Questions from the BlogHer Boston Geek Lab

We had a steady stream of conversations and template hacking in the Geek Lab at BlogHer Boston yesterday. Here were some of the major questions that came up (and my quick-version answers, for those hacking at home):

Q: How can I find photos that are okay to blog?

A: Here's a trick: go to Flickr's Advanced Search page and scroll to the very bottom. Check the box that reads "Only search within Creative Commons licensed content." If you're planning to use the picture on something you're selling, also check the "commercial use" box. If you're planning to edit the picture, also check the "modify, adapt" check box. Then scroll back up to the search term box and run your search as usual. All of the photos that come up will be ones you can legally use on your blog. Most will require "attribution", which means you should clearly display the username of the person who originally uploaded it and include a link back to the Flickr page the photo lives on.

Q: What's RSS? What's a blog reader? What should I be doing with these?

A: For the best, clearest and fastest explanation possible for this question, check out the Common Craft video.

Q: How can I give my readers a way to receive automatic updates about my blog posts by email?

A: There are a few different ways to do this, and today we used Feedburner. Go to Feedburner.com, create an account, and follow their instructions to create a Feedburner RSS feed for your blog. Then go to the "Publicize" tab, click "Email Notifications," and activate it. Follow their instructions to put the subscription form (or a link to it) on your blog. (Hint: we figured out that if you're using Wordpress.com, you have to use the link instead of the subscription form.)

Q: How do I add a link or an image to a blog post?

A: If you're just starting to blog, creating posts that look the way you want can be a pain. So before you go any further, get to know the toolbar at the top of your text box. It's usually a series of buttons, starting with bold and italic, and moving on to lists, text alignment, links, images, and other nifty bells and whistles. Just poke around and figure out what they all do. The one for creating a link is usually a picture of a metal chain link, or a globe, or both (I know, it's weird and non-intuitive, but they were trying to be metaphorical...). The option for adding an image will usually give you two options: upload from your hard drive or enter the URL to a photo that's already somewhere on the web.

Q: How do I add stuff to my sidebars? What if I have to work with code?

A: If you're using Wordpress, try going to Presentation -> Widgets. If you're using Blogger, try Layout -> Page Elements. If you're using Typepad, try Design -> Select Content. Assuming your template supports it, you can usually get away with simple drag-and-drop customizing that will let you do really neat stuff.

You may find yourself needing to use HTML and/or CSS to make it work the way you want it to, though. This can get tricky, but don't worry, it's not the end of the world. If you've used HTML before, refresh your memory by checking out the HTML Cheat Sheet. If you'd like to learn some new skills from scratch, check out some of the tutorials available for HTML and CSS -- they're free. If you want do some deep customization but you don't want to touch any code, consider hiring someone who knows what they're doing to help you. And if you don't want to touch code and you don't want to spend money, it's probably time to switch to a better free template.

Q: I want to customize my blog more! How do I switch to Wordpress software?

A: Great! First, make sure you really want to do this. It's a lot like moving into a new house -- you're going to feel discombulated for a while, but if it's worth it, it's worth it.

To get started, you need a domain name and a hosting account. A number of attendees highly recommended Bluehost.com as a place to get both of these, but there are many options. (Sidenote: a good place to research a hosting company's reputation is the Web Hosting Forum.)

Once you've got that all set up, go to Wordpress.org and download the most recent version of the software. It'll be a large file, and you should unzip it and upload it to your new hosting account via FTP (your host can tell you how to do this). Then go to the URL where you think your blog should now be, and you'll probably see an installation page. Follow the instructions and pay careful attention when it asks you about importing content from an existing blog. That's the holy grail. After you've got your content loaded in, the resources available at Wordpress.org will help you start customizing things. This is also when you should start searching the web for free Wordpress themes, which is hands-down one of most exciting searches you will ever do.

All in all, it was an inspiring day and informative day. I especially loved connecting with (::deep breath::) Naked Anarchists, Lisa Williams, Beth Kanter, Alissa Kriteman, Suzanne Reisman, Dana Rudolph, Sassymonkey, Liz Henry, Kristy, Lisa, Elisa, Jory, and a bunch of others. What a powerful posse of brilliant women!

And now... onto Washington DC!

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