If you like getting design inspiration by looking at excellent blog designs, you’ll love our new gallery site Blog Design Heroes.
One of the greatest benefits of blog platforms is that they make it easy to quickly get new content onto the site without the need to spend time on the design and layout of each page/post. Once the theme is set, all you have to do is create the content and hit publish. However it’s extremely easy to overlook the importance of the design and it’s impact on the blog overall.
As part of the testing phase of theme development a considerable amount of evaluation should be done to help you to create the most effective theme possible. You should frequently ask yourself is my blog effective? Additionally it’s a good idea to evaluate your existing theme to make sure it still meets the needs of your visitors.
Here’s a checklist of items that I use to evaluate my own themes.
1. Is it search engine-friendly?
There is much more to Search Engine Optimization than just the structure and coding of a theme, but a solid foundation is a necessary starting point to maximize your impact in the search engines. A poorly coded theme can severely limit your reach to search engine visitors.
There is a very wide variety in terms of search engine friendliness when it comes to theme coding. Some are excellent, some are horrible. Unfortunately, most bloggers don’t pay much attention to this when they choose a theme. If you are paying attention and you’re using a theme that isn’t search engine-friendly, it is possible to improve this issue and continue using the same theme. For more information, see How to Create Search Engine-Friendly Websites from Cape Cod SEO.
2. How readable is the content?
The vast majority of blog visitors/readers will scan the page rather than read it word-for-word, and even if they are reading it word-for-word you’ll want to make that as easy for them as possible. Generally, dark text on a light background will be the most readable, and be sure to use whitespace, headers and sub headers, bold text, bulleted lists, and short paragraphs.
Some of the issues that affect readability will be influenced by the theme, and some will be up to the blogger creating the content. The theme should effectively use CSS to deal with headers and line spacing, and of course the text and background colors. List styles are also important. At the time of publishing a post you should make an effort to keep paragraphs from getting too long, to use bold text and lists, and to designate sub headers as such rather than just using bold.
3. How useful are the sidebars?
Sidebars are often an afterthought to both designers and visitors. However, their effectiveness can be improved with some thought and consideration from the designer to make them more relevant for visitors. The sidebars were a focus for me during the redesign of this blog a few months ago, and since I have made a few tweaks I have seen noticeable (small, but still noticeable) improvements with increasing pageviews per visitor and decreasing bounce rate.
Try to step back and look at your sidebar(s) from the perspective of visitors and think about what would be the most helpful content to include and what would get noticed. Sidebars are often neglected, and as a result they become stale and boring.
4. How will readers find your best content?
As a blog reader one thing I always like to see, especially when I’m visiting a blog for the first time, is a list of links to popular posts or to the best content on the blog. As a new visitor this gives you the opportunity to quickly evaluate the type of content you’re likely to find on the rest of the blog and it can help to make a decision about subscribing to the blog. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to gauge a blog based on one post, so these links can be a big help for new visitors. Also, repeat visitors may be returning to find a specific post that they saw at your blog, so why not make it easy to find those that they’re most likely to be looking for?
I’ve noticed on my blogs that a popular posts section in the sidebar does help to send a bit of traffic to these posts, although it does not send a huge amount of visitors. There are plenty of ways to show your most popular posts. You could manually create the list (like I have done on this blog), you could use a plugin.
5. How is the quality of design compared to other blogs/sites in the niche?
Of course, one thing you’ll want to evaluate is the overall quality of the theme’s design and appearance. This can be a bit tricky because everyone has different opinions and no design will be liked by everyone. Plus, you’re likely to be evaluating your own design, which is never easy.
Take a look around at other blogs in your niche and try to see how your theme stacks up. If you’re having a difficult time you could ask a friend for an honest opinion, or you could seek out some help and constructive criticism at a design forum.
6. How is the color scheme?
One aspect of evaluating the design as a whole is determining the effectiveness of the color scheme. Again, this can be very subjective, so it may be helpful to enlist the opinions of others. However, when dealing with negative responses from others, be careful not to go overboard and put too much weight in one opinion.
Not everyone is going to like your color scheme, so try to get and idea of the general opinion and don’t change everything based on one person’s criticism (unless that one person is someone that you highly respect and trust).
7. Is the theme unique?
There are thousands of new blogs each day, and many have a very similar look. While you don’t need to create something that totally steps outside of the normal design habits for blog themes, there should be something unique that helps visitors to remember your blog and allows you to stand out in some way. You don’t necessarily need something that will wow visitors, but you should have a theme that will help for branding purposes and allow you to stand out from those using the popular free themes.
8. How quickly does it load?
With impatient visitors, load time is important. However, creating an attractive and interesting blog is also important. There are a number of highly successful blogs that have pages that load pretty slowly, and with increasing popularity of high speed connections, a little bit more liberty can be taken here. In my opinion, it’s good to evaluate the blog theme and see how it can be improved to create pages that load quicker even if it’s not making a huge difference. Creating pages that load in less time will only help your visitors.
9. Does it quickly communicate to new visitors?
One of the things I like to evaluate about a blog theme is how quickly new visitors can get an accurate idea of what the blog is all about. Ideally, within a few seconds of arriving at a new blog a visitor can identify the primary focus of the blog and get a good idea if it’s something that interests them. Don’t leave it up to your visitors to explore the site in order to find out what it’s all about, because very few will be willing to do this.
10. Is the comment section inviting?
Most bloggers like to get as much feedback and discussion as possible on their posts. This can be effected by the design and styling of your comments section. The comments are often not a major emphasis during theme design, but some creativity here can really help you to stand out. Take a look at this post with a mini-gallery of some examples of excellent comment design.
11. Are pages being used effectively?
WordPress theme designers have the opportunity to style pages differently than posts, although few actually do this. It may or may not be a good idea depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with your pages.
Regardless of how pages are styled, they can often be a simple way to improve the effectiveness of the blog. This borders on being outside the topic of theme design, but you can make a more effective blog and theme by using pages wisely.
Darren Rowse of ProBlogger has a nice post about 20 pages you can create for your blog.
12. How intrusive are the ads?
Most blogs now have advertisements of some sort, and blog readers have generally come to accept this as a standard practice. However, the ads can either have virtually no impact on the usability of your blog, or they can be extremely annoying for visitors who are simply trying to read your content.
One of my priorities when redesigning this theme was getting ads in a less intrusive location. When evaluating this issue you’ll have to keep in mind your primary goals with the blog and weigh your options.
Personally, I don’t like to see ads with the content of the post, such as directly above or below the post title, but these are typically the most effective and most valuable spots for ads. You’ll have to estimate the impact your ads will have/are having on visitors to determine if that income is worth the cost.
What Are Your Thoughts? Please feel free to share your own opinions the subject in the comments below.