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How a Blog is like a House

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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.

What I Learned from the 12 Days of Blogging, part two

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Yesterday, I posted part one of What I Learned from the 12 Days of Blogging, all about advice for posting a series on your blog. Today, I wanted to talk about what I learned about site navigation as I perused the Internet looking for links to include in the series. I featured over 100 bloggers but easily visited twice as many websites in my quest to bring you information. I likely missed a number of awesome posts, not because I didn’t land on the right blogs, but because I simply couldn’t easily find them. Some of the lessons below are things I need to implement on my own blog – I didn’t even realize they were missing.

So, without further ado, here’s what I learned about presenting information on your site as I compile the 12 Days of Blogging:

Lesson #1: Have a search bar.

I was going to sites looking for specific information, and while that may not be the case with every reader, there are a lot of times when someone will want to see if you’ve written about that specific topic. If you have a site search tool on your sidebar, I’m more likely to actually follow through in hunting for the information and I do so all while staying on your site. Making your readers go to Google is not a good thing.

Lesson #2: Use categories that make sense.

If readers can’t easily find information on your site, chances are good that they’ll leave pretty quickly. It doesn’t matter how well you write. It isn’t always relevant for me to go through your last few pages of posts. Sometimes I want to see what you’ve written on a particular subject. This is especially true for people hunting for specific information, like I was, but is also true of long-time readers.

Lesson #3: Have a “Best Of” page.

When it’s the first time I’m visiting a blog, a best of page draws me in and gives me a quick way to find out if this is a blog I want to visit again. Without a best of page, the saying, “you’re only as good as your last post” rings true. Yes, you should focus on being awesome with every post, but what if you last post was a site announcement or the end of a series or a review or another type of post that it’s super relevant to a new reader? For people who want to link to you in some way, a best of page also highlights the posts that make you most proud, so they can get spread more often.

Lesson #4: Don’t make me hunt for your Twitter ID.

Again, I included 100+ bloggers in my 12 Days of Blogging series and I found Twitter IDs for ALL of them except ONE. So, if you’re a blogger, you have Twitter. Of all of those Twitter accounts, I’d estimate that a good 80 to 90 percent of them are active, at least mildly, and at leas 75 percent of them are active daily. The real crime here was that I had to hunt for Twitter IDs for a lot of bloggers I included. If you’re not active on Twitter, that’s one thing, but if you are, put a link on your sidebar or at the end of your posts! It blew my mind how many bloggers made me go to Twitter and search for them or click the “tweet this” button on a post to see who is CC’ed.

Lesson #5: Control your pop-ups.

I know that the debate about having a pop-up (“hover over” or otherwise) will rage on until the end of time. Some bloggers add them because the stats don’t lie – you do get more clicks/subscribers/etc that way. Other bloggers won’t add them on principle, since they can be intrusive. If you do add them, a word to the wise – CONTROL THEM. I don’t need a pop up on every page. I don’t need it to fade in again after I’ve already clicked “no thanks” to get rid of it. More than once, I decided not to use a blogger’s link because their pop up was extremely annoying. Good content won’t always save you.

Lesson #6: Give me an RSS button.

At BlogWorld, one of the things I heard most often was that you need to give readers email options for subscription, since not everyone uses RSS. True. Very true. BUT SOME PEOPLE DO! I went to a lot of sites that did not have RSS buttons, and while I know that I can just type /feed after a URL in many cases, I’m lazy. I just want to click a button. Plus, if I do that, feedburner might not record me as a subscriber, which messes up your stats. And sometimes that trick doesn’t work. And blogs where I do that are more likely to be broken in my feed reader in the future. It’s just bad news. Don’t give up on RSS completely. Oh, and pro tip? I found that I was more likely to subscribe if the person had a button at the end of their post in addition to on the sidebar. Food for thought.

Lesson #7: Site design matters.

If your site has a pixelated header, a bunch of blinking banner ads, and comic sans font, I just can’t take you seriously. You don’t have to pay someone to design an amazing site for you. You don’t even have to pay for a theme. But take a little pride in appearance. It’s the least you can do for your readers.

Lesson #8: Write a good About page.

Your about page should contain two things – information about the website (i.e., what readers can expect from you) and information about the person/people who write the blog posts. I went to so many About pages that only included information about the site. Part of the reason I read any blog is its writer. So tell me about yourself! As someone hunting for information, this was also important to me. I want to know why I should care what you say. Do you have education? Experience? Life circumstances that qualify you to write in your niche? I want to know that I’m getting good tips, not just “well, maybe this will work because other people say so” advice. For the record, your About page is a great place to include your Twitter ID and email address (or link to your contact page).

I know there are lots of other little “pet peeves” I could include about people’s site, but sometimes what works for one market (or even one reader) doesn’t work for others. The above eight things are lessons I think EVERY blogger needs to learn, regardless of niche, and they’re things that a lot of people are missing.

The Redesign Disaster

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As you’ve hopefully noticed, this blog was recently redesigned. I love what the design crew did to update the BlogWorld blog. I’ve had blog design on the mind for another reason as well – I recently redesigned After Graduation to make the site more functional.

In both cases, I think that blog redesign was a good idea. Don’t be fooled, though; redesign disasters are very real, and yes, you should be scared.

Redesign disasters typically happens due to one of two reasons:

  1. The redesign wasn’t actually needed.
  2. The redesign wasn’t well planned.

Sometimes, both reasons come into play, and you get the perfect storm of resign problems. If your blog needs to be redesigned and you take the time to plan it well, execution shouldn’t be a problem. Even with some bumps along the way, a redesign can be successful if the two points above are met first.

The Unneeded Redesign

Sometimes, imperfection is better than a resign.

I have a friend who runs a moderately successful blog in his niche. He drives me crazy because in the last three years, he’s been through…let me think…six themes at least. That’s not even counting the redesign work he’s done tweaking each of them. He’s never happy with his site, and what starts as a change here and there often ends up as a complete overhaul.

Your blog with never – NEVER – be perfect. Perfect blog design doesn’t exist, so stop chasing it. Try to find the best design for your readers and then (this is important) leave it alone.

It’s my opinion that one of the reasons he’s not more successful with his blog is that he redesigns so often. Readers get confused whenever you go through a redesign. They have to re-learn site navigation. They have to get used to the new look. Your site design is part of your branding, so if you’re constantly changing your design, you’ll leave your readers confused.

Sometimes, a redesign is needed. If your site is starting to become outdated, hard to use, or broken in any way, go ahead – redesign your little heart out. Before you do, though, ask yourself if it is really necessary. You’re likely going to have to make some compromises no matter what theme you choose, how your sidebar looks, etc. Not every reader will be happy. As site owner, you probably never will be, and that’s ok. Pinky swear to me that you’ll step away and let the dust settle when you’re done redesigning. Don’t change the look of your blog every few months.

The Unplanned Redesign

Worse than the unneeded redesign is the unplanned redesign. A blog is a living, breathing animal that can turn into a monster quickly if you aren’t careful. If you don’ t have time for a redesign, don’t do it. Your readers will leave – and not come back – if your site is empty or broken for more than a day or two. It’s hard to win them back once they’re gone. So, plan the redesign when you have a few days to fully devote your time to it. Work in a sandbox if possible, and be prepared for some glitches that you’ll have to spend time fixing.

You also need to plan out what you’re going to change. Don’t just decide that you don’t like your blog and start from scratch. Identify what needs to change and come up with a plan for changing it. You can even poll your readers or email list to find out what they do or do not like about your blog. If you can’t really determine what is wrong, right now is probably not the time for a redesign. Maybe you’re getting burned out or maybe you need some more time to think about what you want to change. Either way, nuking your site and then sitting there staring at a blank page until you feel inspired is not a good idea.

One last tip – if you’re going to redesign your site, warn your readers. It can be a shock to go to a site you read every day and it is suddenly very different. Tweet about your redesign ideas, write a post about it (including mention of potential downtime), and otherwise talk to your readers about the fact that they’re about to see a new and improved version of your website.

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