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Another Year, Another Guestbook

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Frankly, this is a blog entry I never expected to be writing. I thought once and for all I’d found a solution to my Guestbook needs for my website. Round this time last year I had discovered the folks at Ultraguest.com and signed up for the free version of their guestbook. After seeing it was a good fit for this site, I bought a two-year license for an ad free version, which stripped out the banner ads. Now less than a year later I am out in the cold with a non-working guestbook. To say I'm slightly ticked off, is an understatement. But as this blog will show, I’ve found a replacement guestbook service and things are back up and running. If you are in need of a guestbook for your own site, read on.

A little history is in order here. First off for anyone who doesn't know what a guestbook is, let me explain. The guestbook is a place where visitors to a website can leave comments about the website for both the webmaster and other guests to read. The entries are typically displayed in reverse chronological order from newest to oldest. Most guestbooks are hosted on a third party site and are brought into a page of your website using some HTML code and something called an iFrame. The iFrame is sized to fit the imported content.

This site was first created in Apple’s iWeb software. There was no such thing as a guestbook or blog commenting in the first version of iWeb. So for the first year of this site, there simply was no guestbook. Version 2 of iWeb added blog commenting. I manage to get a blog up and running disguised so it appeared to the end user like a guestbook. Blog comments substituted for guestbook entries. To the end-user they looked identical. I had many people post questions in that “fake” guestbook asking me how I did a guestbook in iWeb. The only problem was Apple's blog commenting system was an in-house effort using Javascript, that to put it kindly was half-baked. For the commenting to work at all you had to be a MobileMe member, because the Javascripts were hosted on MobileMe. The problem with that is there were several MobileMe meltdowns and some of my comments disappeared forever. Once this happened to me the first time I began backing up my comments, but there were some I never did get back. The other problem was notification system did not use email. Instead it put an icon on the application badge for iWeb showing how many new comments you had. The only problem was this built-in notification system was flaky too. Sometimes weeks or months would go by before I’d get the badge on the icon notifying me of any new comments. Very frustrating to say the least.

Last year about this time I added the Ultraguest guesbook. At this point Apple was allowing you to implement third-party guest books to your pages using an HTML snippets tool. This HTML snippet allowed you to ad code for what is called an I-frame. This is where you insert custom HTML into an area on your page, to allow that portion the page to be a window to the outside world and bring in all or part of another webpage and display it on your webpage. Ultraguest gave you some HTML code that allows you to your personal copy of your guestbook within a frame on your iWeb page. I'll Utraguest also allowed you to customize the appearance of your page to make it blend in better with the theme of your own webpage. Another nice feature was a guest map. This customized Google map purported to show pins were representing the locations of anyone who had signed your guestbook. They used the poster’s location as determined by Google. The only problem was in practice it was flaky. My former boss signed my guestbook and instead of showing him in Cambridge Mass, his pin was out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere. Perhaps he had going fishing that day, but I don't think so. The guest map feature not working wasn't a real big deal breaker for me. It was a nice touch, but not essential/ What I really liked about the Ultraguest solution was the email notifications. This is how most traditional guestbooks other than Apple’s worked. When someone signed your guestbook you're sent an email notifying you that you had a new comment. My guestbook was curated, meaning I had to approve the comment before it got posted. In theory this helps avoid SPAM and wacky posts. The last thing I REALLY liked about the Ultraguest guestbook was their tech-support was stellar-at least at first. Then about three months after I signed up for the service I found out that their tech support was no longer answering emails or responding on their support forums. This was a big switch since they've been very responsive up to that point. I figured after a few weeks they would hire a new tech-support person and things would be back to normal. This turned out to be an optimistic assumption. Still I didn't worry too much, because the service was working like a charm and I was getting prompt notification emails of all my new guestbook postings. Or so I thought...

“Fifth

One of the features to look for in a Guestbook is the ability to customize the appearance to make it look like the theme of your website. The Smart Guestbook was the most customizable Guestbook I have tried so far. It wasn’t totally intuitive, but a little experimentation brought the desired results and remeber you should only have to do this setup once.

About three weeks ago I was talking to a friend and he asked me why I didn't approve his guestbook comment. I was puzzled because I didn't get a notification email telling me he’d made a comment. I looked in the email folder for my guestbook comments and there was nothing for the last couple months. I then logged in to the Control Panel for Ultraguest and found his comment. It had gone into the queue for review, but since I'd never gotten any email notification I never bothered logging in and approving his comment. Now while I didn't worry about tech-support shuttering its doors, I was very concerned about the email notification not working. To me this was a sign that Ultraguest was running on autopilot (or worse life support) for unknown reasons. Chances are they may have just closed their doors. I was very concerned because suddenly one day their servers might simply shutdown and all my comments would disappear again. Not wanting that to happen, I began searching for a new guestbook service and found one called Smart Guestbook. Several people that had formerly used the Ultraguest guestbook and had switched over to Smart Guestbook and had nice things to say about it. Now they didn't offer the guest map feature, but it didn't work right anyway. And they didn't have quite the level of tech support presence on their site that Ultraguest did in their heyday, but then again Ultraguest wasn't responding to their tech support request at all. So it looked like Smart Guestbook was the smart way to go.

“Fifth

The customizable message (including a custom image) the user sees when they successfully post a message is a nice touch the Smart Guestbook brings to the table.

I have been using the Smart Guestbook for about a week now. It is free to sign up for, and then you can pay an extra $15 fee to have the banner ads removed. I'm a little ticked off because I did this with Ultraguest for two years and I still have a year to go on that. At this point who knows if Ultraguest will even be around in another year? In any event all of my comments, including the archived comments, have been moved over to the new guestbook. There is no longer a separate page with archived comments from my iWeb and now Ultraguest days. I imported all of them into the new guestbook. These older entries have a header that says "Archived Guestbook item: XXX" where XXX is the number of the comments based on the original post order. There is also an original postdate showing when the comment was originally posted to iWeb or Ultraguest. I found that the Smart Guests guestbook actually had a few more customization features to help make the guestbook look like it's an integral part of my site. The customization was not exactly intuitive or easy, but now that is done I am happy with the look. This guestbook also has a custom message that gets displayed after somebody successfully posts a comment. Once again it was a a nice touch, but not an essential. I was quite happy to find that when I was reposting my archived messages, the email notifications arrived within a minute or so the posting. So the email notification system seems to work well. One of the things I like about this method of notification is I get the email even if I'm traveling. I can deal with things right on my iPhone or iPad.

So fingers crossed this guestbook will be more reliable and last longer than some of the prior solutions. If you're a regular visitor to this site and haven't posted a comment in my guestbook yet, please try the new one out. I really do like to hear peoples opinions of the site. Depending on how busy I am, it may take a day or so for your comments to be approved. If for some reason it takes longer than that, please use the "Contact Me” link to send me an email telling me what the problem is. But we're not going to think negative thoughts. I'm hoping that the third times a charm and that this guestbook will serve us well well for the foreseeable future.

SOME RELATED LINKS:

  SMART GUESTBOOK - Here is the link to Smartgb.com, whose Guestbook is in use on the site.

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