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Not long ago I wrote a two-part series about the main differences between a self-hosted blog and the other option of using a “free” blogging service. Opinions were split but there’s no arguing that the two undisputed kings of the free blogging sphere are Google’s Blogger and the content management system-turned-host WordPress.com.
While both offer what every free-thinking democracy-guzzling thought-cannon wants – a place to express themselves – there are some core differences in each service. Both WordPress.com and Blogger are workable free solutions, but which is the right one for you?
This detailed breakdown of each service should hopefully help you decide.
What You Get For Free
WordPress.com is a commercial venture. It’s a way for the kind souls who have put time, money and a whole load of effort into the open source and free-to-download WordPress blogging engine to make some money back. They do this by making it stupidly simple to set up and maintain a blog, while introducing some rather hefty limitations for experienced users.
A free WordPress.com account offers:
- A blog, which you can turn into a full-on static or hybrid (part blog, part static) website.
- 3GB of free storage for posts and media.
- Publicize, a tool for connecting your blog with social networks.
- Free statistics for tracking visitors.
- Access to hundreds of non-premium themes, many of which can be customised further.
- WordPress.com access from mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry.
WordPress.com designates the following as premium upgrades:
- Custom Design ($30 per blog, per year) adds custom CSS (not PHP editing) and fonts.
- Custom Domains ($13 per domain, per blog, per year) removes the .wordpress.com part of your URL.
- Guided Transfer ($129 one-off payment) for transferring your WordPress.com site to your own web-host for greater independence and freedom.
- Ad-free ($30 per blog, per year) removes any possibility of WordPress.com showing adverts on your blog to non-logged in visitors.
- Premium themes (priced per blog for the lifetime of the blog).
- A redirect ($13 per blog, per year) for redirecting traffic from yourblog.wordpress.com to your new domain.
- Additional space (priced per amount) for storing more posts and media.
- VideoPress ($60 per blog, per year) for uploading, hosting and embedding your own videos on your WordPress.com blog.
Conversely, Blogger is not a commercial service. It was acquired by Google in 2003 who have since kept it ticking over, with a few redesigns and some recently-added new templates. The rather ancient Blogger features page (ancient because it explicitly mentions uploading to Google Video and easily accessing iGoogle, two of Google’s many dead projects) promises users access to all features. There are no upgrades, no fees for adding a custom domain, and all the customization options thrown in that Blogger has available.
Included features worth noting are:
- A template designer for customizing your blog’s appearance.
- Free hosting, free Blogger (or Blogspot) sub-domain and option of using a custom domain (either registering through Blogger or using one you already have).
- The ability to add media to your posts, with no quoted maximum storage space.
- Quick access to Google’s advertising schemes.
- Pages static content on your blog.
- Mobile access via iPhone and Android apps, as well as SMS or email blogging.
It would seem that despite WordPress having the plugins and themes markets sewn up, Blogger still offers more for those looking for a free service.
The Sign-Up Process
WordPress.com allows you to register for an account with an email address, username, password and URL. Blogger is a Google service, and just like YouTube, requires a Google account. If you already have a Google account then this makes signing up a painless affair, but if you don’t (highly unlikely, unless you have something against Google), you’ll have to register for the whole package. This also means if you do have a personal Google Account but want to distance yourself from the topic you’re blogging about you’re going to have to create a new account, and also deal with Google’s messy multiple-account management.
Google’s sign-up process doesn’t indicate that you do not need to supply a mobile phone number or an email address, despite asking for one. Conversely WordPress.com only asks to fill out four fields but will also run a check for the URL you enter and try to sell you a premium domain (which costs to register, and requires an account upgrade to use on WordPress.com) as well as pointing out the flaws in the free account you’re about to register.
Once you’ve got yourself an account it’s time to start creating one or more blogs. With a Google Account you’re free to establish multiple blogs on the Blogger service. Each new WordPress.com blog you decide to create can also be linked to your existing account, so neither service will require a lot of user switching in order to maintain a stack of blogs.
Creating Your First Blog
WordPress.com users will be thrown into the blog-creation process as soon as they have confirmed their email address with the service. Click the Activate Blog link in your email and you’ll be invited to give your blog a name, subtitle, and language before choosing a theme. WordPress is famously customizable, earning much of its good name for the huge number of themes and plugins available in the standalone open-source release.
The WordPress.com team has definitely tried to retain that same feeling, with new customizable themes in the latest WordPress release making an appearance here allowing you to customize the theme you’ve chosen immediately.
This really helps to separate your blog from the rest of the WordPress world, so you should seize the opportunity to quickly stamp your mark on your patch of WordPress.com.
Google’s process is a little different and first requires you choose (or create) a profile. This is part of Google’s big push to get us all to start using Google+ and our real names on YouTube. If you’re not interested in Google+, a real name or picture, you can opt to create what Google is now calling a “limited Blogger profile” which is essentially a display name of your choosing, so go wild.
Once your profile is set (you can change it by clicking your name in the top-right) you’ll see the rather clean and attractive Blogger back-end. There will be a list of your blogs (which will be empty) and an area below for adding other blogs to follow. Create a blog by clicking New Blog.
The window that appears looks very similar to the WordPress.com variant, asking for a blog name and URL to be associated with the blog and offering a few templates to choose from. Click Create Blog! and you’ve just created your first blog – no more work required. Using this method you could set up a whole string of blogs in a matter of minutes.
Managing Your Blog
Both WordPress and Blogger have centralized areas from which to manage your blog empire, which are separate to the settings for the blogs themselves. The two areas are equally attractive and usable, with both services featuring an area to read blogs you follow as well as the various outlets under your control.
On WordPress this takes the form of a deep attractive blue theme with a tabulated layout that allows you to quickly switch between reading, overseeing blogs and managing analytics in addition to a quick post button.
Blogger houses all of this on the one page, with a quick compose button found next to the blog title itself. Beneath this are new posts from the blogs you have chosen to follow on the service. It goes without saying that you can’t follow Blogger blogs on WordPress.com and vice-versa, though it would be nice if we could all get along.
I’d be surprised if there are many people reading this who aren’t familiar with the screenshot above, which is the WordPress dashboard. Aside from a lick of paint and the odd facelift this UI hasn’t changed for years, and that’s because it’s great. Everything is compartmentalized, making it easy to find settings, compose a new post or page and mass-edit your content.
There’s one addition here that you won’t see on standard, self-hosted WordPress blogs and that’s the Store tab. Here you will find all those upgrades I mentioned earlier, as well as a few bundles that promise to save you money. This is another reminder of the big divide between the two services – one’s going to eventually cost you while the other will remain free (and probably slightly more limited).
Blogger’s back-end closely mirrors the WordPress look, with a similar menu bar floating to the left of the page. Straight up you’ll see statistics (this is also true for WordPress) and an overview of incoming posts, comments and new followers. Much like WordPress this is a very effective and responsive UI that does everything you could (probably) ever want.
The Blogger back-end hides a few features that might take a small amount of hunting to find – like adding users to your blog. On WordPress this has its own menu item, but on Blogger it’s hidden in the Settings menu. Both systems support widgets, though WordPress has a lot more to offer (with your theme dictating just how many widget areas you can use). This is a recurring theme, with WordPress feeling like the more mature blogging platform.
Customization & Themes
Both services offer a range of themes, though Blogger’s range is understandably more limited than that offered by WordPress which has benefitted from years of third-party theme development. With a free WordPress account you get access to hundreds of free themes which you can enable on your site in a click. Blogger’s limited range is split between fluid “dynamic” themes that will scale for larger and smaller screens, and older simple fixed-width blogs. You’ll probably want to choose one of the eight dynamic themes and their many different layouts which are highly adaptable depending on your content.
Each service comes equipped with a theme customizer for further fine-tuning your chosen theme. Oddly enough the Blogger customization options seem to run deeper than WordPress, allowing you to add your own custom CSS and edit the HTML without exchanging money first. You can even use a slider to change the width of your layout in pixels, at least for the dynamic layouts.
I was surprised to see that the WordPress.com theme customizer is different to that in the latest open source release. The new layout uses a touch-friendly sidebar that runs down the right-hand side of the screen and looks like it has fallen straight out of a Windows Blue developer preview. It looks good, but it’s really not that powerful, allowing you to change only a few variables like background, colors, header images but no additional CSS (that’s a premium feature) or the ability to change your site’s favicon.
The real difference here is minimal, after all if you really want to change your WordPress.com site’s look and feel you can choose from hundreds of ready-to-go themes. Blogger doesn’t have that depth, but instead favors those who are willing to take the time to carefully modify it. WordPress feels clipped by comparison, while Blogger isn’t dazzlingly complex it retains some advanced customization that WordPress.com sticks behind a paywall.
Both services also come with basic mobile theme support, which can be enabled or disabled as you see fit. WordPress takes the one-theme-fits-all approach, offering little in the way of customization while Blogger gives you a chance to choose a completely different mobile theme to your main blog theme, if you really want to.
The fact remains that both are effective and look great on my iPhone 5, scrolling fluidly and making excellent use of the limited space.
Expandability & Monetization
WordPress has traditionally been the blogging platform of non-bloggers the world over. By this I mean you can turn a simple WordPress blog into a static website, an ecommerce website, a photo gallery, promotional site and even your own microblog. It’s a workhorse that is adaptable in its open source, downloadable form.
This functionality does not carry over to the WordPress.com hosting service, and it’s a real shame. There are plugins, but they’re curated premium packages that are charged yearly for every blog you use. This means you might find yourself paying out more in upgrade prices per year than what it would cost you to host and manage the website yourself. This would be fine, but WordPress.com hosting severely limits you – there’s no direct editing of the code itself (even with an upgrade) and you don’t have webspace for other non-WordPress projects.
Of course, Blogger isn’t much better and has no plugin support whatsoever. Both services do however support pages, which can include HTML, text and various media. You can also redirect to a website of your choice using this method.
The only platform that will allow you to make a bit of money out of blogging is Blogger. You can choose to enable Google AdSense on your blog which will show targeted adverts based on your content. You’ll need to get some content up first, before choosing the option from the Earnings menu entry. This is in contrast to WordPress.com which has a “remove ads” upgrade to remove adverts shown to your non-logged-in visitors but has no option for opting into a monetization scheme of your own. This is not to say you can’t implement your own rudimentary adverts using widgets, but it’s far from an advertising scheme.
Free blog platforms aren’t the best way of monetizing your writing, particularly for WordPress users who will be interested in the many SEO and advertising-based plugins used by many successful websites. For more information download and read our detailed guide about monetizing a blog.
Social Media & Sharing
WordPress definitely takes the crown when it comes to social media integration, with the Publicize feature (found under Settings > Sharing) allowing you to connect to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr for automatic sharing. This menu also allows you to turn on and off sharing buttons, with big names like StumbleUpon, Pinterest and Reddit appearing alongside the option to email or print the article. These tools are very powerful and make up for a lack of plugins, as many WordPress users would add this functionality that way.
Blogger seems to only play nicely with Google+, which is a real shame because it’s the most deserted of the big three. Twitter and Facebook integration at the least would be nice, but you do get +1, Tweet and Like buttons on each post. There is luckily one workaround and that’s through the use of the excellent IFTTT web service.
IFTTT allows you to automate online tasks, like recording status updates and receiving notifications about new items on Craigslist. It can also be used with Blogger to trigger social media updates like Facebook statuses and Tweets when you publish new posts, and can even be used to create new blog entries from other actions, like Instagram photos saved or images added to Dropbox.
Check out what Blogger and IFTTT are capable of when paired together at the IFTTT website.
Writing A Post
WordPress uses two composers – the quick composer accessible from the main blog hub (above) and the traditional “everything including the kitchen sink” WordPress post editor which has always been a joy to use. I’m not overly impressed with the quick editor, but it’s a personal preference and probably works for quick posts that don’t need to be scheduled. The main editor (below) is as fantastic as ever, with a few extra features.
Here you can compose, edit HTML, add media, format text, add tags and schedule your posts. The WordPress composer actively scans your post and suggests tags to help you better categorize your content as well as the related content pane which suggests news stories and images based on the contents of your post.
You can also choose to categorize your post using WordPress custom post types and depending on the theme you have installed these various content types will appear differently on your blog. Choose Standard for text-heavy blog posts, Quote for a brief quote formatted accordingly or Image to post a photo that displays prominently. One thing you can’t add to your posts without paying is video. It’s fine to embed a video from YouTube but you can’t host the video file on your blog without a $60 per year upgrade.
The Blogger composer is also very dynamic and powerful, and actually looks like the Google Docs word processor with more orange. This allows you to edit HTML on the page, format text, upload and embed videos and other media as well as add tags, a location, edit the permalink and choose to schedule or not.
There’s no tagging help or related content to speak of in Blogger, and while it’s a nice feature on WordPress.com, for me it’s not really a deal-breaker.
Front-End & Mobile
The appearance of each blog, and each post, depends entirely on the theme and layout you end up choosing. For the purpose of this article I’ve left the default dynamic Blogger layout on and the Twenty Twelve WordPress.com default theme, neither of which have been tweaked at all.
Above is a WordPress.com blog, below is a Blogger blog.
Both will require a certain amount of work in order to get your blog looking sharp and unique, but both are also good to go from the beginning. Both look great on a mobile device, with dedicated mobile themes. Both allow you to build a static website. Both are visually quite pleasing, but only one is completely free to use.
I could write another article to draw a conclusion from these findings, but the fact remains that each is suitable for different purposes. Blogger is highly attractive for its completely free model – there are no restrictions, if Blogger can do it, so can you. WordPress however will frustrate, particularly if you have used WordPress on a self-hosted blog in the past. The fact also remains that if your blog is the success that you probably hope it will be, that 3GB of space will eventually fill up, or you’ll want to add your own domain name or you’ll encounter another reason you suddenly need to upgrade. At this point you’d probably be better off with your own hosting package, at least in terms of value for money.
Blogger will scale – there will be no nasty surprise a year or two down the line when you suddenly need more space or decide to start hosting video on your blog. Blogger is arguably more customizable with its core template HTML editing abilities and the ability to add CSS. The result is more of a tweaker’s platform, something the standalone open source version of WordPress has long been but that the hosted WordPress.com variant avoids entirely. My only concern about Blogger is Google’s recent wave of closures including iGoogle and Google Reader. If they decide to pull the plug on Blogger then the service and its users will be forced to find new homes. It’s unlikely because Google is currently using Blogger for its own press purposes, but then again a switch to Google+ seems to be creeping ever closer.
Blogger is the platform to choose if you’re after a free product that might allow you to make a bit of money back. WordPress is there for those who are in love with its huge variety of themes, excellent UI and post composer and the user-friendly approach. Each is a viable blogging platform within five minutes of registering an account, but you are the person who will have to decide which one is right for you. That, or choose something different entirely.
Let us know what you think in the comments – are you a Blogger or WordPress.com user? Would you ditch it all and go for a standalone WordPress website? Add your input in the comments, below.