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Common problems with blog usability

A while back I did a post on some of the common conflicts between usability & SEO on websites. That sparked some interesting questions in particular around the use of blogging in SEO and some of the common usability problems I see with blogs.


Creative Commons License photo credit: soapbeard

Firstly a few caveats…

I’m aware that many of you reading this will be bloggers and regular blog readers yourself, therefore I would urge you to put yourself in the shoes of someone you know who’s not so social media minded. I use my Mum, she uses the internet every day at work and home but she’s never been on a blog and if she had to guess she’d say del.icio.us was a chocy biscuit!.

Also I know many of you blog mainly about SEO etc so your readers are mostly techie too but usability is all about catering for the lowest common denominator. Make it easy for the 5% who aren’t familiar with blogs to use and the 95% who are will find it really easy, and hopefully come back more often.

I’m sure the sitevis blog breaks most of these rules so thanks in advance for pointing that out.

Finally most of these ideas stem from Jakob Neilsons Alertbox post on the subject of weblog usability. Don’t shoot the messenger!

Lesson 1: Information architecture

How often do you use the monthly archives that WordPress blogs spit out in the sidebar by default? Moreover the little mini calendar widget? Although these have become blog conventions they are essentially useless as site navigation. If you think of the equivalent type of IA structure on a normal website it would probably be a navigation system which categorised page names on the site alphabetically. Click ‘C’ for ‘contact us’. You wouldn’t do that, so don’t rely on the date archives for your main blog navigation.

The exception to this would probably be if you are using your blog as an online diary in the truest sense, but still, people don’t navigate a website in the same way as they read their girlfriends diaries- people don’t read online, they scan.

Categories & sub-categories

This is the preferred default navigation system for blog usability.  Just like a large website will use a multi-tear information architecture a blog should use categories and where necessary sub categories. As a guideline I would say no more than 10 categories with no more than 5 sub-categories in each.

Personally I would say this structure is favourable from an SEO standpoint as the content of each section will have greater contextual relevance to other content in that category/ sub-category, meaning it can be indexed more appropriately. Or put simply its less of a mess for the search engines to wade through.

Lesson 2: Good blog design

This should be led by your information architecture, too often blog templates I see are led by an overzealous, meaningless banner image with important navigation (categories) relegated to half way down the page in the right column, possibly surrounded by Adsense or social bookmarking buttons.

I would favour a design with a conventional website navigation system like a top & left menu bar combination for categories & sub-categories respectively.

Utilities like related posts or feedburner subscriptions are probably best stashed in a right hand column to avoid them getting mixed up with primary navigation structures.

Again SEO wise having the category navigation along the top or left will keep it higher in the markup and the search engines are more likely to latch onto your categorisation to spider the site, rather than following pagination or related posts which will be less efficient.

For colours, fonts and other design stuff I’d refer you to normal website usability conventions.

Lesson 3: Don’t use blog speak

I think the term ‘blog’ is fine now. Most people are more likely to be confused by the use of ‘weblog’ but here’s some common terms I see on blogs which I reckon would confuse my Mum and some suggested alternatives:

RSS- Newsfeed

Blogroll- ‘Useful links’ or ‘Sites we like’

Post- ‘Article’, ‘Story’

Leave a reply – ‘Leave a comment about this article’

Categories- I’m not sure you need this if you design your categories to look like navigation?

Meta – Tough one… ideas- ‘Admin’ perhaps??

Permalink- ‘Permanent link address’- Again I don’t see any reason to use this. Text like ‘continue reading’ or ‘full story’ usually has the same effect.

Trackbacks – ‘Links to this story’

Pings/ pinging – ‘Update notifications’

Lesson 4: Social media is confusing

It was bad enough when there were a few ‘social bookmark’ services. Now there’s hundreds and of course Digg, Technorati, Spinn. They all have non-mum-friendly names and if you look at total saturation among web users few people know what they are and fewer still use them.

My personally feeling on the subject of bookmark buttons is that they take up too much screen real estate for the amount of use they get. The exception as always is if a lot of your visitors use these functions then great, by all means keep them but if your stories have never been ‘Dugg’, you’re never stubled upon or none of your posts are tagged in del.icio.us, is it worth confusing visitors by giving these buttons prominence on the page? Probably not.

Does anyone use those bookmark buttons?

Kelvin posted a few weeks back about that. Honestly I don’t really know. What I recommend is tagging your bookmark links with Analytics tracking code so you can see for yourself which bookmarks if any are being used.

You might need to play around with the php of your WordPress widgets for this but using Google Analytics it would look something like this-

  1. Firstly move your Google Analytics tracking code from the bottom to the top of your page
  2. Find the bit in the source code which builds the bookmark link url. Do a ‘find’ on the first part of the  url i.e. http://del.icio.us to find where it is in the code.
  3. Stick an onclick event inside the anchor link <a> tag i.e. onClick=”javascript: pageTracker._trackPageview(“/bookmarks/del.icio.us”);”
  4. When anyone clicks on the bookmark link now it’ll show up in your content report as a pageview on the page /bookmarks/del.icio.us/

(Link tracking article on Google Analytics help)

Lesson 5: Make it personal

Whether its your own blog or a company one like this you need to make it clear who you are and what the blogs about. If your blogs about say SEO, but you sometimes post about other stuff like bike rides, triathlons or football matches your homepage might be a bit confusing for first time readers.

A solid tagline which describes what you mainly blog on and an about the author/s page is a good idea. Neilson is also big on recommending you add some big high res photo’s of yourself which can be downloaded and used by the press and other publishers. You might not be that vein but a headshot will let your readers know who’s talking to them- which makes the blog better for your users- hence the name ‘usability’. I’ve found this feature is particularly helpful for blog novices who are still getting to grips with the concept of personal publishing.

Now the first person to person to point out 5 usability problems with this blog wins a mars bar (not king-size)…

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2 Comments
  • I totally agree with all the elements you have mentioned above, top class article. I totally agree, too many bloggers expect readers to understand blog lingo! Also one usability issue I would is including Bookmark icons somewhere near the navigation, bookmark links placed in posts often get lost.

  • I totally agree with all the elements you have mentioned above, top class article. I totally agree, too many bloggers expect readers to understand blog lingo! Also one usability issue I would is including Bookmark icons somewhere near the navigation, bookmark links placed in posts often get lost.

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