Maintaining an active blog is one of the best ways to gain exposure on the web, and getting started is often pretty simple.

Keeping things going is what usually takes the most work: in nearly all cases, success in the blogosphere is about more than simply having a site with useful information. Understanding style, themes, and design theory can work wonders when it comes to improving a site’s effectiveness, just as paying attention to coding and keyword use can help pages load faster and appear more readily in search engines. The possibilities can be overwhelming, but in most cases there are really only five core skills needed for blogging success.

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Mastery of Basic Web Publishing Programs

One of the first things that blog visitors will notice is site layout. Many blogs come with standard templates, but taking the time to learn more nuanced programs can make a big difference when it comes to visual impressions. Photoshop and Illustrator are good places to start; more advanced designers may choose to work with programs like InDesign or OmniGraffle. All of these allow web designers to create unique themes and write original code for their sites. Most are fairly easy to learn, but some experimentation is usually required at first.

Grasp of Graphic Design Theory and Typography

Beyond simple graphic arrangement is a science of careful balances and visual measurements. Having a so-called “good eye” is often all that is required to start out in blog design, but understanding the difference between a layout that maximizes content and one that distracts from it is essential as traffic grows. The same thing can be said when it comes to typography. Experimenting with fonts, designing personalized lettering, and using words as statements in and of themselves can often be an easy way to make a blog’s message more powerful without a lot of effort.

Simplification of Both Code and Layout

Site designers must be wary of becoming overly enthusiastic with graphics and features, though. “When there aren’t tons of complicated decorative elements in your site’s design, your content takes center stage,” blogging resource Noupe said in a 2009 “simplicity” tutorial. “By putting your content front-and-center, you make it easier for visitors to quickly scan what’s there. These visitors will perceive your site as more user-friendly and are more likely to return in the future.” Simplification also applies to the non-visible elements of a blog, namely the coding and style sheet specifications. Choosing just a few graphics or interesting images without numerous widgets, borders, and frames helps speed load time. It is also much easier to isolate and fix bugs when there is less code to sift through, which reduces server downtime and reader frustration.

Writing and Editorial Prowess

The snappiest web design out there is unlikely to boost blog success unless supported by useful, easy-to-read content, though. While writing and editing are not strictly design features, they are a crucial part of site layout, which makes them well worth a second look. “A truly effective web designer is more highly skilled with writing and editing copy than with producing graphics in Photoshop,” Web Design From Scratch, a blogging basics primer, advises. Not only does readability promote usability, it can also help with brand communication and client retention. Taking the time to learn how to write and edit for a blog’s compressed space is often a skill that will pay back in dividends, particularly when paired with complementary layout and graphic schemes.

Search Engines and Link Management Skills

Even the best designed and maintained blog needs to be able to attract readers in order to find a market niche. Learning how to incorporate search engine optimization, or SEO, into a blog’s written text and source code is one of the most effective ways to push the content through to search engine users. To a certain degree, managing outbound links can do the same. “Links may be good, but too many dilute link juice and may cause crawling issues. Without sufficient PageRank, Google only crawls so many links per page,” the Daily SEO Blog said in a post describing simple tricks to boost page views. The best way to maximize links, the post said, is to embed them within key phrases, aiming for about 100 in any active archive. All of these essential skills can be self-taught, and bloggers who have the time and energy to experiment with different templates and layouts often find success. For many, however, pursuing more formal training can be very beneficial. A number of art institutes and design schools offer degree programs in graphic design, many of which are available online. Individual courses and tutorials are also widely available over the Internet. Most online design programs give students the chance to experiment with a range of tools in real time, all while getting feedback from experts in the field. Taking even just a single course on one type of program or skill can have a dramatic impact on a student blogger’s skill and marketability—and usually ends up saving time and stress in the long term.

[Image credit: ethanhein on Flickr]