I Spent $30,000 Testing Different Blog Designs – Here’s What I Found

Justin Brooke spent $30,000 on traffic to split-test every possible layout of his blog. By the time he was done, he increased his overall conversion rate from 2 to 25 percent. Here are the four biggest factors that led to his success.

Do you want your blog to do more than just get you some retweets?

If you’re wishing your blog was a 24-hour salesman that constantly educates, prospects and closes deals for you, then close Facebook and put your phone in your pocket. This is going to be a masterclass in high conversion blogging.

I don’t blog or write for fun. If I want to have fun, I play video games. If I want to generate revenue, I blog.

I hate the terms “blog” and “blogging,” though. They don’t correctly describe the purpose of what we’re doing. Which leads me into my first lesson of this article…

Stop calling it a blog

Blog DesignsCalling it a blog suggests you’re interested in readers, comments and social shares. It suggests you’re writing for the sake of having an online diary. Instead, you need to think of it as a strategically designed content marketing environment.

I know…

That’s a mouthful.

I don’t have a fun cutesy name for it, though.

What I’m going to describe here is much different from a normal blog. Every element of every page is carefully constructed to achieve a specific measured result. For example, your sidebar is going to stop being a widget wastebasket. Instead, your sidebar is going to become as critical as a soldier’s sidearm when his rifle has just run out of bullets in the heat of battle. But before I explain where to put your sidebar, whether you should have one and what should be on it, let me explain how I came upon my methods.

From 2 to 25 percent conversion rate?

I don’t know about you, but I run a small bootstrapped business. I don’t have lots of employees, nor am I backed by VC money, so when I do something online, it needs to count. Not that it doesn’t count if you are VC-backed or you work for a company with 200 employees; those companies have more wiggle room, though. They can recover from mistakes easier and faster.

“Blogging” is no different. I don’t have the time or money to waste.shutterstock_267116009

The first time I looked at my Google Analytics after a few weeks of “blogging,” I wanted to punch someone. My sidebar opt-in box had a 2 percent conversion rate, and after weeks of work I had a combined 23 shares across six articles. That’s less than four apiece. I know. Pathetic.

The word unacceptable doesn’t seem strong enough.

Prior to “blogging” I had always written sales pages. My roots are in direct response marketing and selling info products (ebooks, courses, DVDs). When I sell info products I use sales letters, and as a direct response marketer I track EV-ERY-THING.

I didn’t know any better, so I started treating my “blog” as I would a sales letter. I started optimizing every pixel on the page for better performance. I started driving ads to my pages and I started using the same split-testing tactics on my blog posts as I use on salesletters (buying ads and split-testing is just what we direct response guys do).

When I had gone from 2 percent conversion rate to 25 percent conversion rate, received hundreds of shares per article, and when I was landing six-figure deals directly from articles I’d written — I figured I’d finished. In that time, I had spent $3,000 per month for a little less than a year buying Facebook ad traffic to my articles.

That’s where the $30K figure comes from. I spent that money on traffic while I tested every possible thing I could think of to test.

4 things spending $30K taught me

Obviously, there are lots of micro-adjustments that I made during the course of a year. However, there were four main things that really moved the needle.

The image below shows a standard blog layout. You’ve probably seen 100 blogs with this same layout and most WP themes come with this layout as the default. I’ve highlighted the four main areas of improvement with orange circles.


#1: Take advantage of premium screen real estate

When writing sales letters I focus a lot on the section “above the fold.” For copywriters, that’s the top of the page, headline and first paragraph — commonly, the parts visible when the page is folded and stuffed into an envelope. For Web designers, the “fold” is considered the spot at which someone has to scroll down to see more.

Optimizing this above-the-fold area to make the most of the screen real estate had the biggest impact of all the things I tested. Switching my opt-in box from the sidebar on the right to the header area just below my logo and navigation was a HUGE bump in visitor-to-leads conversion. Just moving our same opt-in offer from the sidebar to the header I went from 2 percent of visitors becoming subscribers to 5 percent.

Then I changed the offer from “get free updates via email” to an actual item they’d receive immediately. What happened? I doubled my conversions. I was now converting 10 percent of my visitors into leads.

Better, but in my world, converting just 10 percent of your visitors to leads is difficult to afford and weak. I was used to 25+ percent conversions from squeeze pages, so I wasn’t impressed with 10 percent.

#2: Move your sidebar to the left

To get more ideas for improving my own site, I started researching what the big dogs do — the Amazons, Facebooks and Walmarts. They have way more resources than I do for testing optimum performance, so I wanted to borrow from their experience.

About this time a friend of mine, Internet marketing pro Michelle MacPhearson, mentioned that she had recently tested her sidebar on the left side of her site with good results. I also noticed that all of the major sites put their navigation on the left side. Think of your Facebook newsfeed. Think of Amazon. You almost always interact with the left-hand side of the screen.

When I dug deeper into this, it was confirmed by the Nielsen Norman Group. This prestigious media research firm conducted a study that proved Web visitors look at the left side of the screen more than they do the right.


In their study, they outfitted people with special goggles that tracked their eye movement when they visited different types of Web pages. They found that the average user views Web pages in an F pattern. Starting with the top left, coming down, and a little over to the right.

When I moved my sidebar to the left, I got another 3 percent of my traffic to take my offers. Before that it was less than 1 percent. It’s not fair to say that only moving my sidebar from right to left caused this big bump, though — which brings me to #3.

#3: Use your sidebar strategically

Like most people, my sidebar had recent articles, comments, archives and tons of other crap. It was a place where I just stuffed whatever widgets looked good.

When I looked at it through the lens of a direct response guy, I learned that not a single person clicked on archives — and that took up a large portion of my sidebar. Some people clicked on recent articles, but that wasn’t really what I wanted them to click on.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I consider my blog a strategically designed content marketing environment. My first priority is creating and posting content that attracts the right visitors and that the right visitors will enjoy. Because if they don’t enjoy what you create, they won’t convert, no matter what conversion tricks you pull.

My second priority is that I convert visitors into leads. Coming in at a distant third is that they visit multiple pages.

Since visiting multiple pages was not a high priority, I removed everything from my sidebar that tried to get them to visit multiple pages. I replaced it with a call to act on one of my “lead magnets” because again, my highest priority was converting visitors to leads (I explain more about lead magnets here).

Optimizing my sidebar combined with moving it to the left is what I attribute the 300 percent increase in performance. Today, my sidebar only has three things in it: a call to action, a way to become a fan and a search box.

#4: Replace comments with a call to action

If your blog is a social hub, you can keep the comments. For me, I keep my social hub on social media. To squeeze out more performance from my content pieces, I replaced the comments section with another call to action. This time it was the same offer as in my header.

The header and bottom of post areas are highlighted, so they don’t blend in with the content. This helps them to convert a little better than when it just looked like any other part of the page.

You can still keep your comments section, if you want — just have your Web guy insert a call to action box right above the comments but right below the content. Hubspot does theirs this way.

If you have the ability to customize that offer below the post for each specific article, do it. When I’ve done that my conversion rate would spike to as high as 85 percent on that one article. However, doing that for every article can be very tedious, so I only do it on my most popular posts.

Now that I’ve explained the four biggest changes, here’s what the new layout should look like:


What markets will this work in?

Nothing I’ve mentioned here is market-specific. I’ve helped clients make these changes in markets ranging from fitness and finance to permaculture design. It’s all based on basic human psychology and average user-interaction patterns.

These changes aren’t difficult to make, either. There are many themes that can do this, including the one I use on all eight of my sites, FocusBlog by ThriveThemes. Any Wordpress-savvy Web designer can make these changes, too.

Questions or comments? Please feel free to comment below or on social. Thanks!

Tags: Blog Design, Split-testing

Category: Measurement
Justin Brooke

About Justin

Justin Brooke is the founder of IMScalable and an ad man, blogger, father, gamer and wannabe poet/coder/skateboarder/samurai. Follow him on Twitter.
  • Outstanding article! Thanks for this. I’m in the process of developing some new websites and I’m certainly going to experiment with some of the ideas you’ve given here.

    • Thanks Josh and if you have any questions just hit me up on Twitter. I’ve got Twitter connected to my phone so I usually reply pretty quick.

  • Awesome insight! Now I need to make some time to give my two blogs face lifts. 🙂

    • Thanks Laura, definitely do it. It’s worth it for all the extra leads.

  • Great stuff, going to be testing out some of this on a few of my niche blogs and see how the numbers compare!

    • Cool, I’d love to hear your results!

      • I’ve done tests on a few of my sites and gotten some pretty good results.

        One of the sites does around 150k visitors a month and I took it from $3.50 RPM to over $5RPM with AdSense, while increasing my customer subscriber rating by a little more than 125% over the last 4 months. Woohoo 😀

        PS – still tweaking for further improvements

  • Nice! Thanks for sharing your test results.

  • TJ Anderson

    Question- is this page you profile here the blog page AND home page? Were they the same or different in your scenario? This is something I always go back and forth on…

    • The page I’m talking about here is the post level page. The page where your article actually resides. The home page and other pages are different story. Also, if you look into your analytics your most viewed pages are usually post-level pages followed by the home page.

      • James Hunter

        Justin fantastic post and so kind of you to share this information without the buy now or you will be dead by this evening 5:29PM because your competition will get a hold of this information and the price will be going up.

        I am sure you have written something on your squeeze pages and home page. Are you able to point me to that article if you have…please.


  • Great share Justin (as usual). Love it 🙂

  • JeffNappi

    Great post @JustinBrooke:disqus, the points about the sidebar navigation and how people read pages are especially valuable. What considerations do you think should be made for mobile?

    • Blogging and mobile is a tough situation. Most WP themes sell themselves as responsive and they are… But responsive isn’t enough. It’s not enough to squeeze a giant desktop version down to a long scrolling mobile version. Most blog posts are read on mobile these days so we should be thinking of mobile blog design FIRST… not squishing the desktop version down.

      I would love to see a WP theme that allows you to remove elements for mobile and make them visible on desktop. That’s true mobile optimization. For now though, responsive is a sorta good enough temporary fix. My goal with mobile traffic is to get them sharing and possibly opting-in, but conversions on mobile are much lower.

      • Also a consideration. One thing to worry about is the collapsing and stacking of sidebar and content containers in responsive designs.

        You may end up getting multiple optin forms or offers stacked above one another.

        You’re right. Ideally you would want certain elements to disappear when viewed on a mobile device.

        It’s easy to do if you know CSS but that solution just hides what you want visually. The HTML still remains.

        Expect to see solutions to this issue from theme developers as the mobile web evolves. Especially the smart developers focused on conversion optimization. Looking at you Thrive.

      • JeffNappi

        It would definitely be possible to design a theme with the ability to do that. Very good point. Another consideration is that on mobile you need to be more conscious about resources and how CPU intensive pages are. You must serve a wide audience of device types and performance.

      • “I would love to see a WP theme that allows you to remove elements for mobile and make them visible on desktop. That’s true mobile optimization.”

        Yes. +1 to this

  • Murray Hughes

    Thanks Jason, you deliver the goods yet again. The graphic of your post-testing design shows 2 comment boxes below the primary offer, below the content….why 2?

    • There was only room to draw two. It was just a representation that comments should go below the CTA.

  • Andres Vernazza

    I promise you that this at the end of the article: “…one I use on all eight of my sites, FocusBlog by ThriveThemes.” is his call to action! 🙂

    • If this had been on my blog, yes, but not on a guest post. It’s a naked link, no commission.

  • Good Tips – Looking forward to implementing

  • Hang in there and stick with it. We all got our start just like you are now.

  • This is gold. I’ve implemented and shared this. Thanks @JustinBrooke:disqus

  • Gbenga Akinwole

    I have been a big fan of yours from day one I met you., I have always wondered why you use that blog design and I guess this explains it all. Thanks. Switching up straight

  • Brilliant, thank you dude. I told my people about this and am gonna go get that theme now!

  • Carol Tice

    What happens to your lefthand sidebar in mobile? At this point we’re phasing out using sidebars because they don’t work on those tiny screens — they disappear, end up at the bottom, etc.

  • Thank you! I like the part that showed how people’s eyeballs moved on the page.

  • Would you say this is a good layout for Google ads and Amazon affiliate links? Or, do you prefer a different strategy for that as a primary focus?

  • Todd Van Duzer

    Great article and great points. I have a question though. Do you think by putting to many call to actions can decrease the amount of websites that are willing to naturally link out to you? This is something I personally worry about and plan on testing. I am wondering if you have ran this test yet yourself? Also, did the page read time change as you moved the blog content to the right? I feel like the left hand side bar although it may convert higher would distract readers and can result in lower page read time. I am not 100% sure how Google algorithm works but I know page read time has some effect on your rankings. Just playing devils advocate here and wondering if you have the answers to these questions. Great information! I really enjoyed it.

  • CXI_JacquelynMcMullen

    wow this is great insight, thanks for sharing!

  • carlpict

    I got sent here by Lawton in one of his emails. Justin, this is GOLD!! I’ve got a book with loads of split tests in regarding blogs and landing pages. This is concise, educational and all backed with proof! Awesome thanks 🙂 Time to do some tweaking.

    • Zak

      What’s the name of the book that you have with split tests for blogs and landing pages?

  • Agreed with everyone here. This post is money!

  • This is a great article! Useful, and I like to clarity of your writing and explanations. What type of lead magnets do you find to work best? (Checklist, ebook, series,…)

  • Michael Romano

    Excellent article. Any thoughts on whether Google’s bots follow the human lead on this yet (e.g. content at the top weighted heavier than content at the bottom, content on the left weighted heavier than content on the right)?

    • Michael, Google reads the code, which can be arranged differently to how the page appears on screen. You can start with the main content and place the code for the header etc. at the bottom and instruct the browser to display those chunks of code where you want them to be. It is relatively easy to do in a hand-built site, but I believe there are WP themes which do that too. Ask the theme developer, if it is not explicitly stated.

  • Hi Justin, awesome blog. Thanks!

    I checked out the theme you referred to. Does this theme have the ability to put the widgets on the left hand side? As I didn’t see this in the demos.

    Do you also have examples of your websites that you have implemented this new layout? I searched online but found your sales pages.


  • Justin, I’ve been thinking about some of these things for a while now but haven’t had enough push to get then done. After reading your post I feel like it’s time. Thank you for writing this article and I look forward to taking some actionable steps soon!

    Dustin Garness

    P. S. This is the first time ice come across your site, but I’ll be checking back frequently from now on!

  • Matthew

    Should this layout be used for every page? Including the front page?

  • Dr. Rob Garcia

    Justin, This article DESTROYED. Thank you so much, its been favorited. Id LOVE to interview you for my life coaching magazine, SHIFT. http://www.bluedragonent.com. Hit me up, bro – Dr. Rob

  • Kera Decarlo

    My business partners were searching for IRS 1040 – Schedule A several days ago and learned about a company that has 6 million forms . If people require IRS 1040 – Schedule A too , here’s http://goo.gl/aLr0nG

  • Interesting, always a good post when somebody actually tests something and reports back on their findings.

    I was reading this article earlier this week and they got results by going to a full width blog instead of having a sidebar.

    The important thing is to test it yourself and see what works for your visitors.


  • Love this article Justin! thanks!