One of my visitors, who happened to find out that there were numerous specialized blog hosts that let you create a blog easily without the hassle of having to install your own blogging software on a general purpose web host, asked me what the advantages and disadvantages were to using one of these.
I have encountered other variations of this question before, such as "Should I use the Wordpress.org software or the Wordpress.com blog host?", "Should I install my own blog or use a service like Blogger?" and "What are the pros and cons of using a free blog host as opposed to setting up my own blog?".
This article mentions some of my thoughts on this matter.
For the purpose of this article, I will refer to a blog host as one where the host exists solely for you to create and maintain a blog using some specific software that they have already installed on their machines. All their customers will use the same blogging interface; you will not need to install any software on either your computer or the web host's computer, nor can you.
You can see examples of such blog hosts on the Free Blog Hosts page on thefreecountry.com. Note that although they are listed on a "free blog host" page, some of them also have commercial plans which they sell.
When I use the term "general web host" in this article, I am referring to the usual thing people mean when they say "web hosts", that is, companies that have specially-configured computers connected to the Internet, that allow you to put any sort of website on those computers. You are free to create blogs, an ecommerce site, a gaming portal, or any other type of website (or combination of types). Many of them (if not all) also have a control panel from which you can easily and quickly set up a blog on your web hosting account.
I will assume throughout this article that the blog host you're considering allows you to point your own domain to your blog. This comes standard with all commercial general purpose web hosts (that I know of), but is not necessarily the case with the specialized blog hosts. If a particular blog host does not allow you to get your own domain name and use it for your blog, then I personally won't use that blog host for reasons that I have already mentioned elsewhere. For me, this domain hosting facility is so important that it will lead me to reject any host that does not provide it, without a second thought.
Note: do not misinterpret what I just said above. Some blog hosts do allow you to host your own domain (although some only with the payment of an additional fee). I only have issue with hosts that don't have such a facility, paid or otherwise.
Note that I ignore price differences in this article. That is, I assume price is no object. I do this because I want to do a general comparison of the features provided by the all-purpose web hosts against those provided by the specialist blog hosts. Unfortunately, there is no one fixed price that all general web hosts charge against one fixed price charged by all blog hosts. Everyone has their own price plans with different feature sets. To address the general advantages one category of hosts has over the other, I need a stable set of features to use as a basis. It's very hard to do this if everything is a variable. As such, I assume you can afford to put your blog on either a general shared web host with all features enabled (with most hosts, you can get this for around $10 or less per month) or a shared blog host with all features enabled (which you can get for about $300 per year for one host, and free with another; and there are undoubtedly others with different prices too).
In any case, if you don't like this assumption, you can work around it easily by going to the hosts you are considering, looking at their prices, and deciding if you can afford it. It's easier for you (than me) to do this since you will have a specific web host in mind.
I shall go through the reasons why one might want to use a general purpose web host or a specialized blog host separately.
The primary reasons for using a general web host for your blog, and installing your own blog software can be summed up as "complete control and freedom". Below are some aspects of that control and freedom that you have. And I am sure there are others that I have missed out.
A normal (non-specialized) web host usually allows you to tinker with what webmasters call the Apache ".htaccess" file. This gives you an enormous amount of power to configure your site so that it does what you want. It allows you to do things like improve security for your visitors, fix their mistakes, fix your own mistakes, block unwanted visitors (eg bad "bots" that probe your site for security vulnerabilities), point multiple domains to your blog and a lot more.
Such powerful facilities that let you adjust the behaviour of every web address on your site are usually not available on a blog host.
On a general web host, you can install whatever script you want on your website. (A "script", in this context, means a computer program.) For example, if you want to add a "live" chat script to your site so that visitors can "talk" to you when you happen to be online, you can. Or you can put your blog into one folder (directory) and install a discussion forum into another. Or even add a shopping cart so that visitors can order something you just discussed in your blog. Or you can set up a photo gallery where people can rate your pictures. And so on.
On a specialized blog host, you can only use the facilities they provide. Note that this doesn't necessarily mean that you cannot have (say) a photo gallery. That may still be possible if the blog host supplies it as a built-in feature. But you can only use what they provide, if they provide it. You will not be able to pick and choose what you want and install it.
If you were ever to peruse through a web host's feature list (eg, click through some of ones on thefreecountry.com's web hosts list), you will find a plethora of features provided with your account, including email. General web hosts typically provide you with email storage, unlimited email addresses at your domain, email forwarding, email vacation messages, spam filtering, blocking of email, sending of email, a web mail interface, etc. It's so much a standard with web hosting packages that most webmasters just assume that you will always get such facilities when you sign up with a web host.
Email facilities, however, do not seem to be a standard feature of blog hosts. One of the blog hosts that I have investigated provide only email forwarding for 5 email addresses on your domain (for their paid plan). That is, you need to have an email account on some other place (eg on a free email provider), and you will have to forward email received at your domain to that account. Alternatively, you have to get a third party email service to handle all the email for your domain.
This is not the case for most blog hosts. In fact, not only do they restrict what advertisements you place on your blog, they may even put their own adverts as well (unless you pay them not to).
You can install whatever theme (visual appearance) you want for your blog on a general web host. You are even free to modify the existing default theme by changing the HTML and CSS code by hand, if you are so inclined.
On a blog host, your control over the design of your blog is usually restricted to the facilities provided by the host. On some blog hosts, the themes you can install are also limited to what they provide, that is, you cannot just download a free theme from elsewhere and install it on your blog.
On a general web host, you can access your website in a variety of ways. I will list it in order of increasingly powerful ways: you can use your browser to post and customize your blog, you can connect to your site using an FTP program (which allows you to upload files/folders, delete files and download files from any part of your site), or you can access your account with a Secure Shell (SSH) program (which gives you a direct command line access to the computer on which your blog resides).
Whether or not you actually need all of these depends on what you are trying to accomplish and your technical expertise. If you are a novice blogger, you'll probably only use your browser to post and an FTP program to back up your blog files (eg, uploaded images, videos, etc).
On a general web host, if you ever find that you need to move to a different web host, all you need to do is to point your domain name at the new host (loosely speaking), copy your blog software and database there, and you're done. Your blog continues as though nothing has happened, and your visitors will probably not be aware that you have changed hosts if you don't mention it to them. All links pointing to your blog posts continue to work exactly as they did before.
Things are trickier with a blog host. To be able to move from a blog host, you need to be able to export your data in a format that another blog host or software can import. Not only that, you need to find a way so that the web addresses (ie, URLs) of all your blog posts remain the same in your new blog. The ability to do this varies from blog host to blog host and software to software.
You may think that after reading my long list above, that there can be no compelling reason to ever use a blog host. However, you would be wrong. There are actually a couple of reasons (maybe more) why some people still prefer to use a blog host even after knowing the above.
One of the problems of running a blog is that your blog software is running on a computer that everyone in the world can access. And these programs are complicated beasts. The more fully-featured any software is, the more complex it is under the hood. This complexity guarantees (in practice) that there will be bugs somewhere. Such software are also very powerful (in terms of the damage they can wreak): in order for you to be able to post to your own blog, or for your visitors to drop comments after your articles, the software must be able to write new data somewhere on your hosting account. In other words, if there is a bug somewhere that an attacker can exploit, he/she may be able to modify your blog in ways that will appall you (eg, to drop malware on your visitors' computers, add blog posts purporting to come from you, place their own advertisements, change what you write, etc).
When you host with a normal general-purpose web host, you will need to update your software religiously. If your program does not auto-update itself, you may have to regularly check the blog developer's website for security announcements and information about new versions yourself. If that were all, then it would be no big deal, especially if you use blog software that auto-update themselves (eg, WordPress does this). However, this prompt updating does not help you against the occasional zero day exploits. By this, I mean times when attackers exploit a hole in the software that the blog developer has not yet fixed. Handling this means that you really need to monitor your blog to make sure that it has not been compromised. You may also need to scrutinize your database contents to see if you can spot anything out of the ordinary. I once found a mysterious new table in a database on one of my experimental/play blogs this way, containing spammy content. ("Table" in this context loosely means a section of the database.) And if you find that your blog has been compromised, you need to be able to clean it up.
On a blog host, since you have zero control over the software there, its update and maintenance is completely in the hands of your host. It's up to them to monitor if security holes in their software has led to the blogs on their system being compromised, and to fix and clean up such problems if it has.
This is not to say that you do not keep (at least) daily backups of your own blog posts and user comments. Nothing absolves you from the responsibility of backing up your own data. Although your blog host will probably have backups, they may not have your latest posts. If they recover from an attack by restoring an early backup, you will need to restore your latest version yourself.
Of course, whether this reason is an advantage or disadvantage depends on the competence of your blog host. If they are hopeless at maintaining the security of the blog software, or they are not capable of cleaning up effectively after a compromise, then being at their mercy with no control at all is not a good thing. On the other hand, if your host is competent, then the fact that they take over the security issues and updates is, for some newcomers, a great comfort.
The other reason is if you run a massively popular blog that receives zillions of visitors a day. For such a blog, you probably won't be able to host it on a shared web hosting plan, since you'll run into all sorts of resource limits, but need to put it on a dedicated web server running its own database server. In a such a situation, where the huge traffic load may cause you to have to spend more time maintaining the system and fighting fires (eg, to deal with server overload issues) than blogging, you may just decide to go with some blog host that will take care of this for you, and focus solely on blogging.
(Note: if you don't actually have a blog now, and are new to making websites, and wonder if this huge traffic thing applies to you, it probably doesn't, in most cases. However, see my article on Which Web Hosting Package / Plan Should You Choose? How to Plan for the Traffic (Bandwidth) and Disk Space You Need for a more detailed discussion of this aspect. Note that blogs are just a type of website, so the things mentioned there about new websites apply to new blogs too.)
When you use a blog host, you also do not need to set up a database and install the blog software, chores which you have to do on a normal web host. Everything is done for you. You only have to sign up, pay up, and you can start customizing and blogging. In spite of this, I'm not listing this as one of the major reasons to use a blog host because many general web hosts today also provide an easy automated interface from which you can do these two things with just a few clicks of the mouse. And installation is a one-time affair, reducing its benefit even further.
If you want to put your blog on a general web host, you can work around not having a blog host manage the security for you in the following ways.
If you use the WordPress software (which is very popular among bloggers), most of the updates are done automatically for you by the software. The auto-update facility is turned on by default, and it gets the latest security fixes and perhaps other minor bug fixes directly from the developer's website by itself.
However, it does not automatically upgrade to next major new version. Major versions occur when there are new features (and not just bug fixes). You will have to log into your blog and click the link to initiate such upgrades yourself. (Yes, it's that easy to upgrade nowadays.) In addition, if your blog rarely has visitors, you may want to access your site at least once every day. The auto-update facility (the one that automatically applies security and bug fixes) only runs when someone visits the blog. Since you want your blog to be updated the moment a new version is available, your daily visit is the trigger that causes the software to check for a new version even when there aren't any visitors that day.
If you use a different blog software, one that does not auto-update itself, make sure you check the developer's website regularly (at least daily) for updates. If they have a newsfeed, subscribe to it. Otherwise, sign up for whatever other way they provide for users to be informed of updates (eg, mailing lists, forum posts, Usenet posts, etc). Then when you learn of a new update, immediately apply that update.
Find out how to backup your blog's database. (See "What is a Database?" if the previous sentence sounds intimidating.) Most web hosts provide a tool called phpMyAdmin which can do this. (Note: it actually doesn't have to be this specific program; I merely name it because I notice many web hosts make this available for their customers for easy use/installation.) Use it every time you post a new blog entry to make a backup of your database. If your blog receives a lot of comments from its visitors, you should probably back up your database on a daily basis as well, whether or not you have posted anything yourself. This way, if a mishap occurs, and you have to restore from your backup, you will have only lost the comments made since the time of your last backup, which is at most 24 hours ago.
You should also keep multiple backups. That is, when you make a backup (say) today, don't overwrite the one you made yesterday. If you do, and your blog was compromised without your knowledge (for example) this morning before your backup, your only backup will contain the malware, so restoring it will not save your blog. Instead, each time you make a backup, you should save it with a filename that includes the current date and time, and keep it for many days or even months. This way, if you find out that your blog has been compromised by malware for (say) the last 3 months, you can still use a clean backup from before those 3 months to restore the blog.
If you use the WordPress software, you may be able to get away with not dealing with the database directly. WordPress has an "Export" facility that lets you export "All content", which supposedly preserves your posts, pages, and comments. I'm not sure, though, whether it preserves your URL structure (ie, the web addresses of your posts) and other customizations that you may have made. My personal preference is to backup the database directly, but if you find that too complicated, you may want to consider this method instead.
You should also back up everything in your blog folder. (When you installed your blog, the software would have been installed somewhere on your web host's computer. Back up everything there.)
Technically, you don't actually have to back up the software itself, only the additions you make to it, like your configuration file changes, the images, videos, and music/audio files that you posted, etc. The reason I said to back up everything in the folder is in case you miss a crucial file somewhere.
If you like to do a little proactive random monitoring, you can also try the following. Log out from your blog software. Clear all your browser cookies. Go to Google and search for some of your articles. Click the listed link to go to your blog. Check if the blog entry looks normal and behaves in the way it should. That is, see if there are things in your entry that you didn't put, like new links, advertisements, pop-up windows, or anything unusual at all. If you know HTML, you can even use the "View source" on your web browser to give the code a quick glance to see if there any new strange, unexplained code that shouldn't be there.
Notice a few things here. You have to log out from your blog before you do this. And you have to access your article from a Google (or Bing) search. Some malware hide themselves if they notice that it is the blog owner who is visiting the blog (which is why I said you should clear all your cookies as well, just in case the malware has also set its own cookie so that it can recognise when the blog owner is around). But even with this, there's still the possibility of your blog being compromised and you not spotting it, since you may not have looked at an affected post, or you may have simply missed the signs, or the malware has become more cunning at hiding from the blog owner.
If you find that your blog has been defaced or otherwise compromised, you don't have to be an expert to clean it up. Just use the "nuclear option": delete everything (eg, the database and all the files in your website folders), download a clean copy of the latest version of the blog software, themes and plugins from the developer's site, install it, and restore your configuration files and data from a clean backup.
In fact, this is the way that many experienced bloggers use to recover from an attack too, since it's the fastest solution and one that gives you the best assurance that you have really eradicated all traces of the compromise (since you have wiped out everything).
I realise that some of you will probably be hoping that I make your decision for you. However, it's actually not possible for me to give a general recommendation on this matter. In fact, notice that I specifically did NOT say that if you are a novice, choose such-and-such an option, and if you are an expert, choose the other. I personally don't think you need to divide the options that way.
A lot depends on you: what you know, what you're willing to learn, the amount of time and effort you are willing to commit to your blog, the amount of freedeom and control you want for your blog, the features you need, and probably others. As such, what applies to one person may not apply to another.
As for me, if I were starting a serious blog (that is, one on which I'm actually putting real content and not just to play around with the software), I will most likely use a general web host. But then, this is probably because I have run thesitewizard.com, thefreecountry.com and HowToHaven.com for a long time and have become so accustomed to having all the features and freedom provided by a normal web host that I will be frustrated without them.
You will have to decide for yourself what you want.
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