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FAQ: What Is a Blog?

By Andreas Ramos, www.andreas.com

  • Special thanks to Eleanor Kruszewski, Marsha Glasner, Cynthia Typaldos, Linda Shum, Kristen Kuhns, and Patti Wilson, who made many valuable comments and suggestions.

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Introduction

What are blogs? How do you make a blog? Why are blogs important? Which are the main blogs? And your most important question: Can I make money with blogs?

Recently, there has been a great deal of talk about blogs, so I wrote this FAQ to answer several questions:

  • History and general overview of blogs
  • How to make a blog
  • Conclusions

History and Overview of Blogs

Origin of Blogs

In August 1999, Evan Williams in San Francisco figured out how to update his website by just typing text into a text box.

Normally, to update a website, you use an HTML editor, edit the text and add HTML formatting, use FTP to upload it, and the page is then available.

But his new method allowed him to open a webpage, type text into a text box, click Submit, and it was instantly available as a webpage.

This makes it easier to add content to websites without having to bother with HTML.

For example, Eleanor has a website at eleanor.com, where she wants to keep a diary of what she is up to.

  • With a blog, she can open a webpage, add a few lines of text, and click Submit. The new text appears on her webpage, at the top of the page, as a new entry. Her webpage is thus a running diary.
  • Eleanor can use any computer that has a web connection (at the library, at work, at internet cafes, at friends places, while traveling, and so on) and she can continue to update her blog.
  • She can also update the blog via her cell phone with SMS (text messaging). With wireless PDA or a Blackberry, she can update her website while sitting in a coffeehouse. She can be on a train and use her cell phone's digital camera to add photos to her blog. At conferences, while the speakers are still presenting, people in the audience use their wireless PDAs and laptops to update their blogs with the speakers' points.
  • Eleanor can also create a group blog and invite several friends to write the blog. She can also make it open, so anyone can write to the blog.

Blogs allow anyone to quickly post text and images to the Web without any technical knowledge. This opens the web to more publishing and distribution of information.

  • Jorn Barger coined the term weblog in December 1997 for his Robot Wisdom Weblog, which still exists at robotwisdom.com.
  • The first hand-made blogs showed up in early 1999. The first use of "blog" also appeared.
  • In August 1999, Evan Williams (at evhead.com) released what was to become blogger.com.
  • In January 2003, blogger.com reached one million users.
  • In February 2003, Google.com bought Pyra, the makers of blogger.com

I should also mention several more people who have been significant in developing blogs. Dave Winer created the Radio Userland blog tool radio.userland.com. Meg Hourihan megnut.com is the co-founder of Pyra (blogger.com) and she got together the funds that kept the company alive.

Origin of the word Blog

If a diary on the website is a log entry on a website, then it is a web log. This was shortened to weblog, which soon became blog.

There's also the verb, as in "she was blogging all morning."

How do I pronounce blog?

Blog rhymes with "dog" or "blob". It's one word. It's not pronounced "bee-log."

Are there other silly words?

  • Blogroll: A blogster's collection of links to her favorite blogs which she reads. This is usually on her blog page.
  • Moblogging: Mobile blogging ("MoBlogging") is the ability to update blogs while on the move by using wireless PDAs, cellphones, or Bluetooth-enabled digital cameras.
  • Blogosphere: the interconnected network of blogs. Blogs often refer to each other.
  • Blogeoise, as in the bourgeois. "Those who make blogs." This is similar to digirati (the digital literati, but nobody says that.)

What is the blog community?

A subculture has sprung up around blogging. Groups of people maintain blogs and cite each other in their blogs. They even visit each other. (In the list of articles at the end, read the New Yorker article for a good description of this.)

Aren't blogs just diaries?

Okay, yes, the vast majority of blogs are self-centered and trivial. It's like reading someone's diary. Here's a quote from a blog:

  • "yeah, so today we went to Samba Brazil for lunch, and there was a newer girl there. I ordered the nachos (which were not very good this time) like I usually do and requested no sour cream. She was like "that's odd" and did this annoying giggle..."

But there's more to blogs. The advanced blog tools are in effect content management and distribution tools. These can be used for business.

Blogs can also be private

Blogs aren't just public. There are also private blogs. These can be internal newsletters for a family, a group of friends, a school class, a project team, and so on. They can share daily information, such as major family events, like new babies, updates on an upcoming wedding or get-together, or updates on an illness in the family.

  • When you set up the blog, you can select whether it will be publicly available or invitation-only. If you set it up at your website, you can choose who you give the URL, and if you know how, you can also set up a password-protected section for it.
  • You can also use blog tools as a completely private diary. When you set it up, select that it will be a private blog and then tell no one about it. You can use it to jot ideas, notes, and so on. It automatically adds a date and time stamp to each entry.

Group Blogs

Most blogs are written by one person, but there can be more authors. The advanced blog tools allow multiple contributors. Five or six people can contribute and create a group blog. It can be either a group of people, or it can be open to anyone. This allows collaborative publishing.

But what exactly is a blog?

There's two parts to a blog: the software and the resulting text on your webpage. Would you like to see what these look like?

The blog editor (the software)

The editor is what you use to write the blog's text. You sign up at (for example) blogger.com, fill out a few pages of questions, and that creates a blog account for you. You then get a login and password which lets you use a blog editor (this editor appears as a webpage at blogger.com).

The blog editor has a text box in which you type in your text for your blog (just under New Post in the illustration). You click Post & Publish (at the upper right corner) and it gets added to your webpage. The text appears at the top of your blog page (see the next illustration.) The time and date is automatically added. The previous postings are listed in the bottom half of the editor page. You can always go back and edit a previous posting. You can also delete it.

The blog (the results)

When you click Post & Publish, your entry is now visible to the world at your blog webpage. Everyone can read what you wrote in your blog.

How do people read my blog entries?

There are several ways for others to read your blog.

  • Others come to your blog page and read it.
  • If you use one of the advanced blog tools, others will get an email notification that you've updated your blog. They click the link and come to your blog and read the new entry.
  • If you use one of the advanced blog tools, your blog tool will send the new entry to them as an email. They don't have to visit your blog. In effect, you're publishing a newsletter that gets sent out by email.

This last point is important. One of the major problems, if not the critical problem, of the simple blogs is that they depend on visitors coming to their website. If you're not well-known or have an interesting topic, your blog will not have much traffic. By using a tool that can send your blog out by email, you can reach your readers directly. I'll discuss this point further in the Conclusions.

How many blogs are there?

  • There are some 2.8 million blogs. However, 80% (2.2m) have no incoming links; that is, nobody reads them. (Wired, Aug. 2004). Thus there are some 600,000 blogs that are read, but of this, only a few ten thousand have substantial readership.

I have several comments to these numbers.

  • Is two million users a large number? Not really. Blogger.com took four years to grow to one million users. During the dot.boom, I worked at a startup where we grew by over one million registered users per month. We had sixteen million visits to our website every day.
  • If you have HTML skills, you don't need blogging software to add diary entries. This can be done with ordinary HTML software and ftp (file transfer software.) This means the real number of blogs is unknowable.
  • If you look at Bloglines.com (an RSS site) and study the subscriber numbers, most RSS feeds have extremely low readership. The US State Department has a blog on the Middle East. There are exactly two subscribers: Colin Powell and Osama bin Laden. Of the several thousand RSS feeds, only a few have several hundred readers. The remainder have only a handful of readers.

Why is there all this talk about blogs?

  • Blogs have been around since 1999 (four years now) but up to now, they have been a subculture.
  • In February 2003, Google bought Pyra, which makes blogger.com, and that created attention because whatever Google does is significant.

Blogs finally passed the tipping point from subculture into the mainstream.

Why are blogs important in journalism?

Using blogs, ideas are brought up on blogs, discussed further by others on their blogs, and distributed to yet more blogs. This is somewhat like a publicly-available email discussion. Blogs makes it possible to carry out a conversation in public, with hundreds of thousands of readers.

This is no small thing. A few blogs have led the media on several items:

  • University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds (at instapundit.com) and Washington DC columnist Joshua Marshall's Talking Points Memo, (an insider's newsletter on politics in Washington DC at talkingpointsmemo.com) were among the first to notice Trent Lott's racist comments during Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday bash. They used their highly-visible blogs to spread the news. US Senate Majority Leader Lott was forced to resign.
  • During the preparations for the US invasion of Iraq, Salam Pax, an Iraqi teenager, maintained a blog. He reported remarkable details about daily life in Baghdad. His blog was read by hundreds of thousands of people and distributed further by email to many more. It was carefully read by military intelligence services. See http://dear_raed.blogspot.com
  • Dan Gillmor, a business journalist for the San Jose Mercury News, covers conferences and high tech issues around the world, which he updates at his blog http://weblog.siliconvalley.com/column/dangillmor

These blogs are also the top blogs. They are averaging about one to two million readers per month. This is larger than most magazines, and easily in the range of the top twenty US newspapers. The top blogs are a major established form of news media.

Thus journalists are learning about blogs.

  • Journalism schools, including USC's Annenberg School for Communication, include blogs in their online journalism classes.
  • The San Jose Mercury News, MSNBC, Fox News, Slate, and other newspapers have blogs at their websites.

What are the top blogs?

Blogstreet monitors a list of some 150,000 blogs:

Look at a number of blogs in these lists to see what blogs are like.

How do I find out what is going on in blogs?

There are all sorts of search engines and other tools for blogs.

  • DayPop.com: A search engine for blogs
  • Blogdex.net: Shows the currently most discussed topics on blogs
  • Technorati.com: Shows the crosslinks between blogs.
  • TopicExchange.com: Allows you to read and track topics.
  • TrackBack: This one is a bit difficult to explain. With TrackBack, you can automatically notify another blog about your new entry at your blog and a link to your new entry will appear in that blog's list of trackback pings. Visitors to the other blog can then come to your blog.

Are there examples of corporate blogs

Companies are using blogs in order to maintain contact to their users. For example, Macromedia's top developers keep blogs where they discuss new products, show web developers how to use new features, and answer questions. This allows the developers to hold a public conversation with their major customers. See www.markme.com/mxna/index.cfm

Why should I do a blog?

  • To keep up with developments on the web. Blogs are a major part of the web, along with websites, email, instant messaging (IM), P2P file sharing, and so on.
  • I've recommended to several of my clients that they should add blogs to their websites. It puts them ahead of their competition. My clients aren't techies, and blogs give them a very easy way to add daily content to their sites.

How to set up your blog

Okay, let's get practical. The remainder of this FAQ covers how to create a blog. I'll also talk about a few tips and tricks. At the end, I'll make a few general comments about blogs.

Where to find blog tools

A number of companies offer free or low-cost tools so you can set up and maintain a blog. Nearly all of these offer free trial periods. Try several and choose the one you like best.

  • www.blogger.com (Easy to set up, free, and easy to modify. Owned by Google. Blogger is very easy to set up and has lots of features.
  • www.cafelog.com (Free. You can make a donation)
  • www.bigblogtool.com ($15 for one year)
  • www.blog-city.com (Basic is free. $25 for one year for the advanced version, with lots of extras, such as the ability to add to your blog by email (just send it an email) and allow public contribution to your blogs.)
  • www.blosxom.com (Free to use.)
  • www.fogcreek.com/CityDesk (Content management system for companies. Windows-only):
  • www.noahgrey.com/greysoft (Recommended by friends, who like it. Free to use. You can make a donation)
  • www.movabletype.org This is the best tool, with many features, including multiple authors. However, it can be a challenge to install and configure. If you can handle UNIX kernals, go for it. $200/yr plus other fees.
  • www.nucleuscms.org (Free to use. This has many features, including multiple authors.)
  • typepad.com (Different levels of features at $5, $10, or $15 per month.)
  • www.userland.com (60-days free trial period.)
  • www.webcrimson.com (It's free to download, and there's apparently a paid version. This allows multiple authors.)

If you know of other tools, let me know.

My recommendation: Start with blogger.com. Notify 50 friends, have them add comments to your blog, and try it out for at least four weeks until you get the idea. If you want to use a blog for a small or medium business, you could get by on Blogger. But Movabletype is a complete system with more features. It's a few hundred dollars and well worth it.

Do I need to use a blog tool?

No. If you know how to do HTML, can install CGI, know how to write or modify PERL and SQL, and you can use FTP, then you can just maintain the page manually :-) The New Items list at my website is just ordinary HTML. Talkingpoints.com, one of the best-known blogs, is maintained manually, without any blog software at all. However, blog software makes it much easier to maintain, especially for non-technical people.

Where is the blog page?

For example, if you sign up at blogger.com, you have two choices:

  • Host the blog at blogger.com. You can create any name (but the first one to choose that name will get it), so it can be www.eleanor.blogger.com or www.letsgofishing.blogger.com or whatever you like.
  • Host the blog on your own website. If you already have eleanor.com, then you can put the blog at (for example) www.eleanor.com/blogger.html

So depending on which you choose, you send out a notice to your friends and invite them to read your blog at eleanor.blogger.com (if you host it on blogger.com's website) or eleanor.com/blogger.html (if you host it on your website).

  • At the moment, there are only a million or so blogs. This is like the early days of the web, where one could get one's own name as a domain name. Nowadays, all the good names are taken and a few people have registered thousands of names. With blogs, it's fairly easy to get your name at the moment.
  • If you have a company, I suggest you create your company's blog account before someone else gets it. I doubt there is a mcdonalds.blogger.com, ibm.blogger.com, or britneyspears.blogger.com

How do you modify the look of your blog page?

When you sign up for a blog, your page is put into a template. You can choose the template. This controls the look (colors, layout, etc.) of your blog.

If you know how to edit HTML, you can edit the template. This lets you change the fonts, colors, and layout.

If you're adding the blog to your website, you'll probably want to use your website's layout. At blogger.com, the blog editor tool lets you open the template and edit it. I copied the template and opened it into my HTML editor tool. The template is made up of CSS, which you can strip out and replace with your own. There are really only a few tags that are specific to the blog: these call the blog content. I used my website's template and inserted those blog tags into it.

What does it cost to create and maintain a blog?

It's free to use blogger.com. If you host the blog at their website, they make money by putting banner ads on your blog. If you host it on your own website, there are no banner ads.

The more advanced blog tools charge a small fee (for example, $25/year at blog-city.)

Who else will offer blog tools?

It's expected that the major ISPs (America Online (AOL), Yahoo, and Microsoft) will soon add blogging. AOL is beta-testing AOL Journal, their blog tool, at journals.aol.com. GeoCities, Topica, YahooChat, and others may switch to blogs as well. Very likely, these companies will buy existing blog tools companies.

Are there risks? Will I get more spam? Can someone hack my blog?

If you put your email address in your blog, yes, you'll get spam, because spammers use search engines to look for email addresses. So… don't put your email address on your blog.

Can someone hack the blog? It's possible, in that it's possible just about everything on the web can be hacked. If you have a small blog, I doubt anyone will bother you. But if you're running georgebush.blogger.com, then yes, lots of kids will try to hack your site.

When you set up your blog, be sure to use a password that is not a word in a dictionary. Add numbers to it, such as shiva9287duck.

There are also issues about security of the archives. If you will use a blog for a company and there are legal issues about company content (who said what, when, etc.), then note that blog editors allow people to edit the archives. You'll have to make sure that the blog tool offers tracking of changes and backups of archive entries. Attorneys, medical doctors, and others with privacy requirements must check that the blogging tool offers sufficient security.

How do I promote my blog?

You promote your blog just as you promote your website: in emails, on lists, on your business card, in your advertising, in press releases, articles about your company, services, or products, and so on.

Of course, you promote your blog by writing interesting content that gets picked up by other blogs, and you reciprocate and mention other blogs in your blog. This creates an interlinked network of blog content.

Register your blog

The MIT Media Laboratory uses Blogdex to track the spread of information through the blog community. You can register your blog at http://blogdex.net. This won't promote your blog. It will only help MIT to study activity among blogs.

What's this about using blogs to improve your page rank at Google?

First, a bit about how Google works.

  • Google ranks a page based on how many other pages link to it. The quality of those links also matters. For example, a link from the New York Times has more points than a link from joe's.bar.com.
  • Google also gives a page more points if it has recently been updated (because stale pages are probably not important.)

By coincidence, blogs happen to match the way Google works. People in the blogging subculture have lots of cross-links to each other and they update their blogs daily.

This means if friskypanties.blogger.com spent the last two weeks writing one-line rants against Coca-Cola and her friends pass her link around, her page may show up higher in Google, even if she is only 14 years old and Coca-Cola is a 110 billion dollar corporation with a ten billion dollar advertising budget.

But the high ranks are not permanent. At some point, friskypanties will move on to something else, and Coca-Cola's ranking will go up again.

At the moment, it's fairly easy for a group of users to create blogs, mention each other in their blogs, and get a high page ranking at Google.

  • If you want to use blogs to increase your Google rank, you must update your blog fairly frequently (at least every week.)

However, Google pays attention to attempts to manipulate page ranking, and if they decide they don't like this, they will block the blogs.

More about blogs

Here are a number of articles about blogs.

Conclusions

So what do I think about blogs? First of all, I live in Palo Alto, I've worked for several dozen startups and major corps, and I manage websites for businesses. I wrote this FAQ in order to look into blogs and see if they are useful asides from personal diaries.

Many people will email me and say that I don't get blogs because I don't appreciate how important it is for them to tell the world that they saw a dog this morning. Like, whatever.

By now, you're read this FAQ and you understand blogs. So let's go back to the questions in the introduction: What are blogs? Why are blogs important? Can I make money with blogs?

What are blogs?

Blogs are a tool for putting content on a webpage. Simple blogs are mostly just diaries, but the advanced blog tools can distribute information. Blogs are actually Content Management System (CMS) tools.

Why are blogs important?

  • Blog tools are a new way of publishing and distributing information on the web.
  • The advanced blog tools' content management systems and tools (such as subscriptions, RSS feed, and so on) bring the ability to publish and send out to hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Blog tools are easier to use and may replace chat lists, mailing lists, and email newsletters.
  • Blogs allow collaborative publishing. A small group of experts can discuss an issue and it can be read by thousands. A blog can also be open and allow anyone to create new topics and start discussions.
  • Blogs turn a website into active information distribution, and that could give rise to much more interactive websites for organizations, political groups, small companies, divisions within companies, church groups, clubs, school associations, and so on.

Are blogs commercially significant? Where's the money?

Okay, blogger.com made money, but only because Google bought them. Soon, Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft will add blogging to their services, and they may buy some of the existing blogging tools companies.

As for most users, there's no clear idea how they are going to make money. Only a handful of blogs attract a large readership. Joshua Marshall at talkingpointmemo.com, with 50,000 visitors per day, asks readers to contribute money, but he earns his living as a journalist. There are no blogs that produce enough money for even one salary.

If you're going to use a blog for dissemination of information, you should invest in the advanced blogger tools. These allow collaborative authoring, they can send out email notifications of new blog content, or they can send the new content as an email to subscribers.

If you're a web developer, you should learn how to install and maintain blogs, especially the advanced blog tools

The biggest fish will get bigger…

At the moment, there are only a few hundred thousand blogs that people are reading. When AOL/Yahoo/MSN/Earthlink add blogging, this will grow to millions. Blogs will also replace many of the current chat lists, newsgroups, and email lists.

Barabasi's study of network theory shows that only a few hubs get all the traffic, and the vast majority of nodes will get little traffic. The first to set up blogs will be the ones who have the high visibility web destinations. See www.andreas.com/faq-barabasi.html). Read that and you'll get the picture.

Will blogs replace books and other forms of information?

Let's look at the nature of books. Books are organized writing, which means a unified multi-page document, constructed with a central idea, table of contents, introduction, chapters, summaries, index, and so on. Organized writing includes reviewers, editors, and often publishers.

Blogs by their nature are short spontaneous entries, a series of observations, comments, notes, and so on. This means that blogs are good for making observations, but the nature of blog tools (a serial collection of entries, sorted by time of entry) is not good for writing a document. The nature of blogs places a limit on blogs.

By the way, when I was writing this FAQ, I noticed that there aren't any good FAQs on blogs. None of the Help pages of the major blog tools has a general explanation or overview of blogs, or any sort of discussion of the implications of blogs. I wonder if the blogging community is so accustomed to blogging (writing short comments) that they don't know how to write long documents.

Are you doing a blog?

I manage several blogs for clients. There are in fairly obscure narrow professional topics, yet they get substantial readership (over 1,000 readers per month). The lawyer has gotten several new clients because of his blog, and each client is worth $5-10,000.

I also have my own blog, where I add tips and tricks for various web stuff. See andreas' blog.

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