Walt Mossberg

Taking the Mystery Out of Blog Creation

The hottest phenomenon on the Internet is blogging, the publication by ordinary people of Web sites that are updated frequently with entries on all manner of topics. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, eight million American adults said they had created blogs by the end of 2004, but a whopping 62% of Americans still didn’t know what a blog was. Both numbers have changed fast this year. The number of blogs has doubled, at least, as knowledge of them spreads.

A blog, short for Web log, is simply a Web site filled with text entries, photos, links to other sites on the Web, and almost anything else the writer wishes to share. Blogs are organized by date, from newest to oldest, and topics range from sports and culture and politics, to family and hobbies. Some bloggers aim to compete with newspapers and other traditional media. Others just want to inform or entertain small groups of friends. Readers of these blogs can comment on them, creating an interactive blogging community.

However, many folks who are comfortable with surfing the Internet still are intimidated by the thought of creating a blog, because they think that blogging requires some sort of technical knowledge. In fact, there now are multiple services on the Web that enable anyone to create a blog, and put it online, in just a few minutes. No special technical knowledge is required, and your blog will have its own Web address, accessible from any computer.

This past week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested three of these free blog-creation services to see what they offer. We tried the popular Google-owned service, Blogger.com, as well as Microsoft’s new MSN Spaces service, each of which is estimated to host millions of blogs. We also tested Yahoo’s Yahoo 360 service, which still is in its test phase. We quickly learned how simple it is to set up a blog, and how addictive they can become.

While using these three sites, we paid careful attention to how each blog-creating service handled four basic tasks: publishing text entries, or “posting” as it is called in blog land; adding photos; publishing links to other Web pages on our blogs; and providing privacy (if desired) online. We also took note of the overall style and formatting options provided on each site.

Our verdict: Microsoft’s MSN Spaces did the best job of performing these tasks in a way that was organized and self-explanatory. Yahoo 360 was almost as easy, but it tries to tie in the use of too many other Yahoo services. Blogger.com has a long way to go until it becomes as easy to use as the others.

You can see two of our test blogs at: http://spaces.msn.com/members/wmossberg and http://kaboehret.blogspot.com/. My blog, on MSN, was created for an earlier column and updated for this review. Katie’s blog, on Blogger, was whipped up just for this review. Yahoo 360 hasn’t been officially released yet; it is currently available only if you are invited by someone who already is using it, but the company plans to introduce the public version this summer.

Katie and I signed up to create blogs on each of these Web sites by providing some basic information and creating usernames and passwords.

We started off by each making a Web site on MSN Spaces. Katie’s Web site included eight main categories, including text posting in the center of the screen, photos on the far right side and her profile and a music list on the left.

The three services that we tested each let you view your blog as it looks when you are editing as well as how it looks to everyone else. MSN Spaces shows the best editing view because changes are adjustable right within each category. For example, in Katie’s Photo Album category, three options (Create, Edit and Delete) are listed right underneath the category heading in the editing view. Yahoo and Blogger direct you to a more general screen to make changes to category settings, which seems less immediately integrated.

MSN Spaces displays multiple photos in clever slideshows that you can start without navigating away from your blog’s home page. Katie uploaded many pictures at once after downloading the “MSN Photo Upload Control” tool. Posting text entries was straightforward and photos can be added at the end of each entry.

We found 81 different themes and various space layout options to choose from in Spaces; Katie settled on a Water Pattern theme and the “Three Columns, Middle Wide” space layout.

There is one downside to MSN Spaces, however. Many of its best editing tools, and some of its features for visitors, like the automatic slide shows, are available only from Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer Web browser for Windows. You can still edit and view the blogs from a Macintosh, or from the Firefox browser on Windows, but the experience isn’t as rich. MSN plans to upgrade the editing for Firefox users in the next month.

MSN Spaces and Yahoo 360 both offer various degrees of privacy ranging from only allowing you, or selected people, to see your blog, all the way up to “public” — meaning anyone can see the blog. In contrast, all of Blogger’s blogs are public, without any way to set restrictions on who can or can’t see your blog. The only thing Blogger lets you select is whether or not you want your blog listed on the company home page or in search engines.

Katie created a blog on Yahoo 360 and found that it offers many of the same things MSN Spaces offers — she easily added text entries that included photos and lists of links to other Web sites. But the style of the Web pages lacked pizzazz — there weren’t any themes from which to choose, and there were too many different views of our Web page to keep straight, including My Page, My Blog and the “Preview as seen by” pull-down menu.

Also, Yahoo seemed to keep trying to pull us into one of its other services. For instance, to use the “Share Music” option, you must be using Yahoo’s LaunchCast Radio. MSN Spaces just lets you list music that you like, and then automatically plays a 30-second clip of that music (if available) from the MSN Music store online. Blogger doesn’t let you create shareable music lists.

Adding photo albums also reflected Yahoo’s desire to reel us in. To share entire albums on your blog, you first must load those albums into Yahoo Photos, an online store like Ofoto.

Blogger.com offers a deceptively simple-looking interface that, along with its lack of privacy options, makes it really difficult to add photos and Web links to your blog. Katie named her Blogger site “K’s Korner,” and after choosing the Thisaway Rose template out of 33 stylish options, posted her first text entry.

Entering text on Blogger was easy especially because this site offers spell check, eight different fonts and five text sizes.

When Katie wanted to add a photo to go with her post, she was dismayed to learn that she couldn’t do so within Blogger. Instead, she had to download a separate program called Hello from Picasa, a photo service that, like Blogger, is owned by Google. She had to leave the blog entirely, and then send photos one at a time to Blogger from Hello so that they could be published on her blog. You can add captions to the photos, but it isn’t the same thing as being able to enter a little story or a longer explanation related to the photo. And this extra step away from the blog is a real pain.

Another bad feature of Blogger is that instead of offering a place for entering lists of URLs on your blog, you must instead follow directions to enter HTML code in the blog’s Template section. To list my Web site on her blog with a brief explanation of what it was, Katie had to type:

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  • onto a screen filled with similar coding. She finally figured this out after three tries, but we found this method to be confusing and entirely too techie for regular users. Blogger says it hopes to change this soon.

    MSN Spaces gets our vote for the easiest way to create a blog — regardless of technological know-how. Blogging doesn’t have to be intimidating any more, and we think most users will be shocked by how easy it has become.

    With reporting by Katherine Boehret

    Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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