The latest and greatest WordPress themes have become applications unto themselves, opening up vast tweaking possibilities for bloggers never quite satisfied with how their blog looks. Current theme for this page is Magazine Premium by Bavotasan, a Canadian theme designer who has packed a lot of features into a theme he sells for $39.97. His Magazine Basic is a free, stripped-down version that nevertheless allows you to switch and ditch your sidebars till you find something you can live with.

I’ve put Magazine Premium through its paces at Two-Heel Drive, culminating in a tweak-a-thon I last night in which I gave a hard look at three layouts. I started with this one:

Centered sample of Two Heel Drive homepage

I wasn’t nuts about this layout because it just seemed messy and cluttered. My “get social” buttons were prominent on the page, but they were too far away from the navigational features on the opposite sidebar. Seemed to me all that stuff should be grouped together.

Something else about this design bugged me: terrible click-through on my Google ads. These don’t rake in much cash but they do reveal a lot about about user behavior, so it was worth looking into. Frankly, banner blindness is so pervasive that these ads are probably costing more in annoyed readers than they’re gaining in revenue, but I can’t resist the urge to experiment. My next one produced this:

Second Two Heel Drive blog layout sample

Note the ad right in the sweet spot — it’s the second thing you see after the headline (and smack dab in the middle of Google’s “heat map” for ad readership). I saw dollar signs for about 30 seconds — if this didn’t juice click-through, nothing would.

Then I noticed the content portion of my blog seemed lost over on the right, as if blogging about hiking was something I got around to after I’d squeezed every last dime out of my readers. And herein lies the rub: The layout is so transparently ad-driven that it almost certainly would do more harm than good.

So here’s where I am now:

Third blog layout at Two-Heel Drive

While this layout essentially surrenders my aim to boost my ad click-through, it has several advantages over the other two:

  • Better flow: The eye naturally reads vertically down the page from the header to the content. The first layout forces the eye to jump over to the right a little, and the second one tells reader we care more about our navigational elements and ads than we do about the content.
  • Better framing: White space on the left side gives the design some breathing space lost in my first design. This creates a more eye-pleasing frame for the content.
  • Better packaging: All of my navigational elements — the social buttons, the “I Hike, I Blog,” recent posts and recent comments are grouped together. If somebody wants all that stuff, he doesn’t have to go wandering across the page to find it.

Turns out this is roughly the same layout I had before my most recent redesign. I’m tempted to simplify things even more with a single-sidebar design and abandon AdSense in my rail altogether. After all the most effective place for a Google ad is in the last place you’d expect it: the very bottom of a post, between the content and the comments. Seems people actually appreciate having another place to click after they’ve read the article.

Google Analytics can test and compare design variations, though I’d caution that unless your blog has a very large readership, you probably won’t have a large enough sample size to draw reliable conclusions from the comparisons.

Many sophisticated WordPress themes provide expansive layout functionality — the trick is using these powers for good. The temptation to constantly revise your blog’s appearance is the Dark Side of design and should be resisted with all the will you can muster.

A layout tells your readers “this is what I know you want.” Changing it all the time demonstrates either you don’t know, or don’t care (or, worst of all, both).