Building the Blog Part 2: Choosing WordPress

WordPress Logo

In part one of this series, I discussed the reasons for launching blog.danbrust.net. Having made the decision to create a blog, I then set to work on building it. Part two of the “Building the Blog” series, which you are now reading, will explain why I chose to use WordPress.

The way I see it, there are three primary choices available to someone starting a blog: Tumblr, Blogger, or WordPress. Many other choices exist, of course, but these are the big three. Each is a well-developed, mature platform, rich with functionality. While all would work well, I chose WordPress for a number of reasons. Here I’ll briefly discuss each platform, laying out what I see as the pros and cons of each system. Looking for a simpler, bullet-point rundown? Try here, here, or here.

Keep in mind that all three platforms are free. WordPress will cost a bit if you choose to host it yourself (assuming you have to pay for hosting), but a free WordPress.com version exists as well. It is essentially the same as the standard WordPress. You just lose control over some of the behind-the-scenes stuff. My comparisons of the three platforms is based upon the full version of WordPress. Is that fair? No, not really, but if I could self-host Tumblr or Blogger, maybe I would. They don’t offer that option, so the limitations inherent in that approach has to count against them.

Tumblr

I’ve built multiple Tumblr blogs in the past. It is a somewhat unique system, in that it is a blend of blogging (think blog.danbrust.net) and social sharing (think Facebook). Therein lies the problem, really. Tumblr is built around the concept of re-blogging others’ posts. The majority of Tumblr users simply share other users’ content. This content then spreads around the Tumblr network. A successful post can be shared and liked 10s of 1000s of times. A typical Tumblr user, unfortunately, is mostly attracted to visual content, and the Tumblr design does much to promote this. Text is often hard to input and format. Images take priority over text, with text often ending up nested within countless comments. I’ve attempted a few long-form text blogs on Tumblr, and they just didn’t work out very well. I found that when users’ re-blogged my content, they kept the main image at the top of the post and removed all of the text (the main point of the post). The main image is usually used to attract readers’ attention, and it’s nice when that is effective, but it disappointing when the text associated with that image gets ignored. This could happen anywhere, but it is particularly common on Tumblr.

I can’t blame Tumblr for this downfall. It was, after all, designed to be a place where you would go to post quick little blog posts (often referred to as a micro blog). It’s great for posting a quick quote, an image (it really excels at image sets), a chat log, a link to a website, etc. Tumblr has done much to innovate in the blogging space, and many of those innovations have shown up on Facebook (a few months or years later, of course). Pinterest is a complete rip-off of Tumblr, in my opinion, with an even heavier focus on visual content. Tumblr has even, almost single-handedly, revived the once-dying GIF format.

Going back to re-blogging issues … when re-blogging a post, a user is able to fully edit the post they are re-blogging. The post then becomes their own version of the post. This means your post could end up changed in unknown ways as it makes its way around Tumblr. It’s like the old telephone game. This is great when sharing content, as it lets users comment on and add to the original post. In the case of a traditional blog, though, it can create a bit of a mess. Even if your original text isn’t modified, the re-blog becomes its own entity. Say you correct a mistake in your original post, after it has already been re-blogged countless times. That correction won’t propagate to the re-blogs. Instead, the mistake will live on forever, endlessly circulating through the depths of Tumblr.

I also found Tumblr website design to be a bit tricky. You’re very limited in what you can do with a Tumblr template. For the most part, I was able to get things working the way I wanted them to, but never perfectly. One glaring example would be the lack of proper tag support. There’s no mechanism to display a list of tags used on your posts. I ended up using a script that combed all of my posts and manually put together a list of tags. This worked, but took a long time to run each time a page was loaded.

In the end, Tumblr design issues may be irrelevant. Most Tumblr interaction comes from other Tumblr users, and the majority of Tumblr users stick within the confines of the Tumblr dashboard. Here, posts from people they are following are displayed in an endless stream. They are able to quickly like and re-blog posts from this interface, and posts displayed on the dashboard are displayed in a raw format. So, it is likely that a Tumblr user will never even see the design of the Tumblr site from which the post came. This constant stream of updates helps contribute to most Tumblr users just scanning for visual content to re-blog.

Still, Tumblr can be a great help in getting your content discovered, if used right. Focus on quick blurbs, eye-catching images, etc. Essentially, content that can be quickly scanned by users, then shared with their friends and followers. I almost think of it as a more advanced version of Twitter.

Blogger

Ahh, Blogger, my one-time formidable opponent. I worked my way through an entire site build on the Blogger platform before coming over to WordPress. Blogger is certainly more flexible than Tumblr, but can’t touch WordPress. Like Tumblr, you can customize most aspects of a Blogger-based site, but they don’t make it easy. Almost anything can be accomplished with enough hacking, but that’s how it ends up feeling; like a hack job. The little documentation you can find doesn’t go into much detail. It really feels like they don’t want you to be able to modify template designs. I believe, originally, you couldn’t, so that could explain why modification feels like an add-on. To Google’s credit, they’ve been working to improve the modification process. For example, they recently updated the Blogger template HTML editor.

One sore spot in the Blogger ecosystem is their widgets. Widgets are a means to easily add functionality to a website. Blogger’s widget library is, well, lacking. The few developed by Google work great, but are very basic in nature. The rest, developed by the community, are amateurish, at best. You’ll be lucky to find a widget that does what you want, and when you do, it’s likely to be outdated and poorly written. Of course, you could always write your own, so I don’t consider widget support to be a huge flaw, but it is a flaw.

Blogger’s greatest strength has to be the fact that it’s owned by Google. Sadly, that is also its greatest weakness. With Google comes great server reliability and speed. There’s no need to worry about your blog going down when it’s hosted on a Google server. Google loves speed, so they’ll make sure to keep the Blogger servers running at light speed. And get this…all that reliability and speed is free! No server costs. Few content restrictions. They even offer a built-in ad program, running on Google AdSense, so you can easily work to monetize your blog. So, what’s the negative? How can Google also be a weakness?

The death of Google Reader, forever immortalized.

The death of Google Reader, forever immortalized.

March 13th, 2013: the day the Reader died. It was on this day that Google chose to shut down Google Reader (amongst a number of other services). Many years ago now, Google developed a RSS reader. For those who don’t know, a RSS reader aggregates content from many websites of your choosing into one central location, removing the need to visit each site individually. Google called their program, appropriately, Google Reader. Like many Google services, the beauty of Reader was in its simplicity and stability. Like many Google services, Reader quickly killed, or nearly killed, all other RSS readers. They just couldn’t compete with the combination of Reader’s feature set and Reader’s low (free) cost. So, Reader became the only real player in the world of RSS. Although usage slowed over the years, many had come to rely upon Reader. Not only in their personal lives, but in their professional lives as well. When Reader died, it was a shock to many. A service they assumed would always be available was suddenly leaving them. Most users scrambled to find other services (many of which worked night and day to take on the new user load), while others simply declared RSS dead and went on with their lives. In the end, most users found a way to move on. Still, the death of Reader made one fact clear: in the world of free, nothing is guaranteed.

Few expect a service they use and rely upon to just up and disappear. So, here I was, developing my blog on the Blogger service, when Google goes and shuts down a rather large service, used by many, many users (including myself). What would stop them from doing that with Blogger? It wouldn’t be the first free web host to be shut down. That made me realize that I wanted complete control of my content. I didn’t want to have to worry about my blogging service shutting down. I didn’t want to worry about my blogging service one day deciding to stick ads in the middle of my content. The decision was made; I wanted a self-hosted blogging system.

Don’t get me wrong, Blogger is a great service. It’s quick and reliable, and will meet the needs of most users. It just doesn’t offer the level of control I am looking for.

WordPress

After having ruled out Tumblr and Blogger, I considered a few other options for creating my website. I tossed around the idea of writing my own, simplified Content Management System (CMS). I’ve done that before, but found it inflexible when it came time to change things up. I also considered the other CMS systems (Joomla!, Drupal, etc). In the end, WordPress offered a number of benefits, all of which combined to make it the obvious choice.

WordPress is an open-source project. When some people hear open source, all they think of is “free.” It’s so much more than that. By being open source, it means that WordPress is worked on by anyone who is willing to offer their help in developing the system. Now, don’t think that this means the code base for WordPress is randomly edited by anyone who stops by to take a peak. Like any other major programming project, code changes are debated, assigned, reviewed, improved, approved/rejected, etc. This is in sharp contrast to Tumblr and Blogger. These are websites owned by large corporate entities (Tumblr was recently purchased by Yahoo! and Blogger is owned by Google). The code base behind these websites will never be revealed to the masses. No one will ever be able to review the code behind these platforms. The corporations are solely responsible for making their platforms secure, deciding what changes to implement, defining their policies, and so on. With an open-source project, you, the user, can have a say in any and all aspects of its development. Here’s how WordPress.org puts it:

Everything you see here, from the documentation to the code itself, was created by and for the community. WordPress is an Open Source project, which means there are hundreds of people all over the world working on it. (More than most commercial platforms.) It also means you are free to use it for anything from your cat’s home page to a Fortune 500 web site without paying anyone a license fee and a number of other important freedoms.

Open source can have its faults, of course. Open-source projects tend to be more susceptible to hacking, as hackers have the same chance to review the code that everyone else does. In doing so, they can ferret out undiscovered vulnerabilities. One just hopes that the “good guys” find those vulnerabilities, and patch them, before the “bad guys” do. I’ve found the WordPress community to be quick in patching any new vulnerabilities, so this isn’t much of a concern for me. The other fault one finds in open-source projects is slow development. Often, the sheer number of contributors can cause development to get hung up in debate and red tape. Again, this doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for WordPress, as development has continued at a relatively smooth pace.

WordPress offers a huge number of themes, plugins, and widgets. As is typical with any open-source project, WordPress has received a large amount of support from its community. New themes, plugins, and widgets are being created (and improved) every day. The amount of content you can find out there is quite staggering. So, what are themes, plugins, and widgets?

Themes are the back-bone of your site. They are the overall look and layout of your site. Themes define what text goes where, on each individual page. They define what colors are used, how and where graphics are laid out, what fonts and font sizes are used, where and how text and photos are displayed, etc. In my case, I chose a somewhat-popular theme, then modified it to better fit my needs. Both Tumblr and Blogger support themes, but the number available is quite a bit lower than on WordPress. Still, you can find a decent theme for either if you take the time to look around. Also, editing Tumblr and Blogger themes is more daunting than on WordPress, as those systems aren’t really designed to allow for easy editing.

Plugins add functionality to your site. They might be used to add Share buttons to your posts, or add Google Analytics tracking code to your site, or activate better security on your login page, or make it so your images pop up in a gallery view. Plugins can do anything and everything related to your WordPress site. Many, many users have created many, many plugins. In fact, trying to find a plugin that suits your purpose can be pretty daunting. Often, there are many different options available for any single bit of functionality you’d like to add. Tumblr does not support plugins. While Blogger, as I previously stated, has anemic plugin support, at best. The plugins directly from Google work great. The rest are outdated, buggy, and insufficient.

Widgets are simply a special type of plug-in. They are used to display bits of data on your website, usually in the sidebar area. They are designed to be “dragged and dropped” into the place your theme has defined for widget display. For example, the tags and categories lists are widgets. Other examples would include a Twitter stream or a “current weather” widget. Again, Tumblr support is non-existent, and Blogger support is the same as their support of plugins.

WordPress goes where you go. WordPress is a software package that you download and install on your own server. Many web hosting companies offer a one-click install option, whereby their systems automatically install WordPress on your server space. Once you’ve installed the software, it’s yours to keep (under the terms of the license). You can customize the code base to your liking, making and all changes you see fit. If you don’t like the direction the core program takes, you can branch off your own fork. If you decide you don’t want to update the software, you don’t need to. You can keep running any version you like. If you want to move to a new web host, or setup a new self-owned server, you can simply move your entire WordPress installation to the new location. You are not tied to the whims of a grander corporate entity.

Some versions of WordPress are lesser than the others. Technically, two versions of WordPress exist: the normal, full version of WordPress, and the stripped down WordPress.com version. The WordPress.com version was designed to give casual users a chance to use WordPress. It is similar in functionality to Blogger. Free hosting is provided, with your blog hosted under the WordPress.com domain. For a fee, one can host the blog on their own domain. WordPress.com handles backups, website security, etc. Selected themes are available, but customization is severely limited. Likewise, a few plugins are built in, with the user limited solely to those plugins.

So, you are given two choices when setting up a WordPress site. Use the simpler WordPress.com version, which is free to start, but requires that you pay for various feature upgrades. Or, use the full WordPress.org version, which is completely free, and allows you to modify it any way you can imagine. Of course, you will have to find hosting for the full version of WordPress. Assuming you must pay for hosting, this can run anywhere from four to hundreds of dollars per month. For me, and my desire to have complete control over my site, WordPress.com was never a consideration.

With WordPress chosen as my content management system, the next step was to customize the site, tweaking and tuning it as needed. That will be the subject of the next post in the Building the Blog series: Customizing the Blog.