From the category archives:

Blog Design

How to Tell What Blog Platform a Blogger is Using

by Steve Broback on August 29, 2008

Just tried QuarkBase, works great. Put in the URL, click the “technical” tab and voila, there it is. For years I’ve been viewing the source of a post and then trying to parse what the code is describing. Painful, but it worked.

I was hopeful that the service with the promising name: BuiltWith would do this for me, but IMHO it mostly overwhelms the user with SEO minutiae. It doesn’t actually tell you what the site is “Built With.” It can tell you a site is using WordPress plugins, but never gets around to telling you anywhere (I can find) that it’s built with WordPress.

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Make good first impressions by paying attention to details

by Jason Preston on April 4, 2008

Seth Godin, as he so frequently does, has put his finger on a really important concept: the details make the difference.

The facts:
Too many choices.
Too little time.

The response:
Quick decisions based on the smallest scraps of data.

It’s amazing how the little things make such a big impact on our decisions. When a reader first lands on your site, they are going to see a lot of things that help them fit it into some kind of category.

For me, sites fall into one of these groupings:

  1. Personal Blogs
  2. Media Blogs
  3. Company Blogs
  4. News Sites
  5. Forums
  6. Services/Social Utilities
  7. Not interested

And you’d be surprised at how quickly I decide which category a new site falls into its place.

Google ads at the top of the page? Media blog.

Forums are easy.

Custom banner image? Personal blog.

Content not obvious/above the fold? Not interested.

When you’re building your blog, pay attention to the grammar that you’re using. Make sure your site advertises itself as what it is. That will help you gather the right audience.

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Don’t be a gimmick: content before presentation (but don’t forget the presentation)

by Jason Preston on March 12, 2008

When I read about a “visual” search engine on TechCrunch, my first thought is “that’s probably a gimmick.”

In search, as with blogging, what matters most is what you put on the plate. If you’ve got great original content on a really crappy looking web site, you’re going to do better than a really good looking web site with really crappy content.

In other words, the prettiness and usability really is secondary. There are studies that conclude this (I’ve been told – never seen one myself).

But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

Usability can only be ignored if your competitors are ignoring it too. I have this dream that one day, someone will go around on the internet and start a web site that offers the exact same (or better) content than an existing, ugly site. But this new site will be pretty, clean, and usable.

You want to smack your blogging competition? Write just as well, and make your site more enjoyable for the viewer.

This is why Apple is successful. They manage to consistently marry great design with good functionality.

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Usability and SEO: Use WordPress or Drupal as your site engine

by Jason Preston on February 14, 2008

Self-hosted blogging engines are a type of Content Management System. Which means that at its core, WordPress is an adaptable engine that can be tweaked or prodded into practically any shape and size—from media-centric designs like Teresacentric to I-don’t-know-how-to-classify-it sites like PaidContent.org.

Increasingly, as we work with clients on what they want their sites to do, we’re seeing concepts with community-oriented features that require a more robust system like drupal.

But the back-end functionality and the front-end presentation are not necessarily linked to one another. Just because you’re using WordPress doesn’t mean your site must necessarily look and feel like a blog.

I remember talking to an IT guy at Yahoo! hosting a while back, trying to get the information I needed to do a WordPress install for someone. He said, “WordPress? That’s a blogging thing. Why would you want to use that?”

To me, that’s like hearing a doctor go “screw this fancy x-ray thing, let’s open you up!”

We’ve been saying it from the beginning: the architecture and the content are two different things.

A few days ago DuctTape Marketing linked to a couple of places where you can buy premium WordPress themes. If you’ve got a WordPress install up and running, and you’d like to re-skin it so that it doesn’t look like a blog at first sight (maybe for your company home page), this is probably a good way to go. You still get the SEO benefits and back-end ease-of-use that comes with WordPress, but your web site doesn’t have to draw up immediate associations to the blogosphere simply because of the layout.

Of course, if you don’t have a WordPress install already, or you want something more robust with an engine like Drupal, you can opt for a custom site build.

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A bad user interface can kill your site for some

by Jason Preston on January 15, 2008

The additions blog has a post up from yesterday comparing the user-interfaces of Twitter and MySpace when you land on their home pages. It’s hard to come at this comparison without some sort of bias, and I’ll admit, I think Myspace is a visual quagmire, especially in comparison to Twitter. The insomniac comes to the opposite conclusion.

Basically, the idea is that users come to your site with a set of conventions in mind. Ironically, I wrote a post a while ago on Web Community Forum arguing that MySpace’s “conventions” were essentially non-existent, and that’s why it’s such a pain in the tookus to use.

Regardless of who’s right about which site is easier to use (I am), the point remains: when you design your blog or web service, keep in mind what your primary functionality is, and make those actions as simple as possible for the user. I could invoke the famous Amazon “one-click” story to prove this point. Amazon helps you buy things. One click.

If you’re not careful about how you set up your interface, you’ll risk turning off potential users (or readers, or clients, or customers) the way The Insomniac is turned off by Twitter.

Also, unless you actually log out of Twitter, your home page looks like this:

twitter home

Notice the people search circled in Red? The whole process outlined in the additions blog post becomes three steps: search, click, click follow.

It’s appropriate for Twitter to require you to log in because the value in twitter is really in being logged in, and being part of the conversation stream. But that’s just my two cents.

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What’s Missing? A guide to building your own proprietary blogging engine

by Jason Preston on December 11, 2007

We’ve had the opportunity to work with clients who are rolling their own blog engine. There are any number of reasons to build your own from scratch (although most of the time it’s the wrong solution, and this post might help explain why that’s the case more often than not).

A lot of people who build their own engines aren’t always up on the “features” that tend to come standard these days in engines like Movable Type, WordPress, or Blogtronix. We’ve found that some aspects of blogging are more often skipped over than others.

Everyone understands that a blog needs to have posts in reverse-chronological order, and that somewhere there should be an orange feed button and the letters R, S, and S, but some of the finer functionality that bloggers will expect don’t always make it to the table on the first pass.

Here are a couple of the features that tend to get overlooked:

  • Commenting systems need to be prepped to deal with spam
  • Links in comments should automatically become “nofollow” links
  • The blog engine should recognize and use trackbacks
  • The system should support the ability to import feeds
  • Bookmarklets should be available for easy interfacing with sites like Digg and del.icio.us
  • Bloggers should be able to embed code in their posts, for things like YouTube videos

In a little more detail, here’s what’s usually missing:

Communications Interfaces

Include a complete commenting system – No, people don’t forget that you should be able to leave comments, but what they often do forget to factor in is the infrastructure: spam controls, moderation options, user dashboard interface. Wherever you have comments, you will have spam. It is inevitable.

More often than not, simply not allowing comments is not a viable solution. While most of blogging is posting, many bloggers will claim (and I think rightly so) that it’s not really a blog without reader feedback. So you need to be aware of your spam control options, and choose one or several methods for dealing with it. Common tools are CAPTCHAs, email confirmation of comments (Weblogs Inc uses this), or requiring commenters to be registered users at the site.

But regardless of what method you choose you will have spam. So you need to have a method for dealing with the spam that does get through (moderation). This means having a back-end where the blogger can view comments before they are published on the site.

It’s also pretty standard to give the blogger a range of options for how they want to deal with comments in the first place – the basic three options: comments off, comments moderated (all have to be approved), and comments unmoderated.

These are by no means the only tools available, but if you provide your bloggers these three options, and a reasonably intuitive interface for vetting the bad comments, they will be properly equipped to tend their comment sections.

Links in comments should become “nofollow” links

Directly related to spam, this is a small but significant feature. When people leave comments on a blog, most of the time they are tagged with the “nofollow” property, meaning that when Google crawls the page, it doesn’t treat it as a “real” link.

In layman’s terms, it means people can’t help their google rank by leaving links to their site in your comments.

If commenters and spammer figure out that you’re not turning off the google juice in your comments, beware! You will become buried in spammers and shameless SEO promoters trying to boost their Google placement.

The system should be able to interface with trackbacks

Trackbacks enjoy a kind of negative space in the blogosphere. Some bloggers really like them (I do), and some bloggers really don’t. Do you see where this is going? You need to provide the capability, but you should be able to turn them off.

What is a Trackback? A trackback is like a remote comment. If I read something on your blog, and I want to continue the discussion on my own blog, how do I let readers follow that conversation? I leave a trackback, which inserts a snipped of my post, like a comment, in the comments area below your post.

Your blog engine should be set up to ping other blog engines with a trackback (go to another site and say “hey! I’ve got a post that references this one”) and to receive tracbacks (“Thanks for the ping, I’ll add a link to this post in the comments”).

Users should be able to import feeds

At this point, a lot of people already have blogs. Some people have strong personal blogs that are separate from the blogging they’d like to do for work.

Some people may want to pull posts from their personal blog into their new blog on your system. If you’re looking to adopt a crowd that is already blogging, allowing for good integration with existing systems is important.

You should:

  • Be able to re-post items from an existing RSS feed in the new blog, with a link back to the original post (the link back is important!)
  • Be able to import posts & comments from a WordPress export file
  • Be able to import posts & comments from a Movable Type or TypePad export file

Also, if you’re allowing people to suck in and re-produce RSS feeds, you might want to find some way to check that they own the blog they’re sucking a feed from. You don’t want your blogging service to become a convenient spam blog host. You might limit the number of feeds people can pull in, and you might require that they validate the feed by posting a certain phrase that is randomly generated.

Provide bookmarklet buttons

Bookmarklet is a fancy word for convenient little buttons that let you tag pages in popular social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, Digg, Reddit, Netscape, or Newsvine. You’ll find them at the bottom of the posts on our blogs, and they’ve become popular in many places. It’s a good idea to include tools like these on your permalink (individual) post pages.

These are good tools for exposure, and many bloggers like to have them available. Having a post bookmarked on Digg is somewhat like having some space on a local billboard. These bookmarking sites can be big traffic drivers, and the easier it is for people to “share” good posts, the more often they will do so. Everybody wins.

Posting features

Support the ability to embed code

WYSIWIG posting areas are common and usually appreciated, but you should have a place for users to post snippets of raw HTML (or just have an option to edit the post in plain HTML) so that they can post things like YouTube videos.

If you’re planning to host videos yourself (allow users to upload videos and serve them in a video player), it would be wise to provide them with a snipped of code that can be inserted into any other blog to share the video. This is a fairly standard feature in video upload services and one that is crucial to allowing a video to spread virally.

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Building a better website

by Jason Preston on October 12, 2007

Seth Godin has an incredible knack for starting with complex and important concepts, and then boiling them down to practical principles. It’s one of the reasons he is such a good author.

A few days ago he threw up two posts on building websites – basically a bullet-list for creating a “good enough” web site, and another list for creating a “great” website.

These posts area a great starting point for a company or a team that is struggling to create a new, service-based web site. But I think Seth left out the most important point of all: architecture.

As we move forward, more and more sites will be running on blog content management systems. WordPress. Movable Type. TextPattern. You would be foolish to build anything less than a full-blown major news site on something else.

If you type “Seth Godin” into Google, this is what you get. Notice where sethgodin.com is (red), and notice where his blog is (blue):

sethgodingoog.png

So when you set out to build a web site for your company, whether it’s supposed to be “good enough” or “great,” don’t forget to build it as a blog.

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Good Article on WordPress v. Drupal at the Bivings Report

by Teresa Valdez Klein on September 14, 2007

I’m a big fan of WordPress and have yet to really dig into the nitty gritty of building sites in Drupal. But from what I’ve seen, it’s a hell of an application.

Here’s Todd Zeigler’s take from the Bivings Report.

FavIcons make blogs look a little more professional

by Jason Preston on June 8, 2007

FavicoI’ve always been a fan of doing little things that somehow subconsciously make your blog prettier. It turns out that making yourself a custom FavIcon is one of those little things.

If you’re too lazy to click on the Wikipedia link, a FavIcon (short for “Favorites Icon”) is the little pixelated icon that shows up next to a link in your favorites menu, or on your tabs in Firefox.

To me, this little icon says “Hi! I’m professional.” It says that you, or someone you pay, (or theoretically it could be someone you blackmail), knows enough and cares enough to make a little visual button for people to easily spot your site in a list.

Many sites and web hosts provide default FavIcons, which is great, because it means you don’t end up with the little blank page that most browsers stick in there if nothing is found, but I think it’s worth the extra effort to put your own icon up.

There are a few web tools that help you convert the file you need to put one up, and I know that you don’t always need to have your own hosting to do it (TypePad lets you customize your FavIcon). If you’ve got a logo lying around, and you’re using a default FavIcon, go fix it!

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Clean HTML is Best for Search Engine Optimization

by Teresa Valdez Klein on May 14, 2007

The Hyper Dog Blog has a great post about the top nine SEO mistakes designers make when building sites. The general gist: search bots don’t index Java or Flash very well, so your site should rely primarily on nice, clean HTML.

Blogging engines are GREAT for that. :-)

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