Blog i360 – A Developer’s Review

I recently had the opportunity to work with a client to revamp an existing site and design she was unhappy with. My client had heard good things about Blog i360, and had her heart set on using it to build her new site. I hadn’t heard of Blog i360, so I did some looking around to see what I could learn.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Blog i360, it’s a hosted platform based on WordPress that’s geared toward industries that commonly use squeeze pages and the like for marketing purposes.

I was disappointed to see that most of the results that came up for my search terms were affiliate sites that were understandably enthusiastic about the platform (you’re sort of expected to say, ‘Rah Rah’ when you’re selling stuff, after all). I did come across one blog post from a fellow developer expressing some reservations about the platform, but it was an awfully lonely voice in a sea of rave reviews. So, for whatever it’s worth, now that I’ve had a chance to live the Blog i360 experience, I’d like to add my own lonely little voice to the mix.

I should start by saying that I was impressed with the efforts of the Blog i360 staff to deliver quality customer support. I opened several support tickets during the building of my client’s site. All of them were answered promptly, and although I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, the support staff could not be faulted in any way.

That said, if I had the choice myself to build a site using Blog i360 versus a regular WordPress installation, I’d choose good old WordPress every time. Here are some of my reasons.

Search Engine Optimization

I was amazed to discover that Blog i360 doesn’t have any sort of SEO plugin enabled. There are some great WP SEO plugins out there that make adding custom title and meta tags to your site a snap. But you won’t find any of them on the Blog i360 platform.

Further, the Blog i360 system appears to use a single template that is then skinned to achieve something like the layout you’re looking for. Because some skins need hooks for creating curved corners or other similar aesthetic effects, the number of nested divs is simply astronomical, making the page code-heavy and slow to load.

Customization

The proponents of Blog i360 are quick to point out how easy it is to customize, but for anyone familiar with a regular WordPress installation, trying to customize Blog i360 quickly becomes an exercise in frustration.

  1. Custom Themes If you have a custom design or want a fully custom theme for your site, your only option is to pay Blog i360 to develop it for you, or to settle for working with the existing skins to create something less than what you had in mind.
  2. Page vs. Post There is no separate template for pages versus posts, which means that you can’t customize your pages to remove things like date stamps, related posts, meta information and so forth.
  3. No ID-Based Classes In a regular WordPress template, template developers can add classes to the site templates that incorporate the page or post id, allowing the site owner to target specific pages or posts with particular stylings or features. Unfortunately, the main Blog i360 template lacks this core functionality.
  4. Poor Integration of Home Page While the Blog i360 platform does allow you to choose between a static page or a blog page for your home page, if you choose the static page option, you must use a template specially designated by them for the home page. This template allows you to incorporate your blog headers and footers, but does not allow you to incorporate the sidebar. Any sidebar content has to be manually updated after changes are made to any of the blog pages.
  5. I will point out that the Blog i360 system does provide hooks that allow you to add custom html in a number of places throughout the template. This is great for people who know and understand html, but is not exactly what I’d call “easy customization.”

No Development Platform

As a hosted system, Blog i360 requires you to point your domain name servers to their servers in order to take your site live. Unfortunately, there are no provisions for setting up a development environment if, as in my client’s case, you have an existing site that you don’t want to have publicly mucked up while you’re working on it. The system is not inexpensive, and it would seem reasonable for Blog i360 to provide a development environment, even just for 30 days, that could then be moved to the site owner’s domain when development was complete. Instead, they recommend that if you don’t want to disrupt your current site, you purchase another domain name for your Blog i360 site. Of course, they neglect to mention that by doing so, you are likely to suffer a complete loss of search engine positioning, and create brand and customer confusion.

No FTP Access

Although Blog i360 sites are provided with a control panel for setting up email, etc, all ftp functions have been disabled. This is promoted as being more secure (and it is) but it is extremely disabling for anyone who wants to truly create a custom site.

  1. No .htaccess This means that if you do use Blog i360 on an existing live domain, you have no recourse to .htaccess files for setting up redirects from old pages to new.
  2. No Contact Form Script Blog i360 does not have an integrated contact form plugin, and since you have no ftp access, you can’t implement any sort of custom solution either.
  3. No Custom Scripting That kinda says it all.
  4. No Custom Upgrades The Blog i360 system, at the time of this writing, is using WP version 2.5. The current version of WP is 2.8, and the upgrades contain some important bug fixes that a site owner should have the freedom to implement.

Plugins

Of course, no ftp access also means no ability to install custom WP plugins to achieve the functionality you’d like in your site. That would be fine if Blog i360 weren’t lacking in some core functionality such as search engine optimization and contact form plugins.

Summary

The bottom line is this. If you want to build a quality web site that you control and that’s easy to use with little to no technical knowledge, you’re better off finding a decent web host and putting up your own WordPress site. If you’re not comfortable doing your own customization, hire a competent developer to get you up and running. In the end, it will cost you less, you’ll be happier with the result, and you’ll have a better web site.

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