Last week someone commented on one of my groups about their perception of blogs. Their opinion? Free blogs are not professional. Only own-domain blogs have credibility.
I chipped in my two cents and thought my answer might make a good blog post for general consumption because I have a free blog - this one- and I have a blog for which I pay for my own domain name - Joan Slings Words.
Truth in Blogs
A free blog can look professional, have a high Google PageRank, and a high standing in SERP.
A domain-owned blog can look crappy, have a zero PR, and never come up in the top 10 SERPs.
I've seen free blogs that are crap just like individually-owned domain blogs that are crap. I've seen great free blogs just like great individually-owned blogs.
No blanket statement can be made regarding the professionalism of a blog based solely on whether it's on a free platform or not. Everything depends on these basic factors: content, aesthetic design, awareness of the intended audience, and consistency of effort.
You must have good content that educates and/or entertains. It must always be fresh and not rehashed and should appeal to the audience you've identified as yours.
On the Internet, people like pictures with their words. Art serves a couple of purposes: it draws attention, refreshes the eyes, and, if done properly, hints at what the article is about. For instance, the graphic I used is, I think, humorous and tells you immediately that I'm giving an opinion piece, though it's opinion based on experience. I hope it draws in my intended audience - other writers, readers, and those wanting to know whether to pay for a blog or set up a free one.
Aesthetics are more than throwing in a picture with a post. The design of your blog, the banner graphic, the formatting, the fonts used, the colors, the way the elements are arranged, the sheer volume of referral image links you have, the ads - all that either enhances or detracts from your content. If it detracts too much, no one will bother reading what you have to say because your site is an eyesore.
Every blogger should have an idea of who they want as readers. Sure, we'd all love to have millions reading our deathless prose, but what are the odds? Instead of shotgunning it with articles about everything on the planet, really put some thought into what you want to say and to whom you wish to say it. My audience? Like I said, other writers, readers, those interested in making the Internet work for them, and those interested in pop culture. That's the major groups I hope to attract because those are the things that interest me. Now, there are sub-groups, but I won't go into all that. Just know who your audience is.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." However, he wasn't talking about blogging. He was talking about thinking. He meant that a great mind doesn't have to think consistently from one day to the next. When it comes to blogging, consistency from one day to the next is the gold standard. Inconsistency is the hobgoblin that marks your blog as an also ran.
Not many of us can blog every single day so strive for consistency of effort with an editorial calendar tailored to your time constraints whether that be every other day, only on weekends, or only once a week. Establish a schedule and be consistent in keeping it.
Professionals in design and/or writing fields have higher expectations so if they are your intended audience, you're going to have to be on your toes with great design and well-written content expressed with good grammar. I know I'm more critical of blogs written by writers than blogs from the general population. Of course, the general population of non-writers is usually much less critical than professional writers and artists. That's why you can see a free site chockablock with pulsating ads and grammatical errors that may make you wince yet it manages to attract an audience and become popular. (I'm thinking of a craft site I've visited.)
From my website design/review experience, remember these points.
1. Choose a memorable name for your blog or website.
2. Use good navigation.
3. Avoid Flash because it hampers your ranking.
4. Give value to visitors with real content.
5. Use background colors that don't irritate. The number one complaint? Black background with white text.
6. Use images.
7. Make text easy to read.
8. Format for web writing.
9. Make sure load time is minimal.
10. Make site universally accessible.
If you build it and populate it with good content, they will come.