Blogging Platform Comparison: Ghost vs. Jekyll vs. Medium

01 July 2014

I'm now halfway through my New Year's resolution to blog for a year. For this checkpoint, I wanted to review the different blogging platforms that I tried to help anyone else who's thinking of starting a blog.

To give some background, I started the year completely from scratch. On New Year's Day I bought a domain, and only then began to look into different platforms to help me create the blog. I had three main requirements when looking:

  1. I wanted a solution that was not very intensive from a tech perspective to set up and maintain because I wanted to focus on writing.
  2. I wanted a solution that was very customizable and would allow for add-on features (e.g. analytics, custom HTML / Javascript, etc.).
  3. I wanted a solution that would allow me to draft posts offline.

First Step in the Journey: Ghost.io

Ghost.io is a new blogging / publishing platform that started off as a Kickstarter project in 2013.

Ghost emphasizes both ease of use and customizability, which was very appealing at first. The design of their online, hosted version was sleek and minimalistic.

Ghost offers two versions. One is a hosted version, i.e. one where you can just log on to Ghost and have Ghost handle all the back-end tech. This version has a monthly fee with a 30 day trial at the beginning. The alternative is that you can download Ghost code and host your own blog, which requires more tech savviness but is free.

Because I was trying not to get bogged down in the tech of hosting my own blog, I went with the Ghost-hosted solution. During my trial month, however, I stumbled over a lot of the kinks of their hosted product, which at that point was still relatively new. The biggest blocker was that I couldn't change any of the code on my blog, which meant that I couldn't implement analytics or tracking code (Ghost has since implemented analytics for hosted blogs). Another blocker was that the offline writing mode was fairly limited and, at that point, buggy.

There is a lot of promise for the product, especially because there are active developers working on the Ghost project, but at least when I tried it, the product was not quite what I was looking for.

In short: If you want a simple solution that's new and sleek but not necessarily that customizable, and are willing to spend a bit of money, Ghost's hosted option is a great choice. If you're tech-savvy and are willing to play around more with the tech, hosting your own Ghost blog is not bad.

The Current Setup: Github Pages + Jekyll

The solution I use now is a Jekyll blog hosted by Github Pages.

Jekyll is a library (by the same guys behind Github) that will generate all the static pages for your blog based off of a set of almost-plain-text files that just need to be organized in a certain way. Github Pages is a hosting service offered by Github where your live site is connected to a repository in your Github account. You can push changes to your repo, and Github Pages will automatically update your live site, usually within seconds. Every Github account gets one Github Pages site for free.

I have to admit that this solution is slightly technically involved. But, Github Pages completely eliminates the problem of hosting your blog, as long as you're already familiar with Github and git version control.

Jekyll is also very easy to set up for somebody who's at least a little bit familiar with coding. All the code is in Ruby and is publicly visible on Github. The instructions on the Jekyll website are generally fairly easy to follow, and I had the basic workings of my blog up and running within an hour. For the most part, Jekyll will handle everything for you if you aren't looking to do anything custom or one-off. What I like about Jekyll, though, is that if you are looking to do something custom, you can wade a little bit into the Jekyll code to figure out how to do it without having to spend too much time diving deeply into the entire codebase.

Moreover, because editing a Jekyll blog is just creating plain-text (really Markdown) files, it means that blogging can be done in my text editor (Sublime Text). Thus, I can fully work offline: I can begin new posts, work on code changes to my blog, and save all my work to later push live, all without internet access. That's a pretty powerful aspect that I've come to appreciate more and more.

In short: If you're somewhat techy and want a solution that's good out of the box with the potential for customizability, Jekyll on Github Pages is great for you.

A Potential Rival: Medium

Recently I began experimenting with Medium, another fairly new blogging platform. Like Ghost, Medium is also sleek and minimalistic in design, but has ambitions of becoming a more serious source of content than merely a collection of personal blogs. At the beginning, it carefully curated its list of who could start a Medium blog, but now it is open to everyone.

Despite having a Jekyll blog, a friend suggested that I look into Medium as a place to cross-post my blog entries. This made sense once I learned about the powerful concept of Collections on Medium. Any Medium writer can begin a Collection on a specific theme, and Collections consist of individual posts following that theme from different writers' Medium blogs. The creator of a Collection becomes a curator of content, and any Medium user can 'follow' a Collection to add its stories to their feed.

Posting to Medium is incredibly simple, mainly because Medium purposefully does not offer a lot of customization. There is only one possible layout, no color schemes, and no fancy add-ons. All you get to do is post individual pieces.

The simplicity makes for a sleek and easy experience, and it puts more focus on the content than on the design prowess of writers. On the flip side, it does mean that Medium has all the control; for example, the only analytics you can get for your blog are through Medium, which is geared towards blog analytics but does not have all the features of, say, Google Analytics.

Cross-posting to Medium was a great idea because the Collections were a new way to publicize my blog posts. Before, any writer could submit a piece to any Collection; if a post was accepted to a widely-followed Collection, it could potentially have reached thousands of readers at once. Some of my pieces garnered an order of magnitude more readers on Medium than on my Github-hosted blog.

I described all that in the past tense, however, because that is no longer true. In late May 2014, Medium announced that all Collections would be closed, and you could only contribute to a Collection if you were first accepted as a writer for one. This puts a huge damper on the discovery aspect of posting to Medium, and, frankly, makes Medium fairly unappealing as either the sole platform for my blog or as a place to cross-post. The long-term impact of this change on Medium's userbase is unclear, but I have to imagine that it encourages readership, but not authorship.

In short: if you want just the easiest way to create a nice-looking blog without any customizability, Medium is the way to go.


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