As the people I hang out with on Freenode are painfully aware of by now, I’ve been on a blog platform testing binge. In total, 13 free* platforms tested. Here is a quick list of my test blogs — you’ll find detailed comments about each platform on the test blogs themselves, and a general overview below. The ones I preferred were Blogsome and Mon-Blog.
My main interest was to have a peek at what existed (personal curiosity) and see if it was possible to claim the blogs on Technorati. What follows is an account of my personal user experience on these different platforms. It is not the result of a battery of systematic “benchmarking tests”, though here are some of the points I paid attention to:
- was it easy to create an account, or did I have to fight?
- how easy was it for me to sign back in, afterwards?
- overall, did I find the features I expect from a weblog? (note how subjective that is)
- how did writing a post go?
- could I add images?
- could I change the template?
- could I add links to my other test blogs? (linkroll management)
- could I claim the blog as mine at Technorati?
- did I bump into availability problems?
Lets get the last point over with first. I succeeded in claiming blogs on all platforms except three: NRJ blogs, Skyblog, and LiveJournal. The reason for that is that the last two platforms limit links in the blogroll to weblogs using the same platform. This prevented me from using the blogroll to add the Technorati code necessary to claiming the weblog.
Note, by the way, that I am talking about the free version of LiveJournal, as the paid version does not have this limitation. NRJ blogs, by far the worst platform amongst those tested, does not permit linking at all (even in posts!) I’m not even sure if it deserves to be called a “blogging platform”.
As far as linkrolls or blogrolls are concerned, ViaBloga gets top marks for their “almost-automatic linkrolling”. You can simply type in the URL of the blog/site you want to add, and it retrieves title and rss feed, and also creates a screenshot and thumbnail of the site. It really makes you want to add links to your sidebar. One-click blogrolling, if you like. Otherwise, most link management systems are pretty standard.
Some, like MSN Spaces, make you click “Add Link” between each links, instead of systematically presenting you with a form allowing you to add a link each time you go in link management. This is one of the minor but irritating usability problem which plague MSN Spaces. There are major ones too, but I won’t list them too (no paragraph breaks for me, login problems, timeout problems, clunky interface, ugly permalinks, horrible markup) — they are detailed on my test MSN Space.
Visual editors are neat when they work, but they are a great pain when they do not work. Because of my browser settings, I failed adding links to my posts at ViaBloga, for example. I also failed to add photographs at CanalBlog, HautEtFort, and 20six because of this. BlogSpot is clear enough about the fact you need an external service like Flickr if you want photos on your blog, and both LiveJournal and U-blog seem to fail the photo test for various reasons.
Both Skyblog and NRJ blogs are very limited blogging services, the latter being a very pale imitation of the former. Skyblog focuses on making it easy for teens to put photos on the web with brief comments, and, despite many other shortcomings (no permalinks, interface issues, server overload at peak times), I’m forced to admit it does it pretty well — which partly explains its success (it’s the main French language blog platform in blog numbers). The other services passed the photo test with more or less ease (don’t forget I’m a geek, so uploading a photo first, copying the URL and inserting it into a post isn’t an issue for me — it could be for some).
At some point, I had trouble connecting to the following services (or timeouts): Skyblog, MSN Spaces, and 20six (I can’t remember any others, but my memory might be failing me. NRJ blogs distinguishes itself by refusing to publish certain posts, or waiting a day or two before being so.
Now, before I get lost in random comments, I’ll give you a quick low-down on each of the solutions tested, as well as links to other people who have recently reviewed some of them.
- Pros: WordPress, very easy to sign up
- Cons: might need to be a bit of a techie at times
Being an avid and enthusiastic WordPress user, the idea of a hosted WordPress-powered blogging platform was very exciting to me. No bad surprises as I already knew the interface (I’m biased, of course), and no major bugs that couldn’t be addressed after posting about them in the forum. I didn’t try the visual editor there, but I assume it will make it more newbie-friendly. Definitely the platform I recommend for the moment.
- MSN Spaces
- Pros: none
- Cons: way too beta (buggy)
After Roland Tanglao, Robert Scoble, and a dirty word test at Boing Boing, let me add my two cents by saying I am unenthusiastic about MSN Spaces. It’s still way too rough around the edges. Not usable as far as I’m concerned.
- Pros: community, well-established
- Cons: lots of settings, limitations of free accounts (no Technorati claim possible)
- Pros: well-established, nice admin interface
- Cons: lack of categories, trackbacks, and image hosting
No big surprise here. I used Blogger for years (though not BlogSpot), and I liked the interface I found during my test a lot. They should wake up and get categories and trackbacks though. We’ll be in 2005 in less than 3 weeks. A good, solid option for people who can live without categories, trackbacks, and hosted photographs.
- Pros: great link management, wiki-like features, active development
- Cons: some usability issues and minor bugs; not free
ViaBloga has many good features. The “configurable blocs” system (invented by Stéphane for Joueb.com), which allows you to easily move about elements of your page, is just great (once you’ve figured it out). The platform has real wiki-like capability via keywords, and “cross-links”, which work like a kind of automatic trackbacking system. On the shortcomings side, I would say that although the features are great, the usability and user-friendliness of the administration aspect, which is a little confusing, could still be improved. I’m not a beginner, and it took me quite some time to figure out a certain number of things (and I know Stéphane and Delphine, so it’s easy for me to get direct help). And no, it’s not just because I’m “used” to other systems — I should still be able to figure things out easily.
- Pros: well-established, community
- Cons: community (!), some usability problems (cf. ViaBloga)
Joueb is ViaBloga’s community-oriented little sister. The first French language hosted blogging platform seemed to me a little more kludgy than ViaBloga, but there is a happy community there, and Stéphane is an active developper, always ready for feedback and making improvements to his babies. If you’re looking for a French weblogging platform with a strong community, I’d say this is a good choice.
- Pros: great if all you want is upload your phone photos, spit out a comment, and allow people to comment (though Flickr does it better)
- Cons: no permalinks or trackbacks, limited server availability, teen-sms-talk and link-whoring comments
I remember when Skyblog was launched, the francoblogosphere was boiling over in horror at this kind of bastardized blogging solution where teens posted pics of their friends and commented in sms-speak. (Sorry, can’t find any posts right now, will add links later if I do.) As I said, Skyblog does not do much, but it makes publishing photos and short texts easy, and it’s pretty successfully targeted at a certain audience. My pupils have Skyblogs and they are obviously all the rage. Lots of photos, hardly any text, and comments abound which either say “ur 2 kool”, “u suck”, or “com visit my sky http://somecoolnick.sykblog.com/”. Not very interesting as a blogging platform, as far as I’m concerned, but obviously successful.
- NRJ blogs
- Edit 18.12.04: it seems confirmed that NRJ blogs hasn’t launched yet, and Google caught them by surprise.
- Pros: none
- Cons: sucks (I mean, some posts don’t even get posted, and finding your blog URL demands a thorough investigation)
I’ll say it loud and clear, NRJ blogs suck, and as a pretty obvious consequence they aren’t taking off really well: less than 50 blogs created since they launched (and NRJ is a major popular radio!) However, I can’t find a link on their home page, so there is a possibility this was a preliminary soft launch. In any case, I’m getting my few days of fame as an NRJ blog star. Neuro, Mr_Peer, and Kwyxz also tried NRJ blogs and were all but impressed. See their posts or my test blog for detailed complaints.
- Pros: has the usual set of features you expect from a blog
- Cons: admin interface can feel a little rude at times
CanalBlog was a pleasant surprise. The admin interface takes over your browser, but it works pretty well and it’s user friendly enough in a “MS-Office-lookalike” way. The layouts you can choose from are clean, and they have comments and trackbacks. They have ads, though. I’d say they are a viable platform (er… a viable choice of platform).
- Pros: nice admin interface
- Cons: no trackbacks
Too bad they don’t have trackbacks! I like what I’ve seen of the admin interface, nice and clean and uncluttered. As many other platforms do, they force me to go through the home page to log in (which I dislike), but honestly, like CanalBlog (and maybe more, if it wasn’t for the lack of trackbacks), I’d say they are an honest French language blogging platform.
- Pros: has the set of features you expect from a blog
- Cons: ugly, cluttered admin interface, server downtime
I really didn’t like 20six. I find their layouts ugly, the admin interface is hell, and their server was unavailable for hours at one point when I was about to do my photo upload test. Even though they know what trackbacks are, I wouldn’t recommend them (go CanalBlog instead).
- Pros: community, features more or less ok
- Cons: probably doomed
Well, I’ve spoken a lot about U-blog already, but more in a blogo-political context. When there weren’t so many French language blogging platforms around, U-blog used to be my recommendation. On trying it now, I can’t help saying that it feels a little broken, or abandoned. I was faced with an error when trying to upload a picture, and some of the links in the admin section tell you that this or that feature is only available with the paid version. Given the platform doesn’t seem in active development anymore, I wouldn’t recommend it.
- Pros: DotClear (clean, beautiful, all functionalities)
- Cons: launched three days ago
Now this, ladies and gentlemen, was a last-minute and very pleasant surprise. Mon-Blog is based on the weblog engine DotClear, which I have long held in high regard. For the first time, I’ve had a chance to see the DotClear admin interface, and let me tell you, it’s as beautiful as the themes they provide to dress your weblog in. Nothing really missing feature-wise, though it seems templates won’t really be customisable at Mon-Blog for the moment. The service has just launched and some creases need ironing out, but the forums and the developer are reactive. Just go for it. This is clearly my first choice for a French blogging platform.
I hope this will have been of interest to some. Thanks for your attention, and I’m glad to be over with the testing!
Edit 16:20: I’ve just add quick pros/cons bullet points (thanks to acrobat for the suggestion and the proof-reading).
Edit 13.12.04: ViaBloga was included in this survey although it is not a free platform. It is free for non-profit organisations, however. The mistake is mine — being an early tester, I was offered six months free, and in my mind had not switched ViaBloga to the “paying platforms” category. See my comment and Stéphane’s on the subject.