How To Choose an Effective Blog Template or Theme


How do you pick the right theme for your blog?  The challenge is that it's not a linear decision and it requires satisficing to balance content,  function, and design ("look and feel").  As part of my research on effective blogging, I've been analyzing themes.  I’ve literally evaluated more than 2,000 themes and heavily modified more than 20.  I see a lot of patterns now.  I've decided to share my lessons learned, since they might save you considerable time.

Summary of Lessons Learned
Here's a summary of my key lessons learned:

  • Know your purpose.  You need to know what your optimizing for.  This shapes all the rest of your decisions, so if you know this, it helps.  For me, my portfolio of blogs will be online personal knowledge bases to share my learnings.  For me, that means putting a premium on organizing, browsing, searching, and sharing posts.
  • Start with a two column theme.  If you don't know where to start, start with a two-column template for your blog.  Three column templates have more moving parts and are trickier to create a clean reading experience.
  • Your content drives your theme choice.  Will you use images?  How long is your content going to be?  What types of posts will you have?  Will they vary?  Test the variations because this can have a big impact in the look and feel in your theme.  Your posts are the wood behind the arrow.  While your theme is the initial impact, your posts should be very readable and scannable.  Test the readability of your posts for different scenarios (skimming, in depth, long, short ... etc.)
  • Test how you'll use images.  Some of the themes I tested completely changed simply by adding images in the banner or in the posts.  The two main patterns are whether to use pictures in your banner or pictures in your posts.  The benefit of the picture per post approach is that your feed readers will get them.  If you use pictures in both your banner and your posts, it's tougher to help your users know where to focus.  Using a good picture at the front of your post, helps draw your reader in, particularly if they are scanning and sick of text.
  • Test key scenarios.  This includes users reading your feed, commenting, scanning your posts, reading your posts in detail, searching your blog, and browsing your blog (using your tags and categories.)
  • Choose simplicity over complexity.  You can evaluate the complexity by walking your key scenarios.  Do your eyes know where to focus when you first pull up your blog?  How tough is it to find a particular post? ... etc.
  • Trust your gut.  If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.  You just might not be able to put your finger on it, so ask others who might know.  Sometimes intuitively recognizing a problem is more effective than trying to logic your way through it.
  • If it's not working, change it.  As tough as it is to let things go, it's important to cut the deadwood or change things that don't work.  Experimenting opens new doors.  Some days after a long customization session it was really tough to drop the theme entirely, but I stayed focused on making my focus group happy.  That helped me keep going and continuously throw out what didn't work and carry forward lessons learned.
  • Ask your users.   While I had built up my own internal references of what good looks like, using a personal sounding board was invaluable.  I really enjoyed the surprises the most.  They forced me to challenge my thinking and test new ideas.
  • Know you can't make everybody happy.   This was really tough in the beginning.  I couldn't believe how I couldn't get any critical mass down any particular path.   What changed was I found the common denominators and patterns.  Once I chose themes that shared these patterns, then it was easier to spiral down on agreement.
  • Beware if you have to modify a template too much.  If you have to modify a template too much, something might be off.   While you can dramatically reshape a template to your liking, I think the base theme is a reflection of the designer's style and expertise.  If you find that your changing a lot of the theme, at some point you might be adjusting the theme too much and working against the theme.  In some themes, it starts to become obvious whether the designer knows SEO very well or knows how to bullet-proof their layouts or is good with overall look and feel, including typography.  That's why I paid a lot of attention to live examples and user comments to see what sorts of changes people were making, and whether they were just personal style or represented real structural or significant changes.  Spotting the patterns saved me lots of time, once I knew what I was looking for.
  • Leverage the Internet Explorer Development Toolbar.  The Internet Explorer Development Toolbar is your friend.  I couldn't have analyzed as many themes as I did without it.   The ability to quickly point at themes and reverse engineer them was invaluable.  For Firefox users, you can try FireBug, but I haven't tried it myself.  The key is to find a tool that helps you analyze the CSS HTMl, and JavasScript.

Vital Factors in Your Blog Theme
It's the sum of the parts that creates your overall blog theme impact.  Part of the problem that cost me so much time is I didn't know what to look for at first.  I had to go through hundreds of themes before I started to see patterns that made some themes more effective than others.  The other thing that cost me so much time is that it's a combination of factors over any one thing.  The overall look and feel is the sum of the parts.  Here's what I found to be key factors in overall look and feel:

  • 2 Column vs. 3 Column Templates.  This is a good macro-level decision because it helps divide your theme choices.  While there's exceptions, my readers told me that in general they prefer two columns over three.  They said it's a cleaner reading area, easier to know where to focus and it's simple to scroll the full page and see posts/pages on the left and the navigation/ads on the right.  If you go with a three column theme then there's a few issues.  Overall, try to find a theme where the column for posts is around two-thirds of the page and the two sidebars add up to around one-third.  In general, for three columns, my users preferred a column on the left and a column on the right with posts in the middle, versus two columns on the right.      
  • Color Patterns.  Colors and color combinations have a big impact on your blog's look and feel.  This includes your background, banner, text and links.  Your best judge is how you and your user's feel when they see the color combinations.  They may not to explain the reaction, but they'll feel something.  One of the guys on my team knows some science behind colors so he helped me better understand different reactions.  You can check Crayola's America's 50 Favorite Colors and Kuler helps you explore, create and share color themes
  • Font combinations for titles, body, and sidebar.  According to my users fonts and typography matters a lot.  This includes font size, family and colors.  This ones tough and can vary a great deal.  You need to evaluate both Initial impact and readability over time.  Again, unless you're a designer, you'll need to compare your gut reaction to different examples and test with your users.  For the main post text, What I did find was that, in general, my users preferred a white or off-white background, with dark gray font (versus black) and Verdana font.  They also prefer the post titles to clearly stand out, at least in size and style (for example Trebuchet or Ariel.)
  • Post readability.  Width is a big factor.  My users told me that when the post column is too wide, scanning is more difficult, and that when it's too narrow, they have to scroll too much.  Overall, they expect the post column to be two-thirds of the template width.  Once the width is right, then the next issue is the          
  • Effective sidebar design.   It seems like the features my user's cared about the most on the sidebars were: subscribe to RSS, search, categories, tags, recent posts and recent comments.   There was a definite preference for search and subscribe to RSS to be at the top.   
  • User experience patterns for searching/browsing.    If you have a large collection of posts this is particularly important, and pretty easy to test.  If you know your posts, you should first test how quickly you can browse and search for specific posts.  Then test the theme with your users.  They won't have the same inside information you do, so this could be very revealing how well the patterns are working.   I think the biggest factor here is using a "Read More" feature and showing just the first part of your posts when browsing categories or in search results.  The longer your posts are, the more important this becomes.
  • Effective use of images.  Choosing images for banners and posts made a dramatic difference in how my focus group responded to some themes.       
  • Effective banner design.  This can make or break the initial impact of your theme. 
  • Comment support.  Some themes host user comments better than others.  It really helps when you find a live example with many comments.  That way you can see how well it scales while maintaining readability. 
  • Effective use of whitespace.   My users pretty consistently commented on how effective whitespace really made some themes seem cleaner than others.  I think the biggest factor here was spacing between blog sections and elements.
  • Links.  My users told me they prefer links that are easy to spot versus get lost in the text, but that don't steal the show.  They also told me they prefer underlined links in posts, but don't underline in the sidebar (for example, categories, tag cloud, recent posts, ... etc.)
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO).   I did notice that some themes seem optimized for SEO more than others.  While my user's didn't notice this, search engines will.  I think the main thing to pay attention across templates is how they use the title, description and header tags.  You can tailor how your results will show up in search results.  For categories, you should use permanent links.  This improves your URLs for the search engine using more meaningful words.  You should put your posts in only one category to avoid duplicate content from the search engine view.  You should also only show parts of each post when browsing categories, to also avoid duplicate content (as well as make it easier for a human to quickly scan all your posts in a category.)  See The Blogger's Guide to Search Engine Optimization - by Aaron & Giovanna Wall and Search Engine Optimization for Blogs - SEO.

Key Blog Features
Here's a quick list of the features that my focus group seemed to care about the most:

  • Title  and purpose.   The test is - do your user's quickly know which category in their RSS reader to put your blog in?
  • About page.  Your about page can quickly help clarify the promise of your blog and setting expectations.  See Skellie on How to Write the Perfect ‘About’ Page (by Numbers).
  • Categories.   Categories help your user's browse your catalog of posts in terms of key themes, as well as help clarify what your blog is really about.  It's another visual cue.
  • Search your blog.  Even if you don't have a bunch of posts, users tend to rely on search.  Once you have a bunch of posts, your search is vital.  It's like a chicken and egg scenario though.  If your search is tough to find, user's wont use it much.  If it's easy to find and convenient, they'll use it more.  Because there's so many ways to customize your search feature, the most important thing is to make it obvious that it is a search feature (and not a subscription form) and that it is scoped to your blog.
  • Tag Cloud.  Tag clouds are  nice way to provide a topical browsing experience for your blog.  There's two types -- internal and external.  Internal tags (WordPress 2.3 has built in support) help you slice up your body of posts in a more fine-grained way.  External tags, such as Technorati tags, help showcase your posts in those social circles.  For more information, see my post, Tags vs. Categories.
  • Recent Comments and Recent Posts.  Using Recent Posts and Recent Comments is an effective way to improve your user's experience and help user's discover your other posts, as well as show signs of life.
  • Browse your posts.  Your user's will browse your posts either by categories, tag clouds, searches, or related posts.  Another entry point is Recent Comments and Recent Posts.  Another approach is to create pages that organize your posts in alternate ways.
  • Subscribe by RSS.  If a user likes your blog, it should be easy for them to subscribe.  Most blog themes I experimented with either exposed RSS in the right place, or it was easy to add.
  • Subscribe by email.   None of the templates that I experimented with exposed this by default, so it can be easy to forget about.  Some of my users pointed this out, so I tested adding subscribe by email.  
  • Comments.  One thing that my user's pointed out to me was how they like when they can scan posts and quickly see the comment information beneath the post titles, rather than at the end of the posts.  A few users pointed this out so this seems to be a common preference.  I noticed some themes did a better job than others of showcasing the comments for each post.  The key decisions are whether to show links above the post or at the end of the post, along with what font and color.  Once you're actually looking at the comments, the quick scan test will tell you how readable the comments are.  Actually add some comments yourself so you can find any surprises.

How I Did My Research
My research was pretty basic, but time consuming and challenging, particularly because there's a lot of variables and not much prescriptive guidance that I found actionable.   Here's what I did:

  • Searched for patterns.   I could recognize when a template looked and felt good, but I couldn't reliably figure out why.  To fix this, I filled my head with as many patterns as I could by evaluating hundreds of blogs, then evaluating thousands of templates and then by spiraling down around the vital few variables (once I figured out what they were.)
  • Set up multiple test beds.  I setup multiple test sites for testing with users.  Each test bed was a full blown blog with theme, so that I could do fast comparisons between theme A and theme B. 
  • Tested with WordPress.  I've done testing before with Community Server and Blogger, so this time I focused on WordPress.
  • Evaluated free templates.  I explored multiple, free template galleries to build a foundation for recognizing effective blog theme patterns.  I tried to find templates that were actively used, so I could see live implementations.
  • Evaluated templates you buy.   I ended up buying various blog theme packages so I could explore them too, to see if I could find any clear quality differentiations.
  • Modeled from effective blogs and bloggers.  I evaluated the top 100 bogs in Technorati.  I also explored lots of blog examples that my friends sent during my research.
  • Created a focus group.   I selected a subset of my users that were able to provide multiple rounds of in-depth feedback.  This helped tons and I can't thank them enough!
  • Used the Internet Explorer Development Toolbar.   The toolbar helped me quickly analyze various blog themes on live sites and then tweak my own. See Alik on using the IE Development Toolbar.

Key Galleries I Explored
I explored several galleries, but here's a few of the key ones:

Key Themes I Tested
While I tested a lot of themes, her's a few key ones that stood out:

  • Deep Blue.  Here's a live demo of Deep Blue.  I found it very clean and functional.  Some of my users liked it too for the same reasons, but I didn't get critical mass with it.
  • Easy WordPress.   Who is Jon Ray is a good live example.  I like the theme and I like what Jon's done.  I think the theme really optimizes both browsing and reading content, and pictures work really well.  Even though it's a three column template, it's well organized.  The majority of my focus group preferred this theme.  One user thought the post column is too wide, but they read using a feed reader, so it's not a show stopper.  The majority of my focus group really liked the width and balance of the theme across the columns, and it would scale over time.
  • Grid FocusWrite To Done, Skelliewag.org, Anywired, and Six Revisions are really good live examples.  I was very partial to this theme, particularly because it has a similar look and feel to my Guidance Share Wiki (particularly after I added baby blue bullets instead of the default dark bullets.)  However, my users told me to choose otherwise. This surprised me.  I imagined I was going to be using Grid Focus.  I still think it's a great theme, but my user feedback says it's not the right one at this time for me.   
  • NeoclassicalOpen Education and Schaefer's Blog. This theme had universal appeal across my users particularly at first glance.  In fact, for a while, I thought this would be my theme of choice.  However, after more analysis, user's eventually told me the post column was too narrow, the typography was tough for extended use, and that browsability across a large body of posts might not be as effective as they would like.  The key thing I learned from Neoclassical was that images are important.
  • MistyLook with Two Sidebars. Cheap DJ Systems and Gluten Free Cooking School are live examples of the two sidebar version, and here's a live demo of MistyLook with one sidebar.   This theme is very clean and very easy to customize.  I really like the pattern of a prominent image in the banner with clean, readable posts.  The sidebars are compact too which really helps for navigation.  While most of my focus group liked the theme, they didn't like it enough to make it the final choice.   One of my focus group members really liked this particular theme, enough that it made it tough during final eliminations.
  • My April ReloadedMe, Myself, and I and Market Associates.com are good live examples.  This theme really is spectacular.  Posts are incredibly readable and scannable.  Depending on how you structure the layout, you can make it very, very clean.  There's plenty of room in the third column to fit full post titles without scrunching.  My focus group really liked this theme, but ultimately prioritized Easy WordPress.
  • StudioPress and GreenTech.  I found these themes very clean and functional.  However, I didn't get enough critical mass to spend a lot of time investing in them.

How I'll Use This 
This has definitely shaped my perspective on blog themes.   It's night and day from when I first evaluated themes.  Knowing what to look for helps me test and experiment faster.  I now have a more systematic way of figuring out why some blog themes work and why some don't.  I'll be helping some colleagues with their blog themes and I'll be using what I learned as I launch new blogs.

Additional Resources

My Related Posts

Comments (9)
  1. alikl says:

    JD, this is awesome breakdown on how to research on blog templates.

    Super cool!

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    Thanks Alik

    I learned a lot so I tried to share a lot.

    It was way more work than I expected.  I would have to say this was my most difficult post in terms of time and effort.  I was surprised.

  3. Vinh Le says:

    I think this is the first article I ever read about how to choose an effective blog theme and you did a very good job with your in depth analysis of the different factors involved in it.I think most people just download the coolest looking themes.

    I write a lot of articles on blog designs that I think you might be interested in.

  4. J.D. Meier says:

    Thanks Vinh — I’ll check out your site.

  5. Mirjam says:

    Hi JD,

    excellent break down of all things to consider when choosing a new template, bookmarked it for future reference and stumbling it!

  6. J.D. Meier says:

    Thanks Mirjam!

  7. Adarsh says:

    This is awesome guide to choose a best theme. Thank you.

  8. Harendra says:

    JD Meier, this is awesome article on this topic, you have done lots of researched. i really appreciate.
    thanks for sharing this great article with us. we are looking for a template for my blog, now i can choose.
    Thanks
    Harendra

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