Blog features and tools (survey results)

Let’s look a little beyond the content of a blog and on to the tools and features that blog sites such as wordpress and blogger offer.  Blogs often include rss feeds, calendars, category links, search engines, and various options to follow the blog.  Especially in the case of wordpress these additional features are what make them money.  By signing up to wordpress.org the blogger can access a whole range of extra features while the free-blogger can only access a few basic ones.  At the end of the day it all depends on what you want to do with your blog. 

In the survey asked for Blogging for Historians last year (see here for posts about this) a question was asked about which features were seen to be the most useful.  A list of basic blog features were given:

  1. Twitter feeds
  2. Categories
  3. Calendar
  4. Past Posts lists
  5. RSS feeds
  6. Tag clouds
  7. Blog stats
  8. Search engine
  9. Recent comments list
  10. Follow blog option
  11. Other

Each participant was allowed to choose as many options as they liked so that it would be possible to see the relative popularity of each feature.  The most popular (with over 60 votes each) were categories and twitter feeds.  Past post lists and ‘follow blog’ options were not far behind.  Categories are obviously useful for distinguishing between content types and topic.  A blog looking at, say marriage customs across the ages, might be most useful if each post is attached to a category of periodization or wedding custom (perhaps a category for each religion or aspects of marriage such as engagement, the ceremony, reception, married life).  The ‘past post list’ is another aspect to this need for discoverability, as are twitter feeds.  Even past post lists falls under this category.  Therefore the most popular blogging tools are those that make it easier to find posts and contents of interest.

Other related items such as tag clouds, search engines, and RSS feeds were much lower down in participant’s interest.  Perhaps this suggests that the original use of RSS is being overtaken by other methods for finding and retrieving content (such as a reliance on Twitter), whilst tag clouds tend to be attractive means to display popular topics, but not necessarily so useful for searching blogs.  I think there is more research that can be done into these features.  For example how useful is a tag cloud?  Do people actually like them or not?

The least popular features were calendars and blog stats.  This is perhaps not that surprising.  Calendars don’t tend to offer much use for blogs focused on discussing History, and blog stats are a curiosity rather than having an essential use for viewers of a blog.  At best they might signify the relative popularity of a blog and, as the podcasted interviews have shown, provide a constant means for procrastination by blog owners.  They of course, also do provide useful statistics for institutions and individuals which can be used to show popularity and usefulness of the resource.

The ‘Other’ category offered participants the opportunity to suggest other useful features.  These are listed below:

Blogrolls Picture galleries Comments Follow by email
Archives section Facebook connection Images (within posts) Links to other sites

One comment noted a potential weakness of most blogs, in that they present posts in chronological order meaning that you need to scroll down to get to the first post (or interesting posts along the way).  This comment suggested that other formats work better, although unfortunately does not explain further what other formats could be used.  From the other items ticked by participants it would seem that discoverability is essential, and that useful features tend to be one’s which enable discovery of a blog post from external locations (Twitter, Facebook etc) and those on the blog itself which enable easy indexing of the posts.  Thus, one solution to finding interesting posts at a glance might well be some form of traditional index or something else entirely.  Another participant did indeed suggest an ‘archives section’.

The first of these respondents did note that they were interested in blogs as a possible means for working up first drafts and work-in-progress, suggesting a use of the blog as a public-facing workspace for research, but also wondered if they would become something new entirely in terms of the format it produces or ‘spawns’.

Another participant noted that they wanted to know who it was that was writing.  They wanted some indication of their background and interests.  This is not something that is mentioned very often.  Indeed, the survey didn’t ask about authorship directly.  However, this participant is definitely right.  Whenever I check a blog I usually try and find out at least some basic information about the author (i.e. is he/she associated with a university?  Are they an academic, postgraduate, or other interested party?  Where are they coming from when writing their blog post and what is the reason behind it?).

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