The Importance of External Input on Site Design

When you're doing a web site, it's always helpful to have somebody who can critique your web site. Preferably, someone who has a solid background in web design issues, can give you an objective view of your web site and who will honestly tell you when they don't like something.

This is actually #5 in a series of articles about creating and my efforts to try to build up the traffic for the site. Here are the other articles in this series:

Other Articles in This Series

For this article, I've decided to do something a little different. This is an annotated IM conversation between myself and Jake Vanus, a friend who I asked to critique my site.

DavidKeener: Hey, check out my web site when you get a chance, I did some more updates, plus I added a new blog.

JakeVanus: A new blog?

DavidKeener: Curious to see what you think.

JakeVanus: I thought you already had a blog on it?

DavidKeener: Yeah ... but I've got something new called "Traffic Diary" where I blog about how to build traffic for web sites, using my own as an example ... with real stats, etc.

JakeVanus: Hmmmm ... thats cool.

There was a pause in the IM conversation while Jake checked out the Traffic Diary blog, particularly the latest article which discussed actual traffic results over the last year.

JakeVanus: Not bad. Very candid, which is cool.

DavidKeener: I was trying to do something that's maybe a litle rare on the web, plus I want a more graphic, rather than text-oriented, blog like so many other sites.

JakeVanus: People like pictures.

JakeVanus: The search engine bit might come off as a little pompous to people who don't know you already. Then again, I can't really say ... as I do know you.

DavidKeener: The ego search, or the discussion of search-engine-generated traffic?

JakeVanus: The search-engine generated traffic.

Well, he's got a point. In the article, I'm certainly up-front with my opinions. Then again, this blog is essentially about my opinions on technical subjects. My justification for people reading my online content is that the opinions I've formed during 20+ years as a successful IT professional might actually be worth considering. I'm gonna go with "attitude" on this one.

DavidKeener: Hard to believe I'm already getting a long tail effect.

JakeVanus: Pretty cool.

JakeVanus: It's a nice article too. Good length, flows well.

DavidKeener: thx.

We were both fairly amazed at the long tail effect. Essentially, every blog entry on the site generates at least a few page views every month. The end result is a traffic curve that looks like this:

The Long Tail

In the graph, the long tail is represented by the yellow portion. This means that even the oldest and/or least-viewed blog entries still make a contribution to the overall site traffic. It also means that the amount of traffic will, at a minimum, increase over time solely because of the increase in the amount of content.

JakeVanus: IMHO, I would drop "articles" and just make every thing a blog post...

JakeVanus: ...and your blog dosn't really need a name... just "blog."

DavidKeener: Yup...that was one of my "suggestions"...I think I probably will.

DavidKeener: Well...I want to get rid of "Blog Spot"'s kind of lame, and there's a site out there called Blog Spot that I don't want to be confused with.

JakeVanus: I would just put a "blog" link where articles is now and call it good.

DavidKeener: Ok, so I'll get rid of that distinction...and I'm going to add a "Related Blog Entries" to the end, to try to generate some cross-traffic.

JakeVanus: Yah, that's a good idea.

DavidKeener: Now that I've got some decent content, I need to maximize it a little more.

Jake was right, of course. There really wasn't any difference between articles and blog entries as far as external viewers of the site were concerned. I've already eliminated the distinction by simply transforming the articles into blog entries.

As for the "Related Blog Entries" feature, well, one way to increase traffic is to try to get viewers to view more pages during a visit. One way to do this is to give viewers an easy way to get to items on the site similar to the page they're already at. Or, to put it another way, it's generally easier to get existing users to view more pages than it is to get more viewers.

JakeVanus: You might want a "projects" section, or someplace to link to sites you've done.

DavidKeener: I've got a Web Sites page, which I'm thinking of renaming either "Portfolio" or "Projects."

JakeVanus: I like the volunteer work page.

DavidKeener: That's been there.

The point I took from this exchange was that, while I had a page to promote my portfolio of web projects, it probably wasn't prominent enough, i.e. — it was getting lost in the general site clutter.

As for volunteer work, I've had some nice experiences in volunteering. As a result, I've done a free web site for a charity, assumed a position as Vice President of my HOA and done volunteer work at conventions. Frankly, I recommend volunteer work to others.

DavidKeener: What do you think I should do to "tune" the Home page...I'm thinking a little less "look at me, I'm a web professional" and a little more emphasis on the content.

JakeVanus: I would move the "My name is David Keener..." to an "About Me" page, and switch column's 2 and 3 around.

JakeVanus: eg: your blog articles should be top front center. with other stuff around the sides.

DavidKeener: Ok, that sounds good to me.

DavidKeener: Actually, the "About Me" page sounds pretty'd let me leverage all of the nice content I've already written for the Home page, including keeping the graphics and basic layout of column 2.

Since this exchange discusses the "columns" of the web site, let's talk about the Home page. The first column contained the menu entries for the web site and a few banners. The second column was the widest, and included the primary content for the page. The third column was narrow and included things like news entries, a brief listing of recent blog entries, etc.

Jake's suggestion, which was a very good one, was to take the content in the second column, which basically advertised my services as a web professional, and move it to an "About Me" page. That way, the Home page could be focused on the content, with the goal of drawing more users into viewing more blog entries. I've already begun implementing these suggestions.

JakeVanus: Might also help to let it use more space overall.

JakeVanus: You have enough content now that it feels cramped in the limited width. esp on my wide screen laptop.

DavidKeener: You think I should make the page expandable?

JakeVanus: Yah, I do. Not the most important change to be sure, but worthwhile in the long run.

DavidKeener: Maybe...there's some things I like about a set page width, and that's the ability to do interesting layouts without worrying about what page width expansion will do to them.

JakeVanus: A lot of laptops and even some desktops are using a widescreen display, which gives a lot of left/right real-estate, but not much up/down.

DavidKeener: But with text, there's a limit to how wide the page can be and have the content still feel "right" for reading.

JakeVanus: If your content is *mostly* text then user can really benefit from the extra room.

JakeVanus: You can set limits if you want to, just make them really big.

JakeVanus: 1000 px or something.

DavidKeener: The look is at 800 right now.

JakeVanus: Really?

DavidKeener: Yup.

JakeVanus: You have a lot of text, I think it'll still look good wide.

JakeVanus: Ok, so make that 1200.

JakeVanus: Or however wide you can make it, and still have it look good.

DavidKeener: All right, I'll take a look at that, although that's gonna be a lower priority than other things.

JakeVanus: Yah, I would think so.

JakeVanus: As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I'd do it now, just something to keep in mind when your ready to redesign eventually.

DavidKeener: My goal, though, is to make sure the site doesn't look like it's being done using the same "one-size-fits-all" blog software that everybody else is using.

JakeVanus: I don't think expandable widths will break that.

Sigh. This is the eternal "fixed width" vs. "expandable width" debate. Essentially, designers like fixed width because they can control the spatial relationships of all of the page elements, i.e. - they generate a harmonious design where all elements of the page design contribute to the overall effect. However, users typically prefer expandable web pages so they can make their screen whatever width is comfortable for them to view.

I've done both fixed-width and expandable web sites, so a design change like this is something I can handle. It's probably something I'll do eventually, but not just yet.

DavidKeener: You like the "Traffic Diary" banner or not?

DavidKeener: I couldn't decide whether it was cool or just to wimpy.

JakeVanus: The book graphic?

DavidKeener: Yup.

JakeVanus: It's not as good as your other art.

DavidKeener: Yeah.

DavidKeener: I'm open to ideas on that...I wanna promote the "Traffic Diary" a little more...

JakeVanus: Well, logo wise, you might try part of a picture of a page with writing on it (turned 45 deg. left camera at an angle so it looks like what most people would see while writing in a journal), or more of a graph clipart.

DavidKeener: Hmmmm...that's not bad...I could probably do that.

Ouch. Oh, the pain. Still, if you ask for advice, you've got to take the good with the bad. Once again, with the promotional graphic, I think we've come down on the side of "wimpy."

I think it's safe to say "Hasta la vista" to the graphic. I'm going to have to come up with a better graphic to promote the "Traffic Diary."

DavidKeener: I also think I'll have two series of articles on the home page...the regular blog entries and then the Traffic Diary ones, with both lists ending in a link to see more.

JakeVanus: You could just make the traffic diary like a category in your blog.

JakeVanus: Though that might go against the "one-off" feel.

DavidKeener: Thought about that...I am gonna add categories...I need that to drive the "Related Blog Entries" logic...but I think there's some benefit to pulling those entries out into a separate traffic-oriented blog.

DavidKeener: I just a have a feel like I can market that separately, and that the audience for that blog might not be the same as for my other entries.

JakeVanus: True.

Hopefully, this annotated (and excerpted) IM conversation makes the point that an honest external view of a site's features can be extremely useful in tuning a web site. Most of the ideas we discussed are features that I've either implemented or am in the process of implementing. Tune in later to find out if these changes have had any impact on the overall traffic of the site.


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