Comparing blog publishing tools: an update

Time to check: Are you using the right blogging tool?

“Blogs Will Change Your Business” declared the front cover of the May 2, 2005 Business Week. Without question, the Web publishing format is gaining popularity as a legitimate business and marketing tool. Technologically savvy businesses are using blogs, or weblogs, to build relationships with their customers by sharing information, corporate culture and expertise. Technologically savvy publishers, from the New York Times to freelancers, are also jumping into the medium.

Journalists (or would-be journalists, depending on whom you talk to) find blogs are an ideal format for handling breaking news situations and commentary or columns. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, maintains a local breaking news blog that keeps readers abreast of current stories with local significance.

But before the fun of posting about earthquakes or political squabbles can start, every new blog publisher faces the problem of selecting, installing and configuring blog software. The array of possible options and configurations varies widely. While all blog software involves a learning curve, the amount of customization possible means that selecting the right software is important for a quicker, easier start.

There are two kinds of blog software available to the hopeful blog publisher. The first is hosted blog software. A hosted blog is one where all data and the publishing interface reside on the server of the blogging software company. The alternative is independent blog software that must be downloaded from the blogging software company and installed on a Web server. There are pluses and minuses to both. Your decision may be influenced by everything from how fast you need to get your blog up to how much control you want to have over the final design.

In both cases, the blog is set up and controlled by a database that handles the posts and the way they may be sliced and diced for display. Nearly all blog software stores your posts in a database, which permits handy things like searching and archiving.

Your blog’s appearance and layout is usually controlled by a set of templates that includes information about things like the background color and logo placement, as well as the formatting information for how many posts are displayed on the front page. The power of databased content and templates working together has produced the Weblog phenomenon – easily updated Web sites that usually display updated content from most to least recent, along with reader comments and feedback.

Blogging jargon

Whichever blog software package you chose, there are a few technical options you may want to look for. Here’s a short glossary of blog technology:

Post: Every time you put an update on your blog, you create a post. In typical computer jargon fashion, this noun can also be used as a verb: You can post to your blog. Posts are also sometimes called entries.

Comments: Blogs are often referred to as conversations, and it’s the ability of your readers to leave comments on each post you make to your blog that creates the feel of a conversation. Comments are usually time-stamped and identified by the author’s name and perhaps a link to their Web site or blog. On some blogs, comments are threaded so that readers can comment on other comments, but on most blogs comments are simply displayed chronologically.

Comment spam: Sad to say, spam is a problem on blogs just as it is in email. Comment spam, as you would expect, is left in the comments of a blog. It usually includes a few words and a link to a Web site. The point for the spammer is to get as many links as possible to the Web site, giving it higher search engine rankings.

Categories: Categories permit a blogger to subdivide content, putting posts about politics into one basket and posts about celebrities in another. Categorization helps readers read only what they are most interested in and is a good tool for those scanning a blog’s archives.

Trackbacks: Trackback technology helps bloggers link back to other posts on related subjects. Functionally it’s a little complicated: If you’re posting about something you’ve seen on another blog, look for the Trackback URL. Paste that URL into the allotted spot in your own blogging software, and the two pieces of blog software will communicate, building a link from the original post to yours (without the other blogger having to life a finger).

Trackback spam: Like comment spam, but done via Trackback.

Pings: There are several blogging tracking Web sites where you can search for other blogs and look for recent posts. If your blog software allows you to ping those sites when you post, that post gets included in the ping site’s index, potentially increasing your traffic.

RSS/Atom feeds: In the blogosphere, syndication is a big deal. With millions of blogs to read, many consumers use news aggregators, or readers, to pull in posts and read them, rather than visiting 150 blogs every day. RSS and Atom are two flavors of blog syndication.

Blogroll/lists: Ever noticed those long lists of other blogs alongside the posts in a blog? That’s a blogroll, a list of the blogs read by the blogger whose site you are on. Sometimes lists are also kept to recommend books and other media, as well.

News aggregation: Many blog software packages allow you to pull in and display the RSS or Atom feed of another blog. This is useful if you want to create a site with constantly updated content fed by blogs. For example, a blogger who posts about politics could pull in the feeds of other political blogs.

Moblogging: Moblogging is the short form of “mobile blogging.” Lots of blog software lets you post by e-mail from your phone, PDA, or anything else that allows you to send e-mails.

Blacklist: Blacklists are usually lists of URLs that have been identified as spam URLs, and that are therefore eliminated from comments and Trackbacks on your blog. With most blog software, the software company builds and maintains a common blacklist for all users to which individuals can contribute.

Captchas: Captchas are an additional security feature for commenting and user registration. By providing an image that includes letters and numbers, and by requiring the user to type in those letters and numbers, blog software can eliminate some of the comment and Trackback spam produced by robot programs.

URL Redirection: In an effort to render comment and Trackback spam ineffective, links included in comments and Trackbacks are tagged with the NOFOLLOW tag, which indicates to search engines that it shouldn’t be counted when tallying search engine rankings for a Web site.

Skins: Most blog software includes a set of pre-designed templates that give the blog a certain look and feel. These are called skins.

Post scheduling: Some blog software allows you to write posts and schedule them to be published at some point in the future. This is handy for vacations and holidays.

Bookmarklets: A bookmarklet is a link directly to the new post page of your blog software. If you add this small Javascript to your browser toolbar, it’s a shortcut to posting quickly.

The tools

This chart reflects the features and options configurable in the default installation of each software application. In some cases additional modules and plug-ins can add functionality that is not available in the default installation.

Blogger is a free, hosted blogging tool. It’s one of the oldest blogging tools around and today has millions of users. Blogger promises that you will be blogging within 10 minutes of coming to the site, and in fact does deliver on that. This tool is about the simplest one around, and though free, nonetheless has an impressive array of features.

The biggest hole in Blogger’s offerings is the lack of post categorization, followed closely by the need to know HTML and Cascading Style Sheets to make custom changes to the templates provided. Unlike some of the most complex hosted services, Blogger doesn’t make customization easy, though it does provide some attractive skins to choose from.

One unusual feature of Blogger is the integration with the Audioblogger service. Program the Audioblogger number into your phone, and you can put audio recordings on your blog quickly by simply calling the number and recording yourself. This offering is unique among blog software packages.

Of special note is that Blogger does allow you to FTP the files generated for your blog to your own Web site. Used together with customization of the Blogger template, this fairly unique functionality means that your readers may never realize that you are using Blogger. It also means that you can publicize your own domain name, rather than the more usual Blogger URL:

Blogger is perfect for the future blogger who’s in a hurry and less than interested in design customization. If your priority is to start blogging now, you can’t do better than Blogger. Clearly, it’s also a great tool for those on a budget, since there are absolutely no costs. In fact, you need not even have a Web site or a domain name, so you can literally get started using Blogger without spending a penny.

Very few professional Bloggers stick with Blogger for very long, if they even start there. Because it is so simple, and perhaps because it is free, most professional bloggers choose to use blogging software that has more prestige (read: is harder to set up and install). However, it is an ideal tool to use when first beginning, especially if you want to test blog for a couple of weeks before devoting any serious time or money to a blog.

Cost: Nothing
Time to launch: 10 minutes

Typepad is one of Six Apart‘s hosted half blogging software services (read about Movable Type below) and one that has proved very popular with journalistic blogging efforts. Jim Romenesko uses Typepad for his Obscure Store blog; Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post writes Achenblog using Typepad.

The Typepad pricing scheme and features are divided into three levels: Basic, Plus, and Pro. Design customization is extremely limited at the Basic level and only fully accessible at the Pro level. If you want to run a group blog, or give some people editor access and others publishing access, you must go with the Pro account.

At all account levels, Typepad has a built-in feature called Typelists that allows you to build lists, associating each item with a URL. These lists can be added with a minimum of fuss to the left- or right-hand column of your blog – no need to touch the templates. Use a Typelist for your current reading list, links to other blogs, or links to new stories.

In some ways, it is actually more usable than its elder brother Movable Type. Typepad is a good option for users who want to get started quickly but still want all the bells and whistles. Customization is possible, but complicated, so it’s also a good option for those who just want a blog that works without fussing too much over how it looks. However, Typepad Plus and Pro do a better job than most blog software at allowing you to configure layout options without having to go into the templates.

Cost: $4.95 – $14.95 monthly, depending on level of service chosen
Free trial: 30 days
Time to launch: 20 minutes

Tucows is the creator of the Blogware blog software package, a robust system with a great selection of the top blogging tools. Blogware, like Typepad, can be difficult to customize, even for an experienced HTML jockey. However, it also provides a fair number of options within the administration interface to let you set up layouts and styles without getting into the templates.

Purchasing a Blogware blog is a little different than some of the other blogging software packages; you must get your Blogware blog through a reseller, so expect prices and packages to vary. It’s a good idea to shop around to get the best package for your needs. A good reseller to start with is Blog Harbor.

It’s unusual – and useful – that Blogware permits you to upload files via FTP to the server where your blog is hosted. If you’re looking to create a blog that has a few non-blog pages, this is especially helpful.

Cost: varies by reseller, but expect to pay from $8-$15 a month
Free trial: usually offered for 30 days
Time to launch: 20 minutes

WordPress is a solid, powerful blogging system ideal for publishers who are on a budget but who don’t want to give up any functionality. Professional blogger Darren Rowse maintains nearly 30 blogs using WordPress, from his popular ProBlogger to an Athens Olympics Blog. In two weeks the Athens blog received close to 2 million readers, said Rowse – a real testament to WordPress’ ability to handle heavy traffic loads.

Each WordPress post is formatted with search engine friendly URLs that also look good to humans. Comments can be extensively moderated: you can review them before they go live. You can also filter comments containing certain words or more than a certain number of links.

WordPress’ built-in blogroll management tool allows you to categorize blogs, set criteria for the display order of the links, and turn off and on visibility. You can also import an existing blogroll from some link manager services.

This software has inspired numerous developers to write plugins and extra features for use with WordPress, which makes plugin installation a quick and painless affair. You will find that the selection of additional themes (or skins), for instance, numbers in the hundreds, and that WordPress fans and friends have developed tools for adding photo galleries, a music player, an event calendar, and even geo mapping.

WordPress promises a 5-minute installation, but for that to be true you do have to have some familiarity with uploading files to a Web server and using an FTP client.

Cost: Free
Time to launch: 20 minutes

Movable Type
Movable Type, created by Six Apart, is perhaps the best known of all blogging software tools. Built by a husband and wife team looking for a better tool for blogging, the system is powerful, but not simple to install or use. Although it has been used to create Web sites that don’t look entirely like blogs, doing so requires quite a bit of code tweaking. Movable Type is used by blogger Joshua Micah Marshall to create Talking Points Memo, and by Kevin Roderick who writes the L.A. Observed blog.

As a blogging tool alone, Movable Type has nearly every feature you might desire, and continues to add more. Many of their users are highly technical themselves, and have created additional plug-ins that can be added to the standard installation. You might say that Movable Type is the blogging package chosen by bloggers who care what other bloggers think, and who notice and appreciate other Movable Type blogs. If you are looking for street “cred” in the blogosphere, this is the software for you.

The least attractive functionality of Movable Type is the need to rebuild the blog whenever you make a change to a template, a configuration setting, or add a new category. Waiting for the rebuild is annoying, to say the least, and certainly slows down any customization work you do to the design or layout. This can be addressed by turning on dynamic page-building, but some users have found that the server load that occurs as a result is unacceptable to their Web host.

For the non-technically inclined, installation of this software can be quite a challenge. Don’t attempt it all if you aren’t already comfortable with uploading and downloading files to a Web server. There are several Web hosts that offer Movable Type installation as part of their package of services.

There is no trial period for Movable Type, but there is a free version of the software that you can download and install. The paid license entitles you to support, some promotion, and discounts on future upgrades.

Cost: MT’s pricing scheme is fairly complex. Personal users will pay at least $69.95. Commercial users pay at least $199.95.
Time to launch: 2 hours

Expression Engine
pMachine’s Expression Engine isn’t well-known, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving this powerful and extensible software a try. It is technically more accurate to call Expression Engine a content management system, rather than just a blogging software tool. However, it grew out of blogging and has all of the blogging bells and whistles: moblogging, Trackbacks, archiving and so on. Dennis Lloyd uses it for the independent information resource iPodlounge.

In addition to the usual set of blogging functionality, Expression Engine has incorporated modules for image galleries and a mailing list. Uniquely, you can crop, resize, and rotate images in the Expression Engine photo gallery tool, in addition to batch processing a set of images. The people and search engine friendly URLs the system generates are of particular interest to bloggers looking for good search engine listings. You can run multiple Weblogs through the same installation of Expression Engine, and each “new post” page can be customized exactly to fit the use. Most blog software limits you to title, entry, extended entry, and excerpt fields. With EE, you can rename those to suit your publication and add more as needed.

Templates are editable online through a simple textbox interface, but you can set up the system to generate files you can download and edit with an HTML editor. Learning how information relates and how to link across the site is a challenge: expect to spend several hours learning how to use this system. Your reward will be incredible flexibility in building a site that has constant updating needs, blog or not.

Expression Engine is ideal for publishers that need to do more than just blogging; this system is ideal for handling hundreds of members, multiple user groups with different editing privileges, and sites with several blogs. Technically speaking, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Cost: $149 for a non-commercial license, $199 for a commercial license
Free trial: 14 days if installed on your own server, 30 days with a hosted version
Time to launch: 2 hours