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FAQ About Blogging

December 22, 2006 Media, Site Info 11 Comments

I get quite a few questions from people about blogs, often how to set one up.  So I thought I’d put out some of the basics, Q&A style.

What is a blog?

A blog is simply a type of website, the name is short for web log. Typically a blog is, per wikia website where entries are made in journal style and displayed in a reverse chronological order.” A blog can be anything the author(s) makes of it from talking about their personal life to writing about international events.

How does a blog differ from a website?

A blog uses “Content Management Software” to organize how the content is presented on the site. The CMS handles all the tasks of setting up the look and where to put information, thus allowing the writer to very simply focus on writing. A traditional website requires great skill to build a good website or a program and some knowledge about how to put it together. But even once you do a traditional website in a program such as Frontpage you lack common features found on CMS such as the search function, archives, comments and RSS feeds.

What is the deal with this whole “RSS” thing?

RSS is better than sliced bread! It stands for Real Simple Syndication but you don’t need to remember that. As we all read more and more websites it has become increasingly time-consuming checking them all out. Rather than spend time going to website after website to see if something new has been added you simply need to “subscribe” to that site’s RSS feed. This can be done in a number of ways.

For those of you using Windows with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Browser I’ll save you the Macs are better lecture, you’ve probably heard it before. But, IE is a horrible browser and simply can’t handle modern life — you are much better off with Firefox (free download). From Firefox on Windows or Mac or Mac’s Safari browser you can easily subscribe by clicking on the RSS symbol in the address bar. If you use a web-based email program such as MyYahoo from AT&T the home page gives you an option to subscribe there as well.

So what do you get when you subscribe to a website with an RSS feed? In some cases you only get the headlines, in other cases you get a headline and excerpt. The beauty is you can quickly see which of your subscriptions have new content, saving you time by not visiting sites that are not updated.

I have roughly 300 or so websites bookmarked via RSS. Some of these sites only add a post every few weeks, while some have multiple posts each day. With the sites that rarely update it is no big deal having them one the as I know when they’ve added something new — that is the only time I visit.

Another way to think of this is like your investment portfolio, if you have one. You track all your stocks in one place to know what is happening with each one rather than have to visit each and every company’s investor webpage. With RSS you are determining the information you want to track.

So RSS is a blog thing?

Yes and no. Every CMS program that I know of for blogs includes RSS by default. But RSS is not limited to blogs. For example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has an RSS page listing all of the various RSS feeds you can get from them. These include as diverse RSS feeds as “Top Business Headlines” to “Yesterday’s Most Read Headlines” to “Garage Sales” in classifieds. The popular Craigslist has RSS feeds for each an every one of their section, quite handy if you want to focus on a few areas. Every major media outlet now has RSS for their content. Ride the bus a lot and what to know if Metro has any service alerts? Simply subscribe to their RSS feed for alerts and you’ll know right away in your web browser if the do. Basically, in today’s world any website that gets new information needs an RSS feed so the world knows about it.

My organization or group doesn’t want to “blog”, we need a real website right?

Wrong! No offense to the web designers out there but many businesses, non-profits and individuals (such as aldermen) can do much better with a CMS-based blog than with a traditional website. Even large corporations are using blogs to reach customers, GM has their FastLane blog which includes information posted from various members of their managment team, including VP Bob Lutz.

Most individuals and organizations that consider a website do so because they have some information to share with others. The type of information you have to share will determine what is best for you or your group. If all you have is very static information that never changes then a traditional website is likely a good choice for you. However, if you constantly have content to add to a site a blog is the way to go.

One example of how to effectively use a blog would be for a neighborhood organization/development corporation. With a blog for the organization you can use static pages for basics such as who the staff is, what the office address and phone number is, and maybe a list of board members and regular committees (each committee or even could have its own page too).

Now say they have 5-6 committees set up and each of those committees is having meetings and such. If the organization is like most it is volunteer based and by the time the committee chair has a chance to write something up for the newsletter it is past the deadline. With a blog each committee chairperson could be given the access to add new content to the organization’s blog. Rather than worry about writing an update with a given number of words for a newsletter they could simply type out a “post” just as they might if sending out an email. If they have documents to reference those can easily be uploaded and linked to. Because we don’t want to exclude those who don’t have internet access, the newsletter editor can now take information from the organization’s site to use in the print edition. This allows the organization to be up to the minute with information as well as control the message about a particular subject.

So I need to install the Content Management Software on my computer?

Nope! That is the beautify of this, it is all web based so no software is added to your computer. You’ll need a more recent browser (Safari, Firefox and possibly IE7) so that 10-year old computer running Windows 98 is probably not going to cut it. You’ll also need DSL or other high-speed internet because dial-up is going to be painfully slow.

A blog must be expensive?

Not at all. You can actually set up a blog completely free. Yes, free! Sources for free blogs include:

With these free services you may end up with a longer URL such as stlrising.blogspot.com or jenniferflorida.wordpress.com, although your own domain names are possible with these, I think (although don’t ask me how).

Even pictures and videos don’t require any costs at all. You can use free sites like Flickr or YouTube to upload and include images/video in your site. Going back to our local organization example, you can upload pictures from an event to Flickr and then post them on your blog — the only cost is your labor. Suppose you already maintain an email list of members, with this you can send them a link to the post that includes the pictures rather than possibly clog their email account.

If you want to build more sophisticated sites you’ll want to step up to a hosted form of CMS. You can work through someone locally that can host the site for you as well as do the basic setup or you can buy your own hosting space and do it yourself. In other examples you might get your own hosting account but use a professional to help with the setup. If you are able to use an FTP site and other behind the scenes type stuff for a webpage you can probably handle this yourself.

Who Hosts UrbanReviewSTL?

I use Dreamhost for my websites and email hosting, although many such firms exist. At $120/yr (or $96/yr if you pay for two years at a time) you’ll likely have more bandwidth and storage space than you’ll ever need. They include a “one-click” install for a WordPress blog and very complete instructions in case you get lost. They also include one free domain name when you sign up.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I get a referral fee for everyone that signs up with them that references me. Of course, you can sign-up with them without doing so (or use someone else). My main concern is getting more organizations and elected officials online so that we can effectively communicate relevant information. If you are considering such a hosting account, I can actually save you $25. Use the promotional code 314urbanreview and they’ll take $25 off your initial registration, regardless of the plan you pick. I’ll still get a small fee while you can get your blog set up for less than $100.

If a 501(c)3 non-profit group out there wants to do this but truly can’t afford the $120 fee shoot me an email (steve at urbanreviewstl dot com) and I can work with you to get the out of pocket expense down to nearly nothing for the first year, helping you get started. I’ll want to verify you’ve got a staff person or volunteer who is capable of doing the set-up and adding content. If I really like your group I may volunteer to do the setup for you as long as I know it will get used on a regular basis. Again, the idea is to get as many organizations out there as possible posting as much information as possible.

Google Will Find my Traditional Website, Right?

Oh, sorry, probably not. Well, that is not entirely true. Your website will end up on page 4 of someone’s Google search while my post about your organization will end up on page 1. Those RSS feeds we discussed earlier along with some things called “pings” help Google, Yahoo and others know you exist and know what you are writing about.

Here is a good local example. If you Google for Save Cleveland High you’ll get saveclevelandhigh.org as the top response — the search engines have the website name & URL down. However, if you Google for Save Cleveland School you’ll find on page one a post by the Arch City Chronicle, one from this site and one from Toby Weiss’ B.E.L.T blog. I got to page 8 of the google search and still hadn’t found a direct link to the actual main site – not good. That means, depending upon the search someone performs, they might read someone else’s site before getting to your site with your message. If saveclevelandhigh.org had utilized blog software to build their site or at least the “news” section (you can mix traditional methods with CMS) they’d have RSS and pings on each news item. This alone would have likely guaranteed them page one ranking on Google regardless of the variations on search terms used. For the record, the Save Cleveland High website is an exceptionally clean and attractive design.

How is this Whole Communication Thing Important?

We have lots of great people, great organizations and great events happening in the St. Louis region. Too often these exist in a vacuum — nobody else knows what you’ve got going on. Or you are planning a big project and you want to communicate lots of details that are hard to convey in a public meeting without either A) getting it wrong or having it misunderstood or B) boring everyone to death. With your own site you’ll increase your chances a blogger or local news outlet will notice your event/project/organization and give you additional coverage. If you have images to share it is easily done. If you have files such as PDF or Word documents these can easily be added to a hosted blog so that everyone can reference the same documents, even if your office is closed. And finally in an organization there are simply not enough hours in the day to answer all the phone calls or return all the emails — with an effective website (aka blog) you can easily share information in a consistent manner and have it reach the widest audience possible. Many of those repetitive questions that keep you from getting more done are perect areas to address on a website.
The more others know about your organization, your programs, and your events the more likely they are to contribute their time and/or money. Or perhaps the more likely they are to finally decide to take the time to attend an event or send you an email with some feedback. As a community we can benefit from an increased level of communication.

Do you have any other Real World Examples where a Blog Might be Effective?

Oh boy, do I.

  • Each of the Democratic ward committees in the city (all 28) could have their own blog. The central committee could buy one hosting account for $120/year (even less if they use the promo code above) and host all 28 sites. The central committee site could have basic information and a link to all 28 sites. They could take it a step further and have a syndicated site where they bring in the most recent 5-10 posts from the 28 wards.
  • Every elected official in the entire St. Louis region should have a blog. Period. Not only are they an effective campaign tool but they are a great way to reaching many people in a fair and consistent manner.
  • Some of the really small municipalities in the region that do not have websites currently due to limited budgets could put together an effective website using the power of content managment software. This would be a highly cost-effective way of providing basic information on elected officials, various boards, notices of up coming events (including official events such as council meetings) and so forth.
  • Neighborhood, school, church and other civic organizations can all have an affordable and effective presense on the web.
  • Special causes can be more effective with a blog. One recent local example was Praxair Watch which sprung up quickly after the explosion on the edge of Lafayette Square. The site hasn’t been updated since June but in the midst of the controversy it was updated often and a great means of spreading the word. Such a site also kept the official neighborhood organization out of the middle of things.
  • Organizations such as the Landmarks Association,
  • Even major groups like the RCGA (St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association) lack RSS feeds for their news items, reducing the ability of a blogger like me or, far more importantly, an out-of-state CEO, to easily track progress in St. Louis. Ditto for the Downtown St. Louis Partnership.

OK, any Examples of How this CMS is used in Places Besides Personal Blogs?

An example of a complex website built using Content Management Software (CMS) is the YMCA of Greater St. Louis. The main site has an RSS feed for overall YMCA stuff but suppose I want to track what is going on at say the Carondelet branch only? Yes, they have an RSS feed that goes out for each and every branch so that I can chose to obtain information as specific or as general as I want. This level of website development requires a professional and it does not come free. However, it does allow the average non-computer geek at each branch to “post” new information to their site simply by logging into the web-based system and fill out information in a few fields — the CMS software handles the rest. The sites stay current because the staff does not have to be website geniuses to update them! As a communication tool, the CMS-based website is considerably better than a more traditional website that requires expensive website design software and a Ph.D. in computer science to post a simple announcement.


Currently there are "11 comments" on this Article:

  1. 15thWardSTL says:

    Beautiful preseantation, Steve. Clear and concise, in conversational language. This is post is a true service to the St. Louis community – let’s hope there are many people out there who take it to heart.

    Blogging: not just for bloggers anymore!

  2. Vihar Sheth says:

    Great primer on starting a blog. I wish I’d had something like that available to me when I started mine. Do you think there’s a way to convince some of the organizations you mentioned to start one?

  3. Margie says:

    A post in the true spirit of the Net (and in the spirit of the holiday too). Who knows who might start blogging (or RSSing) thanks to this friendly bit of advice!

  4. stlmark says:

    Steve, this is one of your best posts this year. Thanks for helping connect us all.

  5. DJ says:

    There’s a lot of good information here, Steve. However, I want to be sure that people don’t think content management systems and blogs are the same thing. CMS has been around long before blogs, and their purpose is, as you describe, an easier way to do web site that hand-editing HTML. In fact, most major web sites all use some sort of CMS, whether or not they have a blog. A blog is just one feature of a good CMS tool. For example, take a look at Yahoo Web Hosting ( http://smallbusiness.yahoo.com/webhosting/sitebuilding.php ). They have some great online tools to create a web site, and you can add a blog as well.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Yes, I am sure many complicated distinctions could be made but I wanted to keep it simple and show how the common blog is related to more complext sites.  The real point is for groups trying to share continually updated information to start with a blog, not a “frontpage” website.]

  6. Nancy says:

    *I use Dreamhost for my websites and email hosting, although many such firms exist. At $120/yr (or $96/yr if you pay for two years at a time) you’ll likely have more bandwidth and storage space than you’ll ever need. *

    This is a very interesting and useful post. Thanks for writing it.

    Question about bandwidth: In layman’s terms, when does a blog get too much traffic for Dreamhost or a similar site? And what happens if it does–does the offending blog go down or do other blogs hosted by same provider all go down or is demand fulfilled and big bill sent?

    [UrbanReviewSTL — So far this month I’ve used 0% of my available bandwidth!!!!  Now, I put all my images on Flickr and my videos on YouTube.  Having those hosted would change the picture but the amount of bandwidth is incredibly generous.  Dreamhost increases the amount of storage and bandwidth each month you stay with them so it only gets better.]

  7. maurice says:

    See Steve, I knew you had it in you to do a useful and POSITIVE article. And I totally agree. With it being so simple, every organization should blog. I hope I can convince the others at my organization to buy in. Now I see how you can keep track of so many sites.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Oh great, now you will expect more of this, LOL.]

  8. Mary says:

    Very thorough and informative post on blogging, Steve. I’ve added Urban Review STL to my blogroll at http://www.aecstlouis.com, a resource for the St. Louis architecture/engineering and construction industry. I hope you’ll check it out and feel free to add AEC St. Louis to your blogroll!

  9. just fyi! says:

    “For the purposes of full disclosure, I get a referral fee for everyone that signs up with them that references me….. Use the promotional code 314urbanreview and they’ll take $25 off your initial registration, regardless of the plan you pick. I’ll still get a small fee while you can get your blog set up for less than $100.”

    The “Full disclosure” here isn’t as full as it probably ought to be. Dreamhost allows any current customer to create promo codes and decide how much of a $97 kickback to split with the new customer and themselves. You get $25; do the math.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Well, the disclosure is that I’d receive a fee.  The promo code is an option that someone doens’t have to offer.  However, Dreamhost offers a percentage of renewal option rather than the cash.]

  10. Martin Pion says:

    Steve, thanks for all your informative material on blogs. I’ve just spent days on creating a new page and links on mogasp.org using Dreamweaver, and I’m also familiar with writing html. It was a chore and slow going, and I suspect the time could have been much better spent on creating a blog. Warm regards, Martin

  11. Skewgee says:

    a nice review for begginers out there, cept i thought i’d mention you might need to update the RSS information. since the release of ie7 RSS has been a central part of the browser. in fact, i’ve been feeding this sites feed through internet explorer. otherwise, it’s kind of cool for you to run through these basics…

    [UrbanReviewSTL – With over a 1,000 posts in the last 30 months it would be impossible to go backwards and keep them all updated with newer information.  The posts were hopefully accurate at the time.  It is nice to see that IE7 has finally gotten around to the year 2003 but you will not see me promoting Microsoft products ever.  If you must suffer through the world of windows then I suggest you do it through Firefox or the soon to be released from Apple, Safari for Windows.]


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