Blog, What Happened to You?

[fr] Deux tendances qui me gonflent, comme on dit:

  • les blogazines -- ces blogs qui essaient de ressembler à des magazines, au point qu'il n'est plus possible de trouver une page contenant simplement les dix derniers articles
  • les articles partiels en première page -- une péjoration de l'expérience utilisateur sous couvert de meilleur SEO, plus de pages vues, ou même, facilité de lecture en diagonale... Des raisons qui ne tiennet pas debout, à mon avis, comme je l'explique en détail dans cet article.

Si vous avez connaissance d'études qui démontrent la péjoration de l'expérience utilisateur par cette pratique, faites-moi signe. Sinon je vais mener la mienne.

When I’m asked what the difference between a blog and a website is, I usually make this drawing to explain it.

Difference between a blog and a non-blog website

It’s not perfect, but it helps. With a “traditional” topic-based website, you have a site structure which looks like a tree, with different pages on different topics. With a blog, you have a succession of posts organized chronologically (inverse chronologically, actually) on one page. Then each post has its page, and it’s archived forever in the back-office.

The two models tend to blend — more and more sites have characteristics of both.

There are two trends, however, which irritate the hell out of me. (If I know you and you’re doing this, please don’t take it personally — I don’t hate you for it. Really. But it annoys me.) They are:

  • the blogazine
  • systematic teasers or partial posts on the main blog page.

Prepare for the rant. I’m putting on my flame-proof underwear.

Blogazines

First of all, let me say that there is nothing wrong with making a magazine with a blog CMS. But Lord, why do blogs have to try to pretend they’re all magazines? It feels like bloggers are trying to make themselves look “high-profile”, because top “blogs” like TC, RWW, etc. are actually magazines. They might have started out as humble blogs, but they are not anymore.

“Media-blogs” are a special breed of blogs. Their content is there to generate revenue directly, through advertising and sponsorships. That has an impact on their content, and on the place they try to occupy, alongside old media. Why would everybody want to look like one? Dressing like a movie-star does not make you be one — and why would everybody want to be mistaken for one? If you’re a geek or a businessman or an entrepreneur, why don’t you just be that? There’s nothing wrong with being yourself and making you approachable.

There’s nothing wrong with having a blog that looks like a blog.

Coming to practicalities, there is a real concrete reason for me, as a user, to not like it when one of the blogs I read turns into a blogazine: very often, this transformation goes with the disappearance of the “main blog page”, the page which gave blogs the place they have in the publishing world of today, the unique stable page which you could go to at any time, confident that you would find the last 10 or so things the blogger you were reading had written.

The blogazine goes with excessive categorization and silofication of blog content. And I think that’s a real shame for most bloggers who take that route. Hey, even if all your last posts are on a big mixed-up main blog page, you can still point people to individual categories if you like. That’s what category pages are for, right?

Partial posts

People put forward all sorts of good reasons to display only partial posts on their main blog page (or archive pages) — roughly the following:

  • improved SEO
  • more page views
  • increased scannability

Until somebody shows me convincing data for either of these three claims, I am going to simply say “bullshit!” (and I’m remaining polite). I’m going to put the culprits on the stage one by one and tell you why I think my reaction is justified. I don’t have any research to back me up (am planning to do some though, so if you want to lend a hand, get in touch) but I do have some reasoning which I believe holds together.

Improved SEO

I have to admit I’m biased against SEO. For me, most SEO aside from “markup your stuff properly (be search-engine friendly) and have great content” is a pile of rubbish. I mean, there are some very obvious things one needs to do for SEO, but they are “common sense” more than “secret tricks”.

If a search engine is doing its job correctly, it will pull out the page that is most relevant for the human being who typed the keywords it based the search on. Make it good for humans, roughly, and it’ll be good for search engines.

When SEO gets in the way of the human experience, I have a big problem with it. And partial posts on the blog page does get in the way of a good reader experience. Why do I know that? Because of what I call the “closed door” phenomenon. A link to click, like a folder to open, is a closed door. You don’t know what’s behind it. You don’t know if it’s worth your while. Chances are you won’t click. Chances are you won’t read the rest of the post.

Even if you know the post is going to be worth it, to read the ten posts on the home page of such a blog, you’re going to have to click on each title (all ten of them), and open them in different tabs, or go back and forth, and maybe get lost in the process.

The original blog format puts all the articles neatly one beneath the other. You start reading at the top, scroll down as needed, and before you know it you’ve read the ten articles.

So, if it really does improve SEO to display only partial articles, I would say that the problem is with the way the search engines work. We should never be creating bad user experiences for the sake of SEO.

(I’m aware that what I claim about the “bad user experience” of partial articles on the main blog page needs to be demonstrated. Working on it. Get in touch if you want to help — or if you can save us the work by showing somebody has already done it.)

How exactly are the partial articles supposed to improve SEO? Well, as you can tell, I’m no expert, but based on what I’ve heard it has to do with duplicate content. Yeah, Google is supposed to penalize duplicate content. And of course, if you publish whole posts on your main blog page, and in your archives, then you’re duplicating the content from the post page — the one you want people to land on directly when they put the magic words into the search engine.

Only… I remember very clearly, in 2007, when Matt Cutts was asked about duplicate content on blogs. (And Matt, if I’m misremembering because it feeds my theory, please set me straight.) He didn’t seem to be saying that it was really a problem. And for what it’s worth, make a note that he’s providing complete posts on his main blog page — not excerpts.

The way I understand it, the duplicate content penalty is a weapon in the war against spammers and link-farms and splogs etc. Having 2-3 copies of the same post lying around do not make your blog sploggy.

Enough for the SEO.

More page views

What can I say about this? First, the reason people obsess about page views is because of advertising. If you’re rewarded for each ad impression, the more pages are viewed, the more money you get.

Sure.

But this begs the question: how much are you willing to sacrifice of the user experience (see above) for a few dollars? Most advertising revenue on blogs is miniscule.

People imagine that “more page views = more articles read”. Nope. I can read ten articles on your home page for only one page view if you publish whole articles. So of course, if you switch to excerpts only, you’ll see an increase in page views. But it doesn’t mean you’re being read more. Don’t be fooled. (This would need to be proved, of course — but the so-called proof that the excerpt method increases page views is worthless in my book, because it’s measuring something that isn’t really meaningful, unless your purpose in life is to sell ads on your blog rather than be read, which is your right, but in which case maybe I’m not going to be that interested in reading you anymore.)

I don’t care about my page views. I just want people to read my articles.

Increased scannability

This one is easy to deal with. Of course, it makes it easier to scan the articles on the first page, if it’s kept short by trimming the articles. Personally, I’m all for a display option that will allow you to see just a list of post names, or a list of post names plus excerpts. Feedly allows this kind of thing.

But do you want to be read, or scanned? Do you want people to read the first two paragraphs of your articles, or the whole articles? Do you prefer to have them scan more headlines, but click less to access the whole articles?

Again, the choice is a non-choice as far as I’m concerned.

The blog is not dead

For the last years, we’ve seen the “blog is dead” meme pop up regularly. I was recently interviewed on this topic by the Swiss National TV — just to show you it’s still around. Aside from the rise of Twitter and Facebook, the rise of the blogzine is often cited as proof of the death of blogs.

Bullshit. The bloggers are still there. We’re still there. We’re not going anywhere. (I need to write more about the so-called death of blogs.)

Now, please go and get rid of those partial articles on your blog pages.

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This entry was posted in Blogging and tagged blog, blogazine, blogzine, bullshit, clicking, duplicate content, excerpts, partial posts, posts, reading, seo, teaser, user experience, website. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Blog, What Happened to You?

  1. Ian Delaney says:

    Good food for thought here. And I am partially guilty of everything you’ve aimed at here.

    Why do I do it? (a) I want the site to look nice and (b) partial posts mean that readers can scan the page more easily. I’ve tended to write quite long posts recently (must snap out of that), and scrolling through more than 2-3 screens to see the next article seems like a disservice. I certainly find it off-putting on other people’s sites.

    And also – well each to their own. It’s a broad church – if you want the vanilla version then you can use the RSS.

  2. Marie-Aude says:

    Well, for duplicate content, things have changed since 2007, and as you’re bilingual, this thread in a SEO forum might interest you http://forum.webrankinfo.com/sortir-une-penalite-pour-duplicate-content-t124141.html

    Nevertheless…. you’re right saying that the site is made for the user and not for the search engine

    And as a user I HATE front pages with integral content. When I discover a new blog, I just hate to have to scroll so much to have an idea about the content, what are the articles and so on. I love to have the excerpt view, as it helps to have a quick view.

    And for the blogs I decide to follow, I use the feed, so I don’t care about the front page anymore

    But I suppose this is really personnal, and depends of the habits of each single person.

    Nevertheless, I’ll keep that in mind, and I’ll try to put longer excerpts on the next blogs, as you might not be the sole reader reacting like that.

  3. Steph Troeth says:

    Here’s some official Google information related to duplicate content: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=66359

    Let me quote the following paragraph:

    Duplicate content on a site is not grounds for action on that site unless it appears that the intent of the duplicate content is to be deceptive and manipulate search engine results. If your site suffers from duplicate content issues, and you don’t follow the advice listed above, we do a good job of choosing a version of the content to show in our search results.

    Most good user experience designers will tell you there’s never a right answer, and that what works best depends on context.

    In this case, there’s a chance (hypothesis mine) that what users expect depends on the kind of content. News and magazines with editorial content traditionally use the headline/excerpt paradigm. As a blogger, whichever way you choose to depict your content — for the time being — sends a subtle message to your reader about the quality, or editorial level of your content. A blogazine might well look better dressed, but if your content isn’t up to the level of an editorial, you do risk disappointing an audience. (Of course, like Marie-Aude, if you’re coming via a feedreader, it matters a little less what the direct experience is like.)

    Note that I said “for the time being”. In the evolution of interfaces, many interaction paradigms “cross-breed”. It’s normal — if you’re a book geek you’d have noticed that the reading interaction of the original Stanza e-book reader on the iPhone mimics that of the reading a papyrus scroll. In fact, our very act of “scrolling down the page” is a related paradigm.

    There’s probably also something to be said about how writing/reading is evolving. Twitter and Facebook status have become sinks for all these short thoughts that used to proliferate blogs; now that we have places to dump our 3-second thoughts, and other places to dump links we scavenged — it’s possible to imagine that at some point there will evolve a greater need for places where people can write longer thoughts. Oh hey, look, we have just the technology for that, don’t we?

  4. Suw says:

    On the blogazine point, I too think that trying to make a blog looks like a magazine is a mistake for a number of reasons that I go through on my blog post here: http://www.computerweekly.com/blogs/enterprise-social-software/2009/12/why-does-a-blog-look-like-a-bl.html

    In short, the problem is that you lose your blog furniture (categories, archives, etc.) and so you remove the cues to the read that this is a blog, thus setting up the wrong expectation for content. Blogazines look awful in an RSS Reader. They’re not particularly usable.

    Regarding partial posts, I also agree. If people use partial posts because they like it that way, that’s one thing. But saying it’s good for SEO is, in my view, rubbish. Scannability is debatable as it depends on whether someone wants to scan all the headlines or scan the articles in full. I can’t see why one wouldn’t produce a full article on the front page, and a separate headlines only page for those who prefer to scan. (I want to do this on my own blog, actually, but haven’t gotten round to it yet). But the main reasons I suspect that people do it is to increase page views and to force people to come to the site instead of reading on RSS. Both are, in my opinion, poor strategies for reader engagement.

  5. Ian Delaney says:

    Just thinking some more about this. Take a look at this list of ’40 awesome and fresh wordpress themes’ published quite recently. Or the similar articles on Smashing Magazine.

    As one of the commentators there says, they’re all the same: picture heavy, jQuery scrolly headline box of ‘featured content’, teasers rather than full text on the opening page.

    I think some people might be doing this for misguided-or-not SEO reasons. Some people to increase page views – though very few blogs carry ads on a CPM basis. But it’s also a design trend and design-led.

  6. I really appreciate all your insightful comments. I appreciate the usefulness of being able to scan post titles on a new blog without wading through long articles, so I’ve moved the “recent posts” widget higher up in my sidebar, and also given it a “Headlines” title. Maybe it will be useful to some.

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  12. Jon Husband says:

    I hope blogging will never be dead but just keep evolving … and obviously, ‘splintering’ into various derivative forms of self-expression on the Web. If I remember, we old ‘early-adopter’ bloggers used to muse about how it would evolve. I stopped blogging for a while, but now find myself missing it … and straying back to it.

  13. William says:

    Hmm it looks like your website ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.

    I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any points for beginner blog writers? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

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