The Third Ingredient of a Successful Blog

This is a guest post by John Saddington (aka “Human3rror”). He is the Creative Web Director of North Point Ministries and the owner of Milk Engine, the Web design firm that built my blog. He is also the founder or partner in a number of successful startups, including ChurchCrunch. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

A successful blog is more than just design. But you knew that already, right? As someone who’s not only been blogging since 2001 but who’s also been designing/developing blogs for nearly just as long, it’s been fascinating to observe how unbalanced blogging strategies can be when it comes to being successful.

Standard Theme Screenshot

For example, many blogs bank on their custom design, look-and-feel, and try to capture an audience by how “pretty” their blog is. You know as well as I that this is only sustainable to a point. Any design, as good as it might be, gets old. A fresh coat of paint might do the trick, but most people can’t afford a redesign every three months or so.

As a result, many blogs will tell you (or scream at you) “Content is King!” and they are right—to a point. Good content, from my perspective, might be “good” on it’s own merit, but it doesn’t do any good without people reading it. I think most people believe they publish good content; the difference is the amount of people (site visitors and page views specifically), that actually get there.

So what’s it going to take?

The easiest answer is, “All of the above.” But there’s one factor that many people don’t consider nearly as much as they should. This is what I call the third ingredient of a successful blog: Good quality code. Solid code paves the way for strategic site architecture, load speed optimization (which is a factor is search rankings), search engine optimization (SEO), and a good end-user experience.

That’s one of the reasons I developed the Standard Theme, an amazing blogging theme for users of self-hosted WordPress installations. Essentially I was tired of having to design on top of blog existing blog themes that weren’t polished or by people who didn’t care about how the actual blog ran in the “backend” (or underneath the hood).

But what I’ve learned is that some of the most successful blogs out there not only have great content and a decent (doesn’t have to be crazy-awesome or pricey) design, they are also crafted well in terms of their code. They also:

  • Are SEO-optimized (so people can more easily find you)
  • Take into account load-speed
  • Are cross-browser compatible
  • Use valid technical standards (e.g., XHTML/CSS, PHP, advanced asynchronous analytics, etc.)
  • Employ best practices for making it easy to virally share the content with a neat persistent twitter and facebook sharing option)

These are only a few of the things that we’ve meticulously included in the theme. You’ll want to check out all the options and features right on the Standard Theme homepage.

Note: I will give away 10 copies of this theme—a $49 value—to ten people who comment below. All you have to do is tell me why you want this theme. I will make a decision on Monday, March 15th.

Finally, while you might think the design of the Standard Theme unimpressive, there’s a strategy involved with that: Here’s what I’ve learned from helping many new bloggers launch their blogs: Spending too much time on design is not smart for the “new” blogger. Why? Because in my experience they’ll want to change it after a few months or so. We did that here with Michael’s blog. As he began using WordPress (having switched from TypePad), he learned what his readers wanted and desired. Based on that, we adjusted the strategy and changed the design.

As a result, “new” bloggers need to be concentrating primarily on developing good content, getting it out there to the public (social media sharing), and developing their particular niche and/or culture. The design can always be changed later. Fortunately, Standard Theme makes that a snap.

Regardless, you want to start with something solid and flexible. That’s exactly why I developed Standard Theme. It provides a great foundation that you will not outgrow.

Question: What limitations or frustrations have you experienced with your current theme?
Want to launch your own blog or upgrade to self-hosted WordPress? Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • @finrobinson

    we have recently started a new leadership training blog for our student ministry small group leaders. with a growing number of leaders and the difficulty of any form of centralized training, we are hoping to reach their hearts and minds with regular blog posts.

    i know that our growing body of content would really benefit from the power that standard theme possesses. we are hoping that this site/blog will be a valuable tool in our ministry for years to come!

    • human3rror

      "years to come"… i like that!

  • Kyle Claypool

    Great post! I've been preaching this exact thing for years, and one of my clients sent me a link to this article, saying "Well, you were right all along!" I'd love to check out your Standard theme.

    • human3rror

      sure thing kyle! preach on!

  • Robert Taylor

    The one idea that captured my attention was John's comment about beginning bloggers need to develop good content rather than toying with the theme. As a fledgling, I found that I spent an inordinate amount of time with the keeping my head under the hood rather than behind the wheel and steering content. Thank you John for keeping me pointed in the right direction. (Looks great, and I'd love to win a copy.)

    • human3rror

      sure thing robert! focus focus focus!

  • human3rror

    sure thing alicia! we'll see monday!

  • adam_herod

    I just thought I'd say that I heart my standard theme. :-)
    My recent post appropriate response

  • Donna Maria

    I'd like the theme so I can compare it to Thesis, which is what I use now. Also, so I can compare it to other blog platforms I've used including TypePad, Blogger and another custom theme created by a freelancer. I really like Thesis, but without knowing much about code, I feel that it has some limitations. At the end of the day, I need to hire someone like John, and I'm working up to that. I'm not sure if he remembers, but I had a conversation with John a few months back and he quoted me a rate to design my blog. I could not afford it. Hence, another reason why I want to try his theme. Because I already know it will be good.

  • @samrhall

    I can share in the desire of having to customize themes that are large and bloated just because of one or two features that are already built in. I do a lot of work for clients who need attractive sites that offer several entry points into different aspects of their content. These are generally non-profit or political organizations.

    Generally what I run into are completed jobs where the sites looks and operates just fine, but I know it's a bit pieced together in the back. That doesn't make me happy from a personal standpoint.

    I've thought about building a "base" theme that I could use as a starting point, but I've never taken the time to do it. And why do it when there are a couple of pretty good ones out there that have already put in the work.

    I'd love to have Standard Theme so I could build better sites for my smaller customers without having to do a ground-up customized design for them. It would be more affordable for them, and I could be prouder of what was under the hood.
    My recent post Productivity as a Hobby

  • angie_seattle

    I think it's great you are offering some free copies of your standard theme. I won't ask for one, as I have a theme and am already trying to get my self-hosted blog launched. I was tempted, though. I can appreciate the comments about just getting the content out there, as well as the frustrations of getting hung up on trying to get the design just right and teaching ourself as you go.

  • Hillary

    I am about to run a contest that involves essay submissions from students from 45 schools. My greatest concern is categorizing each post and making each category visible so that all submissions are deemed as equally important and none are buried too deeply in the archives.

  • @Theatre_Sexton

    I've been thinking about jumping into the blogosphere for the past couple of months but I haven't pulled the trigger yet. Today was about research for platform, themes, etc. and I saw the tweet. Want to start me off on the right foot with this theme?

  • @RandysRules

    I am ready to design and build my first blog, and have been extremely impressed with your work here and on display in other referenced blogs. Your positive attitude, well written “helps”, and attention to the complete package would bring joy to that effort through use of this theme!

  • david

    After almost three years of blogging, I finally hit the front page of wordpress this week and for a few days, the number of hits exploded. Most of the folks who dropped by won’t be back because they are not really looking for a spiritually focused blog. But, I know a lot of people out there are looking for “something more.” I would like to make it easy for them to find and link to me. If that number is 100 or 500 people a day, so be it. But, I want to do the best job possible with my limited time.

    I lack code writing ability (unwilling to spend the time to learn it is a better way to say it!) so I have tried various themes over the years to tune up my blog but always with some frustration. I would look forward to the use of a new tool to help sharpen my focus and better target my audience. Thanks!

  • Chris

    Been thinking about starting a blog for a while now. Just found out that I'll be moving to a new city to take a creative arts apprenticeship with a church for a year and then I'll be moving on to help plant new churches. I'd really love to be able to document the journey. Standard Theme looks like it would be the perfect place for me to start.

  • ohamanda

    I knew this was true! And I'm so glad to hear someone say it—content is king within the confines of a decent workable design. I'd love to have the Standard theme–my design is just a boring premade I found somewhere and liked it b/c it was purple. Ahem. Anyway, what I like in a design is the ability to have lots of info (twitter feeds, subscription options, blogrolls, ads, etc) without looking so junky and homemade. I write 2 blogs–a mommy blog and a crafty parenting blog. And both need a step up in the design department!

    Thanks for the great tips and resrouces!

  • Brian Russell

    Our mutual friend Tony Steward has sold me on the theme. Love the look and ‘feel’ of his new site & what he has to say about the brilliance of the coding.

  • Rusty Boozer

    John – I could not give you a bigger Amen! Being new to blogging, I've learned a valuable lesson. It's not the content or the look of your site, it's the "Quality" of your site.

    Everyone always talks about getting people to return by offering valuable content but if they can't find you or their overall experience is bad, you're done!

    I'd love to not know what it's like to have a good experience.

  • Adam Mearse

    I’m a youth pastor and someting of an aspiring writer. I’ve launched several blogs over the years and most of my frustration with then has been in the limitation of the various publishing platforms. I’m on WordPress now and have see Standard theme through Twitter posts recently. I’d live to gave the functionality and able to do all things it offers with content. Thanks for doing this. Blessings.

  • Dean

    The design is really clean and so wonderfully functional. I’ve looked for a design that will elegantly facilitate the relatively simple needs of my blog site and enhance the experience for those who visit it.

    Thanks, John (and Michael) for I introducing this design,

    A future user

  • Maria Keckler

    Wow, John, this post could not be more timely. I have been so frustrated with a theme and host that make posting and reading every post painfully slow–the reason I finally stopped blogging untli I can get my blog dilemma under control (you may remember me from my cry fo help email :). I am very impressed with what you have done and the philosophy that has driven you to produce a qualifty product. Everything you have said here I have learned the hard way, and I look forward to having a good testimonial to report later as I explore Standard Theme, even if I didn't get the free copy.

    Keep doing outstanding work!

    My recent post Profiting from Reader Feedback

  • Jen

    I fell into blogging two years ago when I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer as only a way to keep friends updated. But now that I’m NED I’m using my blog to encourage others with IBC. I still have a lot to learn, but after two years of only standard theme and hopefully somewhat quality content I’m pursuing more. I’m pretty certain this would be useful.

  • Pingback: The Best of the Best Around the Net |

  • @NRTdave

    Small furry bunnies…
    It's ok, everyone says I'm a little crazy…

    I'm a photographer, and an ok writer.. I do have a passion of sharing my concert work (how I shoot) as well as thoughts on why Christianity as actually reasonable.. Not sure if I'll pickup readers but it's a passion of mine to get this out there and pray that it's just not more noise in the blog-o-sphere..

    Now, I have the photo stuff down, and I have some good content ideas but every time I talk to you (John) its always the same thing… "more images. more spacing. bigger headers. content's good!" … "Format, titles, and spacing", "Format, titles, and spacing", "Format, titles, and spacing", "Format, titles, and spacing", "Format, titles, and spacing", ….. ahhhhhggg…

    So I find I spend soooo much time worrying about this instead of getting my stuff out there… so I tweek and tweek and tweek and struggle with my template.. I'm just not much of a backend dude… dude … but following you I know this is valuable insight and information and I need to do it.

    for the looks of your template it looks like it could really help me get out there and get read faster and to help minimize some of the backend tweeking.. I'd love to have a copy of this to use…

    Help me Obi-wan Kenobi…your my only hope….
    My recent post Why Christian Music

  • Speckle

    I've been posting on blogger for about a year now, and I've been able to manipulate html somewhat, but some of the gadgets are hard to play with (or maybe it's just me). In fact today I'm going to go in and see if I can just install 'tabs' for the different categories of content I write…blogger would only let me install one tab…uggghh! I'm new and working on content and social sharing right now, and figure the design will morph as I go…Thanks for the post!
    My recent post #5 Frivolous Friday: Senate Bill 6345 (Cell Phone Frivolity)

  • kcroy

    John, your Standard Theme looks absolutely stunning and easy to use. I want to blog more often and I believe your theme will make it easier to do that. I love the look and design of Michael Hyatt's website, and if he recommends you then I know this is good for me.
    My recent post Build a Club You Can Be Proud Of

  • daveanthold

    As someone who shifted to sometime ago, I have the desire to shift over to a self-hosted blog soon, but seem that price is unbelievable w/the free hosting solution; however, I can't seem to get the whole "look and feel" I desire.

    For me, the "look and feel" enable me to contribute more to the the site (even with my own writing). I'm not sure if its a hang up or that's just how I am wired. Regardless, one of these days, I will shift over to a new self-hosted solution and the Standard theme John developed would be a great way to begin. Please consider me for one of the giveways :).

    My recent post iPad and Me

  • asadiyah

    great post, thanks for sharing.

  • Bill Prettyman

    John, please consider me for a copy of your new Standard Theme. I am starting a new blog and want to have a well-coded blog site right from the start so I can just focus on creating great content and a niche for our readers. The Standard Theme would allow me to create a niche in the print and marketing services industry where I would be easy to find via SEO with the code you have written. I have admired what you have done with Michael Hyatt's and NPCC's site and have even created a blog site for launch but yours seems to be put together with more thought with the code. I am a member at NPCC and we had to re-schedule a lunch due to your wife's birthday – totally more important! In the future, as my blog develops a niche, I will probably want to change the theme and with you so geographically close by I thought it would be easy to work with you. I wish you the best of success with your new theme.

  • Jeffrey Cox

    I'm a huge proponent of web sites dynamicly and automatically displaying correctly on mobile devices. I just tried the Standard Theme on my Palm Pre and it looked great. More and more, this is what the web needs to be, and your theme does a great job. I would really like to give this a try for my site. Thanks cery much in advance for the opportunity.
    My recent post Robert Has it Wrong

  • Melodee

    I've been blogging for 7 years and my current WordPress blog theme does not work for me at all. It was custom-made but I am unable to do much of anything with it myself. I've been trying to figure out how to improve it and considered a move to Typepad, even. I can't even post photos on my blog at the moment. It's frustrating.
    My recent post Memoirs, memoirs, memoirs (try typing that five times fast!)

  • Becky Miller

    I admit, in thinking about setting up a new blog (bought my domain, got overwhelmed with design stuff and figuring out WordPress, haven't finished it) I never even thought about coding. I am NOT a tech-savvy person, I'm a writer…Maybe Standard Theme is the solution for me.

  • Laura Click

    Admittedly, I'm not a tech guru. I know just enough to be dangerous, which is likely why my current blog theme is rife with bugs. When buying my theme, I'm ashamed to admit that I fell for the looks….and it shows.
    While it looks nice, it doesn't perform the way it should.

    A techy friend of mine helped me set up my blog, but it sounds like it would take a bunch of work-arounds to get it to work as it should. It's sad how many irritating problems I've discovered with my theme — the comments all show up as the date of the blog post instead of the date people comment; punctuation is often omitted from the blog excerpts on the front page (as a grammar nut, this is disconcerting); the excerpt from the front page is repeated on the blog post itself; plug-ins and widgets don't work the way they should and only show up on certain pages; and the list goes on.

    This post proves that looks aren't everything. While I don't understand how things "work under the hood", it's important to pay attention to this aspect of your blog. Clearly, I didn't the first time. While I don't want to spend a lot of money on blog design, it is important to have a blog that works. Right now, mine doesn't. This is proof that you often get what you pay for!

    Michael's blog, in my opinion, is one of the best-designed blogs out there. The fact that it runs on the Standard Theme gives it a ton of credibility. The proof is in the pudding! I would love to have a blog that looks, and works, nearly as well.

    Thanks for the great post. I'll have to give the Standard Theme a look (especially if I don't win it!).
    My recent post Seven Tips for Developing Relationships Online

  • ThatGuyKC

    Why I want this theme? I'm a relatively new & amateur blogger (currently using's free service) and am trying to take the next step as a blogger/writer. This theme would provide a very clean, crisp and effective foundation and give me the tools to launch forward.

  • Wize Time

    lots of great things on this theme but it's only two columns – I like three columns for a variety of reasons – but you certainly have made an impressive looking and functioning theme –
    My recent post Facebook Mystery – 130,000 Member Group Disappears – No Clues

  • Russia

    Hey very nice blog!! Man .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds also…

  • WP Themes

    Amiable post and this post helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you on your information.

  • summer

    thank you so much for this insight! I agree and would like to quote you on some of your ideas in an english paper for class. This is just the sort of content i've been searching for. I currently have both a WordPress and blogspot blog- blogspot more for fun and WordPress for a class. I would like to use WordPress for both of my blogs, but I would rather work with HTML than CSS. However, your theme would be wonderful to make the total transition to WordPress. Please consider me for the theme– I will try to make it a solid investment on your end. if you would like to see the blog i am attempting at blogspot… well check it out:
    anyway, thank you again for your words.

  • Mike Mobley

    Some things I have experienced comes down to some menu options, especially the top menu options, or lack of really. Really looking forward to the Get Noticed theme.

    If anyone has any pointers on how to best improve my site located at:

    Please let me know! I would love some feedback. Thanks!