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.