Blog Usability – How to Reach Your Blogging Happy Place

Congratulations! You’re a blog owner. It has a catchy name. After submitting a blog post, you’re amazed at the inbound traffic. The ads in your sidebar are paying your mortgage. People recognize you on the street as that “Cool Blogger”. Next year, you’ll retire to some tropical island because your blog success is like winning the lottery. Or not.

A focus on the usability of your blog can help create a happy picture much like the one you’ve just read. First, let’s begin with the vision for your blog.

Vision

What is the purpose of your blog? The ease and availability of blog software has made blogging an option for nearly every type of web site. You can entertain. Inform. Sell products. Offer opinions. Market your company. Perhaps you simply want to write from your heart and your personal blog is your journal.

What is the value of your blog to your readers? Are you writing for yourself, your industry, your business, or company? Sometimes blogs are so well written that readers become fans even if the topic raises eyebrows. One of the best written blogs I ever found was filled with hilarious stories by a male escort.

Will your blog benefit readers? If your blog is part of a resorts web site, do you offer personal reviews of properties that your readers can use to help them choose where to go? If you operate a news blog, do you check facts, go by press releases or have investigative blog reporters on your staff?

Who is your target market? If you’re an artist with a blog, you may hope to inspire someone to purchase your artwork. Perhaps you want to convince them that your next show is worth attending. What writing style can you use for art lovers looking to purchase good works of art? When blogging industry news, do you write in simple terms or use technical jargon? Who will be reading your blog? Professionals? Peers? Strangers? Friends? Customers?

There may be related goals such as “to teach”, “inform and sell my book”, “news and a bit of personal life”, etc. When you wish to combine topics, communicate your objectives to your readers in your blog description or About page. Attempts to hide your true purpose or “fake out” readers may injure the credibility of your blog.

Blog visitors determine the usability and purpose of your blog based on the layout and content. When considering your target readers, consider demographic information such as age, gender, computer experience, geographic location and education.

Requirements Gathering

By now, it may have suddenly occurred to you that your blog isn’t just for you. Gathering requirements is an exercise in organization and better planning for your blog. Try to do this before you spend hours searching for the perfect blog template. The end result is better overall usability because of your close attention to small details and greater understanding of what you want to create.

We’ve begun by thinking about your blog’s purpose. Now, we’re going to list business and functional requirements to help you meet your goals. Whenever you add an element such as an ad, “chicklet”, link or new page that cannot be directly traced back to a high-level goal, it will likely result in a distraction or it’s an unnecessary addition.

For example, what do you want your reader to do on your blog (if anything)? Do you want them to buy your book? Do you want them to learn more about you or your business? What would you like them to do after they leave your blog? Can they recommend it to others, order services from your other web site, click to other blogs, visit your main site, read your resume or contact you?

Decide the main purpose of your blog. This is your “parent” requirement. You can have more than one.

Business Requirement (My blog is …)

Corporate
News/Informational
Web site feature (The blog is part of a larger web site.)
Marketing Services
E-commerce (selling products)
Personal Individual or Family Communication
Professional Individual (Author, actor, sports figure, etc.)
Medical Advice
Character blog
Vertical/Niche

Next, brainstorm all the ways to support your blog’s purpose. These are your functional and non-functional requirements. They are also known as “children” of your “parent” requirements. In the world of web design, children support the parents.

The requirements below must be traceable to your “parent(s)”. Don’t toss in something because you saw another blogger do it. It should serve a logical purpose and support your vision. You can choose from a list, such as the ones below in our example. Each are typical items found in blogs (and now you know why!)

Functional Requirements

(These are usually online applications.)

1. Google AdSense
2. Ads
3. Comments
4. Newsletter
5. Online order (sales)
6. Post photos or album
7. Multi-media presentation
8. Downloads (free, trial, PDF’s, documents, etc.)
9. Discussion boards or forum
10. Wish list
11. Affiliate signup
12. RSS/email feed
13. “Chicklets”
14. Refer to Friend form
15. Calendar
16. Search function
17. Archives
18. Categories
19. Submission to social network sites links
20. Tags

Non-Functional Requirements (User Interface Elements)

1. Generate revenue with well placed “call to action” prompts
2. Supply affiliate links
3. Link to other blogs
4. Provide a permanent link to each individual blog post
5. Write in a humorous, conversational writing style
6. Create community (via comments or a forum)
7. Links to sources
8. Quotes from industry
9. Invite partnerships, guest writers, comments, story ideas
10. Accept press releases
11. Linkedin link
12. Awards
13. Your photo
14. Images of products

Remember! Don’t add something because you see it done elsewhere. It may not meet your own needs or objectives. A Corporate blog with an Amazon “Wish List” may not be a logical functional requirement. Support affiliate programs for books and products that fit your blog topic.

User Interface

Most bloggers choose templates that work well with their blog software. However, attractive designs may not pass usability requirements. Does your blog compete with similar blogs in an industry? What you do to make your blog visitors content and satisfied will increase traffic and conversions such as sales, referrals, links, subscriptions and community involvement.

Your blog should include:

1. An About page. Who is behind the writing? Are there contributing authors?

2. An easy to locate Contact page.

3. Links to other blogs you recommend to your readers. They do not have to be on your blog homepage.

4. Chicklets? (See http://www.toprankblog.com/tools/rss-buttons/)

5. Archives

6. Blog search function

7. Sitemap for large blogs

8. Logo with alt attribute.

9. Tagline. Keywords in text-based tagline help identify the topic of your blog.

10. Categories. Text-based keyword descriptive categories help define your blog’s purpose.

Content that is too small and difficult to read is a common complaint in usability studies. By not specifying a font-size, readers can change font settings in their default browser. Another option is to offer a CSS font-switch option that permits visitors to increase fonts without relying on their browser.

Credibility

With the growing population of “splogs” or fake blogs used for keyword spamming search engines, it is vital that your blog make an immediate positive impression. If your goal is credible, authentic marketing, the following usability heuristics will be helpful in supporting your claims. If you desire blog subscribers, links, and wish to be mentioned in Digg, Sphinn, and other social networks, you’ll need a legitimate blog.

1. Your blog homepage should indicate how it differs from the competition or what sets it apart from others. What makes your blog unique?

2. Make it easy to discover who you are, where you are (country, town, etc.), what your blog is about, why you are blogging, how readers can contact you or purchase products. In other words, the less mysterious you are, the more credible you become.

3. If you are well known, a popular speaker or someone in company management who desires a personal touch, add your photo or links to videos and podcasts of you in action.

4. Make sure your copyright year is up to date.

5. Authentic writing is grammatically correct and contains no spelling errors.

6. Provide proof that you are knowledgable on your topics.

7. Link to sources.Referenced material allows readers to judge for themselves the accuracy and insightfulness of your statements.

8. Free blog hosting may signal a brief stay on the Internet or a brand new blog. Purchase a domain.

9. Politeness and courtesy are strong credibility factors. One example is to offer a comments disclaimer such as “Because I value your thoughtful opinions, I encourage you to add a comment to this discussion. Please don’t be offended if I edit your comments for clarity or delete off-topic comments.”

10. Add a Creative Commons statement or logo, privacy policy and terms and conditions if your blog is for business use or you ask for any personal information.

11. Include off-site citations, references and source material.

12. Provide a mailing or business address.

13. Note memberships in organizations, clubs, business networks, etc.

14. List the credentials of yourself and guest writers.

15. Make sure your blog is updated frequently with original content. Blogs that scrape content from other blogs aren’t for human readers and clearly aren’t interested in being read or followed.

Desirability

A business or company blog homepage should be designed for the person who knows exactly what they want, the “maybe I know what I want”, “browsers” and the “accidental tourist” who landed by mistake. A glimpse of a striking image or riveting post title can inspire further reading.

Personal blogs have more creative leeway. They may be angry outflows of opinions delivered in crass language and sarcasm. Some owners argue with anyone who leaves comments where they disagree with the blog owner’s point or opinion. While there is some entertainment value in this, it’s also a way to lose readership.

Does your blog meet the emotional needs of your visitors? If someone finds your blog from a search engine, does the blog homepage confirm they arrived in the right place? Here are some ideas to help hold readers’ interest, invite links from other blogs, create momentum to complete tasks or persuade a reader to subscribe to your RSS feed.

1. Blog post titles should contain keywords, be descriptive and attract interest in RSS feed readers.

2. Your blog should be a pleasure to visit and be easy to learn. Avoid “widgets gone wild”.

3. Don’t allow distractions to interfere with the flow of content. This may mean tough decisions for text ads tucked between posts or flashing images.

4. Aim for a presentation that creates confidence, community and expertise. Avoid frustrating readers with tiny text, low contrasts and large, unbroken chunks of text.

5. For product sales, sales leads, informational blogs that link to communities or business sites, etc., include incentives, specials, links to RSS feeds, allow comments and feedback and add illustrative images.

6. Provide evidence of customer satisfaction with testimonials, business hours, easy non-invasive contact forms and invitations to submit feedback.

7. Invite conversation by permitting comments and responding graciously to those who leave them.

8. Try the following to improve readability:

a.) Short paragraphs
b.) Indent or highlight quotes
c.) Headings and sub headings
e.) Be conversational
g.) Link to or note source (“hat tip”)
h.) Be original
i.) Invite other blog authors
j.) Update content regularly
k.) Does the content theme vary or stay on theme? Experiment to see what your readers like.
l.) Add photos to help illustrate blog posts.

Navigation and Accessibility

Navigating a blog is as important as any web site. Larger blogs may even need a diagram of the entire information architecture to make sure navigation flows properly. With the inclusion of tags, ads, widgets and related blog post links, your pages can quickly become cluttered and difficult to scan.

Make sure to include a global navigation scheme. For blogs, this is often in a header or sidebar. Static pages in blogs can be several levels deep. However, with blogs, sidebars offer a consistent way back up to top levels. When choosing navigation link labels, be keyword descriptive and consistent. Text that creates user confidence toward where you’re guiding them works better than “click here” or “more”.

Blogs are naturally fairly well organized with archives and categories. Your readers may appreciate a section for “Favorite Posts” and “Recent Posts”. Placement of descriptive sub-headings for sections helps readers determine what you’re showing them. You can also suggest where to click by leading readers to a next day’s post or take them back in time by category.

Most blog templates contain footers. Modify your footer to include your contact page, RSS feed and even a text-based sitemap. Be sure to indicate the difference between links and sub-headings with underlined text or hover colors. Remember that readers with poor eyesight or who are colorblind sometimes find hover colors or no link decoration difficult. Adding the link attribute to text links is a nice courtesy. Avoid loading up on feed buttons by using Feedburner services. (http://www.feedburner.com/)

Basic accessibility practices offer the same advantages to humans as it does to search engines. Writing up an Accessibility Statement for your blog can assist your special needs visitors.

When you were determining your target reader, you likely weren’t thinking about senior citizens, teenagers, and disabled users who rely on assistive technology to use the Web. Men and women use the Internet differently. Cognitive abilities vary between people. Where some readers remember everything when viewed once, others need reminders and guidance in the user interface. Cluttered pages are a hazard for those with reading difficulties such as Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Syndrome. Diseases that cause hand tremors make using a mouse impossible.

Make the site structure clear and obvious. Screen reader users scan with their ears and are just as impatient as sighted users. They do not listen to every word on the page, the same way that sighted readers do not read every word on the page. Most screen-reader users will not use a “text version” or “screen reader version”, because they’ve learned these are less likely to be updated.

When it’s all said and done, the vital life force of your blog is you. When you complete all the finer points of usability design, you can look forward to a long, rewarding relationship with your readers.

Editor’s note: First published by Search Marketing Standard, 2008. Reprinted here with permission. Written by Kim Krause Berg.