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Blog Design – Does it Matter?

Speed-Posting@mattpacker asks – how important is the design of your blog and how hard a decision do you think it would be to develop a new theme for it?

There will probably be a little debate over this one in the comments on this post because every time I see someone write about design there are two opposing arguments.

On the one side are some blogger who argue that design is secondary and not that important as that it’s content that is what draws people to a blog and keeps them there. This camp often argues that with a lot of people reading blogs these days through RSS that design is less important as people rarely see it.

On the flip side we have the argument that design is very important because it creates a first impression in the mind of potential readers and that it’s around this first impression that many readers base their decision about whether they will subscribe.

My own theory fits more with the second argument – although it’s not absolutely everything in my mind. There are some fairly standard (and even ugly) looking blogs (and many with default/free templates) going around that have big readership so it is possible to ‘make it’ without a custom design.

Lastly – in terms of how hard a decision is it to change design. I personally find it a difficult process. While I appreciate good design I’m not a designer at heart so finding someone that I connect with to do it for me takes time, then deciding what direction to take can be a bit of a heart wrenching process, as can it be to convince your loyal readers that it’s the right thing to do when you launch the change.

Further Reading:

So what do you think? Does Blog Design Matter?

Top 5 Ways to Improve Your Blog’s Usability

Skellie is a regular writer for ProBlogger. Check out her new blog Anywired if you’re interested in earning an income online.

Usability.

Yaaawn, right?

Think of it like this: the art of making it as easy as possible for your blog’s visitors to do exactly what you want them to do.

That simple, super-effective tip on putting your feed icon high up in your sidebar is usability at work. So is putting social media buttons at the bottom of your posts. So is putting popular posts in your sidebar. In fact, some of the coolest, simplest things you can do to get more subscribers, links and loyal readers come from usability.

Setting aside an hour or two to re-arrange your layout with usability in mind will pay long-term dividends for your blog’s growth. Here are my top 5 tips to help you get started.

#1 — Be predictable

When we want to know what a site is about, the first thing we look for is an ‘About’ page.

When we want to contact the owner of a site, the first thing we look for is a ‘Contact’ page.

When we want to leave a comment, we usually look to the bottom of a post.

When we want to subscribe to a blog, we look for the subscribe button at the top of its sidebar.

These things are so common that they’ve become standards — things we expect. When we can’t find the standard, we look for the next most similar thing.

By adhering to these predictable standards you’re actually making it as easy as possible for your blog’s visitors to do exactly what you want them to do. Sometimes being predictable is not a bad thing!

#2 — Be obvious

Look down at your keyboard and you’ll probably be able to spot at least one key that you’ve never noticed before, either because you have no need for it or you don’t know what it does. It could be the most useful key ever, but our hesitation when confronted with the unknown has probably stopped you ever pressing it before. What if it deletes everything you just wrote?

We don’t like not knowing what the result of our actions will be, and so it goes with your blog. Non-obvious links and buttons will very rarely be clicked. In my experiments with private advertising, there can be as much as an 800% difference in click-through rates between ambiguous banners and ones which make it obvious where the reader will be taken when they click on it. Scour your blog and ask this question of every element: would a new visitor know what this does, or where it leads?


Photo by Davichi

#3 — Subtract the unimportant

By hiding important elements (your most popular posts, your feed icon, your comment button) amongst a dozen other unimportant things (widgets and recent comments) you’re making it harder for readers to do what is truly important to you.

#4 — Limit options

A category list with 10 categories is a lot more usable than a list with 50 categories. Too many options creates overload which leads to deferral: a visitor will not engage with that element at all. Your list of 5 most popular posts will get clicked more than your list of 20, and so on. Simplified options make it easier for the visitor to decide where they want to place their attention. Too much choice will actually hurt your blog’s usability.

#5 — Do the little things

A usable blog, aside from the above, is also made-up of many little touches that make your visitor’s browsing experience easier.

  1. Does your header image link back to your main page?
  2. Does your blog have an about page?
  3. Does your blog have a contact page?
  4. Do your headlines match with your content?
  5. Is it clear where your links will lead?
  6. Do you use frequent paragraphs in your posts?
  7. Do you have comment links at the bottom of your post?
  8. Do you use sub-headings?
  9. Are your posts less than 2/3 screen length wide?
  10. Are you making your best posts easily accessible?
  11. Are your links easy to pick out?

Points to review

  • Predictability is a good thing for usability.
  • Be creative with your posts, but obvious in your layout elements.
  • Subtract obstacles to your most wanted actions.
  • Simplify options to make your elements easier to use.
  • Pay attention to little touches that your visitors will find useful.

Blog Design Competition Winners

Last week I ran a little competition here at ProBlogger asking readers to nominate their favorite blog designs to put them in the running to win one of five copies of Web Design for ROI: Turning Browsers into Buyers & Prospects into Leads.

This has been one of my favorite competitions to watch because the 113 entries unearthed some wonderfully designed blogs (if you’ve got a spare half an hour it’s worth reading through the comments).

I’ve picked the following five winners:

Adam Teece, JamieO, linkerjpatrick, UzBlogger and Jeremy Wilkins. I’ll pass your emails onto the suppliers of the books and they’ll be in touch to get your postal address.

Thanks to everyone for your entries – you’ve given me a great morning of discovering some great blogs.

Win a Copy of Web Design for ROI

One of the books that I’ve been enjoying lately is Web Design for ROI: Turning Browsers into Buyers & Prospects into Leads. It might surprise regular readers who know that I’m a self confessed web design dummy to know that I’ve been reading (and enjoying) a book about this topic – but I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of it in the mail a month or so back and it is a topic that I’ve enjoyed learning about.

This isn’t a book about designing sexy sites – it’s a book about designing profitable ones (although sexy can be good too and this book will help with that too). It’s not a book about designing blogs – but a lot of what you read in it will inform decisions that you make about your blog’s layout and design also. Whether you’re designing your own blog or hiring someone else to do it this book is a worthwhile read.

I won’t review the book here (to be honest I’m still only 70% of the way through it) but if there are some good review of it on it’s Amazon page if you’re interested.

What I am happy to announce though is that I’ve been given 5 copies of this book to give away to ProBlogger readers.

How to Enter

To enter this competition you need to do 2 things:

1. In comments below leave us a comment telling us what blog’s design you love the most and why. Feel free to leave a link to the blog but do include some thoughts on what you find attractive about the blog’s design and why you admire it.

2. Your comment needs to have the keyword ‘web design’ in it – this will help us make sure comments don’t get caught up in our spam filters.

On Saturday (at midnight my time) I’ll end this competition and choose 5 of my favorite comments (ie comments that stand out for their value) to win a copy of the book. I’m also keen to see what blog designs you love and hope it’ll help provide many of us with some inspiration on that front.

10 Remarkable (and Free) WordPress Themes

The following post on great free WordPress Templates was written by Reese Spykerman from Design by Reese.

A search for free WordPress themes yields thousands of results, some dull or cluttered, some utilitarian, and many inspiring and beautiful. Numerous other well-designed WordPress themes are available to you, but these are 10 that stand out to me for various features including good usability, organization, attractive use of graphics, cross-genre appropriateness and even search engine optimization.

1. GridFocus Public

GridfocusSkellie can’t be wrong: she uses this theme on both of her blogs.

Super easy to navigate and clear in its structure and hierarchy, GridFocus can impart a more serious, trustworthy tone to your blog.

Ideal for: ProBloggers, Frequent Bloggers, Minimalists, Authors, Internal Corporate Blogs

2. Blue Zinfandel Squared Enhanced

BluezinfandelWhen you want your words to stand out without unnecessary clutter, try Blue Zinfandel.

The main body text size could be increased for greater legibility (you can change this in the style sheet under style.css>#content p and add a rule for “font-size” (such as font-size: 14px;).

The classical look of this design makes it a good fit for journalists and other writers.

Ideal for: Journalists, PR Reps, Authors

3. BlueBird

BluebirdLooking for a lovely, classy little design for your personal blog?

3-column BlueBird fits the bill well, especially for female bloggers.

Life coaches and counselors on a low budget might also find this an appropriate theme for a promotional blog.

Ideal for: Personal Blogs, Life Coaches

4. Rockin’ Biz Red

RockinbizredThis conservative 2-column theme works well for corporate, business and legal bloggers.

With plenty of whitespace and judicious use of the color red, Rockin’ Biz Red is great for the business blogger who wants a bit more personality than some of the minimalist themes listed here.

The top header image of an office can be easily swapped out with an image of your choice.

Rockin’ Biz Red is also available in a more robust 3-column version.

Ideal for: Business Blogs, Corporate Blogging, Legal Blogs, Finance-related topics (swap out the top header for a more appropriate image. Istockphoto has low-cost, high-quality images.)

5. Colors of Rainbow

Colorsofrainbow

For the obligatory “web 2.0 style” theme, TechnRoll uses popular colors and effects without going overboard.

Its top area can be easily rebranded with your personal or business logo.

The prominent location of the RSS feed link in the upper right can help drive subscriptions to your feed, so it gets a promotional and usability thumbs up.

Ideal for: personal blogs, business blogs, review sites, real estate blogging

6. Elite

EliteA design with dark tones can set your blog apart from the majority of white designs used on blogs.

Elite uses shades of dark gray, which are offset by friendly blue and green typography.

Although simple in its layout and usage of details, Elite helps your blog look both authoritative and approachable.

Ideal for: Review blogs, Tech blogs, Authority Bloggers, Personal Blogs, Gadget sites, Finance and Stock Blogs

7.Fresh

Fresh

Fresh is bright enough to make your readers stand up and take notice, but mature enough to brand you as a professional.

Well organized, easy to read and notable in its attention to small details such as icons and supporting graphics, Fresh is appropriate for just about anyone.

However, its blue theme may resonate best with male visitors.

Ideal for: Personal blogs, tech-related blogs

8. Blix

Blix

Many theme designers claim their code is search engine optimized (SEO), but Blix is one of the few that is created with SEO specifically in mind.

Blix’s code uses best practices more than the majority of other WordPress themes and is optimized for Google Adsense integration.

Blix is a good start if you aren’t consulting with an SEO and optimization is your primary concern when downloading a theme. A version with greater optimization is also available for sale. (Note: Michael Gray has great tips on further optimizing your WordPress blog for SEO.

Ideal for: SEO, Product-Based Sites, Monetized Blogs, Internet Marketing

9. GridLock

GridlockOrder and balance define Gridlock, which uses a lovely, magazine-style layout that makes for a visually stunning, clean and usable design for your readers.

When you want to look sophisticated and polished, this is the WordPress theme for you.

Ideal for: ProBloggers, Writers, Corporate Blogs, Business Blogs, Anyone who loves order and balance.

10. Jello-Wala-Mello

JellowalamelloAlternative layouts beyond the usual 2-column or 3-column setup are difficult to find.

Jello-Wala-Mello turns your WordPress blog into cubed, magazine-style format.

By featuring your latest entry as a large blurb on top, with blurbs from your prior entries below, this theme helps pull readers into your archives and decreases endless scrolling on your home page.

Ideal for: creative professionals, small media (independent online publications, alternative media), journalists, review sites.

Watch Out for Malicious Code

When downloading WordPress themes, keep in mind a lot of themes get redistributed without the original creator’s permission and are often modified with spyware or other malicious code. Check out the theme’s ìfooter.phpî file and look for code that looks garbled. A legitimate footer file will either be blank or have some html and php code in it. A hacked footer file has one long line of code that looks encrypted. Derek Punsalon has more info http://5thirtyone.com/archives/870 about issues with themes on 3rd-Party sites.

Modifying Credit Links in the Footer File

Sometimes the modifications are less overt: the footer file will be modified with spam-type credit links (stuffed with keywords to online banking, poker, prescriptions, etc). These can be edited as well and replaced with links of your choice or removed entirely. Before you remove a credit link that looks legitimate, see if the author has a license that requires the credit to remain.

Note from Darren: Of course blog design is a fairly subjective thing. I asked Reese to write this post as I get a lot of questions from readers wanting to know which WordPress theme they should choose for their blog and in the hope that this might highlight a few places to start (as well as some of the things to look for in other themes). Both Reese and I would love to hear your own suggestions on free WordPress Themes that you like also.

How I Redesigned My Blog [by Ben Yoskovitz]

One blogger that I read regularly and have come to respect over the last few years is Benjamin Yoskovitz from Instigator Blog. Yesterday Ben and I were chatting on skype and he mentioned that today he was launching a new design on his blog. I liked what I saw of the new design and said he should write up a post talking readers through how he went through the redesign process. Today the following post hit my inbox – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Design matters. A great, well-polished design raises the bar of your blog instantly. “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” And it’s a shame and waste when you don’t make the right impression off-the-bat.

There are millions of blogs out there. And one way you can stand out from the crowd is through a good design. Certainly, you need to back it up with quality content, but don’t forget that first impression…

I recently launched a new design for Instigator Blog. It took quite some time to do, and although the original design was something I put together, I brought in much better designers than me to help out. That’s really the first important point: Get help. If your blog is important enough to you, then hire someone to help you.

With this redesign, I didn’t only tackle things at the surface level — this wasn’t simply about putting a new face on the blog — I decided to examine each and every element of it, and do a real overhaul. Hopefully my experience reviewing my blog with a fine tooth comb helps others.

instigator-blog

1. What’s Your Blog’s Brand? What’s Your Brand?

The first thing I did was examine the overall brand of Instigator Blog and how I wanted that portrayed. The name lends itself to a more “aggressive” look, but I didn’t want the blog to be “in your face” or “over the top.” It was important to blend the instigator with sophistication. Describing how you want to be portrayed, or your brand, isn’t always easy. I did it by listing a bunch of words, and then sorting and ranking them. For example:

  • instigator
  • sophisticated
  • clean
  • professional
  • fun
  • punchy
  • educational
  • etc.

Writing the words out, and moving them around, helps you get a clearer vision of what you’re looking for. Then I looked at other websites and blogs, searching for designs that I thought matched the words (or criteria). This can be a difficult process, but I was able to pick elements out of numerous designs that I thought fit well, and start stitching them together.

Note: Try writing out colors as well, that you feel represent your brand. Picking the right colors for your blog is critical.

2. Tackle the Design Basics.

I had several design goals in mind for the new look. For example, I wanted the content to be higher up on the page. I also wanted to clean up the sidebars and really think about what belonged there and in what order. It was important to truly de-clutter the design. These are what I call “design basics” because they don’t give you a full picture or overall view of what your design should be, but they help set out some simple parameters. For example, I knew I wanted a better footer and a better Archives page.

Again, I looked around the Web at many sites that I liked and admired. ProBlogger was one, as was copyblogger. When looking at design, layout or structural basics, just go to the experts; they’ve spent way more time than any of us evaluating what works and doesn’t. I used Shoemoney’s Advertising Page as a template for my own (previously I didn’t have one.) There’s nothing wrong with using elements of someone else’s design, as long as you’re not outright copying or stealing.

With some basic design, layout and structural decisions made, I continued to evolve the overall look and feel of the site (along with the expert web designers.)

3. Go Through the Design Process.

You’ll never get a design right the first time. I probably went through 5 or 6 designs before I got one I was happy with. And then the process of smaller iterations began. Once you have a design you’re happy with, you can expect to be fine tuning for some time. Especially if you’re really going to evaluate each component of the blog.

Once I had a design that I was 80% or so pleased with, I started implementing it, filling in the spaces and seeing what it looked like.

4. Deeper Structural Issues.

As the design came to life, I was faced with several tough decisions. For example, I decided to use excerpts on the home page instead of full posts. I also decided to remove the list of categories from the sidebar. And you’ll no longer see the same prominence of social bookmarking links either.

A big part of any blog comes down to information architecture – how do you organize the content in a way that makes sense, makes it easily accessible, and helps people dig deeper? This was one of my biggest challenges, primarily because of my blog’s diversity and evolution. I’ve never been able to stick with one niche, jumping around from blog tips to marketing, small business issues and social media. Of late, my blog’s focus has really been on startups and entrepreneurship. As a result, my audience is diverse, coming to me from different sources, looking for different things. And how to organize that content better is tough. If someone visits because of a Google search on blogging tips, I want to make sure they’re presented with additional, related content, not stuff about startups or buzz marketing.

I’ve tackled this by using the sidebar more effectively. When you view a single post on Instigator Blog you’ll see two lists in the sidebar: Most Popular Posts and Recent Posts. That’s nothing new, lots of blogs do that. But my lists are related to the category of the blog post you’re viewing. So if you’re viewing a blog post on startups, the popular and recent posts will only be about startups. I also highlight six key categories in my footer, sorted in order of importance, instead of showing all my blog’s categories.

The goal of showing the most popular and recent posts by category is to give people who get to the blog via a single post (which happens often) additional, targeted content. There’s plenty of content in each category to keep people busy, and if they see enough of value in one category, they’re more likely to subscribe. Then they can discover additional categories of content later.

Of course, after coming up with the solution for targeted popular and recent posts, I realized that I’d have to go through all my categories and do two things: (1) come up with a shorter list, and (2) re-categorize all my blog posts. Many of my posts were in 2, 3 or even 4 categories. That starts to pose a real problem when trying to show targeted lists in the sidebar. So I re-categorized almost every post, and now, only a few remain in 2 categories, whereas most of them only have one.

5. Endless Fine Tuning.

A blog design is never set in stone. You know you’ll be modifying it, tweaking it and experimenting with it forever. That’s what we do. But I wanted to get as much of it done as possible up-front. And there’s always “one more issue” to handle. For example, I went through and looked at the design and formatting of:

  • Images
  • Numbered and bulleted lists
  • H3 tags
  • Advertising graphics
  • Link colors
  • Font sizes
  • Comments
  • Blockquotes
  • Etc.

The fine tuning will never end, but the best time to tackle these issues is during a redesign when you can focus on the big picture look but also the nitty-gritty details.

6. Copywriting.

No blog redesign would be complete without a full evaluation of the copy. Obviously you can’t go back and re-write any posts (well, you can, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort), but you can certainly look at the supporting pages and all the supporting copy. I re-wrote my About page (which I had intended to do for many months), created an Advertising page, and generally did a sweep of the site. Writing a great About page is a must, but it’s not always the easiest thing to do.

7. Launch.

Launching a new blog or a new design is never easy. There are many steps to go through, many things to double check. I went through and deactivated a host of plugins (and activated new ones.) I tested everything thoroughly and discovered numerous bugs that had to be dealt with. This is a tricky and often frustrating process, and it always takes longer than you think.

I’m thrilled with the way my blog turned out. Will it be the last redesign? Probably not. But for now I’m glad that most of the work is done, and I can go back to writing!

Who Designed Your Blog? [POLL RESULTS]

Over the last couple of weeks I ran a poll here at ProBlogger which asked readers who designed their blogs.

1828 readers responded in total (thanks everyone).

DIY – The results showed that 57% of you either considerably tweaked a free template (35%) or designed your blog from scratch yourself (22%).

Free Templates - Another 32% of you are using a free template (either a default template that came with your platform (11%) or one from some other source (21%).

Paid Designs – Just 12% of ProBlogger readers paid for their blog design – either by buying a non unique ‘premium’ theme (5%) or hiring a designer (7%).

Here’s how the breakdown looks.

Blog-Design-Poll-Results

Improve Your Blog with a Custom Made Theme

Improve-BlogToday John Chow answers my question about how he improved his blog in 2007.

This question is an easy one to answer because there was one thing I did to my blog in 2007 that impacted it more than anything else I have ever tired for John Chow dot Com.

I got a custom made theme

Before the custom theme, my blog ran a free WordPress theme and while it served me well, it was very limiting from a branding and monetization stand point. Nate Whitehill of Unique Blog Design created a theme for me that was not only unique, it allow me to fully monetize the blog.

The different was dramatic. Traffic double the day the new theme went live. It dropped a few days after but overall, the new theme has been responsible for a 25% increase in traffic. Income increase was even more dramatic. The blog went from $17,828.61 in August with the old theme to $27,240.83 in November with the new theme.

Unique Blog Design charges up to $1,500 for a custom design theme. While that may seem expensive, it’s a small price to pay when you look at the big picture. If you want to a problogger, then you have to roll with your own theme.

Who Designed Your Blog?

Time for a new Poll.

Who designed your blog?

I’m sure there will be other options to those that I included. If you don’t feel your situation is covered feel free to leave a comment below and tell us your answer.

Who Designed Your Blog?
View Results


I’d also be interested to hear about your decision to design your blog the way you did. Why did you choose the option and template that you did?