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Blogging: The Not-So-New Trend

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November 24th, 2006
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Blogging Essays, General

This is the first entrant in The Blogging Essay Contest from WeblogToolsCollection.com If you would like to participate, please email me your entry at mark at wltc dot net. Please rate this article using the star system below. The competition will be judged primarily on the input from readers like you. Thank you.

This is written by Joseph from Vibetechnology.com.

Probably thanks to MySpace‘s confused contribution to the world, these days even “normal” people have heard of blogging. Blogging allows amateurs to freely publish information and manage sophisticated online, two-way communication with readers around the world.

But, blogging isn’t just for geeks and aspiring musicians anymore. Businesses have jumped on the bandwagon and use blogging as a fluid way to gauge and manage customer sentiment.

Blogs also tend to be a compliment – and in some cases a complete replacement – to traditional online customer support.

So how can blogging help your business?

Use A Blog For Your First Website

While blogs are often only one aspect of a company’s web presence, I’ve noticed another pleasant trend: blogs as a starting point for businesses. Despite the lack of structure – or maybe because of it – blogging is helping expand website creation beyond its techie origins.

Blogs are making it easier for non-technical people to get involved.

Recently, I’ve helped a few folks build their first websites using WordPress. In one case, a mortgage broker wanted to manage an online petition to improve local cell service near his house, while subtly announcing to his neighbors that he’s available for any financing they may need.

Because of the intrinsic database capabilities and open-ended user community support, a blogging platform was a natural environment in which to build him a website.

With one day’s work we built a survey application using GaMerZ’s WP-PostRatings Plug-in, displayed results in an interactive Google map with Ravi Dronamraju, Andrew Turner and Mikel Maron’s GeoPress Plug-in, and for fun, added voice messaging capability via Mark Jaquith’s Evoca Browser Mic Plug-in.

New voice messages send instant emails to him as they occur.

Blogs Are A Ready-Made Database Application

Not long ago, building a “data-driven” website could only be accomplished by well-funded companies. This was partly due to the immaturity of web-based application development, but also because there were too few standards for connecting web pages to databases.

HTML was originally designed to be a set of simplified document markup tags, not a programming language.

HTML was (and mostly still is) too primitive to build sophisticated applications like user management and dynamic data presentation. Connecting web pages to data with any sort of intelligent behavior was performed entirely through primitive CGI programs, which consisted of brittle, unmanageable, and expensive-to-maintain server-side code that didn’t accomplish much.

Nowadays, powerful scripting like that provided by JavaScript and PHP, coupled with open-source databases like MySQL have given rise to more free tools than you can count. Blogs are one such tool!

Choosing A Blogging Platform

If you’re interested in creating your website with a blog, you’ll need to get familiar with the options. The good news is that nearly everything discussed here is FREE (DIY solutions obviously require that you buy machines and/or server space somewhere).

Choosing a blogging platform is like investing in the stock market: How much time are you willing to spend?

There’s no harm in trying everything, provided you have the time.

Hosted vs. Do-It-Yourself Solutions

You will do a little technical work in any case, but there are many free and low-cost hosted solutions available out there that eliminate nearly all of the “geekery” for you. Those who want fine control and extensibility will want to investigate DIY options like the WordPress product we use here on VibeTalk.

Hosted Solutions

For those who don’t want to spend a lot of time managing the operation, there are dozens of free services that will host your site. Here are some of the most common:

  • WordPress.com
  • TypePad
  • Blogger

MySpace-Like Hosted Services

In addition to pure blogging services, a number of big names have jumped into the fray with MySpace-like offerings that include photo managment and shared lists. Their designs are intended for an overall community focus.

  • MSN Live Spaces
  • Yahoo 360
  • LiveJournal
  • Facebook

Do-It-Yourself Solutions

For those who need maximum power and extensibility, I’ve written a brief summary of each of these DIY solutions:

  • WordPress
  • Drupal
  • Movable Type

Popular Hosted Solutions

Hosted solutions are less configurable than DIY, there are capacity limits and your users will most likely have to endure some manner of advertising to offset the provider’s costs. However, the big advantage is in time savings, cost savings, and reliability.

By avoiding the complexity of server software setup, you can focus on the content.

WordPress.com

Summary: WordPress.com is based on the wildly successful DIY WordPress platform we use for VibeTalk. It includes commonly-used extensions like Akismet spam protection as well as backup and import/export utilities. I was able to upload the entire VibeTalk site to the demo site within minutes!

15-20 additional functions are available through a drag-n-drop “Widget” interface that eliminates any manual coding. You can also choose from nearly 50 different themes and allow up to 35 named users/subscribers.

Readers aren’t required to be subscribers, but allowing accounts provides a fine level of privacy control. If you need more capacity, you can upgrade to unlimited users for a one-time fee of $30.

For an additional one-time fee of $15, advanced users can also modify the site’s CSS code for fine-tuned styling.

Finally, when you’re ready to go “pro”, the service will even let you link your own domain names to the site (so, I could make http://www.vibetechnology.com/vt point to this new site, if I wanted). WordPress.com is the pick of the bunch, as far as I’m concerned.Test Site: http://vibetalk.wordpress.com/
WordPress Home Page: http://www.wordpress.com/

Typepad

Summary: TypePad is another popular hosted service that comes in three low-cost flavors: Basic for $4.95/month, Plus for $8.95/month and Pro for $14.95/month. You can test it out for free for 30 days and receive a two month discount if you pre-pay for a full year.

Based on the Moveable Type platform from Six Apart, TypePad has many years experience in providing multi-user blogging services. The interface is excellent.

Users can choose from 43 themes and over a whopping 60 “widgets” in 13 different categories.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to easily import data, so the test site is empty, but I’ll try to decipher the format over the next few days and see how it works (I’m interested in some of the widgets for media, like Pandora).

Note, I started the demo on 11/21/06, so if you click on the link after the 30-day demo expires, it may not be there.

Test Site: http://vibetalk.typepad.com/
TypePad Home Page http://www.typepad.com/

Blogger

Summary: Blogger is a free hosted environment that’ll have you up and running in minutes, with 32 available themes and built-in AdSense advertising capability. Overall, it’s a little too primitive for my tastes – there’s minimal extensibility and any major change requires that you “republish” the site.

Test Site: http://vibetechnology.blogspot.com/
Blogger Home Page: http://www.blogger.com/

Other Types of Services

In addition to pure blogging services, a number of big names have jumped into the fray with MySpace-like offerings that include photo managment and shared lists. Their designs are intended for an overall community focus.

  • MSN Live Spaces
  • Yahoo 360
  • LiveJournal
  • Facebook

While great for personal blogging, I suspect most won’t be using these as business sites. Facebook is the oddball of the bunch in that it is more focused on business connections and reminds me a lot of LinkedIn.

MSN Live Spaces

Summary: Formerly MSN, now part of the “Live” products, Live Spaces provides simplified registration by allowing users to register using an existing Passport/Hotmail account.

Test Site: http://vibetalk.spaces.live.com/
MSN Spaces Home Page: http://spaces.live.com/

Yahoo 360

Summary: Yahoo 360 is another social network service that integrates nicely with your existing Yahoo account profiles. You can immediately see other Yahoo members using the service that are in your address book or chat list.

Test Site: http://360.yahoo.com/vibetalk/
Yahoo 360 Home Page: http://360.yahoo.com/

Live Journal

Summary: Another service based on Movable Type, LiveJournal is one of several offerings from Six Apart, the inventors of blogging. LJ is a simplified social network with the usual acoutraments.

Users can choose from three service options, including Paid for $2/month, Plus (free), and Basic (free).

Test Site: http://joeloew.livejournal.com/
LiveJournal Home Page: http://www.livejournal.com/

Facebook

Summary: Facebook is quite a bit different from other offerings in this group. Although it is a well-rounded social service, the focus seems more business oriented. Be sure to check out LinkedIn for pure business connection management.

Test Site: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=509203182&hiq=joe%2Cloew
Facebook Home Page: http://www.facebook.com/

Do-It-Yourself Solutions

When you get into true DIY solutions, things get decidedly more involved. The advantage, of course, is that you get complete control and virtually unlimited extensibility. WordPress and Drupal are free and open-source. Movable Type provides an unsupported free version for personal use only. All three are well-supported by community developers.

The following blurbs should give you insight into each, but are not exhaustive reviews. However, because I have personally setup several WordPress environments, I’ve commented with a bit more depth on the platform’s usefulness…

WordPress

Summary: In the past year, WordPress has steadily climbed to be one of the (if not the) most widely-used blogging platforms. Because of its grass-roots, open-source approach, it’s difficult to accurately gauge just how many developers, users and extensions there are out there – but it’s vast.

Every time I think I might want to write a plug-in extension, I find that someone (indeed, sometimes more than one person) has already done it. You want geo mapping? Done. Flickr photo integration? Done. Del.icio.us tagging? Skype phone integration?

Done and done, ad infinitum.

Suprisingly, with all this power, installation and initial setup is amazingly easy. WordPress provides the famous “5 Minute Install” that will have you up and running in two steps. That is, provided you have the basics in place.

Installation requires an HTTP server like IIS or Apache and a recent version of PHP. If you are starting from scratch, in all likelyhood, you will need to set aside a day to make it all work right.

Once you’re done, though, extensions and maintenance are so easy you’ll be tempted (like me) to forego the usual precautions of developer staging and make direct edits to your production site. Don’t. :-)

WordPress is also available in a multi-user version called WordPress MU, for those who intend to provide a hosted service like those listed above. Guess what? It’s free.

VibeTalk is one modest example of what you can do with WordPress, and here are a few more to illustrate just how far one can go with it.

The Apple Blog ordered list ZDNet Techblogs

And finally, hot off the presses – WordPress has just inked a deal with KnowNow to provide a true enterprise solution called KWEE. For details, see WordPress Takes On SixApart With Enterprise Edition And WordPress.com.

WordPress Home Page: http://www.wordpress.org/

Drupal

Summary: Drupal is differentiates itself from the other two choices by providing a more holistic “content management” solution, of which blogging is only a part. The platform evolved what was essentially a discussion forum to a multi-function, highly extensible collaboration environment and is now in version 5 of the series.

Some of the major reference applications are still more like threaded discussions than blogs, but if you’re up for the customization challenge, you can do just about anything with it. Here’s one excellent example: Project Opus.

For a list of how others use it, visit the case study page: http://drupal.org/cases.

Drupal Home Page: http://www.drupal.org/

Movable Type

Summary: Based on the very first blogging platform by SixApart, Movable Type is the most seasoned choice of the three. Like WordPress, MT appears to have evolved considerably and provides countless 3rd party extensions for all manner of popular functions.

For the database, MT has better support – MySQL and Postgresql out of the box and extensions for advanced programmers to connect to other data sources.

Reviews of MT invariably cite the product’s power and programmability, but tend to blast it for its complexity. Another reported disadvantage is that administrators must perform a seperate publishing step to make content changes visible. Of course, the biggest disadvantage of MT is that it is not open source and requires a stiff license fee for professional use.

One of the more prominet examples of what you can do with MT: About.com.

Movable Type Home Page: http://www.movabletype.com/

Summary

When I first discovered blogging, I have to admit I didn’t think much of it. It is wholly unstructured and not a little confused with new terminology. In fact, I initially built VibeTalk as a way to experiment with MoodSense and ultimately prove that blogging was not a very good way to share information.

However, after a year, I have to begrudgingly admit that I’m hooked on the concept, if only because it has made building a professional-looking website a no-brainer. The more I learn, the more I like it.

As you wade through the many options, perhaps considering your first foray into the digital realm, maybe you too will find blogging tools useful. These ten choices should get you started. Good luck and let us know your feedback and opinions!

Further Reading

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Comments

  1. Woodrow Jarvis "asim" Hill (1 comments.) says:

    A correction: Livejournal is one of the oldest social networking services, and predates even MovableType; the only thing they have in common, programming-wise, is that both were written in Perl.

  2. MatGB (4 comments.) says:

    Overall, an excellent summary, and from what I’ve experienced, I mostly agree.

    Blogger is more flexible than you give it credit for, but only if you’re happy to programme html and css yourself, which most won’t be. I learnt a lot using it, but would never go back now.

    One amendment needed however: Livejournal (where I started and still use a lot) is NOT powered by MT. LJ was a separate company for 5 years before 6A bought it, and their Open Source platform is completely different and very distinct, in fact a lot of the architecture, especially memcache, is used by sites such as wikipedia and slashdot, and had been for a long time before 6A got their grubby little paws on it.

    As it happens, for a company planning an intranet blogging platform, LJ as an installed system might be a VERY good option, not least because it’s free, but also because each post can have completely different security levels. Absolutely no good, currently, for open to the public use though.

  3. Joe (5 comments.) says:

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone – I’m flattered to see this show up on WTC. A couple of corrections about some mistated info on my part:

    * LiveJournal is NOT based on Movable Type – it was around before and bought by SixApart

    * SixApart is not the “inventor” of blogging. Although not 100% clear, LiveJournal could arguably take that title. My misunderstanding probably stems from the concept of trackbacks, which SA did invent (I view as one of the underpinnings of modern blogging)

    * I didn’t mean to give short shrift to Blogger – you can indeed customize it through the header editor, I just didn’t think that was a very effective (and probably entirely underutilized) way to “customize”. I can’t imaging trying to debug it. Am I missing something?

  4. MatGB (4 comments.) says:

    I think that covers it. I’m not sure about underused as regarding blogger; I see a large number of Blogger powered sites around (many of which aren’t on Blogspot), and some of them are simply exceptionally well designed.

    I use it as a CMS on occasions, mostly for sites that I need to give to tech illiterates to keep updated. Out of preference, I’d use WordPress, but that’s not always an option. But yes, debugging can be a pain. OTOH, the preview/cancel edits functionality is in many ways better than WP, and you need have no knowledge of PHP to get it working.

    LJ as first blogging software? Possibly. Very early, anyway, and still very good for personal stuff. And 6A did indeed invent TB. Their only real breakthrough. Ah well.

    I started with LJ, I now use WordPress. If I was to start again, I’d likely go with wordpress.com or LJ depending on emphasis, and recommend those new to the idea do the same. As a CMS, WordPress has some limitations, but for a basic package, it’s fine. WordPress.org is my overall fave, as long as you have access to someone who groks FTP. Which I self taught, so it ain’t hard.

  5. Andy (4 comments.) says:

    A brilliant round-up of blogging options, which is quite an achievement given how many options are out there. Most people get horribly confused and put-off by the plethora of choices available to them, and end up – as with most services – going with the ones friends recommend.

    I would agree with previous comments that perhaps you were a little quick in what amounted to a disparagement of Blogger. It is woefully inadequate to the needs of established, serious as it were, bloggers but it is very attractive to the non-technical and the newbie precisely because it offers a limited, less confusing, array of options. There is a place for simple, restricted options – clearly so, for the platform remains hugely popular.

    And, over time, many Blogger users find ways to customise their sites way beyond what’s offered ‘out of the tin’. For myself, there can only be one option for the foreseeable future – and that’s the full version of WordPress.

    The Blogger aspect is a fairly small qualm, though. A great essay overall. x

  6. Bob Gulden (1 comments.) says:

    Sounds Like great advice to me



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  4. [...] There are approximately ten days left in the Blogging Essay Competition and there have been two entries so far. A lot of people have been very helpful in reviewing these essays and many people have posted helpful comments and suggestions for the authors. However, we are still far shy of the ten entries required to judge the competition. [...]

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