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Blog Design for ROI Rule #5: Engage Readers On Archive Pages—Fast!

This guest post is by Gab Goldenberg, author of The Advanced SEO Book.

The purpose of a blog archive page, such as a category page or even the blog homepage, is to maximize the average number of blog posts read by any visitor. The more visitors read on each visit, the likelier they are to become loyal readers and stay loyal.

To maximize the amount of our archive that visitors read, we need to know what content will best engage them and how best to display that content.

That’s what we’re going to cover in today’s post, the latest in our series on blog design for ROI.

First, let’s look at the assumptions inherent in the classic debate about how to display posts on an archive page.

Full posts or excerpts?

This question assumes certain things, and it’s important to point them out.

Assumption 1. You can have one, but not the other

First, the question assumes that we can use either full posts or excerpts, but not both.

This is the case in traditional archive page layouts (typically single-column layouts), where every post is shown the same way, i.e. full posts or excerpts.

That doesn’t have to be the case, though.

Eurogamer offers a great example of a twin-column layout. Here’s what their 3DS archive page looks like:

Eurogamer layout

One easy-ish way of showing both full posts and excerpts is to imitate Eurogamer’s twin-column layout. You then program one column to offer full posts and the other to just show excerpts.

(From a technical perspective, I realize that two columns could be styled by the same CSS, as with Thesis theme. What I mean by two columns is that the layout uses separate code blocks that will be styled differently and given different functionality.)

Assumption 2. All visitors want the same thing

Another assumption of the “full posts or excerpts” debate is that all visitors to an archive page want the same thing.

I can tell you from my own experience that this isn’t the case.

When I was starting in SEO, I spent untold hours and visits poring through SEOBook.com’s blog archives, looking for useful tricks and ideas. I obviously didn’t go back to read the same thing every time—I kept digging around the archives for different material.

Similarly, other bloggers may be searching for the link to a post they liked so that they can link to you. Make this easy for them!

What content should you feature on a blog archive?

First, make a strong first impression on new visitors by displaying your top hits.

If your site is new, you can call them Editor’s Recommended Reads or use language like, “New to {BlogName}? Start here.”

This is an increasingly popular practice because of its utility to new visitors. As we saw above, Eurogamer lists recently popular posts on their archives page.

37Signals’ blog Signal vs Noise also feature popular posts in a category, but theirs come from across the entire timespan of their archive:

37signals

The flip side is that you can’t just show your hits in the archives, because some people may be there to find other content, as I explained above.

In addition to popular content, also show your recent posts, but make navigating the archives fast and easy.

Help returning visitors get the most out of your archive with these tips:

  • Give visitors control over how many posts are shown on your archive pages, and if possible, save their preference for next time. Don’t limit people who are navigating deep into your archives to viewing ten posts at a time.
  • Offer paginated navigation (i.e. numbered links like “1, 2, 3, 4…”) to your deeper archive pages even at the top of your Recent posts column for returning visitors.
  • Use AJAX to load posts or further archive pages in the same category (e.g. links to pages “1, 2, 3, 4…” ). This will speed archives’ load times.

(For those who don’t know, AJAX is a programming technology that lets you load additional content on the page you’re viewing, without requiring a new page load. AJAX stands for Asynchronous Javascript And XML. Regarding SEO, since Googlebot is only learning to read Javascript, you’ll want the code for those with Javascript disabled to be a regular link to the URL of the post or archive page.)

Now that we’ve covered what content to show on an archive page, let’s go back to our discussion about full posts and excerpts to understand why the archives are a great place to use AJAX.

Which display style gets more content read: excerpts or full posts?

Pros and cons of post excerpts

The primary advantage of displaying post excerpts over full posts is that you can make more posts visible at once. If the first or second post isn’t enticing, you might still get a click on the fourth or fifth post, without forcing the visitor to scroll.

At the same time, post excerpts clarify the post’s subject. This compensates for vague or ambiguous titles, which will draw fewer clicks if displayed without the excerpt, or clicks from visitors who misunderstood the title and click the Back button. Potential readers can make more informed choices whether or not to read the post, thanks to intro text.

The disadvantage with post excerpts is that they require extra page loads, slowing visitors actions down and making them leave your blog faster.

Pros and cons of full posts

Full posts help visitors avoid extra page loads. If we use full posts, and visitors like the first thing they see, then we’ve got an advantage over post excerpts, since the visitor saves a page load.

If visitors aren’t interested in reading the above-the-fold-content, though, they need to scroll. And the more they need to scroll (e.g. due to long posts, obscure titles, a lack of clear beginning- and end-points for posts, etc.), the likelier they are to lose interest and leave.

The longer it takes a user to read something interesting (not only to find it), the more likely they are to leave. We need to help them find something fast and load it fast.

The solution

Use long excerpts for popular content and short excerpts for recent content.

Full posts

Let’s assume that we know from traffic stats which posts are the most popular posts. This means there’s low risk of a visitor not being immediately engaged by these hit posts, so there’s a good argument for using full posts. Scrolling isn’t likely to be a problem, since the first or second post has a good chance of engaging them.

However, we haven’t eradicated the risk that someone won’t want to read the first one or two posts. This is especially so for returning visitors who may have liked our top hits last time and are now back for more.

Therefore, it’s best to use longer-than-normal excerpts for top hits. The excerpt aspect limits scrolling for people who don’t want to read the first posts, while leaving less to load via AJAX for those who do chose to read them. Full posts are not ideal but they’re still okay, especially for short posts.

Post excerpts

In contrast to popular posts, there’s relatively higher risk in displaying the full text of recent posts. Sometimes, recent posts include great material, but sometimes, it’s ordinary material.

So your display of recent posts should definitely be limited to excerpts that are shorter than your top content.

Once someone clicks on a post…

Once someone indicates they want to read a given post, we need to serve them the post as fast as possible. That’s why using AJAX to load post content is great, because we can just load the body of the post, without wasting time by reloading everything else (the header, sidebar, footer etc).

Facebook makes use of AJAX for these reasons, when you get to the end of the content that was initially loaded. This is what some people call the “scroll forever” presentation.

Scroll forever on Facebook

Boost ROI by engaging readers in your archives

Your blog will receive returning visitors and new visitors, and your archive page layouts need to accommodate both. Here’s how to help with that.

  1. Use two content columns on your archive pages, one for popular posts (or editor’s picks if your site is new) and one for recent content.
  2. Use longer excerpts for the popular content and shorter excerpts for the recent material.
  3. Make the archives’ navigation fast and easy, by:
    • loading posts and “next” archive pages (i.e. pages linked to as ’1, 2, 3, 4′) with AJAX
    • offering navigation deeper into the archive right at the top of your archive pages
    • giving visitors control over how many posts they see on archive pages.

As a post-script, I’d encourage you to show authors’ pictures on archive pages, as well as on individual posts. If a reader enjoys works by a particular author, seeing their picture will increase the likelihood of them clicking through from the archive page (or stick around and read if they’re coming right to the individual post).

If you liked this post, check out the others in the series: Rule #1: Prioritize The Opt-In Form, Rule #2: Highlight Your Key Content, Rule #3: Show Your Community Love, and Rule #4: Make Posts Easy to Read.

Gab Goldenberg wrote The Advanced SEO Book—and you can get a free chapter here. Gab and Internet Marketing Ninjas, the folks behind the Blog Design for ROI series here on Problogger, are offering to mail you a free print copy of the Blog Design for ROI guide as a small book. Get your free copy from seoroi.com/blog-design-for-roi/ .

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Comments

  1. Scott says:

    Thanks for a great article! I currently try to send readers to an article or free ebook and my homepage is my product. I certainly need to add access to archives and other posts over time.

    Thanks,
    Scott

  2. I had used a WP plug-in that displayed my most popular posts, but I eventually disabled it. As people click on these posts to read they become more popular so the posts never changed. Instead, I now display the titles my most recent posts in my sidebar. They’re often takes on recent news so I think I’m offering my readers more value. Also, and I find this amazing, since I first wrote a post about how to write a LinkedIn invitation that has by far been my most popular post in the past two years. It’s always at the top of my Google analytics. It is such a simple little post, nothing profound, but a lesson learned to discover the information your readers want and then write about it.

    • Jeannette, that’s an excellent point that the posts are not necessarily most popular because of their intrinsic value, but because of the popular posts widgets themselves.

      To an extent you can solve the problem by having the popular posts be determined according to which got (and get) the most visitors referred from other sites. Thus you’re not being skewed by your internal navigation.

      Another aspect to solving the problem is split-testing posts that have achieved similar degrees of success in drawing external traffic, to see which posts draw a higher clickthrough rate of archive visitors choosing to read the whole post.

      I.e. Imagine that posts A and B each got about 500 visitors from external sites. How do you prioritize which should go in the popular posts area? Run an a-b test where half the archive page viewers see A in the popular posts and half the archive page viewers see B. Then, based on which gets more pages viewed or more time on site, you know which to prioritize.

  3. Good tips Gab thanks for sharing,

    I’m reviewing the design of a couple of my blogs and I’ll be integrating your some of your recommendations.

    I also found the “PAGE NOT FOUND” page to be another opportunity to feature posts.

    People will eventually come across a bad link and when this happens its a good idea to bring them back on the path with recommended links.

  4. What is ROI in the sence of blogging .I am brand new to world of blgging .So i have to learn a lot of things about it.
    $mahe$