Writer, Brand Thyself: Blogging, Part 1

I’ll let you in on a little secret – a blog is just as much a website as…well…any other site on the web. If that’s the only thing you have time to do, it should be the top priority, in my opinion. The lovely thing about blogs is that they’re normally pretty easy to learn to use due to the user-friendly template system, you don’t have to have any programming or coding knowledge, and you can have one up in just a few mouse clicks. It can serve nicely as the “hub” for all of your other networking endeavors.

So let’s look at what constitutes good website design. These are just simple, basic things that you can do even if you’re using a template. The point of having a website is to have somewhere people can find and interact with you – if your design is lacking, visitors will be less likely to stay. Content keeps them coming back. Design keeps them around long enough to get hooked on your content.

When designing a site, always remember the purpose you have for creating it. In the case of my blog, it’s to attract readers and potential book-buyers, and to interact with both readers and other writers. I look at design elements as tools to help me achieve that purpose.

Color: Yes, I know that black/dark backgrounds with light text are more appealing to some people. My very first freelance web design site was black w/white text. The problem is, when you’re building a brand, you want your site to be appealing to *the most people possible*. This means no light text on dark backgrounds. You can have a dark background…just put areas containing text on a lighter background. Consider it a small compromise in exchange for extra potential sales later. Light background doesn’t automatically equal white or cream – my Halloween blog has black text on orange. Still a bit harsh, but it works. Light blue, green, purple…there are a world of colors out there to choose from. No need to stick with white.

Layout: Contact information should be one of the first things people see when they come to the site. You’ll note that mine is at the top of the left sidebar – we read left to right, so after the header, that’s the first thing visitors will see. That’s also the first text that robots indexing your site will see – which means it will show up underneath your web site link on search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc). Naturally, your name should be listed first for your contact info. This is what brings your name to the top of a search listing.

Title: I’m not of the opinion that your blog has to be named “your name” (though there’s nothing wrong with that). The titles of your books certainly won’t be. As long as your name is right up there at the top, first thing on the page, that’s what matters. As far as the title goes, don’t embed it in your graphic. Use a text title on the page, with the graphic behind it. That way search engines will see your title (they won’t if it’s embedded in a picture). If you *must* embed your name in the photo, be sure to add alternate text to the image – hopefully there will be a place for you to do that where you add the header.

Navigation: At the very least, you need a “Home” link that goes to your main page, and a “Subscribe” link for people to access your RSS feed. A search box or a list of post labels will be very helpful for someone wanting to find specific topics on your site. These can be located anywhere that is near the top of the page (over or under the header, or near the top of a sidebar) – somewhere easy to see and find.

Bells & Whistles: Be very, very careful with these. If you want music, make sure it doesn’t start automatically, and the same with video. One slide show is okay, if it doesn’t slow the page down. You don’t know where people are browsing from, or how fast the connection might be. Go light on the flash widgets – just one of those loading slowly can freeze your whole page up. Less is more in this category.

I don’t often let my work life mingle with my writing life, but in this case, it seems relevant. For the curious, here’s a link to the website that I design and administer professionally on a daily basis (and have for nearly eleven years now). The green bar just under the header is where all the departmental links are (most of those pages are under my care as well), so feel free to explore if you’d like..

How does your blog stack up to the design elements listed above? Do you feel there’s anything you need to change, or are you happy with how your blog looks and ranks in search engines? And for next week, take a guess: How many times per week do you think a blog should be updated?

Next week: Blog content and networking in the “Blogosphere”.