by Dave Bonta
Is your poetry accessible? No, I’m not talking about whether it can be understood by anyone with an 8th-grade education and the attention span of a gnat. I mean, if you blog poetry — as almost all participants in the weekly Read Write Prompts do — are your poems reaching their intended and potential audiences?
Slow and mobile connections
To answer the question above, you need to know something about the audience: Who is trying to access your blog, and what tools are they using. For example, do you want to reach a lot of rural readers, or readers in the global South? If so, please remember that many if not most of them will be relying on dial-up access or cellphone networks. Be sure to restrict the number of posts that display on your main page — I’d say no more than five.
Alternatively, you could display a larger number of posts in excerpt form with “read more” links. This approach is especially helpful to people on slower connections if your posts typically contain a number of images. You can also post thumbnails or small versions of images that click through to larger files, for those with the patience or bandwidth to access them. And if you post audio or video poems, be sure to include a transcript for the benefit of those on dial-up.
Remember that your browser is probably caching — storing recent copies of — your blog, presuming you visit it frequently, so you can’t necessarily tell how fast the site loads unless you clear your cache or view it on other machines and in other browsers. And widgets aren’t the only thing that can slow a site, either. Last winter, I had a problem with my self-hosted WordPress blog loading very slowly. A geek cousin advised me that 35 plugins was probably a bit too many. So I did some pruning, and load times did indeed improve. Ultimately, though, the problem turned out to be the funky shared server I was on, because a switch to a new blog host cleared the problem up. (Self-hosted WordPress bloggers can refer to “8 Ways to Improve Your WordPress’ Loading Time” for some additional ideas.)
Does a large percentage of your audience rely on mobile phones to read your blog? If so, you might want to make sure your main column isn’t too wide, or that you don’t post a lot of poems with long lines that require back-and-forth scrolling. For those with self-hosted WordPress.org blogs, you can use a special theme or plugin that displays a simplified version of your site to anyone viewing it on a mobile device.
Reaching the visually impaired
Mention accessibility to most web geeks, and they’ll think you’re talking mainly about design that takes the needs of the visually impaired into account. As I use the term, it’s much broader than that. But again, making sure your site is accessible to this often-neglected group can benefit many other visitors, too. CAPTCHAS, for example — those deliberately hard-to-read puzzles designed to keep spam bots from leaving comments — are an annoyance to many people, not just the visually impaired, who can’t deal with them at all unless they’re accompanied by audio. If you’re on a blog platform where alternate spam-blocking methods can be used, such as Akismet (which is not just for WordPress), Defensio or Typepad AntiSpam, you don’t really have any good reason to use CAPTCHAS.
Many people with poor vision or color blindness can and do read the web, but if your stylin’ blog theme features small text, or light gray text on a dark background, there’s a good chance they’re not reading you. In general, a blog or website with dark text on a light background will be most easily accessible to the visually impaired (and most restful for everyone else to read, too). If you want to liven up your blog with bright colors, use images. Varying the font colors from post to post will almost certainly provoke eyestrain — and not just in those with poor vision.
If you want visually impaired people to be able to distinguish your links, you really should go with the boring old underline style for link text (and be very cautious about underlining text for any other reason, to avoid confusion). Now, I realize that an underlined word might well be distracting in the middle of a poem, but perhaps in some cases links can be relocated to end notes instead. Personally, I find any form of link in the body of a poem to be distracting, but tastes vary.
Want to annoy or confuse the hell out of your readers, especially those with impaired vision? Use SnapShots popup previews on your links. In WordPress.com, unfortunately, this “feature” is enabled by default, which I think leads many to believe it must be cool. In many other blogging platforms, you can also further torment your readership by using text-link ads, which by mimicking real links threaten the integrity of the very architecture of the web. Talk about a usability nightmare!
Many people, including older folks with otherwise good vision, appreciate being able to resize the text on their screens via the View menu on their browsers, so make sure that this is possible on your site. Some poorly coded sites use pixels rather than percentages and ems to control font size, and as a result don’t allow any adjustment.
We’ve been talking about people with poor vision, but what about those with no vision at all? Blind people use what are called screen readers, software that translates web pages into speech (or sometimes Braille). When blog themes place crucial navigation links after the main content, as so many of them do — in the sidebar or footer rather than in a top navigation bar — screen readers can take a while to locate them. Imagine what a hassle that must be! If you’re going to use a design with category links or other useful things in the footer, consider adopting (or making) one with a “skip to bottom” link at the top.
Screen readers for the blind also rely on semantic markup. This means, for example, coding italics with em tags rather than i tags, and bold text with strong rather than b. Large blocks of quoted material should be enclosed in blockquote tags — but don’t use blockquotes merely to indent, say, a dedication at the beginning of a poem. And it really messes up screen readers if you use header tags such as h2 and h3 when you simply want larger or bolder text. So mess with semantics in your poetry all you want, but be sure to use designs and text editors that are as web semantics-compliant as possible. This will also have the side benefit of making your archives more future-proof. How are you ever going to achieve poetic immortality if semantically correct browsers 10 or 15 years from now won’t even display your poems properly?
Another tip, for those who like to experiment with ekphrastic poetry: The only way blind people will “see” your images is if you get in the habit of supplying descriptive alt (alternative) text. (Spacer images or other nonessential, mainly ornamental illustrations, however, should be given null alt text, i.e., alt=” “, to avoid confusion.) Most image uploader tools will prompt for a description, which may be used for the less-important title attribute as well. This can have the side benefit of dramatically increasing the number of visitors you get from search engines. In general, semantic markup helps get you a better search-engine ranking, since it helps search engines more accurately evaluate your content.
Does your blog make sense?
What does the average visitor see when arriving on your site from another blog or a web search? If they land on some post deep in your archives, will those visitors be tempted to stick around? Will they even be able to find the homepage? A surprising number of bloggers never take this into consideration. Website usability is a huge topic, but for now, I just want to stress the importance of designing your site with that casual visitor in mind. A few points to consider:
- Is there a “home” link near the top of the page? If not, is the title of the blog at least clickable?
- Are links to “next” and “previous” posts present and visible (i.e., not buried below the comments) on single-post pages?
- Can visitors quickly learn what the site is about from an About page and/or a bit of explanatory text near the top?
- Is there a search form? If someone follows a bad link and ends up on a 404 page, will they be able to find what they’re looking for?
- Are there ways for visitors to browse the archives, aside from one of those mysteriously popular and generally useless sidebar lists of months?
- Might tag clouds or category lists be given more descriptive headings, such as “Topics”?
- How about making room in the sidebar or footer for a list of some of your best or most popular posts, so people can see what you’re really capable of?
- If many of your posts are password-protected, do you provide an obvious way for visitors to contact you and get the password (along with some brief explanation for why you have so many private posts, e.g., to avoid violating submissions guidelines at some literary magazines)?
Reaching the downtrodden
It’s a good bet that many of your readers are accessing your blog from work. Is your blog work-safe? Do you have audio widgets set to auto-play in your sidebar? If so, please disable the auto-play function immediately, because, trust me, that’s annoying to almost everybody, not just busy co-workers. If people tell you they like it, they’re probably just being polite.
Much attention has been given to the Great Firewall of China, which results in the blocking of many blogs and blog platforms. (WordPress.com, for example, has been blocked for years due to the parent company’s principled stand against censorship.) But here in the United States, and probably elsewhere in the so-called free world, many, many sites are blocked by corporate firewalls. You may be publishing nothing objectionable but still run afoul of ridiculously broad-brush content-control software, aka censorware. Schools and public libraries also usually use some form of censorware. A study conducted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2003 [link to PDF] found that commercial censorware products block up to half of all web pages relevant to common school curricula in the United States.
I certainly wouldn’t advise you to temper your language or avoid occasional posting of artistic nudes just to get around the net nannies. The onus is really on your readers, in this case, to use proxies and other work-arounds. But it’s something to be aware of. You can see if SmartFilter and other censorware systems owned by McAfee consider your site objectionable at TrustedSource. (Other major censorware companies used to have URL checkers online, but sadly, they’ve all been taken down as far as I can tell.)
Another crucial fact to keep in mind is that many large employers won’t let their workers use newer browsers and are still using Internet Explorer 6, which is so despised by web designers that some new blog themes don’t even make allowances for it. Even MSN and YouTube don’t support IE6 anymore. But IE6 is still the browser for some 14 percent of web surfers. I’m not willing to put out an unwelcome mat for them just because their employers are a-holes, so I do make sure all my sites are IE6-compatible. To check how your blog or webpage appears in a variety of major and minor browsers of different vintages, enter your URL at BrowserShots.org.
Feeding your readers
Another, potentially large, group of readers that beginning bloggers often neglect are those who subscribe to the feed and thereafter mainly access it via a feed reader (e.g., Google Reader, Bloglines, Newsgator). If you are using a modern blogging platform or content-management system, you are generating a feed — which is to say, a version of your content in a special form (usually RSS or Atom) designed for easy syndication elsewhere, such as in feed readers. Using a feed reader is a great way to keep track of when your favorite blogs, news sites and online journals are updated — and to store some posts for later reading.
Some blogs fetishize the RSS feed icon and make it a visual center of the top part of their blog. Personally, I find this a bit distracting, especially since most people web-savvy enough to subscribe to feeds are also going to be using a modern browser that lets you grab feeds right from the address bar. But it’s still a good idea to make feed links easy to find. And a big honking RSS icon is a far sight less fugly than an enormous, blue, vaguely avian creature whose only purpose is to lure people away from your real content and onto to your Twitter stream. Is that what you want?
Although feeds are still regarded as a geeky thing, ironically they have one application that can make your poems and other blog posts much more accessible to those who don’t spend very much time online: email subscriptions. I’ve used both the major free email subscription services, Feedburner and Feedblitz. These days, I prefer the latter. Now owned by Google, Feedburner has been plagued with performance issues over the past year. Of equal concern to poets: It doesn’t display spaces between stanzas and paragraphs, and emails from Feedburner bear only the title of your blog, while emails from Feedblitz also contain the post title by default — and are much more customizable.
If you do offer email subscriptions, be sure to subscribe yourself so you can make sure it’s going out OK. Also, I think it’s a good idea to subscribe to your blog’s feed in a feed reader, even if you don’t plan to use it otherwise. (I recommend Google Reader for ease of use.) What can go wrong with a feed? The most common problem is that a blog may be set to display only excerpts rather than full posts, often through neglect or ignorance. Some bloggers switch from full to partial feeds to try and force readers to visit their site, perhaps so they’ll be more likely to leave a comment or click on an ad. But many of us simply unsubscribe from such feeds.
Even a full-content feed will likely not display some types of content, such as embedded videos and audio players. For this reason, it’s a good idea to include a download link and/or a note that subscribers need to click through to the post to access the video or audio.
Another reason to subscribe to your own feed is to make sure you don’t accidentally duplicate posts, and that deleted posts also disappear from the feed. Post duplication can happen anytime the URL is changed, so it’s a good idea to make sure you keep the same URL when you change the title if you’re using a title-based permalink system. Deleting a post from a feed can be tricky, and erasing it from Google Reader, which aggressively caches feeds, can be even trickier. Sometimes the best you can do is to replace the unwanted content with a notice saying something like “post removed by author,” and then republish. It may take a few hours, but the feed readers should eventually pick up on the change. After that, you can delete the post.
Don’t look at me, I’m just a poet!
If you’re feeling bad that you’ve committed usability and accessibility sins, don’t worry: there’s no perfect solution that will work for all user groups. So feel free to ignore any of the above suggestions that aren’t relevant to your aims as a blogger. I welcome questions and additional suggestions in the comments.
Keep in mind that I’m still a learner myself; I’m not a true geek, and I have no systematic training in any of this. But with all the people joining Read Write Poem now, it’s a good bet that if I can’t answer your question, someone else can.
Dave Bonta is a poet, editor and web publisher from the eastern edge of western Pennsylvania. He co-edits Qarrtsiluni, curates the video poetry site Moving Poems and has been blogging since 2003 at Via Negativa. He is a senior contributor at Read Write Poem. (photo credit :: (c) 2009 Jonathan Sa’adah)