Public relations pros have long monitored newspapers and magazines for coverage of their companies. Internet-savvy PR people add online discussion boards and Usenet forums to their tracking lists in order to stay on top of rumors that could move their companies’ stock prices or affect sales of their products. Now companies are adding a new species of Web media to their PR radar screens: blogs.

A weblog — or “blog,” for short — is a kind of link-heavy online journal. Weblog diarists, or “bloggers,” post links to news stories or sites they’ve found interesting — generally with a few lines of commentary and explanation to introduce each link. The latest day’s items appear at the top of each weblog. Previous days appear below that, in reverse order, with archives of back issues organized by date.

The phenomenon has soared in the past two years, thanks to automated weblog-publishing systems from Blogger and Userland Software. These tools make it relatively easy for nongeeks to publish their own blogs and reach an audience quickly. As a result there are now hundreds of thousands of weblogs in existence (Blogger alone claims more than 150,000 registered users). Last month, both companies released new products that make weblog creation and maintenance even easier. That should accelerate the blogging trend even more.

The weblog format originated in 1994 when online diarists such as Justin Hall, whose Links From the Underground garnered notoriety for its author’s unabashed soul-baring. Readers of Hall’s weblog would occasionally learn how long it had been since he last had sex or what drugs he had taken that day. Today weblogs tend to focus more on interesting links and less on intimate personal details — though they are still, by and large, heavily infused with the quirks and obsessions of their creators.

Many weblogs are little more than the random musings of introverted souls with too much time on their hands. But others focus on specific topics — and these can be rich sources for up-to-date information on niche topics that aren’t covered well anywhere else. For example, Jessamyn West runs a weblog for librarians and Jim Romenesko’s Media News appeals to journalists and publishers.

The best of these sites attract reasonably large audiences, which means that if they link to your company’s site — or to a news story about your company — you’re likely to notice a spike in traffic. Weblogs tend to attract people based on specific areas of interest, so their readers are, in effect, highly targeted markets. That means blogs can have a disproportionate effect on your company’s public image. In addition, because a lot of blogging activity involves linking to other weblogs, interesting items may be picked up by many other bloggers, creating a snowball effect that can lead to big exposure.

In time most weblogs will probably disappear. Like Tamagotchis, many are just techie toys that confer some short-term prestige but require lots of care and feeding over the long run. Weblogs that aren’t updated every day quickly lose their audiences; keeping your blog fresh and relevant takes a lot of work. (Trust me on this one — I ran a weblog from 1999 to 2000 but discontinued it when I realized I was spending hours every day working on the thing.)

But within specific niches, some weblogs will continue to attract large, highly focused audiences, thanks to the thoroughness of their coverage or the strong personalities of their authors. That means your morning reading may soon include a few weblogs along with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal — if it doesn’t already.

Looking for a few good ones? These sites have been operating for several years, they consistently deliver good tech information, and they seem likely to stick around for a while.

Tomalak’s Realm: Lawrence Lee’s site for Web-design pros provides a reliable, manageable list of links every day.

Camworld: Written by Cameron Barrett, this weblog covers Web technology, website design, and a grab bag of new technologies.

eJournal: Dan Gillmor, the technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, writes this Silicon Valley-focused weblog.

Link: Weblogs Make the Web Work for You

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