Essential blogging tools – the definitive blogging guide for 2018
Here is my definitive list of essential blogging tools and advice for 2018.
With the products and services I use spread across so many articles on this blog, I decided it was time to bring them all together in one place to make things a bit easier.
This is a living document that is continually being updated, not a one-time blog post. If a tool or service is included on this page, you can safely assume that I currently consider it one of my essential blogging tools.
Note: I have included affiliate links here where they exist but only for services that I genuinely recommend. I’ve left out plenty of higher paying affiliate programmes because I rate other products as better options. These really are my essential blogging tools, and I stand behind every one of them.
How I picked my essential blogging tools
I’ve been blogging since 2006, and in that time I’ve seen lots of tools and services come and go. Since 2016 I’ve been earning a full-time income from my blogs by using them to sell products and services.
I’ve collected all of the tools and services that I currently use to run my blogs in one place. Where tools are expensive, I’ve also highlighted cheaper (or free) alternatives that would be better suited to new bloggers.
I’ve also included advice in each category on how best to make use of the tools, and why they are essential. This one article should contain everything you need to start and build a successful blog!
Even if you’re a software engineer, don’t write your own blogging platform. It’s a waste of time, and there are so many tools you need to work with that the existing platforms have already integrated with.
Do not pick one of the “managed” services such as Squarespace, Wix or WordPress.com (not to be confused with WordPress.org, which we’ll get to in a minute) either. You won’t have the control you need over how it is configured, and you’ll be locked into their platform.
You need a full Content Management System (CMS) that you can install yourself and have complete control over. Sensible options are WordPress.org (usually just known as WordPress – this is the version you can install yourself), Drupal, and Joomla.
I very strongly recommend that you use WordPress. It’s incredibly powerful and is the best at integrating with other systems. You need a very good reason indeed to not pick WordPress. Your hipster mate that hates successful companies and knows of some obscure product that is going to be the future doesn’t know what they are talking about.
Picking a good domain name is essential to the success of your blog. A few things to consider:
- A .com domain name is highly preferable as it will be widely recognised and is going to perform better in Google worldwide. The only time a country specific domain name is good is when your content is only ever going to be targetted at readers from that country
- Your domain name should be easy to tell someone without you having to spell bits of it out. For example “Don’t Do An MBA dot com” is simple, with no odd spellings and a .com extension
- Try to get the subject or topic of your blog over in the name. If you can get keywords that people might search for into the domain name, all the better.
Buy your domain name from Namecheap. Namecheap is cheap, as the name suggests, but more importantly, they provide great support and an easy-to-use control panel. If you need help, check out my article on registering a domain name for your blog.
Your blog hosting is one of the most essential blogging tools because WordPress hosting is a tricky beast. Your blog needs to be fast or you’ll annoy Google. You don’t want to annoy Google! But getting WordPress to run fast is a specialist skill, and so you need a specialist host.
Don’t just pick the cheapest generic web host you can find, pick on that knows and understands WordPress in a lot of detail. Anyone can sign up for an affiliate programme and claim to be a web host, but they will not perform at the level you require.
Your options for a high-quality WordPress host are:
- On a budget, use SiteGround
- If you can afford the $35 monthly fee and want your blog to fly, use WP Engine
I’ve run independent speed tests on these hosts and have written a MegaPost on picking the best WordPress host that contains my findings. It goes into a load of detail on the platforms out there and explains how I picked those two. If you’re interested check it out, but you’re safe picking either of those hosts and moving on.
If you can find a way to afford it, paying for a premium WordPress theme is worth the cost. They aren’t expensive (this one cost me around $60) and for that, you get proper, dedicated support.
You’re going to be doing a lot of customising whichever theme you pick, so going for one that offers help getting things how you want is a sensible investment. It doesn’t take many wasted hours to justify paying rather than grabbing a free theme.
I know that some of you just won’t have the money so I’ve picked out some free ones as well, but I can’t emphasise enough how much easier having a premium theme makes life.
- This blog is based on the Newspaper theme from Themeforest. Themeforest have loads of amazing premium themes, but Newspaper is especially great. It has so many layout options, I’d be amazed if there isn’t one that will work for your blog.
- For free themes, take a look at Newspaper X or Hueman, both of which I’ve worked with and have had reasonable experiences with.
I’ve written in detail about picking the best WordPress theme before, check it out if you’d like more details.
Writing great content
While it’s important to have a fast, great looking blog it’s even more important to write content that people enjoy reading.
This is something that some people have and others have to work at. I am a terrible writer imo, but I’ve done OK as a blogger! How? By knowing how to write a blog post, and what to write about.
The trick is to write short paragraphs, use lots of images, and pick a catchy headline. I’ve covered it in detail in my article on writing a great blog post, but the main thing to remember is that people don’t tend to read long technical paragraphs. Make reading easy!
- Use the headline analyzer to help you write headlines that people click on
- Use SE Ranking to find keywords to focus on (or check out my SE Ranking review)
- If you don’t have your own photos, use one of the stock photos for bloggers sites that share free images that are good enough
- Use Grammarly to help you write well structured, easy to read content
Encouraging your readers to share your content is important, but you also need to share it all yourself.
- Install Social Warfare (it’s a premium plugin at around $29 which is a bargain). I genuinely can’t find a free version I recommend at all, even as a last resort. If you find one I would love to know! Social Warfare has a few big advantages over free options though:
- It doesn’t slow your blog down horribly like many free options do
- It allows you to pre-write social posts for your readers, removing some of the friction that prevents people from sharing
- It’s highly customisable, so you can have it looking and behaving however you like
- It allows you to quickly and easily set default images for social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest so that whenever someone shares your content they get a great looking graphic to boost sharing further
- It’s almost impossible to make it look ugly. With free options, it’s almost impossible to make them look good! Social Warfare is one of the absolute most essential blogging tools.
- Use Buffer to queue up lots of images related to your posts in your Instagram and Facebook queues. Make sure that there is always content scheduled. Try to post at least twice every day.
- Use SmarterQueue to run your Twitter feed. Make sure you import all new blog posts and then add them to the “re-share” queue so that they are kept fresh. With the queue, content is repeated again and again until you set it to stop. Try to Tweet 4-5 times every day at least, but make sure it’s not all self-promotional content.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is one of the toughest parts of running a successful blog, and no list of essential blogging tools would be complete without covering it. People that sell SEO courses will try to tell you that there is a trick to it, and maybe they are right. But in my experience, it’s as much an art as a science, and even getting everything right doesn’t always work as you expect.
There are a few important things to note though that are always going to help
- Other blogs or websites linking to your website does help, but do not pay for link building schemes. If someone offers to build you a load of backlinks for a payment, walk away. Focus on writing great content and then building relationships with other bloggers who might link to you
- Try to find blogs to guest post on. A guest post with a link to your blog can help with both traffic and SEO
- Focus on SEO when writing posts. Make sure your content is all optimised for whichever search term you’re targetting. That includes naming your images with your keywords
- Focus on the “long tail”. The long tail is the search terms that are relevant to your blog topic but are not commonly searched for. Less common terms are easier to rank highly for. It’s better to be in the top 10 for a term that is searched a bit, than top 100 for a common term.
So which tools really do work?
- Yoast, which is a WordPress plugin. Yoast will analyse your post as you write and suggest ways to make it rank better. It’s really easy to use, has a free plan that will be more than sufficient for now, and will get you writing really well-optimised posts. Yoast is probably the most recommended of all essential blogging tools – you’ll struggle to find a blogger that doesn’t use it.
- SE Ranking is an incredibly powerful tool for monitoring and improving the performance of a website or blog. It is too huge to cover in detail here but it will track your ranking for all your keywords, help you find long tail terms, and give you great advice to improve your ranking. It’s not free, but it’s far cheaper than any of its competitors. I suggest you try to find the money, it’s my absolute most valuable tool. Most people haven’t heard of it, so as a new blogger it gives you a boost that most of your competitors simply won’t have.
There are two parts to getting email marketing right. First, you need to get people on to your list in the first place, then you need to keep them there and (critically) opening your emails.
To get people on to your list you need to hit them with a suggestion to join at the right time. You might even want to “bribe” them with a lead magnet, something you give away as a reward for joining.
- MailMunch is my recommendation for embedding forms on your blog to capture email addresses. I’ve tried all of them, and while others are more flashy I find that MailMunch is consistently reliable and easy to use.
- ViralLoops run giveaways for you. Running giveaways is a great way to encourage people to join your list, you just need to make mailing list signup a requirement for entry
- Beacon lets you make high-quality eBooks with no effort. An eBook or guide (“guide” converts better, even if it’s the same reward) is a good lead magnet. Making a professional guide and giving it away to anyone that signs up works well to encourage registrations.
When is the right time to suggest someone joins your list? I find that the following 3 work well when used together:
- At the end of all posts
- An “exit intent” pop-up that triggers whenever someone is about to close their browser tab
- Landing pages, linked to from your social media profiles. A landing page is a simple page that only exists to capture email signups
With MailMunch you can set up all 3 of those.
We talk about the size of an email list mattering, but what we actually mean is the size of the active segment of an email list. If you have 10,000 people on your mailing list but only 20% are active, your mailing list is really 2,000 people.
Once people are on to your list you need to keep them there and keep them active.
Start with an onboarding campaign. This is an automated series of emails that introduce you and your blog to the subscriber when they join. Over the first 10 days try to send a series of 6-8 emails linking to the best parts. The best time to get their attention is just after they sign up when they still remember who you are!
After that, make sure you’re staying in regular contact. Tbh there is a full course in this and we can’t cover it all here, but the essential tools are:
- ConvertKit, which is an email marketing platform designed specifically for bloggers. It’s not free, but as soon as you get your mailing list to a decent size none of the services are, so you may as well pick the best one from the start rather than waste hours moving later
- Drip is the other option. If you’re building towards being an eCommerce site then Drip has extra functionality that you might find valuable.
If you’re new to blogging or making money online you’ll probably be surprised to see that Pinterest gets its own section on a list of essential blogging tools while Facebook, Instagram and Twitter do not.
The weird fact is, Pinterest is as good (or sometimes better) source of blog traffic as Google, and way better than the big social media platforms. As long as your audience is on Pinterest, you can’t afford to ignore it.
Pinterest is a whole huge topic of its own but begin by grabbing Tailwind and starting to automate your pinning.
I’m going to get into Pinterest in more detail in the future and will update this post when I have better help.
Affiliate schemes are an easy way to monetise a blog. You’ll need to be very focused to build a full-time income just from affiliate sales, but it can be done.
I took a slightly different direction and used affiliate sales to earn extra money while also selling my own products. The combination has worked excellently for me.
You’ll need to sign up for the affiliate programme for each product you want to promote, it would be impossible to list them all here.
What I can do is help you manage them! Install the Easy Affiliate Links WordPress plugin on day one before you start linking out to them. Add all your affiliate links in there, then it’s easy to manage/change them in the future from one location. It’s free and since discovering it I’ve saved hours of boring link editing.
Landing pages are simple websites with just one goal, usually capturing email addresses. Building landing pages and linking to them from social media profiles is a great way to convert visitors into subscribers if that is your main goal.
In my experience, a huge (engaged) email list is absolutely critical, and so my landing page software is one of the most visited of all the essential blogging tools that I use.
I’ve written in detail about using landing pages to grow an email list so if you want the details read that, but the services I recommend are:
- Leadpages, if you can afford it. I use Leadpages for all of my landing pages. They integrate with pretty much everything and allow you to easily design great looking pages that convert really well
- Carrd if you’re looking for a free option. There are far fewer integrations and templates, but they have a completely free plan which is an OK place to start.
You need to have some kind of analytics software on your blog so that you know how many people are reading it, where they are coming from, and which posts are popular.
- Use Google Analytics. It’s free, incredibly powerful, and widely supported. As long as you are using the Yoast SEO plug-in (and you really should be), it’s also easy to set up because Yoast does the work for you.
Imagine spending a year or two building a popular, profitable blog and then losing it all.
The fact is, WordPress is a constant target for hackers and spammers. Every day this blog blocks hundreds of malicious sign-in attempts, and it’s not even especially popular in the scheme of things!
So you need to make sure you have protection against malicious activity and a robust backup system so that if the worst happens and a server dies or a hacker gets access, you aren’t ruined. You could argue that a backup and security plugin is the most essential of all essential blogging tools.
There are hundreds of options, but I’d go with Jetpack. Jetpack is owned and run by Automattic, the company that develops WordPress. It will handle backups and security for you, and also add a bunch of extra small features that can help increase usage and readership. It costs a couple of dollars a month, but it’s money very well spent.
Misc WordPress plugins
Here are the rest of the plugins that I use with WordPress. While they don’t need sections of their own, I consider them all to be essential blogging tools that will be of great benefit to your blog.
- Author hReview, for publishing reviews with sections and scores
- Autoptimize, to optimise your blog a little bit more
- Disable Comments, to easily disable comments on any section of your blog that you like
- ShortPixel, to optimise your images to improve page load times. This is one of the most essential blogging tools
- Table of Contents Plus, to add a table of contents at the top of long articles (like this one)
So there you go, that’s my list of essential blogging tools for 2018! As I said, I’ll be keeping the page up to date (just because something is one of the essential blogging tools now doesn’t mean it will be in 6 months), so you can be confident that the tools in the list are ones that I currently recommend.