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How to Decide How Many Columns are Best for your Blog

‘How Many Columns is it best to have on a blog?’

Now there’s a question that must be in the top 10 that I got asked in 2005. It’s one of the biggest dilemmas that bloggers tackle when putting together a blog.

There are of course no right or wrong answers to the question. I’ve seen wonderful two, three (and even one and four) column blogs that have met the goals of the blogger. Really it’s a question that needs to be asked on a blog by blog basis.

Warning, Tangent Ahead:

WardrobeAs I sit here pondering this question my mind goes back a couple of months to the day when we had a sales person come to our home to give us a quote on wardrobes. V and I had in our minds what we wanted in terms of design – we’d even drawn lovely pictures and diagrams to make her job easier!

But our wardrobe consultant (she was much more than a sales person as it turned out) had other ideas. She didn’t want to look at our designs – she wanted to look at our clothes. She spend the first half of our consultation purely measuring the space our clothes took up in our current wardrobes. It wasn’t until she had a good picture of this that she started to build a design. The design that emerged was, as a result, much more functional than the ideas we’d had previously. Once she had the basics in the design she asked to look at our ideas and was able to incorporate a few of the more cosmetic ideas we’d had.

Rather than starting with design elements she started with questions of function.

While we had all kinds of cool ideas for how we wanted our wardrobes to look, we’d forgotten that wardrobes existed for another purpose – to keep clothes in.

Sometimes I wonder if bloggers could learn a thing or two from this way of thinking when it comes to blog design.

As tempting as it is to come up with that cool design – it’s important to step back from the details of how it might look and ask some bigger questions before you go too far into the design process. Rather than starting with the ‘how many columns?’ question there are other important things to consider first.

1. What Design Elements Do you Want to Include in your Blog?

In a similar way that measuring clothes is important when designing a wardrobe, perhaps a good exercise for bloggers is to measure the size and space needed for the elements you want to show on your blog. Of course you’ll want to include content and a title – but here’s the start of a checklist for things that you might want to include (this is not a definitive list):

  • Contact Details
  • ‘About’ or Bio Details/Photo
  • Advertising (contextual, CPM, text links, Blog Ads etc) – with these try to think about the sized ads you ideally want to include.
  • Affiliate programs (image links and text links)
  • Archives by Categories
  • Archives by Date
  • Polls
  • Logo
  • RSS Feed Details/Subscription Buttons
  • Newsletter Signup
  • Search Feature
  • Blog Roll
  • Stats Buttons
  • Copyright statement
  • Disclaimers
  • Links to Webrings and other services
  • Acknowledgments to designer/blog platform etc
  • Recent Comments List
  • Recent Posts List
  • Links to older Key Posts
  • ‘Now Listening to’ or ‘Currently Reading’ lists
  • Amazon Wishlist
  • Paypal/Donation/Tip Jar button
  • Links to your other Blogs
  • Flickr photos
  • Links to other services or products you have to sell
  • Link to Your Shop

2. Prioritize

Once you’ve got a list of what elements you want to include it’s a good idea to prioritize them. In doing this you might consider asking some of the following questions:

  • Which are ‘must haves’ and which are negotiable – at times do a spring clean of my sidebars and realize I have a lot of fluff that is not really necessary and just clutters things.
  • How important it is to have each element in a highly visible place? (ie some might be less important and could be put lower on the page).
  • Can some of these things simply be links to other pages rather than on every page (ie ‘about’ or biographical information can be included in sidebars on every page but it can also be linked to as I do here at ProBlogger.net).

3. Position

Once you’ve answered some of these questions you can begin to think about positioning. While this post is about columns and sidebars it’s also worth considering whether some of the elements listed above can actually be moved into other positions in your design including:

  • Footers – some information that is not vital to be seen can be incorporated into the bottom line of a blog. This might include information like copyright notes, stats counters, links to your other blogs etc.
  • Menus – a menu at the top of your blog can be an effective way to free up space in your sidebar/s. This can either be a single horizontal line of links (for example it might include ‘about :: contact :: RSS :: home ‘ etc) or it could be a more complex menu system or arrangement of links (for example I have a lot of my keyposts in my top menus – this not only frees up my sidebars but features some key posts prominently).
  • Inline – some elements might even be able to be included inline into and around your posts. For instance instead of putting a ‘recent posts’ section in your sidebar you could put it under your posts in individual templates. Similarly you might put a ‘subscribe to newsletter’ link above or below comments etc. This is an especially good technique for advertising as ads tend to work well closer to content than in sidebars.

At this point of the design process I usually start to draw out what a design will look like and where different elements might fit. I usually use a whiteboard for this. I know some people who do this mapping out freehand with a pen and paper and others who do it on their computer using either design software or even just in photoshop or word.

4. How Many Columns?

After considering the above 3 questions you are now ready to tackle the question of how many Columns. If you’ve put put as much as you can in a top menu and footer but still have quite a few important things that you want to be above the fold (visible to visitors without scrolling) then you might need to consider a third column. If you don’t have much you might be able to get away with just the two columns and have a blog that is a little more open and clean.

Once again – try to actually draw it visualize it by drawing it in some form. As you do experiment with a variety of ways of incorporating everything. I try to come up with at least three options to choose from.

At this point I usually go to a designer (I’m hopeless at design) and show them my ideas. I find they are most appreciative of giving them details of what you want included but also when they’re given a little creative license and freedom to find their own way to fit everything in. This will vary from designer to designer.

Usually pretty quickly into the process with the designer it’s pretty obvious as to what the blog’s format will be and the question of how many columns is actually answered.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Zach Inglis says:

    I’ve just coded up my new redesign and I chose 3 coloumn layout.

    Well, I say 3 coloumn, for the homepage, it’s 3 coloumn, for the rest of the pages, it’s 2 coloumn. There’s a lot of data on the first page and I like 3 coloumn layouts too.

  2. Joe says:

    I chose one major column with a sidebar. I feel this gives me the most space for the content of my articles (such as they are).
    If the article is long enough to go below the fold, there is still plenty of room for advertisements in the sidebar.
    Just my 2 cents worth as a beginner. This may change as I progress, but seems to work for now.
    Joe

  3. karli says:

    Also…I’d like to add, that if you have a long page, it’s probably a good idea to keep the main content item readable in just 1 column. There’s nothing worse than sites that you need to scroll up and down on to read just one block of text.

    Never substitute ‘intuitive functionality’ & ‘common sense design(ie left to right, top to bottom etc)’ just because you think something ‘looks nice’. It will more than often drive visitors away.

  4. Ozh says:

    The real point I pay attention to, no matter how many columns I use or if they are on left or right hand : make sure that in source, the main content shows up first, and after this, the columns content.

    For search engine, this is important, as they give more value to content and keywords that are near the beginning and near the <title> tag.

  5. Garri says:

    Excellent post Darren!

    One of the things I love about your blog design is the way you’ve skilffuly blended 3 and 2 columns. The 3 menu boxes as header gives the impression of 3 columns but main content below is 2 columns.

    I also like it because the 3 menu boxes, apart from being useful, actually become part of the branding of your site.

    Hope you don’t mind but I have taken this approach in my blog design, soon to be launched, because the content and navigation of that content calls for it.

  6. Dave says:

    Great post Darren, with plenty to think about in terms of site requirements vs. site design.

    Its important to look at what you’ve got to present to the user rather than considering how you want your site to look and trying to fit the content into it.

    I personally find the three coloumn layout a little cumbersome to read, and prefer 2 column layouts, but I can see why they are needed when sites have a huge amount of content and need to give the user an easy way to navigate it.

  7. Dan Marques says:

    My personal favorite is a two column website with an indepth header (like the one on problogger) that has a ton of links. Ad placement seems to be the hardest and most overlooked issue in blog layout and design (at least from my perspective).

  8. moonrk says:

    Great post Darren. As a new blogger, I find your web site very valuable.

    I was using a three column layout at first, so I could put an advertisement banner in the third column. The third column was using up a lot of space just to place an ad there, so I redesigned using a two column layout and horizontal ads throughout the blog. I think it looks good and is quite functional.

    My only mistake is that in the source, my body content doesn’t show up first, I didn’t know it mattered for the search engines :\ Thanks for the tip Ozh.

  9. Ivan Minic says:

    Another very good post :)

  10. Jeremy says:

    Like Garri said, I too love the 3 boxes (columns) at the top of the blog to highlight different posts. When I saw this blog’s design I knew I wanted to incorporate the 3 box header for my office humor blog.

    I use the popularity plugin to pull up the most popular and put that in the center, but have found that the most popular rarely change since I get MANY clicks on those which then makes them more popular. So the highlighted posts in the 3 box format definitely attract clicks (haven’t had much luck on the affiliated product links on the right box on my blog).

  11. Kashif says:

    I have a background of working with portals and content based sites so I am used to 3-4 columns on a page. While most of wordpress themes are 2-col, I really like the lightCMS which I have implemented on http://www.apnjijobs.com

  12. ed dickau says:

    I need a 4 (equal column) minima black template fro blogspot that will accomodate a library of Widgetbox developed panels…literally it will be my resource library. Ed.

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