Rethinking the blog: new design, a digression on SEO, and the return of the Woodrat Podcast

If you’re reading this in a feed reader or your email inbox, you might want to click through and check out the new blog redesign. Or not — it’s really very similar to my last redesign, except that now I am actually using the theme (Kirby, by Ian Stewart) that last time was merely my inspiration. It’s also the theme that inspired the new default theme that ships with self-hosted WordPress, TwentyTen, so it’s a look you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of in the months and years to come.

Why the change? I love messing around with CSS and tweaking PHP templates, but after a while, if you’re neither a trained designer nor a skilled programmer, a blog theme kind of wears out. I was getting increasingly frustrated with my own inability to find the proper fonts, colors and proportions, and a couple of technical glitches in the way that certain plugins interacted with my old theme defeated all my attempts to troubleshoot. It was ultimately less work to import all my significant tweaks into a new, more technically sophisticated theme than to keep hacking the old. And in the process of making a single sidebar into a double one, somehow I managed to finesse the spacing so that I have both a wider main column and more white space on the sides (from 960 pixels wide it’s back down to 940), without — I hope — making things feel too crowded.

I heeded the advice from a couple people after the last redesign and did away with the colored box around the sidebar. This theme also includes the option of putting sidebar material in a four-column footer (see Morning Porch for an example). I might still use that space here; I don’t know. I did reduce the number of posts displayed on the main page to just five so the site would load more quickly, but I still tend to think that if you want people to see anything in the footer, you have to have either really short posts (as at Morning Porch) or else post just the titles and short excerpts with “read more” links.

(On a technical note, for the benefit of other self-hosted WordPress bloggers: it proved quite easy to add the new custom menus feature introduced with WordPress 3.0. I followed this tutorial.)

One of the niftiest features of the old blog was the magic javascripty drop-down categories menu activated by a “browse” link in the navigation bar. I don’t have so many categories that I can’t simply list them in the sidebar, as I’ve done, and I believe with the categories showing now, the search engines should index the site more effectively. Which brings me to…

A brief digression on SEO

I am not after more traffic for Via Negativa, necessarily, I just want the right readers to be able to find it. To me, that’s what search-engine optimization (SEO) is really all about: making your content maximally available to its optimal audience, however large or small, general or specialized it might be. Popularity in and of itself should never be a goal for noncommercial bloggers: it leads to higher hosting costs, more spam comments, more malicious hacker attacks, and eventually, perhaps even a loss of the very readers you want to attract if your blog becomes a popular commenting spot for bullies with an axe to grind. Like many people, I was saddened today to read that Ron Silliman, the most popular poetry blogger in English, has felt compelled to shut down comments altogether, though I totally empathize with his position. It made me realize: hey, it’s good to be small.

It’s not just size, though. Via Negativa is a very different kind of poetry blog from Silliman’s, and I don’t think those of us who regularly post drafts of our own work, and who are more interested in appreciation than critical assertions when talking about other people’s poetry, are in any danger of attracting large numbers of commenters who, as Silliman put it, see poetry as a contact sport. Of course, rude and offensive comments are hardly restricted to literary criticism blogs these days; they’re the bane of online newspapers and YouTube videos as well. But as long as your site doesn’t get too popular, moderating comments isn’t too much of a chore. In seven years of blogging, I don’t think I’ve gotten more than a dozen truly hateful comments.

So with all this in mind, I think the question of whether or how much to tailor one’s content to fit likely searches becomes a lot easier to answer. Rather than obsessing over SEO, it makes more sense to expend energy finding, linking to, and commenting on great blogs, because that’s where your best and most thoughtful readers are going to come from — not to mention the inspiration for your next post. Literary, nature, and other niche bloggers need to work on building cultures of generosity rather than building our personal brands, as so many blogging gurus urge us to do. Then again, Silliman has always been very generous with links, and look where it got him.

The return of the Woodrat Podcast

I still have a podcast link-button at the top of the sidebar, and that’s because I do plan to resume podcasting next month. I’m not sure yet whether I will again be posting episodes once a week, or whether I’ll drop back to once every two weeks, but regardless, it will continue to be a highly edited show consisting mainly of interviews with writers, naturalists, artists, and other kindred spirits. The idea, as before, will be to try and elicit discussions of interest to the sort of people who read Via Negativa. I am less interested in records of achievement than in unique backgrounds and perspectives. I have a list of possible interviewees who I’ll begin contacting soon, but I’m also open to volunteers — email bontasaurus [at] yahoo [dot] com. If you have suggestions of people I should contact, I’ll consider those, too, but I don’t have a whole lot of moxie, so I’ll tell you right now I probably won’t approach too many people with whom I haven’t already had some contact through blogging, Facebook, or qarrtsiluni.


  1. I like it. It has the simplicity I like along with a readable font.

    Interesting about letting the categories stand to get more traffic. I just recently got stormed with spam, to the extent that my host had to shut my site down for a bit. I didn’t like that at all.

    I’ve never had much traffic. I can’t imagine what it would be like.



    1. Glad you liked the new look. Sorry to hear about the spam-storm — are you using Akismet to block it? If it’s a problem for your host to have that much traffic, you can grab the IPs from the most common offenders and block them in your .htaccess file. There’s also a method to block them using fancy Apache rules which I don’t understand, but which seems fairly straight-forward to implement. See the Codex.


  2. I like the new design, Dave. It’s easy on the eyes.

    I appreciate the discussion on SEO. As you know, it’s been on my radar screen lately, and you provided a perspective I hadn’t considered.

    Poetry as a contact sport. The mere thought of that is so bleak. I’ve been so lucky. My few regulars are hardy, but gentle folk with whom I would love to break bread someday. I would hate to get into some one’s spammy crosshairs.

    I’ll push the Podcast button. I love associating voices with their written words.


    1. Hi Beth – thanks for commenting. It is a bleak thing, this intense vitriol around what does and does not constitute good poetry. I guess we can at least be cheered that a few people still feel passionate about it, though. I’ve gotten a few hate tweets in response to my Morning Porchisms, too, and each time I feel sort of flattered that anyone would bother — and bothered that anyone would hate nature writing so much.


  3. Love the new design, Dave – all the great features of the old one and a much more spacious feeling. Maybe I liked the header photo better in the old colour, but the new one is good too and the more I look at it the more it has its own evocativeness, of both sunny days and stormy or misty, and also of dawn or twilight.

    I guess there are technical teething problems – yesterday I couldn’t see this post at all (though it was in my feedreader) and the previous one started way down the page (18 inch screen at work). Now I can see both today’s post and this one, but this one has ‘posted by Dave etc.’ in one-word lines that trickle down and down like a long-tail concrete poem and the two-line header is showing as one line going right across the page, obscuring the sidebar info.

    WordPress is clearly very complex, too complex for me – which is a shame, because the formats and possibilities get better and better, and all for free!


    1. Jean, are you using Internet Explorer? I was having troubles getting it to look right in IE8 (and presumably older versions) initially, but thought I solved the problem. The trouble is the browser caches much more agressively than aother browsers. Try clearing the cache (under Tools, the first option — Delete Browsing History), wait five minutes, and try again.

      Glad you like the design otherwise. I changed the header to match the link color, obviously, but it’s actually almost exactly the way the early-morning picture came out of the camera.


      1. Hi Dave. Cleared cache – still same problem. I have IE8 at work. Haven’t looked yet at home, where I have Firefox.


        1. Well, the reason why I think the problem might still be caching is that I did make these same display problems go away both on my own computer (I’m using IE8 right now to type this comment) and on my mom’s computer, after a bit of struggle.


        2. Do you have the same display issues with Morning Porch? It has the exact same stylesheet and just slight differences in the home page template.


          1. Hi Dave. Morning Porch is fine both on my home computer with Firefox and work computer with IE8. The only thing I do notice from time to time is variations in the number of line-spaces between heading and body of each post – this seems to happen randomly and can affect the view in either browser.

            Anyway, the issue on IE8 with this new design is still only affecting this post, so clearly not an ongoing problem.

            I was just looking at SquareSpace, having read your comment to Clive. Is the cost the only reason you have WordPress rather than SquareSpace? Or do the main advantages of SquareSpace over WordPress concern the integration of a full-feature blog into a multi-section website with portfolio etc – not necessarily something you want yourself?

  4. and, hooray, more podcasts – I’m a huge fan, as you know!


  5. “. . . somehow I managed to finesse the spacing so that I have both a wider main column and more white space on the sides (from 960 pixels wide it’s back down to 940), without — I hope — making things feel too crowded.”

    On my site, I could never reproduce one or two of the more serendipitous things that happened when I was tooling around with it. My fear of losing those things is one of the reasons why I don’t tool around much, though . . .

    I like the wider spacing. Your site seems cleaner and more attractive than ever, a nice balance among simplicity, utility, and content.


    1. Thanks. It’s interesting how many of us who view blogging as a platform for self-publishing favor more minimalist designs. So much of the emphasis in web design these days is on newspaper-like front pages with lots of colorful images and “read more” links. John Miedema is the only blogger I read who has deployed one of those types of themes to really good effect. Then again, his coding skills are also well in advance of yours and mine.


  6. Sorry I haven’t yet commented on the seismic changes. I think the new look is extremely pleasing Dave. Un cluttered and airy! But it’s the weirdest thing to get used to, like talking to an old friend who you expect to look the way he/she always has, but then finding that there’s been a bit of work done that’s made the face look oddly unfamiliar!

    A few artist friends are having new websites designed by my sister-in-law Sally, and the current simplicity around that informs their look is a bit disconcerting, not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because it makes me look at my own website and wonder uneasily whether it should be ‘refreshed’. A daunting prospect as it’s the second design for the site, and it seems it was done only yesterday. But your Via Negativa design has also sent me looking critically at my blog, and now I’m worrying about that too. Ho hum. Wrong to get wedded to something like that, but then I try a change out… easy enough on WordPress… and think that I’ll stick with what I’ve got. For the moment.

    You’re a generous soul to post such comprehensive design tutorials. Thank you.


    1. Clive, thanks for the review! Your opinion on matters aesthetic is obviously not one I’d take lightly, so I’m glad you like this despite your shock at the change. I assure you, there are many bloggers who change themes more often than I do — I tend to avoid it precisely because I think it is off-putting to readers to change too often. And in a medium like blogging whose defining feature is the constant addition of new material, a consistent look is very important, I think.

      I like your website in general, though ideally it would integrate your blog a bit more closely. A lot of artist portfolio sites these days rely rather heavily on javascript, which can be annoying. I think if you were ever to redo your site, you should take a serious look at Squarespace.


      1. I guess the blog and website don’t integrate as well as they might largely because I don’t maintain the website myself, and therefore the matter usually escapes my attention. I’ll go to look at Squarespace and put my thinking cap on. Thanks Dave. Much obliged to you for the advice.


        1. Well, but there is value in not having to do everything yourself, too. I gather that Squarespace is really easy to use, but maintaining both blog and site yourself might prove too much of a distraction from your real work. It’s an option to be aware of is all.


  7. Oh, it looks swell. I like the white space, the post size, the text style and all. My only critique is that it puts me in the mood to do a little remodeling, and I am behind on so many other projects I just can’t do it!

    You always inspire with your art and your craft. (Fussing is craft IMO.)


    1. Thanks, Deb! I’m sorry to have sparked some anxiety, though. Your blog is perfectly fine, but you’ve had the present theme for quite a while and I can understand growing restless with that.


  8. Hey, this looks good. There’s a lot I really like about twenty-ten—so much so that I used pieces of it when I redid my theme last month (though I couldn’t quite get rid of my silly sky background just yet).

    Looking forward to the return of the podcast.


    1. Thanks. I meant to tell you I really liked your blog makeoverh — and the background actually seems a better fit now than it did before.


  9. Re your earlier reply to my comment — “hate” and “nature blogging” seem so unlikely to be in the same sentence! The poor person who wrote you “hate tweets” in response to any of your Morning Porchisms must be a sad sack indeed. Makes me wonder what happened to him/her.


    1. There have been three of four of them. I always block them right away, but that means I can’t find them again by searching through my @-replies, so maybe I should just ignore them instead. Their comments are definitely instructive.


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