How Would You Improve Your Blog Or Blogging?

I have lots of things I am planning to change on this blog, with some extremely radical changes in look and feel, and changes to the overall linking structure.
Those changes have really been waiting for WordPress 2.3 because it just makes things a lot easier doing the work just once, however there are a few things I would like to highlight that I think people will appreciate, and even a few things that I have experimented with that have proven to be… an absolute failure.

This is actually part of a blog improvement meme just started by my long-time online friend Dane, and whilst I haven’t taken part in any kind of meme for months, I believe this to be a really valuable one which has the potential to give lots of value to readers, though I am twisting it slightly by trying to ask the people I am pinging to also give me an answer to what I want to change.

I am also going to tag some big hitters, and hope they will respond.

Headline Formatting

For a while I have been puzzling over something as to the best approach in formatting headines, but so that they appear differently on a blog, and in an RSS feed.

Here is an example from Copyblogger

Headlines on Copyblogger

The original article was about high impact content above the fold, and headlines make a huge difference, especially how they are formatted.

Notice that the first line is quite short? That isn’t normal wrapping, it is centred, but also includes a “BR” in the headline.

<a href="" rel="bookmark" title="Permanent Link to Writing for StumbleUpon:&lt;br /&gt; High Impact Content “Above the Scroll” in Four Easy Steps">Writing for StumbleUpon:<br> High Impact Content “Above the Scroll” in Four Easy Steps</a>

But the sneaky thing is that that BR only seems to appear on the page, and not in feed readers or search results. I have tried just including it when adding a headline to a post in the past, and the headline looked horrible in feed readers, and when people submit your post to Digg, the ugly “BR” can appear in the title… oops.

I can think of a number of ways to do this, such as using a custom field for the headline on the page being displayed, but I would love to know how it is being done on Copyblogger.

So first up I am pinging Brian Clark or Chris Pearson to give us some insight on the best way to handle this. Chris did Brian’s design and has covered similar stuff such as image handling in RSS in the past.

I think improving how headlines are displayed is important, so would make a perfect article on either site. I would also love to know what they would prefer.

Subscription Options

I have been experimenting with quite unique subscription options on this site for a while, and wrote about how I did it.
The aim was to raise the headers up the page a little on the single pages and offer something totally unique, and in many ways it has worked.
Some people might be happy to double their subscribers in 3 months.

Subscription Options

It has however totally failed in one regard. My email subscription rate has absolutely plummeted.
I am not sure if this is to be expected, and that RSS usage really is increasing, or because I am just attracting a more sophisticated user, but I suspect it is because it is hidden.

I would make it a lot more prominent if I was able to offer an incentive for signing up with a managed email solution, but such a solution would need to

  1. Allow me to send a full content daily digest automatically
  2. Support integration with membership sites
  3. subscription management (such as moving from a prospect to a customer list, and not sending out multiple emails to people subscribed to 2 different lists)
  4. Subscriber numbers are addictive – I need them reported to Feedburner

I want to extensively test email subscriptions on blogs, but I need the content to go out in the emails once per day. Some days I publish 4 blog entries, other days nothing at all. My record was 10 blog posts in a single day. If someone received 10 emails from me in one day, they are going to unsubscribe before they have read the 6th.

The nearest to the functionality that I am aware about is Aweber, but I believe I can only select a number of posts to send in a batch, or immediate sending.
So I am going to ping the guys at Aweber about this, but I would also love them to write something on how to increase email subscriptions on blogs.

There would be lots of ways I could offer incentives for email subscriptions, but I don’t want to frighten my list if I have a busy day.

Messing With WordPress Loops

In the new design I will most likely use some kind of featured post format, but I am not sure about the best way to do it for server load.

I have read 2 very good solutions

  • Use Daniel’s plugin, Homepage Excerpts or modify it as needed – this filters the output of the standard loop
  • Dane’s single wordpress loop code which does some counting to determine what to display
  • Using 2 or more WordPress loops

I will probably have to use some multiple loop code anyway in various places, and this will mainly be used for categories, but I would love to know which method is the ideal one to recommend to people.

So I need to ping a WordPress Guru who knows how these things work, and might also have helped implement similar things on a few high traffic sites. Aaron… help!

Aaron has actually been doing some pretty hefty changes to his own blog, and I noticed that the front page has been optimized to drive subscriptions very much to other team B5 blogs.

Also, in the comments on Digg recently for the article I linked to I noticed lots of comments regarding performance issues. Were they WordPress 2.3 related?

Just 3 For Now

There are lots of other things I am going to be improving, but I generally know the answers for those. I am actually going to experiment with a wide 2 column theme (60/40) with a complex footer.

I have been using tagging to determine related posts and WP2.3 probably won’t have that available for while.

And so gentleman, I would really appreciate your answers, and maybe you would also like to discuss what you would like to change on your blogs, or try to shoehorn some answers out of other people.

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  1. says

    Hey, thanks for joining in on this Andy. I’ll be anticipating the email subscription part and hope to see some good stuff there.

    I’d probably go the route of using custom fields for the headline trick myself, and am actually working with using a custom field for displaying a subhead on one blog, and plan to implement it on Dane Morgan and Blog Strokes soon.

    Server loads and page speed were the primary motivations for my single loop experiment. I’ve been looking at ways to reduce queries, especially repetitive ones without resorting to a cache, because I’m intending to increase the amount of dynamic information on my pages with some of it taking frequent updates.

  2. says

    I’m excited to see the answers to all of these. Dumb question time though…other than not having access to a reader all day, are there reasons that people would prefer to subscribe via e-mail? I know I need to add the option to my blogs…another to-do list thing, but I’ve always wondered why you want to receive more e-mail? Just curious…sorry, I probably just blew you “more sophisticated users” theory!

    • says

      Dana very few bloggers have ever done a detailed study, in fact I have read only one… Yaro Starek

      He has found response rate for email to be several times better than RSS, and he has built up an email list now that is 3x the size of his RSS subscribers.

      Despite having less subscribers than John Chow by RSS, he got a lot more referrals than John recently for Blogrush.

      Having something to give away for free, in exchange for an email address is as important now as it was a few years ago.

      Also it is very hard to give RSS subscribers a private bonus because people can always look at the feed but not subscribe

  3. says

    it was incidental and interesting to see ur update pop up on my omea just as i finished fixing up my feeds.. have been having some issue withit for a while…

    like dane, even i’ll be looking forward the email subscription part for most of my audience i presume are not avid rss users yet.. on my part I have tried to focus on the ease of getting blog updates in the mailbox to try and get users subscribing through emails, also put up a separate page on subscription though I don’t expect many clicks there..

    on the other hand with rss subscription, i hav tried to be a bit adventures and put a totally new image for rss breaking all standard guidelines…

    let’s see wat tht does to the subscription…

    it was good to see ur post, especially coz i just modified my design lately..cud relate better :)…

  4. says

    Well, I read your content so I don’t really care how your blog looks like as long as you don’t stuff too many links and ads in my face. ;)

    But for new readers who come to your blog for the first time I agree that you have to “impress” them somehow with the design so that they like it.

    I actually like your current design since I haven’t seen it before.

    So in my opinion – keep it clean and simple, put a subscription box on top with some free report or something as a bonus and keep up the good work.

    You’ll do fine. ;)

  5. Watch Heroes Online says

    Not the design is important, all that need is to load very qick the website, this is the most important, for me design is just 25% ( 100%), 75% is the information, so . . .

  6. says

    Ok, I would like my blog to have the lay out similiar to a book (for old guys, this is how we learned to read). left to right, oldest to newest.

    While i understand that returning bloggers don’t want to have to page down to find your latest blog, new visitors shouldn’t have to start at the last chapter written…

    couldn’t their be some way that the blog thing could tell the difference between a new visitor and a returning visitor and adjust the way the lay out appears automatically?

    (i’ll save my “hologram rant” for another time:))

    • says

      With WordPress, if the reader will register, then yes. You can put you loop into two separate files one template that is served when the reader is not logged in and another when the user is logged in.

      Just use an oldest first sort for non logged in users and let long time readers skip right to the new stuff automatically.

  7. says

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the suggestions!

    You’re right, at the moment the blog broadcasts send based on a certain number of new posts, rather than sending every X number of days (that option is coming as one of a number of enhancements we’re working on for that feature).

    Some articles on upping your blog’s email subscriptions would be helpful. To get you started, let me suggest that you try this out: in addition to the signup form that you use as part of your blog template, stick a form within some of your posts. We’ve been adding signup forms at the end of some of our own posts (example) and found that quite a few people are signing up through those.

    • says

      Before I forget, Justin thats for giving some feedback “from the horses mouth” – I would really love to know if you have some kind of schedule… rephrase that an “ETA you are able to release” for the daily scheduling of feeds.

      It makes a strategic decision for me a lot easier.

      You didn’t mention the possibility of reporting feed subscription numbers to Feedburner. They are getting part of the numbers probably anyway based upon open rate with included images, but it would be good to have the full data being fed. I think it only requires reporting to in headers each time to fetch a feed.

      The feedburner data is important both for social proof and revenue.

      As for tips, whilst some of my readers will no doubt appreciate that, many are very advanced.

      As an example, is there a way I can check via some kind of an API call as to whether a visitor is an email subscriber, or do I just have to do it with cookies?

  8. says

    On my to-do list:

    – make the blog load faster
    – turn the home page’s focus into subscription only. that technique has always worked wonder for Both rss and email subscription for me.
    – more prominent comment policy
    – more prominent resource page

    I like yours, and I can’t wait to see the new design. But even if your blog was written on a brick wall in a desert I’d find a way to read it every day. :)

  9. says

    My goals:

    1) Add more in-between short posts – right now there are too many heavy-duty long posts that take time to research, write and edit.

    2) Move to two right sidebars that are both geared toward typical ad sizes, instead of one right and one left that are both unusually sized.

    These are as much to-do goals for myself as things I’d suggest to newere bloggers … think ahead of time about what kind of ads you’d add and where, and how you’ll maintain a healthy post frequency :)

  10. says

    (in this comment I have used () instead of html pointies as I was not sure what your comment system would do to it).

    Your best bet(s) for the headline is to create a custom plugin.

    In Nucleus I would create a string such as $br$ that would contextually change to a real br or simply be removed. I would probably create a “skinvar” so that I can use the new tag to out put the br version but everywhere else show no br.

    In wordpress I believe the theme engine is direct php so you could create a function wp_br_header();

    There is a second very cool option that would work with the wp_br_header() suggestion – assume that when you type the “:” in a title you are doing a multi level title and use str_replace to swap “:” for “:(br /)” which would only happen where your template requested the specially formatted headline but would be “normal” in all other places.

    In other news you might be well advised to move some of the under post disclaimer into the side bar. The reason is that it is a long scroll to comment and a skip to comments #link would cause the text to be skipped. I know I have developed an ad blindness to everything between the post and the comment box other than the Don’t Be An Idiot badge.

    However with all these things it could just be me…

  11. says

    It might be possible to write a plugin to do some specific title formatting. (There is a hook for the_title()).

    What precisely do you want to do? Insert a break only when the post appears at the blog, but otherwise, keep it out?

    • says

      I suppose you would need a box with “display title” that is used in most places on the blog, but that method would get messy when people are using recent comment plugins and widgets.

      I think it would be easier to just modify a theme, and use a custom field if it is set, otherwise use the_title.

      The RSS feeds would still use the_title by default.

  12. says

    I don’t have an ETA to give as those improvements are among many that our development team is working on, but I’ll be letting them know that the demand is definitely there :) The Feedburner reporting is something we’re looking into as well.

    There’s not an API call to check that but what you can do (and what we do on our blog) is to integrate Google Analytics so that your source is tagged as “email” (your readers may also find Google’s URL builder helpful).

  13. says

    Wish I could be of more help Andy, but all I can take credit for is bitching and moaning about things (like images in feeds and headline breaks) and Chris figures out a way to work me a solution. I’ll ping him with this post and maybe he’ll stop by and give a quick tutorial.

  14. says


    The solution for handling

    <br />

    tags within headlines is actually quite simple. Essentially, those tags are only there for display purposes on the site itself (in this case, on Copyblogger), and we really don’t want them to affect the presentation in any other areas where headlines may be displayed.

    Within the site itself, headlines appear on the [1] front page, on [2] individual post pages, at the bottom of individual post pages in the form of [3] inter-postal links, and in lists of [4] related posts that follow individual posts.

    In cases [3] and [4] from the previous paragraph, all I had to do was add in some very simple CSS to suppress the

    <br />

    tags, which have been added in the title field of the post entry page (within WordPress).

    I use the rule of specificity to target the headlines, and a CSS declaration to “turn off” the

    <br />

    tags, like so:

    ul#related_posts li br { display: none; }

    The above declaration prevents all

    <br />

    tags from displaying, but only if they lie within the li elements of an unordered list whose ID is “related_posts”.

    As far as feed readers go, I don’t have any direct control over the display of

    <br />

    tags there. Despite that, I suspect that popular readers like Google Reader and Bloglines suppress

    <br />

    tags within headlines. It would make sense to do so, simply because one of the major challenges these readers face is to present a unified interface that features content from a zillion different sites, each of which probably has a unique way of formatting and organizing content.


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