Blogging – When Visuals Don’t Matter (As Much As You Would Like)

Visuals don’t make the success of your blogging – at least not when starting a new blog.

I’m currently in the process of setting up a new blogging project. It’s not my idea but my girlfriends, but Susanna and I will be involved closely.

It’s a lifestyle project; the topic is how to lead a more active lifestyle, and we’re all doing it because partly because we want to force us to lead a more active a fitness related lifestyle. It’s coming around well and is going to launch soon.

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But that’s not the point.

Yesterday we had one of our first meetings about this. (Ok, I call this a meeting – no, I’m not having business meetings of the typical kind with my girlfriend…)

And I noticed something: We spent way too much time discussing what it should look like – and if I hadn’t stepped on the brakes we would have spent way too little time discussing the content.

It’s a mistake I do again and again. It’s a mistake I’ve seen many people doing. And it’s a mistake that kills many otherwise promising blogging careers. The visuals don’t nearly count as much as we give them credit.

The problem is: When we start spending too much thought on the visuals that will stop us from blogging. When we start to believe that the visuals count more than the content, we tend to get embarrassed for our blog. When we start to believe that our visuals will make our blog famous and not the content – we’re going to drown in the sea of invisibility.

Look at this blog – we started out less than a year ago on Tumblr.

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We switched to WordPress – and when doing the design I ran out of time – we looked like this for half a year:

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It’s only been two weeks that we switched the design to what you see now, but did the design hurt our traffic? A lot less than you might think, if it all. Here is why:

What’s The First Impression That People Get From Your Blog?

If you go out and ask random people this question – 90% are going to say it’s the visuals that create the first impression. They are wrong.

Because the first impression that people get from your blog is the content. But not just the content, but content in condensed form. It might just be the headline of a post; it might be the headline and an image, or it might even be a headline and a summary. Sometimes all three things as you will see in a second.

How comes, the content creates the first impression and not the visuals? Let me explain.

People don’t randomly click around on the web and then return to the sites that provided good looks. Instead, what we do is we discover content. Content that is presented to us by Google when we search for keywords, content that get’s shared with us on Facebook or Twitter.

And these sites present content to us totally independent from what our blogs look like.

Here is how Google presents a search result:

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Depressing right? No image, no shiny design, no visual impression at all. The headline is cut short; the summary is … well … crap. It gets even worse: This is presented to the searching person within a list of similar content descriptions.

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If you are giving a lot of thought to SEO, this is what you need to optimize your content for so that the first impression that people get from you is good. This means the first impression on Google search result pages otherwise people won’t even visit your blog.

(If you are optimizing a wordpress blog for this – I recommend using the Yoast SEO plugin.)

But Google isn’t the only site we discover content on – let’s have a look at how people see content on Facebook:

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Not our strongest post, but this is how the Facebook crowd sees your post. Image, headline, summary. Quite a good representation of the content, almost no visuals. The image doesn’t have anything to do with the visuals on the blog. Instead, you need to implement the right image sizes for Facebook so that everything gets shown right. You can even have separate summaries and headlines just for Facebook.

(Again – if you want these: The Yoast SEO plugin can help. Jon Loomer also has an Infographic for the right image sizes for Facebook.)

So Facebook focuses on representing the content in condensed form – but not the blog itself.

What does the second most important (and my personal favorite) social network Twitter do?

Most content on Twitter gets presented in 140 characters. If you are clever, you can implement Twitter cards – which gives you an image and a line of summarizing intro text, but that’s it. And even then – most people are simply going to read the tweet.

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Why The First Impression And The Content Are The Most Important Things When Starting To Blog

The first impression is the most important thing when you are starting to blog for an audience, but the first impression is not the visuals. The first impression is what makes people click before they even saw your blog.

With what people see on Facebook, Twitter or Google you make a promise to them to deliver a specific value. So the second most important thing is again not the visuals – it’s the content. Because you need to make sure that your content delivers on the promise you just made to the visitor before he even opened your site. Your content needs to deliver the value you promised.

Other Reasons Why Content Is More Important Than Visuals

There are many more reasons why content is more important than visuals when starting out:

  • Many people are blind to visuals by now: We’ve all seen hundreds of thousands of websites by now. Some great looking ones and some bad ones. We’ve gone numb.
  • Visuals are a matter of taste. Content is too at least sometimes – but a lot of content types can deliver value without being subject to good or bad taste. If I search for information – all I care about is whether I get that info. If it’s badly written, so be it.
  • When you are starting out you may or not have a good idea at where you are headed. But even if you do, plans change and the way you want your blog to look like may change as well.
  • When you have little content on your blog it won’t matter whether your theme is well designed. Most themes will look like … without content.
  • Many more reasons…

Let’s Go For A Little More Motivation – Here Is How Famous Blogs Looked Like When They Were Created

Ok, I’m not sure where I’m going to end up here, but hopefully, a little research will prove that most famous blogs looked like crap when they were created. I’m really doing the research while I type – so be prepared for this to be an adventure:

Techcrunch:

When founded: 2005

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Today: techcrunch.com

Mashable

When founded: 2005

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Today: mashable.com

Gizmodo

When founded: 2004

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Today: gizmodo.com

Didn’t these all look ugly? Ok, granted, the whole web looked different back in those days. But you see the picture – these simply didn’t look great when they started. But what about more recent examples? Let’s have a look at one of the most successful bloggers about online marketing, Jeff Bullas:

Jeff Bullas’ Blog

Back in 2009:

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Today: jeffbullas.com

As you can see, Jeff’s blog changed relatively little. The 2009 version of his blog looks quite good – even by today’s standards. This is because he opted for a simple and clean layout. Nothing fancy, only a clean focus on blogging.

By any means I would say that the old version looks better than his blog does today – that is because he knows well that content is more important than looks. He kept a lot of what made his blog his blog in the early days – and just added things he needed. Some branding elements, his links to monetize his blog, and, of course, the overly present share buttons.

Jon Loomer’s Blog

I also wanted to show you Jon Loomer’s blog – it looked like … in 2011, but Wayback Machine doesn’t load most of the images on his blog for the old version, so I had to leave it out. It would just be an unfair comparison.

Today his blog looks great of course: http://jonloomer.com/blog

Ok, enough examples…

So, When Is The Right Time To Think About Visuals?

If you read this article up to this point, you probably got the impression that visuals don’t count.

That is, of course, wrong.

Visuals do count but in a way a lot different from what you would expect.

Visuals don’t make the success of your blogging - at least not when starting a new blog.

When you are starting out, keep it simple. Choose a simple theme, that has clean typography, looks good on the desktop and mobile viewing (choose responsive design) – and more importantly: Choose a theme that doesn’t bind you to a certain look for the rest of your life.

When you are starting out, what really can set you apart is your content, not your looks. (And no, this is not relationship advice.)

A look that is easy on the eyes is more important than looking great at this stage. Web design is far less important at this stage than learning to write and to write well.

The time to upgrade is when you feel you need something that you didn’t need before and cannot handle with your current setup. Branding, for instance, becomes important at some point.

Or maybe you have found that your post all follow a certain form with images at the same places, etc. You might then want to integrate this form better into the style of your blog.

These are all things you cannot decide when you start.

Also, when you decide that you want to monetize your blog, things will change a lot. You will need to place ads at certain places, highlight products, guide the eyes of users, … You will spend a lot of time thinking about visuals then.

But when you are starting out, visuals are about being simple, clean and out of the way.

There is something a lot more important than having the most beautiful blog: Getting the blog distribution right. If you manage to spread the word about your blog the content and the value you provide to the audience you reach will count.

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Final Words

Remember what I started with? We are on a new project – and after we had settled the discussion about themes, etc. we discussed content types, publishing schedules, etc. … just as we should have.

I will announce it here once we launch it. It’s going to look good, but not great. Not yet.

The content will be good though. It’s going to rock.

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Visuals don’t make the success of your blogging - at least not when starting a new blog.