One of many areas on which Smith and I do not see eye to eye is this theme you’re looking at (unless you’re on Google Reader), called Arras. A designer theme, not on the WordPress repository for some reason. Looks nice, right? Looks nice.

Well, a while back we had a conventional kind of theme, bigger image, either the full article or a large excerpt next to it, one stack of posts. Nothing about it was extraordinary but it didn’t strike any of us as being problematic. Then one day I load the site and I see that Smith fired up a new and very different theme I’m assuming because it struck him as more chic and figured that that would be helpful, or maybe just to shake things up a bit.

Let me be clear, I am not talking about how many people look at this site or Ramon’s or any other Arras site, just talking about what typically goes down for each individual visit, how much the average guy reads and for how long until he tunes out. Not about pageviews, rather pages per visit. I think we could do better.

Me, I’m leaning against continuing to use this theme. I can see how it may strike Joe WordPress Webmaster as a cool theme to fire up, but Joe’s not looking at things from the perspective of Joe Visitor. I don’t care how good it looks, I contend that the jazzed up looks not only don’t contribute but are detrimental if the chicness, even clean minimalist chicness, squelches the visibility of all of the content. A theme does not win you heavy engagement, content does; but the wrong theme could hold you back. I think we are throwing too many little snippets of content at you and the short excerpts and their tiny accompanying image or just not long enough to be engaging and make you want to come back and get you to click to get the full dose of the author’s post, then click on a related link thumbnail or whatever, so you end up panning your eyes down and then you run out of attention span before having gotten a full enough MobDig experience. You’ve got very short attention spans and I believe this theme is not doing as good a job as a more conventional theme would in maximizing what you take out of this site each visit with what we have to work with, how much time and clicking energy you afford us. The little snippets just seem too little with their little thumbs and because they’re all about different things, they’re not cohesive, throw you off and you bounce.

Some evidence supporting that, we get a fair amount of Google Reader traffic. Now what does Google Reader do (here’s what it looks like), it takes our content, it strips off all sizzle from that steak, and feeds it to you straight-up. There are even Chrome plugins to enhance that aspect of Google Reader (I really recommend this one). Many of you have been shifting to reading most of the sites you frequent to Google Reader not, I think, just because it’s more convenient for flipping through your stuff but because it cleans out the clutter. Over time websites and WordPress websites come up with new fancy tricks, like Fancybox, all these widgets, polls, all that crap on the right, new logos, bunch of Like buttons, a stack of links (one of which was my site which I removed in the interest of de-cluttering, though I appreciated the gesture from Smith) and on and on, and one might figure that that’s progress, but my own instinct and this Google Reader popularity suggests you people really have no interest in that stuff and indeed it may even turn you off and bounce you away.

So my position is that the more the website sort of looks like how it would look in Google Reader, meaning just the text, I’m thinking the full text unless it’s a long-ass tl;dr article (me) and not much else. For example, one of the first websites I started reading back in the 90s was kuro5hin.org. I never figured out why the hell it was named that or how do you pronounce it, and the content ended up being a little too nebulous for me, but the site’s been a success apparently in spite of their look being and remaining so minimalist. Here’s a slightly better example, a hugely popular site that couldn’t be any more minimalist, and managed to be an extremely popular site even when the site address was, and I bet most of you don’t even know what a ~ is for, http://xmission.net/~maddox/. That site is nothing but content and it works pretty damn well. I bet if that guy somehow stuffed his content into this theme his readership would fall off a cliff. You agree? But I just started hosting Ramon’s site LifeStyles Defined. He had it on this cookie-cutter outfit called Squarespace, now he’s all tweaked up on my machine, except he went with Arras, and though he, with my help, is making it look even better than Arras does here, I’m seeing the same underwhelming figures on his site for the aforementioned stats, general visitor engagement.

I don’t mean any disrespect to the Arras people if you guys are reading this, maybe I’m completely wrong (I don’t know, which is why I’m asking the readers), maybe I’m right but only because there’s something unique about arguing about Windows Phone versus Android or whatever that may not mesh with your theme as well as other sites which use it. Maybe I’m just a lousy writer. Maybe Smith (yeah right) knows more than I do. There are a lot of other things that could be working against us and changing the theme again wouldn’t make a difference. Unfortunately for us I didn’t start watching the traffic closely until after Smith pulled the rug out from under me which sucks and was unusually stupid on his part because had he ran that by me first, just a heads up, I could offer more than desperate speculation. So now my options are to dig out the raw logs from way back and crunch them, if I can find them, or just ask you readers. Probably should do both. Oh and not to mention that the way this page is set up now, even if you’re using AdBlock, your browser has to make over sixty requests to our servers and a bunch of others (meaning more DNS lookups on top of the GETs) to grab not just the front page but any single page (I counted). With a cleared cache and a fast connection, well I’m still writing this sentence waiting for the whole thing to load to report how long it took. Weird, hanging on a google hotlink.

I’ve got another example, and Surur I mean this with love and you know I admire your work and respect you and what I’m about to say is actually kind of complimentary, but WMPoweruser, man oh man, take a look at it (but only if you have a lot of free ram). I count 521 browser requests on the front page. Clutter everywhere, everywhere, more ads than I can count, within each article he’s got eight really oversized social sharing buttons which look even more absurd on my phone (he’s even got linked in, who Likes phone articles to their linked in). Let’s just say it’s not winning any beauty contests – BUT! — the beauty is is that in spite of the messy ugly theme with all the crap, the theme does have a conventional structure to it in terms of the presentation of the articles, and he’s a good prolific writer with a few other decent writers and from what I’ve gathered WMPU is doing quite well even if you don’t take into account that not so many people own those phones. Point being, my point, is that sizzle is largely irrelevant, present the steak in a conventional way and not all jazzed up and modern like we’re doing, and if you churn out good content, you’re readers engage, read and participate, which is what his readers appear to do. I suppose if I were Surur I might not even clean things up a bit as it ain’t broke. Well done Surur, you and your people, would love if you could chime in.

I’d appreciate any feedback on the theme stuff, and also any other ideas you have to light this place up a few notches, especially if any of those things don’t require too much work, like increasing or reducing the number of articles per page or whatever, suggesting another theme, suggest that Smith fire me finally, anything you’ve got. And if you’re thinking more girly pictures and ethnic humor, I’m with you buddy, just can’t cross the line too much in that department. Or maybe you think that the sizzle is perfect but we need to step our steak game up and if that’s the case, do tell. Thanks. These ask the readers bits always pay off, you guys know your shit. Hope I didn’t offend anybody with these two chicks, I got some sort of virus that puts really beautiful and tastefully portrayed women into whatever it is I’m writing.

Doug Simmons

7 COMMENTS

  1. Whether I am smarter than you or not remains to be seen, but at least what I do know I convey in 10,000 less words than you! Hahaha. The basic idea of this theme was to display the most amount of content in the smallest footprint possible and allow readers to engage in content they wanted without us forcing it down their throat. The old layout would causing them to scroll through content they did not want to read, especially the cut and paste press releases I “occasionaly” post on that I find interesting. That approach I think worked well when we were a niche blog about the Tilt and Fuze and all material posted was relevant to the readers specific interest. Since now since we opened things up to all platforms, devices and Tablets, I did not want readers to get overwhelmed with full length articles they cared nothing about. The secondary benefit was to keep articles on the main page for a longer period of time. Too many articles got swallowed up on page 2 and never got read in my opinion. There has been work done on a new theme that would discontinue use of a lot of plugins we are currently using and free up memory that seems to be getting eaten up by them, and organize content where a reader could easily navigate to content of interest. The theme layout is basically called a Magazine Theme and does a good job of creating “Mini Blogs” within the main page of the blog. Once any content was opened, it would take you the contents sub-category, say Windows Phone where a all the relevant content for that category would be displayed. Of course, there would still be an option for users to choose a typical blog layout to view Mobility Digest. I am not sure if it saves a cookie to remember the readers preferences or not however. Ads are a constant struggle for me. I try to keep them of to the side and out of the way of reading. Links in the main body are just that, links to other content and not ads. I think the readers enjoy that that come to this site, but then, with you advocating Google Reader so much, who is really left coming to the site? I don’t understand how other blogs get around Google Adsense’s policies, but then again, I don’t really look at the ads as I have gotten good at ignoring them over the years of blogging and reading myself. Hopefully the readers will respond with some good input. It has always been my goal to provide a good and smooth experience for our readers. Any fabulously wealthy patrons who want to donate to a redesign, please inquire within!

  2. @Doug Smith : Yeah, if only we knew where the hell he disappeared to… Although, you do have one hell of a nice hosting package. Lol. I wish I had spare time to work with you again, but I’m just barely scraping by and busy as hell. One day.

  3. @Casey: You are an amazing developer when life isn’t throwing you curve balls. Take good care of those babies, they are so precious!

  4. My bringing up Google Reader and its popularity was to make the point that how the content we come up with appears in that main frame of Google Reader, that is a dump of the content (with the ability to blow it up into a full thread and hit next article buttons and whatever), seems to work, otherwise it might not be so popular. I didn’t mean this time that we should just redirect the whole site to Google Reader somehow. Don’t worry, I have crazier ideas than that.

    Arras looks good to us, but the majority, by a margin of two to one, of our visits are drive-bys from one-timers. Our most read article ever, traffic to which comes mostly from Google, is David’s WP7 tethering how-to. Granted, the people clicking onto that are not our regulars, but people looking to tether, people with a purpose, but still, that we’re only able to snag the attention of just one out of ten of those visitors to check out any of our other content just doesn’t sound like it’s the industry average.

    As for not blasting the readers with things they don’t want to read, we really went out of our way to accomdate that need (which I think doesn’t exist) with the subdomains. Turned out to not only be more trouble than it was worth, but just a bad idea altogether and that we should stick with categories and tags like everybody else. But I’d submit that a lot of our writing is relevant to enough readers’ interests that forcing some of them to scroll more than they would on Arras when flipping through the front nets a loss of depth of engagement and ultimately loyalty because they just skim through snippets and even on the front page with all those articles to choose from more than half of them choose to leave without having read more than a couple clups of forty character excerpts. And those that do click into something, sharp exponential decline of the odds of them clicking one more thing.

    I just want to know what, if anything, we’re doing wrong, or if we’re doing fine and those numbers are on par with what’s average. Hey, let me look that up. The average US site’s bounce as of February and back a year was 42.5% (versus our 67%), about five pages per visit (versus our 1.5) and for a duration of over six minutes (versus our 1:10). Note that half of the websites are even better than that.

    That tells me we’re doing it wrong. That’s a situation to me. If it has anything to do with the theme as I speculated, I’d say you’re not doing visitors a favor by bringing out the cart full of deserts for them to pick rather than just wheeling them whatever just finished cooking, you’re wasting their minute and ten seconds, half of them, which might explain the rather high attrition, another problem.

    The bright side is there’s apparently a whole lot of room for improvement, let’s figure this out.

  5. This article, by the way, is bouncing 12% less than the rest of the site with almost half the exit rate. So maybe the answer is just writing a lot more about what and how we should write.

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