Like most bloggers, I’m very proud at what I’ve been able to do over the years but I also ahve to admit that there is pretty much no way I would have been able to do much of anything without the efforts of others, especially those who make their work freely available for people like us to use.
Unless you’re able to build your site management software, code your theme from scratch and create all of the tools you use, you’re standing on the shoulders of those who lent their expertise to total strangers, often without renumeration, to make your site possible.
So as the U.S. sits down for Thanksgiving and gives thanks for the various blessings in its life, I’d like to give thanks to six tools and services that, without them, I probably wouldn’t have a blog or much of a presence on the Web at all.
They are in no particular order, but all are tools that I’ve grown to love, enjoy and depend upon over the years. Many, I have to wonder how I ever got along without.
As far as content management systems go, WordPress may not be the most robust or the most flexible, but it is easy to use, runs well on smaller hosting accounts and, most importantly, is free to use.
For the vast majority of bloggers WordPress more than fits their needs and does so without a lot of hassle. Though WordPress has been expanding its feature set, including the merging WordPress and WordPress MU to enable multiple blog installations, it met pretty much all of my needs when I first started with it in 2005 and never really gave me a reason to look for an alternative.
Though Drupal and Joomla are both fine CMSes, WordPress has fit my needs and, judging from the fact it is the most popular blogging platform, it seems many others out there agree.
If WordPress does have a weakness for me it has been its commenting system. Though improvements such as replies have been added to the system and plugins can greatly extend the system, the WordPress commenting system just seemed to leave a lot to be desired.
Disqus provides a simple, drop-in commenting system that automatically synchronizes with your database to ensure that you never lose a single comment posted to your site.
Not only does Disqus add a great deal of features to your sites comments, including connectivity with various social networking sites, it also connects your site and commenters with the other sites that use the service and it just flat out looks professional.
Though I’ve also used and enjoyed Intense Debate, another Automattic product, Disqus just worked better for me and is pretty much where I have settled down.
However, another area where the Automattic product has won out is After the Deadline, the free grammar and spell-checking tool that can help save you from “your own mistakes” and other errors you make “like the plague”.
Once you configure AtD, it will scan your posts before you publish them alerting you to potential areas for improvement or correction. The process is extremely quick and, though the feedback isn’t always perfect, it can be very useful for improving your writing and making it more readable.
Best of all, After the Deadline is completely free to use. Though competitors such as Grammarly offer more features, including plagiarism checking, AtD is perfectly adequate for most users and, considering how easy and free it is, there isn’t much reason to avoid giving it a try.
Over the years, I must have tried a dozen services and tools for combatting information overload. Every day I am bombarded with dozens, if not hundreds, of links and trying to find out what I need to read and what I can skip is a nearly impossible task.
Zite, for me at least, has found the magic formula. Though it may not be able to tell me every story that might be of interest to me, it certainly finds and highlights the things I HAVE to know about.
My Zite page has, quite literally, become the first thing I read most mornings and the first place I turn when gathering stories for the “3 Count” column on Plagiarism Today. If something reaches number one on my Zite page, I probably need to read it.
I’m not as sure if it will work as well for others, but for me, it has been a tremendous sanity saver.
When I first sat down to use Remember the Milk, I didn’t get the service. My workload at that time was light and it seemed an ever-present todo list was more annoying than helpful.
However, as my workload began to grow and I found myself torn between my client work, my blogging and my personal life, I realized that things were falling through the cracks.
Suddenly, having an easy-to-use and easy-to-organize todo list became not just an asset, but a necessity. Best of all, with free integration into Gmail, it exists where I am naturally and fits in well with what I’m already doing.
I may not always have time to do everything I need, but at least I won’t be forgetting important tasks.
6. The “Hidden” Players
On nearly every Web server, there is quite literally a dozen applications and tools that, while important to make your site work, go virtually unnoticed, even by those who are using them.
For example, I use Apache, MySQL, PHP and CentOS Linux, all of which are freely-available tools largely built by volunteer contributors. Even if one could write their own CMS, they probably couldn’t write their own database server or operating system without serious help.
These are tools that most bloggers never think twice about and many don’t even know are there, but they are critical to everything we do as, without them, there would be no website at all.
While it’s true that many, if not most, of these tools are run by businesses who are seeking a profit from their creations, they also chose business models that make their tools and services available to me and you at no cost.
So, for their willingness to let me and others use their products at no expense, I say thank you. I wish all of these companies the best of luck and continued success and I hope that they are able to continue providing an important service that enables people like you and me the chance to run a blog without having to open our wallets.
In the end, it is true that some of the best things in life are free. These six products are excellent examples of that.