Starting Your Own Blog

The past decade has seen incredible growth in the blogosphere. Tens of millions of mostly non-techie, non-professional bloggers now keep the Internet buzzing, thanks in no small part to the emergence of easy-to-use blog-building tools and affordable blog-hosting services that handle all the heavy lifting. It's safe to say that it has never been easier to start your own blog. But where do you start?

For most neophyte bloggers, the answer to that question is with a blog-hosting service. Even if you're a web-savvy dude, the sheer convenience of a service that maintains a website designed especially to host multiple bloggers makes it the logical place to start. Once you've dipped your toe into the blogo-sphere and played around with some of the popular, user-friendly tools and features, then you might decide you want something more sophisticated, and crank up your own blog site using some of the more powerful blog-publishing software.

Blog-Hosting Services

Blog-hosting services provide a range of features and capabilities. You won't necessarily need all of them, but here are a few you should look for:

  • Comments controls: A big part of blogging is user feedback. You'll want a system that gives you control over the way your readers can respond to your blog, and how you can respond to them.

  • Access management: Although blogs are generally open to the public at large, you might prefer to restrict your blog to a smaller audience. Access management capabilities allow you to keep your blog in the family, or share it with the world.

  • Design templates: Your blog page won't need the visual impact of a full-on web page, but it still needs to look good, and the elements need to be well organized. Look for a gallery of pre-defined page layouts. Look, too, for catalogs of widgets, which are small graphical elements that jazz up your page with added functionality and links.

  • Photo posting features: Photos are common blog elements nowadays, and even if you don't think you'll be posting any, you might want to make sure you have the option. Also, consider support for audio and video clips.

  • Stats tracker: Speaking of stats, at some point, you're going to want to know how many people are reading your blog. Some hosting services provides tools for measuring things like pageviews per post, referrals, and the like inside the app tracking the traffic you generate.

  • Support for your favorite blogging tools: If you love WordPress, be sure you sign up with a hosting service that supports it. In general, look for services that seem to be aware that there's a world of third-party tools out there.

  • Mobile posting capabilities: It's amazing how much we do nowadays from our cell phones. We e-mail, shop, surf the web — and, yes, blog. A mobile posting capability is essential for active bloggers who really want to keep their blogs up to date.

  • Mobile publishing capabilities: You're not the only one using your iPhone more than your desktop computer, so it might improve your readership stats if you sign up with a hosting service that publishes to mobile platforms.

  • Blogging from social networking sites: This feature lets you post to your blog from, say, Facebook or MySpace.

  • Spam protection: Yup, it's even a problem on blog sites. Look for a service that deals with spam, and while you're at it, check out its overall security posture.

  • Ad revenue sharing: Some blog hosting services post advertising on their site, and if your blog is driving traffic to the site, you might be able to get a cut of the revenue.

  • Free versus fee: Many blog-hosting services are free, which is great, but services that charge a small monthly fee shouldn't be struck from your list out of hand. Consider what's provided; it might be worth it.

  • Also, look for a blog-hosting service that is search engine optimized (SEO). This means that it has employed techniques to improve your ranking on the popular search engines, which improves your chances of being found by web surfers. SEO is not achieved with so-called search engine marketing (paid ranking upgrades), but rather with technology and web know-how.

    The number of services that host multiple blogs on the web is growing. Here are a few of the better known services and what they provide:

  • Blogger: a free hosting service maintained by search engine giant, Google. Launched in 1999, it's one of the best-known blog-hosting services. Its feature list includes: a simple user interface, customizable templates, photo and video support, comment controls, reader notification, mobile support, group blogging, and a search feature, among others. (www.blogger.com)

  • WordPress.com: from the maker of the world's most popular blog publishing platform, this service is also free, with premium features available for a fee. Its feature list includes design templates, a widget gallery, three gigabytes of file storage, support for photos, and stat-tracking tools, among others. It's currently hosting more than 300,000 bloggers. (www.wordpress.com)

  • LiveJournal: the service offers free blog hosting, but with an emphasis on the personal journal aspect of blogging. Provides design templates, privacy controls, integration with YouTube, Photobucket, and Slide. Launched the same year as Blogger. Fee-based upgrades are available. (www.livejournal.com)

  • Typepad: a fee-based, blog-hosting service, it provides customizable design templates, mobile support, a widget catalog, podcasting support, spam control, revenue opportunities, and traffic tracker, among others. Offers a fourteen-day free trial. (www.typepad.com)

  • Xanga: more of a community/journaling model, but a very user-friendly blogging service. Offers free and fee-based premium services. Provides templates, comments, photo manager, videoblogs, tracking, and other features. (www.xanga.com)

  • Vox: a free, personal blog-hosting service with a neighborhood feel. Provides a built-in blog editor, privacy controls, e-mail, and support for photos and videos. (www.vox.com)

  • Blogging Tools

    Another trend that has driven the rapid growth of blogging over the past decade is the advent of a new generation of blogging tools, with which you can build and manage your own blog. Why would you want to host your own blog? If you want a blog to promote you or your company's brand identity, hosting your own blog gives you your own web address (URL). Also, you're free of the hosting site's design templates.

    Self-hosting isn't for everybody, but if you've got the technical knowhow to go it alone, you'll have plenty of tools to do it right. And many of the most popular blog-development tools are open source, which usually means free, but more importantly, they're maintained by a committed developer community. WordPress is an example of an open-source project, and it's widely considered the most popular blogging software.

    The proliferation of blogging has been helped by a data format known as a “news feed” or “web feed,” which is used to channel frequently updated web content to users via e-mail or through news-feed readers. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is one of the best known and most widely used news feed format; Atom is another.

    Here are just a few examples from the growing selection of blog-development tools you'll want to check out:

  • WordPress: This is one of the blogging world's most popular publishing platforms. Free and available on WordPress.org (not to be confused with WordPress.com, see above), it's open-source software powered by the popular dynamic scripting language, PHP, and the open source MySQL database management system. Features include: workflow, a plug-in architecture, and a templating system.

  • Movable Type: This is another free, open-source blog-publishing system. Provides customizable templates, tagging features, access management, TrackBack, and supports multiple blogs. Comes with a dashboard, a WYSIWYG editor, and features for managing photos, audio, and video. (The developers of this system, Six Apart, also created the TrackBack feature.)

  • ExpressionEngine: Billed as a content-management system, not strictly a blog-development tool. But it's worth mentioning as another flavor of tooling you might want to consider. This is a powerful web-publishing solution that bundles plenty of features into its weblog module, including custom data fields, multiple nested categories, sticky topics, workflow, publish and expiration dates, and other features. The system supports an unlimited number of blogs, RSS and Atom syndication, a template library, mobile blogging support, and more.

  • Google Analytics: One of the top web-traffic tracking tools, and it's free. Provides reports in detail about the visitors to your blog.

  • Risks of Blogging

    Before you plunge into the blogosphere, consider the risk involved. It's not an especially dangerous place, and this isn't meant to discourage participation, but keep in mind that it's not immune from defamation and liability laws.

    According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), the leading civil liberties group focused on digital rights, the two issues that should concern you most as a private blogger are: 1) publishing statements “that could be false or cause harm to someone's reputation,” and 2) violation of intellectual property laws by improperly linking to information, quoting from articles and other blogs, and/or using someone else's creative works.

    Before you begin your blogging adventure, jump on the EFF site and check out “Bloggers' FAQ on Online Defamation Law” (www.eff.org/issues/bloggers/legal/liability/defamation), and “The Bloggers' FAQ on Intellectual Property” (www.eff.org/issues/bloggers/legal/liability/IP).

    For corporations, employee blogging activity poses a new kind of enterprise security threat that should be considered when developing policies. The source of the risk: disgruntled or malicious employees, and simple carelessness. Your employees don't necessarily have to have bad intentions to do some damage to your company's brand and reputation.

    In a corporate environment, blogging presents an opportunity for deliberate or accidental breaches of confidentiality that can be just as damaging as corporate espionage. Bloggers can also become unwitting accomplices to spyware distributors and hackers.

    But you don't have to ban the blog. The solution is to establish a clear, well-communicated set of acceptable blog-use policies as part of the company's overall security posture. Employers should establish best blogging practices, including a blogging code of ethics. With these kinds of policies in place, such high-profile, blogging-related firings as the dismissal in 2004 of a Delta Airlines flight attendant for posting “inappropriate pictures in uniform,” or the Googler bounced for blogged comments about life at work, can be avoided.

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