Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Migrating to Blogger

After a protracted quiet period, I'm rebooting my blog. Applause all around (from the 2 people who stuck around all these years waiting for a new post). As for the reasons I failed at blogging the first time around and what I can do to succeed this time, that will be the subject of a future post.

As a first step in the reboot, I decided to migrate my blog off a self-hosted Pebble/Tomcat setup and onto a free hosted blogging platform where I won't have to spend time and effort on maintenance and software/security updates. This will hopefully free me up to just focus on blogging. After an admittedly shallow search, I decided to give Blogger a try this time around. After going through the migration, I thought I would share what I like and dislike about Blogger so far. This list primarily focusses on my migration experience, configuration and first impressions. Given this is my first post on the Blogger platform, I haven't actually used the blogging features much yet. Here goes.

Things I like about Blogger:

  1. It's free to use with a custom domain registered through Google Domains. Using my own domain name was non-negotiable for me. The fact that I could easily do that for free with Blogger + Google Domains (where all my domains are already registered) made it a win over other hosted blogging platforms.
  2. Blogger integration with Google Domains is nice. DNS configuration for my blog was simply a checkbox in the Google Domains admin which created something Google Domains calls a synthetic record. The rest of the the configuration was within Blogger itself.
  3. I can configure redirects. Some of the legacy Pebble urls needed to be changed to be compatible with Blogger. Broken links would have been a deal-breaker for me. Blogger allows you to specify whether the redirects are temporary or permanent. Also, query string parameters are maintained through Blogger redirects, which is a plus.
  4. I can make "pages". ie. static web pages that aren't blog entries per se. e.g. About me. Pages are not dated and are not included in the RSS feed, etc.
  5. The pre-fab templates look pretty good, are mobile-friendly out of the box and there were multiple template choices that suited my minimalist preferences.
  6. Adding widgets to the sidebar was straight forward. I was able to easily add my StackOverflow badge and Twitter feed.
  7. Adding Google Analytics tracking was as simple as pasting my GA ID into a text box in the settings area of the Blogger admin.

Things I dislike about Blogger:

  1. You can't use a naked domain. When I tried, I got this error message:

    I had to change the canonical domain for my blog from the naked domain to www, which wasn't a deal breaker for me although I would have preferred to stick with the cleaner looking naked domain for the canonical url of my blog. At least Blogger provides a checkbox to redirect the naked domain to your chosen subdomain, www in my case. The most likely reason for not supporting naked domains is that a large scale platform such as Blogger probably has all custom domains resolve to CNAME records pointed to load balancers. These CNAMES resolve to the most optimal load balancer for the requested location. The DNS protocol doesn't support specifying CNAME records at the zone apex. Therefore, naked domains can only use an A record which can only point to an IP address. (and optionally an AAAA record pointing to an IPv6 address). Some DNS providers support CNAME-like functionality for naked domains. This is achieved by the DNS service dynamically resolving the CNAME on the fly and responding with an IP address as though it were an A record, thereby making the whole thing transparent to the client. Amazon calls these Aliases and Cloudflare calls it CNAME flattening. Still others call it an ANAME. But Google Domains doesn't seem to have this feature under any name at the moment.

  2. You can't support https with a custom domain.

    Again, this was not a deal breaker for me as my legacy blog wasn't being served over https anyway. But given the recent trend towards end to end encryption on the web, and efforts to provide free SSL certificates such as LetsEncrypt, it would be nice for Blogger to offer a solution, free or otherwise. If I do want to get this blog on https, I might have to migrate off Blogger. (Proxying through Cloudflare might be an option).

  3. Importing my content was a pain. Fortunately, there wasn't much of it. I had only ever published one blog post which received a grand total of 4 comments. Blogger does have blog import/export support for posts and comments, but the only supported format is Blogger's own XML format. Pebble didn't seem to have an exporter for this Blogger XML format so I ended up cut/pasting my blog post, the 4 comments, and the pages I had created into Blogger's web interface. I then used the Blogger export tool to export the XML so I could spoof the authors and dates of the comments directly in the raw XML and re-import it back into Blogger. It took me several rounds to get all the timestamps/timezones right. I ended up hitting a rate limit on the import function, which forced me to wait 24 hours before attempting another import. The URL paths and slugs that Blogger allows for posts didn't line up 1:1 with my legacy blog stack's paths so I had to set up redirects in order to not break any URLs. I also had to backdate the date portion of the path to match the actual date I published the original on the legacy blog stack. This manual tinkering obviously wouldn't have scaled beyond a small number of posts and comments.
  4. The auto-generated sitemap.xml includes blog posts but not "pages". I wanted to add them manually but I can't see any way to edit or override the auto-generated sitemap.xml. I guess the pages I created won't be in my sitemap :( Also, sitemap.xml is being served with Content-Type of application/atom+xml which I'm not sure is valid, although Google's own webmaster's tools considered the sitemap to be valid.
    Update 2106-04-07: Blogger's undocumented pages feed can be submitted to Google Webmaster's Tools as a sitemap in addition to the auto-generated sitemap.xml. Thanks for the tip @prayagverma!
  5. The custom redirects are limited to internal urls. Some of the redirects I wanted to set up were to outside sites such GitHub repos I have created but I wasn't able to make them work. There may be a sound reason this is restricted, but it was still a let-down given my non-sinister use case.

Though it's imperfect, overall Blogger feels like an upgrade from my self-hosted Pebble stack. So I'm pleased. And now it's time to stop messing with the blogging software stack and start actually blogging!

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