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Setting Up Your Own Weblog

By REED ALBERGOTTI
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Why would anyone want to write a diary -- then let everyone in the world read it?

Surprising as it may seem, it's one of the fastest growing activities on the Web. Online diaries known as blogs (for "Web log"), are proliferating as people build these personalized Web pages to do everything from chronicle their adventure vacations, to wax poetic about cross-stitching. In the spring, Iraqis blogged about life in Baghdad during wartime. This fall, the U.S. presidential hopefuls are blogging.

And so is Kathleen Merchant, a nursing assistant and grandmother from Florida who recently struggled through a harrowing bout with divorce, cancer and temporary blindness. Friends urged her to write a novel, but instead, she set up a blog. "It's easier than writing a book," she says.

Big Internet companies are rolling out new programs that claim to simplify the once-complex process. America Online last month unveiled AOL Journals, its own blogging service, and Google recently acquired Blogger.com, one of the Web's most popular programs. California company Six Apart -- which sells powerful but complex blog software for pros -- launched a novice version, TypePad, six weeks ago.

How easy is it to start baring your soul to the world? We tried to set up five blogs, using providers including LiveJournal, TypePad and Radio Userland. We wanted simple setup as well as a few extras, like the flexibility to post photos to share with friends.

BEST BLOGS?
[link to chart]
See how several blog programs compared.

We quickly ran into headaches. For instance, we needed to draft our own on-staff help desk to install Radio Userland's software. And when testing AOL Journals, we called AOL's customer hotline with a question -- and the rep said he had never heard of AOL Journals.

We also found that AOL's blogs won't work if your Web browser is a few years old (you need Netscape 6.2 or higher, or Internet Explorer 5.5 or above.) That's a big disincentive, since your target audience of readers may also need to upgrade, just to read your page. Once we resolved our browser problem, getting an AOL blog running took only about 10 minutes. Its strength is an easy setup that results in a clean, professional-looking, if slightly homogenous, page. It was a snap to add photos.

AOL acknowledges its browser problem but says many people have the newer browsers.

The best service we tried was TypePad. We used the $14.95-a-month "Pro" version but recommend the simpler "Plus" version, which is only $8.95 a month; all you lose are some bells and whistles that a basic user probably won't miss. (Skip the $4.95-a-month version unless you don't want to create a photo album.) TypePad's photo software was some of the strongest, so if photos are going to be a centerpiece of your blog, it's a good choice. One downside: The instructions are cumbersome and require lots of clicking on buttons.

Google's Blogger is free, but bare-bones. You can't post photos, and the page-design options are ho-hum. Google says Blogger.com compares favorably with other free options, and new features are in the works.

LiveJournal, which costs $25 a year -- or free if a current user refers you -- permits only one tiny photo. Its best feature is its community-like structure that lets you easily meet other bloggers with similar interests.

Radio Userland was the weakest one we tried. The customer rep couldn't help us with our setup problem. In addition, it assigns you an unwieldy Web-page name that's basically a string of numbers -- not user-friendly. The company didn't return calls for comment.

Write to Reed Albergotti at reed.albergotti@wsj.com


NAME/PRICE BEST FEATURE EASE OF USE SNAFU COMMENT
Blogger.com
Free
The price. Setup takes only about five minutes. You can't post photos -- and the screen design options are boring. Good choice for someone who wants to give blogging a try without wasting much time.
AOL Journals
Must be an AOL subscriber ($23.90 a month)
Cool options like the ability to phone in "sound bites" that get posted on your blog as sound files online. Setup process is well designed: No learning curve for people familiar with AOL's format. Only works with newer versions of Web browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer. Creates a professional-looking, if slightly homogenous, blog.
TypePad.com
From $4.95 to $14.95 a month; free 30-day trial.
By far the most setup options of the programs we tested. Takes a little more time to figure out, but we're a neophyte and we did it. With many options come many instructions. And they're not as well laid out as we'd like. A program you can grow into. As you gain expertise, you can refine your Blog and use more advanced features.
Radio Userland
Userland.com; $39.95 a year.
Powerful enough for corporate use. We had trouble setting it up. Unlike most, it requires you to download extra software. We had to draft our on-staff tech guys to get it running. The program is popular with businesses looking to start blogs, but beginners beware.
LiveJournal.com
Free if you're recommended by a current user; $25 a year.
A sense of community that links you to other bloggers with similar interests. Piece of cake. Lack of features, like photos, that many other programs offered. If you really want to interact with other Bloggers, use this. But many users are on the young side.

Updated September 30, 2003

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