The Newbie Blogger Initiative (NBI) for 2016 is fast approaching. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s an event run by experienced game bloggers to encourage other people who want to get started blogging themselves, and also to help those who have already started in the last year and who could benefit from some advice or exposure.
I started this blog back in October 2013 as result of the NBI, and you can read my thoughts on that experience in Reflections on the NBI. The next year I wrote an article that addressed some of the worries people often have when they’re thinking of starting a blog, To Blog or not to Blog? Then last year, I wrote an article on deciding how broad or narrow to make the topic of your blog, Blogging: To niche or not to niche?. I guess I’m very slowly building up a “Lessons Learned” series on blogging, based in part on my own experiences, and also drawing on what I’ve observed happen with the rest of the community.
This year I want to look into the topic “Where to Blog?” I think it’s good to get into this early, so that people who have yet to actually start their blogs for NBI get some input while they’re still mulling over the options.
Basics of Blogging Platforms
If you’re actually thinking of starting a blog, you probably know some basics about blogging platforms already. But just in case you don’t here’s a brief guide…
There are many free options for blogging, but the following are the big two:
- WordPress.com powers this very blog, Thinking Play, and many others such as The Ancient Gaming Noob and Gaming Conversations. It’s completely free-to-use, though you can pay for extras like doing advanced customization of the look of your blog, or getting rid of the ads that sometimes appear. I personally don’t pay a penny, so you can see that the free service provides pretty much all that you need for a fully-featured blog like this one.
Both of these will allow you to quickly and easily create a very nice blog. The startup process will be simple and probably take less than five minutes. You can choose a “theme” to get a look and layout that you like, and perhaps tweak it in various ways to make it your own. Then you’ll be all set up to start writing posts, easily including pictures, YouTube videos etc if you want.
2018 Update: I now say use WP.com, don’t use Blogger. See below for more info.
The free options are very good, but there are two paid options worth mentioning.
- “Self-hosted WordPress“ – is like WordPress.com, but instead of using the service provided by the company, you create your own independent website, and have complete control over how you customize it, and what you do with it. However this means more work, takes more tech savvy, and entails paying ongoing costs, usually at least a few dollars a month. An example of a self-hosted WordPress blog is Herding Cats.
Squarespace is supposed to be a hassle-free paid option, in which you pay a monthly fee, and don’t have to worry about technicalities. The current version of Contains Moderate Peril uses Squarespace, though in previous incarnations the site was a self-hosted WordPress one.
So… does it matter which?
As you can see, all of these free and paid options are perfectly viable, and you will be able to express yourself to your heart’s content whichever you choose. For many people, just picking the option you like the look of will work out perfectly well. However, there are various issues that might become important in some circumstances, and that are at least worth knowing about in advance.
WordPress v Blogger
Both WordPress and Blogger are capable, and most likely either will meet your needs well enough. There are a few possible gotchas though, depending on what exactly you’re planning on doing.
WordPress.com’s social and community features seem to be far better than Blogger. It’s very easy for a WordPress.com user to keep track of all the conversations they’re having in comments on blogs there for example. It’s also easy to “Like” posts, and follow blogs with the built in WordPress.com Reader. This extends to many self-hosted WordPress blogs as well, as they can choose to use plugins that hook them into the same ecosystem.
You’re allowed to put advertising into Blogger sites. In fact Google makes it easy to put Google Adsense ads in there, as they would get a slice of the money. However in practice putting ads into hobby blogs is largely pointless, and the sums of money made are usually tiny.
WordPress is focused on WordPress, while Blogger is just a small part of Google. Some worry that means Blogger doesn’t get updates and new features too often, and even fear that someday Google might decide it’s not important to the company, and pull the plug entirely, as they did with Google Reader and numerous other services.
- Bhagpuss has put in a lot of effort to explore some major issues with Blogger that I happened to mention in passing. Given his discoveries, I now strongly recommend that new bloggers go for WordPress.com rather than Blogger. Using Blogger is very likely going to make it much harder for many people to comment on your posts, and your site may get somewhat mangled on mobile devices.
All of this can be seen as a by-product of the point mentioned above that Blogger is not important to Google, and there is minimal effort to fix any problems or keep up with the changing tech landscape.
Let’s focus on self-hosted WordPress versus the free WordPress.com as a way to understand why anyone would consider paying, when the free services seem to be excellent.
- WordPress.com comes with a large selection of themes for the look of your blog, and “widgets” and “plug-ins” that add extra features. For example in my sidebar you can see a bit of my Twitter feed, provided by a so-called widget. For many people this selection is plenty, but out in the world at large there are vastly more themes, widgets and plugins available for use in a self-hosted WordPress, and which have not been approved and made available on WordPress.com.
On a self-hosted WordPress, you can change the very workings of WordPress itself. This is exactly what many of the plugins do, in some way or another. If this sounds powerful it is… If it sounds complicated and potentially dangerous, yes it can be that as well!
You have total ownership and control over your site. For example WordPress.com doesn’t allow ordinary users to put advertising on their blog, and it has fairly strict rules about affiliate links to Amazon and such like. Similarly on your own site, you can say what you want, without any consideration of anyone else’s rules about what is acceptable content.
There are many articles out there that extol the virtues of going for a self-hosted blog. They claim that you can thereby make a properly professional site, perfectly in tune with your own needs, and with so little hassle and expense that it’s hardly worth thinking about the free options at all. They’re the blog equivalent of gamers who speak dismissively about noobs, casual players and F2P games. So are free platforms just for noobs and losers?
Well there are some big advantages to free that may not be obvious at first glance.
- The cost of hosting a blog is proportional to your traffic. It might be a few bucks a month to start with, but if you happen to get a lot of readers, it can go up considerably. Also bear in mind that you have no control whatsoever over how many people decide to read your blog, so ultimately you have no control over your costs.
The cost goes on as long as your blog continues to exist. Many wonderful blogs and podcasts have been taken offline because the owners didn’t want to carry on paying the recurring costs, especially as they may have moved onto other hobbies themselves, perhaps because of life changes. It’s rather sad if something that you may have worked on for years vanishes from the world like that. It’s also a little antisocial, as others contribute to your blog in comments, link to your posts from their own blogs, engage in debate with you, and so on.
There is a middle way, which may be appropriate for some. For example like Braxwolf you could use WordPress.com, but pay a little extra for your own domain name. Or like Wilhelm, pay to stop advertising appearing on your blog. With such things, it is possible to enhance the “professional” look of a blog, while keeping costs low, and ensuring that the blog could stay online with no cost at all, should that become necessary.
2018 Update: This “middle way” has become a lot more expensive. If you really want such features and also really want to keep costs down, a cheap self-hosting plan might serve you better than using WordPress.com.
It is possible to move from a free blog to a self-hosted one later. This becomes even easier if you were using your own domain name from the outset.
With a self-hosted blog, you will likely need to worry about keeping things up to date, as there are frequent changes to WordPress itself, and to the themes and plugins which you’re using. While this is not too hard, you probably already have far too many computer things you need to keep updating, and extra work is not something you need.
The unusual plugins that are not available on WordPress.com, and which might be your reason for self-hosting in the first place are also the most liable to get broken by changes to WordPress.
Personally I highly recommend that people stick to free platforms, unless they have very clear and specific reasons why they simply can’t do what they need to do there. If for example your blog will be pointless without the use of some specialist plugin that is not available on WordPress.com then you will have to bite the bullet and self-host. Otherwise, I say don’t risk that someday – due to cost reasons of all things – you have to let your words become lost, like tears in rain…