Welcome to the third point on your blogging success map. In this territory I’m going to show you how to make your blog look attractive and relevant to what it is you’re blogging about. We’re going to do this by changing your blogs’ theme. I’ve always tried to make my websites look pretty and different from the competition, but I didn’t put that much importance on design when it comes to the success of your blog.
After looking at my own past experiences and performing lots of researching before beginning this case study project, I’ll have to say that my feelings have changed. Having a good blog design in place, to me, is one of the most important pieces of this whole blogging success puzzle.
Since blogging is not a new concept, it’s likely that there are hundreds if not thousands of blogs out there in your chosen industry. When I started in the personal development niche I had an audience of none and just as much influence. I was also starting a blog in an industry where there are tens of thousands of other blogs competing for the same eyeballs.
Similarly, the make money online and marketing niches (where I also operate) are probably the most over-saturated blog topics out there. In both industries I went from being relatively unknown to having thousands of people come to my website directly on a daily basis. While I can’t attribute my success to one thing, I’m positive that having a unique, clean and relevant design in both cases helped me on my journey.
Don’t Follow the Crowds’ Perspective
Before I go into what I think the keys of a good blog design are, I want to give you an example of why some people just don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to your site design and how to avoid their mistakes. A few months ago there was a guest post on the popular blog Pro Blogger from someone who claimed that the blogosphere was overcrowded. That there may just be too many people blogging about the same things to stand out and have your own voice.
The post attracted hundreds of comments from people who had put a lot of work into their sites, didn’t have much to show for it, and thus agreed with the author. If I agreed with them, then I wouldn’t have started this case study or spent countless hours putting together this resource site. Since I’ve been doing this for a long time I could narrow down the main reason the site failed to one key aspect: their design. And more specifically, it did a terrible job at a number of things.
The site in question was a humour blog, aimed at brightening up people’s day. If you went through the domain section then you’ll know their own, which included a hyphen and was unrelated to its niche, wasn’t a great choice, though there’s definitely more to a blog than what it’s called.
Since the name doesn’t give it away, I had to start looking around to see what the topic of the blog actually was. Even after quite a bit of clicking I still didn’t totally get it. The second issue I noticed on their site was that there’s just too much going on. There are so many options and so many things to click on that my eyes can’t just focus on one thing and I’m left wondering what to do.
The design itself is actually quite common and fairly generic, so if I were to stumble upon the site via social media like Twitter or a link from another blog then to me it looks like every other site out there. This isn’t always a bad thing, but when the opposite is true (a design is amazing so it makes you stop because good designs are actually quite rare) then it can definitely help to grow your own audience.
Finally, the site didn’t display any clear calls to action. Their sidebar was cluttered with widgets that seemed best suited for other bloggers rather than readers and their subscription options weren’t very obvious. Irrelevant of the fact that the owner is giving no incentive for me to subscribe either. There are a few more things that I could point out (I don’t want to be too harsh), but hopefully you can start to see how my thought process works.
A Site That Does Things Right
Now that I’ve talked about a site which does a few things wrong, here’s a site with the same aim (making people laugh) that I think does things right. From the crazy header which looks like it was designed in Microsoft Paint, you can instantly see this isn’t your typical website. The organisation of the site is a lot simpler compared to that of the example above and from the offset I get the inclination that it’s a blog created with the intention of making me laugh.
This particular site is actually one of the biggest humour blogs in the internet with some posts – complete with more Microsoft Paint style drawings – getting thousands of comments from people all over the world.
Navigation is simple with just one sidebar that highlights other content and includes a unique Awesome Button which takes you to random posts on their site. There’s also very little for people to “do” besides comment on articles, subscribe to the sites RSS feed or connect with the people behind it, elsewhere.
In other words, they have all of the basics nailed down very well and then put their own spin on things. That’s exactly what I want from you with your own design. So, what are the basics exactly? Let’s find out shall we with the…
Keys to Design
Hopefully that example has helped you to see how I look at things and how you can instantly avoid going wrong with your website. An easy analogy for you to remember is that the design and appearance of your blog is very similar to the physical appearance of the opposite sex. Allow me to elaborate…
When you see someone for the first time you get an impression and make a conclusion about that person within seconds. We also make similar assumptions about websites very quickly as well. Please note the following are examples aren’t supposed to be in tune with reality, but you’ll hopefully get my gist…
- If the person is very attractive and well-dressed you’ll likely be interested to talk to them even though you know nothing about them.
- If the person is average looking, you’ll likely not be bias in a positive or negative way towards talking to them, but you won’t really go out of your way to make an effort to talk to them unless they do something extraordinary.
- If the person’s appearance is unsightly then you’re probably not too interested in getting to know them.
It’s very similar with your blog:
- If your blog design and layout is extremely pretty and aesthetically pleasing, your visitors will likely stick around to see what you have to offer, even if they don’t know anything about you.
- If your blog design is mediocre, new visitors aren’t as likely to stick around unless you’re doing something else extraordinary (for example if they already know about you and your work through guest posts or videos on Youtube).
- If your blog looks like thousands of other blogs out there and/or is plastered with ads then new visitors are going to click away from it as fast as possible, even though you might have excellent content.
Again, this wasn’t meant to be exactly like reality, but I wanted to stress how important this section is. The core fundamentals of a good blog design are:
- Social Proof
I’ll now elaborate on each in more detail.
Simple websites are just nicer to navigate. Simplicity doesn’t imply that you’ve “dumbed down” your website, but instead made the rest of the sections we’re going to cover stand out more. For example, a simple website is both easy to navigate, and easy to subscribe to. Neither of these sections should be hard to find, yet if you fill your site with clutter, that’s exactly what will happen.
It’s not only your homepage that you should keep looking minimalistic either, I personally like to simplify post (article) pages in some cases by:
- Removing “tags” which may have been included in the theme
- Removing a link to the post category (as long as they’re elsewhere)
- Making my article headlines large and centered
- Removing the top date and author information
This allows my content to easily stand out, and means that visitors aren’t being distracted when they try to read my content.
Another key place to keep your blog design looking simple is in your sidebar. Most people seem to like playing around with widgets and try to cram as much things in there as possible. Simple designs work best because you don’t confuse people with too many things to do. Having a lot of options, surprisingly or not, leads to a lot less action.
Simplicity definitely helps the overall usability of your website, but it isn’t everything. When considering this, there are just a few simple (but important) things to consider. First of all, your blog should have a navigation bar in your site header which lists all of your important pages.
People are conditioned to seeing this navigation bar on blogs and websites. I recommend that the first link points to your homepage, and the other links should lead to your important pages that you would want visitors to know about, for example:
- About Page
- Consulting (where relevant)
- Contact Page
- Recommended Articles
- Post Archives / Sitemap
And so on. You may also want to consider creating a “Start Here” page for first time visitors and list that page in your navigation bar. This is very good for people who need to be taken around your website in a certain step-by-step direction. On this page you could make a very clean summary of all the information you have on your site and how to find it, highlighting your best content. Look at the “New Here?” link on ViperChill, for example.
To improve the usability of your website you have to make it very clear what you want a user to do, and make it easy for them to find what they want. Because this can be a complex job, millions of dollars are spent each year by companies focusing on this.
On ViperChill I want to make it easy for people to comment on my articles and subscribe to my RSS feed. Some people come to my site though looking to learn more about me and to get in touch. I have to cater for both of these things and keep them in mind when designing the layout of my blog.
You’ll learn more about what visitors are looking for on your site as time goes on (by viewing your most popular pages, for instance). I personally like to use a tool called CrazyEgg (non-affiliate) and while it costs $9 per month, it shows me exactly how people are interacting with my site, so I can tweak my design accordingly.
One instance where CrazyEgg came in use was in the footer of my site. I have a line of text which is in bold, but not actually a clickable link. I could see through CrazyEgg however that tons of people were clicking on these words. In then made them into a clickable link, and people started spending more time on my site. If you don’t want to pay for a service like this (I don’t blame you if this is your first blog) then ask a friend to just go to your website and “do something”. Don’t tell them what they have to do. Just watch as the navigate around the site. See what gets their attention and see what they quickly ignore.
Call To Action
Your blog needs to have clear calls to action in various locations. A call to action is something that grabs your visitors attention gets them to do what you want them to do when they are on your site.
You may think that if you have a little subscribe button or a recommended product in your sidebar that people will click on it just like you want them to. The reality is that very few people actually go out looking for things that you would love them to do (i.e. subscribe or buy your products).
If you don’t make these things stand out then they’re going to go unnoticed and visitors won’t convert in ways you desire.
As mentioned earlier, I personally want people to comment on my articles and subscribe to my RSS feed. It’s no coincidence that these are some of the most prominent sections of my site. I have links to my RSS feed in my site header, in my sidebar, and even at the bottom of every single blog post. These locations allow for more visitors to notice what I have to offer and thus subscribe.
Blog subscribers are the most valuable asset to your blog, in most cases, so don’t take them for granted.
You don’t just have to have one call to action on your blog. I personally tend to have one main call to action, such as the option to subscribe, and then other links for things like:
- Becoming a Fan on Facebook
- Following Me on Twitter
- Sharing my site content
You should be aware by now that too many choices simply paralyses people and results in them not taking any action at all. Have one clear call to action and then a few smaller ones if you need. My friend Steven has put together a great list of icon sets for when you do want to highlight any social media services.
I’m a human being myself (really!) so don’t take offence when I say this, but us humans are very much like sheep. When we see a lot of people doing one thing, we tend to follow along with the pack. Social proof, in terms of blogging, is a very useful technique to help convince visitors that they should subscribe to your site.
Showing social proof on your site could be highlighting things like:
- Number of subscribed readers
- Number of blog comments
- How many Twitter followers you have
- How many Facebook ‘Likes’ you have
The social proof displayed by the above examples helps people to determine whether or not you’re blog is one they should continue reading. In other words, if they see that a few thousand people have subscribed to your blog, then new visitors are more likely to do the same, because if a few thousand people are doing it then there must be something good about your content.
I actually created a WordPress plugin called ViperProof which will allow you to show social proof on your blog very easily but I’ll talk about this in the next update.
If you’ve just started your blog, it’s unlikely that you have much social proof that you can show off. In this instance I would put your main focus on building at least one of them up that is easier to increase (Facebook fans, Comment count, Twitter followers, etc). Instead of emphasising things like the number of feed readers you have I would instead highlight your popular posts, and freebie’s you’re giving away (if any) — we’ll talk about those last two more in the upcoming content section, so just keep it in mind for now.
A Basic Example (Graphic)
I’ve created a small example design which you can see below so you can see the basic structure that, in my experience, an effective design should follow. The options in the sidebar of course can be tweaked based on your own niche, personal preferences, and reactions of your site visitors.
Many of the themes you’re going to find in the section on the next page wont be focused around this structure, so I recommend you find one that is or at least can be tweaked to be similar.