Ghost is a relatively new blogging platform, having only come out a couple years ago in 2013. It started life as a Kickstarter project created by founder John O’Nolan.
It was obvious that the project really resounded with the web development community, because over 5,000 backers ended up participating in the crowdfunding campaign.The £25,000 goal was totally obliterated, as £196,362 was raised in a single month.
Ghost is a website development platform that’s focused on one thing, and one thing only: blogging. No extra features, no bells & whistles, no nothing. Just blogging.
The concept behind the platform is far from a novel idea – WordPress itself has similar roots, but WP has since moved on to become an incredibly versatile content management system suited to all sorts of purposes. Ghost, however, promises that its main focus will always be on publishing content; simplicity and easy writing are the highest priorities.
In short, if you expect Ghost to be able to do everything WordPress does, you’re kinda missing the point. In this post, I’ll take a comprehensive look at what Ghost has become in 2015 and whether or not it stays true to the goals O’Nolan set for it at inception.
I’ll go over the entire publishing system, right from the initial signup to the final post output.
Creating Your Ghost Account
The first step to getting started with Ghost is signing up at Ghost.org. I’m liking the minimal design of the website straightaway. There’s oodles of white space and to me that’s almost always a good thing.
On the next page you’ll be asked how you want to start your blog (remember also to verify your email address). You have two options:
- Ghost Pro – your site will be hosted on the Ghost platform. Your domain will look like yourdomain.ghost.io. Pricing starts at $8/month, but you get a 14-day free trial. This is the method I’ll be using for the review.
- Self-hosted – you can download the code, upload it to your server and use Ghost on your custom domain. I won’t be covering this method in this post, but Medium user has reported not-so-favorably on the install.
After I clicked through to Ghost Pro, I was presented with this screen. Here, you’ll fill out your blog title and the address for it. You have the option to adjust both later on in case you change your mind.
After I selected my blog name and URL, I was redirected to my Ghost dashboard. There was a welcome message up top (it’s dissmissable) that gave me a little bit of info about the usage of the dashboard.
It also directed me to the blue “write a post” button, which was an excellent place to start.
Creating A New Post
Once you hit that blue button, you will now have to setup a new user account for the domain you’ve created (you’ll be required to do this at least once for every new domain).
You can re-enter the blog title (it should be autofilled already from your previous input), key in your name (this will appear at the bottom of every post you publish), enter in the user’s email address, and select a password.
I clicked the “OK, Let’s Do This” button and waited anxiously for the next page to load. After all, this would probably be the most major part of the review.
The whole point of Ghost is an awesome, incredible, simple writing experience. So I knew that if I didn’t love what I saw next, I probably wouldn’t consider my user experience a success.
So I waited … and waited … and waited (my connection can be slow at times, grr!). Then finally, the next screen arrived.
It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was the post editor. Instead, I was presented with a short tutorial on how to write with Ghost plus some Markdown basics.
Note: If you didn’t know already, Ghost doesn’t have a visual editor like WordPress. Instead, you write in Markdown. Markdown is a text-to-HTML writing syntax that basically translates your text into formatted output.
After giving it a short read, I then hit the “+ New Post” at the top of the menu, and my post editor instantly loaded.
My first thought: what?
There’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. No TinyMCE, no toolbar, just some very faint lines that divided three fields on the screen: post title, editor (where you type in your post in Markdown), and a preview of the formatted output.
I knew from the reports on Ghost I had read that the editor would be stripped down, but I hadn’t imagined that it would be quite this stripped down. I wasn’t quite sure where to begin, or how.
I noticed a very tiny icon in the upper right corner of the input field, marked M. It’s just barely noticeable. When clicked, a small popup appears with some basic Markdown syntax info.
Here’s the popup.
Armed with this information, I began to write. I wrote, wrote, wrote, and wrote some more. Basically whatever came to my head. I tried each of the formatting options, learned the shortcuts, and basically just blogged.
I took my time and keyed out every character, because I wanted to feel how the decluttered, stripped-down interface would affect my writing.
First off: if you don’t know Markdown already (like me), then the first few minutes are going to be annoying because you’ll have to click that little ‘M’ icon several times to learn how to bold, italicize, link, bullet-point, or otherwise format your text.
But the syntax is actually surprisingly to learn. The keyboard shortcuts especially were a big help. I was able to get into a pretty good flow pretty quickly.
Once I was done testing, I cleared the page, then restarted writing. I documented about 200 words of my thoughts on the Ghost platform. I then took a step back to think about what I had (so far) enjoyed and not enjoyed about the writing experience. Here are thoughts
What I loved:
- At first glance, the instant preview looks really nice. The white space centered design and the lovely, light typography makes you want to look at it.
- All that white space definitely helped my thoughts to flow better as I wrote. I never realized how much better your mind works when there are no unnecessary icons, toolbars, etc. to clutter up your writing space.
What I didn’t love:
- When you click CTRL + S to save, an annoying little green notification pops up in the corner to let you know the content is saved. Yes, it only stays for a few seconds, but still; the constant appearance of it began to get on my nerves pretty quickly.
- As beautiful as the preview is, it can be sort of distracting to watch text appear on two sides of the screen. I’m not entirely sure which side I should be looking at.
- As I began to fill more than one page, I noticed that the preview and the input aren’t always aligned. That means that some of the content you see in the editor won’t be visible in the preview. For me, this really detracted from the writing experience, and I can definitely see it becoming a significant nuisance when you’re composing long-form content.
Once you’re finished with writing the post, you can either directly hit the “publish” button hidden in the “Save Draft” dropdown, or you can click on the wrench icon next to the drop down to open up some additional settings.
These settings allow you to add a post image, customize the post URL, schedule the publish date, access a full preview, assign the post to a different author, and enter in meta data (title + description). You can also turn the post into a page or feature the post on your website right from those settings.
I configured the settings as I saw fit, then published the post. Here is the output. This time, I’ll let you be the judge. Do you like it? Do you think it’s a little too minimal? Do you hate it? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Other Ghost Features & Settings
There isn’t really much else to speak of here. In Settings, you have a few options like adding a logo, inserting a cover image for your blog, changing a couple readability settings, customizing navigation, etc.
You can also add a new theme to your site. You can either upload a zip file of a custom-coded theme, or grab something from Ghost’s marketplace (both free and premium ones are available).
To be honest, the themes in the marketplace didn’t seem that impressive. Most of them look like iterations of 2-3 design templates with a few colors and screen widgets changed here and there. There’s nothing that really stood out to me, even among the paid themes.
Then again, since Ghost is relatively new, the selection is very limited. Some time down the road, we might well see a thriving marketplace with lots of functional designs. Right now, though, that hasn’t happened.
I’ll conclude my review with a final look at the pros and cons.
- a very obvious (and commendable) effort at stress-free, decluttered writing
- Markdown syntax can be painful to use at first, but quickly becomes easy to learn and use
- the design of the back end is beautiful
- writing experience has some room for improvement
- live preview can be distracting at times because as you type, text is appearing on two sides of the screen
- when you manually save, a distracting little green popup shows up in the corner every time
- live preview and input field aren’t always aligned
- Ghost marketplace is very limited
- dashboard isn’t very functional – a little bit too stripped to be truly useful to the user
Will I switch from WordPress to Ghost in the near future?
Absolutely not. While I definitely believe in and respect what Ghost is trying to achieve, I personally don’t think it’s quite there yet.
But you know what?
That’s okay. Really, it is.
I don’t mind waiting a while for Ghost to achieve its maximum potential. I don’t ever see Ghost as something that will replace WordPress – WP right now is way too advanced and functional for Ghost to even compete, plus it has an incredibly loyal user base. But, I do see Ghost having its own place in the website development world.
A place where users can focus on blogging, and just on blogging.
That’s why I’ll be keeping my eye on Ghost for the rest of 2015, and beyond. What do you think?