Steal These Blog Layout Tricks from the Pros
When you’re putting together the design for your blog, there will be a lot of choices to make. If you’re anything like most bloggers, you will probably be making changes to your design all the time as you discover new widgets, gadgets and options to make your blog look cool. You’ll ask yourself questions like, “What pages do I need to list in my navigation menu? Why, and what should I call them?” or “How do I choose what to put in my sidebar, or should I just put everything under the sun in there?”
How do you know which of these choices is worth making? While no two bloggers have exactly the same take on this, let me see if I can help by telling you what I’ve learned/observed in my blogging travels.
First and Foremost…
This should be the thought process behind every decision you make regarding the content and headings you choose to include in your blog’s design. Before you add something, ask yourself: Does this help my reader do something I want them to do while they’re here?
If it doesn’t, you might want to consider removing it.
Because today’s readers are constantly bombarded with images and information. It’s sensory overload wherever we look. So we often experience what marketers call “decision fatigue.” This term is used to describe how we feel when presented with too many options.
We feel tired. Our eyes are tired. Our brains are tired. So we choose NOT to choose. We choose to retreat. Is that what you want your readers to do?
I didn’t think so.
I saw a great example of this “keep it simple” philosophy over at Peg Fitzpatrick’s blog the other day. I read the post in the photo below and I went to share it, but when I did I noticed that she had only included ONE share button for me! I’d never seen it done like that before and I think it’s really cool. After I noticed that, there was no question as to which network I’d share her post. I knew what she wanted and I was happy to oblige.
Take home message: Keep things as clean and simple with your blog’s design as you can. This can mean a variety of things. I know some bloggers who have only one item in their sidebar and I know some who have been successful with many items, but the point is, a blog is like a room. Clearing up the clutter only stands to make it a more beautiful, pleasant place to spend our time.
Isn’t that the kind of place you want to be?
Above the Fold
Sometimes you’ll hear people refer to the term “above the fold” regarding a certain area of your site. This just means everything you can see on a desktop computer before you begin to scroll down.
Since many website visitors never do scroll down, this is without question a crucial place to focus your best design choices. Top-priority items should definitely go there. Guard your above-the-fold space carefully and make sure there’s a distinct purpose behind everything you see there, because it represents the first impression a new visitor might see when they visit you.
Wouldn’t you like your first-time visitors to see something as beautiful as Peg’s new and improved homepage (below) when they click over to your site? I know I would…
Don’t worry, I’m featuring other bloggers besides Peg here too =) for instance, here are two bloggers I know who have absolutely mastered the above-the-fold call-to-action: Rebekah Radice and Brian Dean.
As you can see, each of these homepages features an attractive photo and a clear, obvious call to action. One of these days when I grow up, I will have a homepage this cool!
On a side note, have I mentioned lately how much I admire Brian? Not only are his posts and his marketing techniques sheer genius, but he also was willing to take the time to give me some great advice on how to structure the homepage on my personal blog. Although it’s not nearly as pretty as I would like it to be, I feel good about what I have there for now.
Ads Above the Fold
More and more sites, even some of the most reputable sites I’ve seen, are putting ads above the fold and even at the top of their sites. Is this the right choice for you? Well, that depends.
On the one hand, you stand to get more ad revenue by putting them there since you can capture the eyeballs of every new visitor, but on the other, you might be giving that visitor a first impression of you that might not be as favorable as it could.
It really all depends on your goals. If your blog is a representation of your professional persona and you want people to hire you after they look at it, you might want to be cautious with your ads. In my opinion, bombarding new visitors with third-party ads from the first second they arrive is similar to introducing yourself to someone new and immediately trying to sell them something.
It’s not always a deal-breaker, but it’s not all that classy either. You know what IS classy? This.
Charissa Moore’s site, House of Bliss, is one of the most visually appealing sites I’ve ever visited. It’s no wonder her clients love her. Do you think she ever wishes she could make a few more pennies from AdSense? I kinda doubt it. She seems to be doing just fine.
The “Ads Above the Fold” Exception
One thing new readers will more readily tolerate is self-promotion. After all, it is your site. If there’s any place where it’s okay to “toot your own horn,” your blog is that place.
Most successful bloggers I know use this to their great advantage, using their space above the fold to advertise their own products and services and, of course, offer great benefits to those who join their email list.
One of the best-looking examples of this is Pauline Cabrera’s site, Twelveskip. When you visit here. there’s no question what she can offer you (and what you might be willing to pay good money for!)
Your Navigation Menu
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of your Call-to-action (CTA) here, and this definitely is relevant when you think about what to include in your navigation menu.
Again, think: “What do I want my reader to do?” “What kind of experience do I want them to have on my site?” “What do I want them to know about me from the moment they arrive?”
Each heading in your menu could be its own little CTA. Many bloggers I know have a “Start Here” page (see Peg’s homepage in the photo above), which I think is a very smart move. This page can give you a proper introduction to your reader, show them some of your best content, or invite them to subscribe or even hire you.
Telling your reader clearly and concisely what you want them to do will significantly increase the chances that they will do it! So be direct. “Hire Me” or “Read This” are a whole lot more click-worthy than “Resume” and “About”. (Uh-oh… I think I have some editing to do for my own site, come to think of it! See? We’re all learning here.)
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Of all the sidebars I’ve seen, my hands-down favorite one is Pat Flynn’s on his site, Smart Passive Income. He has a few items there, but once you get past them, his most compelling three start scrolling down with you, stuck to the side. Among others, there’s a plugin that’s called Sticky Widget that can help you make this happen if you’re interested.
Whether or not you end up using a plugin like this, you can still be smart about your sidebar choices.
Again, first things first. What do you want your reader to do?
Do you want them to stay and read more? What do you want them to read? How will they find it?
Remember, nearly everything you put in your sidebar gives your reader a chance to click away from your post and over to another page, either yours or someone else’s. Only give them that option if you really feel like it’s worth it.
Things That ARE Worth It
Awesome Affiliate Info
Ana’s Little Black Book is all about promoting products and services she uses and/or believes in. This is an excellent way to draw your readers in to posts you’ve created that feature products you have affiliate accounts with, as well as give your readers a little sneak peek into the process behind your awesome blog.
Stellar Social Proof
My buddy Adam over at Blogging Wizard has this in his sidebar:
Why is this a good idea? Because the fact that all these fancy sites have featured Adam gives you an instant perception of his authority. Another form of social proof might be to show how many followers or email subscribers you have, like Kevin Duncan over at Be a Better Blogger:
How’s that for social proof? I want to be cool! Maybe I’ll subscribe (as if I didn’t read all his posts via Feedly anyway…)!
Unique User Experience
There’s definitely something to be said for getting to know your readers a bit more deeply in your sidebar. If you go this route, you can show people who you are, what you offer and what sets you apart from other bloggers.
If there’s anyone who wants to give you a unique, branded impression when you visit their site, it’s Ryan Biddulph. At his site, Blogging From Paradise, he makes no secret about the fact that he wants to “take us with him” to the various islands of the world, so in his sidebar he does just that. Along with a few other strategically placed items, Ryan has filled the white space of his sidebar with fun photos of his tropical adventures, like this one:
Tropical selfie, anyone?
Pretty Post Ads
When I say ads, what I mean is little featured images and headlines to some of your best content. This is one of my favorite things to see in a sidebar because it gives me a feel for what I should definitely read if I have the time to stick around. And even if I wasn’t planning on sticking around a site, I often do if I see something interesting in the sidebar. See what this could do to your bounce rate?
Ads in Your Sidebar
Many of you know that I’ve been on the fence about ads in general for a long time. At the moment, I have ads in my sidebar because I thought I’d try it out and see how it felt for a while, but for me the jury’s still out.
Most “blogging bloggers” I know are not big fans of ads, but most “mommy bloggers” are, so… we’ll see. As a blog reader, I honestly don’t mind seeing sidebar ads. So I figure, what the heck? It’s worth a try. But again, it really all depends on the impression you’re trying to make and what your ultimate goals are– what you want your blog to represent about you.
A Caution About Ads
If it’s at all possible, you’ll want to set your preferences with your chosen ad network regarding the types of content you feel comfortable advertising on your site. If you don’t, there’s a good chance a potential reader might be confused to find ads on your site that don’t reflect who you are as a blogger, and possibly even some that are downright classless.
Two Other Essentials (According to Me, at least)
These two things may not stick out to you as being important, but they’re the two that bug me the most when I can’t find them easily.
1) Social Media Icons: I often want to share a post and tag its author, but I don’t know where to find them and I don’t have time to track them down. No fun.
2) Search Bar: Sometimes I’m looking for a specific post and I can’t find it, and if there’s no search bar you’d better believe I’m not sticking around for very long. If I can’t easily find your search bar, I’m pretty quick to give up the search– and I have a feeling most of your other readers are too.
As you can see from the stellar examples I’ve shown here, there’s a whole lot more to designing a blog than meets the eye. Some of it requires fancy technology and design, but a lot of it doesn’t and most of it is absolutely attainable by little old Mommy Bloggers like you and me.
It’s all about carefully planning how you word things, what you use and what you don’t use, testing what works and what doesn’t and, of course (my favorite pastime) blog-stalking awesome bloggers like the ones listed in this post.
So, what do you think? Did I miss anything? What cool features have you seen on some of the sites you blog-stalk? I’d love to hear what else you like to see– I’m always looking for ways to improve!