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Does Blog Design Matter in an Age of Feed Readers?

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Paolo Amoroso sent me an email this week asking:

Why do you emphasize blog design? After all, many users follow blogs via news readers. Is it known what fraction of users use a news reader as opposed to regularly accessing blog sites?

Good question Paolo. There are a number of factors to consider when answering it.

1. The Rise of News Readers – You’re right that more and more people are using news readers to read blogs. I’m finding that the numbers of readers doing this on all my blogs is on the rise (some more than others). As a result there are more and more loyal readers who can be reading your posts but who never actually visit your site and see its design.

2. RSS Readership vs Actual Visitors Varies – The number of readers using RSS and News readers to follow blogs seems to vary greatly from blog to blog. For example here at ProBlogger the percentage seems fairly high (these days it seems that around 60% of PB readers follow the site via RSS). This is for a number of reasons including the topic (bloggers are a fairly RSS Savvy lot) and I run full feeds and not excerpts (so people can read my full posts without having to click through to the site). However on other sites that I run or work with at b5 the percentage of RSS readers to actual site visitors is much lower (it can be as low at 5%).

3. People Still Visit Sites - While RSS readership will probably continue to increase there are still a lot of readers who visit the actual site and who will see your blog’s design. These groups include:

  • Comment Leavers and Readers – to this point the only way to leave a comment on blogs (or to read what others have written in comments and trackbacks) is to actually visit them. I’ve seen a few people working on ways to run comment from RSS but to this point have not seen anything workable or that has been widely adapted. Similarly, people need to visit sites to participate in polls and other interactive blog features and tools.
  • Feed Excerpts – this isn’t the place for a debate on full or partial feeds on blogs – but the fact is that partial/excerpt feeds are still popular with many bloggers and this means that their feed subscribers need to click through to the actual blog to read full posts.
  • SE users – while news readers are growing in popularity people continue to head to Google, Yahoo and MSN in their millions to find information online and these people click through to your actual site. Their first impression will often be to do with your blog’s design.
  • Referral Traffic - another major source of traffic for many sites is the links that other sites give them. Again, it’s your actual site that visitors will end up on and first impressions count.
  • Bookmarks – whether it be bookmarks on social bookmarking sites like Digg or Delicious or bookmarks in browsers – a lot of web users will visit sites directly in this way.
  • Bloggers – in chatting to a group of bloggers about their RSS reading habits I found that quite a few of them would find things to read via their feed readers but that they wouldn’t read the posts in the feed reader but instead preferred to open it in a new tab on their browser. They would scan their feeds for a few minutes and open up a number of stories that interested them in new tabs to read later. As I heard them talk about this I realized it’s what I do too. The feed reader helps me narrow down what I want to read but I only read it there about 50% of the time and the other 50% I prefer to click through to the actual site.

4. The ‘Average’ User – News readers are being adopted more widely (especially with more browsers and operating systems incorporating them), however I suspect that they are still a way off going mainstream and are still being picked up and used more by the early(ish) adopter who has a techie background. The normal/average web user is still being educated and may never move to news readers. Ask your parents, neighbors and work mates how they find information online and you’ll find the majority of them are using Google and that most of them have not even heard of RSS or news aggregation.

5. Converting Readers to being loyal RSS Subscribers – how do you get someone to subscribe to your RSS feed? I’ve not seen any studies on this so will go from my own experience of subscribing to a few hundred feeds. I generally subscribe to someone’s feed from their actual site (having arrived at it via a search engine, referral link or bookmarking site. Ultimately for me what I look for is content that appeals to my own interests. However I’ll admit that design does impact whether I subscribe or not (it’s not the biggest factor, but it does contribute). Even though I may never see the design again – I guess I make some sort of judgment on how seriously the blogger is taking their blog by how it looks.

I hope these jumbled thoughts are making some sense. Ultimately I can see why some might think design matters less these days (and perhaps it does to some extent), but I still believe that it is important in creating first impressions, drawing people into your content, creating loyalty among readers etc.

But what do others think? Does blog design matter in an age of feed readers?

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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. FrankB says:

    Hi Darren,

    yeah Blog Design still matters and probably will forever. Even if everyone would be using feed readers there’d still be people visiting your blog for the first time, that aren’t signed up (yet). I believe first time visitors alone do justify the work and/or money for a good blog design.

    Cheers
    Frank

  2. I agree, I generally do judge how serious someone is about blogging from the design of their blog. It’s what made me decide to learn more about HTML and upgrade to a “pro” account in Typepad in order to take advantage of their advanced templates editing. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m making my blog (http://www.walmartfiles.com) better-looking one step at a time. Great blog, Darren, I’m addicted!

  3. Marek says:

    I think that the blog design matters even for rss readers if the blog post contains in addtion to text also pictures and adds. The latter will show up as blank in the rss reader.

  4. Josie says:

    I use Sage and I checked off the render feeds in contents area, so I can see the blog itself everytime there’s a new post. I like to see the design of websites because the more I see it, the more details I’ll notice, and the more it’ll help when I have to design a website.

  5. John says:

    As a small blog owner, I find that RSS and email subscribers form a minority of my readers. Many more come via bookmarks or Google searches. So, yes, blog design does matter. And, as you say, it helps with the RSS folks if they drop by to comment or look for old posts.

  6. Jaffer says:

    In one way, you are right, Marek. But there are Rss-Readers like the Flock Browser which render RSS beautifully, showing font styles as well as pictures.

    If a blogger has a beautifully designed website and publishes-full feeds. I personally read the article on the website, just to see how it looks !
    example: http://www.modernlifeisrubbish.co.uk/

  7. Ross Hill says:

    Of course it does! I reckon that most people would discover a blog by its actual website content, and since we judge websites in half a second based on how they look – you won’t be getting many RSS subscriptions at all unless your site looks ok.

    There will always be exceptions and good content can always prevail but the main site is the most important.

    The exception to the exception is well designed sites that have a horrendous redesign. I’ve revisited a number of sites in my RSS subscriptions and they look terrible today, but since I’ve already got the RSS I can keep reading without noticing.

  8. Ronalfy says:

    I am still of the opinion that blog design does matter. It creates the first impression of a site and may entice people to subscribe.

    I do wish more people used the feed icons though. It’s one of the first things I look for when I visit a blog.

  9. Alpesh says:

    Absolutely matters! I think :-) I personally like to see well designed sites and though could not afford custom design, it took me atleast 3 months, before settling in with a good design.
    It sure matters, since subscription and sales have gone up for me :-)

    Cheers!
    Alpesh

  10. Brett says:

    How many of use have connected to a blog only to see the default wordpress theme? I don’t know about you, but that generally leaves me with a slight bad taste and hesitant to read on…

    Just my $0.02, great blog Darren!

  11. Charlie says:

    Interesting read, I must say that I’ve noticed this on many ‘mainstream’ blogs, such as ProBlogger.net, however, for the more individual blogs, and less well known the reading on the actual blog seems much more popular, for example on mine, the most I’ve ever had on feedreader is 4, and now it is at one… Thanks for an interesting article!

    Charlie – http://theapblog.blogspot.com

  12. David Airey says:

    Good content can be missed because of an untidy design.

    The design shows how serious you are, and not just cutting and pasting or aggregating someone elses content.

  13. Here is some more context on my original question to Darren. I have recently started a blog on science communication and popularization in my local language, Italian. It is hosted at Blog*Spot and is based on a Blogger template.

    Don’t laugh, but in my niche, science, users are not much tech-savvy. Many of them — I have a pretty good sample among friends and colleagues — are not familiar with blogs, let alone RSS feeds. So, even a Blogger template looks to them as cool and professional as it can get.

    What I know for sure is that they are focused on content, and appreciate good one. I have received positive and encouraging feedback on my blog.

    So, although I keep my ears open, I am not currently spending much time on tweaking my blog design. I have only modified the Blogger template to add useful link sections to the right column. But the most notable — and appreciated, from the feedback I get — change I did was to add a funny picture of me with a spacesuit (don’t be fooled, it’s just a clever montage; only the face is mine) to the personal profile.

    That said, I still wondered about blog design tradeoffs in other more or less tech-savvy niches and contexts, such as the money making business of professional bloggers. Hence my question to Darren.

    Thanks again for the insightful post,

    Paolo

  14. danieltoh says:

    Hi Darren,
    Yes, I agree that design of blogs do matter in the end. Blog design could also encompass information architecture of the blog, and we all know that this is a critical area for the blog. What’s more, a blog design that stands out will stick in the mind of the users as outstanding. As Tom Peters always emphasizes, designs matter and it also rings true for blogs.

    About readers only reading from RSS, I am sure there always are readers like that, but there are still many people who go directly to the blogs in search of more information, ie. the archives of the blog.
    Without a good blog design, I believe that bloggers will be severely disadvantaged.

    Cheers,
    Daniel

  15. CoversGirl says:

    It definitely matters; a dull or ugly design will generally put me right off. I think one of the great advantages of a unique, attractive design is that it makes your blog stand out and makes it memorable.

    I agree that blog design – or lack thereof – says something about the blogger. When I started blogging, I actually delayed doing any promotion until I’d muddled my way through a template customisation – I didn’t want anyone to see my baby wearing Blogger Generic!

  16. Absolutely design matters! Having said that you should know I’m a designer…but I’m not a designer by accident. I do what I do because I believe in it and my business is successful because others believe in it. Good design of a website or blog is like caring for your home. Not everyone you meet will come to visit you at home but you design your house because…you care!

    I agreed that feed readers are highly utilized for getting info, however, just as I came here to post my comment (thus visiting the actual blog) people do view the actual blog for a number of reasons and a well designed and organized presentation counts. In fact, sometimes I forego the reader and appreciate reading the news right from the source. My feeling is….design your blog, your site, your home, yourself. It reflects who you are.

  17. I’ve got to chime in here too. I’m tickled to see the responses above Darren. Had you asked this question a year ago, I think I would have been one of the few voices screaming “of COURSE design matters”. It’s really exciting to see the value of design being appreciated by those who make the blogosphere what it is.

  18. MattL says:

    Hi Darren,

    I think, like most on here, that there is still a place for design elements. True, as reader methods progress we will probably all have to consider how we want to try to reformat what we put together so that it has teh greatest impact, but I am sure as technologogy progresses so too will the reader capabilities.

    In the same way that the concept of how to pursue advertising revenue through blog readers has had to address the rise of RSS readers, so too I suspect will design elements be introduced into the reading pane.

    For the time being however, I feel that it is more important than ever to concentrate on providing useful content. That way, you will still get decent subscriber numbers with which to position new ideas as they come along…

    Cheers,

    Matt

  19. Joy says:

    I do think that blog design matters because, unfortunately, people tend to judge based on the cover of a book (even though we’re told not to). I think it has much to do with, like you said, how much we perceive the blog owner to care about his/her blog or site.

    And about the RSS thing: I have to explain it to my boyfriend every time he sees me browsing through my bloglines, and he’s pretty tech savvy. So I’m thinking mainstream integration of RSS is a ways off.

  20. Andreas says:

    Yes. I think that design is one of the more important parts of a blog (css designer). But if you take a look at successful blogs (problogger.net), great looking design is perhaps not what makes them successful blogs, it is their content. I think however that users will still browse the web and read blogs in their browsers, I do ;).

    I like design very much, and perhaps i spend to much time designing my blog. I think it’s really worth having a site that users feel comfortable reading, so take some time learning xhtml and css and you can do almost whatever you want with your blog when it comes to design.

    Great design also adds a feeling that the content or the rest of the site has potential. The first time i visited technorati, i really though, these guys are focused on what they do because they took time aside to design their site.

    Good post Darren.

  21. Rhea says:

    Great topic. I ‘ve been wondering the same thing. I think that although a lot of folks are using RSS readers, I also know that anyone I speak to among my friends (all computer users) have never heard of an RSS reader. Also, my target audience, baby boomers, does not likely contain a large number of RSS readers. So to my mind, design will continue to matter for a long time to come.

  22. UKStevieB says:

    Like most of you I only use my reader to peruse, I like to go to the actual site to read an article I find interesting, so for me the design matters.
    I think it is also good to have a nice design for your site for your own mental benefit, in that you “feel” better about it, just as you feel good to have a nice home to invite people to.
    Also, just as you would want visitors to your house to feel happy to come again, so to you wish for your site readers to feel they would like to visit another time. Obviously a nicely put together blog will help in this.

  23. Barb says:

    I think blog design matters. I subscribe to the ones I enjoy through my browser. I tried feed readers and found that’s no fun; I enjoy seeing from where the material is coming. Some blogs are total turnoffs because of their design.

  24. I wrote about the benefits of web page vs. feed a few weeks ago. Long story short, feeds just aren’t that great.

  25. Tyler Ingram says:

    I like the design of a site over the RSS feed. Sure I subscribe to feeds that i would read on a regular basis but I am always going back to the site and reading past posts or reading comments.

    Layout is a big thing. If it is easy to navigate, the content is displayed and not obstructed by ugly ads (there are ugly ads out there) and if it is layed out nicely I definately will come back to it.

    Besides if I see a feature on a site that I like, I will look at using that feature on my site and i would then use the other site as a template. So it has to be easy to read and easy on the eyes.

  26. Blogworks says:

    Every time I’ve redesigned one of my blogs, click-throughs and revenues from that blog have improved. In my experience, it’s one of the best ways to improve AdSense revenue. Ad placement was one area of improvement, but I think a better-looking blog gets more respect and more time from its readers.

  27. Samuel Nova says:

    See, some people left comments here. Guess they all went to the site :-)
    I don’t know about other readers, but I’m using an web browser based RSS reader (Let us call it Bloglines). When I see there are new posts on Problogger.net then I read the headline, maybe a few lines and then if it got any interest for me, then I open that post in the another tab and moves on to next entry in the feed. When done with the feed then I do read the content of the posts, all from the site. So I do get to the site and if the design would have been something annoying, well, then I would not return.
    Another thing, you can also just send out summary of the posts in the feed and then if people want to read it, then they have to go to the site (FeedBurner can help there). But even if it is an interesting post and you give it all in the feed, then people might want to go and check out the comments.
    So I vote for design is important.

  28. Maria says:

    Yes, I think design does matter.

    Like you, I also use RSS to find posts I want to read. In many cases, I then read the post in my Web browser window. Once on the article page, I’m more likely to read all of the content, link to it, and leave a comment. However, if a site’s design is poor and difficult to read or so full of advertising or other junk that I have difficulty following content, I’ll read the whole article in my feed reader without linking or commenting. That said, I think that the number of subscribers should not be used as an excuse for poor site design.

  29. Ana says:

    Yes! This is something I’ve been arguing about with several of my well-meaning mentors who’ve been trying to convince me that design doesn’t matter, only content does, etc. Design *matters*! I love a beautiful, well-designed, user-friendly, content-rich site. The design will attract a reader’s eye, and the content will keep them there. That’s what I want for my first site and blog. And if that means taking the time to learn HTML, CSS and all the other bells and whistles, that’s what it’ll take. It’s my business, I’m taking it seriously. Darren, you’re a gem.

  30. Greg O'Byrne says:

    A good design should enhance the experience.

  31. Mobile PC says:

    Blog design does matter for most of blogs but for really brilliant ones it doesn’t matter because readers love posts of the blogger anyway.

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