Technical considerations regarding the discussion aspect of blogging

When making a start in the world of blogging, there are so many things to consider that you almost need a trial run first to learn the lingo. In fact, getting up to speed by using a service like that offered by Blogger or WordPress.com seems a very sensible starting point. Even so, the business is like building a house in that you only really what you are knowing after you have done the deed and made all the mistakes. That is particularly true when you go down the self-administered blog route. For starters, it’s so easy to pick the wrong domain name or hosting provider. Selecting your blogging software is the next step but that may not be so tricky; WordPress does a reasonable job and there’s always Movable Type, Expression Engine, Drupal (yes, really) or Habari.

That mention of blogging software brings me to something that I encountered recently: commenting functionality. I am coming around to the idea that this is probably something that needs to be considered up front because of the nature of blogging. After all, anyone that reads The Blog Herald regularly should be familiar with the idea of blogging conversations and that means that the technology to make it happen should be easy for visitors to use and easy for bloggers to administer. However, the two can collide. For one thing, there are a myriad of choices available to the blogger and the blight of comment spam is ever pervasive and growing.

When it comes to comment spam, it is best to realise that there are two sources of responses to a blog post: visitor comments or trackbacks (pingbacks?) from other blogs. I am of the opinion that the latter is probably the channel where most of the detritus travels and various anti-spam solutionss are on offer to curb its spread. Names from the WordPress world like Akismet, Spam Karma, Simple Trackback Validation and Bad Behaviour come to mind. The former can also be used, particularly when the unscrupulous make use of low cost labour in low cost countries, and that’s when the thorny questions of user registration and CAPTCHA‘s arise. There is something to be said for not going to extremes with these and just stick with less onerous rules and filtering on the server side.

I must admit to having staggering into forcing visitors to register prior to adding a comment and then making them log in thereafter. I think that it’s for security reasons but WordPress creates a password and then sends it to the person who is registering rather than displaying on a web page. That can create another problem: what happens if the email fails to arrive? In the last week, this has happened with a visitor to my hillwalking blog and there could be a number of reasons for the non-arrival of the relevant email. One is ironic: being an automated email, it is getting stuck in the spam filters of the recipient’s mailbox and so never gets to them. It could also be a bug with WordPress itself (I have raised a ticket and am awaiting what Automattic might have to say to it) or a consequence of some setting made by a hosting provider. All of that makes it hard to track down the cause of the issue but it kicks off other thoughts as to its resolution. One is to remove the needed for registration and logging in in the first place but there are third party services that may help too. The former has turned out to be the case for this blog and it seems to be performing well enough so it is an acceptable option.

When it comes to using third party comment handling systems, what needs to be considered is how well they work with your blog. For instance, I gave Disqus a quick whirl and soon realised that I needed to update the themes for my WordPress blogs if I was to use it on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, it worked fine but I was left wondering if it would have been better to have brought it in when I started a blog rather than part way through and with comments made using the existing WordPress functionality. There’s also Intense Debate and I am almost certain that there are more like it but I’ll be sticking with what WordPress offers for now. The theme for my hillwalking blog has been modified to allow prospective commenters to get in touch with me if they are having problems. That’s is only an interim approach while I consider what the way forward will be.

A case of bad behaviour?

On my blogs, I use the Bad Behaviour plugin to keep spammers at bay. It usually works very well so imagine my surprise when it started kicking me out when I tried logging into the system. I started to wonder what happened to my IP address… It now turns out that the repository being used by the plugin got moved by its author and that was the cause of my predicament (and his: he locked himself out of his own blog too!). A new version was duly released to fix the issue and all is well again. It is a tale that emphasises the important of regression testing to check that you don’t change anything that you shouldn’t.

TechnologyTales.com has moved server…

The last week on WordPress.com has featured decisions that some may question, to say the least. For instance, the death of Feed Stats was something that I saw as a retrograde step. Next, I saw a slight change to the appearance of my blog that led me to take full control of the situation; a previous discussion with WordPress.com staff about changing a theme to the way that I wanted it to be got me nowhere so I wasn’t about to try again… I might miss having advance notice of where WordPress goes next but I am not sure that I want to be a guinea pig either.

So, you now find this hosted by Streamline.net and, apart from a lengthy hiatus (at least, it felt like forever thanks to recurring thoughts of PageRank loss; yes, I know that sounds silly…) spent awaiting FTP access to be sorted out, the set up ran smoothly enough; I think that my request for transfer from a Windows server to a Linux one might have been the cause of the delay. Setting up a MySQL database was a breeze and it’s part of the package too. In fact, the Pro package that I am using is £31.99 ex VAT per annum, not bad at all, and, teething problems out of the way, it’ll be interesting to see how things will fare from now on.

Having a self-hosted WordPress installation is nothing new to me since I do it for my hillwalking blog and everything came together very quickly this time around. knowing what plug-ins add real value was a definite help: Bad Behaviour and Ultimate GA headed the list but a Spam Karma 2 is another option. Feedburner integration is another potential item on the configuration list. I have stuck with the Andreas09 theme but am unsure as to how far I will take customising it; it’s not a high priority right now. In fact, I may find another three-column layout that takes my eye now that I am not limited to the offerings available from WordPress.com.

The posts from the old blog have arrived over here and that seems to have worked fine first time around thanks the WordPress’ import/export functionality. I still have to get the images over but there’ll be time for that yet. Another thing on the to do list is to transfer over the links and set up any text and RSS widgets that have been a feature of the previous rendition of the blog. That means linking to wp-links-opml.php on the old blog using the import links functionality. There is no other link export function and you can only import into a single category; a link import/export plug-in that retains the link category information would be a bonus.

While I wonder if I have made a rod for my own back with my having two self-hosted WordPress blogs, it does feel good to have more control and it’ll be interesting where where this journey goes next.

WordPress anti-spam plug-ins

I have just learned about and started to use two new tools on my other blog to combat comment spam. Akismet was doing well but I was moderating more than I should. One plug-in is Bad Behaviour and this interrogates incoming traffic and blocks anything that is attempting the nefarious. This cuts off spam bots before they can even see the blog. Spam Karma 2 is the other new weapon in my arsenal. It is another spam detector and using it alongside Akismet is following the defence in depth approach: when spam gets past one, it is unlikely to pass the other. Both can coexist together and there apparently is an Akismet plug-in for Spam Karma that does away with the need for Akismet itself. The array of options offered by Spam Karma may put off some but that means that extra power is there should it ever be needed.