Testing a site-wide posts plugin


I’ve got a few testbeds splattered across my site right now for the purposes of testing a plugin that I’d like to pressgang into use network-wide. One major problem we’ve had historically is a lack of visibility from one blog to another. With everyone lamenting that Ed Brayton is leaving, and that that’s the only blog they read (outside Pharyngula), those of us hardscrabble waifs fighting over the crumbs of traffic after the big men get their share, I’d like to make sure that the fact that we’re scrambling for those crumbs is perfectly apparent to everyone.

You eagle-eyed readers have probably noticed that I have three new pages on my blog: Random Network Posts, Last 50 Posts, and Last 2 Posts on Each Blog.

The first shows a completely random post from every single blog that is both public and not rated Mature (as Taslima and Maryam’s blogs are — by necessity, to keep Google from freaking out about their frequently posting things like pictures of acid attack victims, etc). The second shows a sort of feed-like view, with the last 50 posts across the network (and three more pages of 50 if you want to drill backward). The third is something approximating the old homepage, with the last two posts from every single blog — sadly, with no visual break between the blogs, and unfortunately, with the two posts reversed time-wise.

Also, my widget does something unique — it shows the latest post from the last ten blogs that have written a post, rather than displaying the last ten blog posts in toto. This still advantages frequent-posters like Pharyngula, in that it’ll probably always be in that top ten, but it doesn’t spam out the rest of us.

The visuals are absolutely shit, right now, though. It’s not suitable as a front page in its current form. But with some CSS massaging, and maybe hacking the plugin a bit to suit our needs, it could be pressganged to provide some serious and much-needed cross-site visibility.

What do you folks think? How could it be improved? What sorts of sorting schemes would you like to see? How useful do you think these are?

Comments

  1. Kengi says

    Awesome first go. I’d be a regular user of the Last 50 Posts page.

    Something I think would be useful would be a block of text from the post under each title. It would be useful for selecting what to read as well as creating a natural break for usability.

    Let’s face it. I really got used to the ScienceBlogs format on this page:

    http://scienceblogs.com/last-24-hours/

    Many other networks use something similar for a homepage (such as http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/ ), but I tend to think the current homepage here is better than that.

    As a regular reader, I really appreciate this being worked on. It’s the sort of thing that will keep me as a subscriber to the network, since it gets me reading more of the network.

    The Last 2 Posts page seems like a neat idea as well, if it could be made usable in format and layout.

    I’m not so sure about the random post. I may click on it once in a great while, but it certainly wouldn’t be something I’d do regularly. But who knows. I’ve hit it now, and it actually looks like fun. But that may wear off.

  2. says

    Looks good, I reckon for cross-pollination the ones that are most likely to drive traffic are the ones that can be fit into a sidebar widget on individual blog posts above the fold. Even for the last 2 posts per blog, I think it might be worth sorting by date of last post so the more regular bloggers get advantaged.

    Also I find that the title often doesn’t provide enough context to click through so another alternative could be a larger widget that showcased just one blog post from another blog with a title, start of a snippet and maybe the number of comments. If there was a way to identify a blogger’s top posts (eg. by traffic, interactions or a combination). But that’s a LOT more coding!

  3. says

    Yeah, I think the Random page is certainly useless in terms of relevance, but I bet you’d find some amusing or novel things now and then. Some of us have blog histories stretching back many years.

    Let me enable the Excerpts on the Last 50. I might change it to Last 25 so it’s not unwieldy long, too.

  4. sarah00 says

    I rarely comment though I read FtB every day, and I’d definitely agree that a ‘most recent posts’ with some introductory text would be really useful. I’m a bit of slut in that I don’t care who I’m reading as long as they’re interesting, so I’ve read everyone in this collective at some point or another and the only reason I find myself drawn to/from certain people is that they are more/less interesting to me personally. Which is, of course, not an objective statement of their interest, just a subjective statement of their interests intersecting with mine. So a short intro (either the first few lines or an abstract) would be really useful to help pique my interest or tell me not to bother reading further. Though I also recognise this isn’t about targeting me but that elusive ‘average’ reader who, I’m guessing, is pretty far from me. So my comments may be worthless. But I’ve drunk a little tonight and so have less inhibitions about posting. Sorry if I’ve wasted your time.

  5. says

    Pagination isn’t working for me no matter I try. I am trying to debug, to see if there are JQuery errors, but I mean JQuery’s built right into WordPress so I’m at a loss.

  6. Kengi says

    Changed my mind on the random link page. I’m having much more fun with it than I thought I would. Maybe that will wear off, but even then, I can see coming back to it once in awhile.

    With the excerpts, the Last 50 ( or 25) is good enough for me for prime time.

  7. PatrickG says

    Comment written in haste, apologies for meandering.

    I’d just made a post over at PZ’s about this… but my life right now is web-based, data-driven UI design. I’d offered to help developing basically exactly what you’ve done, but as I predicted (and PZ confirmed), security concerns are just too high. However, making templates and massaging css is something I could easily help with without any access requirements. If you could use any help along those lines…?

    Some specific suggestions:
    * Placement/visibility: It’s very easy to miss sidebar and header elements. Eyeballs go immediately to the post title, and then the content — which means you maximize attention by putting content in line with those. For example, I’m really tired of seeing “Name’s Jason Thibeault”, by which I mean I automatically take that in every time I visit your blog. If I were Master of FTB Website Design, I’d put recent content in that location, instead of further down.
    * Ease of access: Navigating to a new page to get access to new content is actually a very big inhibitor to people casually checking out information. I suggest limiting recent posts to, say, 5 results, with a collapsible section (e.g. via jQuery or similar) that allows people to view a longer list. This allows people to casually check out what’s new, without leaving the page, and without taking up too much initial real estate.
    * A random post feature is a neat feature, if more or less cosmetic fun. I suggest the ability to View Random Post on [dropdown]Atheism & Secularism, Feminism, Gender Issues, Politics, … [/dropdown], with categories matching what’s on the front page.
    * Great idea on limiting Recent Post activity to 1 per blog. Me like.

  8. PatrickG says

    Oh, one other random thought — every time I look at the chevrons (>) next to the blogger’s list, I expect them to be clickable. It could be fun to make that so, such that people could see a list of the last 5 posts by any given blogger on demand.

  9. Trebuchet says

    All of those are better than the current main page. But how about New Posts in the last X days? With X perhaps being user adjustable?

  10. says

    That is all great feedback Patrick. Thanks!

    I’ll tell you something — I fought very, very hard to have the sidebar on the right. Apparently according to some experts, for SEO purposes you get better ad rates with the bar on the left, but it’s kinda ridiculous just-so-stories from my experience. I don’t think we actually got better click through rates with that particular change, and the “about the author” box is horrid where it is, if you ask me. But, it’s also hard-coded into the theme. Moving that stuff around is kinda crap.

    I’d love to turn those chevrons into dropdowns, though I’m not sure if I can without some custom coding. All in the theme though, so might be doable. I have no idea why the chevrons are even there, except maybe that the people we had build the theme are crap at UI.

    Speaking of, the CSS should be fairly easy to override, but apparently the plugin uses the exact same code for every instance, and I’d like to customize how they look a little more granularly. I guess I will probably also be altering how it does its search to hack in a few more criteria I’d like (e.g. for the two-per-blog, doing something that roughly emulates the old front page with blog headers and dividers). So I might just fork that plugin now, and hack in everything I want.

  11. PatrickG says

    If you fork it, I wouldn’t mind contributing. :)

    Just to reiterate: I’d be happy to help with anything that makes FTB’s many blogs more accessible, and custom coding is something I can absolutely do that wouldn’t involve any problematic security issues. I owe this site a lot in terms of thinky stuff, would be great to give something more back (well, beyond the subscription).

  12. MadHatter says

    I don’t use the main page at all for navigating FTB, I use my RSS feed to see posts and then click directly through if I find it interesting. However, the reason I don’t use the main page is that I find it kind of useless. So a “most recent posts” with excerpts would be great. And that would be nice to see on all the pages because then I would stay on FTB instead of flipping back to the RSS reader to find a new post.

    I also like Trebuchet’s suggestion since the other way I find myself looking for posts is simply for today, or for the week.

  13. kevinkirkpatrick says

    I don’t use the main page at all for navigating FTB, I use my RSS feed to see posts and then click directly through if I find it interesting. However, the reason I don’t use the main page is that I find it kind of useless. So a “most recent posts” with excerpts would be great. And that would be nice to see on all the pages because then I would stay on FTB instead of flipping back to the RSS reader to find a new post.
    I also like Trebuchet’s suggestion since the other way I find myself looking for posts is simply for today, or for the week.

    QFT. In my opinion, this last-50-posts link needs to be prominently available on the front page. I think it’s arguable that such an interface should be the default layout (maybe make the “themes” just a checklist of “Atheism and Skepticism”, “Feminism, Gender and Sexuality”, etc., for when someone only wants to catch up on articles related to certain subjects).

    When FTB first fired up, and PZ migrated from scienceblogs, that was the #1 feature I missed: scienceblogs had a simple page with reverse-chronological writings from all authors on the network. This was great – sometimes life prevented me from checking blogs for several days at a time; that page allowed me to just pop in, scroll down until seeing posts I’d already read, and then scan up for anything new/interesting. I’ll also note that it made it *far* more likely for me to see and read an article from authors with whom I was not familiar.
    In fact, the only reason I use RSS feed is to emulate this for FTB; and it’s quite cumbersome (lots of flipping back and forth).

    A few other features that might be “nice to have”
    1) Similar to Last 50 posts, a “Last 50 commented” page, which would sort blog posts based on most recent comment posted on that article (note – this is different from “Last 50 comments”, in which a very active article might contain 30 of most recent 50 comments)

    2) Features geared to those logged into the site:
    * personal page showing all blog articles on which user has commented (reverse chronological order)
    * indicator on individual articles indicating whether new comments have been added since user last viewed an article
    * ability for users to mark articles as “favorite” or “follow-up” (note – a little different than just browser bookmarks, for users who access FTP from variety of domains/browsers/devices), along with personal page to view all marked articles.

    3) Advanced search page: let user build fine-grained queries by
    * specifying conditions in form [Title|Article|Comments|Commenter-user-name] contains [word/phrase]
    * linking them as combinations of AND/OR
    Plus using filters like:
    * Limit to authors: {checklist of bloggers}
    * Limit timeframe to {dropdown of last day/last week/last month/last year/forever}
    * Limit to themes: {dropdown of the 6 major themes of current FTB front page}

  14. carlie says

    “Most recent posts across the network” is what I like best. I hate the way the current home page distributes them by topic, sometimes having the same post in three or four topics when it hits multiple areas. I might go to a “most recent 2 posts on each blog” now and then, but not as often – it’s a lot more static with the ones that don’t update often.

  15. Onamission5 says

    Honestly, I liked the old format– front page list of blogs, with most recent posts under each blog caption. Less prolific posters didn’t get buried under multi-posts by the more prolific, and the same post title wasn’t popping up over and over again under different headers (my complaint is the same as carlie’s in that regard). I know the change of format was made in part so that it would remove appearance of blog hierarchy, but IMSHO, it’s made it worse, not better, because the more frequently updated blogs totally dominate.

    If I had to choose one of the three proposed options, the second or third would probably be my choice. Last 50 posts still doesn’t solve the problem of quieter voices being drowned out by louder, though, and most recent 2 leaves the more prolific with a lot of buried content. I get that striking a balance is probably difficult, though. The random option, while fun, introduces a new problem– the possibility of current event posts getting lost under ancient history ones.

  16. Scr... Archivist says

    I like the list of fifty recent posts. Currently, when I visit FTB I scan each of the eight different categories looking for new posts. Each article that appears new and interesting is then opened in a new tab. When I see titles that I saw the day before, I stop looking (typically) and start reading.

    If I only had to look at one list, in reverse-chronological order, it would make things much simpler for me. And if the chronological list goes back for a few pages, I can be assured of catching up if I have been away for a while.

    I echo the suggestion to have the first few lines of a post included under the titles. Could each post also be identified by the subject tags associated with it? That might help clarify vague titles. Would icons be possible?

    Also, would there be a way to have each blog identifiable not just by a name but by an icon to the left of the title? For example, I would open in a new tab any post with Miri’s stars on their blue background. Even a unique square of color would help me identify the blogs I always read. But this would just be a bonus. The Recent 50 list alone would be a big help.

    The other two lists might not be as useful, but Random might bring up interesting things from time to time.

    Thanks for trying these experiments.

  17. Daniel Schealler says

    It might be worth noting that for me (and likely others) the primary way I access the site is through RSS.

    I generally try to remember to click through to the actual content, so that my reading of a blog is registered as a view. But I don’t always do this, and it tends to happen more when I am interested in reading or contributing to the comments.

    As an RSS user, I think it is reasonable for FtB bloggers to restrict their RSS feeds to only show the title and first X characters so as to encourage a click-through for the whole article.

    That said, I’ve recently unsubscribed from the site-wide RSS feed and I’ve started subscribing to blogs on a case-by-case basis. This is one of them. The ‘recent posts’ plugin could be useful to me, except that it isn’t visible on the screen for most of the time that I am on the website (i.e. when I am commenting).

    Duplicating that plugin in a wide format at the bottom of the screen underneath the comment box would be more attention-grabbing for me and users similar to me.

  18. says

    I like the idea, but I have a couple nitpicks about the sidebar widget…
    1) The link titles are enormous, to the point of being distracting.
    2) To have Recent Posts for the blog, Recent Posts for the site, links to every blog on the site, and a personal blogroll all in line feels like semi-redundant overkill. On some blogs like Greta’s the sidebar is already longer than the index page, and this would make it longer still.

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