Is your blog theme keeping readers away?

I’m not just talking about how your blog looks. The actual code behind the design has a much bigger impact on your online success than you might guess.

Wendy of eMoms at Home did a great writeup on ProBlogger yesterday where she talked about the importance of a well-coded blog template and described the phenomenal results she saw when I implemented a much better coded them for her (the number of people that Google sent her doubled the next day). Wendy explored the reasons for that and the result was the ProBlogger post.

I want to go into a little more background here so that you’ll understand why the theme change made such a huge difference. Most people choose a blog theme based strictly on how it looks (and that’s definitely a valid concern, since it’s setting the tone for your blog) but aren’t aware that the behind-the-scenes details of the code can drastically affect the way the search engines “feel” about your blog.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BLOG THEMES

Way back in the early days of blogging  most blog themes were created using the popular code technology of the day: HTML tables. Tables were a nifty way of coding that allowed designers far more control over where things showed up on the web page than we’d ever had before. Designers loved tables, and in 2000 or so, they were everywhere.

But lo, times (and technologies) change. Since that time, HTML tables have gone way out of fashion, and this isn’t just an arbitrary shift. When it comes right down to it, HTML tables were never really intended to be used for laying out a design, and they weren’t very efficient. Along came a new technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that really was intended for positioning designs, and worked much better.

Beyond the fact that CSS was created just for this task, it had some profound effects on the way HTML code is written. It dramatically reduced the amount of “extra” code that’s needed to put things in the right spot, which in turn made it much easier for the search engines to sort through the code and find the meaningful pieces of content. It also helped the search engines identify the important pieces, like titles and headlines.

Because the new code is easier for the search engines to use, sites (and blogs) that use this new code are at a real advantage over sites that use the old code. The technology keeps improving, and now it’s possible to effectively “tell” the search engines what parts of a given page are most important—and the search engines “listen.” A site that uses the new code to the fullest naturally sees much better results.

ENOUGH THEORY! LET’S GET PRACTICAL.

So what can you do if you have a theme that’s working against you? And more critically, how can you tell if you have a theme that’s working against you? Well, it’s a little tricky, because most people find all code to be equally indecipherable, and kind of like it that way. 

One tool you can use is the W3C Validator. This tool lets you put in your blog address and test to see if the code in your theme is “legal” code (meaning it follows the rules). You’ll see either a “Valid” message or the number of errors that are standing in your way. It won’t tell you if it’s using the newest code, but the chances are very good that if your blog is declared “Valid”, you’re on the right track.

Don’t panic if you have a few errors… say, less than 15. A few errors tend to come in just from really common mistakes that often have nothing to do with the theme itself (for instance, if you forget to end a link in a post). If you have more than just a few errors, though, it’s likely that your theme is pretty flawed.

WHAT TO DO?

If you have reason to believe that your theme is a problem, what should you do?

If you’re a business and even remotely serious about your blog (or website), you should seek professional help. A professional developer can whip your existing theme into shape or create a new one that’s well designed both in terms of look and code. It doesn’t cost much in the overall budget of a business, and it will play a big part in the overall success of your blog or site.

But what if you’re an individual? Most people can’t afford to pay much for a hobby, so if you’re in that category, what you want is a well-designed free theme. This can take some trial and error. (You literally have to try adding the new theme, run it through the Validator, and see how it does. Rinse. Repeat.) You’ll be off to a great start, though, if you look for themes that say they were built using the Cutline theme or Sandbox. Those are two kind of “base themes” that are very well designed, code-wise, and provide a great starting point for other designers.

If there is interest (say so in the comments!), I’ll also be glad to do a list of really well-written free WordPress blog themes.

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