Review: Blogger – Beyond the Basics

Filed as Features on August 11, 2008 10:03 am

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Blogger: Beyond the Basics provides a difficult challenge to me as a reviewer. As a die hard user of WordPress reviewing a book about Blogger, I have to do two things.

  1. Not allow any prejudice or personal feelings about Google’s blogging service to enter my review.
  2. Read this book from the perspective of the target audience and decide how much it might help them.

The first turned out to be surprisingly easy. I’ve dabbled with Blogspot blogs before during tests and was curious what advanced capabilities the service had.

The second, however, turned out to be much more difficult, not because I found it hard to put myself in the shoes of the target audience, but because I couldn’t figure out exactly who the target audience was.

Serious Flaws

The book follows the path of a fictional fruit-peddler named Georgia. Georgia runs a blossoming organic fruit business and has, at the beginning of the book, set up a stock Blogger blog with a default theme.

Over the next ten chapters and 330 pages, we watch as Georgia’s blog, in a transformation akin to a teen movie, goes from being an ugly duckling into a professional masterpiece.

But while that sounds simple enough, the book is riddled with issues that make getting from A to B unnecessarily difficult. Specifically, the book is hamstrung by two problems that crop up in different chapters.

  1. The book has a strange difficulty curve that causes it to hold your hand on simple projects but leave you to your own on harder ones.
  2. Other chapters feel incomplete and disjunct from the main topic of the book.

Both of these problems, however, are caused by the same issue, that the book is trying to be all things to all people and, thus, doesn’t have the space to cover any of the topics it discusses adequately.

Steep Difficulty

The book can roughly be divided into two sections. Chapters 1, 2 and 10 all deal directly with Blogger as a service (though the first chapter is more of an introduction) while chapters 3-9 deal with more general blogging topics.

However, the chapters that deal with Blogger are frustrating to read due to a strange issue that causes the book to leave its target audience behind.

For example, in one section dealing with choosing colors for your blog, the author, Lee Jordan, holds your hand through accessing Blogger’s interface and selecting a new colors from the default palette. However, when it comes time use a custom color, the book gives you a cursory overview of what a hex code is and throws out a few random numbers. There are no resources for finding your own hex codes and no clues on how to represent colors other than the ones used in the test site.

The problem continues when the book hints at using a faint gradient to make a site more professional looking but offers no advice for creating or obtaining such gradient images. It also discusses resizing of images, specifically headers, without discussing the importance of constraining proportions. In fact, the book tells the reader to turn that feature off, thus resulting in images that look distorted.

Even in chapter 10, the problem appears as the book holds your hand through setting up Blogger to use FTP with your site, but offers no clue how to determine your root Web folder, other than encouraging you to use your FTP client or CPanel without any specifics. Also, it does not tell you where you can locate such hosting for yourself or offer any clues what the user should be seeking when purchasing hosting.

It might be easy to write off these omissions as being “beyond the scope of the book” but they are necessary to use what is taught. Without custom colors and/or gradients, you are limited to the examples in the book. Without custom image resizing, you can not create a professional logo. Finally, without hosting and an understanding of how FTP works, you can not actually use the FTP feature of Blogger.

The end result is that it is hard to tell who this book is for. If you are familiar with these topics, you’ll likely be put off by the earlier hand holding and want a more advanced book. If you are need the walkthroughs, you’ll likely struggle when you try to replicate the book’s techniques on your own site.

Exploring the Web

On the other hand, chapters 3-9 are, for the most part, very different.

These chapters don’t deal directly with Blogger as a service and, instead, deal with more broad topics such as social networking, widgets, Adsense and Google Analytics.

On the whole, these chapters only touch on Blogger when it is time to paste in the HTML code. This produces a strange repetition where the reader learns about a new service/tool, grabs the code, logs into Blogger and pastes the code. The latter two steps being almost identical in every case.

However, this isn’t to say that these chapters are bad, they are actually quite good. The book, in most cases, does a decent job explaining each tool and the walkthrough system makes sense. With only a few exceptions, users will be able to apply these chapters to their own sites whether or not they are a Blogger user.

The problem is that all of these chapters are already the subject of complete books and are much better served by them. Though sometimes you can summarize the important parts of a book in a chapter, a talk about Adsense with almost no discussion on optimization, for example, seems incomplete.

Of all of the chapters in the book, only the one on Google Analytics felt whole and that may be a symptom of my lack of experience with the service.

All in all, most people would likely be better served by getting books targeted at the services they are interested in rather than reading the brief overviews provided in this book.

Target Audience

In the preface of the book, the author says that it is targeted at “Current users of the Blogger platform who want to get the most out of Bloggers, and people who use a different blogging platform and are planning on switching to Blogger.”

This seems odd to me because most Blogger users that don’t already have heavily-customized blogs lack the HTML and CSS skills to take advantage of the Blogger-centric chapters. This is despite the author’s claim you don’t need any such skills to use the book.

Second, I don’t know too many people considering switching to Blogger. I am close to the target audience in that I am on a different platform and have dabbled with Blogger, but I am nowhere near considering a switch to it.

Finally, the choice of focus on company blogging is also odd as most companies prefer a self-hosted solution such as WordPress, MovableType or another platform. Outside of Google employees, I am hard pressed to think of company blogs that use Blogger.

The book just seems to be a poor fit for both the audience it claims to be for and strangely off topic for the service it is about.

Conclusions

Though I have been very negative about this book as I’ve reviewed it, I want to make it clear that I don’t think this is a “bad” book nor do I think that the author is a bad writer. Content from this book could easily be used to create five or six good books at a later date.

This is definitely an author I want to see more work from in the future.

However, this book makes the critical mistake of trying to be all things to all people. Though the topics it covers are indeed important for bloggers, it spreads itself too thin and fails to cover anything adequately.

This book would have much better served its target audience by focusing more on Blogger itself and less on outside services.

Personally, I think it is better to have a book that does one thing well than ten things with difficulty.

In the end, if you are a Webmaster reasonably efficient in HTML and CSS and are either using Blogger or considering the move, this may be a good book for you and I know of a few people that may describe.

However, I can’t shake the feeling that the audience is both small in nature and could have been better served by a refocusing of this book.

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  1. By Darnell Clayton posted on August 11, 2008 at 11:04 am
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    Hey Jonathan, great review!

    I may just pick up the book and skim through it (not to mention hand it off to some folks thinking about dabbling into the blogosphere via Blogger).

    As far as platforms go (when users ask) I usually recommend people use Blogger if they don’t want to get involved with the “self hosting drama,” and WordPress.org if they want to host it on their own server (I never recommend WordPress.com as users will have to pay to customize their layout dramatically, which is often a deal breaker for many).

    Reply

  2. By Jonathan Bailey posted on August 11, 2008 at 11:58 am
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    Darnell,

    I’m glad you liked the review. It sounds like you’ve got a good target there for the book so, if that’s the case, definitely consider it for them.

    As far as Blogger goes as a platform, I didn’t talk about it in the review (wrong time, wrong place) but I was amazed at how flexible the template engine could be. It was likely as powerful, if not more powerful, than what WordPress.org users have now.

    Granted, with Blogger you have issues of flexibility that you don’t have woth WP, but for making the site look as you want it, it’s pretty easy and pretty complete and I like the one-page HTML system versus the WP multiple-file template. Even though the latter is much more flexible, I have to say I admire the simplicity.

    Still, I’d definitely look at books dedicated to Adsense, RSS and other topics mentioned in this one. I even found a whole book on Google Analytics.

    I just think they’d give a more complete picture…

    Thank you again for your thoughts!

    Reply

  3. By Amanda Fazani posted on August 11, 2008 at 1:22 pm
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    Hello Johnathan,

    I was glad to read your view of this book from the perspective of a non-Blogger user (or at least not a regular user).

    I’m also reading through Blogger: Beyond the Basics and will be writing my review in the next week or so. As an avid Blogger user, I have to admit that this book seems written from the perspective of a web designer who has dabbled in Blogger rather than been immersed in it.

    The one great criticism I have so far reflects the FTP issue because Blogger is phasing out all support for this in favor of custom domains (hosted on Blogger but accessible via a TLD).

    For me this is a major flaw. My own blog offers help and advice for those using Blogger, and far more current users favor the custom domain than FTP. Also, in publishing by FTP Blogger users must use the classic templates which use completely different code to the newer XML templates. This should be pointed out clearly, from the beginning, lest readers be confused about how to access and edit elements of the template code.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but is there no mention of using third party templates? I haven’t yet finished reading the book, but again this is of major interest to Blogger users and the subject is deserving of a chapter in itself.

    Thank you for producing an unbiased review which will surely be helpful to Blogger users. Reading between the lines, I can only assume Blogger is not the system of choice for you, though I am glad to see you have warmed to the simplicity and functionality of our template system :) In contrast to yourself, I have dabbled in WordPress but settled with Blogger, so please forgive my own bias in this regard!

    Reply

  4. By Fern posted on August 11, 2008 at 2:52 pm
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    I’m pretty sure that you can host Blogger blogs on your own domain. I don’t know of any big companies that use Blogger, but I have seen quite a few small businesses that use Blogger.

    Reply

  5. By Jonathan Bailey posted on August 12, 2008 at 1:50 am
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    Amanda: I can’t correct you. I saw no mention of third party templates. In fact, I don’t think in any of the chapters there was a mention of building off of anything other than the Minima theme. Hrm, that is rather odd and I wish I had thought of that sooner.

    Also, I didn’t know about the phasing out of the FTP system. I can’t say I blame Google for wanting to get rid of that, must be terribly troublesome for them to maintain and support, but it leaves yet another hole in this book.

    On that note, no worries about the bias, I tried to keep my own out but clearly wasn’t 100% perfect. That being said, one thing the book did show me is that there are cases and people that might do better under Blogger than WordPress. I am not one of those cases, but I can respect those who are.

    Still, I think that both systems have a lot to learn from the other…

    Fern:

    I really struggled to think of anyone that uses Blogger as a corporate blog. Yes, you can host it on your own domain but companies seem to prefer something self-hosted. Google uses it because it’s their product (eating their own food) but I can not think of anyone, large or small, who does.

    I’d love for some examples though.

    UBE:

    Glad you liked it. I tried to be honest with it. Perhaps I’ll do more reviews in the future.

    Reply

  6. By Amanda Fazani posted on August 12, 2008 at 4:05 am
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    @Johnathan: I wholly agree with your statement that both WordPress and Blogger have a lot to learn from each other! I love to design and customize templates, and am so often frustrated by the lengths we have to go to with Blogger to achieve similar functions available easily in WordPress.

    @Fern: Yes, many small business, educational establishments and the like use Blogger. Also Twitter (http://blog.twitter.com/) and New Scientist blogs (from the top of my head). There are probably some others, but without going through the source code for huge lists of corporate blogs it would be difficult to say. Certainly though, there are far fewer corporate blogs which use Blogger than WordPress.

    Reply

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