Adjusting the Blogger Template

OK, I don’t want to get bogged down in blogging details. And I actually looked closely at moving to WordPress or even Ruby on Rails Typo, in order to sharpen my ROR skills. But even such a small step is not worth it at this point, because I have to start worrying about different servers and databases. Blogger is very competent, and it has the Microsoft Word plug-in.

But one concession I am making to tweaking my blog environment is I’m stripping out all the CSS styles to see what it looks like bare bones. I’ve kept the special blogger code, but that too I’m going to take a close look at. I haven’t done the Blogger template customization chore myself directly in any significant way. I have done a few light touches to help my people at Connors to understand the SEO issues. I would have liked to have added the previous/next arrows featured in MovableType/TypePad and WordPress. That’s one of the keys to efficient SEO. Blogger offers the 10 most recent posts, which approximates the same effect. But when you look at the Google PageRank algorithm, there are definite differences in how the PR juice gets distributed internally within the site. The prev/next arrows prevents topic dilution for that set of links, but the 10-recent links accomplishes much the same effect in net.

Blogger has an outage scheduled for 4:00 today (and it’s 3:55)—an unforeseen downside. But not a big deal, because I can save the HTML locally (which it technically already is, thanks to the FTP feature), and add the styles back in one at a time to understand what they’re doing.

OK, I’m not a big CSS guy. Over the years, I’ve tended to use table structure to enforce page layout. The common wisdom has gone against this in recent years. Bare bones CSS can be marked up with div tags, which then can be converted into columns with some very light touch CSS. There is an awful lot of CSS instructions between the style tags of a default template, and in putting them back in one at a time to see what they do, I see that the heavy lifting is done in one little spot…

@media all {
#content {
width:660px;
margin: 0 auto;
padding:0;
text-align:left;
}
#main {
width:410;
float:left;
}
#sidebar {
width:100%;
float:none;
}
}

And the blog magically acquires the 3-column look. Sheesh, it’s that easy! No wonder CSS is becoming so universally embraced. It’s hard to imagine going back to table code to accomplish the same thing. The next thing I’m going to do is alter the left over blogging code (after all the CSS was removed) to make a few of the basic SEO optimizations required to fix Blogger’s default templates. First and foremost, is the permalink anchor text. Most popular blogger templates ridiculously puts in the time of day that the post was made. Keep in mind, anchor text is enormously influential in search results. So, it should be nothing other than the same text that becomes the title tag, headline and file name of the permalink page. So, the line that reads…

…should be changed to…

Link to: <$BlogItemPermalinkUrl$>” title=”permanent link”><$BlogItemTitle$> permalink.

And the final step that should be done in fixing the default Blogger template (not customizing) to add a line to the Previous Posts section linking back to the top of the blog. Blogger has this odd habit of letting you navigate deeper into the past by following the “previous 10 posts” links, but not forward in time.

But now, I have a truly bare bones Blogger template. I’ve stripped it down to the essence, removing everything you might consider a Blogger “signature”. Not that I want to obliterate the fact that I’m using Blogger. But rather, I want to build it back up into the look that the MyLongTail site acquires so that the blogging section is indistinguishable from the rest of the site. The decisions I make regarding header graphics, column widths, etc. will be made now simultaneously to the Blogger template and whatever system I end up using for the main site.

Welcome to the MyLongTail Blog

OK, it’s time to jump in head-first with MyLongTail. There’s been way too much thinking and office disruptions. It’s a downward spiral. You think that all you can do is the thought work, because the next distraction is imminent. The next distraction sucks you into office day-to-day work evermore. So, you do less actual work, in favor of thought work. Almost 3 weeks have passed, and a good amount of this project should be doable in just a couple of weeks. To my credit is the fact that we worked out some important issues of reducing load, based on several of Connors’ heavy traffic SEO clients. See, this system is already in place in its previous form, and turning it into a Web 2.0 offering is basically just an “extraction”, and some viral marketing.

OK, perhaps its time to frame this as birth of a Web 2.0 company, and conduct it like performance art. Can you do it without giving away the farm? How much openness and candor is healthy, and how much makes it too easy for the next person to reproduce it? Wouldn’t it be something to turn this very journal entry into the first blog entry of a public-facing MyLongTail blog? Yes, that would be something. What steps would I take? The first would be getting the blog going, and making this the first post, ASAP.

For marketing purposes, make the blogging portion of the site part of the mainstream blogosphere. Don’t get bogged down by creating your own blogging software or choosing hosted blogging software for fancy features. Get blogging fast, and get the full search optimization benefit. That means either Blogger. Why? For the benefit of the people reading this blog post, hosted solutions such as TypePad require that you dedicate a third-level domain to the cause, instead of a subdirectory of an existing www site. And with the local-install solutions, you have to go through the install and customization, and even then you often want it on a different server than the website you’re developing, getting right back to the subdirectory problem. Why is a subdirectory desirable for a blog? For search optimization, but we’ll get to that later. But it does show you the important point, that you will be seeing all the decisions that go through the head of an experienced search engine optimizer, as he creates a site from scratch.

I’ve already got the MyLongTail domains, and have it preliminarily hosted on the corporate production servers. I’m going to construct a rudimentary template that will translate well to both a Blogger template, and a template in my systems. The idea is to keep it simple for now. We’re constructing a teaser to get the attention of a specific audience, and to start signing up early adopters, and to engage trend setters in conversation. I’ve done several projects like this in the past, and have always maintained a Web journal of this sort. The difference being, I have either kept the journal private, or my intended audience could not care less what I was doing, until it was over and they saw the impact. This will be different, because the public at large will be my audience, and I’ll interweave this with the Ruby on Rails, AJAX, Web 2.0, and Longtail movements. It’s almost a guaranteed success.

Anyway, back to Blogger. Yes, Blogger. There are fewer cool plug-ins for Blogger, because it is hosted. And it doesn’t seem to be a Google priority, so features aren’t moving forward as fast as WordPress. But it is search-optimized, and easy and free. It has a Microsoft Word plug-in, which makes publishing ridiculously easy. And if things change radically, you can export it’s contents as XML, and transform the structure with XSL to bring it into any other system. So basically, there are no downsides to Blogger, and getting going is a 1-hour proposition (at most).

So, Blogger is SEO-friendly, and it can be planted in the subdirectory of an existing site. I will use hittail.com/blog. I go into my Blogger account and create a new blog. I choose the minimal template. I publish a test post. I view it on mylongtail.blogspot.com, and it looks fine. I update the FTP settings and test, and the blog is in location using a default blogger template as planned. The one downside I now recall about blogger is the fact that it inserts the navigation bar at the top, obviously for viral marketing. My personal blog site, Mike-Levin.com, was apparently grandfathered in to when that nav bar could be turned off. I searched the Blogger controls for the way to turn it off, and some Googling shows that people are doing it with hacks these days. That’s well and good, but that b-navbar div actually inserts JavaScript. Ugh! I’m tempted to just write some quick blogging software myself, but I don’t want to chase that particular rabbit.

Ready, fire, aim!