Put Weblogs to Work

With no paper, printing, or distribution costs, the Internet has eliminated many of the financial barriers to publishing. Whether you're a CEO, a scientist, or simply someone with an opinion, the Web offers you unprecedented access to an audience, as well as the ability to provide up-to-the-minute news. That's assuming, of course, that you have the time and technical skills to constantly update and maintain a growing Web site and online community.

But now even these barriers are disappearing, thanks to the rising popularity of Weblog systems, publishing tools that let you post daily -- or even hourly -- Web content without writing a lick of HTML.

Weblogs (often referred to as blogs) are easy to set up and maintain, and best of all, they're affordable. You can start using some Weblog services without spending a dime. And a growing list of professional features -- such as support for multiple authors, editing workflows, and custom plug-ins -- is even making some Weblog tools viable alternatives to much more complicated and expensive content-management systems.

Today there are dozens of Weblog-publishing systems, and each offers a different combination of features and tools. To help you find the system that best matches your needs, we examined some important factors involved in buying decisions, and then we applied them to seven of the top Weblog systems: Pyra Labs' Blogger Pro, the open-source GeekLog 1.3.7, Lifli Software's iBlog 1.2.5, the open-source LiveJournal, Six Apart's Movable Type 2.63, pMachine's pMachine Pro 2.2.1, and UserLand Software's Radio 8.0. With the exception of GeekLog (which is completely free) and Radio (which costs $40 per year), all of these tools are available in free and paid versions. Since the extra expense gets you extra features, we used the paid versions in our tests. Of course, this list doesn't represent the full range of blogging systems available; however, our testing criteria will apply to any Weblog system you evaluate.

How Weblogs Work

There are generally two components to a Weblog: the software that runs on a Web server (or in some cases, on your local machine) and generates a Weblog's pages, and the posting tool that sends content to the software. Most services let you post content through a Web form, so you can update your site from any computer with Internet access. But since Web forms are less than ideal for editing text, some developers have made the process more Mac-friendly by creating desktop software.

The key to a Weblog's success is automation. Once the publishing system is configured, you just type content into its posting tool and click on a button. The system then inserts the new content into the appropriate template and generates all relevant pages, including home pages, individual story pages, and archives. Some systems will even notify readers and other sites that your content has been updated. All of this happens behind the scenes, leaving you free to focus on producing content, rather than honing technical skills.

But automation has a price. By using a Weblog tool to publish your site, you give up some of the freedom that comes with building Web sites by hand. For example, you may lose the ability to handpick the lead item on your site -- most Weblogs automatically display the most recent post first -- or to have one page look or behave differently from the rest.

Choosing a Weblog Package

Before settling on a Weblog system, think about the features your site will need. Since it's not always easy to convert data from one system to another, you'll want to start out with a system that matches your requirements. Here are some of the most important factors to weigh:

Hosting a Weblog The first decision you'll have to make is where you want to set up your Weblog. There are generally three options: have a Weblog service host your site, publish files to your personal Web space, or set up Weblog software on a server run by you or your ISP. Your technical skills and available time will help determine which of these options you choose.

Host with a Weblog Service If you're in a hurry to get up and running and don't want the hassle of configuring software, you may want to let someone else host your Weblog. In this scenario, the Weblog service runs all the necessary software on its own server and hosts the files that make up your site.

Of the services we looked at, Blogger, LiveJournal, pMachine, and Radio all offer hosting services. Fees vary for different packages -- only Blogger and LiveJournal offer a free hosting option. (At press time, Six Apart announced its own hosting service, TypePad, which should be in beta by the time you read this.)

When run as hosted services, Blogger, LiveJournal, and pMachine require virtually no installation -- just sign up for an account and go. Getting started with Radio is almost as easy; you'll just need to install a small application that runs on your desktop. Radio and pMachine also include dozens of preferences and options that you can experiment with after installation.

One potential drawback to using hosting services such as the ones at Blogger, LiveJournal, and Radio is that you can't attach a preexisting domain name to your Weblog. Instead, you'll be assigned a subdomain URL, such as yourname.blogspot.com. pMachine is the exception here -- the service will host a Weblog on the domain of your choice. (Of course, you'll pay a little more for this luxury.) Otherwise, if you want your Weblog to live at a specific domain, you'll need to upload it to your own Web space using one of the following two options.

Publish to Your Web Space If you already have Web space through your ISP or a service such as Apple's .Mac, you may prefer to post directly to it instead of having your Weblog hosted on a separate server. In this case, you should choose a system that can automatically transfer your Weblog files via FTP or another method.

Blogger, iBlog, and Radio all offer this feature. But whereas Blogger and Radio send your content to the server, which then processes it and uploads it to the site of your choosing, iBlog takes a unique and more Mac-centric approach: it combines the posting and page-generation functions of a conventional Weblog service into one OS X desktop application. This means that it doesn't require any server software -- iBlog outputs finished pages to any Web-accessible file server via .Mac, FTP, WebDAV, or AFP.

Because it's an OS X application, iBlog offers a level of control over your site -- such as easy template editing -- that Web forms simply can't match. On the downside, iBlog lacks some important Weblog features that rely on a server-side component, such as an integrated search function, comments, traffic analysis, and reader registration. (However, you may be able to find third-party solutions to some of these limitations.)

Set Up Your Own Server

If you need total control over every aspect of your site -- for example, so you can install plug-ins or add a customized search engine or commenting system -- you'll need to install and run Weblog software on your or your ISP's Web server.

If you use an ISP's server, you'll need command-line access to install and configure your scripts. If you want to run your own server, OS X is more than sufficient -- as long as your cable or DSL provider allows you to run a server, you have a static IP address, and you don't shut off the computer.

GeekLog and pMachine run smoothly on any Unix-based server running PHP and MySQL. (For instructions on setting this up on your OS X machine, see " Serve It Up," November 2002.) Of the two, pMachine is by far the easiest to set up on a server: you enter your database's root user and password in the configuration file, open the setup script in a browser, and step through the wizard. GeekLog lacks pMachine's friendly setup wizard and suffers from less-than-stellar documentation. If you decide you don't want to set this up on your own, you may be able to find entrepreneurs willing to host GeekLog sites from their servers.

To get started with Movable Type, you or your system administrator will need to install its set of Perl scripts on a server with CGI access. You may also need to install additional Perl modules, depending on what's already present on the server. (Movable Type comes with a script that inspects your system and tells you which modules you're missing.) Movable Type is the most labor-intensive of these systems to install, but its documentation is more helpful than GeekLog's. An experienced system administrator can generally install Movable Type in 30 minutes or less, or for $40, you can hire someone from Movable Type to do it for you.

(While you can download LiveJournal's source code and host it on your own server, we don't recommend it. Sharing a server with thousands of interconnected users is half the point of using LiveJournal.)

Allowing Multiple Authors

If you're not going to be the only person providing content to your Weblog, you'll need to consider how much access you want other authors to have. Will everyone publish freely, for a truly collaborative Weblog? Or will you want a more traditional editing workflow in which one or two members of the group edit and approve contributions before they get published to the Weblog?

Although some people argue that an editorial process runs counter to the whole idea of spontaneous Weblogging, many organizations need some level of control over what gets published and when. To accomplish this, you'll need a system that supports multiple users, allows posts to be made in draft mode for approval later, and lets you assign varying permission levels to team members.

All of the Weblog tools we looked at support collaborative publishing to some degree -- with the exception of Radio and iBlog. Instead, UserLand suggests that users upgrade to its $899 Manila software. Blogger and LiveJournal offer a somewhat basic approach to collaborative publishing. Both let you give multiple users access to your Weblog but lack more fine-tuned controls.

GeekLog, Movable Type, and pMachine let you set fine-grained permission levels for each individual user. For example, you can decide whether a given user can change a draft into a live post, edit templates, upload files, or add new members.

All of the systems except GeekLog and Radio also allow you to publish multiple Weblogs from a single installation. This is useful for organizations with multiple departments clamoring for their own Weblogs.

Interacting with Readers

Interactive features such as discussion systems, reader polls, shared calendars, and mailing lists can help transform a Web-based publication into a thriving community of like-minded readers.

Lost in the Threads Letting readers discuss posts is one of the easiest ways to develop a loyal readership. So it's disappointing that Blogger still lacks a built-in commenting system. Most of the other Weblog systems we tested have commenting support turned on by default. (Oddly, Radio forces you to go out of your way to activate its commenting features.)

Commenting systems come in two varieties -- linear and threaded. Linear discussions append messages one after another, usually with the most recent comment appearing at the bottom. This organization method makes it impossible to see who's responding to whom. Threaded discussions fix this problem by branching off related comments so you can follow an entire thread before moving on to a new topic. To our disappointment, only two of our Weblog systems -- GeekLog and LiveJournal -- offer threaded discussions. Of the two, LiveJournal goes the farthest; it'll automatically e-mail new replies to the comment recipient, fostering continued discussion.

Mark Your Calendar If building a community is your main goal (as might be the case if you run a Weblog for cancer survivors, for example), you'll want to make your site a place where readers come to connect. Look for a Weblog package that includes group-building tools, such as calendars, polls, and e-mail announcements.

Weblog calendars come in two forms. Those found in LiveJournal, Movable Type, and Radio work in conjunction with archiving features to help readers locate older posts. Other calendars, such as the one found in GeekLog, allow administrators and users to post upcoming activities such as conferences, Webcasts, and group motorcycle rides. pMachine is the only service in this roundup that offers both options -- an archive calendar for the public interface and a planning calendar for registered users of the site.

GeekLog and LiveJournal also include built-in tools that help you set up polls -- a great way to take the pulse of your readership and start conversations.

Stay Connected

A difficult challenge in building an active readership is getting people to return to your Weblog regularly -- especially if you don't have a consistent posting schedule. E-mail notifications can help here.

Movable Type's Notifications feature lets users sign up to receive e-mail messages from a Weblog's administrator when significant new posts appear on the site. pMachine offers a similar solution with its optional reader-registration feature. In that case, Weblog administrators can send e-mail messages about new posts or any other topics to all registered users.

iBlog's e-mail feature offers a more selective approach. It launches OS X's Address Book, so you can handpick recipients. This isn't as convenient as being able to maintain a list of actual subscribers. (iBlog can't use the Address Book's Groups feature to maintain a single mailing list.) And of course, the feature is of no use to Mac users who use Microsoft Entourage or other address books.

GeekLog, LiveJournal, and pMachine also let readers see optional profiles of other registered users, which can be useful if you want to let users learn more about one another.

Syndicating Content

In addition to creating standard HTML pages, increasing numbers of news and information sites are now also publishing their content in an XML-based format called RSS (which stands for either Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending on whom you ask). RSS content can be picked up and republished -- along with a link to the original news item -- by other Web sites or specialized applications. For example, RSS newsreaders, such as Ranchero Software's free NetNewsWire Lite (www.ranchero.com), offer a great way for news junkies to see at a glance what's going on at dozens or even hundreds of sites simultaneously, and to drill down for more detail with a single click.

Unless you're a programmer, creating an RSS feed by hand is fairly tricky. However, all of the Weblog systems we tested create RSS feeds for you. In fact, there's really no reason not to generate an RSS feed for your Weblog. You're almost guaranteed to get more traffic by placing a syndicate or XML link on your site.

In addition to offering your own RSS feed, you may also want to integrate another site's RSS headlines into your own page. For example, if you run a gaming Weblog, you might want to post the latest headlines from The Gaming Mac (www.thegamingmac.com) into a box on your home page. Only GeekLog and Radio have this feature built in. However, you can find third-party tools that will add the feature to other Weblog systems.

Other Factors

There are also lots of smaller features that can provide a better experience for the administrator and the reader.

Searchable Content If you update your Weblog regularly, you'll eventually end up with a massive archive of old posts. Your readers are rightly going to expect a search engine to help them dig up antique topics. But while a search tool seems like a fairly basic feature, only GeekLog, Movable Type, and pMachine offer a full-content-search option. To add this feature to Weblogs based on other systems, you'll have to sign up with Google or another third-party search company -- not nearly as elegant as having the option built in.

Bookmarklets If your Weblog often links to or quotes from other sites, you'll appreciate a package that supports bookmarklets -- special JavaScript links that make it easy to copy text and URLs from other sites into your Web-based posting form. Select the text you want to quote, and click on the bookmarklet icon in your browser's Bookmarks bar. A new posting window will appear with the URL and selected text already inserted and linked. Both Movable Type and pMachine come with support for bookmarklets. You can add this feature to Blogger and Radio via a third-party application. At press time, Apple's Safari Web browser didn't support bookmarklets. However, Microsoft Internet Explorer does.

Image and File Uploads If you plan on posting images frequently, be sure to choose a tool that simplifies the process by generating the image tag -- complete with height and width attributes -- for you. With the exception of LiveJournal, all of our Weblog packages offer image-upload assistance. Movable Type gets bonus points for automatically creating linked image thumbnails -- assuming your server has the Image::Magick Perl module installed.

iBlog and Movable Type also offer assistance for uploading standard files, which can be useful if you want to make downloadable attachments such as PDFs available to your readers. iBlog is also the first Weblog tool to offer iLife integration, letting you quickly browse your iTunes music and iPhoto images and upload them in a Weblog post.

Editing Templates Although we'd love to say that some of these packages make it easy to tweak page designs, nearly all of them force you to edit chunks of HTML and proprietary tags from within a Web form -- not a pleasant task.

The one exception to this rule is iBlog, which ships with a handful of easy-to-alter Cascading Style Sheets and a built-in utility that lets you generate custom color combinations. You can even make basic changes to the page layout from iBlog's Navigation Editor.

Plug-ins and Add-ons Of course, no Weblog package can meet every conceivable need. If your organization wants to create a custom behavior that's not part of the core package -- for example, the ability to grab the first 15 words of every entry posted in a month and display them on a summary page -- all is not lost. GeekLog, Movable Type, pMachine, and Radio are all extensible via plug-ins, which let you enhance your system without disturbing the core installation. Plug-ins are preferable to altering a Weblog's source code directly (assuming this is even possible), as these edits can make upgrading in the future difficult.

Most plug-ins are distributed as freeware or shareware from other users of your Weblog software. Check the company's home page for links to additional resources and add-ons to see what's available.

The Last Word

People frequently get started with simpler solutions only to find themselves longing for more features and more control down the road. Since migrating from one system to another can be messy, if it's possible at all, you're often better off starting with a more advanced package that can grow with your needs.

Despite Blogger's fame, the current version has little to offer beyond a good set of templates and an extremely easy setup process. (Blogger lacks even a basic commenting system.) Users tend to migrate from Blogger, not to it.

If building a thriving online community is your main priority, GeekLog and LiveJournal offer the fullest set of collaborative features. Of the two, GeekLog is more powerful and offers more features, but it also requires more technical skill to operate.

For users who want a Weblog system that can expand with the needs of their publication or business, we recommend Movable Type or pMachine. Both offer excellent features, extensibility, and power, and they're both easy to use. In fact, with a bit of tweaking, Movable Type and pMachine can serve as basic content-management systems. Demanding users will likely be satisfied with either system.

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SCOT HACKER has been writing about technology since 1994. He's the Webmaster at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. His own Mac-hosted Weblog is at http://birdhouse.org/blog.

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