Amateur Blogging: A Beginner’s Guide to Starting from Scratch

Amateur blogging is when a blog is independently run by a single author or a small team, not a large corporation. An amateur blog may be focused on one topic, multiple, or even cover parts of the author’s life.

That may seem strange to say: do big faceless corporations actually run blogs? They definitely do now. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room left for new players.

In fact, my own journey as an amateur blogger reveals a lot about why blogging is still valuable today. There are many reasons to blog, and many paths to success. If you’re interested in starting your blogging journey, keep reading.

My blogging journey started from zero

I wrote my first blog post in July 2008. It was hosted on some random WordPress website and I don’t even remember the topic, but I do remember it being pretty bad.

Blogging felt like it was reaching peak frenzy back then. According to Google Trends, I caught the wave right as it really started rising in 2010 and 2011. Mashable was cutting edge and landing on Digg could make or break your blog—what a time to be alive.

Google Trends data for "how to start a blog" shows that interest in writing for one's own blog started to peak in early 2010.

Google Trends data for “how to start a blog” shows that interest in writing for one’s own blog started to peak in early 2010.

Teasing, of course, but there was a nice communal feel to blogging back in that era. And it was thanks to that community that I decided to stick with it, learn more, and start taking my blog seriously.

My first self-hosted blog went live in 2010. It also, unfortunately, went kaput, but this site you’re reading now, gregoryciotti.com, became my permanent home in 2011. And I’ve been blogging here ever since.

The writing I published on my blog has helped me in a number of ways. First, it introduced me to the founder of a startup that would eventually hire me to lead content and organic growth. Then, it introduced me to my future manager at Shopify, where I’d spend five years learning from the best growth practitioners in the world. And finally, we’re here over a decade in the future, and I’m a self-employed entrepreneur who earns a living through my blogs/websites and my real estate investments.

I’ve started probably 30 blogs over the years with only 4 having any kind of shelf-life. But the blogs that were successful were really successful: one of them even earns more in a year than my annual salary at Shopify. I’ve tested all sorts of niches and ideas but ultimately found that I enjoy blogging the most when I’m helping a professional audience solve problems in their career. So all of my current blogs focus on manager-level readers in disciplines like support, HR, etc.

You can check out one such blog at SupportZest.com, that’s the blog I use for many of my public case studies. The others I don’t share publicly since it could invite excess competition—and if you read my site, hopefully, you are or eventually become a successful blogger! But can you please compete with someone else?

But that’s more than enough about me. Let’s talk about starting your journey with amateur blogging, and how you might even go pro.

Beginners step-by-step guide to amateur blogging

The nice thing about starting a blog today is that technology has come a very long way. Unlike when I got started, you shouldn’t have to touch a single line of code. Instead, you can be up and running in a few minutes and manage your blog almost entirely from your WordPress dashboard.

And it should be a self-hosted WordPress dashboard, in my opinion. “Self-hosted” might sound scary, but really all it means is that you control the site, not some other company like Medium or Blogger. What about the other options? Wix is too cumbersome and WordPress.com isn’t open-source—it’s a private company.

WordPress proper, which is found at WordPress.org, is open-source software that’s free to use, so the cost will be what it takes to buy a domain ($10 per year) and host your blog ($3-12 per year). With all that in mind, let’s explore the simple steps it takes to set up your new blog.

1. Buy a domain name

The easiest and best place to buy a domain name is Namecheap. I buy all of my domains from their service; they have great prices for unregistered domains and even a few premium domain name options.

Your domain name should either be your brand, or your name. Branded domains are a much better option if you plan on growing a blogging business, whereas a personal domain only really fits if you plan on writing about a certain subject forever.

A good brand name doesn’t need to be complicated: it’s simple, easy to remember, and speaks to what you blog about. “Unemployable” is a great name for an entrepreneurship blog and “Ballpoint” is great for a writing blog because those are two recognizable words that hint at the topic they cover. And sure, “GregsTennisBlog.com” could grow pretty big, too, but I’m sure you’re more creative than that.

Data on domain names shows that .com, .co, and .org—also known as the top-level domains—were the easiest to recall and seen as the most trustworthy. Personally, I encourage bloggers to focus on getting a .com and just adding words before or after their main brand. For example, if your brand name is “Dolo” and your blog is about marketing, it would be better to buy DoloMarketing.com than Dolo.Marketing, or some other unusual extension. Dot com is the gold standard.

2. Choose a WordPress host

The right WordPress host for most bloggers is Bluehost, an official partner with WordPress. Bluehost shared hosting plans start as low as $3 per month and usually climb to about $10 per month after your first year. They also offer fast WordPress setup in just a few clicks.

If you have a little more budget to spend, WP Engine is one of the fastest managed WordPress hosts on the market—that’s what I use to host this blog. You will pay quite a bit more for the speed and support, though, and plans start at about $20 per month.

3. Install WordPress on your host

If you choose Bluehost as your hosting provider, they have helpful instructions for installing WordPress. Just follow each step on that page with your Bluehost account open and you’ll be finished in just a few minutes.

If you choose another hosting provider, you can search for “[host name] WordPress install” and they will almost certainly have a help center article with instructions. WP Engine’s setup guide, for example, can be found here.

4. Select a blog design

Since WordPress is free, open-source software, many developers create free themes and templates that you can use with WordPress. It’s best not to overthink your design until you’ve started attracting readers to your blog—so select a theme that’s clean, simple, and easy to read for now.

WordPress.org is a great place to find free themes to download; these are all reviewed and approved beforehand, so every theme is safe to download and install. Once WordPress is set up on your host, you can also browse themes inside the WordPress dashboard by clicking on Appearance → Themes → Add New. You’ll find many free themes to install from that screen.

Here's a view inside of my WordPress site hosted with WP Engine. Your dashboard should look almost exactly the same regardless of which host you choose.

Here’s a view inside of my WordPress site hosted with WP Engine. Your dashboard should look almost exactly the same regardless of which host you choose.

5. Publish your first post

Don’t worry about plugins, keyword research, or tweaking your theme right now. The hardest muscle to build as an amateur blogger is the publishing muscle, so you want to create that habit as quickly as possible before getting distracted with bells and whistles.

No need to think about SEO, traffic, or anything else—just write about something interesting you think your future readers will care about. Because nobody will read your first post anyway, it’s best to think of it like a pre-game stretch and get it out of the way! Once you’ve pressed published and have shaken the publishing jitters, then you can worry about planning your next move as a blogger.

The most common amateur blogging mistakes

Thanks to my work in growth marketing and SEO, I’ve seen hundreds of blogs flourish and fizzle. But it’s my nearly 15 years as a blogger that’s given me the experience to know what the most common mistakes are for newbies. Learn from my scar tissue—I’ve made these errors, too. Here are the top mistakes to avoid as an amateur blogger:

1. Blogging without a goal (for too long)

Blogging can help with or directly lead to a number of successful results:

  1. Blogging can help you get noticed and hired by a premiere company (which happened to me with Shopify!).
  2. Blogging can turn into a full-time business by way of affiliate referrals, advertising, and your own products (which happened to me in 2022!).
  3. Blogging can help you kickstart your freelance or consulting career.
  4. Blogging can help you deeply explore your interests and creativity, which can then lead to many unknown—but hopefully positive—outcomes.

Of course, you might end up experiencing a few of these benefits if you’re successful, but it’s helpful to start with or quickly form a point of view on what you’re trying to accomplish. The way you should run a blog as a business is far different than running a blog meant to land you a great job, or a large consulting client.

I’ve seen a lot of people make the mistake of not matching what’s published on their blog to their desired outcome. You won’t land your first data science job with an affiliate-focused “best data science tools” round-up. So think about what your first outcome or milestone with your blog should be, and let that guide your decisions and editorial strategy.

2. Blogging on someone else’s land

I’ve changed my tune on social media in recent years. The algorithm on nearly every platform rewards native content and punishes links to other websites. If you want to drive traffic and awareness from social media, you have to publish for the platform.

But that doesn’t mean you should publish only for these platforms. Not having a website, domain, and blogging platform that you control means you’re at the whims of whoever’s land you’re renting—whether that be Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, or anywhere else.

“What would happen if they shut my account down today?” That’s a fair question to ask yourself. Even less certain and more likely is that a shift in a platform’s algorithm could affect the reach of your new and existing content—just ask the many animators who were hurt by YouTube’s radical shift to focusing on total watch time.

Where traditional bloggers have a leg up here is that they see their blog, their self-hosted website, as the nexus for their activity online. Yes, they might build up a LinkedIn presence, or start growing their reach with YouTube videos. But all of that funnels back to a blog they control with a newsletter/email list they can take with them.

Don’t be shy about taking your blogging efforts directly to social media. But also don’t build your entire online presence or business on somebody else’s website.

3. Choosing a blogging niche that’s too small

If you’ve explored blogging as a business, you’ve probably heard of “Niche to Win.” This is the idea that it’s much easier for a blog to gain initial traction if it’s focused on either (a) an underserved niche, or (b) it serves an established niche in an entirely new way.

To be honest with you, I’m a much bigger fan of option (b), and it’s for a simple reason: big markets offer more opportunities. The riches are, in fact, in the niches, but only in niches within a large market with lots of demand. If you niche down too much, you ultimately end up with a very small number of people to reach, who may not even spend money on the topic/hobby/skill that you’re blogging about.

You also want to consider what happens if you’re successful in your niche: will there be anywhere to go from here? Once you’re at the top of the hill, is that the end, or is there another mountain to climb? Sub-niches within a larger topic or market don’t have this problem, because you can easily expand to cover more things once you’ve exhausted your first initial niche.

So yes, niche down. But be wary of trying to conquer a tiny or obscure market, and watch how you brand or position yourself in any market. Just like actors who get typecast, you don’t want to be stuck as the “Underwater Basket Weaving” guy or gal after you discover that’s not a profitable thing to blog about.

Instead, niche down by way of solving a precise problem, for a precise reader/customer, in a memorable and creative way. Tens of millions of professionals use Excel, but there’s only one Miss Excel.

4. Letting planning turn into procrastination

Taking action is a form of learning; probably the best form of all. So while there are a number of things you need to “get right” as a successful amateur blogger, they can be figured out in time. Most decisions you make about your blog are not irreversible. Here are a few I know bloggers get stuck on:

  • Choosing domain—pick something snappy and redirect it later if you need to.
  • Choosing a niche—pick something profitable and narrow or expand your focus later if you need to.
  • Choosing a design/theme—pick something clean and readable and tweak it later if you need to.

The only decisions that become one-way doors are when you’ve built up a larger audience on a specific topic. At that point, it can be tough to make a 180-degree turn. The readers you attracted around disc golf probably don’t care about financial planning & analysis.

But that requires a lot of time; all decisions calcify over time. In the early days, you’re not stuck with almost any early decision you make, and you should see most of your choices as “ongoing experiments” rather than some sort of arbitrary commitment.

So don’t let anything written here or elsewhere stop you from making the ultimate mistake: not trying at all. Rolled sleeves and dirty hands can be found in every success story, but sophisticated planning is only found in a few. Take action now and pivot based on what you see.

5. Underestimating the importance of backlinks

Not all blogs have to revolve solely around traffic from organic search (SEO), but all successful blogs will ultimately drive most of their traffic from this channel. I’ve seen hundreds of dashboards for big blogs and this is universally true.

What most bloggers underestimate in the beginning is the importance of links in ranking their content. And not just links to their homepage, but to individual posts and pages on their site. Links are so important that a blogger who focuses solely on content and links will probably go farther than most. In fact, Shopify’s Chief Growth Officer used to say “links are the currency for SEO.” Outside of the content itself, they are what decide whether or not you rank.

The best way to build links is to start with the content itself: by writing things that are linkable. But what does that mean? Simply put, it means publishing something that a fellow blogger or journalist would feature in their own article.

Data is the king of link-building content. When I say that to new bloggers, they assume that data stories are this impossibly technical type of content that an amateur like them could never publish. Then they learn that “surveys” are also sources of data. Then they learn that tools like SurveyMonkey can source respondents for your survey. Then they learn that many free data visualization tools exist to create charts and visuals.

You can make a data story as an amateur blogger; the real missing ingredient will be your creativity. What sort of things/questions can you observe or survey people about that others in your topic or niche would find interesting? As one example, I asked myself this question recently and published an observational study that examined 500+ job postings for content marketing leadership roles. And no surprise, a lot of my peers linked to this post!

6. Being too afraid to delegate work

If you are looking to run a blog as a business, here’s some obvious advice that still needs to be said: run it like an actual business.

Most entrepreneurs struggle with delegation during their first rodeo; after all, your perfectionism or inventiveness or way of doing things is usually what makes you successful in the first place. But with a blogging business, you have to eventually step off of the content treadmill—even if that just means getting some help with the administrative stuff, like creating graphics or uploading to the CMS.

In the earliest days, yes, you may need to do literally everything yourself until you have the funds to hire an assistant, editor, or whoever. But if you’re truly running things like a business, then you won’t be waiting long to monetize: you may launch your product within your first year. And somewhat ironically, it’s usually content creation that first needs to be outsourced in some way. You can do this by hiring someone for time-intensive administrative tasks, or even begin to step back from the actual research and writing by training a contractor on your approach and writing style.

I know a number of popular bloggers who thought they would never hire a writer, but quickly learned how teaching someone to translate your ideas into crisp copy is far from an impossible task—in fact, it can be quite rewarding to do so, because now you’re able to explore, teach, and “write” at a much faster pace.

Don’t let your hands-on perfectionism put a ceiling on your blog’s growth. Once you start getting traction, have the courage to reinvest your revenue and “fire yourself” from less important activities.

7. Blogging in the dreaded “milquetoast middle”

One advanced tip I’ll share for amateur bloggers is to stay at the far ends of the content spectrum, and avoid the boring middle. What does that mean exactly? Well, let’s first define the two ends of the spectrum:

  • Educational: Information-driven content that helps your readers solve a problem or make a decision. Traffic for this content will come from search because it’s built from the ground up with searchers in mind.
  • Spectacle: Story-driven content that reveals something thrilling or unexpected. Traffic for this content will come from social and dark social (Slack, email, etc.) because it’s written to attract attention and stir conversation.

The mistake I see bloggers making is not picking one of those lanes or trying to blend them together. Story-driven articles don’t work well for search, because Google has determined that most people are using search as a command line for answers—they want the solution, and quickly. Social, meanwhile, is a place for surprises and even controversy; you go there to find the unexpected.

Your blog as a whole can contain both types of these articles. In fact, they work quite well together: spectacle articles attract links and shares that help your educational, search-focused content perform even better. But you should rarely mix the two together; like pineapple and pizza, they’re better alone. See, even I’m up for a little controversy. 🍕

Blogging is easy to learn, but hard to master

Getting a blog set up is quick and painless, and writing your first post is a lot of fun. But I want to be candid: building a profitable blog, or making money online from your blog, is pretty hard work.

You will likely toil away for months, at least, to create high-quality content and build backlinks. And even once the traffic starts arriving in droves, you’ll need to find sustainable ways to monetize, which often happens through affiliate marketing or advertising to promote other people’s products—or by building your own. Pro bloggers see pretty high margins from these activities, but they take work, and blogs are often very susceptible to algorithm shifts updates to various search engines.

So all in all, I’m very fortunate and happy to be a blogger. But just like you, I started as an amateur. The thing that made the most difference wasn’t a tool or some special marketing hack. It was consistency: showing up and growing my blog every day, even when I was tired, even when I didn’t want to. And the rewards were well worth the effort.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is a writer and consultant. Previously, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team and was executive editor on the communications team. Greg is a fan of simple websites, salty food, and writing that’s clear as a country creek.