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Starting Your Own Blog: How to Choose the Right Blogging Tool for You

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Blogs, blogs, blogs. Seems like they're everywhere these days. But with so many blogging tools out there it can be tough to pick the one you need to get started. Molly Holzschlag helps you out by helping you pick just the right blogging tool for you.
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Blogs, blogs, blogs—seems like they're everywhere these days. Bloggers don't even refer to the Web any more; rather, we say Blogosphere when we're referring to the world of weblogs. Although the idea of a personal home page has been around since the earliest days of the Web, blogs have emerged over the last five years, grabbing and holding the interest of technologists, developers, and users alike.

Where Blogs Came From

The history of blogging has its roots in the independent publishing movement of the late '90s. This movement saw individuals, groups, and organizations beginning to regularly publish information on Web sites. The frequent nature of posting took on the feel of a daily journal or Web log. In 2000, Peter Merholz of AdaptivePath coined the term blog, and the new phenomenon had a name.

Very soon thereafter, the demands of regular publishing revealed a need for some means of easily managing content. Sure, CMS technology had been around for some time, but what independent publisher had thousands (or more) dollars to spend on implementing a CMS? Not too many.

The demand for robust, low-cost (or free) and truly useful tools for the independent publisher became a top priority for many open source and community-minded developers. Sites such as LiveJournal and Blogger cracked the door wide open by lowering the barrier to entry for general users of the Web.

The more features that became available, the hungrier bloggers became, and Web technologies were advancing along quite nicely to help facilitate. Server-based systems such as Movable Type and WordPress came to the playing field, radically changing the independent publishing world forever.

Blogging Software

There are so many blogging options these days, so I'll describe just a representative handful. In my mind, the best way to go about this is to describe blogging utilities based on type. The following types of blogging solutions are available:

  • Managed solutions. This category of blogging involves a user signing up for a free or low-cost service that provides you with blogging tools. In many cases, the server hosting can be provided for you as well, such as with TypePad, which also offers a range of pricing and features. Or, you have the option to place your blog on your own server, but manage it through the service's interface, as is commonly done with Blogger. The benefits of these types of solutions are their low barriers to entry and their low (or free) cost. I often recommend choosing a solution like this when you're first starting out because you can quickly determine whether blogging is for you.
  • Community solutions. Many online communities offer some blogging features, as can be found with MSN, Yahoo!, LiveJournal, and others. Also an excellent option for those new to blogging, community solutions tend to be more restrictive in both the options offered and the terms of service allowed.
  • Server solutions. Server solutions answer the need for strong yet modifiable software. Server-based solutions require more technical experience to install, customize, and extend. However, it's the server-based solutions that are the most feature-rich. Due to the community nature of most blogging software, many plug-ins, add-ons, and modifications are developed by the community to be used freely. What's more, server solutions offer better support. Movable Type is a good example of this—because of its licensing structure, technical support is part of the package. With WordPress, its open-source nature lends itself to many resources online where people with a passion for the product and for blogging help each other out with technical concerns.

Of course, other methods exist, including "roll-your-own" blogging tools, in which individuals write their own software to manage blogs. And there's always the good old-fashioned "update-this-HTML file" technique: You simply open an HTML document, and enter the text and markup by hand, and then upload it to the server. But that's kind of old-fashioned, as I think you'll agree!

Blog Features

When it comes to blogging features, it matters little which blogging tool you choose. Most blogs have similar, if not the same features; if they don't, you can almost always find a third-party implementation of a given feature. Here's a look at some of the most common blog features.

Browser-based Editing

As the blog author, you'll find the heart and soul of blogging software in its ability to allow you to simply enter your text. Whether it's off the top of your head or something you've written in a word-processing program, the blog editor is where you're going to spend the majority of your time (unless you're an avid programmer or markup person).

All blog software—whether commercial online hosting packages such as TypePad or server-side such as WordPress—offer an interface that, once you've signed in, you can use to enter your text, add formatting, and make additional edits to your posts.

Automated Publishing

Once you've entered the text to your post and added some formatting, the blog publishing software will automatically publish the post for you to your blog. Naturally, this takes some configuration when you first begin to use your blog software, but once that's done, the publishing system handles the behind-the-scenes processing.

In most cases, you don't even have to add formatting of your own, but the more you know, the more you can do to customize the way your post is structured. Many programs, such as Movable Type and WordPress, offer a variety of options so you have control over how much HTML you can use. This is especially helpful for group blogs or blogs in which content is updated by numerous people.

By controlling access levels for individuals, you can effectively prevent them from making mistakes that go against your style guidelines.

Categorization

Many blog software apps allow you to separate your post topics into categories, and even subcategories in some cases. A blog can have multiple categories; for example, I have about 12 in current use. Each category covers different topics, such as Web Standards, Travel (with a subcategory of Food and Drink), Web Design, Personal, Poetry & Fiction, and so on. As you can imagine, breaking down a blog into categories allows your users to more quickly and efficiently find topics that interest them.

Built-in Archiving Systems

Certainly one of my favorite features of blog technology is archiving systems, which make it a snap to keep your posts organized. Depending on the software, you might have a lot of flexibility for how you want to archive your posts. In the case of advanced software, you can have multiple types of archives at once. Typically, posts are automatically archived, along with any comments to an individual archive page. There are also archives by week, month, and category of post.

Comment Systems

The lifeblood of any discussion-oriented blog, comment systems open up your blog to the potential of community. Comment systems allow site visitors to post comments on your posts, opening the discussion to all blog visitors.

Whether to have a comment system or not is a very unique and important decision that only can be made in individual circumstances. There are several reasons why comments can provide challenges.

Comments require you to be vigilant. There are many "trolls" around who like to cause problems and post rude, obscene, or otherwise questionable material just to be bothersome. So, if you don't have the time to monitor for this sort of thing, you might consider leaving comments disabled.

Even worse, comment spam is a very real and often discouraging aspect of offering comments. Somewhere around 2003 or so, spammers began to attack blog comment systems. In 2004, I went through a nightmarish situation for many weeks, and my very-well-run servers were actually brought to their knees because of the onslaught.

I was using Movable Type at the time, and Jay Allen, who now works for Six Apart full time, built one of the first available spam plug-ins: MT-Blacklist. On a daily basis, Jay worked to help me manage the spam, but in the end it was an impossible situation. I made the switch to WordPress as a result, which really helped for a time. After awhile, however, the spammers got hip to how to spam WordPress blogs, and the problem continued (although never as bad as the original onslaught).

Fortunately, both Movable Type and WordPress have put significant resources into creating a wide range of spam controls, and all new versions of each software has some excellent management for spam built in, as well as additional plug-ins for greater management. This is good news for folks like me who really enjoy the comment features on blogs.

Trackback or Pingback

Trackback (and Pingback, an emerging standard for Trackback) is, at its most simple, a means of sending a notification from one blog to another. At the seamless level, most blogging software automatically pings (contacts) a number of the blog search engines, alerting them when you've updated your blog, and in turn helping to drive traffic to your blog.

At the more specific level, if your blog has Trackback implemented, you can Trackback a specific post. For example, let's say I stop by my friend Meri's blog and see a post there I really like. But rather than leave a comment on her blog, let's say I'm so enthusiastic about her post that I want to write a detailed one on my own blog.

I can then include the URL to her post in my Trackback-enabled weblog software and the title of my blog post. The first line of the post is then sent to her blog. If she also has Trackback enabled, my ping will show up in her comment section of the related post. This process enables conversations to occur across blogs, rather than just staying on one, in turn extending the reach of everyone's blog—and discussion.

Trackback is also being used for other purposes, such as having software ping a blog with data. A good example of this is a live playlist sent from my computer to my blog, which then employs Trackback to send notification to the published playlist on the blog each time a song is updated. This type of usage typically requires additional scripting to work, so it's used mostly by power users or by avid bloggers familiar with the many plug-ins available for given software.

Syndication Feeds

RSS and ATOM are XML applications via which bloggers can push their updates to those folks using newsreader software. RSS and ATOM feeds tend to be available right out of the box in most blogging-software applications. All you need to do is make sure they're turned on and the links to your feeds are somewhere on your blog so folks can find them.

You can have multiple formats for feeds, as well as multiple feed types; it just depends on how far you want to go. Eric Meyer has split his feeds into personal and professional, allowing only those individuals interested in posts related to his technical work to subscribe to those posts, and so on. This is likely to become an increasingly used approach, particularly for those blogs that are what I like to call, "hybrid" blogs—mixes of subjects, where readers might only be interested in certain subjects rather than others.

Notification

Another means of getting the word out is built-in notification via email in many blog systems. This means that each time you publish something, an email is generated and sent to your subscribers.

Built-in Search

Most blogging software offers built-in search for your blog. This is extremely powerful because as you're archiving material each time you post, you begin to generate a lot of pages out of your blog. At this time, I have several thousand posts and many more thousands of comments published to my weblog. So having a built-in search really helps because I don't have to worry that people won't find what they're looking for on my site.

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