LifeHack.org turns in a great roundup of tips on keeping readers and making a blog usable. The basics? Keep it readable:
Format Your Text- Take the extra time to write “pretty” posts, such as it were. Make it so that people can read what you’re typing, and do your best to keep the tone communicative, and not too dense. Translation: big fat paragraphs of dense text usually don’t make for “friendly” blog reading. (Look at David Byrne’s journal. Great stuff, but soooooooo long.) And get friendly with things like bulleted lists, shorter and longer paragraphs, use of bold, etc. But not too much. It’s a condiment.
The author of this post is spot-on in this article. Even if you think you’ve got it down, it never hurts to read the above article. You might find something you hadn’t considered. I like that he points out the need for short paragraphs, for example. Generally, large paragraphs that are well-written can easily be divided up a bit, since one thought should naturally lead to the next, anyway. But smart people tend to forget that their readers need logical breaks in the stream of consciousness, especially people used to writing in intellectual or academic circles.
On this level and so many more bulleted out for you in the above-linked post, some of the big blogs out there do more harm than good. Take the Daily Kos as one example. How many different ways to they violate LifeHack’s relatively simple rules of readability? Counting can make your head spin. In fact, I never go to Daily Koz ~ and I don’t care how much it affects my political blog not to be involved here ~ because the whole freakin’ page makes my eyes bug out of my head.
And because pages like this are so hard to read, other bloggers of like mind often emulate the unreadability and assume that this makes them hip. Some blogs made it big early and thus continue despite their readability shortcomings, others bull-dog their popularity with active and persistent SEO tactics, but for the rest of us, making the page readable is quite possibly the most essential component of achieving popularity.
So in the interest of furthering the usability discussion, allow me to add a few bullet points of my own using Kos as a “do not” example:
- Lines draw the eye, use them wisely: (I could write a whole blog on this, and maybe I just might) When creating borders around elements, be aware that the simple introduction of a solid line naturally draws the eye to follow where it leads. If you look at DailyKos, you can count at least twenty lines making up just the top three inches of the page. Moreover, they’re high-contrast lines separating orange and white and some of them are at 45 degree angles, besides. Holy crap! Keep borders to a minimum, and where you use them, try to see where they lead the user’s attention. It might lead them to move on.
- Sidebars are content, too!: When I read web pages, I like to be able to glance at the sidebars and see if there’s anything worth checking out elsewhere. So do other people, and that’s what sidebars are there for: to entice users towards increased Page-Per-Visit (PPV) or ad revenue. But in order to achieve this, the sidebar should flow naturally from the main content. When you look at DKos, it is impossible to see how the two right columns relate to the left. In fact, it almost looks as if you’re looking at three different web pages in frames. In Kos’s case, I would largely blame the use of ad content in the centre column for this “Islands in the Stream,” effect.
- Contrast is powerful stuff: I alluded to this in bullet #1, but I’ll state it explicitly here. Contrast is a powerful tool of usability, and thus you need to use it carefully. Kos looks like a creamsicle might in the midst of a bad acid trip. Once again, holy crap! They’re beating you over the head with the white and orange. Far better would be to use related or complimentary colors that blend into a whole while adding a small bit of contrast for the sake of drawing the eye and adding visual flavour.
That’s about all I’ve got at the moment. The big thing is to leave your page alone, walk away and have a beer, then go back and take another look. Or ask your friends to look, you’re probably always bugging them to, anyway. Get a fresh perspective on what you’ve got and think in terms of what you would think as a stranger to the website.
On a side-note, while I can’t prove it conclusively, I have a hunch that too much visual separation is probably not too good for SEO, either. Google has put a lot of effort forth in recent years to increase it’s search bots’ sensitivity to “readability” rules. That makes sense because things that aren’t readable on a webpage are more likely to be “Black-Hat” SEO tactics, and anyway, they’re not going to be terribly useful to the reader.
I also suspect, on this readability level, that keeping paragraphs short and focused is probably also good for SEO. That’s because a short, focused article is going to have a high density of related words that Google will see as an important article, but it is unlikely to have the same word repeated too many times, which will trip Google’s BS monitor.
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