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Three Design Trends to Watch for in 2013

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As we close out 2012, I can safely say that it has been a milestone year for designers.  New technologies are popping up every day that make our lives easier and allow us to stretch our talents further.  Over the course of the year, a few recurring trends have popped up among some of the major site redesigns.  The good news: most of these can be implemented by blog and website owners with very little effort or code knowledge.  Here are a few of my favorite trends to watch out for in the coming year:

By the way: this is in no means an exhaustive list, but merely meant to be a snapshot of things to come.

1. Dynamic Typography

Gone are the days when Helvetica, Arial, Times, and Georgia ruled the roost when it comes to fonts.  While not necessarily unique to 2012, the use of non-standard web fonts (fonts that are not included with an operating system) has increased dramatically as new and innovative ways of serving them have been created.  Here are a few of my favorite web-font sources:

Google Fonts

With a massive library of fonts, and a price tag that can’t be beat (free!), Google has become a go-to resource for web designers.  Their web font directory is completely searchable by style, weight, and thickness; you’re guaranteed to find a font that will suit your needs.  Implementation is even easier: simply drop a piece of JavaScript into your <head> section.  Once that’s done, call the font family in your stylesheet, and you’re done!

FontSquirrel

FontSquirrel has a great selection of off-beat fonts, separated for ease-of-discovery by grouping (grunge, retro, etc).  While the selection is good, the delivery method is a bit more complex: instead of hosting the font files on their server, you have to download them, store them on your server via FTP, and then link to where they are on the server.  Once that’s done, the rest is the same: call your font family in the stylesheet and you’re done.

TypeKit

Typekit was purchased by Adobe not too long ago, so one would argue that they’re the best.  They have a wide selection of professional font families available that other services don’t; classics like Gotham, for example.  They have a limited selection available for free, but to get to the majority of the collection you have to pay a fee.  Once you’ve selected your fonts, however, two lines of JavaScript will fix everything for you – you don’t have to call them manually from your stylesheet, call them inside of TypeKit instead.

My Favorite Fonts

I’ve chosen a few fonts from each service to showcase as some of my favorites:

Serif Fonts

Museo (TypeKit)

Vollkorn (Google Fonts)

Josefin Slab (Google Fonts)

Sans-Serif Fonts

Open Sans (FontSquirrel)

Proxima Nova (TypeKit)

Ubuntu (Google Fonts)

Display / Script Fonts

Girl Next Door (Google Fonts)

Pacifico (Google Fonts)

Special Elite (Google Fonts)

2. Large Photo Backgrounds

As internet connections get better, photos are becoming more and more prevalent – not just as accents to content, but as part of the design itself.  Couple that with the semi-new CSS3 standards, and designers are taking photography to a whole new level.  It’s not uncommon to see designs and blogs with photos spanning the width of the site itself.

How to Set a Large Photo Background

This is fairly easy, but it does require a bit of thinking.  Specifically, you have to make sure that the background is high enough resolution to accomplish what you need, but not so large that even high-bandwidth devices take too long to download it.  I recommend no more than 500k-700k for your file size – any more will be too large, and any less will be too compressed (and will look terrible).

Upload your photo, and use this code in your stylesheet:

body{background: url(images/image-file.jpg) no-repeat center top;}

This sets the background image, tells it to not repeat (or tile), and aligns it at the top-center of your site. If you want to scale the image, you can add the “background-size” attribute:

body{
background: url(images/image-file.jpg) no-repeat center top;
background-size: 100% auto;
}

This will cause the background image to always be 100% wide (and the height will scale accordingly) – great for responsive designs (which we’ll talk about momentarily).

Examples of Photo Background Sites

Here are a few sites I’ve designed or seen online that utilize a large photo background:

 

thirdoptionmen.org

mellowmushroom.com

bentlyreserve.com

3. Responsive Design

I want to go on record saying that responsive design is the most important thing to happen to web design in the recent years.  So important, in fact, that the W3C has recommended that all sites strive to be “one web” accessible by all devices – something in which responsive design excels.

Responsive (or adaptive design, as it’s sometimes called) means that a design will adjust itself depending on the size of your browser or the device you are viewing it on.  Meaning, instead of having a mobile website, you have one website that adapts itself and responds to the “viewport” (the size of your viewing device from edge to edge).  Responsive design is made possible through the use of @media queries.

What are @media Queries

A @media query is nothing new to web designers; we’ve been using them to attach stylesheets for years.  However, recently, designers have been utilizing its parameters (specifically, “max-width” and “min-width”) to allow different styles for different screen sizes.

A media query looks like this:

/* Smaller than standard 960 (devices and browsers) */
@media only screen and (max-width: 959px) {}

This tells the browser to apply styles to only devices 959px wide and below.  Anything above that will ignore any styles put here.

Using @media Queries

This is a bit more complex than some of the other things we’ve talked about, since you have to have knowledge of CSS to implement, but here are the basics.  First, we include this in the <head> section of our site:

<meta name=”viewport” content=”width=device-width, initial-scale=1, maximum-scale=1″>

This code tells our site to scale according to the width of the device – it’s an important step in making sure things are appropriately sized.  Next, we include the media queries we want to use.  This is my favorite set – you can set them however you want, but I’ve included common breakpoints in device sizes:

/* Smaller than standard 960 (devices and browsers) */
 @media only screen and (max-width: 959px) {}
/* Tablet Portrait size to standard 960 (devices and browsers) */
 @media only screen and (min-width: 768px) and (max-width: 959px) {}
/* All Mobile Sizes (devices and browser) */
 @media only screen and (max-width: 767px) {}
/* Mobile Landscape Size to Tablet Portrait (devices and browsers) */
 @media only screen and (min-width: 480px) and (max-width: 767px) {}
/* Mobile Portrait Size to Mobile Landscape Size (devices and browsers) */
 @media only screen and (max-width: 479px) {}

This includes breakpoints for all mobile devices (under 959px – great for people who utilize a 960px grid system), tablets, all phones, landscape phones, and portrait phones.  Now, the hard part – apply the styles you want to get the site to look how you wish.

If it looks intimidating, that’s fine: there are a lot of pre-built themes and templates that have responsive elements built in.

Examples of Responsive Design

Here are a few examples of sites utilizing a responsive design

mickieandme.com

www.boogey.com

thirdoptionmen.org

Summary

2012 has been a fantastic year for web designers, by far.  And if these trends are anything to judge by, 2013 will be even better. These are but three of the emerging trends and resources we have at our disposal, and many of them can be implemented easily by site owners.  Between large photo backgrounds, dynamic typography, and responsive designs, we can create sites that function well and look amazing.

What other design trends do you see coming in your favorite websites and blogs?

 

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about design from Mitch? Check out his session at NMX in January, entitled “Advanced Blog Design: The Latest Tools, Trends & Best Practices You Can Implement Today!

Better Blog Pages: Pages to Increase Your Pageviews (Day Four)

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This post is part of a five-part series about creating better blog pages. You can see all the posts in this series here.

When someone looks at multiple pages/posts on your blog, they’re more likely to become a regular reader, subscriber, or customer. Google also cares about bounce rate and time on site, so its a no-brainer to include pages on your site that help keep people sticking around. There are three main types of pages that can do this that we’re going to cover today.

Archive/Sitemap

In order to make your blog as easy to navigate as possible (for both humans and search engines), consider including a sitemap or archives page on your blog. People love to find posts that interest them, and when they’re new to your site, an archives page can help.

I recommend doing some testing to find the right format. For example, Glen from ViperChill has an archive of posts via category. You can also auto-create pages with posts listed by date. These are definitely not your only options; how you set up your archives page depends on your niche and your specific content. The point is simply to make everything as easy to find as possible.

“Start Here” Page

When I visit a blog for the first time, I absolutely love when I see a “Start Here” page for newbies. I find this page invaluable because I know it’s going to point me to all the posts I need to read first.

On your “Start Here” page, you want to link to your backstory (whether that’s on your About page or is its own post on your blog). I also like to see a section for beginners in the niche, linking to blog posts that fall into this category, as well as more resources from both your own blog and from others. This page can also include product recommendations, testimonials, or even a video intro.

What would you want to see if you were a new reader coming to your site? Be as helpful as possible on this page.

“Best Of” Page

Even more important than a “Start Here” page, at least to me when I’m visiting a blog for the first time, is a “Best Of” page. As the name implies, on this page, you want to include all of the very best blog posts you’ve written. A good option is to split them into categories and list about five for each.

The reason I like this page is that I know, as a new reader, I can check out the posts listed and determine immediately whether the blog is my cup of tea or not. If I don’t really like the posts the blogger him/herself believe to be the cream of the crop, I’m probably not going to like other posts on the blog either.

Your best of page should be updated regularly. You can still include old posts, but having newer posts on this list is important as well. So, every few months, go through and add new posts, taking away some of the older ones if your lists become too long.

Remember, the stickier your blog is, the better. People can’t become fans of your site if they spend ten seconds on a page and then leave! You have to have good content, but to truly optimize this content, create the above three pages so you’re encouraging people to stick around.

Join us tomorrow for Day Five of our Better Blog Pages series!

Better Blog Pages: Page Navigation (Day Two)

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This post is part of a five-part series about creating better blog pages. You can see all the posts in this series here.

In this series, we already talked about the most important page on your blog, the contact page. However, before we go even farther in talking about specific pages you need on your blog, let’s take a moment to talk about navigation to these pages.

After all, pages do not matter if no one can find them!

Top Bar Navigation

The most common place people will look for pages (like your contact page) is on a top navigation bar. You can put this bar above or below your header, depending on the other navigation needs you have on your blog, but I highly suggest having one, even if you like to your pages other places, like on your sidebar.

Don’t rely on drop-down menus here, at least for your most important pages. The five to ten most important pages on your blog should be spelled out in your navigation bar. It’s about making your blog idiot-proof. You don’t want people to have to spend time trying to figure out your contact information or other information you might need.

Interlinking Your Pages

We often link to our own posts, but most bloggers don’t remember to link to their own pages. Where appropriate, you should definitely do this to allow for easier navigation. I often see people say something like “contact me for me details” within blog posts, but then leaving it up to their readers to figure outhow to contact.

You pages shouldn’t just be linked within blog posts. They can also be linked to one another. It might make sense to link to your About page on your Contact page, for example. Google cares about how long people are on your site and how many pages they visit when there, so definitely take the time to link as much as possible.

Other Navigational Considerations

It might also many sense for you to include navigation to pages at other places on your blog. For example, some people will look for this information in your footer. Others will browse your sidebar. It’s important to have a well-designed site, and you don’t want to compromise the look of the blog, but wherever you can put more page navigation, do it. When in doubt, it’s always better to link to your pages as often as possible than to make readers search for the information they need.

Join us tomorrow for Day Three of our Better Blog Pages series!

The 5 Biggest Obstacles (& Solutions!) to Getting Your Blog Started

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blog consulting

Image Credit: Benjamin Belew

In my years of blog consulting with veterans, businesses, newbie and wannabe bloggers I have learned that there are generally five obstacles that most bloggers face when getting started.

In this article I will share those five obstacles AND the solutions to them.

Will Rogers was a cowboy, vaudeville performer and social commentator who lived in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.  Rogers is credited with having first said, “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging.”

I am not “horn tooting” here. Rather I want the reader to have confidence that what I have learned and share here comes not from theory, but from real world experience. I’ve helped more people create web sites than I can remember AND get in total real/relevant traffic that is approaching 100,000,000 page views (that’s right, 100 million)–primarily (80%+) from search engines. I ain’t bragging.

Obstacle #1 - Picking a Domain Name

I am genuinely surprised at the number of times that I have sat with small businesses to corporate clients who were paying me from $200-500/hr (really!) to discuss with them what domain name they should use.

I suppose it is natural to think that some names might be better than others and it is best to choose the most ideal name.

The simple truth – it really doesn’t matter what your domain name is. I have some very stupid names for some of my sites and they still have received anywhere from 1 – 30 million page views total depending on the topic.

Question: Why is that?

Answer: The domain name is not nearly as important as the title of your blog, your tagline, your choice of categories, the title you choose on individual posts and posting consistently relevant content to your blog. Get these latter points right and you can call your blog anything you want.

That being said, I do have some suggestions.

1. Choose something people can spell.

Americans are pretty much spelling challenged. If you were not born between 1954 and 1959, you probably are not that good at putting all your letters in a row correctly. From ’54-’59 Americans learned how to spell phonetically. I can spell things I have never heard or seen before (usually) and I can guess at the reading of most words. Yeah, I am old. I know it. My brother was born in ’53. He can’t spell to save his soul. My sister was born in ’60. Yup, can’t spell.

Not long ago GoDaddy invited me to their HQ for a tour and some priming. I’ll explain below. One of the things I learned was that the average length of a domain name is 8-9 characters. GoDaddy would know. They have sold some 53 million names.

Choose something that is as short as possible and that people can spell.

2. Use your own name.

I own BillBelew.com. It is not because I am vain. It is because it’s me. It was also the name of Elvis Presley’s costume designer. That Bill Belew died a few years ago. I got a LOT of visits from friends asking, “Bill, are you okay?” If you happen to have the name of somebody famous, good for you. Most don’t. For the most part, if you can’t think of a good domain name that hasn’t been used in 10 minutes or less, use your own name. Add your middle initial if you must. Add your title. First initial, last name. First name, last initial. That sort of thing. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of choosing something for your domain name and getting started. I will explain why in my session at NMX.

3. You can always change your domain name.

My son is a concert pianist who started getting pretty popular. People asked him if he had a web site. When he told them the name (it was an old fantasy character), the response was “Huh?!”

Repeat the name.

“Huh?”

He ended up buying the name BenjaminBelew.com and used a redirect to the old website domain name. Nobody knows the difference unless they check the URL box at the top AFTER they type in the domain name. Who does that? Curious? Take a look at www.benjaminbelew.com and see how it changes.

Obstacle #2 – Choosing good/reliable/cheap hosting

At least half the world’s population is shoppers.

Question: Where is the best place to get the most reliable hosting at the cheapest price?

Answer: Short of someone subsidizing the costs, the cheapest place to go is www.bm2hosting.com

(Full disclosure – I own this, but keep reading before you pass judgment on what may seem to be self promotion.)

I bought the rights to be a reseller for the world’s largest domain and hosting company. See above. I asked them, “What is the lowest possible price I can sell domains and hosting for without me having to dip into my own pocket to pay?” The prices offered at BM2Hosting are the lowest you will find anywhere. When people buy there, I do not make any money. Seriously, I pay a nominal sum annually to be able to resell these products so that my students and clients will not get bogged down searching for something better. There isn’t anything better.

  1. Nowhere more cheaply
  2. 24/7 support – great customer service
  3. Solid reputation

Obstacle #3 – Selecting Best Template

There is Blogger and WordPress and Typepad and Homemade.

Google’s chief of search engine findability and spam prevention recommends WordPress. He uses a WordPress template. And he says that WordPress templates are search engine friendly “out of the box.” And he has all of Google’s Blogger resources at his disposal! Use WordPress.

It has:

  1. More flexibility – If you can think of something you’d like to have/do at your blog, somebody has figured out a way to do it.
  2. More options – Too many! Don’t get bogged down.
  3. Ease of use – If you can write an email, you can use WordPress.
  4. Availability of help – There is a whole industry of worker bees helping people with their WordPress blogs. Don’t know who to ask? Ask me.

Question: Which WordPress template should you use?

Answer: If you can’t decide within 15 minutes of looking at the many FREE options that WordPress offers, choose the default template and go with it for now. The simple truth – in the beginning it doesn’t matter what your site looks like, nobody is coming anyway. What is important is getting started.

Choose a template, start writing and hit publish–often.

Obstacle #4 - Choosing What to Write About

Question: What is the single best way to get more traffic to your web site?

Answer: Write more.

It is absolutely fundamental that the more you write, that is, the more often you hit the publish button, the higher the probability of AND the more actual visits you will see. Nothing beats publishing more. Period. Unless it would be writing more and better, using good SEO principles. I will explain this at my session at NMX.

For now, I tell people to write about something that:

  1. They are interested in – Usually when people ask me what to write about, they mean to ask what the highest paying niches are. I know the answer. But, why would you want to write about something you don’t care about just so you can make more money?
  2. You can create an interest in – Write about your topic so much that people will think, “Hey, I’d better go see what all the fuss is all about.” A good, hard-working blogger really can create their own ‘celebrity’ status.
  3. Is timeless – This is stuff that is always on people’s “to-know” list. Five of these, four reasons for, How to… and so on.
  4. Is timely – What does what you know have to do with what is going on in the world around you? Make the connection.
  5. You have a lot to say about – I tell my clients they need to write about something they have 1,000 things to say about. Literally a thousand. Don’t have that much to say? You will be hard pressed to make money blogging, I think.

Obstacle #5 - It’s too much work

Making a living blogging is a lot of work. Getting good results (a LOT of traffic at your blog) from is a lot of work. Doing better business, getting more leads, more clients, more offers from your blog is a lot of work. But if you don’t want to work hard, I have solved that problem, too.

Write a big check (depends on your goals) and I will do it for you. And, if not me, there are people who will ghost blog for you. But it costs money.

There is no reason why you can’t get started blogging today. You can go from zero to hitting the publish button in about two hours.

The five biggest obstacles to getting started blogging are overcome

  1. Name – done
  2. Hosting – done
  3. Template – done
  4. Content – done
  5. Hard – done

What are you waiting for? Get started today.

How a Blog is like a House

Author:
house

Photo Credit: Julie Jordan Scott

A blog may be like a home, but a number of posts have been written about how a blog – or a site – should be welcoming. It has to invite a person to enter. It has to attract the audience, the one person, the blogger seeks.

Those things are true, but they neglect a simple fact: a home is a house long before it becomes a home. The “hominess” is the result of a person living within a house and adding one’s own touch or flair to the dwelling. That doesn’t mean the house should be neglected in favor of style and decorative elements; quite the opposite. A home loses its allure when the paint fades or the foundation cracks. No one wants to live in an environment where the pipes spring leaks or where the floor is susceptible to becoming a sinkhole. People want to live in a place where they can rest in safety, where they can be comfortable.

Always check the foundation.

What is the foundation of a blog? It’s the underlying structure of the blog. It’s how the blog – the site – is arranged and organized. It’s the purpose, the why. Without that organization and understanding, the house becomes dysfunctional. Rooms are used for purposes that they are not meant. The house becomes a labyrinth. Its confusing structure catches a person unaware; the person becomes so lost within the blog that he or she cannot find the purpose behind it nor can he or she understand how to navigate from one part of the site to another.

Examine the walls.

The next component of the house are the walls – the things that find their roots in the foundation and hold up the roof. The walls of a blog are the actual posts. The posts are built upon the underlying foundation. They support the purpose of the blog, whatever that may be. For one blogger, it may be teaching his or her audience a new cake-decorating technique. For another, it could be sharing practical ways for becoming a better speaker. In both cases, the walls – the posts – must support those underlying purposes. If they don’t, the walls fall. The homeowner has to start again, this time keeping his or her purpose, the foundation, in mind.

Consider the roof.

Once the walls have been established, the roof can be addressed. The roof brings the four walls together. It unifies them. It gives cohesion to the walls and completes the work begun by the foundation. While the walls primarily act as an extension of the foundation, they also point toward the roof. They work toward a common goal, whether that be the goal of more e-letter subscribers, visits to the blog, or book sales. The roof is, in a way, the bookend of the foundation. The foundation is incomplete without the roof just as the roof is incomplete without the foundation. They need each other, and they need the walls that bring them together.

Now, build a house.

What joins the foundation, the walls, and the roof? A house can’t be built with only a concrete slab and some plywood and bricks. Other tools and supplies are needed. The different components of a house are brought together through piping, nails, and support beams. Such things in a blog are the things that the audience rarely sees or considers. It’s things like themes, which tie back to the purpose found in the foundation and the goal found in the roof. It’s consistency in writing blog posts. It’s things like grammar. Those things – and others – support the foundation, walls, and roof and bring those three things together. They are the glue, the cement, the nuts and bolts, the nails and staples.

The house already exists, and it has problems.

Of course, it’s not always that simple for the blogger. Not every blogger gets to start with a newly built house. Some bloggers have to work with pre-existing ones. Often, the conditions of that house are not ideal. Perhaps the foundation has sunk on one side of it. Maybe one of the walls is sagging. The roof could have a leak. Maybe some of the nails are missing, or a previous owner stretched the limits of a support beam. The house could have been vandalized. Maybe it has been left empty for so long that it requires not only maintenance but also the tearing down of walls so that they can be rebuilt. What does the blogger do in that case?

The blogger has one of two choices: he or she can ignore the issue or address it. Neither of those choices are preferable; the first only prolongs the inevitable, and the second means labor and inconvenience. Once the concern has been identified, though, something has to be done. That could mean adding support piers where the foundation has sunk. It could mean replacing windows and doors or adding insulation. Any of those acts has repercussions. Altering the foundation could result in nothing happening, but it’s equally likely that some sheetrock could crumble or that some plumbing could start to leak.

It’s also true that houses start to show their age after a certain amount of time. The house will need repairs. It could be time for a fresh coat of paint. The roof might need to be replaced. The walls could have started to crumble and need to be reinforced in some way. Maybe the homeowner now has a family and needs to add a room or two, that is, if the homeowner chooses to stay in his or her current house.

Blogging is no different; blogs start to show their age, too. The foundation may develop problems. Maybe the site needs a new look to bring it up-to-date and to keep it competitive with other sites. It could be that new goals – a new roof – are needed, particularly if the existing ones have been reached. Perhaps the posts need to grow and mature in order to support both the foundation and the roof.

Why all this focus on a blog as a house? Because it’s only after addressing foundational and structural issues that a house can become a home. It’s only then that a blogger can concern himself or herself with style and with adding that bit of personality that makes a site his or her blog.

When I Land on Your Blog, Please Don’t Make Me…

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I love finding new blogs to read. I won’t even tell you how many I subscribe to (hint: it’s in the hundreds). There are so many hidden gems out there, and once I find one, a big smile spreads across my face.

At least sometimes.

Because even though your blog might have the most fantastic content in the world, unfortunately, I may not become a reader. And while the content is the main reason I’m there, it’s the middle stuff. What happens before I read it and after I read it is just as important.

Now some of you might be saying,  this is my blog and I’ll do what I want. Hmmm, so you don’t care about your readers? You are writing for yourself then?  You are writing what you want to, and damn those pesky readers?

The problem is this: Unless you just want to vent or share life experiences no one but your mom cares about, then you need to care about your readers. If you don’t, then why not just keep a journal?

So here’s the deal. Whether I find your blog through a link, a comment you left on another blog, a Google search, or just by accidentally ending up on your site…

When I land on your blog, don’t make me…

Wonder what your blog is about

It drives me crazy  when I first land on a blog and the title, tagline, and header picture don’t tell me, “This blog is  about XYZ.” I am not going to assume anything from the link or even your description in the search engine listings. When I arrive at your site, within a second or two, my eyes are drawn to the header. If you talk about social media, say so. Because the photo in your header? The one of a quiet stream in the woods? That does nothing for me.

Get distracted by too many shiny objects

We all love fun stuff, shiny objects, cool things. But don’t put too many of them ‘above the fold.’ Sure, if there is a huge ad before your post, if it’s something I really need at the time, maybe I’ll click on it. But will I come back to read your post after you have taken me away from your blog? Probably not. Yes, you want people to take action when they land on your homepage, but engage them with your wonderful content first.

Hack my way through long, unformatted paragraphs

It’s a fact, people, the majority of our readers are skimmers and scanners. They are attention disordered and are looking for just the specific information they need.  They may not even read the whole post.  But your post length is not the issue. It’s the formatting.

Are you using numbers, bullets and a large enough font size? Are you breaking up text with decent sized sub-heads. Do you include great photos? All of these things will make your reader’s experience more enjoyable.

Have to close a pop-up window

Okay,  this is my personal rant. Yes, I have a marketing background and understand how effective they can be. And yes, you can grow a decent list that way. But personally, I think they suck. I have landed on your blog for the very first time and you expect me to say, “Well, duh, I don’t know you from Adam, but sure, I’ll sign up for your newsletter, though it may be nothing but crap.” You might also say, everyone does it, so it must work. Well, my mom had a saying about that.

And when I’m finished reading your blog, don’t make me…

Wonder how to share your post

Share buttons are simple to install, yet I still find many good blogs out there without them. Please let me share. I was told as a kid that it’s a good thing. Because you have lost me if you are making me copy the title of your post, open Twitter or Facebook, create a nice little message, paste in your title, go back and copy the URL, return to my update, paste that in and send. I wouldn’t even do that for my best friend.

Not find a way to subscribe to your blog

I realize that you are more interested in growing your newsletter list, so that opt-in box is prominent. I also get it that you would rather have people subscribe to your blog via email, so you can build that list. But please give me that little RSS subscribe button so I can add your wonderful blog to my reader. We may be in the minority, but don’t ignore us.

Wonder about who you are

Most of us readers want to know about the blogger. That is why blogs have about pages. Add one to your blog. Give me some insights into who you are. Because if I am looking for more info on you, that’s a good thing, right?  I’m not a stalker. I simply want to learn more about the fascinating person behind the words.

Struggle to connect with you

So I have read your post. I like what you say. I’m thinking that maybe you would be worth following on Twitter. Hopefully I’ll be able to find those shiny social connect buttons. Or maybe I want to do more than connect with you. I want to hire you. Yes, you impressed me that much. I should have no problem finding the contact button in your navigation bar, right? I won’t need to drop down to the footer and find the words “email me” in 6-point font.

So there you have it. I know there are other things that are just as critical, but just wanted to share my thoughts. And the next time I land on your blog, welcome me with open arms, I’m really not such a bad guy.

What about you?

Is the before and after experience just as important to you as reading the post?

Q & A with Bob: 5 of My Most Frequently Asked WordPress Questions

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We live in a quick-and-easy culture. We want everything fast. That is why we hear so many WordPress peeps saying:

Set up your blog in less than an hour!

Start blogging in minutes!

WordPress is so easy, even my 90-year-old grandmother can set up her own blog!

Changing themes is as simple as putting on a new coat of nail polish! (Yes, someone actually said that on Twitter.)

The problem with that is it ignores the fact that there can be, like with any new experience, a learning curve. And it makes all those smart professionals feel stupid if they can’t create a blog over their lunch period.

The over-promisers are always going to be there. They know that ‘fast,’ ‘quick,’ and ‘easy’ are persuasive words in marketing copy.

But jumping in without giving certain issues some thought can create headaches down the road. WordPress is a powerful blogging tool, and once you learn how to best use it, you will love it. Just don’t rush into it.

Here are 5 questions to ask yourself when you are setting up that WordPress blog:

1. Are the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org important?

Actually, yes.  In another post I wrote here I explained how some people are confused by the two options: WordPress.org (aka self-hosted) and WordPress.com (the blog is parked on the WordPress site). There are pros and cons to both. For example, it’s really hard to monetize your blog on .com. Choices of themes are also limited and you don’t have the ability to add plugins. On the other hand, self -hosted means that you have the added responsibility for keeping your site secure, updated and backed up.

2. What theme should I use?

This one is huge. Many new clients come to me because, after  spending hours installing a theme, they have found that it doesn’t fit their needs in the end. Some themes are more suited to simple blogs , while others work better if you want  turn your blog into a dynamic information source. And your options for presenting your expert content can be limited, depending on the theme’s layout, navigation and aesthetic design. Always look at a theme with an eye toward how you can plug your content into the layout and design.

3. Are there certain specific plugins I should use?

Of course. But remember: it’s always quality over quantity. Find those plugins that help with the critical parts: catching spam, SEO, site load speed, and things like that.  Choose ones that fill a specific need and don’t treat them like toys. Because they may be fun to play with, but are they really useful for your readers?

4. Does it matter where I host my site?

Damn well it does. A host can either make or break your site—literally. Don’t always look at price, although there are several good, affordable hosts out there. Listen to what other users are saying about them. Do a search on Twitter and see if they have experienced a lot of down time. Before you sign up, make sure they’ll work with you if you experience a problem. (Some hosts wiggle out by telling you that WordPress off is a ‘third-party software’ and it’s their issue to solve.)  And make sure you can get the support you need—when you need it. I look for hosts that provide both phone support and a 24/7 chat line.

5. Should I just dive into WordPress head first?

No simple answer here because it depends on your comfort level with technology. Although WordPress is a powerful blogging tool, I am the first to admit that it’s not the most intuitive. You can ask the dozens of people I have trained after they cursed and struggled with it. But do explore the dashboard. Poke around, see what does what. Find tools that will help you along the way, but don’t spend hours googling for answers to your questions. There are tons of resources to help you get started. And don’t be afraid to ask people you know and trust about the resources that best fit your individual learning style (podcasts for the auditory learner, print or video tutorials for the visual learner, etc.).

These five points barely  touch the surface. For more practical advice on how not to muck up your WordPress site as you get started, come to my session at BlogWorld in NYC. I promise to make you more confident to tackle your WordPress blog—and give you a few chuckles in the process. See you in New York.

How to Design a Blog that Converts

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Do you like it when readers check out your post and leave, never to return again? Of course not! As bloggers, we have goals, and we use our posts to try to achieve those goals. Did you know you can design a blog that converts? Your posts are only half the battle!

If you make money with advertising, your main goal might be to have readers subscribe to your RSS feed so they come back whenever you write a new post. If you have a product to sell, your main goal might be to get readers to purchase that product. If you sell affiliate products, your main goal might be to have readers subscribe to your email list so you can pitch to them. And no matter what, most bloggers have the goal of getting people to share their content via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social platforms.

It’s not just about what you say, though. At the end of your posts, you may have a strong call to action, but a poorly designed blog will work against you every time, no matter how well written your posts may be. So here are a few tips to help you design a blog that sets you up for success instead of failure:

  • Be a pattern interrupt.

WordPress, Blogger, and other blogging platforms make it super easy to install a theme and get started writing. The problem is that these ready-to-go themes are boring. Hundreds or even thousands of bloggers out there are using them, and readers won’t remember you as being something different and special. Be a pattern interrupt instead. Take some time to design a blog theme rather than using one out of box. You don’t have to build a theme from scratch; simply modify it so that you stand out from the crowd.

  • Draw attention with bold colors.

You probably have certain colors associated with your blog. When you want a design element to stand out, use a bright, bold color that attracts readers and stands out from the rest of your content. This is why you see so many bloggers with big red arrows pointing to their sign-up forms. You don’t want your most important design elements to fade into the background.

  • Put your most important information “above the fold.”

The phrase “above the fold” is carried over from print publishing. Placing information above the fold originally meant it was found above where the newspaper was folded in half, since that is what people can see at the news stand. Space above the fold is limited, so you have to chose the information you want to put there wisely. Online, above the fold translates to mean information you can see without scrolling. Screen sizes vary so this changes a bit, but you can general tell what readers will be able to see right away. This is where your most important information to help you achieve your goals needs to go.

  • The top right-hand spot is important.

A trick I learned in a graphic arts 101 class is that people naturally look at a page in an S pattern. That means if you draw a giant S on your screen, that’s how the eye usually travels. As you can see, that S shape starts at the upper right, so this spot is extremely important. Don’t make the mistake of putting something that doesn’t really matter in this location, and if you sell advertising space, consider charging more for this spot. Think of this spot as the prime location for a visual call to action, so place a “buy” button, subscription box, or other strong visual there.

  • Don’t neglect the end of your post.

You may already understand how important it is to end your post with a strong call to action, telling readers what to do next. But did you also know that the end of your post needs to be designed well for maximizing that call to action. This might be as simple as including social media sharing buttons or having links to related posts. But don’t neglect this area when you’re designing a blog to be effective.

  • Do some A/B split testing.

People are weird. Sometimes what works on one blog doesn’t work on another and vice versa. So, do a little split testing. Make a design change (for example, adding social share buttons to the top of a post) and see how people react. If you have the technical know-how, set up your blog so that half of the traffic sees your new design change while the other half sees the old design. Which one converts better? If you don’t have the skills to set up split testing that way, simple try the new design for a week and compare your results to a week without the new design change (look at percentages, not raw numbers). Make only one change at a time so you can understand how the variable is affecting your readers’ actions.

A final thought: Don’t be afraid to change how you blog looks. When you initially design a blog, you set it up to achieve certain goals, but goals change over time. It’s true that you don’t want to introduce a completely new look to your readers every week, but don’t fall into the trap of never changing the design at all. Design needs to evolve with your content so they’re supporting one another as much as possible.

What design changes have you made to benefit your blog? Share your strategies with a comment below!

Smart Sidebar Strategies: How to Optimize Your Blog’s ‘Boardwalk’

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If you have looked at lots of blogs, you have probably noticed something. Very few of them use the full page feature. There is a good reason for this. Your blog’s sidebar is prime real estate because it catches the attention of your reader immediately.

We all love those sidebars. As bloggers, they are calling to us to fill them with good stuff.

But since most people are distracted by too many shiny objects, we must be careful with our choices. Sure, we want people to subscribe to our blog or newsletter. And yes, it’s great when they click on an ad and the affiliate bucks roll in, but in realty, we also want them to read our posts, don’t we?

Here are five things to think through when making choices about your sidebar content:

1. Treat your sidebar as high-stakes real estate.

If your blog was a Monopoly game, the sidebar would be your Boardwalk. You would screen your tenants before you rented out the Boardwalk to them, wouldn’t you? Same thing with your sidebar tenants. Why would you choose to place a quote you love at the very top of your right sidebar, the spot your readers notice immediately—your prime real estate?

Think about your blog’s purpose. If monetizing your blog is a top priority, then ads and affiliate sale graphics need a highly visible spot. Or maybe your goal is to build that email list by asking people to sign up for your newsletter, in which case your signup box should be prominent. Because lots of content is competing for this small, coveted space, the solution might be to use a theme that allows you to customize your sidebars. That means that you don’t have to put the same sidebar content on every page. Putting on your marketing hat, you can figure out the best content for each page.

For instance, that Twitter and Facebook feed might work better on the sidebar of your about page. If you have a speaking page, links to purchase your books might be a good fit there. You can even get as specific as promoting a certain service or product on the sidebar of one particular blog post if you are writing on a related topic. It’s your choice.

2. Make it easy to subscribe to your blog—and offer both delivery options.

While the experts disagree on whether RSS is dying, your subscribers are still your gold mine readers.  They are the people who like your stuff so much that they want to be notified each time you publish a new post. Make it easy for them to sign up. Make sure you ask on every page of your blog.

And don’t leave anyone out. That orange RSS icon may be recognizable to your tech-capable readers but there are still people who don’t understand what that graphic is. They are the ones who will want to sign up for email delivery. So make that sidebar graphic large and impossible to ignore. Something like “Get email delivery of Bob’s blog” works well. I stay away from the word “subscribe” because some people think they will have to pay. And if you say “free,” some readers may wonder if that is just for a short time and then it will become a paid subscription.

3. Don’t confuse your readers with blog and newsletter signups too close to each other.

Keep in mind which one is more important in terms of reader signups. And, of course, if you offer both, you will want to differentiate them. (“Get content that goes beyond my blog articles. Sign up here for the BobWP newsletter.”)

Also, consider not placing them next to each other in the sidebar because that just confuses your readers. (“Which one does he want me to sign up for?) If you offer a newsletter, consider giving people the option of downloading a sample issue. Most people will not sign up for something they’ve never seen. With your blog, they usually want to read a few posts first. Same thing with your newsletter. A new visitor usually doesn’t show up, thinking, “Wow. This person is incredible. I must sign up for their newsletter, get on their list and get emails from them forever and ever.” They want to get to know and trust you first.

4. Make your social media connection buttons prominent.

When you invite people to join you on other social platforms, you are encouraging them to get to know you on a deeper level. Whether on your sidebar or elsewhere on your site, make your social media connections buttons easy to spot.

But whatever the case, sidebar or not,  make sure you are active in those platforms. I cannot tell you how many times I have had someone ask me to put them on their site because “my friend Kate has them” or “I like those shiny buttons.” There is nothing more disappointing to your reader than wanting to connect with you on Twitter, and reading your last tweet, which was 9 weeks ago, and it said,  “I just burped.”

5. Clearly display your your blog’s search tools.

There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about the value of functions like search, categories and tags. Are they helpful to readers? Do blog searches give random and non-specific results? Are tag clouds passé? There are no definitive answers and bloggers need to figure out what works for them.

I can just tell you that there are some reader benefits. Categories (the big picture things you blog about) and tags (the more specific topics) help your readers get an immediate, visual sense of the subjects you discuss on your blog. In the case of tag clouds—that list of words and phrases on your sidebar—your reader knows not only what you talk about, but what you blog about most (because the bigger the word or phrase, the more frequently you have blogged about it).  And if they are interested in those posts, a click will take them there.

There are no hard and fast rules for selecting your sidebar content. It all depends on what your blog is about, what its goal is, and what you most want your readers to do when they visit.

So who is occupying the Boardwalk spot on your blog?

10 Ways to Jazz Up Your Blog Posts and Online Content

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We’re visual people, the human race. Whenever there’s an appealing image, our eyes gravitate toward it. We’re also a very busy and fragmented race. We skim blog posts, looking for the marrow of the post. Then we move on.

If you’re the blogger, this isn’t necessarily good news. It’s up to you to keep a reader on a post longer.  One way to do that is with images and formatting.

1. Find a Good Image

A solid photograph or design can tell the story you want to tell in a blog post (or ebook or email). It can be a literal representation of your topic, or one that’s more abstract. For example, the image I use here plays off of the word “Jazz” in the title of this post:

You don’t need to hire a professional photographer to get great images. In my book, co-written with David Langton, Visual Marketing, we highlight email marketing firm Vertical Response. The firm creates free marketing guides for business owners. To make points in the guides stand out, it uses images from stock photo sites. Vertical Response’s guides have been downloaded 35,000 times in the last year alone.

Here are 3 good places to find inexpensive stock photos for content:

Here’s a list of another 50 places to find inexpensive or free images.

2. Format for Quick Reading

No matter what you’re writing, make it easy to skim:

  • Use short paragraphs, with no more than four or five sentences.
  • Keep sentences short!  Long dense sentences turn off readers. You lose traffic this way.

People want the meat of your post fast. They know that anything bulleted is worth reading, so use bullets (as above) or number lists to call out key points.

3. Get a Good Avatar

Many posts today show the author’s avatar near them, especially on group blogs. Same goes for your Gravatar image for blog comments, or your Disqus or Twitter profile. A blurry or poor avatar can turn readers off. Many people don’t even bother uploading an image.  Simply by doing so, you stand out in a sea of gray silhouettes.

If the instructions say that a certain size image works best, resize or crop it before uploading. There’s nothing tackier than a photo squeezed into a distorted shape. Also, choose an image so that your face is recognizable even when small.  Usually this means a headshot, not a full length or torso photo.

4. Go With Infographics

Infographics are extremely popular these days, and easy to share. Essentially, they take complex information and turn them into a visual, like this:

Infographics today are a key link-building strategy.  This means that most creators of infographics are more than willing to let you post them on your blog, as long as you credit them as the source and link back.  (You could also create your own infographic to attract links to YOUR blog, too.)

Aside from a link-building strategy, infographics are a great way to liven up otherwise non-exciting data. No one wants to read a list of dry statistics.  But a good infographic makes it visually stimulating.

5. Use Subheaders

Great blog posts and articles are broken up into sections using bolded subheaders. In this post, we break down each of the tips into its own section. This gives the eye a chance to rest, and organizes your information. This is also useful in long whitepapers and reports.

6. Have a Great Template

Have you ever visited a blog that immediately turned you off, due to poor design? Blog templates are free, so there’s no excuse not to have a good one. If you want something that’s in vein with your branding elsewhere, hire an affordable theme designer to customize one to match your website or logo.

A challenge for corporate blogs is: how do you make the blog feel more conversational and relaxed, when it’s a section of a very businesslike site.

One great example from Visual Marketing for how to do this is Tim Berry’s blog. He founded Palo Alto Software, and his blog is within one of the company’s corporate sites.  But his blog header is designed specifically to profile both the business and personal side of Tim. There’s an image of Tim in front of some beautiful mountains.

By including himself in a relaxed manner, he’s showing the business world his personal side. You don’t have to be all business all the time.

7. Make Sure Content Flows

When it comes to web copy or email messages, it’s important that the sections flow well. People read web pages in an F shape, so it’s key to have your most important content and images on the left.

In an email newsletter, use a sidebar to break out separate content, such as tips or news. This lets the reader quickly determine that the main block of text is separate from what’s blocked off on the side.

8. Bold Important Words

An effective technique on blogs is to bold important phrases and words. This helps readers easily identify the key points in your blog, just like our textbooks told us what to study when the glossary words were bolded in the text! Don’t overdo your use of bolding, but do use it to effectively focus on certain concepts.

9. Use Multiple Images in Long Posts

For a long post, such as the one you are reading, images not only illustrate key points, but they break up text. They make it easier to read. To some degree beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there are different ways to approach the images:

  • Uniformity – with uniform images you make all images exactly the same size or at least the same width.  And you place them precisely the same (e.g., all centered, or all left aligned).  Here is an example of a post with uniform images.
  • Variety – a different approach is to mix up the size and placement of images for variety.  The post you are reading now has a variety of sizes and placement of images.  Just be careful.  Too much variety and your post may look chaotic and lack unity.

10. Show Excerpts

You’ve likely seen blogs where the home page shows the entire article (times ten or so), which makes for a very long and unappealing page. Instead, simply show an excerpt of each post, with a thumbnail image next to each. WordPress has an excerpt feature and various plugins are available to achieve this effect, which means readers have to click to read the entire post.

By using these techniques, you can make your blog posts and web content more visually interesting, which will entice visitors to read more and stick around longer.

Anita Campbell is the Founder of Small Business Trends, reaching 3 million small business owners annually,  and CEO of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses to bookmark their blog posts. She is a Forbes #1 Influential Woman on Twitter for Entrepreneurs, and one of TwitterGrader’s 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter.  She is co-author of the book “Visual Marketing.”

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