Free Blog Sites: Squidoo

Posted September 4, 2007 by richgilchrest
Categories: Review

Finally, a truly positive review!

That’s right, I really like Squidoo as a single-topic platform. Squidoo is very limited in what it can do, but it does not claim to be an ongoing blog platform. Squidoo allows you to login, create a page about one topic, and move on. Want to write about a new topi? Create a new page.

This is what Squidoo wants you to do. There is no pretense at being any more than that. I am currently about half-way through creating my first Squidoo lens, and I really look forward to getting the finished product published. Because of the nature of Squidoo, I feel compelled to create something worthwhile rather than just a knock-off blog post like I might use on another reviewed site. This is a lens I intend to keep.

Why am I calling it a “lens” instead of a blog? “Lens” is the term Squidoo uses to symbolize the detail and focus you can give to your single topic. Much like an in-depth college paper, you can really dive head-first into a subject when you are liberated from the expectation of regularly updated content. So far I’ve written about 2000 words on a subject I studied in-depth seven years ago, and fell in love with, but have never really been involved with again. This is my chance to fall in love all over again, and I have.

Squidoo is NOT a platform for a blogger who wants to inject his personality into a daily opinion post. While I suppose it would be a decent platform for a well-developed argument, you will not be able to develop the cult of personality most bloggers try to cultivate. Your readers are going to be interesed in your subject, not you.

On the technical side, building a Squidoo lens is clean and simple, but somewhat limiting. On a text-heavy lens like mine, there is not much opportunity to add many images, which is unfortunate. My subject is very visually stimulating, but I can only add one small image per text block. I can add Flickr modules between text blocks, which is not as aesthetically pleasing. Not a big deal, but it would be nice to be able to add images more freely. The modularized interface works perfectly. The blocks are very fast and easy to organize.

Visually, all lenses have pretty much the same look. To borrow a Ruby on Rails saying, these constraints are liberating. Much like it’s nice to be able to write on one subject only, it feels good to be able to focus on content, knowing the reader is not expecting anything from the form. Like writing a Wikipedia entry, focusing on the facts is making me feel like a better writer.

Are you an expert on something? Squidoo allows you to express that. Doesn’t matter how minute the topic might be, if you can write one thousand words or more about the subject, check out Squidoo and let your inner writer out.

Free Blog Sites: Spruz

Posted September 2, 2007 by richgilchrest
Categories: Review

So promising, and then… nothing.

I read about Spruz on Go2Web2 earlier this afternoon.  It sounded like a great site!  I’d never heard of it before, so I was pretty excited.  It sounded like there were a ton of customization features that could create not just a blog, but a whole social networking site built around a blog.

And then I actually tried it.

The landing page offers you a chance to “Reserve your domain” even before you logon.  Unfortunately, this was a waste of time, because this information is apparently thrown out when you go through the steps to sign up a new account.  You will be asked to enter the subdomain of your choice again, this time with a verification program that might tell you the name you entered previously is taken.

After confirming the account, I was taken to the theme selection screen,  where my heart sank a little.  I was expecting some serious customization options.  Instead I was presented with thirty-five awfully hideous themes.  There was not one theme there I even kinda liked.  I selected the plain black, white, and silver theme just because it was slightly better than the canary yellow theme, the second best option.

After selecting the them, you are asked for more sign-up info, including the subdomain (again) you want.  After that… well, I wish I could say it got better, but I received “Service Unavailable” errors several times at this point.

I did finally get in, however.   The setup wizard might be popular with some people, but I didn’t care for it.  A Flash-based walk-through for using a service that is already very simplistic just annoyed me.  No way to skip it, it seems.  This line at the bottom of the setup screen really made me happy:  ” This site has been optimized for Internet Explore 7.”  To my Linux-running Firefox-fanboy self, a warning like that means “Our site is badly programmed, but IE’s ok with it.  Firefox complains about our bugs, but we don’t care.” I only noticed that warning because Spruz froze up after I entered a page description and I had to repeat the wizard.

After completing the wizard, there is another theme library from which to choose the look of your website.  While there are around 90 themes to choose from overall, most are still hideous.  The game-related themes are a little better, but they are not at all appropriate unless your site is somehow related to that game.

When I tried to edit the content of my blog, I was presented with an unreadable page, medium grey text on a background featuring medium grey and light grey diagonal stripes, with slightly-darker-than-medium grey buttons.  My eyes are pretty sharp, but this page was giving me a headache.  I gave up after a couple of minutes of trying to figure out how to write an actual blog entry and decided to leave it blank.

In their rush to make buttons and menus that anyone could use, I found the whole thing slightly confusing and painful.  Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but software that tries to hard to be easy just ends up harder to use than the common design most software uses.  Here’s a clue, guys… most software is designed that way for a reason!  Stop trying to reinvent the GUI; it’s not necessary.

Beyond the site-building interface, there’s not much to like.  In the end, you have a hideous blog with advertising plastered across the top.  Even if a newbie blogger liked the admin menus, I can’t imagine they’d be happy about the end result.  You can do much better with the easy-to-use admin interface at Blogger, for example.

The host is very slow: average load times for my zero-content test page were eight to eleven seconds.  According to a load time indicator at the bottom of the screen, all database accesses were taking less than one second.  The advertising image is only 12.2kb, so I’m going to have to blame the pipes for the load times.  Their network connection is probably being overtaxed by serving out that Flash setup wizard.

I’m very sorry to say that this is probably the worst free blog host I’ve ever seen.  I absolutely can not recommend Spruz for anyone, including the absolute beginners for whom it was designed.  Great idea, horrible execution.

Free Blog Sites: Smoothlaunch

Posted August 30, 2007 by richgilchrest
Categories: Review

Smoothlaunch is a free blog site I’d never heard of before. I found it through Google this afternoon and decided to check it out.

  • Plugins: Yes, a very large selection
  • Themes: 8, possibly original
  • Commercial Sites Allowed: Yes
  • Virtual Hostnames: No
  • Domains: No

Right away one can see they’re probably serious about building something here, which is great. The landing page has a very nice theme and, given some of the links from the main page, it seems to be very marketing friendly.

Maybe a little too marketing friendly. Using the very same tactic I use at Emerald Nova (no idea is completely original, even if you don’t know of anyone else who’s ever had it before), the dashboard has been replaced by affiliate links. The good news is that Smoothlaunch wants you to use their site for affiliate marketing. The bad news is that the admin pages themselves, seen only by the blog authors, are filled with advertising. This seems a poor choice; the very small number of blog authors you might reach this way will largely be turned off by having their private admin menus filled with Adsense ads.

I was very impressed by the list of plug-ins available at Smoothlaunch. I counted 99 plug-ins available. This may actually be overkill. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m plug-in happy on my own blogs, and I don’t even use 40. Many of the plug-ins they have available duplicate effects, such as the three AdSense plug-ins (all totally unnecessary), three mp3 players, and three social bookmarking plug-ins. There are also some that shouldn’t be here. I won’t say which one, but one of their plug-ins allows users to delete stuff that doesn’t belong to them, and do other things they shouldn’t be allowed to do. This is a MASSIVE security hole, too bad they didn’t test it before going live with their site.

Smoothlaunch does not support virtual hostnames or domains, so your blog will be named http://www.smoothlaunch.com/blogname. I’m ok with that, but many people aren’t.

The host is somewhat slow. Page loads average around 5 to 7 seconds. The custom dashboard took over 20 seconds to load the first time I logged in. The WedTradeSecrets info in the dashboard also give the impression their site may be part of a link farm. I can’t be sure about that so I won’t say it’s true, but IF it is true, Google will hate this site. Any web page hosted here would be be doomed to “bad neighborhood” Hell.

I liked the idea behind Smoothlaunch, but possibility they are part of a link farm, the slowness of the host, and the huge gaping security hole makes it impossible for me to recommend them. The Internet needs more free blog sites that are friendly to marketing and commercial sites. But one that is run so amateurishly just doesn’t fill the needs of the market.

Free Blog Sites: Blogsome

Posted August 27, 2007 by richgilchrest
Categories: Review

 The next WordPress-based free blog site I want to review is Blogsome.  I’ve had a site hosted here for a couple of weeks and it’s not bad, but not very good.  Response times are slightly faster than  WordPress.com, with average load times being around 2.5 to 4 seconds.

  • Plugins: Yes, VERY limited selection
  • Themes: 27
  • Commercial Sites Allowed:No
  • Virtual Hostnames:Yes
  • Domains:No

The plug-in selection at Blogsome is awful.  While it’s nice they support plug-ins, they are not very useful.  Of the ten plug-ins supported, four are editor related (Why anyone would want to change the behavior of the WordPress editor, I can not imagine) and two are spam-related (But no Akismet).  I’m a plug-in freak, I guess (I use over thirty on my main blog), and this selection just doesn’t interest me at all.

Theme selection is not much better.  Most are very old, plain, and rather unattractive.  The latest dates in the theme list were March 2005.   If you want your blog to look completely out of date, then I guess that’s ok.

OLD described Blogsome well, in fact.  I’m not sure exactly which version of the software they’re using.  Looking at the page source shows “WordPress 1.5.1-alpha” as the generator.  I wasn’t using WordPress in 2005, so I assume this is the version number of WordPress around which WordPress Multi-User was built at some point in history.  I guess this would explain why “Hello Dolly” was the only plugin I’d ever heard of.

My final complaint is that Blogsome adds an out-of-place button ad for itself in your sidebar.  I have no problem with free blog sites promoting themselves on customers’ blogs, but the button just looks wrong on my tan-colored theme.  It also doesn’t really give visitors any compelling reason to click on it.

I chose Blogsome for a third-string niche site because it was WordPress based, had  a decent Google Pagerank, and was not particularly well-know.  While it hasn’t failed me, I probably wouldn’t use it again, mostly just because of the theme choice.  It’s important to me that a blog look good, and that just won’t happen at Blogsome.

Free Blog Sites: WordPress.com

Posted August 26, 2007 by richgilchrest
Categories: Review

WordPress.com is certainly the largest of the WordPress-based free blog sites. Here is the feature set at WordPress.com:

  • Plugins: No
  • Themes: 60
  • Commercial Sites Allowed: No
  • Virtual Hostnames:Yes
  • Domains: Yes

WordPress.com is a fast host. Average page load times are about three to six seconds for a single post page. Account setup is fast and easy. Users can use either a virtual host (blogname.wordpress.com) or point an existing domain to WordPress.com.

Once logged in, this is standard WordPress. It’s powerful and flexible, but can also seem a little overwhelming to new bloggers. The text editor built into the WordPress software is the best in the blogging community. You can use either the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) visual editor, or the code editor to create your own HTML markup.

The theme selection is nice, taken entirely from the WordPress themes directory that is linked within all WordPress installations. Most of these are very popular themes, so your page might end up looking like thousands of others across the Internet.

The lack of plugins is disappointing. WordPress Plugins are what make the software great. Any piece of software can put text on the Internet. You don’t even need a blog or CMS program to do that. Plugins are extra programs that be added to WordPress to increase the functionality. On my personal website, I used over thirty plugins. Even more non-technical users tend to install a handful of the most useful plugins.

Commercial sites are not allowed on WordPress.com. The site’s terms of service make it clear that links to affiliate programs such as Clickbank and Amazon Associates are not allowed. While this is fine for a personal or hobbyist website, that makes WordPress.com entirely unsuitable if you are interested in making money from your website.

[Full disclosure: I own Emerald Nova, a free WordPress-based blog host. I won’t review my own site, except to post the basic facts.]

Free Blog Sites

Posted August 26, 2007 by richgilchrest
Categories: Review

I’ve been blogging, in one form or another, since 1995, long before anyone had ever used the word “blog” to describe what we were doing with our personal online journals. In those years, I’ve used dozens of free blog sites, as well as owned several domains.

While blogging experts will tell you that owning your own domain is the way to go, the fact is that being hosted in a free blog site can result in immediate traffic, while being self-hosted can result in months of loneliness, where you feel like no one is listening to you at all. Problogger recently wrote a great article on that subject.

I currently write four blogs. All get about the same level of traffic, 40 to 60 unique visitors per day. The difference is that one has been online almost three months and consumed hundreds of hours of my time. The other have been online less than two weeks and are populated with basically throwaway articles. What’s the difference? The two newer blogs were hosted on free blog sites where I can take advantage of other peoples’ traffic to help my own, and vice versa. The other, the one that has been hard work and still receives very little traffic, is hosted on a paid host and has its own domain name.

This site is about looking at other free blog sites. You’ll notice I used WordPress.com, the multi-user version of my favorite blogging software. Why did I used WordPress.com instead of writing these reviews on the other site, the one that is more important to me? Because I actually want people to read it, and I am quite certain that will happen immediately hosted here.


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