T-Minus 2 Days: Building My Blog’s Dream Home

With the welcome post nearly finished, I had to find somewhere on the web to put it. So I needed to make some decisions about what blogging platform to use as well as where to host the blog. Since both topics are interrelated, I’ll address them here in one post.

Hosting

What’s a host? Host is shorthand for website host, basically a computer that stores and serves your website to anyone trying to access it from a web browser. Think of a host as the place where your blog lives. In addition to the content you write, the web host also houses all the source code, graphics, templates, etc. used to present your blog to the world.

The Hobby Blogger's Dream Home

Image copyright BrandyTaylor – iStockphoto.com


Self-hosted (aka stand-alone)

Say you want your blog to live in a house custom built to your exact specification. You decide on the paint, the cabinets, lighting fixtures, the number of rooms and their dimensions: everything about the design of your home. You can buy the materials and build the house yourself, if you know how, or pay a contractor to do it for you. Your utilities will have to be hooked up (gas, electricity, water, sewer), and you’ll pay to use those services. Finally, you’ll have to handle all the maintenance (repairs, yard work) by either doing it yourself, or hiring someone to do it for you.

This is what it’s like to self-host your blog. You get to decide what your blog looks like including colors, graphics, fonts, advertisements, widgets, and so on. You must also make decisions about your blog’s building blocks:

  • Web server – A fancy name for a computer, it’s like a house’s foundation.
  • Web server and database software – Apache and MySQL, for example, act like the blog’s plumbing and electrical wiring.
  • Blog software – The blog’s frame. Examples are WordPress and MovableType.
  • Blog add-on software – Like cabinets and furniture, plugins and widgets such as contact forms and subscription forms add functionality to your blog.
  • Blog theme – The blog’s graphical interface is analogous to how the house looks. Think of paint, light and plumbing fixtures, and landscaping.
  • Domain – The blog’s address. With a self-hosted blog, you get the equivalent having your own street number. It’s distinctive and helps make your house easy to find.

If you already have the knowhow, tools, and materials, then you can build your blog on your own. It might take a while, and you might make some mistakes along the way, but it’s possible. On the other hand, like hiring a contractor to build your house, you can hire a specialist to design the blog for you. A web designer can find the web host, or use their own their own host, and build your site to look just the way you want.

In the end, self-hosting your blog will cost you time, money, or some combination of both, but you’re more likely to be happy with the end result and you’ll relish the freedom to make changes as your blog grows.

Hosted (aka remotely hosted or third-party)

On the other hand, maybe you don’t have the time and money to build or buy a house. Maybe you like the simplicity of living in an apartment, as nearly all the maintenance is done for you. Have a leaky toilet? Just call the manager to come fix it for you. You also don’t have to wait for construction to finish, or for escrow to close. If an apartment is available, you can move in as soon as you sign the lease. You don’t have to worry about configuring anything, except maybe signing up for the utilities.

Hosted blogging platforms such as WordPress.com, Blogger, TypePad, SquareSpace, Tumblr, and Posterous are similarly hassle-free. Take just a few minutes to register, and you can begin blogging right away. All the backup and maintenance is taken care of for you. Except for TypePad and SquareSpace, the platforms mentioned above are free.

Sound good to you? Great! Just be aware of the possible downsides of hosted blogging:

  • Limited design options – You might be able to paint a few walls and put a few plants on the apartment’s balcony, but forget about replacing that horrible linoleum in the kitchen. Likewise, you might have a hard time giving your blog a distinctive look, or adding a plugin that you could’ve otherwise used on a self-hosted blog. Some of the paid hosted platforms do seem, however, to have more design options.
  • No advertising – Want to make some money by placing ads on your blog? Don’t count on it if you’re using a hosted option like WordPress.com. They won’t allow advertising unless you have a lot of traffic, and they will even put their own ads on your blog unless you pay a yearly free.
  • Generic domain name ­­– Ever had a hard time finding a business located with a bunch of other business in an ordinary looking office building? Was your impression of that business less than if it had been in its own building with the company logo posted over the doorway? Well the same goes for domain names. On WordPress.com my address would be TheHobbyBlogger.wordpress.com. Does that seem as legit and easy to say as TheHobbyBlogger.com?

Running a hosted blog won’t take up a lot of time or money. As long as you’re not too picky about your blog’s design, or concerned with making money, this is the way to go. Although it might take some effort, you can always migrate to a self-hosted solution sometime down the road if you feel a bit cramped in your new apartment.

Why I chose to self-host

Without hesitation I decided to self-host my blogs. I love to tinker, so I want the complete control that a self-hosted blog affords. I also want to get better at website administration and learn how to customize my themes, which means getting into geeky stuff like Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and scripting languages.

At some point I want to monetize my blogs. Self-hosting is really the only way to go if I want to put ads on my sites. Though, there are other ways to make money from a blog besides advertising­–like selling your own E-book–that don’t necessarily involve selling ad space. In addition, having my own domain name does add credibility to the blog. Though a generic domain name won’t automatically doom your blog: Seth Godin hosts his very successful blog on TypePad.

Types of web hosts to choose from

When looking for a web host, there are three different flavors to choose from:

  • Shared host – Many different websites share the same computer. So if one or more of the other sites on your host gets a lot of traffic or uses an excessive amount of plugins, your site will grind to a halt. By the same token, if your site hogs all the host’s resources, your hosting company might shut you down. Shared hosting is also the easiest to use. Many companies offer user-friendly tools to manage your site, such as one-step software installs and automated backups. This option is also the cheapest, costing as little a few dollars a month.
  • Virtual private server (VPS) – Several sites share the same computer, but your site is contained in its own ‘”sandbox,” separate from the others. Your site is unaffected by anyone else’s web traffic or resource use. VPSs often require more effort than shared hosts because all you’re given is just the bare operating system–usually Linux or Windows. You have to install the blog software and create the databases yourself. VPSs usually start around $15/month for a bare minimum of memory and processor usage. More expensive plans will get you more resources and maybe even an easy to use control panel.
  • Dedicated server – Your own computer. Your site has a complete web server all to itself. Like VPSs, you have to do all the software installation and system maintenance. Dedicated servers cost at least $100 a month. In return, your site is fast and can handle lots of traffic.

Most bloggers start with shared hosting, and then move up to a VPS if their traffic outgrows the host’s capabilities.

My host and platform

I am also starting with shared hosting using HostGator. Because I’m planning on hosting my education blogs using the same account, I signed up for their Baby web hosting package, which allows unlimited domains. I chose HostGator because they are well regarded among other bloggers in terms of price and performance (low downtime). HostGator’s tutorials were helpful, and their cPanel management interface seems pretty straightforward. Of course, I have nothing to compare them with because I’m new at this. So time will tell. I’ll keep you posted on my experiences with them.

On a side note, many web host providers also offer to register your domain name for you, sometimes for free. I don’t recommend this. If you ever have a dispute with your host provider and they are also your domain registrar, it can be difficult to transfer your blog’s domain name to different provider. Less-than-reputable providers have been known to register the domain in their name, and then hold it hostage until a release fee is paid. It’s better to keep things as simple and worry-free as possible.

For my blogging platform, I’m using WordPress. It wasn’t a tough decision. First of all, it’s free. More importantly, though, WordPress is powering 14.7% of the world’s top million websites. That means there’s a ton of resources out there in terms of plugins and themes that are being developed for WordPress. A vibrant development ecosystem like WordPress’s ensures that the platform’s functionality will continue to evolve and help keep your blog’s design fresh and current.

Phew. My longest post yet. Choosing a blogging platform and a web host provider is a deep topic. I’ve only scratched the surface, but this post should get most beginners on their way. Add your own tips and experiences in the comments.

Article by Bryan Kerr

I love breaking down the techie side of blogging into easy-to-understand tutorials. That's mostly what you'll find here on The Hobby Blogger.

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