would be a bummer to wake up one day and find everything wiped out due to hacking or server failure (something that can and does happen). I use VaultPress to make automatic, real-time backups of my blog and it runs silently in the background (even when the browser’s closed), backing up everything from my posts and images to my comments and plugins.
VaultPress is brought to you by Automattic, the same team behind WordPress. Because of this, I feel pretty good that they’ve got it together. On the rare chance you might need to restore a few files or even your entire site, they have a simple one-click restore that lets you select how far back you want to go for retrieving your backup.
Another option I’ve looked into is BlogVault, which is a similar service and seems equally capable. Though I don’t personally use it, I’ve installed it for clients and have heard only good things about it.
Now that you’ve got your blog backed up, what about your computer? With the amount of pictures I store on my hard drive (probably hundreds of thousands!), I use Carbonite to make sure they’re all backed up safely in the cloud. The software runs in the background and also comes with an app for your phone and tablet. A single Carbonite account protects all these devices, and I especially like the app’s ability to find, capture or wipe your phone if it’s lost.
Of course, the true test of any backup service is how easily it will restore your files in an emergency. After replacing a hard drive on my computer, I used Carbonite to restore my entire system and it worked flawlessly. I’ve also used the software to retrieve individual files (already backed up to the Carbonite server) from my phone and iPad — which is pure awesomeness when, for example, I forgot my passport at the Mexican border crossing. Luckily, I was able to download a copy of my passport page for the border agent. (You never know when you’ll need something like this!)
If you use my link, you’ll even get a $20 (up to $75) gift card when you buy a subscription!
Keeping tabs on my personal Facebook page is one thing, but pile on the Facebook and Twitter profiles for Garden Betty as well, and it can all be overwhelming. HootSuite helps me stay sane by putting all those status updates, comments, mentions, messages, and tweets in one interface for me to check. I highly recommend this social media aggregator if you manage multiple accounts and want to simplify your streams. Some of my favorite features include the message scheduler (which I use daily to promote my posts) and the click-through reports in HootSuite Pro (which I use to analyze what kind of content is most engaging to my followers).
I’ve used this online bookkeeping system for years, long before Outright was bought out by GoDaddy, and thankfully the takeover hasn’t changed the service at all. (It seems GoDaddy simply rebranded the site but kept all the same functionality… or even improved it.) GoDaddy Online Bookkeeping is like QuickBooks for the non-bookkeeper in us — easy to use yet fully featured, geared toward small business but without the extra (and extra confusing) financial mumbo jumbo. You get everything you need to manage your money: income and expenses, customers and vendors, Schedule C categories and deductions, sales taxes and estimated taxes, and on and on.
At the end of the year (or more like the week before April 15, since I’m a major procrastinator), I can generate a profit and loss report with just a couple clicks, which makes things much easier for my accountant. The site also links with a number of different accounts and services (such as credit cards and Shoeboxed receipts, which I’ll talk more about below) and downloads all the information into one place so you always know how much money is coming in or going out. If you sell on Etsy or eBay, you can download those transactions too. If you need to bill clients, you can do so right from the dashboard with your own custom invoice. This service has seriously saved my a$$ at tax time. I cannot get by without it! Well worth the few dollars a month.
As a blogger, I can write off a lot of things like office supplies, camera gear, and cable Internet. I used to never throw out a receipt (my filing cabinets were ridiculous!)… until I discovered Shoeboxed. This clever virtual shoebox sorts and stores all your receipts, and all are accepted by the IRS for record-keeping purposes. If you’re a DIYer, the free account lets you upload unlimited receipts to your account and input all the transaction information yourself… but for busy bloggers, paid accounts are where it’s at. You can scan, upload, email, or even snail mail your receipts to Shoeboxed, and someone processes the paperwork for you.
I personally like to use the Shoeboxed app on my iPad. I simply take a picture and within a few hours, the receipt is uploaded to my account with the vendor, tax, total, payment, and whatever else can be gleaned from it. Then, once a day, all my Shoeboxed receipts are automatically imported into GoDaddy Online Bookkeeping as categorized expenses. That’s what I call epic!
My quest of going paperless extends to papers beyond receipts, too. Like Shoeboxed, Evernote Premium is a virtual filing cabinet for all sorts of things you might need to store, from business contracts and insurance documents to press clippings and inspirational pictures. I love the fact that I can download Evernote to my desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone, and all my notes are perfectly synced. So what sets Evernote Premium apart from the free app? First, the premium version gives you offline notebooks, which I consider essential for on-the-go bloggers. I can access all my files while I’m on the plane, in the middle of a desert, or in a black hole of connectivity. Second, the sharing feature is something my husband and I frequently use. We jot down notes (like to-do lists for the house, or pictures of things we still need to buy) and share access to a single notebook that stores all this mutual information. And then there’s the passcode lock, which gives me peace of mind when I’m traveling with my iPad.
Evernote is so important in my daily workflow that if you sign up using my link, you’ll get Evernote Premium to try out free for one month!
One of the best things about blogging is being able to blog from anywhere on any device. I can blog on my laptop in my own backyard, or blog on my iPad in a cabin by the lake. I always keep a folder of my research, pictures, and other creative files (such as logos) in the cloud so I can access them when I’m away from my home office. Dropbox has been essential to my workflow because it can be passcode-protected on mobile devices, it’s fast and reliable like any local drive on my computer, it syncs across all of my gadgets so I always have the most current files with me, and most importantly, it still allows offline access.
Remember a time when returning a signed document meant printing the email, signing it in ink, scanning it to your computer, and then emailing it back? Maybe you still do that. Or maybe you still fax. HelloSign will change all that. This service has certainly streamlined my workflow when it comes to papers, which I truly, utterly hate. Let’s say I receive a contract in my email — pdf, doc, jpg, any format. I save it, open it in HelloSign, and then add my signature as well as any dates, initials, or other text required. I can fill out an entire form online (so handy for W-9 forms) and email it back to the requester. Done and done. (It also integrates with Gmail so you can sign documents right in your inbox!)
Creating content is as much a part of the blogging business as getting organized. I shared all my camera gear in this previous post, and still swear by that setup for not only blogging, but also traveling and shooting for clients. (I’ve since added the absolutely amazing Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera body and Panasonic Leica 45mm/F2.8 macro lens to my arsenal, and haven’t been able to put them down!)
If you want to upgrade from an entry-level DSLR (like the Canon EOS Rebels that are pretty popular among bloggers), I highly recommend a micro four thirds body with the best lens you can afford. And if you’re considering a “big boy” camera like the Canon 5D Mark III (which only makes sense if you’re shooting high-speed sports or billboards), I still recommend a micro four thirds setup. Use the money saved to invest in great glass; you won’t regret it.
If you’re new to Photoshop or simply want to speed up your workflow, Totally Rad! makes a suite of easy-to-use actions, filters, and presets that make photo editing much more fun and intuitive. My favorite is the RadLab, which gives you real-time previews of dozens of preset Photoshop filters. If you like the one-click ease of Instagram, you’ll love the versatility of RadLab… more filters, bigger range, and better customization. You can layer filters on top of each other and adjust their intensity… perfect for people don’t want to fiddle with Photoshop too much. For Lightroom users, there are original Lightroom presets and even film emulation presets.
Eventually, you might want to market your blog at meet-ups and conferences as it grows into a business. Moo can meet many of your printing needs from business cards to stickers — and my favorite part about their service, which sets them apart from other online printing companies, is their ability to print a different image on every card you order (up to 50 images per pack of cards!). This feature is fantastic for bloggers, designers and photographers who want to use their business cards as a mini portfolio of sorts. And if you use my link, you’ll even get 10 percent off your first order!
Favorite WordPress Plugins
Pretty Link Pro — I use Pretty Link Pro to manage the affiliate links on my blog as well as any external links I want to easily track. The plugin automatically redirects my custom “pretty link” to a specified target URL. If that target URL changes in the future for any reason (which sometimes happens with affiliate programs), I simply change it in the plugin and it’ll redirect my pretty link to the updated URL. No more searching for every instance of that link on my blog and making the change manually! Another thing I like about the plugin is its ability to turn long, complicated URLs into short, sensible links that are easy to remember and type.
nrelate Related Content — Keeping readers on your blog is key, and this plugin displays links to related content at the end of every post. The layout is highly configurable through the use of templates and custom CSS. It’s a great tool for helping your readers discover new old content that’s relevant to the page they just clicked on.
Akismet — This plugin comes standard with a new WordPress installation, and you should activate it ASAP! It’s the best comment spam guard there is.
Disqus — I’m a fan of the third-party commenting system. I like the social nature of Disqus, the sharing capabilities, and the formatting of the comments. I feel it takes commenting to a new level. Disqus also has excellent spam guarding that works differently from Akismet. While Akismet catches obvious spam generated by robots, Disqus catches spam posted by people. It looks at each comment made by the person’s IP address and if it sees a pattern (posting the same link repeatedly, or posting multiple times a day), it automatically sends those comments to a spam or pending folder. Perfect for catching link promoters who aren’t really reading your blog.
Google Analytics Dashboard — I really like having a snapshot of my blog analytics right on my WordPress screen, since I don’t log in to my Google Analytics account every day. This plugin shows simple stats such as pageviews, popular posts, and top referrers — just enough to give you an idea of how your blog is doing.
Limit Login Attempts — I first installed this plugin out of curiosity, and after just a few days, I was blown away by how many people tried to hack into my blog every day! It limits the amount of times a user can enter an incorrect password before he’s locked out. A simple step in security, but what I feel is an important one. (Quick tip: When you set up your WordPress, avoid using the default “admin” — or any variation of your name — as your username.)