Words on a Page Writings about writing

WordPress isn't the only (blogging) game in town

The word 'Blog' written out in Scrabble tiles

Blogging, as you probably know, has changed a lot in the last 15 or so years. Gone are the days when you either had to do a lot of techie fiddling to set up your blog or you had to use a relatively limited platform like Blogger.

When WordPress came along in 2003, it really changed the blogging game.

A few years ago, I heard someone say that there are two ways to blog: WordPress and the wrong way. She wasn’t being serious, but what she said highlighted how popular and pervasive WordPress has become.

Close to 80 million sites (or around 26% of the internet) run on WordPress. It’s, as many of us know, a powerful, flexible, and relatively easy to use platform for publishing a blog.

But that power and flexibility is WordPress’ problem in the eyes of some people. WordPress is a bit too flexible. I started to see this back in 2007 when I first began using WordPress. In the years since, WordPress has gone from being a blogging platform to being a blogging platform and a content management system and a website builder and a way to launch online publications. And much more.

I’ve talked to more than a few people who shy away from WordPress because it’s just too much blogging platform for them. All they want to do is blog. They don’t want to worry hosting WordPress themselves and about frequent updates, database connections going AWOL, widgets, themes, plugins, and security. They don’t want to deal with Wordpress.com (let’s face it: the visual editor is a bit slow and balky).

Luckily for them and people like them, WordPress isn’t the only blogging game on the web. You’ve probably heard of, and maybe use or used, other popular platforms like Blogger or TypePad. That’s really only scratching the surface of what’s out there.

I’d like to introduce you to some simple alternatives to WordPress that let you focus on blogging and not much else. Those alternatives may or may not be right for you, but you’ll never know until you check them out.

A note about Markdown

A number of the platforms and tools that I discuss in this post use something called Markdown for formatting blog posts. Markdown is what’s called a lightweight markup language. In the case of Markdown, that means you add keyboard symbols to your post to signify formatting. For example, you’d surround a word with two asterisks to make it italic and use hash symbols to indicate a level of heading.

If you’re used to WordPress, that sounds very different from the visual editor you’re probably used to. Believe it or not, WordPress (both self hosted and at Wordpress.com) supports Markdown.

The advantages of using Markdown are that you can write posts in a text editor. You can do that whether you’re online or offline, or using a computer or tablet or smartphone. Text is a very portable format - no matter what operating system you use, you can always open and edit text. Plus, it’s easy to migrate blog posts formatted with Markdown to another platform.

If you’re interested in learning Markdown, I wrote a book that can help you quickly do just that.

Ghost

A few years ago, a software developer named John O’Nolan, who was employed by Automattic (the company behind WordPress) came to an interesting conclusion. O’Nolan believed that WordPress had gone beyond its blogging roots and had become too big and too complex. O’Nolan and several colleagues got together to create a tool that was just focused on blogging. That tool is Ghost.

Like WordPress, you can either host Ghost yourself or use paid, hosted version. I suggest going the with paid version, if only because installing and setting up Ghost can be quite complicated.

When you first log into Ghost, you can set up your blog. You just need to give your blog a name and, if you want to, a URL. By default, any blog you create will have a name like * [blogname ].ghost.io* — for example, wordsonapage.ghost.io. You can shorten the name (in the example I just gave, I could use woap.ghost.io) or you can use a custom domain (like wordsonapage.net).

From there, you can start writing a post. Remember how I was talking about Markdown a few paragraphs ago? Well, that’s how you format your posts in Ghost. It’s simple, and lets you focus on writing.

You can also add metadata for social media, create logins for other users, turn a post into a static page (like an About page). Ghost has a limited set of plugins and has basic analytics built in.

Blot

Do you use Dropbox? Did you know that you can publish websites and blogs by connecting Dropbox to a third-party service?

A few years ago, Dropbox-powered web hosting became something of a niche technology industry. That included a handful of blog platforms. While a number of those hosting services (including one I published one of my blogs with) closed shop, a few still exist. One of those is Blot.

Blot is very easy to use. You need a Dropbox account, obviously, and when you sign up for Blot it connects with Dropbox and creates a dedicated folder for your blog posts. You get a free trial, then if you want to keep using Blot it’ll cost you $20 a year.

You write your posts using Markdown or HTML, and when you’re ready to publish them you just drop them into the Blot’s folder in Dropbox on your computer. Blot detects a new file and publishes it immediately.

Blot quite a few interesting things, like creating an archive page linking to all your posts and updating an RSS feed. If you’re blogging about math or science or computer science, Blot also supports something called MathML, which lets you format equations for viewing on the web.

You can also hook your blog into Google Analytics (to track visitors) and Disqus (a popular blog commenting tool). Blot has a setting that automatically opens links to external sites in a new browser window. You can even point your own domain to it.

Postachio

Evernote is an interesting tool. It started life as a way to organize your notes and snippets of information. In the years since Evernote caught on, it grew beyond its original purpose. Sounds kind of like WordPress, doesn’t it?

So what does that have to do with blogging? You can use Evernote to write and publish blog posts by hooking it into a service called Postachio.

How it works is simple. You sign up for a Postachio account, and connect it to Evernote. Then, you create a notebook in Evernote with the same name as your blog in Postachio — for example, Words on a Page.

To write a post, go to that notebook, create a new note, and start typing. The title of the note becomes the title of your post. When you want to publish the post, add the published tag to the note.

You can also create pages, which are parts of a blog that contain information other than posts, information which rarely or never changes. Information like your bio, contact information, or links or rates.

Like other blogging platforms I’ve been talking about, you can point a custom domain at Postachio. You can also add Google Analytics and Disqus comments to a Postachio blog.

Jekyll

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I use Jekyll for all of my blogs and websites. Including I’m a bit biased towards it, but I also know that it’s not for everyone.

Jekyll is part of a class of software called static site generators. The best way I can think of to describe that kind of software is to go back in time a bit. How many of you published websites in the early- to mid-1990s? Back then, we used to code web pages by hand in text editors or in one of the many specialized HTML editors that had started popping up at the time. Once you finished coding your web pages, you uploaded them to a hosting company, the space that your internet service provider gave you, to a place like Yahoo! GeoCities, or to a server at your university.

I kind of miss those days …

Jekyll kind of like that. It creates the structure for your site or blog, and all you have to do is write the pages and posts in a text editor using HTML or Markdown. Then, you regenerate your site and fire it off to wherever you’re hosting your blog. Not databases are involved.

You do the setup work up front: use Jekyll to generate the skeleton of your blog, add a theme, fiddle with the layout, and create static pages. Then, you start writing and publishing.

That’s not as cumbersome as it sounds, though things can get a bit techie. You run Jekyll from the command line, and send your blog off to wherever you’re hosting it. There are also a couple of content management systems, like Forestry.io and Cloud Cannon, that make the process a lot easier and more visual.

Jekyll has several advantages. There’s no need for a database or for specialized hosting. You can host your blog anywhere: with a traditional hosting company, Amazon S3, GitHub Pages and GitLab Pages, and even with a few of the Dropbox hosting services I briefly mentioned earlier. Jekyll also has a good selection of themes, and a very active and helpful community of users and developers.

Of course, Jekyll does have a few disadvantages as well. As I mentioned earlier, it can be a bit techie. That’s especially true if you want to create your own Jekyll theme or customize an existing one. Also, you need to run Jekyll from the command line. A lot of people find that daunting.

Is that all?

No. There are a number of simple blogging platforms and tools out there, like:

And others. So if you’re looking for a simple way to publish your thoughts and ideas on the web, there are alternatives to WordPress out there for you.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.