An Introduction to Weblogs/High Quality Blogs
The characteristics of high quality blogs
High-quality blogs share a number of common features, the most important ones being usability, navigation, structure, connectedness and presentation.
Usability covers areas like ease of navigation, ease of finding information, visual appeal and ability to recover from errors. Weblogs are a basically a type of website, so the normal website usability guidelines therefore apply to them. You can find links to a number of usability guidelines at: http://www.nngroup.com/reports/. However, weblogs have their own specific characteristics and usability problems. Weblogs generally require fewer design decisions than other websites, you simply write a page and click on a button to post it. This ease of use has lead to enormous growth in the number of people publishing weblogs.
Most weblogs consist largely of short postings and rely heavily on links. If you find something interesting on another site, you can simply provide a link to it, possibly with the addition of a short commentary. This is much simpler than producing a conventional website. The Blogosphere acts as a positive feedback loop. Good postings are promoted by means of links to other sites, meaning that a larger audience gets to see them and promote them further. As a result there are disproportionately more links to good postings than to bad postings. Some weblogs are simply private diaries, produced for a small group of readers composed largely of relatives or close friends. Usability isn’t a major issue as the readers have a high degree of motivation and prior knowledge. However, if you want to reach a broader audience, usability becomes much more important.
1. No author biographies
Anonymous weblogs lack credibility. Readers like to know something about the author, e.g.: qualifications and experience in the area under discussion.
2. No author photo
A photo lets readers know that you’re not trying to hide. Readers relate better to someone they can visualise. Readers whom you’ve met before will recognise your photo, and anyone you happen to meet in future will recognise you from it.
3. Nondescript posting titles
Readers should be able to determine the topic of a posting by reading its headline. Readers using search engines or newsfeeds (RSS/Atom) will often see only the headline and will use it to decide whether or not to read the full posting.
4. Links don't say where they go
You should tell readers what they'll find at the other end of the link by providing the relevant information in the anchor text itself or the surrounding words.
5. Classic hits are buried If you write any postings with lasting value don't relegate them to the archives, where people can only find something if they know when you posted it. Highlight such postings in your navigation system and link directly to them.
6. The calendar is the only navigation
Don’t let the timeline be the only way of navigating your weblog. Most weblog software lets you categorise postings so readers can easily get a list of all postings on a certain topic.
7. Irregular publishing frequency
Your readers must be able to anticipate how often updates will occur. You should pick a publication schedule and stick to it. Daily updates are best, but weekly or even monthly updates can also work.
8. Mixing topics
If your weblog covers too many different topics, you're unlikely to attract a loyal audience. Readers might visit a weblog to read a posting about a topic that interests them but they're unlikely to return if their target topic only appears occasionally among a range of postings on other topics.
9. Forgetting that you write for your future boss
Every time you post anything to the Internet, think how it will look to a prospective employer in ten years time. Once something is published it can be archived, cached or indexed in places you might never think of.
10. Having a domain name owned by a weblog service
Having a weblog address ending in blogspot.com, typepad.com, etc. will soon be the equivalent of having a hotmail.com email address or a Geocities website. You’ll be seen as a naïve beginner who shouldn't be taken too seriously. It’s easy, quick and cheap start a new weblog on one of the services that offer free accounts, but it only costs a few pounds per year to get your personal domain name. If you're serious about blogging, move your weblog away from a domain name that's controlled by somebody else.
Navigation includes timeline navigation, search facilities, backtracking and threading. Weblogs can be great sources of expert information on a range of topics, but they are useless if you can’t find the information you are looking for. Weblogs can be organised in several different ways and these can influence how readers find information on your site.
Most weblogs are organized primarily by the date of postings, with the newest posts appearing on the main page and older posts being stored in the archives. Unfortunately, if someone is looking for specific information, digging into the archives based on date offers little help. The major limitation of date-based archives is that they aren't very descriptive. There isn't much you can do other than look at each month's posts until you find the right one. Date-based archives that operate by week or by single day (often via a calendar interface) are even less useful because they require readers to click through more pages to find what they want.
However, a few things can be done to make date-based archives a little more usable. Some weblog providers let you set titles or subjects for posts. You can post titles next to each archive page (if done on a single day or post basis), or let you show a string of titles below each month's archive link. An archive page listing the titles of posts provides more information than listing archived weblog postings by date alone.
Try to avoid moving your archives from one location to another. If you move your archives from http://myblog.com/old/ to http://myblog.com/archives/ then anyone who has set up a link to a specific post will lose it and any search engine that has indexed your site will point users to errors instead of the indexed posts.If you change your URL completely, or move from one server to another, examine ways of redirecting requests for the old files so that readers using search engines can still find your information in the new location.
Categories are another form of organisation offered by many weblog providers that can help readers to find information about a specific topic. Categorised weblogs usually group posts into several categories, creating specific archive pages for each category. The more categories blogger creates to organize a site, the more specific the categories become.
Some providers offer multiple categorisations, so each post can belong to more than one category. Weblogs of this type can have each post placed in two or three different categories. Readers searching for previous posts on a topic may find that some posts fall into related categories and the can try browsing these as well.
The most direct method of letting readers find something on a weblog is to allow them to search it. Blogger was recently updated to include extensive searching facilities (hardly surprising, as it is owned by search engine giant Google). Some weblog systems have add-ons that enable searching and bloggers can also make use of search engines that operate outside of their weblog system. Another option is to use a site-specific search offered by search engine companies. Google has indexed hundreds of millions of pages on the Web, so if your weblog has been online for any length of time, Google has probably indexed it.
Google lets you limit a search to the pages within their index of your site by adding the words site:myblog.com into the search box, or you can add a Google search box to your site to do the same thing automatically.
Altavista's advanced search also lets you limit searches to a specific site.
Take a look at some of your favourite blogs. How good are their searching facilities?
Trackback is a mechanism used in weblogs to show a list of other weblogs that refer to a specific post. The term was coined by Six Apart (http://www.sixapart.com/), the producers of Moveable Type and TypePad. Trackback works by sending a specialised message known as a ping between the blogs concerned. The receiving blog normally displays the trackback information below a post. This information normally includes a summary of what has been written on the target weblog, along with the URL and the name of the weblog. There is a good explanation of how trackback works at: http://www.movabletype.org/trackback/beginners/.
Trackback is fairly straightforward. If you're posting about something you've seen on another blog, which has trackback enabled, you can paste the trackback URL into the appropriate spot in your own blogging software, and the software will build a link from the original post to yours, without the other blogger doing anything. Trackback currently depends on individual readers making links. However, there is some interest in automatic creation of trackbacks, a process known as threading.
Unfortunately, Blogger does not yet support trackback, although the same effect can be achieved via the use of backlinks, which provide a way of expanding the comment feature to allow related discussions on other sites to be included along with the regular comments on a post. The backlinks setting can be found under the Settings | Comments tab and consists only of the option to turn it on or off. The default templates are already set up with the necessary code for backlinks. Once everything is set up and you have republished your blog, you will see the number of backlinks listed for each post, along with the number of comments. Clicking the link will take you to the post page, where the backlinks are all listed beneath the comments. Clicking the triangles next to each link will display an extract of text from the page linking to you, as well as author and date information. Haloscan provides a third-party trackback and commenting system which can be used with Blogger or other blog services.
Take a look at some of your favourite blogs. Do they support Trackback?
Structure includes concepts such as linear and hierarchical structures, timelines and semantic blogging.
Before we examine the structure of weblogs in detail, it’s worth taking another brief look at how they evolved over time. Some time around 1998, people began producing web pages that consisted mainly of short thoughts and were updated frequently. This was a major departure from traditional web pages, which tended to consist of longer sections of text which were seldom updated. The World Wide Web was originally developed as a form of electronic publishing and used a page-based structure derived from print media. Web sites consist of pages which have paragraphs, headers and links to other pages. These were modelled after printed pages and web sites were similar to books, being a way to bind many pages together.
Once the web became popular, web site authors began to look for ways of keeping their visitors interested and attracting them back to the site. Interesting content was the key to attracting visitors and interesting design, photography or writing ensured that visitors would enjoy their time on the site and made them more likely to return and to spread the word about the site. Regular updates also helped to ensure that visitors would return, but unfortunately, these were not easy to do. If you wanted to add a new page to a web site, you first had to write the content and save it locally on your computer. You then needed to decide where the new page fitted into your site and perhaps make changes to the other pages so they pointed at your new site. Adding a single new page often led to numerous changes across a site. When the changes were complete, the whole site needed to be uploaded again, normally by using an FTP program.
When you combine a page-based method of structuring a web site with the effort required to make changes, you can see why Web sites built around pages of content were often regarded as static. Once a page was written it was practically set in stone (just as with a book) and the information on the page began to age. The content rarely changed because of the effort required on the part of the site owner to make changes. Static pages and infrequent updates made visitors unlikely to come back or spread the word about the site.
Modern web sites are much more active, e.g.: sites that forecast the weather, let you check your bank balance or buy movie tickets or CDs as well as news sites that bring you the latest news and sometimes change completely every few minutes. Most of the web sites frequented by the general public no longer resemble collections of pages or books. They are filled with smaller chunks of information or information fetched from large databases. A web page describing new content available on a single site, or on the Internet as a whole, has much in common with a weblog: a chronological list of dates may be used to organise the page, and it may include small chunks of text and links to specific locations. Some of the earliest web pages were "what's new" pages, covering new developments on a single server.
When weblogs appeared initially, they were structured in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Instead of having new pages added each day, a single index page for a site would change slightly as small chunks of text and new links appeared each day. They were post-based rather than page-based. Weblogs rapidly gathered audiences because they changed frequently and were easy to read and digest. They were often full of links to interesting offsite pages, encouraging readers to return each day to find new links to obscure places.
Unlike static page-based sites, weblogs are dynamic. Unlike traditional Web sites that consist of multiple pages, weblogs often contain only a few pages: the initial index page and archive pages. The newest posts, filled with the latest content are displayed on the index page. The index page is normally first on the site, so visitors only need to remember a short Web address to revisit it. Most bloggers set their index page to show a week's postings. They should also have a clear and simple navigation system, so readers can find other pages easily.
Archive pages are used to store posts permanently. Most weblog management systems copy a new post to both the index page and the current archive page. Archive pages are built automatically by the blogging software and act as a backup of old material that was previously on the index page and also enable visitors to go back and read older posts. Most bloggers archive posts monthly, but some weblog systems allow authors to specify daily or single post archives, sometimes using calendars with links to each day's posts.
Weblog tools began to appear in mid 1999 to aid in the creation of weblogs. The tools varied in their support for features, but they were all fairly automated, removing the need to use FTP to transfer files between your desktop and a server. Publishing new posts to a weblog became as easy as filling out a Web-based form online and pressing a button. Weblogs altered the way people viewed Web sites, as they were about new posts rather than new pages. Reading one or two new paragraphs each day was easy for readers, compared to reading new 1,000-word essay each day.
Traditional Web sites had a page-based structure, but weblogs were post-based and built of small chunks of information, sometimes referred to as microcontent, which are easy to read and understand and small enough to be displayed flexibly: a weblog post could become the contents of a short e-mail, an instant message or even a text message to a mobile phone. Each item of microcontent can have a permanent Web address allowing others to point to specific ideas within a post.
All weblog management systems number posts in some way, usually by means of a post ID, a unique string of numbers that corresponds to a specific post. Weblogs built with Blogger have a long string of numbers for each post because there have already been millions of posts made. Blogger automatically builds permanent links which are automatically added to each post with a named anchor set to the unique post ID.
Permalinks are then added to the bottom of each post and clearly marked. These provide a method of linking directly to posts on other weblogs. Unless your weblog has them, no one will be able to link to specific posts. Permalinks give a fixed, permanent address to every post on your weblog, and are powerful mechanism for spreading ideas and understanding the importance of microcontent. Most weblog systems provide some way of creating permalinks, and they may be included in the default templates, but there is no standard way of handling permalinks.Some systems add the word "permalink" or simply "link" to the end of each post while others use special characters to indicate a permalink and some weblogs wrap the permalink around a timestamp to show exactly when the post was made.
As noted previously, many weblogs allow some sort of categorisation, or some form of title or subject for each post. Depending on the weblog you are using, you may be able to add a subject or title above each post, and organise posts into categories of your own choosing. These offer different ways to find and organise information in weblogs aside from simply by date. Subject names or titles can give additional information about posts, and they can also be used elsewhere on your site. If you are syndicating your content, you may simply want to point to your post by title, then mention titles in your archives. This allows readers to find older posts by reading from a list of titles instead of guessing which date contained a specific post.
Many weblogs includes the facility to make comments on specific posts. You’ll often find a link at the foot of weblog posts, indicating how readers can leave comments.
Take a look at some of your favourite blogs. Do they have permalinks? Do they allow archived posts to be searched by category? Can readers leave comments?
Linear vs hierarchical structure
The style of weblogs is generally very linear. It is well-suited to news, diaries and interesting links on the web, but it is less suitable for long-term, goal-oriented discussion of a subject, or collaborative content creation. Others forms of social software, such as wikis, may be better suited to these purposes. Some blogging software provides a limited degree of hierarchical structure by means of categorisation and comment threading.
Semantic blogging is one of the current research areas in blogging. Basically it involves applying the principles of the semantic web in the blog environment. The semantic web is an attempt to do the same for machine readable data as the World Wide Web did for human readable documents. It aims to transform information processing by providing a common way that data can be accessed, linked together and understood in order to turn the web from a large hyperlinked book into a large interlinked database.
You can find an introductory article on the semantic web at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/elearning/story/0,10577,981948,00.html and a more critical view can be found at: http://www.shirky.com/writings/semantic_syllogism.html
In relation to blogging, the most important notion is that of semantic search and navigation, i.e.: searches based on the meaning of terms rather than simply the words. . Steve Cayzer (see below) gives an example based on distinguishing between the island of Java and the Java programming language:
“Once aggregators "understand" the difference between Java the language and Java the island, and that your blog category 'Java' is a specialisation of my category 'Programming Languages', they can provide semantically relevant results rather than just syntactic matches. Moreover, these results can be sorted, filtered and presented in a meaningful fashion.”
Cayzer’s work is complex. You can find a brief description at: http://jena.hpl.hp.com/~stecay/papers/xmleurope2004/040420_semblog_draft10.html
Cayzer has also constructed a semantic blogging demonstrator to illustrate some of the principles involved.
Connectedness is concerned with links, particularly to other blogs and newsfeeds, but also to the Web in general. We’ve already given some consideration to links (Section 1.1.5) and there’s more information in Section 2.
A wide range of visual design elements can be used to enhance blogs. Many of these elements are available simply by customising existing web page templates. Design elements include the following:
- Computer-mediated communication (CMC) elements: email addresses, instant messenger (IM) contact information, message boards and guestbooks.
- Color alterations: changing the base colour of a common weblog template
- Colours that clash: using colour schemes that detract from the visibility of the words, particularly those that register before you notice associated text.
- Colours in titles and headings: any colour other than black or white
- Custom banners
- Custom calendar design
- Custom color text
- Custom cursors
- Custom fonts
- Custom graphical dividers: images
- Custom table borders
- Data representations: counters
- Custom rules between entries: made up of images or another non-color based divider
- Pre- and post-icons: icons in the header and footer of posts
- Photographic backgrounds
- Scrolling headers
- Graphical smilies
You can find an interesting discussion on the use of these elements and others at: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/common_visual.html. The authors (Lois Ann Scheidt and Elijah Wright of Indiana University at Bloomington) examine the use of visual design elements across a range of randomly-selected weblogs and make some interesting observations. In their introduction they state that:
“The availability of visual design elements - division of the screen into columns, image use, color and typeface choice … along with the placement of elements on the page permitting meaning to be suspended in the visual …allows for non-textual self-expression… New users of the medium have adopted fewer "innovations" than their forbears: as notions of what constitutes a "weblog" concretize, the creative use of visual and hypertextual features seems to be in decline. Design innovations breaking out of a certain "acceptable" visual style are increasingly rare, while weblogs that conform to expectations - three-column, smaller text down the side, prominent header and footer, some links and sparse image use …continue to be created.”
When you get round to creating weblogs of your own, take some time to consider the visual design elements. If your weblog stands out from the pack, it stands more chance of being noticed.
The typography (i.e.: the choice and use of typefaces or fonts) of blogs, and of websites in general, has been a rather neglected area in the past, but a new website is trying to address the problem. The author describes the site as a work in progress and intends building up the content gradually.
Bookmark this site and revisit it regularly to check for new material. Is any of this relevant to your own blogs?
Further information about web typography can be found at the following site which concentrates on accessibility and usability issues: http://www.scotconnect.com/webtypography/