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Monday, May 9, 2011

Why as a Developer, I Switched to Blogger.com and Why I'm Staying With It

Since writing for LouisGray.com a few years ago I've been curious about Blogger. Louis Gray used it at the time and he really swore by it. I talked to Rick Klau, Blogger's Product Manager at the time, at a BlogWorld expo a few years back and he insisted I try it. He suggested that even as a developer I would be pleasantly surprised. I was surprised by him even saying that.

I admit I didn't like the interface of Blogger at first. It was klunky, and seemed very limited compared to my self-hosted Wordpress install I had been on for years. But I was intrigued at what Rick Klau had told me. At the same time, he Tweeted back in December that over a 2 month time frame, Blogger had experienced a 100% uptime. This further intrigued me.

Just last year, I was running this blog on a self-hosted Wordpress instance, the same server I was running SocialToo.com. Being a one-man show at the moment (I do most of this on the side so I can help out the LDS Church with their Social Media efforts), occasionally that server would go down as a result of heavy activity on SocialToo, and with it, my blog as well. I've fixed those issues since, but I realized I had to have a more reliable, redundant solution so my communications weren't cut off when my other services were. It was at that time I decided it was worth trying something else out that didn't involve me having to worry about hosting.

The Choices


The main choices I had were self-hosted Wordpress (Wordpress.org), the subscription, pay-as-you-go Wordpress.com, and Blogger.com. There were others, but I was looking for reliability and Blogger and Wordpress seemed to have the best uptime. Self-hosted Wordpress I had already realized wasn't an option for me - I loved the flexibility of it all, but I just didn't have the time any more to keep worrying about whether my servers were up, whether I had appropriate cache set up, and everything that goes with it.

So my main choices were Blogger and Wordpress.com. To tell you the truth, my first inclination, as a Wordpress user and developer (I've written a few Wordpress plugins and even put together the theme for this blog with help of a designer), was to try out Wordpress.com. I began looking at it, and quickly realized to get "StayNAlive.com" as my own domain I would be paying $12 per year. Then, to add my own customized design, I'd be paying another $15 per year. To remove ads, that would be $30 per year. If I wanted to accomodate my entire community, that would be another $30 per year. The entire bill to switch was going to cost me $87/year! All that and I would still not be able to fully integrate the design I had from my own hosted solution. I don't make a ton of money from this blog (I do make a little from ads to support it), so that's a huge chunk of change for just a blog, and I wasn't planning to get rid of any servers to be able to pay for the blog (since I still needed to run SocialToo).

That left me the choice of Blogger.com, so I decided to try it out. Blogger is 100% free, and has close to 100% uptime thanks to Google's incredible infrastructure. I decided to try it, and boy was I impressed!

Let me share some of the pros and cons of why I decided to stick with it:

The Pros


I always thought of Blogger.com as a place for mommy bloggers (no offense to all of my mommy blogger friends!). It was the place I always sent people with little knowledge in technology and who just wanted a good place they could start a blog. Maybe that's it's biggest advantage. I quickly learned as I was getting started that the interface was mind-numbingly simple. It was really easy to manage!

Like I said though, that was what kind of kept me away in the first place. What I discovered however is that Blogger, while simple on the surface, has some very developer-friendly features that to me, seemed even easier to deal with than my custom-hosted Wordpress solution. Here are the advantages:

  • Simplicity. I said it already - Blogger's interface is mind-numbingly simple.
  • Reliability. Rick Klau isn't lying. I can expect my blog to be up 100% of the time. They simply don't go down! It was actually quite a relief today, with such a high traffic day (see my blog post about it), to not have to worry about any of my servers in the process. You simply don't need to worry about a burst in traffic, DoS attacks, or anything like that. Google handles all that for you and they're pros at it.

    On top of that, I added Torbit caching to the top of it all (they offered me a free beta of their service), which made it even faster. That took away any need for customized Apache caching.
  • OpenSocial Support. I think this is the coolest part. Wordpress has plugins, but Google uses the standardized OpenSocial API, along with Google Gadgets, to provide an interface to Widgets and other features within the blog. To code a customized feature, I just need to know a little OpenSocial (which works with many other sites), and boom! It works right on my blog. That really got my Geek and Social Developer blood going, and I've only started to learn what can be done with it.
  • Simple, XML themes. You don't have to know how to code (for the most part) to build a Blogger theme. Of course, I know how to code, but it's not completely necessary. Look at the design of this blog (assuming you're not viewing it on a very small screen or mobile device - more on that in a second) - all this custom design was built using Blogger's own XML format. It was a pretty simple integration. I downloaded the XML file, edited it, uploaded it, and tried it out until I got the design I was looking for.
  • Seamless Integration with other Google Products. I say this with an asterisk. It works really well integrating with Google Adsense, Feedburner for RSS tracking, and a few other Google features (including any Google Gadget, as I mentioned above), but some obvious Google products have not been integrated. I'll share more on that later.
  • Instantaneous RSS updates. When I publish a post, almost instantaneously it goes out to Google Reader and other readers that support the Pubsubhubbub format.
  • It's free! The best part of it all is I don't have to pay a thing to run it, and I don't have to run ads on the site for it to work. It's a cheap, very customizable solution any blogger can use. I don't have any special deal to get what you see here - anyone gets this.
Cons

While the pros certainly outweigh the cons, there are still a few pet peeves of mine I'd love to see Google resolve. Some of these are obvious, and I really hope Google puts focus on them. Blogger could well be one of the most social products they own, and I hope they realize that. There's a big bonus check in store for the employees that do get this.
  • SEO. I hope Matt Cutts is reading this (he doesn't even use Blogger for his blog). The transition from custom Wordpress to Blogger is horrible for SEO! In Wordpress, I had an interface to customize the link structure so it matched the previous blog where my content was stored. That is non-existent in Blogger. They do provide a URL you can fall back to when your content doesn't resolve on Blogger.com, but that means I've got to keep my previous custom Wordpress solution running for it to work.

    The solution for this seems simple. Google already has a cache of every website known to man. They already have a cache of my entire blog. Why not use that cache to resolve current content that doesn't resolve from old links on the site? Or, they could just do something like Wordpress does - I think the former would be cooler, and more Google-like.

    In addition to URL structure, there is no good way to create a site map in Blogger. They provide an RSS feed, and you can submit that to Google Webmaster tools, but I've found Google is still missing links in their index from my new blog despite giving it my RSS feed. I'm now trying to just include the Archive of all the links on the sidebar of the page, but that's hardly optimal, and cluttered too. It would be nice if Google just provided a sitemap, or automatically indexed it for you since they own the site anyway.

    There are also no good ways to customize the way your title, description, tags, and other data are formatted. You can sort of do this in your theme design, but it's hardly an easy thing to do.

    That said, the uptime, and giving it time to index everything, does eventually make up for the bad SEO features of the site. I'm finding I'm almost all the way back to where I was traffic wise on Google.
  • Plugins. I mentioned OpenSocial and Gadgets as an advantage, but if you are used to the custom Wordpress install, there is still a lot you cannot do on Blogger. For instance, to provide an alternate, mobile, version of this theme, I can't just install a plugin to do it. I have to hard-code it into the main theme itself, which is clunky and bad looking. I'd love to see more fully integrated, and better plugin support. They could really take this to another level.
  • Storage. If I want to store something at the root of my domain, I have to figure out a way to hack my server as the root controller domain that forwards all other requests to blogger. Or, if I want to upload an image, it's a rather clunky process. I have to upload it as an image on an article and link to it that way from my theme code, or upload to Picasa or some other location to host it there. There's no good storage solution that fits well with Blogger. Google could do better integrating this.
  • The Cloud. The fact is, when your data is in the cloud, if something dies, so goes your content. I'm very aware of this. I'm trying to consider solutions of redundancy at the moment. I'm hoping to find something. It might be nice to auto-back up your blog to an external server somewhere, and that leads me to my next Con.
  • It's proprietary. Blogger is not Open Source. I can't install it on my own server like you can Wordpress. I can't contribute to its development. I can't create my own instance if, knock on wood, Blogger ever does actually go down. I can't send my backups to a server and have it continue to run there if my blog ceases to exist on Blogger.com.
The Summary

If you're considering an alternative blogging platform, getting sick of hosting it on your own, or just want to try something new, I highly recommend Blogger.com. Speaking as a developer, it really isn't your mamma's blogging platform any more. There is so much you can do with it, and so many ways you can configure it, that it's definitely worth a consideration.

If you really needs something fully customizable, are concerned about strict SEO, or need better plugin support, you may be better off sticking with a custom Wordpress install, or some other open source blogging solution (hopefully that's Blogger at some point). Wordpress.com is simply too expensive to compare - I'm still unsure why people choose it, unless they don't care about the custom features I mention above. That said, for me Blogger's advantages far outweighed the SEO and any slight customization I would need. I also have faith that they will improve.

In a high traffic day like today, Blogger has been a life saver. I've been able to replace almost everything I had in my self-hosted Wordpress instance, and it's completely free to do so! I encourage you to carefully weigh the pros and cons but give it a try.

In another post I'm going to share the steps I took to transition from Wordpress to Blogger. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime I'm interested in hearing your experiences. What pros and cons do you see with it?


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