Hosted blogging services have much to recommend them. Sure, there's a tendency among IT pros to see the sector as a virtual ghetto.
It's where teenagers go to rant about their parents and social media marketers republish other people's content. It's the choice of platform for quick and quirky types rather than serious site builders.
There's a hard caramel centre of truth in those observations, but the sweet chocolate coating is that if you dismiss these services out of hand, you may be missing out on a resource with plenty of potential, especially if your interest is in getting a site up and running rather than becoming an all-out system administrator.
Easy to use
First in the queue of useful benefits are ease of use and maintenance. Wordpress.com is among the more complex offerings in the world of hosted blogging.
Wordpress.com is almost identical to its software based sibling Wordpress.org, albeit without the access to all its plug-ins. Both share the same superb interface and let you customise everything. Many off-the-shelf blogging scripts require that you tweak parameters manually.
A common feature with all hosted blogging platforms is that there's no hacking required; no need to edit CSS by hand (although you usually can if you want) or make your own templates from scratch. Blogger, for example, evolved from a platform that needed a degree of scripting knowledge to use into one that can now be configured entirely in your browser.
Web hosting at a professional level always incurs costs, but a hosted blogging platform can help to keep them down. The majority are free to sign up for and use, with premium features costing a little extra. Even then, fees are relatively light.
TypePad, effectively the hosted version of Movable Type, starts at a wallet-friendly $4.85 a month (about £35 a year), while the ad-free version of LiveJournal will set you back just $2 a month.
The right result
Every blogger wants to be read, and to be read you have to be found. Most hosted platforms offer community features, enabling your new posts to be publicised to friends who share the same interests as you.
LiveJournal, Blogger, Vox and Tumblr are among the sites that combine social media features with public blogging tools.
Unlike Facebook or MySpace, your site isn't hidden behind a privacy wall, but you can block or ban disruptive users in most cases.
Don't underestimate the power of networking on these sites; you can gain followers in a number of ways – from site searches to category browsing or commenting on other people's blogs. Another advantage of taking the hosted route for your blog is search ranking.
Results from sites like LiveJournal, TypePad and Blogger are highly ranked on Google. That's because the patented Page Rank system favours sites with lots of links and lots of hits.
We should also note that Google and other engines are already primed to index these platforms. It can take some time for a newly hosted site on your own server space to even appear in results.
Of course, there are downsides. Where you gain ease of use you often lose control.
The hosted version of Wordpress lacks extensibility, one of the big selling points of the software version. The theme editor, though easier to use in its hosted incarnation, offers a limited number of templates for your site and fewer customisation options.
In addition, you have to pay a yearly fee for some services that would otherwise be free, such as mapping a domain to your blog instead of using http://yourname.wordpress.com.
Then there's the bane of many free services: putting up with other people's advertising. 'Free' services must be paid for somehow – and context-sensitive ads are usually how it's done. Some services even ban you from displaying your own adverts. You can always get rid of this, of course, but it comes at a price.
Wordpress.com, LiveJournal and TypePad all offer better customisation – notably the removal of adverts and more control over templates – as premium features. The fees are reasonable, but once you're paying anything, you do begin to wonder if it might not be easier to just host your own site.
Without premium features, you're also left with a credibility dilemma. It looks unprofessional if people can see that your site's hosted on a blogging service. That might not be important for hobbyists, but it could lose you custom if you're running a business.
However, whether you choose a hosted blog or opt to install you own software, it will only ever be as good as the content you put in it. If you're not too worried about high levels of professionalism, a free blogging solution might be just what you need to get your idea off the ground.
First published in PC Plus Issue 288
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