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technology

Ix-nay on Blogger-ay

wordpress logoSo… After just re-inventing Wirepaper on Blogger, I have decided to abandon it on Blogger and switch to WordPress for it as well.

Why would I do this, you ask? Well… here’s my reasoning:

Pro-Blogger / Anti-Wordpress:

  • Flexible layout/design: Blogger has a very flexible layout that can easily be tweaked.
  • Scripting: Blogger allows for javascript!
  • Monetization: Blogger allows for adsense (and many other ad networks via javascript)

Pro-Wordpress / Anti-Blogger:

  • Site layout/design: The template system resets if you change the default template. A lot of hard work goes down the drain in a hurry.
  • The default Blogger templates are rough around the edges. It takes a lot of work to make a blog look good.
  • WordPress offers professional looking templates out of the box.
  • Where are the pages? In Blogger, to make various “pages” for your site, you create a blog posting and then use that new post as a new page. It works, but it’s kludgey. In WordPress, pages are quite intuitive and easy to use.
  • WordPress allows for ALL of my blogs to be managed with one interface (including stats reporting).

So… instead of struggle with the multiple platform approach, I thought I’d consolidate my blogs under one umbrella.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to be anti-blogger from now on. In fact, Blogger has some great features that I’d love to continue to take advantage of. But like I said in my last post, I’m not a designer, and WordPress takes the worry out of me doing the design work myself. I will miss the javascript functionality of blogger though. But who knows… If I build a big enough blog, I’ll spin it off from the wordpress.com hosting and host it myself, at which time I’ll be able to use javascript again (no javascript is a limitation of the free, hosted version of wordpress, but the self-host option enables you to use javascript as much as you want).

And really… for all the bells and whistles I can add to my blog, at the end of the day, my blog is about content. I will be able to take advantage of plenty of web2.0 functionality even if I am limited in what I can put into my blog directly. In fact, this’ll just make it more fun trying to include stuff in my blog in a creative way that doesn’t conflict with wordpress.com’s limitations.

Talk soon!

Todd

Categories
technology

Get your own website, take 2

I just checked my blog history, and I wrote about how best to build a personal website back in December 2005. At that time, I suggested that there were sufficient free tools out there to build a site that would meet the needs of most users.

So… what’s changed since then and has my recommendation changed?

Let’s start with what’s changed since then:

  1. Web 2.0: There are a myriad of second generation web applications which have facilitated tremendous improvements in terms of information sharing. This has precipitated in an unbelievable number of mash-ups, community sites and other social-networking type tools.
  2. RSS: “Really Simple Syndication” has taken the web by storm. RSS is used to share data of all kinds between websites. No longer is data proprietary. Now, if you can’t subscribe to and obtain content for free, then it doesn’t exist on the internet. That’s the unwritten rule on the web today.
  3. Increased functionality for free: The free offerings that I mentioned in 2005 continue to be free. The only change is that they’re better. Increased storage space is a biggie. So are dynamic applications (most major email clients (like gmail or yahoo mail) are rich, dynamic applications that rival de facto desktop versions (like MS Outlook or Eudora). Other major attractions include plenty of professional looking themes, tagging, spell-check, previews, easier photo and video inclusion and robust stat tracking.

I could go on, but that’s not where I’m headed in this discussion. Let’s look at where I’ve been over the last two years and what I’m using now for my websites.

The Last Two Years
Shortly after my last “get your own website” posting, I took an about face and again found a paid hosting service. I used textdrive.com. The service was fantastic and their included services were great. The main reason I went with paid hosting was for the storage space and the ease of using a bunch of open source applications on my own dedicated webspace. After a long period of experimentation, I soon found that I was using two main functions on my websites: blog and photo functionality. I toyed with using forums and other community type features, but found that an appropriate critical mass would be difficult to gather and if I did find a time when I would be hosting a large number of users, my next fear was scalability. So, without a need for anything more than blogs or photos, and nervousness over scalability should I grow a large website, I decided to go back to the world of free hosting based on my needs.

My needs:

  1. Blogs: I run three sites: wirepaper.com, dowfamily.org and toddhdow.org. Each of them serves a different purpose, as you’ll see by visiting each of them.
  2. Photos: It is valuable to share photos with my blog visitors.
  3. Files: I have a need to share files like word or pdf documents with site visitors from time to time.
  4. mp3 files: I have a need to share mp3 files with some site visitors as well.

My current setup:
I am currently using two different blog platforms for different purposes:

  1. WordPress: I use WordPress for toddhdow.org and dowfamily.org. I really like the themes that I am using on these two sites and some of the features that are available for WordPress are quick and easy to deploy.
  2. Blogger: I use Blogger for wirepaper.com. Blogger allows for adsense and javascript, two features which the hosted version of WordPress currently lacks.

Another competitor to these two products is Community Server(CS), which I am familiar with through my professional work. I am not currently using CS for personal use. The main reason I am not using CS is because of the increased hosting requirements: It runs on Windows hosting, and requires SQL Server. Most SQL Server hosts are considerably more expensive from a hosting perspective. And, since I’m trying to avoid large expenses on my hosting, CS is not currently in scope for personal use.

So… this is where things are at for me. I am using WordPress and Blogger for my main website platforms. I use a few web tools to add additional content to my sites. I will address some of these tools in upcoming posts. So, for the short term, stay tuned as I give you some overviews, tutorials, tips, techniques and advice pertaining to building out a web presence on the web on the cheap.

One thing to note: “building a website on the cheap” no longer means that a site looks cheap. In fact, the tools available today virtually guarantee that a professional image can be built for far less than what you’d have paid two years ago.

Stay tuned for plenty of advice on how to build an effective site.

One final note (and an important disclaimer): I am terrible from a design perspective so don’t expect beautiful artwork from me. I will provide you with some good advice pertaining to building the nuts and bolts and integrating everything together. But to make it look good, you’ll have to bring your own creative flair to things.

Talk soon!

Todd Dow

Categories
technology

What can our search queries tell us about ourselves?

Is privacy just a facade? In the world of web searching, the data is in: there is no such thing as confidentiality. Recently, AOL released a list of 20 million search queries that were collected over a three month period. The data was released under their AOL Research division as an offering for academic research. According to the New York Times, the release of this data so angered privacy advocates that AOL did an about face and rescinded this data set and offered a public apology.

What’s the big deal, you say? Why should we be worried about search results? Well… let’s take a look and see.

AOL was kind enough to remove any blatant personal identifiers from this data set. Instead, they inserted a unique number that was tied to each individual AOL account. While this may make you say, “whew, at least there’s nothing personal attached to this data”, you’re mistaken. As the New York Times points out, a little sleuthing is all that’s required to identify some searchers.

While the NY Times article shared a fairly tame user’s search results, some other search results might lead to more troubling user account “outings”. Consider one example that was highlighted in an article in Slate:

The searches of AOL user No. 672368, for example, morphed over several weeks from “you’re pregnant he doesn’t want the baby” to “foods to eat when pregnant” to “abortion clinics charlotte nc” to “can christians be forgiven for abortion.”

It quickly becomes evident that our search results tell a story about our lives. Like our email, our web usage tells a lot about our interests, our desires and who we are as a person. By sifting through our internet usage patterns, one could learn to understand us almost as well as we know ourselves, warts and all.

The Slate article goes on to identify seven types of web searchers. From “The Pornhound” to “The Newbie” to “The Basket Case”, there are numerous labels that can be both descriptive and dangerous.

While I do find these search results to be quite interesting, I do see danger in the use of that data. It’s a slippery slope from academic study of search results to censorship and even to persecution. As crazy as this sounds, it is already happening in the world. Look at the media control in some communist countries. And if you think we’re immune here in the western world, well… think again. It wasn’t long ago that freedom of speech was curtailed by the church. Even the United States is experiencing a resurgence in censorship.

How long until this powerful information is abused and distorted for unethical means? I’d argue that it is already happening. What do you think?

Todd

For further information:

Techcrunch – Blog Archive – great info on sources and further info:
http://www.techcrunch.com/2006/08/06/aol-proudly-releases-massive-amounts-of-user-search-data/

AOL Search data mirrors:
http://www.gregsadetsky.com/aol-data/

Working mirror (as of Tues Aug 15):
http://aolsearchlogs.cloudsites.com/AOL-data.tgz

Categories
technology

iWeb 2.0 features

Think Secret is reporting that iWeb 2.0 is due for some major enhancements in its v2.0 release, which is expected to be released in early 2007.

As a Mac user, I’ve recently experimented with the premiere release of iWeb. Results can be seen here: toddandjulie.ca. Overall, iWeb is quite easy to use and extremely intuitive. But, it definitely does have some shortcomings. For static content, iWeb is fantastic. It easily creates a static site, complete with picture galleries, podcasts and video files. That’s all fine and good, but products have been doing this sort of web development for quite some time now.

Some of the items that I found limiting include (but aren’t limited to):

  • No code editor window – or at least if there is, I have yet to find it.
  • Inability to customize the navigation bar – To add an external page to my site, I had to build a dummy page in iWeb, then manually update the dummy page using an external text editor (due to the lack of code editing in iWeb 1.0).
  • Inability to create robust photo galleries – the best iWeb could do, as far as I could tell, was make a single page photo gallery that would contain all of the pictures that you’d want to post. I had to create a “photos” landing page, then create a bunch of subpages that contain photos by search criteria. And, these pages are all static which means the pics can’t be sorted by date, theme, etc. Disappointing, since there are plenty of tools out there that provide great photo publishing options.
  • Site updates – iWeb provides some slick publishing functionality when you publish to a .Mac account. Incremental site updates alone are almost worth the price to pay to get a .Mac account. Re-rendering the entire site each time you make changes is quite time consuming, especially if there are plenty of pictures and videos in the site in question. iWeb re-renders the complete site if you publish to an external folder (the only other option if you don’t publish to .Mac). This is more of an annoyance than a barrier to use though… but, it is a bit Microsoft’ish in terms of trying to convince you to use Apple’s proprietary hosting platform.

There are some other minor annoyances with the product, but these are the main ones that I noticed.

Think Secret is suggesting that Apple is working on some dynamic content capabilities for iWeb 2.0. Things like:

  • Smart Albums – ability to control the display of photo galleries, along with some dynamic presentation options.
  • Flickr integration – ability to pull in content from Flickr (and maybe others)
  • Google AdSense integration – yet another winner
  • Themes – this alone would make the product a worthy upgrade

This functionality would be great, as dynamic content generation is definitely lacking from iWeb 1.0. Hopefully Think Secret is right about the features that Apple is working on for the next release. Only time will tell though…

Todd

Categories
technology

Get your own website!

So… I’ve been thinking for a while about the best way to have an online presence.

NEEDS
First, I had to assess what I need in a website. I really use the web for two things… text and pictures. I post periodic updates that keep friends and family aware of life as I know it. And, with those updates come pictures. Oh, and I also maintain a static website for my small business (wirepaper) that doesn’t change very often. The most complex need that I have involves the option to email people when I have something new to say.

There are numerous options out there, and I’ve been of the opinion that creating and maintaining my own hosted website was the best way to go. Since I have little to no design expertise, it has been tough going for quite some time. I have had some luck with my own design work, but it hasn’t been ideal. Add to that the fact that many of the tools out there require some sort of technical expertise in order to update the site.

TEXT
Enough of that. Time for a change. And time to save some money while I’m at it. I’ve decided to go the blog route for a while. There are plenty of sites out there that provide blog space for free. Without much comparison shopping, I chose Blogger.com. I spent a little time looking at Movable Type but found the setup a bit more than I could be bothered with. And, after spending a few minutes looking at Blogger, I was sold (and the price was right – free!).

PICTURES
Pictures… again, there are plenty of options out there. I’ve looked at yahoo, smugmug.com, flickr.com and g2photos.com. There are numerous other options, but I limited myself to a small handful.

Yahoo Photos was part of the larger yahoo network, of which Flickr is also a member. I’m a little confused about the different branding, but who am I to judge? I’m partial to the separate Flickr brand, which doesn’t identify as easily with the big corporate Yahoo name. Smugmug offers a free trial for a week, but then you have to pay for use after that time. $29.95 per year is quite reasonable, but I’m looking for free. G2photos is a local site run by a good friend of mine in Toronto. If I was going to pay for photo storage I’d seriously consider his site, but again, I’m looking for free… so… no g2photos.com.

I’ve used flickr before to see pictures from friends. The site is easy to use. And the best part is that it’s free. Flickr’s free program caps you based on a combination of number of pictures and total size of picture uploads per calendar month. 200 pictures and/or 200 MB of uploads per month. That’s it. Pretty simple. Based on my past picture volume, I’ve never gone over 200 pictures uploaded per month and since I compress my pictures before uploading them, 200 MB will not be a threshold that I have to worry about.

INTEGRATION
And the best part is that Blogger and Flickr work well together. I can post pictures in Flickr which will automatically update my blog on Blogger (should I choose to set things up that way). And, once my blog is updated, it will automatically update my audience (with another tool that I’ll talk about next). All in all, quite snazzy.

MARKETING
The last part about this whole blogging thing is to update my audience. There are two ways to do this. First, I can email all of my friends and family and tell them to visit my blog on a regular basis. That works great for most people but we all get busy and we forget to check things out from time to time. A service called FeedBlitz.com automates the distribution of my blog via email once people sign up for it. Subscribe to this blog using the form on the sidebar of this blog to see for yourself. Quite simple. FeedBurner.com works in concert with FeedBlitz.com to automate and advertise your blog in various ways. All in all, quite a good package.

And the best part is that all of this stuff is free! In less than a day, I’ve set up a fully functioning blog that manages the distribution of text and pictures to an audience that can sign themselves up for future updates. It all operates on its own. The only thing I have to do is manage the content.

I’m impressed. Aren’t you?

Todd