May 9, 2009

Seven blogging tools reviewed

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A detailed look at the top blogging software platforms

Target audience: Nonprofits, cause organizations, businesses, individuals

Guest post by TechSoup

While often regarded as a platform for people to share their personal stories, a blog can also be used to tell the story of an organization. Whether showcasing your work, offering behind-the-scenes glimpse into your nonprofit, highlighting the people you serve, or advocating a particular point of view, a blog can be a powerful — and influential — communication and public-relations tool for your organization.

So how do you create a blog? Let’s say that you’ve already spent time reading other blogs and articles on how to successfully maintain and promote your blog. (More Resources at the end of this article will help you get started.) You’ve defined your goals, your target audience, and the type of content you’ll provide. Your next challenge is to pick the blogging tool that offers the right features for you.

There are a number of good blogging tools, but choosing among them can be confusing. In this report, we’ll take a detailed look at the top blogging tools out there and outline key considerations for selecting a blogging platform, including the skills required to set it up; the ease with which you can post to it; whether you can upload images, video, or audio to it; its ability to moderate comments and prevent spam; how closely you can tailor its design to match the look and feel of your organization’s Web site and other collateral; and tools you can use to track who’s reading it.

The seven blogging platforms we’ve chosen to review are Blogger, LiveJournal, Typepad, Movable Type, WordPress, ExpressionEngine, and TextPattern. We chose these tools because they are the ones most commonly used to create a typical nonprofit blog — by a long shot. 77 percent of all the bloggers included in the Nonprofit Blog Exchange and 81 percent of respondents in a survey of serious bloggers conducted by ProBlogger used one of these seven tools.

That said, these seven tools certainly don’t meet all possible needs. This report doesn’t include the more sophisticated tools you might use to build a complex multi-blogger community, or blogging software that provides deep Web site integration. You’ll want to look beyond this report if you need a posting workflow, where, for instance, an editor can approve posts from many different blog authors; a closed community in which only specific people can see, post, and comment; complex integration with other Web site content such as forums; or if you’re building a Web site that includes a blog built from scratch. For example, Drupal and Joomla! — both free, open source, content management systems — were among the top ten tools most commonly used blogging tools in the Blog Market Analysis. These tools, and a number of other powerful and sophisticated blog and community tools, are well worth a look if your blogging needs are more complex

But for the rest of us — whether we’re with a big nonprofit that wants a highly branded, tailored blog with multiple authors, or a tiny organization looking for something easy to set up and use — one of the seven tools covered here will work just fine. We’ll help you ask the right questions to determine which blog is right for your organization and provide reviews of the most popular nonprofit blogging platforms.

Features and functions

Blogging tools are designed to be easy to use. They generally don’t provide all the advanced features of a complex content management system, but rather do one task — publishing a blog — very well. To this end, they can help you:

  • Create posts. Since the purpose of a blog is to be able to post new text or information to the site frequently, creating posts should be quick and easy.
  • Upload pictures and multimedia. Many blogs go beyond text to include photos, video, or audio.
  • Display posts to visitors. A blogging platform can make it easy for readers to view your posts and to comment on them.
  • Moderate. While it’s typical to allow visitors to post comments to a blog, different platforms provide varying levels of help to weed out inappropriate contributions.
  • Publish RSS feeds. RSS feeds allow more Internet-savvy users to subscribe to your blog.
  • Configure the appearance and layout. Tools vary widely in the degree to which they allow you to configure your blog, and the methods they offer to do this.
  • Find support. Not every blogging tool offers the same degree of support: while some offer personalized assistance, others have forums where you can find answers to your questions.
  • Host your blog. While some blogging software lives on your own server, others are hosted by the vendor.
  • Get stats on your blog. Reporting features will help you see how many people are visiting your blog, and which posts are most popular.

What type of functionality should you expect in each of these areas? Some features are fairly common to all blogging tools, while others are more specialized. Below, we’ll walk through the typical features, and then show you some criteria you can use to evaluate whether a particular blogging tool is right for your organization.

Creating posts

The procedure for creating a blog post is fairly standard across blogging platforms: simply type in a title and the text you want to appear below it. Formatting options can vary from tool to tool, however; while many blogging platforms provide easy-to-use tools that allow you to create bold text, italics, larger font sizes, and more, not every tool offers these. In this case, you’ll need to use HTML to format your text.

Formatting tools themselves also vary — while some allow you to change text color and fonts as you like, others limit you to a particular set of styles defined for the site. When choosing a blogging tool, consider your needs: if you’ll be pasting text from Microsoft Word or another word-processing program, make sure that the blogging platform can strip out extra formatting that might otherwise interfere with online formatting and RSS feeds (more about RSS feeds in a moment).

Once you’ve written and formatted your post, the blogging software will add a date and publish it to a Web page with a click of a button. Some platforms also allow you to preview your post before you make it live, or to save a draft of it.

Uploading pictures and multimedia

While you can publish pictures to your blog using a variety of tools, some platforms make it easier than others. A few allow you to upload images easily in a single step, while others require you to upload images separately and then add them to a post afterward.

Some tools also automatically size and optimize images, while others require that you do this using another tool (like Adobe Photoshop). If you don’t resize photos, you risk having huge image file sizes, creating long download times for your users and monopolizing your bandwidth. Even if a blogging tool automatically resizes images, find out if it allows you to specify the dimension and alignment of your pictures on a post.

Any blogging tool will allow you to link to video or audio files already posted on the Web. If you plan to use this type of multimedia frequently, however, look for a tool that will let you upload multimedia files or even embed multimedia in a post to let your users view or listen without leaving your site. Embedding is generally done by posting a chunk of code provided by a third-party tool (like YouTube ); if you’d like to do this, look for a tool that allows you to include JavaScript in posts.

Displaying posts to visitors

Blog layouts tend to be fairly standard, without much variation between platforms. There are a few factors to consider, though, when making a final selection:

  • Navigation. Organizing your posts into categories can help visitors find and sort through previous posts. Not all tools support this, however.
  • Excerpts. Some tools offer the option to show excerpts (rather than entire posts) on a blog’s landing page.
  • Front-end usability. If your blog is likely to be visited by people unfamiliar with blog conventions, the links on your blogs should be intuitive. What does the visitor need to click on to view comments? How can they find a permanent URL for a post? Is the permanent URL easy to understand, or just a mess of numbers? Can you tailor these features to your needs?
Moderating

Once your post is live, it’s common to allow your readers to comment on it. While most comments are likely to be relevant and thoughtful, there may be a few inappropriate ones. If you allow comments, you’ll want to be able to keep an eye on them and intervene when necessary: therefore, make sure your blogging tool allows you to approve comments before they appear on your blog and delete unwanted contributions when necessary.

It’s also helpful to require posters to register or to submit their email address with a post. If your blog gets a large volume of comments, you may want to look for a tool that allows you to search and filter all comments, ban posts that include a particular keyword, or ban a poster by IP address.

While it will take some time before your blog builds a large following, those who do eventually get a fair amount of traffic may also encounter problems with comment spam — completely off-topic comments (generally ads) that are automatically posted. While the previously mentioned features will help combat spam, additional tools will also require users to verify that they are humans and not spambots by transcribing a wiggly set of letters (also known as a CAPTCHA); others automatically filter out spam-like comments in a method similar to email spam filters.

Publishing RSS feeds

One popular blog feature, particularly among more Web-savvy users, is the ability to “subscribe” to blog content via RSS. RSS allows people with the appropriate software to gather the content from many blogs so they can read it all together in one place. Providing RSS access to your blog will make it more useful — and appear more professional — to your audience.

All tools provide RSS support of some sort, but check to see if you can set it up without HTML ability. There are also a number of different types of RSS formats; if, however, you’d like to provide a specific one, or multiple, check on the formats that are supported.

Configuring the Appearance and Layout
The degree to which you can configure your blog’s appearance — and how you can do this — varies widely between blogging platforms. While some limit you to a few templates, others allow you to tailor everything to your exact needs.

Begin by considering the configuration method. While some tools allow you to set up a blog without HTML, a blogging platform that allows you to use it will give you more control. If you are versed in HTML — or can hire someone who is — check to see if straightforward knowledge of HTML will be enough to configure a given tool, or whether you’ll need PHP, Perl, or even to learn a whole new tool-specific coding language.

Once you have chosen a configuration method, evaluate how much control you need. There’s a lot to consider here:

  • Templates. If you can set up a blog quickly using a template that defines the layout and colors, how many choices do you have, and how professional are they?
  • Logos. Can you upload your organization’s logo? This is a surprisingly rare feature.
  • Vendor branding. Do you need to show vendor branding — and if so, how prominently is it displayed?
  • Sidebars. Most blogs have a sidebar that can include information about your organization and links to your Web site or to other blogs. To what degree — and how easily — can you edit sidebar content?
  • Fonts and colors. Can you tailor text and colors on your blog to match an existing Web site or organizational branding?
  • Domain. Can the blog use your organization’s domain (for example, www.idealware.org/blog )?
  • Widgets. Can you add in widgets — pieces of code written by third parties that allow extra functionality — like polls or images from photo-sharing site Flickr ?
  • Layout updates. To what degree will the platform allow you to modify templates to create a custom layout or to match your Web site?
  • Customization. Can you customize every single page, message, and element to create a completely tailored blog?
Support

If you run into problems with configuration or posting, you’ll want to know where find help. The good news is that most tools have thorough and friendly documentation. Some offer technical-support phone lines or email support desks, while others have active user communities, where you can post your questions to user forums and find code to add functionality, known as plug-ins, to your site.

Hosting services

Consider where the code for your blogging software will actually live. If you would like a lot of control over your blog, you may want a tool that you can install on your Web site’s server or hosting service via code files that you upload and configure.

If you’d like a less complicated option, you may opt for a hosted tool — software that sits on the vendor’s server but that you can access over the Web. If you’d like a fair amount of control without installing one of these tools yourself, another option is to find a host that has the blog tool you would like to use pre-installed. (Note that some tools are much more widely pre-installed than others.)

If you plan to upload a lot of multimedia files (images, video, or audio), or you expect a large readership, you will need to consider the amount of bandwidth you can use. Bandwidth is calculated by multiplying the size of each file by the number of times it is viewed. For instance, allowing 10,000 users to view a document that is 100KB will require 1GB of bandwidth. If you are using a hosted blog tool, it may have a maximum amount of bandwidth you are allowed to use without incurring extra charges. If you have installed a blog tool on your own server, the bandwidth will be defined by your Web site host.

Reporting

You’ll likely want to know how many people are visiting your blog, and which posts are the most popular. Reporting for most tools is surprisingly weak, but a few will tell you the most-visited pages and posts on your blog If you want detailed reports, look for a tool that will allow you to download your raw log files for analysis. If worse comes to worst, most blogging tools will allow you to use a third-party package, like Google Analytics or Site Meter, for stats.

What about Trackbacks?

Some blogs also come with a trackback feature, which allows other bloggers to automatically alert your site when they’ve linked to your post. This feature was not noted as a priority by any of our advisors, and therefore wasn’t included in our reviews. In our opinion, Trackbacks are better suited to individuals who are trying to become well-known bloggers than they are to nonprofit organizations.

How to choose

There are many variables to consider when selecting your blogging tool. What are the key considerations?

Consider whether you need more than a simple blogging tool.

Are you looking for a tool that will help you manage a number of different blogs? Will an editor need to approve posts from multiple authors? Will your blog support a closed community where only a specific group of people can view and comment? Do you want to combine your blog with discussion groups, so that the comments have more structure than a simple list? Will the blog be an integrated part of a Web site built from scratch? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you’ll likely want to look at not just the straightforward tools included in this report, but also at more powerful blogging and community tools, such as Drupal, Joomla and others.

Decide whether you need to tailor the blog’s appearance.

Should your blog display your logo or match your organization’s colors and fonts? Does it need to blend in seamlessly with the look of your Web site? Or are you just hoping to get something professional-looking up quickly? Can you choose the look of your blog from a selection of templates?

Determine if someone with technical skills will be available to set up the blog.

Do you have a staff member, consultant, or volunteer who can upload files via FTP? Get your blog up and running with HTML and CSS? If that’s just alphabet soup to you, and no external help is available, you’ll need to look for a vendor-hosted tool (like WordPress.com or TypePad) that can be set up without coding, rather than one that is installed on your own server.

Weigh control and integration versus ease of getting started.

If flexibility, control, and the ability to integrate your blog with an existing Web site are top priorities, you’ll likely want to use a tool that you can install on your own server, such as WordPress.org, ExpressionEngine, or Textpattern. If getting started quickly and easily is more important, you’ll likely want to use a hosted tool like WordPress.com or TypePad.
Consider the technical expertise of the people who will be posting.

Are the people who will be using the blog novices requiring something straightforward? If so, look for software that makes it easy to post and to upload pictures in one step. If your users are comfortable around technology and even around a little HTML, pretty much any of the blogging tools mentioned in this article will work for posting.

Decide on other critical features.

If you expect to have a high volume of comments, then you should seek out moderation functionality. Is it important to be able to display posts by category? To show only excerpts (rather than entire posts) on your blog’s main page? To be able to embed multimedia files via JavaScript?

Blogger
If you have some basic HTML skills and are looking for a free and user-friendly tool, Blogger is a great choice. It’s easy to create posts, upload photos in a single step, and customize the HTML to exactly match your Web site. It also offers an easy set-up process to show your blog at your own domain (www.yourorg.org/blog) rather than at Blogger’s (organization.blogspot.com). If you’re not able to muck around with at least a little technical stuff, however, there are better choices — by default, Blogger includes a prominent navigation bar that shows the Blogger logo and random links to other blogs, which you’ll need technical chops to remove. It also doesn’t support categories.

LiveJournal
LiveJournal is, at its core, a community collaboration tool that allows you to form networks of “friends” and blogs online. While it’s often used to create simple blogs, the tool isn’t the best in its realm, especially in comparison to some of the free tools (LiveJournal costs about $2 a month). It’s not very intuitive to set up, and the less-than-professional-looking templates are difficult to modify, even with advanced coding skills. If you’re looking for a tool to create an organizational blog, there are better choices.

TypePad
If you’re looking to get started quickly but flesh out your blog’s look and functionality over time, TypePad may be the tool for you. It’s also the only option among the tools reviewed that will allow you to display your organization’s logo without using HTML. Easy-to-use tools allow you to tailor all colors, fonts, and images through the site, or update the site HTML through a (rather complex) set of templates. Even technical novices will be able to post text and photos with ease. Starting at $4.95 a month and ranging up to $14.95 a month for complete customization, it’s the most expensive of the hosted tools we reviewed.

WordPress.com (Hosted)
The hosted version of WordPress offers a limited number of professional-looking templates that allow you to easily get your blog up and running in just a few minutes. While this version is free, you can’t customize anything beyond the template, meaning there’s no option available to tailor colors, fonts, domain name, or logo. The comment moderation functionality is great, however, the tool easily supports categories, and it allows you to show excerpts rather than full posts on the first page of your blog.

WordPress.org (Installed)

Of all the tools we reviewed that require installation, WordPress was the easiest to get up and running, and is frequently offered pre-installed or as an easy install by hosting companies. This might make it worth a look for even those without experience installing software on a server. Those with HTML skills and a little PHP knowledge can completely customize their blog setup. Other than that, WordPress’s installed version is similar to the hosted version- both offer great comment moderation functionality and support for both categories and excerpts. Free and open source.

Movable Type
Movable Type is a perfectly respectable blogging tool. However, at $199 or more (depending on the number of licenses needed) for a one-time purchase, it doesn’t compare well to its free brethren. It’s the most difficult to install, one of the more difficult ones to configure, and doesn’t have many extra features to make up for it’s cost. Its inability to toggle between HTML and rich text versions of posts is particularly annoying.

ExpressionEngine
ExpressionEngine is a flexible, powerful tool that is targeted at more tech-savvy bloggers. It’s relatively easy to install and configure, and you can tailor settings at a very detailed level. You’ll need an understanding of HTML to format posts. Beyond the scope of this report, it offers sophisticated support for a community of bloggers. Both a free and paid version are available. The paid plan includes unlimited technical support for a one-time licensing fee of $99.95 (for nonprofits), plus $19.95 per year for access to the latest updates.

TextPattern
Also targeted at more tech-savvy bloggers, and similar in concept to ExpressionEngine, TextPattern is a flexible, powerful blogging tool you install on your own servers. It’s particularly easy to configure the look of your blog via HTML, as TextPattern’s interface includes wizards to build all the custom syntax you’ll need to reference posts. Technical novices may be intimidated by the post formatting interface, which includes a set of simple but custom formatting tags (for example, you need to put asterisks around text to bold it). The tool is somewhat limited by its documentation, which is not as clear as other tools’. Free and open source.

Comparison chart

comparison-chart

For more information about we arrived at the ratings for each tool and category, please see How We Rated the Tools.

Recommendations

Which blogging tool should you use? Like anything other type of software, the best tool for you will depend on your needs. Here are a few suggestions for some common nonprofit situations:

1. We need to get up and running quickly, without technical skills, and the blog’s appearance isn’t important.

  • WordPress (hosted)
  • TypePad

2. No one technical is available to help set up the tool, but tailoring the blog with organizational colors and logo is important.

  • TypePad

3. We want to tailor the blog, and someone technical can help set it up, but non-tech-savvy folks will be posting.

  • Blogger
  • TypePad
  • WordPress (installed)

4. Our organization is pretty technical all around, and we want the most flexibility in a blogging tool.

  • WordPress (installed)
  • TextPattern
  • ExpressionEngine
Additional resources

While this report covers the software, there’s a lot more to know. Fortunately, there are a lot more resources that can help you learn how to create and sustain a great blog.

Pro Blogging Guide
Michael K. Bergman’s comprehensive guide to professional blogging.

Nonprofits and Weblogs
Nonprofit Online News’ introduction to nonprofit blogging.

Be a More Productive Blogger
A guide to creating successful content from To-Done!

Make Your Blog More Valuable to Readers
How to Save the World’s tips for making your blog truly informative — hence valuable — to your readers.

Blogging Workflow
How to Save the World’s guide to making blogs a real medium for communication.

Blogging for Beginners Series
Pro Blogger’s introduction to the basics of blogging.

Ten Ways Nonprofits Can Use Blogs
NetSquared offers ideas for your organization’s blog.

This report, which originally appeared on TechSoup, was created in partnership by Idealware and TechSoup Global, with the help of a talented group of contributors and advisors. Read more about those who participated in the creation of this report. For more articles and reviews, go to Idealware.org.

What blog software do you prefer, and why? Please comment on, correct or expand upon this article.

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5 thoughts on “Seven blogging tools reviewed

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