Selecting a blog platform – Part 5: Layout, design and navigation
So far, we have covered some basic questions before you can make a solid choice which blog platform to use: selfhosting your blog or not, what functionality you demand, and what ease of use and support you can expect.
With this triple pack, you can more or less decide on a blog software. Unless…, if you are into serious blogging, and you want your blog to become a piece of pride, a representation of you, or your organisation.
After all, you can write the best content you want, but if you don’t make it attractive and usable, your blog will attract little attention, and few visitors will stick.
This is where the next selection criteria lay:
How about layout, design and navigation
Some blog platforms offer you the pure bred blogs: A serial sequence of information snippits, or posts. This makes it difficult to find particular posts. The only navigation offered is to go through the posts page by page as if you were trying to find something in a reference book within a Table of Contents or Reference list.
Similarly, some blog platforms concentrate purely on the blog posts, with a few widgets and features, only allowing basic layout changes.
Other blog platforms are comparable to professional CMS (Content Management Systems), used to create large Internet websites. They offer all what is needed to turn a blog into a real Internet repository, while keeping the playfulness of a blog.
Your demands on flexibility and features in layout, design and navigation will determine your choice of blog platform. Let’s go over the different packages we have focused on so far…
We can be short here: Tumblr offers only a templates or themes, and virtually no widgets or plugins. The templates are fully customizable if you know how to play with HTML/CSS.
Unless if you know how to customize your template, you will never get anything close to what I would call ‘navigation’.
The search function on all my Tumblr-blogs broke a while ago, and after a few months trying to get support, I coded my own, using a Google search function. My experience with their support in this matter was… not good.
Post tagging or categories are virtually unused for navigation. Unless if you write it for yourself, there are no navigation features. A user will have to browse through the posts one by one.
Blogger offers a limited range of predefined, and simple templates. It took forever before anyone made a three column template. They feature only a limited choice of widgets which can hardly be called “customizable”. You can integrate your choice of Google Gadgets, but most of these are not interesting or not working and without any technical support.
You have full access to modify your template file, whose features are well documented, allowing you to customize your layout at your own will, as long as you understand HTML/CSS and scripting.
Blogger’s navigation is the old fashioned type: you have to flip through blog pages one by one. It comes back onto my main criticism of Blogger: They have not added any features since over two and a half years (Google, are you listening?): Old fashioned serial navigation is what you will be stuck with, unless if you program your own into your template (as I did for my personal blog). They offer a search bar both as part of their top ‘Blogger’ tool bar, and one as a widget. But that is where it all ends.
They don’t know the concept of ‘static pages’ (e.g. the ‘about’ or ‘contact’ pages) neither, it is all left to you. If you are a HTML-savvy user, you can make your own.
They offer post tagging, and you could navigate using tags, but it is rather clumsy.
This makes a Blogger-blog a drag to navigate through posts. If you have a lot of posts, visitors will read one post, and then leave, rather than be encouraged to read others. Unless if you gather all your geeky skills and “do-it-yourself”..
WordPress.com, one of the WordPress twins where your blog is hosted with them, offers a much wider range of templates, plug-ins and widgets than Blogger. They do not allow you to customize any of it, though. You can not use scripting or other advanced stuff in widgets or blogs.
Many themes allow you to change the colour scheme or the basic layout, but leave it at that. A sign at the door says: “No hacking -eh customization of themes- please” .
WordPress.org – the selfhosted brother- has much more widgets and templates to choose from, mostly free of charge, developed by an open source community. As it is PHP/MySQL based, a lot of themes, widgets and plug-ins spin off from the Drupal community, one of the best open source Content Management Systems (CMS) available on the market. WordPress.org leaves you full freedom to do what you want, so you can tweak your layout to your heart’s delight.
WordPress.org has gathered that strong a market place that more and more people consider it as a contender for Drupal as a CMS, to design webpages, rather than blogs
This shows you WordPress’ strength. As the WordPress family is open source based, new features are being added at rocket speed.
WordPress offers a search bars as a widget or as part of a template. They offer static pages which are often very cleverly used in the free themes (or templates) they offer.
While you can tag a post with a keyword, you can also put it into a category, or a sub-category. E.g. I can tag a post with the keywords “Twitter” “microblogging” and “social media” but store it in the category “User Tips” together with the “Tips on how to use Blogger”. It will be featuring in the menu under “User Tips”.
The way WordPress implemented categories, allows the blog master to mimic something which comes very close to a webpage navigation. Some themes on offer – for free – use categories and sub-categories within dropdown navigation bars.
This is a real plus if you want to encourage people to browse through your blog, as if they were using a normal website. An absolute plus if you have a lot of posts.
Some WordPress themes have straightforward templates and style sheets which are easy to use and understand even for a beginner. Others are bewilderingly complex. If you think you may need to modify your blog’s templates, take a quick look at the styles.css file and a couple of the template pages to see if you can understand them before you decide to use that template.
Most third-party WordPress themes we used do NOT include support for printing and as a result printing a blog page gives you a multi-paged ugly mess.
Both offer many options for navigation. They support categories in much the same manner at WordPress. Typepad builds a very nice horizontal menu bar into every theme. You can easily have menu bar items point to specific pages, posts, categories, or even other websites.
The appearance of your Typepad blog can easily be customized in most cases by simply uploading a new banner and entering some custom CSS. It is rarely necessary to modify the templates themselves.
Here is an example of how Typepad and Movable Type differ from WordPress: Let’s say you create a static pages titled “Explore our exceptional Services”. In WordPress that would be what appears on the menu bar as well.
In Typepad you can shorten that to just “Services” or “Exception Services” or anything you want.
Dave has a client with a blog that two women, Maya and Maureen, maintain together. He created two categories, ‘Maya’ and ‘Maureen’. The menu bar says ‘Conversations with Maya’ and ‘Conversations with Maureen’. Without hacking the templates you cannot do that with WordPress. In fact, in most templates if you create a static page it WILL appear on the menu bar.
Similarly, you may want to have a link to an external website on the menu bar. Piece of cake on Typepad. Gotta hack the template in WordPress.
Its selfhosted half-brother, Movable Type is used by many big names in the blogging world such as the Barack Obama campaign, Britney Spears, Boeing, Oracle, ABC, BBC, Huffington Post, and Sony Pictures. Movable Type’s template structure may be a little daunting for a beginning blogger.
If you are really serious about your layout, navigation and overall blog design, combined with a highly user-friendly design, WordPress.org and Movable Type/Typepad are your best choices.
Movable Type, though, is considered as too daunting for a first-time blogger who is not very tech-savvy.
If you have a lot of posts, and want to encourage your readers to really discover your blog while navigating through it, WordPress is a go, only to be beaten by Typepad/Moveable Type due to its flexibly configurable navbar.
I would keep Blogger only for those HTML-savvy bloggers who favour its full customizability.
Tumblr unfortunately does not score very high in this area due to the lack of navigation options, tags, working search functions, categories and design features.
Writing this series, I got significant help from Dave Barnhart, who filled in the blanks on Typepad and Movable Type.
Dave is a social media strategy consultant, founder of Business Blogging Pros, and a gourmet chef. He and his firm have been helping companies use social media since 2005.
He blogs at Business Blogging Pros and Fumbling Foodie. Check out some of the blogs he has created.