Wipe Out WordPress Comment Spam Without Driving Your Readers Nuts

Word Cloud of Spam Comments Submitted to The Hobby Blogger

Last day of comment spam on The Hobby Blogger (generated using Wordle).

Check out the word cloud above. It has the most common words from all the spam comments submitted to my blog in one day back in February. 153 comments submitted by spambots that I had to sift through and delete.

In the nearly five months since that day, I’ve had a total of four spammy comments. I’ve virtually wiped out all the comment spam from my blog.

And I’ve done it for free!

How Spambots Work

A spambot is simply a computer program that helps automatically send spam. In the case of WordPress blogs, most bots attempt to automatically fill out comment and contact forms.

They can do this because, by default, the comment forms on all WordPress sites have the same input names for the Name, Email, Website, and Comment boxes (author, email, url, and comment, respectively).

Once a bot finds your WordPress blog’s posts, it can fill out the form very quickly by directly accessing the

wp-comments-post.php

file without even having to visit your site.

How to fight comment spam

Blocking empty referrer requests

You can block some spambots by making sure comments can’t be submitted unless the form is filled out directly on the web page containing the post. I’ve explained this technique here.

However, as I’ve experienced, this technique only goes so far. More sophisticated spambots can fool your server into thinking the comment was submitted from the post’s comment form.

Change it up a bit

To make it harder on the spammers, you need to add a wrinkle to your comment form—something different that a spambot can’t easily anticipate. For instance, you can require readers to complete an additional task before a comment can be submitted, such as a solving a CAPTCHA, or clicking a checkbox.

You’ve probably seen these before. CAPTCHAs are the “squiggly word” puzzles solved by figuring out the text and typing it into a text box. See my contact form for an example. Other times you might see a check box at the bottom of the comment form saying something like, “Confirm you are NOT a spammer.”

In both cases, the extra input box (usually added with a plugin) is not part of the default WordPress installation. You’ve made extra work for the spammer to figure out how to automatically fill out the form. After adding the extra task, spammers will usually prefer to leave your blog alone and target other unprotected blogs.

Don’t make it too hard on your readers

Unfortunately, the extra input also makes it harder on your readers to submit comments. Some tasks, like the checkbox, are easy for humans. Others like reCAPTCHA, are more difficult, if not frustrating for people to perform.

The key is to find the right balance between making submissions hard for spammers, and relatively painless for legitimate readers. While blocking spam is great, you don’t want reduce your blog’s reader engagement.

I created the graph below to help visualize the issue using some common (and free) WordPress plugins.

WordPress Comment Plugins: Reader Burden vs. Spammer Burden

While not exactly scientific, the graph shows the relative burden created for spammers and readers in order to submit comments.

With the yellow zones, you’re picking your poison. Either you maintain reader engagement and have to moderate a ton of comments, or you limit spam at the expense of legitimate comments.

By default, submitting comments on WordPress blogs is very easy for spammers and genuine readers alike. Most bloggers start out this way until the spam becomes a significant hassle. On the other end of the spectrum, reCAPTCHAs can be hard for people to solve, and some people just hate math and won’t solve the equation-based form offered by CAPTCHA. In this case, blocking spam isn’t worth frustrating your readers.

Obviously, stay away from plugins in the red zone, where plugins make it easy for spammers and hard for readers. Though I’ve never come across a plugin that would be categorized in this area.

Finally, plugins in the green zone are the Holy Grail—they make it a pain for spammers without your readers giving a second thought about completing the task. Two such plugins are Growmap, and Conditional CAPTCHA.

When I was getting slammed with spam earlier this year, Growmap is the one I decided to use.

Growmap Anti Spambot Plugin (aka G.A.S.P)

Growmap is a free WordPress plugin by Andy Bailey, the developer of CommentLuv, which adds a checkbox to your comment form. Readers have to click on the checkbox before they can submit a comment. Just scroll down to the comment form on this post to see it in action. In fact, try it out and leave a comment!

It’s a simple plugin with several useful features:

  • You can change the name of the checkbox – If spammers somehow figure out the name of your checkbox and spam starts getting through, all you have to do is go to Growmap’s settings panel, change the name, and the spammers are back to square one. I haven’t had to change the name of my checkbox once so far.
  • You can edit the label – Feel free to change the “Confirm you are NOT a spammer” label to suit your blog.
  • Reader friendly – If a reader forgets to check the box, a nice little reminder message pops up. The message is customizable.
  • Basic heuristics – If the bot does get past the checkbox, Growmap lets you set simple logic to detect possible spam based on the number of words in the comment name field or based on how many web URLs are in the comment text.

How well does Growmap stop spam?

To see how awesome Growmap works, check out the graph below.

Number of Daily Spam Comments on The Hobby Blogger

Late last year, my comment spam slowly began to increase. Then at the beginning of this year, it really took off. At one point, I was getting well over 200 spam comments a day. And since I get emailed every time someone posts a comment, it was a big hassle to wading through tons of email and trashing all the comment spam.

You can see from the graph that once I installed Growmap, the comment spam virtually stopped. I’ve had only four spammy comments, and those were submitted by people who actually visited the my blog, not bots.

So I’ve made it pretty hard for spammers to leave comments, but what about burdening my readers? Did Growmap make it too much of a pain for readers to leave comments?

Not at all.

The graph below shows the number of legitimate comments submitted to The Hobby Blogger per month.

Number of Comments on The Hobby Blogger

Growmap didn’t affect legit comments.

My comment rate stayed consistent after I installed Growmap even though I posted only twice during that time span.

What About Akismet?

Yes, Akismet seems to be the de facto standard for dealing with comment spam. After all, it comes pre-installed with WordPress. But I have a few qualms with Akismet.

First, if you monetize you blog in any way, then it costs $5 per month to use it. Second, you still have to moderate spammy comments. Akismet is not perfect and there’s still a chance that legitimate comments will get flagged as spam. If you care about your readers, you will still have to take time to sift through the comments in the spam bin to make sure genuine comments didn’t lost.

On the slightly more technical side of things, Growmap prevents spammers from submitting comments. Akismet allows spam to be submitted, then it just moves the comments to the spam bin. So Akismet makes your server work harder by accepting the spam, bloats your WordPress database by storing the spam, and makes you work harder by having to review and empty the spam bin.

However, if your blog gets huge amounts of traffic, spammers might take the time to figure out the name of Growmap’s checkbox and bypass it. In that case, Akismet makes more sense.

For the average blog, Growmap is the clear choice.

One Alternative – Conditional CAPTCHA

If you really want to use Akismet, then check out Conditional CAPTCHA. The Conditional CAPTCHA plus Akismet combination is probably the best of both worlds. When used together, Conditional CAPTCHA will require the reader to solve a CAPTCHA only if Akismet thinks the comment is spam.

Most readers will never have to solve a CAPTCHA, and your spam bin won’t fill up. The cool thing is that you can choose to serve a simple CAPTCHA, or the more difficult reCAPTCHA if you think it’s necessary.

I haven’t tried Conditional CAPTCHA. I can’t confirm that it’s all it’s cracked up to be. It does have a 4.9 out of 5 rating in the WordPress Plugin Directory, though, so it’s worth checking out.

What do you use?

Well, that’s what works for me. How about you? Tell us of your battles (victories and losses) with spam in comments.

A Google Reader Alternative is Already Here – Feedly

Dude Freaking Out

Licensed under Creative Commons by bark on Flickr

If you’re a Google Reader user like me, you’re probably freaking out about Google’s announcement that they are retiring Google Reader, effective July 1st, 2013.

Reader is/was a great RSS reader because it allows me to quickly scan the feeds of the many sites I follow across multiple devices. There are a bunch of RSS readers out there, but Google created an API (Application Programming Interface) that allowed other developers to create apps to view and manage your feed subscriptions.

If I marked a post as “read” on my laptop using the Google Reader in my browser, that same post would be marked “read” on my phone’s RSS reader, Feeddler Pro (a great app by the way). That’s the power of their API.

Now that Google is killing Reader, and it’s API, Feeddler will become useless.

What’s the alternative?

As I began to search for alternatives, I came across a CNET article with five alternatives to Google Reader. The first one was feedly, but it syncs using Google’s API, so I passed it over along with the other five. However, in the article’s comments, someone posted a link to an announcement on feedly’s blog that they’ve been building a clone of the Google Reader API. Codenamed Normandy, the project arose because feedly’s been expecting the Reader shutdown for a while.

If you begin using feedly with Google Reader before July 1st, you won’t notice any changes. The changeover will be seamless. I figured, what the heck, I’ll give it a try.

If you’re using Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, Feedler is a free browser plugin, and their Android and iOS apps are also free.

Getting to my Reader feeds in feedly was easy. First, I just clicked on the feedly Chrome Web Store link on their blog page. Then click on the blue “Add to Chrome” button at the top right.

Feedly Add to Chrome Button

Next, click the Add button to confirm you want to add the plugin to Chrome.

Feedly Plus Permission to Add to Chrome

Up comes the feedly login page. If you’re already signed into the same Google Account that uses Google Reader, all you have to do is click the “Connect to Google Reader” button.

Connect Feedly to Google Reader

You’ll see one more confirmation pop-up to let feedly access some of your Google Profile information. Click the “Allow access” button.

Feedly Permission to Access Google Profile Info

Be patient. If you’re trying out feedly soon after the Google Reader announcement, it’s a bit slow. No doubt they’re getting slammed by all the disgruntled Reader users.

In order to ease the transition from Google Reader, feedly has published some tips to help adapt to it’s desktop interface.

Also, there are two versions of feedly – a regular and a “plus” version. The main difference is that feedly plus has a toolbar button that shows the number of unread articles and gives you a way to quickly launch feedly.

Feedly also says that the plus version will “evolve into a tool for power readers.” Perhaps that means it will eventually become a freemium service, which is something to keep in mind before getting too attached to it.

One other cool thing I read in feedly’s Normandy announcement is that they are inviting third-party developers who use the Google Reader API to get in touch if they’re interested in using Normandy for their apps. Maybe I won’t have to get rid of my iPhone’s Feeddler app after all, which would be nice in case feedly doesn’t work out.

I’m sure a lot is going to happen in the RSS reader arena in the near future as a result of Reader’s retirement. Help us all find the best alternative, and let us know in the comments what you’re using instead of Google Reader and how you like it.

Wait, What Happened to My WordPress Blog’s Header?

Has the header image or logo on your WordPress blog recently disappeared and been replaced with the text of your blog’s title and tag line? Have you recently upgraded to WordPress 3.5 or later? If so, the two are likely related, and I’ll show you how to easily fix it.

If you’re still using WordPress 3.4 or earlier, you should read also this post so you are aware of what might happen when you decide to upgrade to WordPress 3.5 or later.

Last week I noticed that this blog’s header went from looking like this

The Hobby Blogger's Correct Header

to looking like this

The Hobby Blogger's Messed Up Header

DOH!

I had just returned to blogging with my first post in five months, and I noticed the change to my header four days after I published the post. Not exactly a triumphant return.

I frantically began troubleshooting the issue. Here’s what I tried:

  • Deactivated all plugins – This is one of the first things to do when you notice something wrong with your blog. If turning all of them off fixes the problem, then re-activate only one plugin at a time until you see the “wrongness” rear its ugly head. Now you’ve pinpointed the culprit plugin. In my case, deactivating all my plugins didn’t return my header back to normal.
  • Browse to the header image – If your header image or logo has disappeared, try navigating to the image in your browser to make sure the image is still readable. My header image is located in my theme’s images folder, so I confirmed it was still viewable by pointing my browser to:

www.yourdomain.com/wp-content/themes/theme_name/images/banner-logo.png

The key symptom

Next, in my Dashboard I went to Appearance ­-> Header. In the Header Text settings, I noticed that the box next to “Show header text with your image” was checked. It should not have been. Also, the Text Color selector widget was missing.

WordPress Header Text Settings

I unchecked the box, but when I clicked the Save Changes button, the box was checked again. Something was overriding the Custom Header settings.

It took a little bit of Googling and filtering through WordPress.org and StudioPress’s community forums before I started to clue in on what was going on.

How to fix it

In your Dashboard, go to Appearance -> Themes. The takes you to WordPress’s new Theme Customizer. Make sure you’re in the Manage Themes tab.

WordPress Manage Themes Tab

Then click the Customize link.

The left sidebar shows a list of options for customizing your theme. The rest of your browser shows a live preview of the changes to the look of your theme.

WordPress Customize Theme Site Title Tagline

Click on Site Title & Tagline to show the related settings. Uncheck the box next to Display Header Text to remove the site title and tagline from your header. Wait a few seconds and the live preview should update the change. If the text goes away and your header image returns, you’re good to go. Just click the Save & Publish button to make the change go live on your site.

Why is this happening?

It appears that my header going all wonky is related to upgrading to WordPress 3.5.

The day after my “return” post, I decided to update my plugins as well upgrade from WordPress 3.4.2 to 3.5.1. Of course, in my haste to get back into the swing of things, I was lazy and neglected to try out the updates on my laptop’s test copy of The Hobby Blogger.

Knowing that my plugins weren’t the issue, it had to be the upgrade to WordPress 3.5. My best guess is that, even though the Theme Customizer feature was added in WordPress 3.4, the changes weren’t enforced until version 3.5.

What this means is that some themes might need to be updated to take advantage of the new Theme Customizer instead of using the old Appearance -> Header settings page. I’m using the older, pre-responsive design version of StudioPress’s Prose theme, so it makes sense that it would affect me. And it’s not limited to themes for the Genesis framework. I’ve seen people using other frameworks have the same issue with their headers as well.

Backup and test

This should serve as a gentle reminder to backup your blog before making any significant changes (I had). In addition, try to test your changes on something other than your live site if at all possible. Otherwise, you risk making a bad impression like I did for three or four days.

Hopefully this helped you out more quickly than it took me to figure out. If you have any more insight into what’s going on, please share in the comments.

More Reading

How to Back Up Your WordPress or Blogger Blog – AwesomelyLuvvie.com
WordPress Backups – WordPress.org

How to Add a Gradient to Your Genesis Theme’s Comments Section

Today I’m going to show you how to dress up your blog’s comments section by adding a gradient to the top of each comment. A background color that gradually fades away from the top of the comment header to the comment text is a subtle way to separate comments from one another and help guide a reader’s eyes down the page.

Screenshot of Comments Gradient

I’ll show you CSS code snippets that will allow you to add comment gradients to any of StudioPress’s Genesis child themes. Non-Genesis users should read this post too because I have something special to give away at the end of this post that anyone can use.

Image vs CSS

There are two ways to create a color gradient on a webpage. The first is to create a gradient in Photoshop, GIMP, or other image/graphics editing software, save it as a small image, and upload it image to your blog. Then add a few simple CCS rules to your theme’s stylesheet that tells the browser to locate the image file and repeat it over and over from left to right until its container is filled.

The other way is add some CSS3 (version 3 of the Cascading Style Sheets specification) rules to your stylesheet that tell a web browser to how to render the gradient without using an image. There are free web-based generators that allow you to easily create the CSS3 gradient code like Colorzilla.

The advantage of the latter method over the former is that your blog’s load times are faster because the browser doesn’t have to use an extra HTTP request and bandwidth to download the image.

The tradeoff, however, is that most browsers need the generated gradients specified in a unique way. This means you have to generate slightly different rules for each browser. If you try the Colorzilla generator, for example, you’ll that see it creates seven different browser-dependent rules.

If you only had to do this once, it might not be that big of a deal. Unfortunately, though, browser updates can sometimes render the code obsolete and mess up the look of your gradients. So every time one of the major web browsers releases a new update, you have to check to make sure your blog’s gradients are rendered properly.

That may be par for the course for full-time web developers, but your average blogger doesn’t want that hassle. I mean, how many of us have Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer and Opera installed on our machines and religiously test our blog’s appearance whenever those browsers are updated? I don’t.

Not a big effect on load time

If your comments section is the only place your blog uses a background gradient, then using an image won’t significantly impact its download time. The image is small (only a few hundred bytes), and once it’s cached in your reader’s browser, it won’t need to be downloaded again.

So for this blog, I decided to go for the simplicity of using an image gradient for my comments section. This post will show you how to do it.

Elements of gradient image

Gradients are a visual cues that help your readers see where a new comment begins. They should gradually fade away before interfering with the body of the comment. Here are some basic guidelines for you comment gradients:

  • Subtle color ­­– Use a light color that fits with your blog’s overall color scheme. A light grey color is usually a safe choice if you can’t decide on a color, especially if your blog’s background color is white or very light.
  • Readable text – The gradient shouldn’t be so dark that it makes text difficult to read. Always try to maintain high contrast between text and its background.
  • Fade to background – The gradient should gradually disappear into the background color that underlies your comments section. In other words, if your blog’s background color is light blue, the bottom color of your gradient should match. The reliable way to do this is to make your gradient’s bottom color transparent.
  • Fade out before comment begins – The bottom of your gradient image should not spill over into the body of the comment. This helps to separate the comment’s header (commenter’s name, the date, and the avatar) from the rest of the comment.

Generating the gradient

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about how to create a gradient image. It’s not the easiest thing to do in the world, but it’s not very difficult either. There are plenty of tutorials out there to teach you how to do it depending on what software you’re using.

But don’t worry. I’ve got a surprise for you at the end of this post that might save you the time and effort of creating your own gradient anyway.

The important thing to know is that when creating a gradient image, save it as a PNG file. It’s the only web image format that gives quality gradients and allows a transparent bottom. The dimensions of the image should be only a few pixels wide and about 75-150 pixels high, depending on the height of your comment headers. The Hobby Blogger’s gradient is 100 pixels tall.

Here’s a web-based tool to create a gradient PNG file with transparency. You just have to remember to crop the image before you use it.

Where to place the gradient file on your server

Before I get to the code, change the name of your gradient image to comments-grad.png. This is name that will be used in the code snippets you’ll see in a minute. Next upload the image into your theme’s images folder. This folder will be

wp-content/themes/your_theme_folder/images/

So if you’re using StudioPress’s News theme, you should be able see the gradient image in your browser if you go to:

http://your_domain/wp-content/themes/news/images/comments-grad.png

You should see it in the top-left corner of your browser window.

Getting the code for your theme

The CSS code used to place the gradient image differs depending on the theme you’re using.

Using Google’s Chrome Developer Tools, I played with every StudioPress theme demo site until I got the gradients to work on every theme. I had to come up with a few variations, so I’ve created a page for each variation and link to them from the table below.

Every current StudioPress theme (and a few retired ones as well) is listed in alphabetical order, and links to a page on The Hobby Blogger containing the proper CSS code and an explanation of where to paste it.

Surprise! Free gradients

Okay, so you’re not a Photoshop wiz, and you don’t want to learn how to make your own gradients. You just want to quickly find a gradient image, upload it to your blog and see how it looks.

Well you’re in luck.

I sat down for a couple nights and created 249 gradient image files in several different colors and shades. You can see them all in the index image below.

Index of Free Gradient Images

I thought it’d be cool to just give something away with no obligation. I know I’m violating all kinds of blogging dogma by giving away something without requiring an email address first, but this is my first give away. Most people would probably sign up for my email list, get the download, and then unsubscribe anyway. So I figure I’ll just save them the trouble.

If you do want to sign up for email updates, in case, you know, I give away something else for free in the future, please do.

The download is a zip file containing several folders named according to the color of the gradients. Each image is 10 pixels wide by 100 pixels tall, a height that works pretty well with how most themes style the comments section.

Just browse through the gradients until you find one you like. Change the filename (or better yet, copy the file and change the copy’s filename) to comments-grad.png. Then upload the gradient image as described above. Assuming you’ve inserted the correct CSS code into your stylesheet, you should see the gradient in your comments when you refresh your browser. Note, you might have to clear your browser’s cache first.

So here you go. Click the button below to download the gradients.

And that’s it. If you use any of these gradients (or one of your own) on your blog, let us know in the comments so we can check it out.

Special thanks to Love with Bug for the Download button.

Deciding Not to Submit My First Guest Post

Rubber Chicken Flying with Pelicans

Licensed under Creative Commons by Dionne Hartnett

I admit it. I chickened out.

A while back I proudly proclaimed I was writing a post that I was going to submit as a guest post to ProBlogger.

Inspired by a Derek Halpern post on Social Triggers, I started developing a topic I thought would be controversial and bring in a bunch of traffic. As I wrote the post though, I began to think it didn’t quite fit The Hobby Blogger, which tends to be more technical and steers clear of controversy.

Then, nearly finished with it, I felt the post wasn’t up to ProBlogger standards. I took a step back, read the post from the perspective of someone else, and realized the tone of post was actually rather tepid. The gimmick had evaporated.

I wasn’t really surprised at that realization because I’m very much a see-both-points-of-view kind of person.

What’s more, I found my topic had already been covered in a better way on ProBlogger by a guest blogger.

So I figured there’s no point in submitting a post about inventing the wheel, which is somewhat ironic given that my post was about rehashing other blog content. Might as well save the first impression for better post.

Was I afraid of rejection? A little, but that’s not what stopped me. You only get one chance to make a good first impression. I wasn’t going to waste it on a post I didn’t feel was up to ProBlogger standards, or would make me look like I hadn’t done my homework.

In the end, I worked hard to finish the article, and posted it here. Judging by the lack of comments on that post, I probably made the right call.

But what do you think, should I have submitted the Bloggers That Rehash post to ProBlogger anyway? Be honest. You won’t hurt my feelings.

Bolster Your WordPress Blog’s Branding – Replace the Default Avatar

Happy Face on Mystery Man GravatarToday I’m going to help you reinforce your blog’s visual identity by showing how to swap out WordPress’s default comment avatar with your own custom avatar.

Why is this important?

By the time readers have scrolled down to the comments section, the most important part of your blog’s visual identity—the header—is no longer visible.

Any chance you can get to etch your blog’s identity into your readers’ minds is a good one.

Assuming you already have a square image ready to go, you can add your own default avatar in just a few minutes. First, though, here’s a little background.

Default WordPress avatar

When readers comment on your blog, WordPress uses the Gravatar platform to display a picture of the commenter next to his or her comment. If a commenter doesn’t have a Gravatar, or their email address isn’t associated with one, then WordPress displays the Mystery Man Gravatar as the default avatar.

Mystery Man Avatar

Not very exciting, is it?

Go to Settings -> Discussion and at the bottom of the page you’ll see some other options for default avatars, but they don’t have a lot of wow factor either.

WordPress Default Avatar Choices

Hopefully you have something you can use to create your own avatar. You can use your blog’s logo, or part of its banner shrunken down. Even some simple geometric shapes that use your blog’s color scheme will work.

What you’re going to do once you’ve created your new avatar is:

  1. Figure out the right size for your avatar.
  2. Upload it to your theme’s images folder.
  3. Add a custom function to your theme’s functions.php file.

1. Avatar dimensions

First, you want to make sure that your custom avatar has the same height and width that your blog’s theme expects. The simplest way to do this is go to the comments section in one of your posts, right-click (control-click for Mac users) on any of the avatars, and save the image.

OS X Chrome Web Image Context Menu

Determine its length and width (it should be square) by selecting the resize or similar function in your favorite image editing application. Alternatively, find the image you just saved in Explorer (Windows) or Finder (Mac), and right-click or control-click the file and select Properties (Windows) or Get Info (Mac).

Create and save your avatar using these same dimensions, and save it as a GIF, JPEG, or PNG file.

2. Upload avatar

Using an FTP program or your host’s web-based file manager, upload the avatar into your WordPress theme’s images folder. Need help finding that folder?

Go to the folder where WordPress is installed. Then go to the wp-content/themes/ folder and look for a folder named after your theme. That’s your theme folder. Inside it there should be an images folder, where you should put your avatar image.

For example, I use Genesis’s Prose theme, so I put my avatar in wp-content/themes/prose/images/

WordPress Theme Images Folder

3. Add custom function

Next, we’ll add a function to your theme’s functions.php file that will add the custom avatar to list of default avatars in the Discussion Settings page. Go to Appearance -> Editor and click on the link that says “Theme Functions (functions.php)” at the right. Paste this code at the end of your theme’s functions.php file.

// Add custom avatar
add_filter( 'avatar_defaults', 'custom_avatar' );

function custom_avatar ($avatar_defaults) {
$myavatar = get_stylesheet_directory_uri() . '/images/custom-avatar.png';
$avatar_defaults[$myavatar] = "Branded Avatar";
return $avatar_defaults;
} 

Note: If you’re using a StudioPress theme that has a Custom Code option in the Genesis menu, like Prose 1.5, you’re not supposed to edit the functions.php file. Instead, click on the Custom Code link, and paste the code in the Custom Functions section.

Genesis Menu -> Custom Code

This function expects the avatar you uploaded is named custom-avatar.png. If your file has a different name, either change the file’s name to custom-avatar.png, or edit the name of the file in the code on line 5 where it says '/images/custom-avatar.png';.

Line 6 controls the label you see next to your avatar in the Discussion settings. Feel free to edit the text between the double quotes as you like. Spaces between words are okay here.

Thanks to Bourne Creative Blog for the code snippet.

Why this code is better

If you’ve read other blogs that cover this topic, some of them have a slightly different function. Instead of using get_stylesheet_directory_uri() in line 5, they use get_bloginfo('template_directory').

The problem with get_bloginfo('template_directory') is that if you using a child theme for a WordPress theme framework like Thesis or Genesis, the get_bloginfo statement will look for your avatar file in the parent theme’s folder (e.g. the Genesis folder), not the child theme’s folder. In that case, a broken image icon will appear instead of your avatar.

Using get_stylesheet_directory_uri() will cover you in either case.

Custom Avatar as an Option in WordPress Discussion Settings

Now you can go back to the Discussion Settings and select your new avatar from the bottom of the list.

Take advantage of every opportunity

Granted, few if any of your legitimate (non-spam) comments will use the default avatar. You will get some, though, so why not take advantage of those opportunities to spice up your blog’s visual appeal and increase its brand awareness?

Oh, and if you want to use the happy face avatar at the top for your custom avatar, feel free.

Thanks for reading.

References
WordPress Codex – Function Reference/get stylesheet directory uri
WordPress Code – Function Reference/get bloginfo

Happy Birthday

The Hobby Blogger Logo with Party HatI just had to take a break to acknowledge that The Hobby Blogger turned one year old yesterday. Man the time has flown by, I’ve learned a heckuva lot, and have gotten to know some great people in the blogosphere.

Because time’s short, this won’t be a state of the blog post, though that’s coming. Here are some more upcoming topics:

  • Customizing the default avatar in your blog’s comments section
  • App.net – Who’s actually on it?
  • Blog housekeeping tips
  • The importance of commenting on new blogs to grow your traffic
  • Changing WordPress’s permalink structure

It’s been a great year, and I’m looking forward to an even better second year. Thank you for everyone’s help, encouragement, comments, and camaraderie.

App.net – A New Social Networking Platform That (GASP) Costs Money

Screenshot of App.net Join Page

On Monday, I committed to pay $50 to get in on the ground floor of a new Twitter-like social network called App.net.

App.net was started by Dalton Caldwell, one of the founders of the social media site, imeem. He became disenchanted with what he believes to be Twitter and Facebook’s tendency to cater to their advertisers at the expense of their users and app developers.

Caldwell’s vision is to build an alternative real-time social network that isn’t supported by advertising, and let developers create apps for the platform without having to worry about whether the apps will compete directly with the way the platform makes money.

To get the platform going, Caldwell created a funding campaign (similar to Kickstarter) to get 10,000 backers to contribute $500,000 by August 13th. There were three tiers of contributions: $50 for members, $100 for developers, and a $1000 Pro tier offering phone support and a personal meeting with Caldwell.

The campaign was a massive success as they raised over $800,000 from more than 12,000 backers.

So why am I writing about this?

I discovered App.net on the last day of the fundraising campaign. Even though I only joined Twitter three weeks ago (I know, right?), I wanted to get in on the ground floor of something new.

You see, there are already plenty of experts on how bloggers should use Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and so on. So rather than rehashing, all that here, I figured I can carve out myself a niche and help bloggers decide if App.net is right for them.

My plan is to write an extra post per week about my experience with App.net. I’ll also place a link to all the App.net posts in the menu at the top to help you find those posts more easily.

Don’t worry, more of your favorite techy WordPress/Genesis related posts are on the way.

If you have any questions you want me to address, leave a comment or shoot me an email and I’d be happy to write about it in a post. While I’m at it, if I answer your question, I’ll also link to your blog in the post to help out your backlinks.

My App.net status so far

As a benefit of being an early backer, I was able to reserve the same handle I use for Twitter. Since I have two Twitter accounts, one for this blog and one for general personal use, I had to choose one handle to use for App.net. I decided to use my personal handle, @BryanTheKerr so I could also use it to benefit my day job activities, as well as this blog.

Now that accounts are registered on a first come, first served basis, I suppose I could get a second account for @TheHobbyBlogger, but I don’t want to pony up another $50 for it. I’m not that crazy.

Already there’s an alpha version (early prototype) of App.net running—you can see the global feed here. I haven’t been able to use it yet though. Because I (and many others) joined so late in the campaign, the developers are backlogged with username conflicts. They had to halt invites temporarily until those conflicts are resolved, so I’m chomping at the bit waiting to get access.

It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out. Many are skeptical of App.net’s chances. I’ll make sure you don’t miss a thing.

Have any you of thought about joining? Do you think it can survive?

Bloggers That Rehash—Are They Lesser Beings?

Boy looking over girl's shoulder

Image copyright Sean Locke (sjlocke) – iStockphoto.com

Consider this scenario: you’re fighting off a bout of writer’s block when suddenly a great post idea pops into your head. You hit up Google to do a little research and discover that your idea has already been covered…in detail…by several bloggers. It’s been done to death.

With the wind now quickly deflating out of your blogging sails, do you give up and rack your brain for a new topic?

Nobody would blame you for doing so. The blogosphere constantly trumpets the “original content” tune. There’s no point in rehashing a topic and beating an already dead horse. Is there?

Sure, there is.

But isn’t that kind of, well, wrong?

Why? Because it’s unoriginal?

The Internet is full of unoriginal content. Try Googling “blog proofreading tips.” You’ll find dozens of articles offering proofreading advice. Nearly all of them cover the same seven or eight tips. Some posts offer a few unique perspectives, but in general, the blogosphere is saturated with proofreading advice.

While amazed by the number practically identical posts, I don’t hold any disdain for any of those bloggers. Do you think their regular readers complained much? I doubt it.

There are valid reasons to rehash content on your blog.

Keep your readers around longer

Some big grocery stores in the U.S. will dedicate half an aisle to hardware and household items (tools, light bulbs, duct tape, etc.). Why do this when other stores like Home Depot or Lowes sell the same stuff at lower prices and with more variety? After all, people rarely go to the grocery store with the sole intent to buy a light bulb.

The store hopes that you’ll remember that your living room light is out while you’re shopping for your food. They want you to opt for the convenience of being able to buy a bulb right now without having to go somewhere else. They make a tidy profit on the bulb, and keep you in the store longer hoping their displays and sample tables will convince to you to buy more food before you leave.

In the same way, you can offer rehashed content as a convenience to your readers in a voice that they recognize and trust. This will keep them on your blog longer, reduce your bounce rates, and increase your attractiveness to advertisers.

The key is to make sure readers (especially new ones) can find it. If you’re rehashing a saturated topic, chances are your post won’t rank high enough in the search engines to draw much organic traffic. Make sure your posts are well cross-linked, ensuring the content can be found in many places throughout your blog.

Save time when you’re in a rut

Sometimes you’re just at a loss for something to write about. Somehow you need to get the juices flowing because staring at a blank screen trying to come up with an original topic isn’t getting it done. You’re worried about meeting self-imposed deadlines to keep traffic flowing to your blog.

Is it really okay to use content from other blogs and put your own perspective on it?

Sure. In fact a popular consumer electronics store in the U.S. does something just like that in their television department.

The “house brand” analogy

Best Buy sells all the major brands of televisions: Samsung, Sony, LG, Panasonic, Vizio, etc. They also sell their own house brand of TV, known as Insignia.

Why would they do that? There are already dozens of great brands in their store. Why would they compete with and risk upsetting their suppliers?

Two words: more profit.

You see, Best Buy doesn’t really make their own TV. They don’t perform all the research, development and manufacturing that the big name brands do. They buy parts designed and built by the other brands, and hire a factory to put them together.

Sometimes they add their own little design tweaks based on buyer feedback, as in the case of their spill-resistant portable DVD players. Essentially, though, they’re creating a TV on the back of someone else’s labor.

Because Best Buy doesn’t have to do any of the R&D legwork, their profit margins are higher on the Insignia TVs.

Combining the Best Buy analogy with the proofreading example, you could write an article by compiling all the proofreading tips you find and commenting on each one based on your experience to make it your own. You didn’t have to produce the tips on your own, but at least you put it in your own brand or voice.

The art of rehashing

Now that we’ve established the legitimacy of rehashing content, here are some guidelines for going about it.

If you don’t need to, don’t do it

Already brimming with plenty of original ideas? Then don’t waste your time rehashing content. Unique, well-written articles will bring in far more traffic than rehashed content. In addition to not bringing in organic traffic, unoriginal content won’t inspire other bloggers to link back to it or share it on social media. If the content is commonly found elsewhere, you’re not likely to get a lot of engagement in the form of comments either.

Easy does it

How much of your content should be rehashed? I can’t give you an exact percentage, but it should not dominate your blog. It should be the dressing, not the salad; the ketchup, not the burger; the pepperoni, not the pizza; the…you get the point. Otherwise, you risk losing your blog’s identity.

Keep it relevant

You should always keep your readers in mind, and consider if they will find the rehashed content useful.

If you’re blogging about model airplanes, a post on SEO tips will put off your readers. Do it too often, and it’ll just look like you’re stuffing your blog for the sake of content.

Don’t use spinners

Put at least some effort into it. Forsake software spinners, which depend mainly on automated synonym substitution in a lazy (and lame) attempt to make your content appear original. They won’t get around Google’s duplicate content penalty, and worse, it’s plagiarism.

Instead, get to know the subject you’re writing about so well, that you can write from the heart, ensuring your voice shines through. Produce an outline based on the articles you’ve read, and then write based on the outline. Switching back and forth between your editor and the web pages you’re referencing tends to make your writing sound too similar to your references.

Give credit

Finally, you should acknowledge where you got your information and link back to the content that served as your research.

I know it can be cumbersome to link back to a lot of articles within the text, especially if you’re referencing several list-type posts. It’s fine to simply link to all of them at once in a References section at the bottom of your post.

If you don’t give credit, and someone calls you out for it, it can damage your reputation, and bye-bye readership

Conclusion

I’m writing this in reaction to the many redundant posts I found a few weeks ago when I was researching proofreading tips. While I mentioned in a recent post what I thought were the two best proofreading articles I could find, I also came up with my own ideas based on my own experience.

But it did get me thinking. Couldn’t I have just summarized a bunch of those posts instead? Sure, I could have. It was just my choice not to—I liked the challenge of finding a new angle.

So while unique and inspiring content is the cornerstone of any successful blog, it doesn’t mean you should skip writing about topics relevant to your blog’s niche simply because your readers can find it elsewhere. Just be aware that with less risk and effort, comes less reward.

What’s your feeling? Am I off base? Is rehashing okay? Have you done it?

Deciding to Write and Submit My First Guest Post

For the last couple of days I’ve been working on a post that I planned to publish today.

I got the idea for this post a while ago, but it’s been sitting on the back burner because it’s a bit controversial, and I wasn’t sure how well it fits with the rest of this blog’s content.

However, Derek Halpern’s How to Manipulate People For Fun (and Profit) inspired me to push forward. His formula for getting posts to go viral is:

Outrage + Controversy = Massive Traffic

So I thought I’d give it a try and see if I could boost my traffic.

As I’ve developed the post, though, a few issues have been nagging me. First, I’m still concerned about the post’s tone note quite matching The Hobby Blogger’s overall tone. I’m not a controversial guy—I’m much more of an even-keeled shades-of-gray kind of person.

Second, I don’t have a ton of readers yet, so I wonder if that limits the post’s ability to go “viral.”

Third, what would I do with all that traffic if it did come? I’m still using FeedBurner for my email list (not great). I don’t have any products to sell, and I have minimal advertising. So I’m not really in a good position to take advantage of a sudden influx of visitors.

My reasons for guest posting

I figured that submitting the article as a guest post could solve all three issues:

  1. A guest post frees me up from worrying how my readers will take the post.
  2. I can get a lot more exposure by leveraging a popular blog’s large audience to spread the post throughout the blogosphere.
  3. Having my post go through another blog’s editorial process would give me some time to get ready to take advantage of the traffic. Incidentally, Michael Chibuzor just wrote a good piece on John Chow’s blog about determining if you’re primed for guest posting.

So with that, I’m going to swing for the fences and submit the post to ProBlogger. I mean, what the heck. This blog’s almost a year old. Getting the post accepted would be a nice anniversary present. And if it gets rejected, I’ll probably end up posting it here.

I’d love to know how and when you decided to write and submit your first guest post. Tell me your experience in the comments.