Matt Forney
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How to Start a Blog in Thirty Minutes or Less, Part One: Finding a Web Host

So far, I’ve been talking about the intangibles of blogging: why you should do it, how to make money with it, and how to get better at writing. This little mini-series will focus on the technical aspects of blogging and web design. I’m not going to go in excessive detail, because you don’t need a master’s in computer engineering to start a blog, just a little bit of free time.

This first part will focus on the first step in starting a blog: finding a web host.

1. Free or paid hosting?

The first choice you need to make is whether to use a free service or pony up the cash for dedicated hosting from a company like DreamHost or HostGator. While you’re going to eventually have to move to self-hosting if you intend to get serious, coughing up $100 or so when you’re starting out is a bit intimidating. While free blog hosts limit your options in terms of site design and content, because they don’t cost anything but time and only require you to have an email address, you can start your writing career with a minimum of expense.

The big advantages self-hosted sites have over free ones are security and freedom. If you cause the slightest bit of trouble for a free host, they’ll drop you without a second thought. A web hosting provider will be much less willing to throw you under the bus because doing so means losing a paying customer. Additionally, free blog platforms limit how you can design your blog and what you can do with it; these restrictions are almost entirely eliminated when you’re paying for hosting.

My advice is this: start out with free hosting, and move to self-hosting no less than six months after you begin blogging.

With a free web host, you can spend your time experimenting and trying to figure out what works best for you. While designing a functional and good-looking website isn’t that hard, it does require some technical know-how and a fair bit of time to get right. Six months is the bare minimum of time you need to acquire a large enough audience to make the transition worthwhile.

To give an example, I once had a blog that I began on a free host and moved to a self-hosted site barely four months later, spending all of a holiday weekend throwing the new site together. I literally had no experience in web design, unless you count some basic HTML programming I’d taken back when I was in elementary school. When I debuted the new site, it had problems beyond problems. It was as fast as molasses flowing uphill in February, taking forever to load for most people. The design was flawed in numerous ways, forcing me to change the layout multiple times before settling on one that worked properly. I also had to spend two weeks making the rounds on blogs that linked to it, begging them to change the links to the new site. Traffic reflected the shoddy nature of the new site; it declined by almost half from the previous month. It wasn’t until next month that the site’s readership rebounded back to pre-transition levels, as I slowly ironed out all the kinks.

While I eventually taught myself the various aspects of managing a self-hosted website, it was a slow, painful process of learning code and tinkering with my site design. It was the height of arrogance to assume I could learn everything in a weekend.

It wasn’t until a year after I started that I could truly say I was comfortable with my web programming skills.

I’ll get into managing a self-hosted site in part two, but ultimately, you’re better off just starting out with a free hosting service so you can concentrate on your writing.

2. Free hosting: Blogger or WordPress.com?

There’s a wide array of websites that allow you to host a blog for free or cheap: Blogger, WordPress.com, Tumblr, LiveJournal, the list goes on. Fortunately, nearly all of these services are garbage, so we can focus on the only two that are useful: Blogger and WordPress.com.

(Note: The term “WordPress” is usually used interchangeably to refer to two separate entities: the free service at WordPress.com and the downloadable software package at WordPress.org. To minimize confusion in this series, I will exclusively refer to the free service as “WordPress.com” and the software as “WordPress.”)

I could go into a detailed analysis of each platform, comparing and contrasting them, listing their strengths and weaknesses, but that would be a waste of time. To put it simply, WordPress.com beats the pants off of Blogger in just about every way, so just sign up for an account with them. End of.

Oh, that’s not enough for you? You want to know exactly why WordPress.com bitchslaps Blogger up and down the room?

Here you go:

  • Blogger site layouts look tacky and cheap, mainly because they were all designed in the Web 1.0 era when broadband speeds were slower. Even the more customized blogs have this strange, unfinished feel to them. WordPress.com’s layouts are cleaner and more professional-looking.
  • Commenting on a Blogger blog is an exercise in frustration. When you comment on a Blogger blog post, most of the time you get redirected to a separate page, where you have to fill out a captcha (those randomized words some websites use to deter spambots) and choose how to sign your comment. Blogger comments have a reputation for vanishing into the ether for no reason at all, and they also have a character limit, forcing you to break long comments into smaller pieces just to get published. In contrast, WordPress.com is ludicrously simple: you scroll to the bottom of the page, fill out your name, email and website (many blogs not even requiring the former two, and never requiring the third), write your comment, and you’re done.
  • Blogger, being run by Google, has a reputation for censoring bloggers on a whim, particularly those who espouse politically incorrect ideas. WordPress.com is considerably more tolerant, only shutting down bloggers who commit copyright infringement or otherwise blatantly wipe their asses with the Terms of Service.
  • Finally, when it comes to self-hosting, WordPress is the only content management system (pretentious term for blog software) worth a damn. The transition from a free blog at WordPress.com to a self-hosted WordPress blog is as smooth as a teen girl’s butt, and using Blogger just makes it that much more of a pain to do.

There are a few advantages Blogger has over WordPress.com, but they don’t outweigh its numerous flaws:

  • Blogger has a shallower learning curve; you can literally be blogging minutes after you sign up. With WordPress.com, it takes some time to learn all the various features.
  • Blogger allows you to customize the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) of your site’s layout, while WordPress.com charges you a yearly subscription fee in order to do so. Unfortunately, all the custom CSS in the world can’t change the fact that Blogger blogs always look unbelievably ghetto.
  • Blogger blogs are easier to monetize, on paper at least, as Blogger allows you to run advertisements. WordPress.com explicitly forbids ads and will suspend your blog if you try to run them. While you’ll sometimes see Google AdSense ads on WordPress.com blogs, the bloggers don’t see a single cent from them: WordPress.com uses them to support the service. But as I’ve already told you, ads are a terrible way to make money, so this won’t be a concern for you.

To put it in an analogy, Blogger equals MySpace while WordPress.com equals Facebook. Who uses MySpace anymore, aside from crappy bands angling to get signed? Facebook beat it out because it was easier to use and had more functionality. While I doubt Blogger will disappear anytime soon (hell, GeoCities lasted for more than a decade), more and more users will gravitate to WordPress.com as time goes on. So should you.

3. Self-hosting: where to go?

So you want to skip this free bullshit and go straight to the serious stuff? Here you go.

Like everything else computer-related, web hosting has gotten much cheaper in recent years. A shared hosting plan will typically run you anywhere from $80-150 per year, while registering a domain name shouldn’t cost you more than $10-15 a year. But which hosting provider should you pick?

While I have my recommendations, if you choose to forego them and find your own web host, there is one requirement you should make sure that they can meet: their servers should be compatible with WordPress. Most web hosts will be able to clear this hurdle fine, so it’s not a huge deal.

Why WordPress? As I mentioned in the last section, of all the blog CMSes available, it’s the only one worth a damn. It’s identical in design to WordPress.com, but because you’re running it on your own servers, you have near-infinite freedom when it comes to your site’s design. WordPress allows you to extend the functionality of the core software with plugins and custom layouts; a huge database of both can be found at WordPress.org, where you can also download the core software for free.

While WordPress isn’t perfect, its competitors are absolutely terrible, either because they’re too cumbersome and difficult to learn or limited in functionality, so there’s no reason to even mention them.

When it comes to hosting, my personal favorite is HostGator. I’m presently using them for MattForney.com and its sister sites. HostGator is cheaper than their competitors—their least expensive plan, the “Hatchling” plan, is only about $80 a year—and has all the features and functionality that you need from a web host. HostGator sites use cPanel as their dashboard, which is intuitive and easy to use, and their uptime is better than advertised; you’ll rarely experience your site going offline for reasons beyond your control. HostGator also has great technical support; whenever I sent them a question or asked them for help, they were always quick and courteous.

If you’re looking for a “free speech” type host, I recommend DreamHost. They are zealously protective of their customers, more so than any other U.S.-based web host: for example, they were the original host for that wretched hive of scum and villainy, Encyclopedia Dramatica. While they are a bit pricier than their competitors, I used them for over two years and had few if any problems. DreamHost’s cheapest shared hosting plan, which will run you about $100-120 a year, gives you unlimited bandwidth, disk storage, and email accounts and also lets you host an unlimited number of domains. My biggest problem with DreamHost is that instead of using cPanel, they have their own proprietary control panel. While they claim that their dashboard has more functionality than cPanel, my experience is that the DreamHost dashboard is more cumbersome and restricts you from performing certain operations. Ultimately, I prefer HostGator.

One nice service that DreamHost provides is WHOIS protection for all domains you register with them at no additional charge. International Internet regulations require that anyone registering a domain name must provide their name, phone number, mailing address and email for publicly accessible WHOIS records. You can find the records of any domain in existence with a simple Google search. DreamHost’s WHOIS protection replaces that information with their own information, allowing you to keep your private info out of the public sphere. While there are some dedicated domain registrars that offer WHOIS privacy (such as NameCheap), you’ll have to buy web hosting separately if you go with them. DreamHost allows you to save a step by getting your domains registered and your web hosting in the same place.

If you’re looking for offshore hosting, I recommend Underhost. While they’re a bit pricier than U.S.-based companies (I paid a little more than $200 for a year’s worth of shared hosting), I had no problems with them and they consistently get good reviews for the quality of their service, a big deal when it comes to the dicey, legally suspect nature of offshore businesses. Like HostGator, they use cPanel as a web hosting control panel.

For an offshore domain registrar, I highly recommend Internet.bs, which offers WHOIS protection and surprisingly low prices; I once transferred five domains to them for only about $35 (that would have cost me $50-60 if I used an American registrar like GoDaddy or NameCheap). Don’t let their late 90’s vomit-design website throw you off.

All three of the aforementioned web hosts come with “one-click installers” for WordPress, so you shouldn’t have any problem setting up a blog. Unlike most self-help guides that insist on writing out every detail of every step, like they’re trying to get a retard to eat pudding without hurting himself, I’m going to assume you’re smart enough to figure out the easy stuff yourself.

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