What I learned after my recent site redesign

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You may have noticed that Freewaregenius has had a new theme design for the last 10 days. We wanted a more ‘visual’ look and feel different from the typical blog themes, and were curious to find out how our readers would react and how such a change might affect the way people interact with the site.

This post is a summary of what we have learned. Suffice it to say the new theme has not been a success, and we are working on launching another one as I write this, which will probably be launched the first week of May.

Note: all screenshots below were taken on a browser width of 1557 pixels.

Exhibit 1: The design that is subject of this article is shown below:

BlinkTheme Screenshot

Exhibit 2:In case you’re wondering this is what the site looked like before the redesign:

News Genesis Screenshot wide 1000px

1. A lot of people found the wall-to-wall thumbnail post view overwhelming

This idea, of content presented on every inch of the screen with big colorful images was exactly what I wanted. It may have been too much for some people, and too chaotic for others. I will say though that some people did like it, but they were not as vocal as the ones that didn’t.

Going forward, I think it may be possible to do a compromise that satisfies most people. by using three centered columns, and standardizing the height of each post, giving the predictability and orderliness to those who want it, and the bird’s eye view to those who liked that.

2. There was NO significant increase in user engagement.

Average Visit Duration, Pages Per Visit, and Bounce Rate did not see the revolutionary improvements that I had hoped for. Having said that, there was no adverse effect either, and it looks like to the extent that there was an effect, it was slightly POSITIVE.

Exhibit 3: engagement metrics

Engagement Metrics

The day of the switch to the new theme is marked in red above (Apr 16th). For the first two metrics, higher is better, while the last one (Bounce rate) lower is better.

3. Users with widescreens HATED the blank space on the right.

This is understandable, as you can see clearly below (exhibit 4). Even if the actual amount of blank space is almost exactly the same as it is in exhibit 2 above.

Exhibit 4: inside a single post on widescreens

BlinkTheme Screenshot Single Post 1000px

This shouldn’t have been a very big issue, because according to Google Analytics, a very small minority of readers (about 15%) actually have a screen width at or wider that 1280px. I can understand, however, that those who did see the large empty space on the right were unhappy about it. I understand completely, but confess that I did not expect them to be so vocal.

4. My site ad earnings plummeted by about 30%

This is not a typo -THIRTY PERCENT!!. I am unsure how to explain this, but it marks the death knell of this design, as my earnings were already at their lowest level in 3 years before the redesign took place, and not much higher than I would be earning if I were flipping burgers at McDonalds in Seattle 40 hours a week for minimum wage.

But I really would like to know or have a plausible theory at least that could explain this, out of sheer curiosity.

5. Users *may* actually better interact with the categories in the sidebar rather than the top NAV

I say this based on Crazyegg heatmaps that I ran for both, although it may be because the sidebar widget forces you to click twice (once to expand the category, and another to actually select). Will add these under this section soon.

6. There was no positive SEO effect

Or I should say, my search traffic declined slightly, but about 3%-4% than before the redesign over two weeks. This may have nothing to do with the redesign itself though, as this trend has been going on for about a year now. I was hoping that the voodoo that is SEO might be kinder to the site for some unknown, unknowable reason, but that was not to be.

7. Some readers missed the ‘featured articles’ carousel in the home page.

Which was interesting, and I would not have guessed.

8. Readers want me to implement Disqus as my comment system

Or at least some of them do, which I think is interesting. Why?

9. Some readers want an indication in the main page as to who wrote the article

Which is fair enough I suppose.

10. Some readers actually liked and praised the design

Which is why the new redesign will retain many of the elements and look and feel of this theme, while attempting to overcome the criticisms and negative aspects. Stay tuned.