(This is the fourteenth in a series of postings about citizen media business issues. See the introduction here. All of these entries are considered to be in “beta” and will be revised and refined as they find a home on a more permanent area of the Center for Citizen Media web site. To that end, your comments, additional examples, and criticisms are welcome and will be invaluable contributions to this process.)
The last two Citizen Media Business Issues posts concerned registering a domain name and finding a web host. Among the suggestions in the latter was to generally avoid free web hosts, but providing for the notable exception of blog-hosting services. Here we’ll discuss what these are, their pros and cons, and some differences between companies.
First, a blog (short for weblog) is a collection of hypertext writings, typically displayed in reverse chronological form and including a variety of content including text, images, audio, video and more. Blog software makes it easy for the author to regularly update site content without editing HTML files or creating new ones. Due to the ease with which new content is added, blogs are ideal for anyone with a lot to say or report on.
There are two primary ways to get blog functionality on your website: download blogging software and install it on your web server (or your web host’s server) or use a blog-hosting service. This post will primarily concern the latter—the alternative to finding web hosting, not just the software. For more information on the kind you download, the Wikipedia entry on blog software has a good list of possibilities and Weblog Matrix has a great tool to compare features.
Advantages and disadvantages of using a blog-hosting service
- Ease of Use – Blog hosts are often the easiest way to find a home online. Not only are they easy to set up via design templates, but also simple to use via a web-based interface that you just type into and upload media with a click of a button. Designing your own website from scratch, on the other hand, is much more complex (though we’ll give you some pointers and resources in the next Business Issues post). These sites are often free, but additional features—such as a greater ability to customize the site’s appearance—may come at a premium.
- Credibility Concerns – The very ease of their use may lead a blogger to adopt standard blog-hosting templates and thus project a less professional appearance than a well-designed, customized website. Also, use of the web address you’re given by one of these services may result in you not being taken as seriously as you would be if you had your own domain. For example, some blog-hosting services give you an address that they choose, like “www.blogservice.com/3k6jrv,” or they append your name to their URL via a folder or subdomain, like “www.blogservice.com/yoursite” or “yoursite.blogservice.com.” One possible way around this is to register a domain name like “www.MyBlog.com” and have that redirect to your bloggingservice.com page. This allows you to promote your site using your “www.MyBlog.com” while retaining the ease and cost benefits of using a blog-hosting service. Even better, a feature usually called “domain mapping” allows you to treat your space on the blog host the same way you would a web host (more on this below). For more information on domain forwarding, see the previous post on <link>Registering a Domain.
- Functionality – When you use a blog-hosting service, you’re operating on their site, so you don’t have access to all of their site code to make your page do exactly what you want it to do. On some blog-hosting sites it can be difficult to do much more than a straight, reverse-chronological record of posts with, perhaps, a collection of links in a side bar and a place for users to leave comments. This means there often cannot be any non-blog pages (like an About page, Features, Topics, Contact Us, or anything else that isn’t a blog entry). Further, while they are customizable to a degree, that customization can be limited compared to the possibilities provided by a conventional website. The more ability to customize, the better. (The major blog-hosting companies do provide a substantial degree of customization.) Even if you don’t know anything about HTML or CSS now, you may still want to change some things later. Access to template code and CSS is a must.
- Anonymity – For some people who deal with controversial material, the major advantage of blog-hosting providers is that they often provide the easiest way to write anonymously. Many of these services do not require names or identification for registration, so by signing up through an anonymizing service using a free e-mail account, you gain greater protection from being unmasked, even in the face of a subpoena to the hosting service. For more about anonymity, see the Citizen Media Law Projects section on Anonymity.
- Advertising and Revenue Generation – Unlike free web hosts, blog hosts that force you to display their advertising are rare. In fact, some don’t allow any advertising at all. Many that do allow advertising have affiliations with particular ad networks (such as AdSense or BlogAds) that you can implement for your own profit with the click of a button. While this easy integration is a good start, it can sometimes make it difficult to bring in alternate or additional advertisement systems. It’s important to think about where you want to go with your blog in terms of expanding your revenue model. While a simple Google AdSense sidebar may seem fantastic early on, you should consider your future needs for expansion. Also, the “real estate” available on your page for ads may be limited to certain areas (like along the left side, in the top-right, along the top, between two toolbars, or at the bottom of every post). If you create your own website from scratch, the type, format, and location of the ads on your page are much more customizable.
- Domain mapping – Whereas forwarding a domain name just redirects www.yoursite.com to yoursite.blogservice.com, domain mapping effectively changes yoursite.blogservice.com to www.yoursite.com. This makes the blog host truly act as a less flexible web host.
- Import/export – This must-have feature refers to the ability to move your blog from one site to another relatively painlessly.
- Template code access – Another must-have. You need control over what your site looks like. Even if the starter templates look great, there will almost certainly come a time that you’ll want to change at least some detail of your site’s design, which you often cannot do without access to the code.
- Integrated advertising capability – As discussed above, this is a common feature but not a huge one. At best, it saves you from pasting code in the right place. At worst, it precludes you from signing up with another, perhaps more appropriate company.
- Categories/tags – Useful systems to organize your posts.
- Non-blog pages – Allows you to have web pages that are not blog posts. This can be very useful, but you can’t always find this at no cost (WordPress is one example of a service that does offer this without a premium account).
- Templates – All blog hosts have some kind of design/layout preconfigurations available to you. Some will look and function better than others, but you’re probably best to come up with your own (although perhaps based on a template). There are a few tools out there to help you with this, but they’re service-specific. For Blogger, there’s PsycHo’s Free Template Generator, for WordPress there’s the WordPress Theme Generator, and CSSEZ works with both WordPress and TypePad.
- Cost – Many are free, many are not. Some, like WordPress, allow you to create a free blog, but will charge for features like CSS access and domain mapping. If you’re paying, remember that you’re really just paying for the convenience of the interface. Regular web hosting isn’t much more expensive (if at all), and while it’s more difficult to set-up, there are a number of free blogging programs you can download to run directly on your website. A major consideration if you host your own blog, however, is keeping the software and plugins up to date. Blog hosting companies rapidly update to eliminate security risks, and if you run your own software this becomes an essential chore.
- Mobile blogging – The ability to send blog posts, images, or audio directly from a cell phone is getting more and more popular as more and more people own cameraphones and smartphones.
There are a number of services to choose from when picking a blog host, so shop around. The Citizen Media Law Project has a comprehensive comparison of the three largest (Blogger, WordPress, and TypePad) including an examination of their Terms of Service. Other useful comparisons can be found at Online Journalism Review, Climb to the Stars, and ProBlogger.
(Ryan McGrady is a new media graduate student at Emerson College where he is studying knowledge, identity, and ideas in the information age.)