A Critical Look at LDS Blog Portals – Part 3 : Technology and Usability

Continuing my series on LDS Blog Portals from Part 1 and Part 2 .

In the previous post I discussed some of the history of LDS Blog portals and how the motivations of those creating the portals played into their design and discussed to some extent how those motivation ultimately affected how the portals are run. Be sure to check out the clarifying comments by the creators of LDSblogs.org on the previous two posts.

Now I would like to look a little at how the self-promotion marketing objective of the portal design has affected usability and technology.

As covered by the previous post, the creators of LDSblogs.org designed their portal as a way to promote themselves in competition to bigger group blogs. This motivation lead to a hierarchical layout that lends itself to using page position to promote or demote certain people or points of view. Interestingly, even after the portal creators had achieved the prominence that was the goal of their project, the layout of the site has not been modified. The box designations as “Big Islands,” “Isles of the Sean,” “Atolls,” etc are practically incoherent, but at some level are perhaps indications of web traffic or post volume.

Most of the subsequent LDS Blog portals have started in reaction to an injustice (perceived or real) that results from the promotional system at LDSBlogs.org, but ironically, every one of the other portals mimicked the hierarchical layout from which the injustice derived, albeit with their own interesting variations.

LDSElect.org kept the layout, however, it did introduce the ability to individually configure which blogs are displayed in which box. This was a helpful step toward equity for frequent users, but the default listing still promoted certain blogs over others, and there is some reason to wonder how many users bother to change the default.

Blogregate at Mormonblogs.org also copied the hierarchical layout of LDSBlogs.org, but with the twist that the boxes represented different topics rather than arbitrary designations of preference. However, in this case the hierarchy was topical, and so Feminism and Technology received preferred status over the rest.

Mormon Blogosphere adopted the same hierachy, but the categories, when taken at face value, are as incoherent and arbitrary as the islands designation of LDSBlogs.org. And because the categories are more numerous, and the content more cluttered, the site is hard to use.

This hierarchical layout appears to have been originally designed, in the spirit of self promotion, to keep the posts of the founders of LDSBlogs.org constantly at the page top, above the fold (a fact that none of the commentators disputed in the previous post). But that decision makes for an awkward usability problem. The founders, who, save a few, are busy posting at By Common Consent, post fairly infrequently. This means that in order to find fresh content, regular visitors have to move from box to box to see if there is anything new. This is both tedious and unnecessary. Users shouldn’t have to search for new content. It should be obvious and prominent.

Another effect of the self-promotion design of the portal is the lack of modern distributed content, like RSS Feeds, email subscriptions, or embeddable widgets. RSS and distributed content is the driving force behind nearly all web-based technology trends. Because their self promotion depends on the layout positioning of their blogs on their website, the goal is to attract as much traffic to the website itself, not to distribute the content elsewhere. This is a very technologically backward system. But RSS Feeds and Email subscriptions promote new content first, so it is contrary to their prime directive. And embeddable widgets send the content elsewhere where no one will see their content first. The only imitator to rectify this problem is mormonblogs.org, which provides RSS Feeds of new content in each topical box. The original Planet LDS portal had an aggregated RSS feed as well. Ironically, blog portals depend on distributed content technologies, specifically RSS, to function at all. So using other’s RSS feeds to bring value to your site without providing an RSS Feed seems rather self-serving and inequitable.

While there have been slight improvements to the technology employed by LDS Blog aggregators, other than the initial improvement introduced by LDSBlogs.org and since copied by the rest, as well as comment aggregation and LDSElect.org’s creative individualized customization, there has been little innovation. While the number of blogs has increased, the features offered have remained essentially static. Meanwhile, web technologies related to blogging, podcasting, and distributed content have exploded. This lack of innovation is probably partially because if the self promotional nature of the LDSBlog.org portal. Their goal was to market themselves, and since that goal had been met, there was little motivation to expand. Had their goal been to promote the church, or to promote lds blogs in general, there are numerous avenues of innovation that might have been explored. The lack of innovation is also probably due to the lack of technical ability among the founders of the Archipelago.

Since the advent of LDS Blog Portals, the official church websites have added numerous RSS Feeds. If the portals were interested in building up the church, and not just themselves, they would find ways to incorporate and promote official church content.

Another technological problem of the portals, is that the portal links are only temporary. Because links disappear as they are eventually replaced by newer content, the links do nothing to improve the search engine ranking of the included blogs. Google uses incoming links to help calculate how high a website should appear in search results. But those links need to be permanently discoverable to accumulate in search engine stats. If LDSBlog portals were truly interested in improving the visibility of faithful LDS content on Google, they would be aware of search engine optimization and attempt to use their popularity to help the church in this regard. Instead they encourage included blogs to place banner links back to the portal, which improves the Google standing of the portal in searches for LDS blogs, but doesn’t help the actual content they are aggregating achieve higher, long-term visibility.

In my next post I will conclude my Critical Look at LDS Blog Portals.

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