September 2003  Volume 29, Issue 6
ABA Law Pracice Management Magazine, September 2003 Issue
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nothing.but.net: Fire Your Web Site, Hire a Weblog

with Erik J. Heels

Blogging is an incredible development. But you have to participate to benefit. Whys and hows for getting on the train.

Don't start a weblog. Replace your Web site with a weblog. That's what I did, and I've found that weblog software gives me everything I'd wanted from traditional Web site publishing software-and more. Late last year, I began experimenting with weblog software and, three months later, I'd converted my existing site into a weblog powered by Radio Userland. After two months, I then switched to the much more capable Movable Type. Here's why I did it, how I did it and why other lawyers and law firms should be catching weblog fever.

What Can You Do with a Blog?
There are many definitions of what constitutes a weblog, also called blog, for short. I prefer to define blogs as Web sites created and maintained with weblog software such as Blogger, Geeklog, Movable Type, Radio Userland and Slashcode. Weblog software provides a simple way to do the following:

  • Publish and maintain a Web site, typically via a Web-based interface
  • Publish your most recent articles (or "posts" or "entries") on the site's home page and automatically archive the rest
  • Categorize the articles by topic
  • Change the look and feel of the site
  • Link and be linked to
  • Connect with users in new ways, such as e-mail and RSS XML feeds

In addition to the benefits they provide to site publishers, blogs provide a simple way for users to find fresh and interesting content, typically via search engines, and to comment on interesting articles, either on the publishers' blogs or their own blogs.

Thus blogs beget blogs. And because they are designed to automatically link to other blogs, and are also automatically updated, all that auto-linking and auto-updating typically results in high rankings in Internet search engines, most notably Google. In fact, some have suggested that BLOG really stands for Better Listings On Google. Now whether high Google rankings translate into business generation is a question beyond this column's scope. Suffice it to say that most people agree that a high Google ranking is a Very Good Thing.

Getting Started with Radio Userland: Good for Beginners
Once I decided to get on the blog wagon, I knew that I wanted software that would enable my site to be (1) portable, so it could be managed and updated by another software package in the future; (2) database driven, so I could use intelligent functions (such as spell checking, link checking, searching and replacing) across the entire site; and (3) easy to use, so I wouldn't have to consult help files constantly. Those are the same goals I had sought to achieve when using traditional Web publishing software to update my site (a project I described in my October 2002 column).

With those goals in mind, I began my experiment with Radio Userland ( http://radio.userland.com). It costs just $39.95 and is a powerful piece of software. But it takes a lot of getting used to and, as I learned, it is not the best tool for what I was trying to do--namely, republish my existing site with weblog software.

Radio is a Web server that runs on your local computer. It creates two Web sites, or weblogs: a Desktop Website (for you) and a Public Website (for everyone else). As a result of this architecture, the user interface is nonintuitive. There's the Radio Userland server program and there's the browser-based interface to the server. It's the latter that you actually need to use.

In addition, it takes a long time _to figure out what all the configuration options mean and do, especially since Userland unnecessarily complicates the process by using terminology like "upstream" for the _well-known term FTP.
Also, because Radio creates two sites, there are multiple configuration templates. Three are the most important:

  • The Main Template (#template.txt) controls the appearance of all _pages on your Desktop Website _and Public Website, except their respective home pages.
  • The Home Page Template (#home Template.txt) controls the appearance of the home page on your Public Website.
  • The Desktop Website Template (#desktopWebsiteTemplate.txt) controls the appearance of the home page on your Desktop Website.

Get it? Neither did I. It would make much more sense to have four templates:

  1. A global template for the _Public Website
  2. A home page template for the Public Desktop
  3. A global template for the Desktop Website and
  4. A home page template for _the Desktop Website

The fact that 1 and 3 are the same in Radio makes it really tricky, for example, to have system links (to preferences and the like) on your Desktop Website but not on your Public Website.

Another drawback is that if you want to post old articles to your blog, you have two bad choices. First, enter your articles with the current date and then edit the radio.root database manually to correct the dates. Second, change your computer's date before posting each article. I tried both approaches and was frustrated by each.

An additional shortcoming is Radio's lack of database fields, which is odd for a database program. For example, there's no "description" field to place into the meta "description" tag for each post. At the file level, one can only input two fields: title and text (with no fields for author, publication date, abstract or the like). Finally, while third-party plug-ins such as activeRenderer and liveTopics provide some of the missing functionality, they have their own Web-based interfaces and end up feeling like separate products rather than integrated plug-ins.

Other problems include the lack of a built-in spell checker, default templates that use nested tables (yuck) and a reliance on a third-party server for comments. It's never a good idea to rely on third-party sites for your site's operation. After two months, Radio's limitations convinced me to install the much more capable Movable Type software.

Moving on with Movable Type: Great, But Not Perfect
Movable Type ( www.movabletype.org), by Six Apart, costs $150 for commercial use (and is free for personal use), and it is much more powerful than Radio. But it's also more difficult to install, and it requires a Web server that allows you to run customized CGI scripts, Perl and a database server (Berkeley DB or MySQL). Once you've installed Movable Type, you can access it by executing the mt.cgi script on your server.

Here are some of the things that I like about Movable Type.

  • Database-driven. Movable Type basically acts like a Web-based interface between your database (which includes all the pages from your site) and your site. When you write a new article, it gets added to the database and posted to your site. (Some changes don't happen automatically but require you to "rebuild" your site.) Also, if you configure the popular MySQL database server, you can access your database directly.

  • Configurable source. Movable Type isn't open source software, but the Perl modules can be edited and tweaked if desired. For example, I customized my installation of Movable Type to allow for better integration with my Mailman mailing list software. The changes cannot, however, be redistributed.

  • CSS-based. Movable Type uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) by default, so you can quickly change the look and feel of your site by changing just one file (styles-site.css). Also, Movable Type includes a handful of predefined styles, which can be edited to suit your needs.

Like most applications, of course, there are some problems with Movable Type. For one, comments aren't threaded. So if you have multiple comments to an article on your site, you may have a hard time figuring out who's responding to which comment. Also, e-mail integration is minimal. The program should have an e-mail-to-weblog feature that allows you to post to your blog via e-mail and a corresponding weblog-to-e-mail feature that allows users to automatically receive e-mail when new posts are added (or whenever some user-defined criteria are met).

Last but not least, Movable Type requires a decent chunk of memory to run on your server. If you have a lot of articles in a lot of categories, it's possible that your server will run out of memory. But what the heck, I needed to upgrade my server anyway, because I was nearly out of hard disk space.

In addition to the Movable Type application, note that Six Apart offers the TypePad service ( www.typepad.com), which is ideal for personal users who may not want to install and configure applications on a UNIX server. But businesses should not, in my opinion, rely on a hosted service. Their money would be better spent hiring a UNIX consultant to install and configure Movable Type on their own Web servers.

Using Aggregators: An Emerging Technology
Another important thing to know about weblog software is that most packages allow publishers to automatically create XML-formatted summaries of their weblogs. These XML files reside on the weblog itself and can be checked periodically for updates. (See, for example, my RSS 2.0 XML feed at www.heels.com/ index.xml.) These XML files allow users to "subscribe" to a particular Web site (that is, to the site's XML "feed") and allow publishers to distribute their content to other sites, users, devices and the like in a syndication model.

In essence, aggregators are programs that allow users to subscribe to and monitor various XML feeds. But the major problem with most aggregators, and it is a big problem, is that they rely on the user to use yet another software program or go to yet another site. For example, Radio has a built-in aggregator that displays headlines in your browser for the sites to which you've subscribed. Personally, I don't want to read headlines in an aggregator. I want to read the actual site, and I want to find out about updates via e-mail. Until blogs are truly integrated with e-mail, aggregators will be a necessary evil. The alternative, which is what I do, is to bookmark your favorite blogs and visit them periodically.

Top Tips for Converting Your Web Site to a Blog
If you're revved up to get on the blog wagon like I have, here are top pointers for making the most of this important new kind of site.

  • Write like you mean it. Because most law firm Web sites are written by committtee, they reflect all the "personality" of a committee. Ultimately, the reason that blogs are interesting (or not) is they reflect the personalities of their writers. If you enjoy writing, blogs are an ideal platform for you. If you don't enjoy writing, no amount of weblog software will make your site interesting.

  • Keep the signal-noise ratio high. It's worth noting that not everybody thinks blogs are a good thing. Comments on a recent thread on Slashdot ( http://books.slash_dot.org/ article.pl?sid=02/10/03/ 1323250) called weblogs "derivative sources of meaningless drivel" and "ridiculous ego trips," among other things.

  • Don't be a blog in name only. When is a blog not a blog? When it's like the "Boston Sports Blog" ( www.boston .com/sports/weblogs/blog_current.shtml), which is a blog in name only. No comments, no XML feed, none of the features that make blogs useful.

  • Respect your data. My Web site has been database driven for a long time. Even after converting my Web site to a blog, I still create articles in my FileMaker database first, then post them to the blog. If you start using one weblog program and switch to another, how are you going to convert your data? You may end up with an old blog that points to your new one and a new one that includes none of the content of the old.

  • Answer the reporter's questions. Your blog should provide the answers to the basic questions--the who, what, where, when, why, how--regarding the site. Indeed, law firms publishing weblogs may need to do this to comply with state bar ethics requirements.

  • Allow comments and be ready for flames. I allow comments on my blog, and I encourage dialog with disagreement, because I believe that business is (or should be) a conversation. But ad hominem flames can, and do, exist in the blogging world. So be aware of the formerly unwritten rules of flaming ( www.darkfires .com/humor/flaming.html). My policy is to reply to substantive comments and to ignore flames.

  • Avoid clichés and other silliness. There are a lot of silly things that you can put on your weblog, such as how many other blogs are geographically close to you ( http://geourl.org), gratuitous links to sites linking to you ( www.technorati.com) or how many "Blogshares" you own ( www.blogshares.com).

  • Be browser agnostic. Movable Type uses CSS by default, but not all browsers support CSS. So if, for example, you're quoting someone, I suggest putting the quote in quotation marks, since indenting (via the "blockquote" tag or otherwise) doesn't always work.

  • Plan for success. I recommend setting up a test blog at a separate URL. If you decide that the test was worth it, you can then overlay the test site with your existing site, update your DNS setting so that both URLs point to the same Web address, and all your URLs for your test site will work in your existing site. Or, you can go the additional step of simply replacing your Web site with a blog.

Some Law Firm Blogs: They're Worth Visiting
So how far is the blog movement spreading in the legal profession? Two of the most famous lawyer bloggers are Ernest Svenson and Denise Howell. Svenson, an attorney who works for Gordon Arata McCollam Duplantis & Eagan LLP, publishes the "Ernie the Attorney" weblog ( http://radio.weblogs .com/0104634). Howell, an attorney who works for Reed Smith, publishes the "Bag and Baggage" weblog ( http://bgbg.blogspot.com). Theirs are personal, not law firm, weblogs. Both maintain lists of law-related blogs on their sites. Svenson's includes 82 published by practicing lawyers, with five of those identified as law firm blogs; Howell's list includes 135 by practicing lawyers, of which nine are identified as law firm blogs.

Here's a look at the law firm blogs on the two lists:

Some law-related blogs are not as easy to classify, such as Stan Abrams' China Blawg ( http://chinablawg .lehmanlaw.com), which is hosted by and sponsored by Lehman, Lee & Xu ( www.lehmanlaw.com). Or the Law Office of Jonathan Bender, P.C., which has a Web site ( www.ibusiness lawyer.com) that links to a weblog ( http://ibusinesslaw.info). Or Jodi Sax's "Law Girl" site ( www.lawgirl.com, which makes one ask, Is this a law firm site or a lawyer site?)

Conclusions and Predictions: It's about More Than Google
Should more law firms be publishing weblogs? Definitely. There are 1,220 links to Denise Howell's blog in Google's database and only 203 to her firm's Web site. For Ernest Svenson, Google has 601 links to his blog and 14 links to his firm.

But don't publish a weblog just for the Google rankings. Google recently purchased Pyra Labs, the company behind Blogger, and Google reportedly has a Google Blog tab planned, which may take blog data out of the main Google database ( http://www .theregister.co.uk/content/6/30621.html). If all you care about are Google rankings, then don't blog.

What you should care about is that blogs are the most important development since the Web itself. But ultimately, it's not blogs that are important--it's the blogging that's important. In other words, you have to participate to benefit. Remember what happened when the Internet changed the world more or less 10 years ago? Some in the legal Internet community caught on earlier than others. Some even abandoned a career in law and ended up chasing the Internet for a few years.

The same is likely to happen with blogs. Some lawyers will catch the wave and ride it into a new career. If they are working for your firm today, you may want to consider having them work on your firm's blog before it's too late. n


Erik J. Heels ( info@heels.com) is a patent attorney in Maynard, MA.

LINKS
Blogger: www.blogger.com
Geeklog: www.geeklog.net
Movable Type: www.movabletype.org
Radio Userland: http://radio.user_land.com
Slashcode: http://slashcode.com