A website with the main purpose of having people read content would best serve its readers with almost nothing else but what’s needed for the reading experience.
Strip a site of all its distraction, cruft, gimmicks, promotions, advertising, social sharing and more … and all you have is the pure reading experience.
A minimalist website. Perfect for the readers, which is perfect for the writer. Not so perfect for advertisers and marketers, perhaps, but we’re not creating sites for them. We’re creating sites for us.
What’s necessary for a pure, perfect reading experience?
- The text of an article, including headline
- A good-sized, readable font
- A column width optimal for reading
- Perhaps the name of the site for context, and minimal navigation in case the reader wants to find other articles
Here’s what a minimalist website should leave out:
- sharing buttons
- multiple pages/slides per article
- Facebook or other social widgets
- a widget showing recent comments or tweets
- tags or related posts
- syndicated content widgets taking them to other sites so you’ll get money
- something screaming for the reader to sign up for your newsletter
In addition, a minimal site might also feature:
- minimal images (none, or only the most necessary)
- the logo of the site in CSS-styled text, not an image
- small page weight
- short urls (without .php, .asp, .aspx, .html, dates, categories or other items in the url) — see the url of the posts on this site as an example
Are there examples of this on the web? Sure, there are plenty. My sites, mnmlist.com, Zen Habits, and leobabauta.com are three examples, but there are many others that come close. Recent networks svtle and medium and feathe.rs come to mind. And there’s also obtvse. I admire Paul Graham, and Sam Stephenson has only published a couple of articles, but they look great.
Bloggers and website creators get so caught up in things that they lose sight of what’s the most important thing: creating a great experience for the reader. The person coming to your site isn’t a customer, a potential mailing list subscriber, a consumer of advertising, a person who wants to be marketed to, a buyer of your affiliate products, a Facebook or Twitter follower … he’s a person who simply wants some information or entertainment from what you’ve written.
The person (I affectionately call her “my dear reader” but really she’s a person) just wants to read what you have to offer, and perhaps at that point might want to read more or even subscribe. All the other things you might put on your site are not for the reader.
When you create an amazing reading experience for the reader, he or she will appreciate it. The reader will love your great content (I hope), and then decide whether to bookmark it, email it, share it, subscribe, whatever. But without the reading experience, all the rest isn’t happening.
All the other stuff is distracting. It detracts from the experience. Sure, maybe it’ll help you reach your goals as a writer/site creator, but it doesn’t help the reader reach her goals. So if you put the distractions in to meet your goals, what message are you sending? That your goals are more important than those of the person who has graciously consented to come to your site and give you the gift of her attention.
But what about …
Comments: The comments in most cases detract from the reading experience. They’re not necessary for reading. Good discussion of the post can be continued elsewhere, such as on Twitter or Facebook or other people’s blogs, if they find the post worth talking about. For a few years, I had comments on my site, and they weren’t the worst thing, but I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re unnecessary.
Subscriptions: Don’t popups and big subscription boxes and other such things that ask the reader to subscribe to your mailing list get much better conversion numbers? Sure, in the short term, your numbers will go up. But those are unimportant numbers. Much more important: How much did you delight the reader? How many readers did you lose because you disrespected them with a popup or screaming in the sidebar asking them to subscribe? How much trust did you lose? Who did you help with this popup? Try measuring those numbers with your analytics.
Sharing: Don’t you need sharing buttons to succeed in social media and get a million followers? No, and anyway, that’s not very important. I’ve succeeded in large part without sharing buttons (I had them for awhile but removed them) because what I focus on is what I think the reader wants most — the article. If they want to share, they know how to do that. And for those who just care about the article, and not sharing, having a million sharing buttons in their face just ruins the reading experience.
Analytics: How do I know if I’m growing without analytics? You don’t really, and honestly, it doesn’t matter as much as people think. I used to track my blog’s statistics, and when you track something like that, it becomes your world. You care so much about growing it that you do things aimed directly at growing the numbers. And that’s crazy — the numbers don’t matter that much. What matters is helping your readers, delighting them, changing their lives. You don’t do those things by worrying about the numbers — you do them by worry about the readers. And when you do that, the growth comes as a byproduct of being great.
Making money: I am a strong believer in making a living doing what you love, but does it really feel good to force your readers to look at crappy ads or see a “Sponsored By” post in their inbox, so you can make a few bucks? I used to do it, and it grated on me, because I personally detest advertising. It’s a daily annoyance that we put up with in order to get what we want (watch the news, be entertained, ride the bus, read good articles) but why put your readers through this annoyance? You can make money as a writer or website creator without ads, without being a slimy marketer. Just build an audience by being useful and trustworthy, then help them with books, courses, software, a service, or whatever you can create that helps them even more deeply. Making money by helping people? Now that feels good.