As an attorney who has also built and owned many websites of all different sizes, I want to spend a moment and go through some of the most frequently asked questions we get about blogging.
Please keep in mind two things: (1) While I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. You need to consult with an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction before making important legal decisions. This is offered only as generalized legal information, (2) While I do know about US laws, I don’t know the laws in every country. You may need to do some independent research if you’re in another country.
Language to Put On Your Blog
You need to be transparent with users about affiliate links. The user needs to be able to know when your recommendation is unbiased, and if you are getting a kickback for referring a product. Some bloggers have run into legal trouble with the FTC for not being clear about this.
The following is the legal language that we put on all of our niche sites. Amazon’s affiliate program and many others require this information. Please feel free to rip off this language and put in your own information to suit your site:
“This site is owned and operated by Income School LLC, a limited liability company headquartered in Idaho, USA. Income School LLC is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Income School LLC also participates in affiliate programs with Bluehost, Clickbank, CJ, ShareASale, and other sites. Income School LLC is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.”
You may put something similar on your blog:
“This site is owned and operated by Harry Truman. FormerPresident.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.”
We put this information in both the sidebar and footer of every page of our sites. Periodically, we also mention in articles that a link is an affiliate link. For example, we’ll be talking about a really great microphone for podcasting and we’ll write, “I highly recommend buying the Rode Procaster (Affiliate link to Amazon).”
Terms and Conditions & Privacy Policies
It’s probably worth putting terms and conditions and privacy policies on your site. I don’t really panic about this unless I’m selling user data or something, but it’s probably smart to have.
Just put them up as pages on your website (not posts) and link to them from your footer. Done!
Choosing a Business Name
Before you purchase a domain name, you need to make sure your domain name will not violate someone’s trademark. A trademark protects the words or symbols used to represent a business so that the public can recognize the SOURCE of a product or service. Someone needs to know that if they buy a hamburger from a restaurant with a golden arch symbol, that they will get a McDonald’s hamburger.
Bloggers often have trademark problems. For example, you want to make a blog about Tesla cars. You choose the name “TeslaFan.com.” Could Tesla sue you for trademark infringement? Well yes, and they probably would. You’re using the name “Tesla” to give information about cars. It could confuse a potential reader about the source of the information.
To make sure you don’t get into trademark issues, the first step is to check USPTO.gov and perform a TESS trademark search. It works like a normal search engine. Just choose “basic word mark search” and then type in the proposed name of your business and hit “search.” No results is a good thing, but if there are results, see if they are in such vastly different industries that a potential customer wouldn’t be confused about the source of the information.
A clear TESS trademark search doesn’t mean you can for sure use the name. Trademark protection is not gained by registering with the USPTO; it’s gained by simply using the mark. You also need to see if any other businesses are named something confusingly similar. This is especially important for choosing a domain name. If I own ImprovePhotography.com and make that company well-known in my industry and then someone else makes a website called ImproveLandscapePhotography.com, a visitor to the website could reasonably think that it’s a landscape-focused website from Improve Photography.
If you find someone with the same name or a confusingly similar name, it’s really best to just not use the name and avoid problems down the road. You may be able to still use the name if you are geographically separated, do a different type of business, etc. But it’s best to just move on and choose something different. Name ideas are cheap.
Do You Need an LLC?
In my opinion, most blogging businesses do not need to form a separate LLC (or other entity). The likelihood of you being sued because you wrote 30 articles about fly fishing on a blog is extremely unlikely to make anyone mad enough to sue you, and there really aren’t any tax advantages to an LLC over a sole proprietorship until we get further along in your business.
Becuase most new bloggers won’t need to create an LLC, it means that your business is a sole proprietorship. Any business that isn’t another established entity is a sole proprietorship. Your daughter on the sidewalk in front of your house selling lemonade is a sole proprietorship.
For me personally, here are the situations where I’d consider making a separate LLC for my blogging business:
- If you have a site with massive traffic (500,000+ visitors per month). With this much traffic, a negative review of a product or a negative mention of an individual could give rise to a defamation suit.
- If your site is earning $50,000+ per year. Wherever there is money, there are people eager to take it from you.
- If you personally have extremely significant assets and you just aren’t willing to take any chances.
- If you are writing about a high-risk topic. For example, if your site is about making guns at home, exercise tips for people recovering from surgery, etc.
If you don’t fall into one of the categories above, I personally would skip the LLC until your business grows to the point that it makes sense.
For many of you, the “no LLC” option is the simplest and probably the best. You can always switch to an LLC later if your business grows. If you don’t want to make an LLC, you still need to do some work. You need to register a DBA with your secretary of state. A DBA just means “Doing Business As.” It usually only costs $25 and is a simple one-page form where you say that “Jim Harmer” is doing business as “Jim Harmer Photography” or “Improve Photography” or whatever business name I chose. It’s dead simple. Just google the name of your state and “secretary of state” there will be a simple form you fill out and mail with a $25 check and you’re set.
If you decide you want an LLC, then you have a tiny bit more complexity, but it’s not too bad. Google the name of your state and “secretary of state” and you’ll find a simple form for registering an LLC. It usually costs about $100. It’s really quite simple. The only “insider trick” you should know about is that on the line that asks for the purpose of your business, just write “To earn money.” The reason is that if you’re ever sued, you want it to be crystal clear that you don’t ONLY do portraits, for example. If you write something too narrow, the plaintiff may argue that your business is just a pass-through account and that you were engaging in other business endeavors. If the purpose of the company is simply “To earn money” then you can do whatever you want with the company.
File the form and your $100 with the secretary of state and you’ll be on your way. In Idaho, this is a simple 2-week turnaround.
The only thing you’ll need to do long-term is once a year you’ll have to fill out a little card they email you about saying that you’re still in business. It takes about 5 seconds per year.
Keep in mind that creating an LLC is NOT a do-it-once-and-it’s-done-forever type of endeavor. Your LLC will provide absolutely no legal protection to you if you do not treat it as a separate business from your personal money and interest. Keep a separate bank account for the business in the business’s name, once a year have a corporate meeting and take meeting minutes, pay taxes, etc. You have to treat it like a separate entity–because it is.
Also, I should add that the LLC is hardly the only option for asset protection. There are many others, but for 99% of you reading this, the LLC will be the right choice. If your business is bringing in loads of money, you’ll definitely want to talk with an accountant.
How to Get an EIN/TIN
Not everyone needs an EIN. It’s really just for a specific set of issues in dealing with the IRS, but I find that it’s tough to do a lot of business endeavors without one. When you get insurance, sign up with a credit card payment processor, or set up a bank account, they’ll want an EIN.
However, you may find you need one for some things like creating an Amazon affiliate account.
It takes about 5 minutes. Just go here and fill out the simple form and you’ll get your EIN. It’s free. Save it somewhere you can find it. You’ll need it pretty regularly.