With all the noise about social networking sites in the last several years, it's easy to forget that if you've got more to say than what can be expressed in 140 characters, or want to do more than post brief updates, your best bet is a blog.
There are a wealth of blogging services and software out there -- so which should you use? If you're a business or other professional organization, you probably want to use full-bore website building software that includes a blogging component. However, that type of software requires experience with server setups, HTML code and site management.
If you don't have that expertise, or want to spend your valuable time on creating content rather than wrangling with technical issues, you can opt for a service that hosts your blog for you -- for free. These hosted blogging services take care of all the nitty-gritty backend work, and allow you to focus on what's most important to you: The content of your blog.
They offer pre-built content management systems that make it easy to write, edit and manage blog posts, letting you decide whether to write using WYSIWIG editors or instead insert the code yourself. They also let you switch back and forth between the two when you want.
That's just the basics, though. Using a hosted service doesn't mean giving up power and features. They let you easily create polls and customized forms and integrate with social networking sites, and they offer considerable site management features, including tools for handling comments and automatically killing blog spam. They use sophisticated tools for tracking traffic, and let you dig deeply to find underlying patterns that may help you draw more visitors. And they have plenty of online help and community-based support when you run into problems, or need advice from others who have had the same issues that you have.
(For a review of microblogging sites that offer quick-and-dirty blogging tools with a strong social networking component, see our microblogger shootout.)
In this article, I examine two of the best-known hosted blogging services: Blogger and WordPress.
Blogger was one of the first blogging tools available. Launched back in 1999 by Pyra Labs, it was bought by Google in 2003 and has been considerably redesigned since.
More site-building and blogging tools
For more reviews of applications for building blogs and websites, check out these articles:
-- Need to build a high-end website? We test three of the top free site-building applications: Site builder shootout: Drupal vs. Joomla vs. WordPress
-- A new wave of free sites encourages fast blogging, multimedia entries and social networking: Microblogger shootout: Posterous Spaces vs. Tumblr
WordPress is based on the popular WordPress open source server-based blogging software first released in 2003 that underlies many sites on the Web -- Wordpress.org claimed in August of 2011 that its server software powered nearly 15% of the top million web sites in the world.
(Note: Confusingly, both the hosting service and the blogging software are called WordPress; the former, which is being reviewed here, is found at WordPress.com while the latter can be downloaded at WordPress.org and was reviewed as part of our site builder shootout.)
You won't go wrong choosing either. But as you'll see, they're very different services, aimed at different users. Check out our head-to-head review to see which is right for you.
WordPress and Blogger both offer relatively streamlined setup, although streamlined does not necessarily mean problem-free. After a simple signup procedure, you choose design specifications and similar options, which in the case of WordPress I found to be somewhat confusing, because in the beginning it offers an almost daunting number of options.
Blogger's setup is exceedingly simple -- so much so, that it looks to me as if it has been built with the primary purpose of bringing blogging to the masses.
Not surprisingly, you'll need a Google account, because Google owns Blogger. Sign in using your Google account, or sign up for one if you don't already have one, choose a name that will be displayed on your blog, agree to the usual terms of service and you're done.
At that point, you're sent to an overview page which shares the same stripped-down aesthetic as other Google services such as Gmail and Google's search engine. The overview page is for more than creating a blog -- it's where you can also read other Blogger blogs that you've chosen to follow.
You click New Blog to create your blog. You then fill in the blog's title and its address, which will end in blogspot.com -- for example, when I typed in "HappyFlight" the blog address was happyflight.blogspot.com. ( You can use your own domain name if you want, free of charge.) You then choose a template, click "Create blog!" and you're ready to go. I found only a small number of templates at first as I walked through setting up my blog; later, I was able to manually choose from among a larger group.
After you finish creating your blog, you're sent back to the overview page. Click the Create new post icon (it looks like a pencil) and the posting screen appears.
Signing up for WordPress was straightforward: I entered the usual registration information (name of the blog, user name, password and email address), clicked the link that was sent to me and I was in.
If you're content with using the WordPress domain for your site (for example, happyflights.wordpress.com), then you can do that for free. However, if it's important for business or professional reasons to use your own domain (as in happyflights.com ), it costs $17 per year, a good deal for anyone setting up a business-related blog or site. (If you don't choose this on startup, you can always go back and do it later on for the same price.) At signup you can also choose to map to an existing domain for $12/year. There is also the option of creating the site using a language and character set other than English.
Signing up was straightforward, and once you register for WordPress, your blog is already set up for you. If you're completely happy with the initial design, you don't need to do anything else but create content.
However, if you want to make any changes, things can get a little confusing. WordPress is a powerful tool with plenty of features and options -- but offers too many at once when you begin. It doesn't use a fill-in-the-blank approach to creating a blog or site; there are plenty of options and features from which to choose. They're all available from the main Dashboard page; the left side of the screen bristles with options that have names like Blog Surfer and Readomatic. Even when the names are more understandable -- like Links and Media -- it's still confusing, at first. Quite frankly, I found it somewhat intimidating.
Because of that, your best bet is to watch the video that is available the first time you log in. It's concise and well-done, explaining the basic features and how to set up your first pages -- I found it helpful enough that after a few minutes, I had the blog set the way I wanted. And there's also a feature called QuickPress that is simpler to use than the dashboard, although it lacks many blogging tools.
No surprise here: Blogger has been designed, from the ground up, for simplicity, and so once you sign up, it's very easy to create your blog, write your first post, and publish. WordPress's myriad options can be intimidating at first, while Blogger guides you through the creation and publishing process with ease. I found it much faster to create my blog with Blogger than with WordPress.
Getting a blog designed and set up is one thing; actually posting to it regularly is another. In comparing Blogger and WordPress, I looked first at the basic features such as writing a post, and then beyond that, at such tasks as embedding videos and pictures, adding polls and forms, and formatting text.
Once my blog was set up, adding content was straightforward -- click a button to create a new post, then simply type in text.
Across the top of the screen are buttons for formatting text, creating links, inserting images and video, creating lists, inserting quoted text, and so on. A spell checker is included. Code jockeys can turn off those buttons and instead compose in straight HTML. And you can always switch back and forth between the HTML view and WYSIWG view, although I found myself primarily writing my blog in WYSIWG view, because I rarely needed to add code that Blogger couldn't handle.
Down the right-hand side are a series of icons that let you create tags (which Blogger, true to Google style, calls Labels), schedule posts to be published at a later date, control whether and how visitors can add comments, and add geotags. There are also options for how to handle HTML code -- should the blog post display <b>, for example, or instead use it to make text bold.
To change the layout of your blog and/or add themes, go back to your blog overview page and then use Blogger's global navigation, which is down the left-hand side of the page. Click Layout to choose from different navigation bars to use on your blog, edit the header (including using a custom graphic), and choose from a variety of gadgets (the equivalent of WordPress widgets) that let you add features such as the ability to display your site's traffic stats, allow visitors to follow the blog by email, embed Google AdSense or include a link for RSS feeds. Click Template, and you'll be able to choose from about two dozen templates. Being in inveterate tinkerer, I used this feature more than I really needed to, because it was so simple to quickly see how my blog would appear in different designs.
WordPress provides you with a page called the Dashboard where you both tweak and add content to your blog.
The QuickPress area, which is located on the right side of the Dashboard page, lets you create a very basic post. Type in the title and text for your blog entry, add tags, click Publish and it goes live. If you wish, you can save it as a draft instead. You can also use the Dashboard to easily add media content such as pictures and videos -- or a poll or feedback form (a nice touch, because normally those items would require substantial coding) -- by clicking the appropriate icons.
I started writing posts this way, but soon found it somewhat frustrating because QuickPress doesn't offer simple features such as creating links or formatting text; any QuickPress-created post has to be edited later using the Dashboard. A better bet, I discovered, is to head to the Dashboard menus on the left side of the screen, and choose Add New from the Posts area. There you get a fully featured post creator that offers a multitude of controls.
Two tabs allow you to choose between coding the HTML yourself or creating a post using a rich text interface -- you can click the tabs to toggle between them. I found buttons for creating lists, aligning and formatting text, creating links, inserting custom characters, and even a nifty feature for pasting text from Microsoft Word that deletes any invisible formatting Word might have added. There's also a built-in proofreader which, given my penchant for writing quickly, I found extremely helpful.
The Dashboard offers plenty of ways to tweak your site. It lets you select themes, change your background, create a custom menu for links, add polls and feedback, and add a variety of widgets, such as a calendar, a Facebook "like" box, and an RSS link.
You can create posts via email; if you create mail with a client that supports HTML formatting or rich text, that that will be included in your post. You can include images, and even create image galleries by attaching groups of images to your email.
For basic posting, Blogger is clearly superior, offering simple buttons and navigation for adding new content, scheduling content to be published, and automatically adding geotags to posts. WordPress also offers a quick, simple way to add content, but it falls short because some important features are missing such as the ability to format text. However, once you get used to its more feature-filled Dashboard, you'll find plenty of tools -- more powerful ones -- within reach.
The upshot? WordPress is superior for anyone who wants more advanced content-adding features in a blog. Those who care foremost about simplicity will favor Blogger.
If you build a blog and nobody knows about it, can it really be said to exist? Philosophical questions like this aside, social networking features are vital to any blog's success. At a minimum, blogs need to be able to integrate with social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter so that people can "like" your blog, retweet it from inside the blog itself, and so on. Both services do a solid job of integrating social networking features.
Social networking features are built into Blogger's basic design for every blog you create, so you won't need to do anything to take advantage of them -- build your blog, and they're right there on the page. Because of this, I had to think less about adding social networking features than I had to do with WordPress.
At the bottom of every post Blogger embeds a row of social networking icons, including Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Gmail and other Blogger blogs. I found this last feature, called Blog this! to be particularly simple to use -- when a reader clicks the icon, a new blog post will be created including the name of your latest post and a link to it. The reader can then write a Blogger post about your post. If you use the Chrome Web browser, you can also add a Blog this! extension.
In addition, visitors can click a Share link at the top of the page to share the post via Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Gmail. As this link repeats some of the functions automatically inserted at the end of every blog post, it's not clear why the Share link is there.
Google has also recently added a host of ways to integrate Google+ with Blogger. You can combine your Google+ profile with your Blogger profile, for example, and you can easily share your posts when you're inside Google+.
At the top of each blog is a moderately useful Follow link. If someone who has their own Blogger blog clicks it, they'll be able to follow your posts in their Blogger dashboard. They can also choose to make the fact they're following your blog public via Google FriendConnect, which allows others who use FriendConnect to interact with one another on your blog page.
WordPress offers a reasonable set of social networking tools for bloggers. For example, it let me automatically create Facebook and Twitter links whenever I created a new post. It also has a handful of useful social networking widgets in the Dashboard, including a Twitter widget that will display your latest tweets up to the last 20; you can also choose whether to include retweets and whether to hide or display replies.
Facebook "like" box that displays updates from Facebook and links back to that page. However, this feature only works with Facebook Pages (promotional pages for individuals and companies) and not with personal Facebook accounts. A Meebo widget will display any messages you've created on a variety of social networking sites and instant messaging platforms. And I found widgets for turning your blog into an RSS feed, and a del.icio.us widget as well. In addition, a "Publicize" tool lets you automatically send links to your blog posts on a variety of services, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, among others.
WordPress gets the slight edge here, because its Publicize feature goes beyond merely linking to social networking services -- it lets you automatically send messages to those services with links to your latest blog post. For including links to social networking services, Blogger is simpler to use, although if you dig deep in WordPress, you can find add-ons that will perform the same functions.
It's one thing to build a blog; it's another thing entirely to manage it. You need to handle comments, including deleting offensive posts and killing spam; read feedback from visitors; and handle polls and manage your blog from a mobile device, for a start.
Blogger has been built for simplicity, and perhaps because of that, I wasn't wowed by its site-management tools. Still, what I found there was solid.
Blogger has the ability to either have posts go live immediately or schedule them. You can also turn comments on or off, and post via SMS and email. One nice touch is that you can authorize others to create posts for your blog, making it easy to create a group blog. And you can moderate your blog by removing comments and marking them as spam so that other comments sent by the same person will be removed as well.
Blogger also lets you create polls, and allows you to have your blog mapped to your own domain, rather than blogger.com, without extra cost. But it lacks some of WordPress's site-management tools, such as importing polls from poll-creation services.
The WordPress.com hosted blogging service is built on top of the WordPress server-based blogging platform used by many companies to host and create blogs, so it should be no surprise that it excels at site management tools. It starts with the basics, such as being able to publish posts on a schedule and create a private blog. But it also offers a full-blown set of powerful site management tools.
I found a wealth of tools for managing comments made to a blog -- for example, it's easy to allow people to post comments on your site and to delete comments. There's also an automated spam-checker (WordPress uses a service called Akismet) that checks for comment-spam and then asks you if you want to delete it. And rather than having to delete, approve or unapprove individual comments, you can mark all of those you want to perform an action on, and then have it done in bulk.
In WordPress, you can can create polls and import polls created in GoDaddy.
Click to view larger image
It's also simple to create a feedback form for site visitors, and then go in and read it, keep feedback you want for later reference, and send the rest to the trash. And, as mentioned previously, if you want to have your own domain, rather than have your site end in a wordpress.com domain, it costs $17 per year. WordPress will do the domain registration for you.
There's more as well. You can let people rate your individual posts, and you can create polls, and import polls you've already created if you have an account with the poll-creation site PollDaddy.
In a world that's increasingly going mobile, there's another excellent feature -- you can have your site detect when it's being contacted by a mobile device rather than a computer, and then display the page in a way optimized for mobile.
All that comes with the free version of the service, which is paid for by advertising. If you're willing to pay for extras, you can get more. For $20 per year, you can get a service that lets you use SMS text messages to manage your site, including the ability to moderate comments. You can pay $29.97 to have ads removed from your blog. And there are lots of others as well. When it comes to site management, it's more powerful than Blogger.
I found WordPress to be far superior to Blogger when it comes to site management, most likely because it's built on top of the WordPress platform for managing blogs. Its comment-management tools are exemplary, and it offers plenty of extras such as creating polls, ratings for individual posts, and more. Blogger offers just the basics; however, those basics are quite simple to use.
If you're at all serious about your blog, you'll want to know what kinds of traffic it gets, how the traffic is getting there, and usage patterns. Traffic management tools can be as simple as showing daily page views, or as sophisticated as revealing the referring site URLs and keywords that led people to visit your blog.
Given that Google owns Blogger, one would expect that it would do a good job providing traffic statistics. I found it met those expectations.
First off, it provides the basics: page views for today, yesterday, last month and during the entire site's history. You also get lists of the most popular blog posts and their page views.
In addition, you're provided with stats about referring URLs and referring sites, as well as keywords that were used to draw people to your site. There's also a list of page views by country, as well as a map showing the relative traffic from different countries using color-coding. You get a list of page views broken out by browser or operating system. And all this information can be sliced and diced so you can see it by the day, the past week, the past month, or all time. As with WordPress, I found nothing wanting in Blogger when it comes to traffic management.
As it does with site management, WordPress shines when it comes to traffic management. And probably for the same reason: Because it is associated with a higher-end product and shares many of those features.
When I clicked Stats on the Dashboard's navigation menu, I found traffic-management heaven. Want to see page views by the day, the week or the month? You can do that, as well as seeing on what day you had the most traffic. Want to see what sites are referring traffic to you, and how much they refer? Yes, you can get that as well.
You'll be able to see the most popular posts and pages, pages that link to your blog, and more. You can block your site from being indexed by Google and other search engines if you want. You can create a site index. And you can even see how many spam comments have been removed automatically from your site using the Akismet tool.
All in all, I found WordPress had every tool I could want for traffic management, including many I never thought of. And they were all easily accessible, and simple to use and understand.
This one's a toss-up -- both offer excellent tools for tracking traffic, getting data on referring sites and more. You won't go wrong with either one.
Extra features/power tools
Looking to make some pocket change -- or possibly more -- from your blog? Want to add nifty features such as displaying a different design for iPad users? Want to publish blog posts from your Android or iOS device? Then you'll want a host of power tools and extra features.
Blogger has been designed for people without much technical experience, so -- not surprisingly -- I didn't find a lot of power tools here. There are some, though.
If you have more than one blog on Blogger, you can easily switch among them. A main screen lists all of your blogs and shows you basic statistics about each, including the total number of page views, the total number of posts, and the last time you've posted. In addition, you can follow other Blogger blogs from the same page.
There are apps that let you create and publish blogs from Android or iOS devices. That includes both text and images; you can also add location information and labels. And you can sync posts between your computer and mobile device, so that you can start a post on your PC, for example, then finish it up and publish it on your mobile device.
You can sign up for Google AdSense, which places advertising in your blog, and then pays you based on the number of click-throughs. You can access an earnings report and a summary of payments.
WordPress has a cornucopia of tools, and most of them within easy reach. (You'll find them right on the Dashboard itself, sometimes one level down, such as in the Widgets section of the Appearance menu.) For example, if you've created a blog on another site -- such as Blogger, LiveJournal, Posterous, Moveable Type, Typebad or others -- you can easily import all those posts and associated comments into WordPress. Similarly, you can export your posts and comments via an XML file. You can also have your site transferred to your own server for a $119 fee.
In addition, I was able to change just about any setting, including how to display the time and date and what language to use. There's also a nifty bookmarklet that runs in your browser and lets you grab snippets of text and images to use in your posts. Given that WordPress can sometimes be confusing to use, I was pleasantly surprised to see how easy it was to change settings or add the bookmarklet.
You can create custom menus for your blog and display a special theme for people who visit your blog using an iPad. There are several dozen free widgets that let you build a search form, automatically display your top-rated posts, and create a word cloud showing the most popular keywords on your site. In fact, I found so much that I spent far too much time trying them all, and soon had a page filled with more gadgetry than anyone would want to see -- so I quickly cut back. Still, it's nice to know that it's all there.
WordPress offers an extremely wide range of tools, including plenty of free widgets, the ability to customize just about everything about your blog, and even a theme that will display when people visit using an iPad for optimal viewing. Blogger doesn't offer as much, but if you have dreams of making a few dollars from blogging, it makes it easy to use Google AdSense to try to bring in some revenue.
Support and community
No matter how easy a blog is to use, you can always use help with it, not just in solving problems, but also in getting advice on how to use your blog most effectively. There are two ways to get that kind of help, either via content created by the site itself, or from other users. Ideally, you want both from a blogging service, which is what both WordPress and Blogger offer.
If you've got a problem using Blogger, there's a general help area, discussion forums and a few YouTube how-to videos.
Google's official help area is well organized by topic, subtopic and individual articles. The articles are clearly written, including plenty of screenshots so it's all easy to follow. The related articles list at the bottom of each article is useful as well. I didn't find it as well organized or as in-depth as WordPress, but still, it was impressive.
Blogger is a well-established service, so its forums are well trafficked, with hundreds of thousands of posts. Unfortunately, they're not particularly well-organized. For example, the "Something is Broken" area had 76,459 messages the last time I checked, but those messages were not broken down by topic -- you'll have to use search to try and find what you want. Mitigating that somewhat is that the search is fast and returns relevant information (no surprise given that Google powers it). But I found myself spending more time than I wanted searching and poking around for answers.
Because there are only a few YouTube videos, unless you're lucky enough to have a problem that one of them addresses, they're not that useful.
WordPress has a robust support site, with a great deal of in-depth help about a wide range of topics. It's organized cleanly, with sections such as "Customize My Site," "Create Content" and so on.
There are also finer-grained topics, such as Appearance, Widgets & Sidebars and Writing & Editing. When you get to the actual help pages, they're written in simple, clear prose and well-illustrated. The site is so well-organized that I was able to quickly find help topics whenever I needed them.
In addition, there are active user forums with a total of well over half-a-million posts. Forums are organized by topic, such as Widgets, CSS Customization and Support. As with all forums, there's both signal and noise here. But generally, I found them to be populated by intelligent discussions with knowledgeable people (including WordPress employees) who were helpful rather than confrontational, and clearly know their stuff. If all else fails, you can send email to support.
WordPress gets the edge here because its forums are more clearly organized and it's easier to quickly find a solution.
Both Blogger and WordPress.org are excellent choices for anyone looking for a hosted blogging service. WordPress is clearly aimed at those who are willing to spend time learning its features and can handle an occasionally confusing interface. It offers a wider range of tools for adding content, more widgets and better social networking integration, and superior customization.
Blogger, on the other hand, is much simpler to set up and easier to use; you'll be able to create a blog and manage it in less time and with less effort than is required in WordPress.
So the choice is clear: If you want the fullest set of blogging features, you want WordPress, but if you're looking for simplicity and streamlined blog creation and posting, Blogger is the way to go.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).