Right now, a lot of my colleagues (especially journalists) want to start building an independent online brand for the first time. Thus, they want to launch their first serious blog or site.
My universal advice in this case is: Don’t start from scratch (i.e., build a static site in Dreamweaver, FrontPage, or GoDaddy’s Website Tonight or SmartSpace). Instead, build your project with a popular professional-level blogging platform, even if you don’t want to blog at first.
Good blogging tools allow you to create static pages (which can comprise your whole site, if you like) and implement nearly any design strategy — while also playing nice with search engines, making your content easily linkable, and leaving your options open for more interactive approaches without having to totally rebuild the site.
Also, get a good domain for your site and use it. Over time, this provides far more search visibility and brand recognition (which benefit your career) — as well as options for easily switching platforms without losing those benefits — than a site bearing, say, a blogspot.com or WordPress.com domain.
Another reason to avoid free blogging platforms like Blogger for serious sites is that these tools are very limited. Once you get into blogging, you’ll quickly outgrow these tools — and moving a site is always a hassle.
After this, my colleagues typically want to know which tools to use to build their blog or site.
Personally, I’m a big fan of WordPress, the free open-source content management system. (It only started as a blogging tool; it’s grown.) I’ve used it for Contentious.com for many years. It’s flexible and offers just about any design theme or plug-in option I could possibly want — which encourages me to learn and experiment.
But let’s face it: I’m rather geeky. I actually enjoy spending time playing with new online tools and seeing what I can make them do. That’s not true of everyone — especially many journalists.
So to someone who’s not inherently techno-geeky and who wants start a serious blog or site for the first time (and who may want to start multiple blogs or sites), I actually recommend a different tool: Typepad, the inexpensive hosted blogging service from SixApart.
Here’s why… My reasons for recommending Typepad to non-geeks:
- Setup simplicity
- Relative cost, in perspective
- Design simplicity
- Adding special features
- Update and security simplicity
- Multiple sites or users
There is one drawback for Typepad for non-geeks, compared to the way WordPress sites are handled by some web hosts. If your web host is not a domain registrar (this includes Typepad) you’ll have to map a domain to your site, which is a slightly technical process.
And I have some final thoughts on the big-picture comparison between WordPress and Typepad for new-but serious bloggers.
If you decide to go with a self-hosted WordPress installation, you first must sign up for an account with a web host that supports WordPress. (I recommend Dreamhost, which offers a one-click WordPress install. This is much easier than downloading the software from WordPress.org and installing it yourself.) Then you actually install WordPress on your server space, and then configuring the software.
WordPress configuration can be a bit daunting to non-geeks. It’s not always easy to figure out which options and plugins you really need. This part of the process often takes far more time than non-geeks expect in order to build a site or blog that they understand and has the features they want.
In contrast, if you decide to use Typepad, you don’t have to install or configure any software. Just select the pricing level that gives you all the features you want, and start designing your site or blog.
Dreamhost costs $6/month and includes one free domain registration with each account. (Registering a domain typically costs $8-12.) Typepad offers several pricing levels, starting at $5/month.
For people who want their site or blog to be a key part of their career, I recommend Typepad’s pro-level account ($15/month). This offers full access to their design customization features, as well as the ability to host as many blogs as you want — and to allow as many authors as you want on any of your blogs.
Typepad is not a domain registrar, so you’d have to register a domain elsewhere and then connect that domain to your Typepad site (discussed below).
If you only want a single and very simple blog, the $5/month Typepad account will do to start. You can always upgrade later. But if you want to start so simply and honestly don’t enjoy learning new techno-tools, WordPress is almost certainly overkill for you anyway.
If you’re balking at $15/month for Typepad vs. $6/month for WordPress hosted on Dreamhost, ask yourself how much an hour of your time is worth — especially if it’s an hour spent wrestling with techno-stuff, and if you really hate wrestling with techno-stuff. If your time is worth more than $9/hour, you’re ahead of the game with Typepad.
Typepad offers a lot of design templates for your site that control the page layout and design elements like color and graphics. If you have the pro-level account you can fully customize the design — modify the Cascading Stylesheets (CSS), and more. Or you can hire a designer to do this for you. All of the design is handled through the main Typepad interface — you don’t need to know where to put files on a server, how to use FTP, etc.
WordPress offers thousands of themes created by developers and designers in the WordPress community, as well as theme-builder tools like Atahualpa. The trick for non-geeks is installation. Each WordPress theme is a set of files that you must upload into the correct directory on your web hosting account. And not all WordPress themes are created equally, due to the diversity of authors. Some are buggy (may display weird on certain browsers).
Both WordPress and Typepad allow you to extend the kind of content functionality your site or blog offers, or to interact with other services or sites. WordPress definitely offers far more options on this front, but Typepad’s options are technically simpler to implement.
In WordPress, functionality is extended via plugins. Like themes, plugins are file bundles that you must download from the web, upload separately to your web hosting account, and then activate and configure within WordPress. Some plugins, like the comment/trackback spam catcher Akismet, are absolutely essential to running any WordPress site. So if you create a WordPress site you definitely will need to learn how to find, install, configure, activate, update, and deactivate plugins. (Not hard, but necessary.)
Typepad offers a gallery of third-party widgets that you can add to the sidebar of your Typepad site. These aren’t as flexible or far-reaching as many WordPress plugins, but they’re often useful. They’re also very easy to install and configure, as long as you’re not using Typepad’s Advanced Templates feature.
Almost any web site or blog can be hacked. (It’s even happened to me.) Therefore, it’s important to keep the software supporting your blog or site up to date, because security patches come out all the time.
With Typepad you don’t have to worry about doing software updates, since that’s part of the service you’re buying. You’ll always be running the latest and most secure version of Typepad.
But with a self-hosted WordPress site, you do need to make sure you keep your WordPress installation updated. The easiest way to do this is to install the WordPress automatic upgrade plugin. Then just run the auto-update whenever it tells you to.
Also make sure that you keep all WordPress plugins you use up-to-date, and deactivate or uninstall plugins you aren’t actually using.
It’s possible that you may want to run a separate static web site (like an online brochure or resume) as well as a blog — or set up multiple sites or blogs for special purposes, like creating a hub for your coverage of an ongoing issue. Or you might want to allow other people to author posts on your blog. On these fronts, Typepad offers clear advantages over WordPress.
The regular version of WordPress requires a separate installation of the WordPress software for each site. Most web hosts also require that you set up separate hosting accounts for additional WordPress sites or blogs, which entails additional expense and setup time. (Bluehost allows up to three add-on domains under a single account, but you still have to do a WordPress installation for each site. I’ve done that and managing these extra WordPress installations there is very confusing.)
You can choose to install the multiuser version of WordPress, which allows you to set up multiple blogs with multiple authors. However, I’ve never seen a web host offer this as a one-click install with full support, so it would probably overwhelm non-geeks easily.
I mentioned earlier that if you want your blog or site to be a serious part of your career, it’s essential to get your own domain for your site. This not only gives you greater visibility in search engines such as Google over time; it also makes it easier for people to remember your site.
Most importantly, having your site under your own domain makes it less risky to switch to a different blog platform or host down the line. It’s always possible that you will outgrow your initial platform, or that your host will go out of business, or that you will get dissatisfied with you host’s service and want to switch.
Many web hosts where you’d install WordPress, such as Dreamhost, also are domain registrars. (In fact, Dreamhost includes a free domain registration when you set up your account.) If you register your domain through your web host, then it’s very easy to get your site or blog set up under that domain, so every page bears your domain in the URL. For this reason, I strongly recommend that non-geeks choose a web host that is also a domain registrar.
If you already own a domain and your new web host is a domain registrar, you can transfer your domain from its original registrar to your web host. (That’s not about who owns the domain, just where its reference records are managed.) Then, apply that domain to your WordPress blog.
If your web host is NOT a domain registrar (this includes Typepad), then you’ll have to map your domain to your site. Domain mapping is a moderately geeky process where you modify some information through your domain registrar so that the domain applies to a site you’ve set up.
If you set up a Typepad account, your site’s default address would be a subdomain of Typepad.com — such as johndoe.typepad.com or northoakland.typepad.com. This is harder for people to remember, and it can be harder to get traffic from search engines under this arrangement than with your own easy-to-remember domain.
So once you set up a Typepad site or blog — but before you publicize it — follow Typepad’s domain mapping instructions. It may look daunting to a non-geek, but if you take it one step at a time it will work. I’ve mapped several domains I’ve registered through SimpleURL to Typepad blogs, such as RightConversation.com. After that, your blog’s home page and every page or post within that site will bear your domain.
Most domain registrars offer a domain forwarding option — where someone can type in a domain like amysite.com and it would forward to amy.typepad.com. This may seem tempting because it’s easier to set up than domain mapping, but domain mapping is really what serious bloggers want to do — for the search visibility and site portability benefits.
…All things considered, I think the technical skills required to put together a decent WordPress site or blog are fairly minimal. If you really want to learn WordPress, don’t be afraid to start there. Personally, even though I prefer WordPress I maintain a Typepad account so I can quickly create special-purpose blogs as needed for myself and my clients without having to arrange additional hosting.
However, WordPress definitely does require you to be willing to mess with and maintain server-side software. If you’re really uncomfortable with that, then definitely go with Typepad. You can switch your Typepad blog to WordPress later if you want — not a trivial task, but many people have done it.