Redesigning a company blog to respect the reader experience

A typical blog redesign amounts to trying to have your cake and eat it, too.

You get to have it all if you’re able to balance out the reader experience and conversions — providing delightful styling for long-form reading while still growing your email list, for one.

The evolution of the Help Scout blog’s design has had us on both ends of the spectrum; from being aggressive with immediate pop-ups to dropping all of our gated guides in favor of open resources.

We’ve learned a lot along the way, and the goal of this redesign from the outset was finding a happy medium. It’s only been a week or so since its release, but things are looking good.

Let me fill you in on the details, including some small changes we made that only a few readers were able to pick up on so far.

Creating a “Welcome Back!” experience

Touting the benefits of customer loyalty is easy, and many marketers do it — why then, do so few blogs offer an improved experience for “loyal” readers?

Possibly because it’s tough to envision what that might look like. Still, it would be nice to not have to deal with “Subscribe!” messaging if you’ve already subscribed. It makes one think that the company cares more about new leads than it cares about the regular reader.

One change we made in this regard was removing any and all opt-in forms for readers who were coming from our newsletter. Folks coming in from links and social will see our end of post opt-in, but readers coming from email will not.

In addition, we also show a “slide-in” form which appears when you’re about 80% down on any article or resource.

When you scroll past 90% (nearing the bottom of post opt-in), it slides back out, so you aren’t staring down two opt-in forms at once. People coming from email won’t see the slider at all.

What have the results been like from these changes?

Well, tentatively it looks like we are back up to ~120 subscribers per day, with a slight dip on the weekend. Even at ~100 average subscribers per day, we’d run rate at 3000 per month, which is excellent.

It’s reassuring to see that we were able to completely remove our lightbox pop-up and still get some stellar numbers, all while having an overall better reader experience for both new and subscribed readers.

The switch to single-column

The reason the sidebar has remained so ubiquitous on blogs it that is does serve some purposes when used well — such as pointing people to a landing page, introducing the product, plugging an opt-in form, highlighting popular posts, etc.

I would argue that it doesn’t do many of these jobs exceptionally well (except pointing people to landing pages). For a company blog like ours, all it served to do was take up reading space.

The sidebar opt-in was barely getting used, and we felt there was a better way to keep popular content at the forefront.

Jared chose to go with what I’m calling the “courses” approach, where our blog categories are structured like you might find in an online course. Click the support module and you’ll get some hand-picked goodness on customer support.

Of course, if you click popular, you’ll get our greatest hits. He executed beautifully, but I’ve found people love clicking on the word popular even when I tested it on my site through a simple selection of links (seriously, people click that popular tab so often!).

Go to our blog homepage to see, or check out the screenshot below:

All of this circles back to the point — with these elements properly addressed, we felt quite comfortable ditching the sidebar and going with a single column reading experience. No distractions, and a priority is placed on our end of post opt-in form, since there isn’t anywhere else to look.

Imitating the Perfect Reading Experience: Books

As has been pointed out in Justin Jackson’s Words, the perfect reading experience is nearly feature free — just like a good book.

One magnet for distraction that you’ll find on nearly every website is the trusty hyperlink. There has been some interesting research on whether hyperlinks affect reader retention, and the results don’t look good:

Embedded hyperlinks in documents or Internet pages have been found to make different demands on the reader than traditional text. Some studies report increased demands of reading hyperlinked text in terms of cognitive load, or the amount of information actively maintained in one’s mind.

One study showed that going from about 5 hyperlinks per page to about 11 per page reduced college students’ understanding (assessed by multiple choice tests) of articles about alternative energy.

Of course, blogs need relevant links for further reading and to cite their sources, like I did above.

I’ve taken inspiration from sites like Medium and Svbtle, and suggested that our links contain a simple underline, with a “hover” color so it’s completely obvious that it’s a link. If you’re just reading through, however, the subtlety of the link makes for a uniform reading experience.

It’s hard to say what one would measure for this change, perhaps metrics relating to time on page and pages visited, but who knows exactly what impact it will have, if any.

One thing I will posit is that it makes for a much more enjoyable, “book like” reading experience. The fact that tools like Readability are so popular speak to the fact that people look to lessen their cognitive load when they read.

Removing social share buttons

Although I’ve yet to see a truly comprehensive, “conclusive” case study on social share buttons, it’s obvious that the answer depends on the site and audience.

I will say, for both Sparring Mind and now (tentatively) for Help Scout, I’ve yet to see any meaningful difference. Why slow down your site with these ugly buttons when you don’t have to?

Facebook and Twitter will tell you they work because you’re doing constant promotion for them, but you should try it for yourself.

Some folks, like Smashing Magazine and designer/writer Paul Jarvis would go as far as to say that removing the buttons actually increased their traffic.

The pushback you’ll often receive is around it being “easy” or about search rankings. Let me tell you, social has a minimal impact on rankings vs. links. When Rand Fishkin ran some experiments around the social platform most associated with search, Google+, he had this to say:

Activity on Google+ does not appear to directly influence non-personalized rankings. But for personalized/logged-in rankings, they can still be powerful.

He’s also overrating personalized rankings; people who follow you on G+ already know who you are, search is for finding people who don’t know you exist.

All of this is to say that I believe you can sweep the sleaze and not worry about those buttons. It’s the content that matters, not the icons.

If you’re scared, run a test. I’ll be testing the buttons I have on this site (I’m using this plugin, it has a great feature set) to see whether or not shares pick up, drop off, or stay the same after I remove them.

Moving content off of sub-domains

Speaking of Rand Fishkin, this tweet is something a lot of you should pay attention to:

For a long time, we had all of our resources sitting on helpscout.net/resources/, a much weaker sub-domain than helpscout.net/blog/, and obviously an overall weaker location than our main site.

It is a bit too early to make any declarative statements, but I’m seeing certain resources, like our infographic on What is Bad Customer Service Costing Your Business?, jump up from it’s restful location on Page 2 up to the top of the rankings.

Hard to say what the longstanding impact will be, but if you’ve been struggling with a few terms and have the content on a sub-domain, it may be time to test this tactic.