Blogosphere

Why I still recommend WordPress.com for new bloggers, but am not as bullish on it as I used to be

Blogging was super hot in about 2005. Today, we’re in the post-blog era where everybody’s doing YouTube videos and podcasts. But I still maintain that if you have thoughts, ideas, or stories to tell, if you are working on a creative project or have one in mind, then you should start a blog to showcase your work and share it with the world. And I still recommend WordPress.com as the place to start your blog.

But I’m less excited about WordPress.com for new bloggers than I used to be, for two reasons. First, the free WordPress.com plan now drops pesky, low-quality ads all through your posts. Second, WordPress has evolved toward being a Web site builder, which has had the consequence of making it more complicated for a blogger to learn the tool.

Low-quality advertising

A brand new blog with its low traffic sits at the very bottom of the barrel for targeted ads of the type WordPress.com shows. That blog’s tiny audience just won’t attract major advertisers, or even advertising that has anything to do with your blog’s topics. You get lousy ads like these:

Oh, for the grand days of the free Internet — free meaning both gratis and libregratis in that you could sign up for a free blog, and libre in that you could say anything you wanted on it. Libre is still with us, but only when you own the space you’re communicating in — and having your own WordPress site accomplishes that. The Internet has never truly been gratis, however. Servers and storage cost money. In the past, companies absorbed those costs, frequently causing them to operate at loss. That was never going to last. Internet companies had to figure out how to make money.

Advertising has been the main way most Internet companies have monetized their products. Still, I can’t imagine WordPress.com makes real money from ads on its free blogs. New blogs don’t attract large audiences, which leads to low-quality and low-paying ads. It takes time and work to build a blog audience. By the time you have a decent-sized audience and can attract better-paying advertisers, you’ve outgrown the free WordPress.com offering anyway.

I support WordPress’s other way of making money: paid plans that unlock ever greater functionality and storage. The least-expensive paid plan, Personal, costs $48 annually. It removes those weird ads, increases your storage space from 3 to 6 GB, and gives you access to WordPress.com support.

This blog is on the WordPress.com Business plan, which costs $300 each year. It lets me extensively customize my site, turning it into a full e-commerce destination if I want to. It also offers 200 GB of storage.

WordPress.com, stop showing ads on your free blogs. They’re intrusive, crappy ads that harm the reader’s experience and give both that blog and WordPress.com itself the appearance of being low value.

WordPress as Web site builder

WordPress was born during the days when blogging was new and fresh. It was a purpose-built blogging tool, and it offered flexibility and functionality that its competitors couldn’t match. This led WordPress to become the engine behind at least 25 percent of all Web sites.

To continue to grow as a business, WordPress has pivoted its business away from being only a blogging platform to being a Web site builder. They completely rebuilt the back end — the editor that bloggers use to write posts.

Before, creating a blog post was much like writing a document in a word processor like Microsoft Word. That made the learning curve fairly shallow for new bloggers.

That editor is gone. The editor that replaced it does not work like a word processor; rather, it has created a unique usage model for creating content. Personally, I love it. It offers a great deal more power and flexibility than the previous editor. However, I work in the software industry and am far more technical than the average person. I take to new software easily. I am not so sure that the average blogger will find it quite as easy to learn because they can’t easily transfer know-how they already have to be productive quickly.

WordPress would do well to allow the old editor to continue to function, and allow bloggers to switch to it if they want.

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Blogosphere

Update: Pasting Flickr embed codes into WordPress blocks

About a year and half ago I wrote about a bug that emerged in the WordPress block editor. You used to be able to paste a Flickr embed code into an empty block, and the image would appear. The bug broke this.

Someone at WordPress noticed my complaint and wrote up this detailed bug report in the WordPress GitHub (account required). It’s gotten a little attention in the intervening months, with its most recent update in April. But the bug persists.

An aside: As a fellow who makes his living in the software industry, I’m not at all surprised that WordPress hasn’t fixed this bug. I can’t imagine that this one ranks high on the to-fix list, as Flickr embeds are probably not a critical function. You can fix only so many bugs. Reading the report, there’s broad agreement that it is a bug, and some work has been done to get at its root cause.

The workaround I initially found is to create an HTML block, paste the Flickr embed code into it, delete the <script> tag from it, and convert it to a regular block. It’s a lot of steps for a simple result, but it works.

But recently I stumbled upon an even easier workaround. Create an Image block and press Ctrl-V to paste the Flickr embed code. Bam, the image appears. This method strips the <script> tag for you! It’s so much easier.

Empty Image block. After you copy the Flickr embed code, create one of these and press Ctrl-V to paste the image.
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Blogosphere

Another bug in the WordPress block editor and frustration trying to get WordPress.com Support to believe me

Let me start by saying that software support is a wicked hard job. I’ve worked in the industry more than 30 years and have experienced it firsthand on support rotations.

Until the latest update to WordPress’s block editor, it was possible to flow text around an image following these steps:

  1. Insert an image, either using an Image block, or using an HTML block to embed a Flickr image.
  2. Using the block tools, right or left align it.
  3. Grab handles appear on the image. Drag them to size the image to your liking.

Boom, that’s it, the next blocks flow around the image. At least, it did until the most recent block editor update. It’s broken now. After step 2 above, you can no longer select the block with the image in it. It appears to merge with the next block. If you click the image and use the block tools to delete the block, it deletes the next block but leaves the image in place. The only way to delete the image is switch to the Code Editor and remove the code that embeds the image. Here’s a screencast that illustrates what’s happening. This has got to be a bug.

Chicago Theater

I have found a sort-of workaround. Insert the image, size it, then left or right align it. It gives the desired end result, as you can see at left.

The only trouble is, you still can’t select that image block. I can’t resize it, I can’t move it, I can’t edit the caption. I can’t even delete it.

The only way to interact with the image block after that is in the code editor.

I opened a case with WordPress.com Support and described this regression. The support engineer said that the block editor was never designed to work in the way I described. I replied that it had indeed worked that way until a couple days before I opened the support case.

The engineer then asked me to either use the Text & Media block, or use the Classic Editor block, to do what I wanted.

This is an example of the Media & Text block. It doesn’t support Flickr embeds; unfortunately, I use Flickr to host most of the images here. Also, the default text is huge and you have to format it to try to match it to the rest of the post’s default text size. You get a slider to do that, and you have to match it by trial and error. It doesn’t actually flow the text around the image, as you can see.

MeditatingDogIt does work to use the Classic Editor. I’ve done it here: this paragraph and the image at right are in the Classic Editor block, and the paragraphs that follow are in Paragraph blocks.

It was surprisingly challenging to remember how to use the Classic Editor after all these months in the Block Editor, but I figured it out.

However, I was still sure I had found a bug, and I said so very directly to the support engineer. I shared an old post with the engineer that showed how I had flowed text around an image. I pointed the engineer to the underlying code behind the post to prove it: there were dimensions in the code for the image. Those wouldn’t have been there had I not used the grab handles to shrink the image. The engineer finally said, “Okay, I see you were able to do this before. It seems unusual that it was possible to do this before, but I can certainly report this change to the Block Editor devs. for you.”

No, it wasn’t unusual. This is how it actually worked.

Furthermore, following the steps I described above to flow text around an image results in a block you can no longer select, and can only delete by switching to the Code Editor. In what universe is that not a bug?

If anyone from WordPress happens to read this, I’d be grateful if you’d check what I’m saying here and, if I’m right, open a bug ticket for it. I’d surely like to see this fixed as I encounter this bug every day.

Most of the time when I open a support case with WordPress.com I get active troubleshooting. I’ve found several bugs over the years and most support engineers are happy to get to the bottom of it with me and, when I’m right, write a bug ticket. They even email me a link to the ticket so I can follow it and see when it gets fixed.

But every now and then a support engineer repeatedly tries to tell me that whatever bug I’m encountering is how the system is supposed to function, or that I am wrong about how the system used to work. That makes me nuts. I feel gaslit.

I know this support engineer doesn’t know me and has no idea I’ve been making software for a living since the late 80s. That I was a quality engineer for 17 of those years. I’m adept at identifying bugs.

Harrumph, enough ranting. I hope someone at WordPress.com figures out that this condition exists and puts it in the queue to be fixed.

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Blogosphere

You should start a blog

If you have thoughts, ideas, or stories to tell, if you are working on a creative project or have one in mind, then you should start a blog to showcase your work and share it with the world.

Just expect that blogging won’t make you rich or famous. There was a time when bloggers could attract vast audiences, but those days are over. We’re in the post-blog era; the big audiences are all on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube now. This is why in recent years I’ve dissuaded people from starting new blogs.

But I was wrong and I’m reversing my position. You should start a blog.

Unless you’re already famous, gaining attention on the Internet beyond your friends and family requires lots of both effort and luck. The biggest audiences are on social media, so it might seem obvious to do it there. But the giant tech companies nakedly seek monopolistic control. They gather and use information about you in any way they please. Facebook and Google are actively working to wall you off from the rest of the Web so that you stay always within their services. Google is now more about advertising than helping you find things on the Internet. These companies monetize you. They are not on your side; they are not your friends.

A blog is free from the datamongers and monopolists. Starting a blog extends a solid middle finger toward their practices, and uses the Web in the open and equal fashion that its builders envisioned.

The giant tech companies can still be useful to you and your blog, however. Organic search still can lead people to your work, and you can use social media to promote your blog and individual posts. (I need to write a post about what I’ve learned about both.)

So: start a blog. With effort, persistence, and patience you’ll find the people who find what you do to be interesting. With a more effort, you can build a community of those people. This is incredibly satisfying!

I want to tell you about the Courthousery blog. Ted Shideler had an idea to document every still-standing Indiana courthouse — city, county, state, and federal, past and present. Little by little he drove to every one of Indiana’s 92 counties to photograph them. He researched each one and told its story. He’s even beautifully woven some of his personal stories into some of the posts, which is one of the quirky and interesting things you can do in a blog. He’s covered most of Indiana’s courthouses now, so he’s branched out to nearby states to keep going.

Courthouse at Paoli
Orange County Courthouse, Paoli, IN. Pentax ME, 28mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak Ektar 100, 2012.

Ted will probably decide one day that he’s completed his project and stop updating his blog. But then his blog becomes a permanent record, a site people interested in a particular courthouse, or in courthouses in general, will find when they search. They’ll be grateful for Ted’s careful and thoughtful work.

If Ted had posted his research and photographs only on Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, they would have become lost. Have you ever tried to find an old social-media post? It’s nearly impossible. They’re not available to search engines, either. They’re meant to be of the moment.

They’d not be entirely lost to Ted, who has the right to download his own Facebook posts. You have the right to download yours, too; do it on this page. But that would include everything you’ve ever posted there, not just posts related to your project. It could be a staggering amount of information to sort through. But crucially, it would not include the comments anybody left on your posts.

Because Ted chose to blog, however, he can export just his project at any time and save it on his own computer — comments and all. WordPress.com has especially robust blog export tools, which is one reason I recommend WordPress.com for bloggers.

Even though neither Ted’s finite project nor my continuing photographs and stories have mass appeal, there are people in the world who enjoy what we do. It’s a big world — some people are likely to enjoy what you do, too.

You can attract readers to your blog, and keep them. You do it one reader at a time. Some readers will find you through search. Some will find you as you promote your posts on social media. Some will find you through word of mouth, which is how I found Ted’s blog. Persist, and you will find an audience.

Courthousery is Ted’s gift to the world. Down the Road is my gift to the world. Your blog can be your gift to the world. What do you have to say? What do you have to show? There will be others who find it interesting.

Start a blog!

If this post has encouraged you, here are links to a whole bunch of other posts I’ve written that share many of the things I’ve learned about how to blog well.

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Blogosphere

Pasting Flickr embed codes into WordPress blocks no longer works

Software engineers all over the world continuously deliver new and changed functionality to WordPress.com. This is great when you like the changes, and not so great when you don’t. Especially when you have to learn all new steps to do something you’d already learned to do and were happy with.

One major change was the new block editor. It was a whole new way of approaching creating content. I found it to be easy to learn and I like it a great deal better than any other editor WordPress has ever offered.

One thing I especially liked about it was how easily I could embed images from Flickr, which is where I host most of my images. In the old editors, embedding a Flickr image was a multi-step process. One of those steps was manually stripping out of the embed code a <script> tag that WordPress tripped up on.

WordPress actually doesn’t allow <script> tags in posts. This is wise, because those tags execute in your browser code that’s stored elsewhere. That code could be malicious. The code Flickr wants to run in your browser is harmless, but there’s no way for WordPress to know that.

In the block editor, simply pasting the Flickr embed code into an empty block stripped the <script> tag and made the image appear. Yay!

But this functionality was recently removed with neither warning nor explanation. Pasting a Flickr embed code into a block now results in a blank block.

But not an empty block. When you switch the block to HTML view, some HTML code appears. WordPress converted the Flickr embed code to the image’s simple URL wrapped in a hyperlink tag, wrapped in a paragraph tag, like this:

<p><a href="URL_of_Flickr_image"></a></p>

This is a malformed hyperlink, in that it specifies the link target (the page to go to, here the URL of the Flickr image) but no text or image to which to attach the hyperlink. The browser correctly renders this as blank.

Thinking I’d found a bug, I opened a case with WordPress.com support. They told me that simply pasting the Flickr embed code should never have worked because of the <script> tag. They didn’t explain why.

I pointed out to them that before this change, blocks flawlessly stripped out <script> tags. I asked if they would restore the old functionality. They said with no explanation that they would not.

They gave me two alternatives. The first is to paste the Flickr image’s URL into an empty block. This does work, but the image is of a fixed size, which is narrower than the block on some screens. I did it below, so you can see. There doesn’t appear to be any way to increase the image size. I almost always want the image to scale to full width, so this alternative won’t work for me.

Pay parking

The other alternative they offered is to paste the Flickr embed code into a block of type Custom HTML. This adds three extra steps I didn’t have to do before:

  1. Convert the automatically created default block to a Custom HTML block.
  2. After pasting the Flickr embed code, manually delete the <script> tags.
  3. Open the block menu and choose Convert to Blocks to show the embedded image rather than its underlying HTML code.

This is not onerous, but it is disappointing because several days ago I did not have to do these steps. A real benefit I gained with the block editor is now lost. These steps give me the same end result I had before, at least.

Pay parking

In my work as a software engineering manager in a company that delivers a software product over the Internet, I’ve personally led engineers to deliver changes that have caused users frustration. There are a lot of valid reasons to do it. But users hate to be surprised by changes that alter their workflows, especially when they don’t know why it had to change.

I’d love it if WordPress.com would revert to the old functionality so I can just copy and paste those Flickr embed codes and move on. But I’d have an easier time accepting this loss of functionality if someone had given me even a flimsy explanation of why.

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Personal

Switching from NBC to PBS, in a manner of speaking

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve turned off the ads on my blog.

They had become more trouble than they were worth. Ad placements I didn’t authorize kept appearing, ruining the look and feel of the blog. Many times I heard from readers that ads were auto-playing videos or, worse, automatically redirecting to junky and scammy sites. I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with WordPress.com support, getting them to turn off the unauthorized placements and squash the bad ad actors.

I made only about 50 cents a day from ads here. That paltry income wasn’t worth the hassle and, more importantly, the risk of alienating you. Nobody wants to keep visiting a site where videos automatically play or the page suddenly redirects to “Your computer is suffering from 23 viruses!!!!!”

The small stream of income was nice, as it covered this blog’s annual hosting costs with a little left over. But it’s not like I can’t afford this blog. Down the Road will live on without ad revenue.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Perhaps, however, you’d like to partner with me to fund more film, cameras, and adventures. If you do, you can click this “Buy me a coffee” button to send me $3. My favorite color film costs about $3 a roll, so it’s perfect.

I’ll quietly drop that button into posts from here on out. Clicking that button can be your way of saying you appreciate my work and want me to keep at it. But no pressure or stress — you’re welcome and wanted here even if you never click the button.

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