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The 5 Keys to Blog Usability

This guest post is by Neil Patel of Quick Sprout.

The user is king. That’s what a lot of pundits are saying these days, from usability experts to SEO gurus and content marketing pros.

Actually, it’s always been true, and it’s why the mantra “content is king” has always been so important. Content is exactly what users wanted. Naturally, you should give them what they want.

But content isn’t enough today. Total user experience must be baked into blog content if you want to make it bigger and better so that you stand out and dominate in your space. These five elements of user experience are essential to doing just that.

1. Navigation

When it comes to a site heavy with content like a blog, navigation is essential. The primary job of navigation is to lead the user around the site. When it comes to a blog, this is especially important. The goals are as follows:

  • New content should be available and obvious to users. They shouldn’t miss out on anything.
  • New users should be able to understand in a short period of time what content is exactly available.
  • Users should know how to find the content they want. They are looking for answers, and it’s your job to get them to the relevant content.
  • Older content should be available to users who liked newer, related content.

In the end, it comes down to putting the content where your users can find it. And the number one navigation strategy rule is this: the navigation should never change even though new content is being added.

Let’s deal with a couple of typical navigation problems: finding old content and keeping users reading.

A blog that is just a few months old will not run into navigation problems. There just simply isn’t enough content. As that blog grows, however, and new content is added, you will begin to run into navigation problems, namely older posts are getting lost and forgotten.

That’s not good.

The common way to handle this is by adding a Monthly Archives widget to the blog. That is probably the worst possible way you can handle this problem.

 

Instead, put your content in proper categories and use a workable search system.

The Popular Posts sidebar widget is a great place to start. And instead of allowing the plugin algorithm to decide which content should go there, you make the choice. It’s better to choose based upon your experience and what your analytics are telling you, than to let the machine guess.

The same is true for adding older posts as related material at the end of posts. This is how Smashing Magazine does it:

Internal links are also another great way to improve the navigation of older posts. This way you can give them related material that’s immediately relevant to what you are writing about … and may even expand on a point.

There are two ways of doing this correctly. One is to make the links organic to context, so that they flow, like I did in my 8 Things Blog Readers Want More Than Just Content:

Or you can highlight the post by suggestion it as additional reading, like James Aultucher does in his 10 Things to Do When They Don’t Call post:

 

One way you don’t want to link to older posts is like they sometimes do at Freakonomics:

 

That is neither helpful for SEO purposes, or to users. It’s bad user experience. You are not giving users any indication of what is behind the link, and that slows users progress.

The goal is to keep them reading. Once someone lands on your site, you want them to stay. Otherwise you have high bounce rates. That’s why a Popular Posts or Recommended Reading plugins are essential.

Categories are useful for navigation when done right, but I don’t use categories because my tests have proven they aren’t useful. But perhaps they make more sense for your blog. If that is the case, you always need to keep three rules of thumb in mind when creating them:

  • Keep the number of categories to a bare minimum: Remove categories that have fewer than five posts until you can fulfill your category authority plan and create more content in those silos.
  • Use keywords that explain what the site/blog is about: A user should be able to look at your list of categories and understand immediately what the site is all about. Here are some categories I would use: Advanced SEO Techniques, Web Analytics, Digital Marketing, and Entrepreneurs. In fact, your category labels should come from your SEO keyword research.
  • Use categories only when you can justify them as being useful to help users find content: They should be intuitive and easy to understand. A confusing category list can sow distrust in your user.

Here’s a poor example of category use by Dumb Little Man:

Copyblogger demonstrates a clean, unique, and simple way of using categories:

While categories can prove useful, you should always test to see if they are helping or hurting you.

2. Speed

In a 2009 Google study, it was reported that a 0.5 second delay in page-load time caused a 20% drop in traffic. Amazon experienced a similar drop in traffic and revenue due to a fraction-of-a-second load delay.

More recently, Google has reported that slowing down search results by as little as 400 milliseconds will actually increase dropped searches from 0.2% to 0.6%.

That’s a huge drop in traffic for 400 milliseconds, so it pays to minimize the page speed. This is usability 101. It forces you to always ask if that new feature you want to embed on your page is worth the drop in load times and traffic.

You might like the flashy features, but they can dramatically slow down site performance. And don’t get fooled by the fact that internet connection is speeding the web up. How much site load speeds impact user experience will always be important. Just look at how it impacted Google.

I’ve covered the topic of speed extensively in How Design Your Blog for Awesome SEO, as have authors here at ProBlogger.

3. Focus

When it comes to creating a user experience that will make your blog better, the focus of your blog is equally as important as any of the onscreen, tangible things we have been talking about.

For example, page load speed and conversion are both actions that can be measured. Focus is less tangible, but highly important.

Let me share some common mistakes people make to show you what I mean:

  • Trying to please everyone: A blog that thinks everyone is its target user is going to be a miserable failure.  But you can’t simply pick an industry and then think you are narrow enough in your focus. For example, saying that your target audience is people who love food is still too broad, especially if you want to dominate that space. You have to pick a unique, narrow segment of that broad space. People who love hospital food may be a little too narrow, but you understand what I’m saying.
  • Confusing your content with your context: Sometimes you can attract the wrong audience by giving them the wrong content. If you run a social media blog, for example, but write content about postcards, or something totally from left-field, like home-made beer, you might get your user to come to your site, but he or she won’t stay.
  • Hiding behind everyone else: Another focus mistake occurs when you copy someone else’s success and provide nothing new or unique to the conversation. Say you love what Seth Godin is doing, and think you have some worthy things to share. Your blog will flounder if you don’t define some way to make you different than Godin. You just simply can’t compete.

A good, focussed blog strategy has the following elements:

  • Narrow definition of what you are trying to accomplish: As I mentioned above, your blog should be focused on delivering content that fits into your definition of cornerstone content.
  • Narrow definition of your target user: Your defined cornerstone content should fit perfectly with your defined target user. These should really mirror each other.
  • Unique selling proposition: Next, your focus should be on something that your competitors don’t provide. And this should be a focus that you regularly highlight. The harder you can make the focus uncopiable by your competitors, the longer you will be able to dominate the space.
  • Cornerstone content creep: A narrow focus will also help keep you from straying too far off topic when it comes to creating content. A warning sign that you may be experiencing cornerstone content creep is that your category list keeps growing.

Creating a focused strategy begins with user research and analysis of your competitors. And as you do your research, you’ll come up with a lot of ideas. It’s key that you rank these ideas in order of importance. Keeping just the top two will help you keep your focus narrow.

4. Display

You may not think about display too much, but whatever stage you are going through in your design process, you will need to think about how most visitors will see your layout depending on what screen resolution they use. Remember that you want to give users what they want.

This means that you have to take into consideration height and width and line length. But that’s not so easy. High-resolution monitors have a high screen resolution, which means users get in a habit of browsing in small windows in which the browser window resolution is much smaller.

In other words, we want to know the size of people’s browsers’ content windows.

So your first step is to figure out who your average user is.

Look at your Google Analytics and see the average screen resolution of your visitors. This data will also tell you about their preferences and behaviors. Then see which user is staying on your site longer, and start to design user display size toward that average profile.

In an older study in which over 18 million screenshots above the fold on browsers, most users will be able to see content that is located within a 500px by 800px space. Over 80% will see the content in a display that is 1000px wide, while the remained browse in a display that is 1250px wide.

The moral of the story is that you need to design displays for your average user. For most, that means the layout will be less than 1000px wide. To give you an idea of what you can do with that, check out The Big Picture Blog by the Boston Globe.

5. Readability

Readability is all about what your user reads on the screen. And the golden rule to good readability is this: the easier your content is to read, the better.

If you want to see how your blog ranks when it comes to readability, run it through the readability test. In the meantime, here are the basics behind good readability:

  • Contrast font color with background color: This is critical, because it’s easier to read font text when its color contrasts with the background on which it appears. Black text on white background is the most basic and easiest to read:

     

    Just so you can see how awful a bad contrast can be, check out this pink on blue page:

     

    Also, check your site with Vischeck to see what colorblind people see when they visit.

  • Break your copy into chunks. Large blocks of text will discourage people from reading.
  • Use bullets. 
  • Keep your paragraphs short. 
  • Keep your columns narrow so the eye doesn’t have to travel across the page too far: The best line length is between 60-80 characters. This metric should remain constant across different browsers and screen resolutions.
  • Avoid backgrounds that are busy: Think of MySpace and how awful those pages were to read. Talk about distracting!

     

  •  

  • Keep it simple: From your home page to an article page to your contact page, a user should know quickly what the site is about and what the main goal is of that page, wherever they are.

  • Keep the font style clean: A sans-serif font is the easiest to read on the web. Serifs are the little hooks at the end of letters in fonts like Times New Roman and Courier New. Helvetica and Calibri are good sans-serif fonts.
  • Avoid tiny fonts: That will certainly cause eye strain and frustrate your user. Font size 12 or larger is optimal.

Blog usability means content usability

It used to be that content was king. It still is from the perspective of the user. You need to deliver that. But it’s not enough these days. Your readers want a good experience, too.

In 2012 and beyond the user is king, and so you need to design your blog with these usability elements in mind: navigation, speed, focus, display, and readability. It’s essential to get these right if you want to attract and keep more visitors and create a link-worthy blog.

So, what other elements of usability do you feel are important for creating a killer blog? Share your perspective in the comments.

Neil Patel is an online marketing consultant and the co-founder of KISSmetrics. He also blogs at Quick Sprout.

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Comments

  1. Excellent post! I’ve been thinking of revamping my blog to be more useable and this is an excellent starting point! Many Thanks!

  2. Hi Neil,

    Keep your design clean, clear and uncluttered. This makes your blog content digestible, because readers won’t waste time wading through bells, whistles and other distractions. They get down to the meat of the matter, your content.

    Awesome tips here. Focus. Keep your design focused and your content focused around 1 or 2 categories. Anything more than a few, readers get confused and you will have no consistent, growing readership.

    Avoid trying to please everyone, because you can’t. Write about 1 thing. Find your voice, and stick with it. Consistency wins in this game, and the more easily you can release the fear of criticism – the cause of trying to please everybody – the better your blog experience. Readers who vibe with you will appreciate your view point, and everybody else can exit stage left, or disagree respectfully.

    Thanks for sharing your insight Neil!

    Ryan

  3. Linda says:

    I totally agree. So many people get stuck on “create content” and don’t think farther than that.

    Mind if I add a #6? Browser compatibility.

    I work with small business owners and it’s amazing how many have websites (usually built in dreamweaver or frontpage) that look good in “their” browser, but don’t look the same in “the other” browser. (ie; whatever browser they don’t use.)

    And wordpress users – not using 100 plugins helps with speed. Amazing how many people don’t realize that all the bells and whistles affect performance. Especially on shared hosting.

  4. I’m guilty about not doing enough to improve #4. My header’s too big etc etc. This is a great post though. Reminds me once again to pay attention to the other elements in my blog aside from content!

  5. All of these tips are excellent. In my work, the navigation seems to be the most difficult, yet simplest, task for people. Some try to be too clever, others don’t get the value of making it easier for users to find what they need. Love the tips!

  6. Ravish says:

    Your blog really helps us to know the basis of the blogging which is great to learn from here keep the nice work on sir.

  7. Glynis says:

    Hi Neal

    You have said what I have been thinking. Although the software program Word gives you a wide screen, I know that I prefer to read a blog withing 760px in width at the very most and like it narrower than that really. I have the content part of my blog at 600px. That way, when I want a large picture for the post, it can be done and yet the reader can read across without moving his/her head from side to side. I’m still trying to narrow my definitions of my blog and reader. This may take a while though.

  8. Awesome breakdown Neil. I have tried to implement most of these tenets at my site.

    I have been debating whether to get a Related Posts plugin (was leery to add another plugin), but I think I will try one like Link Within.

  9. Oh, my! I remember well all these problems. It’s not like I have no difficulties now, but it became easier to solve them.

    I guess a good tactic would be to create a “test”-blog and work with it for a couple of months (try out all the advises, available tactics and all). Yeah, it consumes time; but, that’s the best way to get the right idea that will suit you. Well, at least it worked pretty good for me. :)

  10. I think colors have a vital role to play in a blog’s overall usability. Apart from everything else, you also need to pay careful attention while choosing the color scheme of your blog. Different colors have different meanings. Each of them arouse different kind of emotions (and behaviors) in the user. If your chosen colors (for header, content body, sidebar and footer) doesn’t match the requirements of the target audience, you can easily fail to make a cut.

    The time spent by a user on your site depends a lot on how usable your blog is. According to a study, 52% of a blog’s readers didn’t return simply because the color and design of that blog didn’t look good to them. It’s always a good idea to ask your friends and colleagues for opinions on what they like and what they don’t about your blog.

    Thanks for this useful share, Neil.

  11. Daniel says:

    A really great article(post) Neil.

    As I went through all of the items mentioned, I was able to relate to pretty much each and every one.
    That shows how important many navigational and performance areas are, in the broader scheme of things.

    Good navigation and presentation, do make a lot of difference.

    And yes, I have bookmarked this well written article.

  12. As usual, a wonderful post from Neil. The blog is all about the user (reader) and should be designed and arranged with their ease in mind. On another note I’ve been looking everywhere for a popular post or recommended reading plugin. Which do you recommend?

  13. Kent Chen says:

    Good pointers! It really lightens up a lot of grey areas. Nice job!

  14. Bojan says:

    Awesome tips Neil. The fourth point caught my attention. I’ve never really thought about the size and resolution, and had no idea that GA can show me that stuff.
    I guess i will have to do a little research on this matter, and try to optimize it.
    Great read.

  15. Freelancer says:

    “Readability” is import thing in my point of view, Without proper alignment no matter will convey good things.

  16. Jerry Duling says:

    This is good stuff….you have to continue to improve, re-work, and updgrade. I can certainly use. Thanks.

  17. Page load time has become very important. We live in an age where people KNOW the information is out there and they want it as FAST as possible! If your readers cant get it instantly they will run away to the next guy who has a super fast site!

    I used to be “that guy” that would install every new plug-in out there. My sites were so cool! Until I realized that no one actually got to see them because they didn’t stick around long enough to see all the cool features I had, cool features are only cool if people can use them!

    -Chris

  18. Taline says:

    Love this post! My favortie part was about a blog thinking everyone is its audience and trying to please everyone. I think you cannot stay real and publish great content if you do.

    Instead, you have to have a voice and one that is easily recognized as being yours. This may very well mean to not make everyone happy, however, it will usually create great discussion and feedback!

  19. Sarah Kolb says:

    Nothing hammers a point home like great examples of what NOT to do — thanks for the excellent breakdown here and the great visuals! I’m bookmarking this for my IT team for our next discussion on updating our blog.

  20. Morgan says:

    Hey Neil!

    Everyday I try to think of new ways to help improve my blog experience and this post has really knocked it out of the park for me. This has given me a lot of great ideas to implement and even double check to see if I’m an offender. Speed a bit factor so I need to figure that out.

    Thanks for the great tips!

  21. Thank you so much for providing this useful and educational blog post on “blog usability.” This is true that in order to further benefit from “continual blog reader engagement”, bloggers and site publishers must do the necessary footwork of making the content worthwhile. College of Content will be writing a blog post and sending traffic your way momentarily to this specific blog post, in recommending College of Content’s site visitors to comment on this post on ProBlogger. Thanks so much and keep the good content coming!

  22. fowziey says:

    Thanks Neil – I think you’ve covered great keys for bloggers. Anyway usability is only a part of UX (user experience). It’s better to clear both terms first so that we can come out with a completely useful blog. For instance, definitely it’s not useful for readers if we have broken links. Same goes to navigation which is not clearly defined. In other words, we have to make sure all elements in our site are functioning as they should in all environments if possible. So it’s not a matter of which is better or easier when move into decision process (e.g typeface, topic, color, etc).

    From that point of view, I would rather see ‘Focus’ and ‘Readability’ are important to increase user’s experience.

  23. Nice advice, I was trying to improving my Website speed using CSS minify and trying to reduce the quality of the images. But what do you think between informative website or minimalist and lightweight website?

  24. Richard Ng says:

    Hi Neil,

    Great post. All tips are coupled with actual graphical example which is very helpful for newbies. Once question, I know that nowadays ads banners are less effective but most blogs are still have banner ads placements (including mine). Do you think placement of ads will have negative impact to the blog usability?

    Cheers!

  25. Looks like I’m going to have to spend some real time trying to sort out W3 Total Cache so that can make my site faster! I think I will also re-structure my blog’s navigation (via categories) to make it easier to find things and use tags to sort the majority of posts – I’ve noticed that i’m struggling to categorize posts at the moment as it could fit in many areas, and if I struggle then my readers will probably be totally lost.

  26. Lidia says:

    Great tips, Neil. Special thanks for #4. It’s was not so obvious to me that catching most users display resolution works the simple way – by supporting the average one.

  27. Good article. Majority of blog readers are still actually mystified by the process and may not have a clear idea of what a blog is. Recognize the fact that not all are technically savvy and might be wary of active participation such as clicking on anything. This is especially true for new readers as clear information is capable of addressing feelings of discomfort regarding how they expected to make their own posting or how personal information is handled.

  28. Thank you so much for this post. Navigation is always an issue. Sometimes we focus so much on writing content that we forget the second most important point which is presentation of your work. If the reader can’t navigate your site, they’re pretty much one, done and never to be seen again.

  29. Some great tips and in the comments as well.
    My blog also needs looking at and i have been guilty of focusing on content too much.
    I only write about bathrooms and plumbing and was thinking of writing about other topics, maybe not now!

  30. Hello Neil, excellent and very effective post. The five main points Navigation, Speed, Focus, Display and Readability are always to be concentrated in. So thanks for sharing such a awesome post.

  31. Surminga says:

    Great post, extremely informative. The number of times I’ve seen a poorly designed site featuring so many bad points but can’t do anything about it.

  32. Maxwell Ivey says:

    Hello; as a visually impaired computer user my biggest usability problem is screen refreshing. You don’t know how aggravating it is to be in the middle of reading a blog post and have the screen refresh kick you back a paragraph or worse to the top of the page. It takes away from the enjoyment of the article and on a long post will sometimes make me just close the page and go on to the next site. thanks for the great posts, Max

  33. Lester says:

    Wow! This is quite the in depth article! I appreciate all the hard work you put in. I cannot believe how much money there is out there on this kind of stuff but things have changed greatly in the past decade. I will pass this article along to a few of my friends who can make MUCH better use of it. I did enjoy the read though.

  34. Lyka Winnett says:

    The mentioned ideas are really a-must to do to improve blog usability. Aside from the navigation, speed, focus, display and readability, I think it’s also important to consider the placing of images, banners and ads in a blog. Make sure that their location doesn’t distract readers.

  35. Once again awesome one by Neil :) In today’s competitive Online Business it is extremely Important to make sure that your Blog/site is clean, clear & crisp to avoid visitors leaving your site, as soon as they come.
    Thanks for all the points, i have actually bookmarked this article just now :)

  36. Heather says:

    This is a great article with fantastic suggestions. Thanks for the info! I must admit, though, that I found myself skimming when I started to hit grammatical errors. I think another “key” that many bloggers overlook is a good proofer.

    “Here’s a poor example of category use by Dumb Little Man…” (I assume you chose this example because it’s a good one, in which case it would be “Here’s an example of poor category use…”)

    But overall, lots of great tips.

  37. Chris Barker says:

    Hi Niel! My words of appreciation might come late but i want to acknowledge your impressive write-up. I have read a lot of reports on blogging and most of it talks about “Content”. Now somebody actually delivered a piece on how to develop blogs that give total user experience. It’s even nice to read that you took into consideration color blind person in choosing criteria of readability. I do agree in the 5 things you should try to look into when making killer blogs-these 5 elements improves a blog functionality-blog usability. I will sure to use your suggestions into my own blog. I hope you would tackle handling chunks and old comments as well someday…impressive!

  38. Mary Hallman says:

    Thanks a lot for this great article Neil Patel.I really appreciate this post. I’ve been looking all over for this! “Readability” is really awesome.Great job indeed Neil :)