Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

The why and how of establishing your web persona

I’ve recently been helping a number of friends establish their identities on the web. Some have been comfortable with web technologies, while others have not.

Getting on the web is now easier than ever. Over the past two or three years, changes in the economics of web hosting (i.e. you can do a lot “for free”) and the rise of blogging (adding content periodically) has lowered the entry effort down a few hours (or a few minutes).

A. Why would I want to take control of my web persona?

Try googling your name. Finding or not finding a result can lead to different feelings. If your name results in zero hits, you don’t exist on the web — which probably isn’t good for your long-term career prospects (or social life, unless you maintain all of your prior personal relationships with some diligence).

On the other hand, if you get a lot of hits, it means that search engines are assembling a persona of you, whether you like it or not. Try a search on zoominfo.com, and you’ll see an even more comprehensive view. You might want to create an ID for yourself there, and set the record straight. The only thing worse than no web identity is a mistaken web identity.

B. The first two steps: a webmail address and a domain name search

B1. If you’re receiving e-mail only at an account at work, or as part of your Internet service, you really should sign up at a completely independent webmail provider.

If your job changes, you could lose all of your past electronic correspondence. This includes registrations to third party web sites where the recovery procedure is to send password resets to an e-mail account … that won’t exist when you’re not longer employed there. Similarly, if there’s a change to your service provider (e.g. you move from DSL to cable modem, or vice-versa), you may lose some of your contacts (or they may lose you).

Nowadays, free e-mail accounts with the promise of large storage capacity and long-term archives aren’t hard to find. I recommend Gmail (called Googlemail in some countries), because it can be accessed as webmail through a browser, or e-mail downloaded to an e-mail client (e.g. Thunderbird, or Outlook) as POP.

A second choice is Yahoo Mail, which offers unlimited e-mail storage capacity. (Realistically, Gmail’s 2 GB limit is more than anyone would probably ever need, and they may increase it some day). The downside of Yahoo Mail is that they don’t support POP, so you’ll be stuck with using the webmail interface through a browser, or relying on the goodwill of someone else to write a workaround (like the Webmail extension for Thunderbird). More features may come for Yahoo Mail, through the partnership with Apple on the iPhone (e.g. IMAP, more highly-featured than POP), although it’s unclear who will have to pay for what.

I intensely dislike Hotmail. They used to support downloading mail via POP if Outlook was being used, but then this became a feature that Microsoft offered for a fee. In addition, Hotmail gets me closer than I’d like to Microsoft Passport, and I do want to keep some identities separate in some cases.

When you sign up for Gmail, you may have to pick a variation on your preferred name, because Google seems to have already reserved many. You might try firstname.lastname or firstnamelastname or variations on initials. Take some time to think about this, because you’ll be using that name a lot! While you’re at it, you might as well personalize iGoogle and sign up for Google Docs and Spreadsheets.

B2. You should check if your surname or full name is taken as a domain. I registered daviding.com some while ago, before I knew what to do with it. There’s another David Ing in Silicon Valley (who I’ve never met) that I’m sure would be glad to have that domain name if I hadn’t taken it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Check on betterwhois.com, or any domain name registrar. (I use domainsmadeeasy.com, and other people endorse godaddy.com). While it’s sometimes possible to get another suffix — .org, .net, .ca, .us — people don’t easily remember those, and they can be more expensive. At about $8USD to $9USD per year, it’s a cheap investment. You can make your domain name point to where ever you want — a common need that is undoubtedly well-documented on the web site of your domain name registrar.

Once you’ve done these two steps, you’re ready to really establish your identity on the web.

C. A blog on WordPress.com is free, and it’s easy to move content elsewhere (if you decide so, later)

There’s a reason that blogs have become popular. It’s because early web sites published some initial content (or put up the dreadful “under construction” sign) and then never changed. Web sites should be like newspapers, with front page content that periodically evolves.

Blogs can include not only date-ordered news-like entries, but also web pages that are more static. A changing front page lets the web world know that you’re still alive.

C1. Of the blogging alternatives, I prefer WordPress. There’s wordpress.org , from where the open source software can be downloaded; and wordpress.com, which is the free hosted version of the blogging software. WordPress has an active development community, so there’s lots of features available, and the list continues to grow. It’s easy to start blogging on wordpress.com, and if you actually follow through with content that you’d like to host on your own web site, it’s relatively easy to export elsewhere.

An alternative blog service is blogger.com (now owned by Google). I didn’t like its predecessor, blogspot.com, which had some strange behaviours (e.g. feed issues), and I know one person who found that his blog was being blocked by firewalls in China. These issues may or may not still be true. Times change, and more detailed comparisons of wordpress.com and blogger.com are available, but I’ve stated my preference.

All you need to do to sign up at wordpress.com is: (a) have an e-mail address (which you established in step B1, above); and (b) pick a userid, so that your entries will be found at yourname.wordpress.com.

C2. After you’ve set up your wordpress.com blog, you may want to do some basic configuration steps.

  • Pick a theme that suits your persona. If you have a short and wide image from a digital photograph, you can crop that as a unique, personal masthead. Otherwise, you might want to do a search on flickr.com for images licensed by attribution, and give credit for using it in your footer.
  • Anti-spam software is now bundled into wordpress.com automatically, but if you decide to move the blog elsewhere, you can take the Akismet key with you.
  • Set Options … Discussion … so you can moderate comments. You can be notified when someone leaves a comment on your post, and comments are held for approval before becoming visible to the public.

If you registered your domain name (above, in step 2), you can set up a redirection so that someone entering yourname.com ends up at yourname.wordpress.com .

D. Offer e-mail subscriptions to your blog

WordPress.com automatically creates feeds, so that anyone with an aggregator (also known as a RSS reader or feed reader) can subscribe to blog updates. Feeds can be added to your iGoogle page or to My Yahoo. I prefer Feedreader as my offline reader.

The average person doesn’t usually subscribes to feeds, and will forget that you’re blogging. To remind them, you can sign up for a free e-mail service at Feedburner. Feedburner sends out alerts once daily. (I actually use an Email notification plugin that sends out alerts immediately — but that’s because I’m hosting the blog on my own web site rather than on wordpress.com).

E. Write content!

Don’t think too much ahead about the content on your web site. Just write a little bit — a few paragraphs — and publish that. You don’t have to plan out your whole trajectory. Threads and trends will emerge.

Don’t go back and revise the content, just write more entries (and possibly add a trackback to refer to earlier posts). Once you’ve published content, search engines will pick up on them.

If you stick with adding content once or twice per week for 2 to 3 months, your readership will start developing. (You’ll start getting into the habit of leaving comments on other people’s blogs, too!)

F. Move the content to your own hosted domain

This is way down the road, but if you’re successful in creating content on the blog, you may want to lose the “wordpress.com” off your address, and have your own hosted domain. There are advantages, such as more space for photographs and functions beyond blogging, but content is really king on the web.

The cost is minimal — hosting at site5.com, which I recommend, is only $5USD per month — and 1-click installs with Fantastico are practically as quick as installing on wordpress.com . I host multiple identities as different domain names sharing the same hosting account with domain pointers … but that’s relatively technical. For most functions other than blogging on WordPress, I use Drupal.

I’ve now told you more than you really needed to know … but there’s really only a few steps to follow. It’s easy enough to try some searches on Google and get other opinions … but the web is a lot about trying things out, and learning along the way. I myself have now started two different blogs, with three stops and restarts. It took me a while to figure what my own persona should be — and I finally decided splitting across two blogs would work best for me. Try out it for yourself, and learn what works for you.

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