In 2005, Jakob Nielsen shared what he considered to be the top 10 design mistakes of what was once called the ‘weblog.’ Strikingly, five years later, most (if not all) of them still remain true in the world of the engaged web.

How User Friendly is Your Blog?

However, what has changed since then is the increased popularity of enterprise blogging and the various ways the information can be shared with others. The ‘weblog’ has transferred itself from an online journal into primary vehicle for establishing oneself as an authority and brand champion.

Yet, chances are your company’s blog is not featured prominently on your site, or not optimally marketed to your constituents. Like the other pages on your website, a blog’s usability is just as important to helping convert visitors into customers, as well as establish brand loyalty in the marketplace.

Let’s examine the simple, but effective ways blogs can be optimized to encourage engagement and fidelity. By focusing on three main areas, you can help refine a blog’s content, layout and shareability.

1. Focus on Content

Just as you need a content strategy for your website, your blog also needs direction as well.

Pick a Topic

First things first: what are you writing about? Is it remotely related to what you sell, provide or evangelize? If not, stop writing about it. If your company produces and sell widgets, your blog should not just talk about your widgets, but the nature of widget technology and its impact on the marketplace.

According to Jakob Nielsen,

The more focused your content, the more focused your readers. That, again, makes you more influential within your niche. Specialized sites rule the Web, so aim tightly. This is especially important if you're in the business-to-business (B2B) sector.

Refer to Other Sources

Yet, talk about your products can get old, especially to your readers. In an effort to show the relevancy of your product in the real world, link to news articles that either lend itself to your company’s vision, or debate its merits. Provide context for the article and succinctly write your rebuttal or counter-argument. Including valuable links increase readership and let others know you’re writing about them.

You can also link to your past pieces in newer postings. Don't assume that readers have been with you from the beginning – providing links to previous articles can give them background and context in case they want to read more about your ideas.

Links also enable trackbacks and pingbacks, allowing your content to appear in the comments section of other posts. Be sure to show where your links are going – it not only shows transparency, but it alleviates users’ fears that they may be clicking unsafe links.

Additionally, Jakob Nielsen reminds that the web isn’t high school:

A related mistake in this category is to use insider shorthand, such as using first names when you reference other writers or weblogs. Unless you're writing only for your friends, don't alienate new visitors by appearing to be part of a closed clique.

Headlines, Keywords & Categories

Readers of your blog look to the headline for guidance. Attempt to be descriptive, rather than vague and ambiguous in your headlines. With millions of blogs and new content daily, readers skim, scan, and jump to the blogs with interesting titles. Readers can be also easily enticed by posing interesting questions, making lists, and stating paradoxes or contradictions.

The keywords you use to describe each blog post should be inclusive, but not exhaustive. Keywords should describe the topic you discussed, but should also include additional words others might use in a search.

In developing your blog, choose 1-3 definitive categories. Then, divide each category into descriptive and valuable topics. Categories should be relevant and interesting, tapping into the real needs of your readers.

2. Layout & Design - It's Not Just Fonts and Colors

Now that you’ve developed a strategy for your content, making it easy to read and appealing to the reader, let’s make sure that the design and layout of the blog is pleasant and inviting.

Navigation

Depending on the blogging platform being used, navigational defaults can vary. Yet, don’t rely on defaults to successfully guide readers to your content.

Murray Lunn, a contributing writer for Helium, writes:

The goal of creating great navigation directly relates to the usability of the business blog. Provide information that's relevant to your readers but allow them to quickly find it and go on with their day.

Many blogs like to organize content by date, which is only useful if you know the month and year that a posted was written. Dates tell nothing about the topic or category, as a result may leave readers unfulfilled. Instead, organize you blog by topic or category.

Although a topical navigation gives your users a streamlined approach to your postings, you can add other tools to help guide them to your most recently published or popular posts, which is a great way to ensure older posts don’t disappear.

Style Guides & Branding

If a blog is integrated into a company site, it needs to blends appropriately into the site,even it’s hosted somewhere else. Your reader shouldn’t know that they’ve left the site at all, which means all branding must be consistent, including font and font size.

Branding isn’t just fonts and colors. Whether it’s a CEO or sales representative, it should be clear to the reader who is writing.

As Jakob Niesen explains, it’s not merely enough to give a name and a job title. Readers want to know more:

It's a simple matter of trust. Anonymous writings have less credence than something that's signed. And, unless a person's extraordinarily famous, it's not enough to simply say that Joe Blogger writes the content. Readers want to know more about Joe. Does he have any credentials or experience in the field he's commenting on? (Even if you don't have formal credentials, readers will trust you more if you're honest about that fact, set forth your informal experience, and explain the reason for your enthusiasm.)

The same applies to guest bloggers, whose presence may help to bring new perspectives and ideas.

Comments & Conversation

Allow comments and respond to comments. Blogs are conversations, not monologues.

By turning comments off, the Web 2.0, social media and social marketing aspects of your blog are effectively lost. Comments enrich your thoughts and take you to a higher level of analysis, allowing you and your company to benefit from additions, corrections, tips, and other feedback from readers. Most importantly, to encourage comments, don’t require sign in.

3. Engage Your Visitors

With content outlined and laid out appropriately and strategically, it's time to deploy a marketing strategy that helps you share and engage with your visitors.

Let Others Share Content & Subscribe

With so many blogs to read, most are discovered indirectly through social media platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Reddit, and Stumbleupon. Therefore, to help new readers discover your blog, make it easy for others to share posts. By including the ability to retweet, Like or choose from a variety of social bookmarking buttons, your blog’s content can be pushed out to the web easily in attempt to pull new readers back to your site.

Additionally, allow users to subscribe to your feed by placing an orange RSS button in a highly visible location. Route your feed through Feedburner so you can keep track of your subscribers, as well as offer an e-mail subscription option.

Cross Post Your Content (in Moderation)

Readers will connect with your blog through multiple channels, depending upon their demographic and interests. By adding a Facebook page or Twitter handle, you can help spread the word about your posts and help establish your authority as a blogger.

However, too much information can drive readers away. Automating your blog’s feed to one platform is okay; automating it to several is overkill.

In addition, different social media platforms serve different needs. Be sure that your content is appropriately incentivized so as to “tease” your reader into visiting your blog.

Search Your Site

By added search functionality for your blog, you can ensure that readers can find what they need in case navigation and other links fail them. As well, by monitoring your blog’s analytics you can see what words readers are using to find content on and off your site. Such knowledge can be used to refine the keywords, categories and other meta data used.

By focusing on your blog's content, layout and marketing strategies, not only will readers be more inclined to read what you have to say, they'll be more engaged and eager to share what they learn with others.

The usability of a blog is just as much about facilitating a conversation as it is about the user experience. By improving all areas, a blog can be transformed dramaticaly.