Here is what small business owners in search of a good, cheap marketing tool need to know about blogs. They’re effective, they’re free, and they’re a snap to set up and maintain.

These fast facts come from Janie Hermann, director of technology training at the Princeton Public Library and an enthusiastic blogger. In addition, she is a regular contributor to the Library Garden blog (http://librarygarden.blogspot.com).

Hermann leads a free two-session blog workshop on Tuesdays, October 10 and 17, at 10 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Call 609-924-9529 to register.

This workshop isn’t just for small business owners. Anyone who wants to know what blogging is all about is invited to attend. By the end of the first session all participants will be bloggers, with their own customized blog sites and blog addresses, and their first blog posts.

To step back just a bit, it’s a good bet that anyone not just emerging from a coma has heard the word “blog,” but some may be fuzzy on the details. And with good reason, as these definitions indicate. The Miriam Webster dictionary is quite straightforward, stating that a blog is “a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflection, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.”

Webster refers those who still don’t quite get it to Brittanica.com, which states that “Web log or Weblog is an online journal where an individual, group, or corporation presents a record of activities, thoughts, or beliefs. Some blogs operate mainly as news filters, collecting various online sources and adding short comments and Internet links. Other blogs concentrate on presenting original material. In addition, many blogs provide a forum to allow visitors to leave comments…”

Hermann provides some rationale for setting up a blog and guidance on exactly how to become a blogger:

Why should you become a blogger? “A blog is a way to create a web presence,” she says. “It’s great for small businesses that can’t afford a website. You don’t have to know HTML (the language of website architecture). You don’t have to know web design. You can be hosted free. It’s a wonderful way to communicate.”

One of the people who took Hermann’s first blogging seminar owns a small music school. She did have a basic website, on which she had posted staff bios, but she wanted an easy way to get out current information on classes, events, and staff changes. Blogs are perfect for this sort of frequently updated information.

How can you get started? Go straight to Blogger.com. This site, which Google purchased fairly recently, is completely free and very easy to use. There are competing blogging services, including WordPress, and they have their advantages, including advanced tagging features (more on that later) and URLs — or web addresses — that don’t end in blogspot.com. But, says Hermann, for ease of use Blogger just can’t be beat.

Blogger provides a choice of templates that allow users to personalize the look and layout of their blogs. Choosing a template is the first step on the road to blogging, and it can be accomplished with just a few mouse clicks.

How does content get onto a blog? “If you can use a mouse and a word processor, you can post to a blog,” says Hermann. Blogger presents a Word-like page and users just type away. It has formatting and spellchecking features, and can be edited in just the same way that any word processing document can be. Complete a post, press “publish,” and a blog is created. Unhappy with a post? It can be edited after it is published or it can be deleted entirely.

What about pictures? Hermann’s seminar covers picture uploads. It is easy to add artwork to a blog, she says. Bloggers can incorporate photos they have stored on their computers, can develop their own designs, or can go out onto the Internet in search of illustrations.

Hermann recommends Everystockphoto (www.everystockphoto.com) as an outstanding photo source. The site scours other photo sites, including iStockphoto (www.istockphoto.com) and Flickr (www.flickr.com) for photos that have a creative commons license. This, she explains, is a write-it-yourself copyright that amateur photographers often use. Photos with this type of license are generally free to anyone using them for non-commercial websites. Sometimes the photographers ask that bloggers E-mail for permission to use them, but often they just release the photos with no notification requirements.

Can I blog with my friends and colleagues? Hermann shares Library Garden, whose goal is to “ensure the health and relevance of libraries,” with five fellow librarians. It is easy to add contributors to a blog. Professionals with a shared interest can blog together, as can former roommates and members of a far-flung family. Having more than one person posting can be important in keeping a blog going, keeping a group connected, and adding varied perspectives.

How is blog content organized? Blogger automatically archives all blog posts by date. In addition, bloggers can aggregate content by topic, but, for now, this is a little more difficult on Blogger, and requires tagging.

Tags are subject headings that allow Internet users to easily find blog posts by topic. A blog on North Carolina farmers who are selling free range duck eggs, for example, might have the tags “North Carolina,” “farming,” “free range,” and “duck eggs.” This lets researchers find blog information quickly. Tagging will become more common, Hermann is sure, but is not used too much on Blogger now.

Meanwhile, Blogger blogs are searchable by keyword. Go to an individual blog, on, say New Jersey politics, and type in “Menendez” or “McGreevey” to retrieve posts on those men. The place to search all blogs, says Hermann, is Technorati: www.technorati.com.

How hard is it to get good search engine placement? Blogs also come up on basic Internet search engines. Type Hermann’s blog into Google as one word, “librarygarden,” for example, and it comes up second, right behind a garden store of the same name. That is phenomenal placement, as anyone who has spent thousands to get a mention anywhere within the first 20 Google listings will attest. She says that anyone who consistently posts good information on a blog will not have trouble achieving good search engine placement.

This, of course, is great news for a small company working to boost its visibility at no cost, and with a tiny time commitment.

Are there any pitfalls? If you’re an employee blogging about your company or your industry, you had better be careful, says Hermann. Even bloggers who post controversial material, but try to stay anonymous, have run into serious trouble, typically in the form of a go-straight-to-the-unemployment-line note. It is generally easy for anyone with the right tools to pierce the veil behind which a blogger might try to hide. Bottom line, says Hermann, “Don’t write anything in a blog that you don’t want your boss to read.”

Blogs can be serious business, can boost a business, or can provide a little light relief from business. In a recent entry on Library Garden, Hermann made a slight detour from her blog’s serious mission. It was a rainy Saturday, she was busy preparing for her son, Alex’s, third birthday party, and he was a tad restless. She occupied him with Kneebouncers (www.kneebouncers.com), an incredibly cool toddler website featuring flying, floating, and spinning animals. She wrote about the experience on her blog, thereby providing at least one Princeton-area professional, a newspaper writer, as it happens, with five minutes of fun and a nifty virtual toy to forward on to her granddaughter.

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