WordPress.com for Your Blog

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2831, 2010-07-30, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 17-25) and their website.

By now, just about every human on the planet — or least, everyone in the world's industrialized countries — should be familiar with blogs and blogging. Anyone in need of a refresher would do well to read the Wikipedia entry, which provides the following concise definition: "A blog (a contraction of the term 'web log') is a type of website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video."

As is typically the case, a blog can serve as a public and online diary that offers the individual a venue for telling the world about the day-to-day events in the life of the blogger. At the other end of the spectrum, a blog can be impersonal, and instead focus on a particular subject area, such as financial or political commentary. Most blogs are created and maintained only for self-expression and fun, but there is a growing segment of bloggers who have made a livelihood from it, primarily deriving their income from advertising revenue, generated when some of the millions of visitors every year click on paid ads.

Despite the time and effort required in keeping a blog alive, the popularity of blogging has experienced exponential growth. The phenomenon began in 1994, and has seen continual expansion since then. According to the blog search engine Technorati, as of November 2006, there were almost 60 million blogs in existence — at least, those being tracked by Technorati. As of December 2007, that number had exceeded 112,000,000. This means that it took 10 years to go from zero blogs to 60 million, and then only 13 months to add more than 50 million more. Yet detractors will quickly point out that these numbers do not indicate that there are tens of millions of active blogs, because far too many people have started blogging with the best of intentions, only to give up after a couple years, months, or even days. (The parallels to gym membership are obvious.)

Regardless of what other bloggers are doing, and how well, perhaps you too have considered doing some of your own blogging, if you haven't already begun to do so. As we shall see in this article, it is not difficult at all to dive in and start swimming.

Decisions, Decisions

If and when you elect to begin blogging, there are a number of ways you can go about it. Assuming that you are proficient developing Web pages using HTML and CSS — and perhaps some Web scripting language to make the pages dynamic — then you could build your blog by hand. This approach would give you complete control over the content and appearance, and could also prove a valuable learning experience, as you gain new technical skills and solidify existing ones. But crafting Web pages by hand is usually quite time-consuming, particularly if you want your blog site to also support dynamic functionality, such as allowing visitors to leave comments in response to your blog posts.

This is the driving force behind the evolution of content management systems (CMSs) and other blog-capable software. A CMS provides the framework for a website, thereby making it much faster and easier to get a blog site up and running. According to The CMS Matrix, there are currently over 1100 CMSs from which you could choose, and presumably most of them would be sufficient for developing a blog site. So how can you choose the most promising one for your own blog? If you believe in the wisdom of crowds, then consider choosing the world's most popular blogging platform, WordPress.

WordPress.org homepage
Figure 1. WordPress.org homepage

There are many reasons why WordPress gained the lead position years ago, and shows no signs of relinquishing it: Like all open-source software, WordPress is free to use. It has been under continual development and improvement — including usability, security, and styling enhancements — since 2001. Bolstered by a large and vibrant community of developers and users, WordPress benefits from their countless contributions, including plug-ins, widgets, and themes. A WordPress-based site is fully customizable, limited only by your technical skills and imagination (or your budget for hiring somebody else with those qualities!).

If you have access to a Web hosting account that supports fairly up-to-date versions of PHP and MySQL, then you can download the WordPress software, install it in your hosting account, and in little time have a WordPress site just waiting for your blogging brilliance. But not everyone is comfortable installing and configuring Web applications and databases.

Hospitable Blog Hosting

To avoid the cost and hassle of using your own Web host, you could use WordPress.com, which lets anyone create his own blog, at no charge. According to WordPress's own Matt Mullenweg, in an article titled "A Smaller Number", in January 2009 there were 163,702 bloggers already taken advantage of this free service.

WordPress.com homepage
Figure 2. WordPress.com homepage

As with any technology choice, there are advantages and disadvantages to using WordPress.com as your blogging platform. Probably the most significant downside is that you will have less flexibility in creating your blog site, because you will be limited to the plug-ins, widgets, and themes allowed by the administrators of WordPress.com. As you might imagine, the people running this service cannot allow just anyone to install unvetted code on their servers, because this would quickly lead to online miscreants attempting to infiltrate the WordPress.com blogs with malware designed to attack and compromise the computers of visitors to those blogs.

A critical need for flexibility and control over a blog site's capabilities, is the main reason why businesses, nonprofit organizations, and even some individual bloggers typically eschew hosted solutions such as WordPress.com, and instead invest the money, effort, and time into developing their own WordPress-based sites on the servers of third-party Web hosting companies, or instead on servers maintained in-house. This is usually the best option for anyone planning on making money from their site and also planning on integrating plug-ins, widgets, and themes as needed. Such efforts will require the knowledge and skills of Web designers and developers, but are well worth it to achieve those goals.

Sampling the Blog Buffet

The best way to determine whether or not WordPress.com offers all of the capabilities you will need for your own blog, is to give it a try. After all, it's free, and it takes but minutes to get started with the basics. To do so, visit the WordPress.com homepage, and click on the orange "Sign up now" button. This takes you to a page with a registration form, which requires you to choose a username, password, and e-mail address. If you are the type of Internet user who prefers tabbing from one field to the next — instead of clicking your mouse pointer on each one — note that every time you tab to a new field, the edit cursor disappears; perhaps WordPress.com will fix this design flaw in the future.

Given the large number of bloggers using this service, there is a good chance that your preferred username has already been taken, and you will need to come up with a different name. In fact, it can be a bit frustrating when you discover that your top choices have already been snagged. I tried at least three quite unconventional names, and was astonished to find that all of them were unavailable. Assuming you eventually pass this first gauntlet, on the next screen you will be shown your new blog's host name (incorrectly identified as a "domain name"). On this screen, you will probably want to modify the title of your blog, so it can include spaces, which are not allowed in the username (the default value). You can also change the language from the default, English, if desired.

After you click the "Sign-up" button, you will arrive on a Web page instructing you to "Check Your Email to Complete Registration". Before doing so, you can optionally update your profile by entering your name and a brief description of yourself, and saving your changes. But your blog does not yet exist. Log in to the e-mail account you specified earlier, find the message titled "[WordPress.com] Activate...", and click the link in the message to activate your new WordPress.com account. This should pop up a new Web page, where you can login to your account's Dashboard page.

WordPress.com Dashboard
Figure 3. WordPress.com Dashboard

The Dashboard page can be thought of as a summary of the numerous other pages within your account. It encompasses a great many controls, and we will briefly discuss the ones you will likely be using most frequently.

WordPress.com Dashboard upper left
Figure 4. WordPress.com Dashboard upper left

At the very top of the page is a gray navigation bar, containing four menus on the left: My Account, My Dashboard, New Post, and Blog Info. The first of those has ten links to various functions, many of which are confusingly repeated further down the page. For instance, My Account > Edit Profile — which duplicates Users > Your Profile in the left sidebar — is where you can change such settings as the color scheme of your administrative theme, whether you want to use the visual editor and keyboard shortcuts, your contact information, proofreading options, and more.

Other account settings can be found via the Settings menu, located at the bottom of that left sidebar. On the General Settings page, you can alter your blog's title, tagline, and other configuration values. Also in the left sidebar is a menu for Appearance, where you can modify some of the approved WordPress components mentioned earlier — themes and widgets.

Just below the gray navigation bar is a black bar containing, on the left, the name of your blog and a link to it. The Web address of your new blog includes your chosen username. For instance, the username "BlogOmatic2010" resulted in a hostname of blogomatic2010.wordpress.com, and thus a URL of http://blogomatic2010.wordpress.com/

Initial blog
Figure 5. Initial blog

Rather than starting you off with a completely empty blog, WordPress.com populates your new site with a single blog post, titled "Hello world!", with one associated comment. Let's delete the initial post and comment, and then add a new post. Back on the Dashboard page, in the left-hand sidebar, click Posts, then hover over the post's title, and click the Trash link that appears below it. There are at least three ways to start a new post, including the "Add New" button just to the right of the "Edit Posts" page title.

WordPress.com add new post
Figure 6. WordPress.com add new post

In adding a new post to your blog, you must enter a title and some content. The latter can be styled using the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) controls just above the large content field. In our sample post, some of the words have been bolded, italicized, and struck through with a horizontal line, to illustrate some of the WYSIWYG basics. Other words have been converted into unordered and ordered lists. You can include an excerpt, trackbacks, tags (i.e., keywords), and categories. You can also specify whether visitors to your site may comment on your post, or contribute trackbacks and pingbacks.

Let's also change the blog's theme. But first save the new post you created, by clicking the blue Publish button. Be warned that the process of saving a new or modified post can be extremely time-consuming — far longer than should be needed given the relatively small amount of information being saved to the WordPress.com database. This would be one more reason for choosing your own WordPress installation in your own hosting account.

To change your blog's theme, go to the Appearance section of the sidebar, and choose Themes. By default, your blog's theme is set to Kubrick, and can be changed to any one of dozens of available themes (79, as of this writing). In our case, we will choose a theme called "Cutline". Again, the process of changing your site's theme can take a long time.

Modified blog
Figure 7. Modified blog

In this article, we have just scratched the surface of what is possible using WordPress as a CMS for your blog, and WordPress.com as the blogging service. Even though there are other CMSs and hosted blogging services available, this combination may prove more than adequate for your own blogging presence on the Web.

Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.