Building a better blog host: Week 1

Welcome to the first installment of the “Build a Better Blog Host” series. The main point of this series will be to inform you, the reader and soon to be site admin, how to use WordPressMU to host blogs for others. The secondary point will be to help you determine the features you need to help your site stand out from everyone else’s. This week’s lesson is long, to lay the groundwork.

Before You begin
Before you do anything at all – even install WPMU or pick a host or decide on a logo or color scheme, there’s some preliminary work that needs to be done. Some of these may seems quite obvious, but you’d probably be surprised at the amount of people I have encountered that have only the vaguest sense of what they want out of WPMU and who they are building their site for.

Have a plan
See? Kind of a no-brainer? But seriously – you need some sort of plan, a little bit of a roadmap. The plan I’m talking about does not look like this:

1.install WPMU
2.get lots of users
3.make piles of money

If your plan currently looks like this, well, you’ll have loads of homework. This is a plan doomed to fail. So is “I want to be the next WordPress.Com!” Well, that’s all well and good, but that’s pretty big competition. Why not coexist? Why not start with a little extra? “I want to be the next WordPress.Com for _______ !” Fill in the blank.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that your WPMU site is not going to generate an income. Maybe you work for a non-profit, maybe you have altruistic purposes and a big golden heart. (It’s okay, me too.)

You still need a plan.

This is the part of the initial planning stages where you decide, in general, who you are building your WPMU site for and why. You need to be able to define, ideally to a perfect stranger, exactly what your WPMU site is about, who it is for, and why they should care.
This leads us to -

Know Your Users
At the end of the day, you can have the most professionally done site, the coolest plugins, the best features, the fastest servers, but if you have no users – or worse, unhappy ones – then you have not much to build on.

It is your users that will be the deciding factors for things like added features (plugins) and the look and feel (themes), even things like generating an income for yourself.
If your audience is tech-savvy, they will expect different things from your setup than, say, a bunch of moms. Or seniors. Or children over 13. Or an adult audience. Or university students.
See where I’m going with this?

Define your their needs
Only the most basic information about your setup has to do with you and what you may be getting out of it. As noted above, it’s the users who count. Make them happy, and they will tell others. Make them really happy and they will want to give you money.

Get a piece of paper, open up your word processor, whatever you’re comfortable with, and get writing. This is mostly for your own use and will help to clarify everything, especially if you ask (and answer) the following questions.

1.What is my site about? What’s my niche?
2.Who is my average user?
3.What’s their skill level?
4.What comparable features do they expect?
5.How can I entice them to blog with me?

Mind map it, do a brain dump, draw diagrams if you have to. Try not to get caught up in technical details on the how-tos of features or customizations just yet. The point of the exercise is to define the why. Write it all down, then stop.
And then…

Be familiar with WordPress

I know you’re probably thinking this is even more obvious, but seriously – if you’ve never used the single-user version of WordPress before, or have never tried out blogging at wordpress.com, then go get a blog NOW. Try it out for a while, until you understand at least the basics of how it works and how it all flows together and handles information. (It’s okay, I’ll wait.)
Back? Okay, good.

The reason I’ve mentioned this is not to be condescending, ironically witty, or anything like that, it’s mostly to be practical and prevent you from hurting yourself or your desk, frustrating any designers, long-suffering forum volunteers, or consultants you might hire in the future. I (and others) have run across too many people who want or expect WPMU to do something other than what it does, or to behave in a way it is not intended.

And making it do something it was not designed to do, or work in a way it was not intended, can be seriously painful. Sure, we often say, “It’s php, anything can be done,” but there is also the question of should. There’s also the question of budget, if you happen to be paying someone. Consider it time well spent on research.

A quick overview of what WordPress MU is
To recap: The single-user version of WordPress creates one blog with multiple categories, tags and authors. It can be on your main domain, in a subfolder, or in a subdomain.

The MU version of WordPress creates multiple instances of those single blogs (more or less) in one database. It is a stand-alone separate program, not an add-on.

Out of the box, it has a main or central blog which controls the main landing page of the site. There is an inherent assumption that it will be installed at the root of a domain as the main and only site. Users are based off that main site (yourdomain.com) in one of two formats chosen on installation:
subdomains.yourdomain.com
yourdomain.com/subfolder/

The first choice is know as a subdomain install and the second option is referred to as a subfolder or subdirectory install. Note this describes the type of user blogs created, not the location of the main program.

There is a Site Admin, who has superpowers over every blog and access to the Site Admin menu, as well as there being an admin user for each blog. Aside from access to the same folders of themes and plugins, sitewide features are NOT included by default. Each blog is a mostly separate entity from the other blogs. They share themes and plugins; they do not share content. The main blog on the system is assigned to the Site Admin upon installation. The site admin user is also created on installation. This can be used as a blog, or the theme can be designed to show a central aggregation of sitewide content. Sometimes we call this the main home page.

While it is very similar to WordPress, it has a few small but important differences. I’ll be going over these as we get to them.

Now we get to your homework
If you’ve already done your research, and you have your niche, you know your users, then your next step will be to pick a host and install WordPressmu.

Fortunately, I have already written up posts about this previously and don’t have to go in depth again here. See Picking the right webhost and my Installing WordPressMU ebook (it’s FREE).

But I will recap:
- pick a good host, pay attention to the RAM allocated to your account and the host’s TOS. Already have a host? Double-check their TOS about giving away free blogs. If you want subdomains, ask support if they will add it.
- when installing, upload the WPMU files, make an empty database, then visit the front page of the site and follow the instructions.

Shortcut: go get a hosting account at WP WebHost. They host WordPress and WordPressMU *only* and have knowledgeable staff. Their BuddyPlan has more than you will need for a LONG time, and they will even install it for you. You can spend a couple hours with them and $16, plus have plenty of weekend left over. (note: don’t skimp and get the $5 plan, as wildcard subdomains aren’t available on that one) Did I mention the 100 day guarantee?

Hopefully by next Friday you will have a WordPress MU install of your very own, complete with new blog smell. Poke around the backend, set up a test blog, get familiar with the menus. Next week, we’ll start working on the home page and installing sitewide plugins.

Comments

  1. Very valuable information and most of it applies to any online website you want to start. Most important aspect in my opinion is knowing your niche and users. You can’t be everything to everybody and you need to decide what type of readers you are trying to capture.
    .-= George´s last blog ..An Easy Way to Customize Any WordPress Theme =-.

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