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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Useful Tools And Gadgets For Bloggers

I have been blogging on the Blogger platform for a little over 5 months now. I was completely new to blogging and Blogger when I first started. After experiencing the Blogger platform first-hand for the past several months, and doing several hours of research, I have found several tools and embedded "gadgets" that make your blog more attractive, useful to your visitors and make it easier to keep track of visitors and their tastes, likes and dislikes.

In this post, I want to take some time to introduce some of the more useful tools/services and gadgets I have had the chance to use and benefit from. Before I introduce the gadgets and services I use, I want to provide a brief introduction that will cover the use of gadgets on the Blogger platform.

When you log into Blogger, under "Layout", click on "Pick New Template" to be shown multiple layouts to choose from for your blog. I like the layout I currently use for my blog which has a left side-bar and a main post area that covers the rest of the page. There are several other templates, but in general, all templates have at least one side-bar in addition to the main area of the page that contains blog posts.

In addition to the templates provided by Blogger, you can google for "downloadable blogger templates" to find lots of attractive templates created by many people around the world. Most of them can be used for free, but you may have to pay for some of them. When you download any of them, save it as a file on your computer, then in the Blogger dashboard, click on "Layout" and "Edit Html". In the section titled "Backup/Restore Template", you can upload this newly downloaded template file for use as the new template for your blog.

Assuming your template has a sidebar and a main posts area, you can add gadgets to your blog by clicking on "Layout" and choosing the "Page Elements" tab. How exactly the resulting page will look depends on the blogger template you choose to use. I have attached an image below showing how my page elements are laid out.

To add a gadget, you click on the "Add a Gadget" link in the sidebar (there is an "Add a Gadget" link in the bottom area of the page also. Note that you can add a gadget anywhere, then drag and drop it wherever you need it. So, it does not matter which "Add a Gadget" link you click). The resulting page is shown below:

To add most gadgets to your blogger page, you need to use the HTML/Javascript option as highlighted by the mouse pointer in the image above. When you click on that, you get the screen below:

You can enter any title you want in the Title box, then paste the "code" provided to you by the gadget you are trying to add to the blog in the Content box. Hit Save and the gadget gets added to your blog page as a page element right below the "Add a Gadget" button. You can then drag this page element to anywhere on your page and drop it there. Note that the page layout does not scroll when you drag an element from one location to another, so if you have a lot of elements on your page, you might have to drag the element across multiple pages by moving it one screen at a time.

Now that we know how to add gadgets, let us look at some gadgets that I have found useful.

Google Gadgets: Google makes available a huge number of gadgets, some of them coded up by Google, others coded by independent third parties, for use on your blog. You can find some of them simply by clicking on "Add a Gadget" on the layout page of your blog (click on "More Gadgets" on the left to get a list of over 1000 gadgets you can add to your blog). To add these gadgets in most cases does not actually involve adding a HTML/Javascript element to your page.

Some of the gadgets available here allow you to add buttons for people to start following your blog, subscribe to your blog, show an archive of posts so that visitors can navigate your blog, show post tags, add text and/or image boxes to your sidebars, embed YouTube videos in your blog's sidebars, etc., etc. There are also gadgets that show your visitors a wealth of information about themselves, including their IP address, operating system, browser, etc.

Another source of a huge number of gadgets is the Gadgets Powered by Google website. Unfortunately, this site lacks decent search and ranking capabilities, so it can be a bit of a pain finding what you want, but this can be a treasure trove of good-looking gadgets that add elements of usefulness and/or fun to your blog. This page gives you the general procedure for adding any of these gadgets to your blog. This page lists over 179,000 gadgets available for your use, but you have to use the search box to narrow down the list because you can't go past the first 1,000 gadgets if you want to browse through all of them. Yes, it is some kind of Google limitation that does not make much sense especially since you can not change the order in which the gadgets are displayed by using any ranking criteria.

StatCounter: StatCounter is the absolute best website analytics tool I have found on the web that is also completely free. There are paid versions of the tool available, but I have found the details provided by the free tool more than adequate. Once you register your account with StatCounter, you can choose what type of counter you want on your web page, and generate the appropriate code. You then add a HTML/Javascript gadget to your blog, and copy and paste the code into the content of this gadget. Your blog is now "wired" and starts collecting statistics for your analysis.

You can visit the features page at StatCounter for full details on the kinds of statistics the site makes available to you for analysis. The information is rich and detailed, and can help you make several decisions about your blog. And it is all in real-time! The summary page tracks how your site is doing in attracting traffic. The Recent Came From and Came From pages show you where your traffic is coming from. If you are getting traffic from search engines, the Recent Keyword Activity, Keyword Activity and Search Engine Wars pages will provide you tips on how to optimize your use of keywords. The Popular Pages page is very useful in deciding what types of posts are attracting more of your visitors' attention.

One of the most fascinating pages is the Recent Visitor Map page. You can not only see the geographic reach of your site, you can also click on any of the geomarkers to get detailed information on that particular visitor, including how many times and at what times the visitor came to your site etc.
The site also provides you statistics that enable you to figure out what kinds of computers and browsers visitors are using when they visit your site, how much time they spend on your site, what exit links they follow, what they download from your site, etc., etc. As I said, this site is one of my absolute favorites, and I can't do it justice in words. You have to sign up and experience it to appreciate it!

The site has detailed help on each of the features and a reasonably active forum where members discuss various topics related to visitor tracking using StatCounter. If you have managed without StatCounter for a while, you will wonder how you did it after you get used to it for a few days!

Google Search: This is a gadget that provides a convenient search box for your visitors to search the entire web or just the contents of your blog. You can find the details of how to add the gadget to your website at this link. If you have a Google adSense account, you can also set it up so that Google serves search ads as part of the search results everytime your visitors use your search box. This can provide you additional advertising income.

Google Translate: You can embed a Google Translate gadget on your blog so that visitors to your blog can read it in any one of more than 50 languages that Google Translate can translate to and from. To embed the translator into your blog, go through the steps to add a HTML/Javascript gadget to your blog, give it a title, then paste the following code into the content box:

<div id="google_translate_element"></div><script>
function googleTranslateElementInit() {
new google.translate.TranslateElement({
pageLanguage: 'en'
}, 'google_translate_element');
}
</script>
<script src="http://translate.google.com/translate_a/element.js?cb=googleTranslateElementInit">
</script>

After you do that, you will see a small gadget in your sidebar with a dropdown box that lists various languages. When your user chooses one of these languages, your posts are translated on the fly into the language of your visitor's choice and shows up on the same page seamlessly. You can try this out by translating my blog into any language of your choice by using this gadget. The Google Translate gadget is located at the top of the left sidebar on this page. This can not only increase visits to your blog by visitors whose primary language is not the language you write in, it can also help you in teaching yourself foreign languages if you are interested!

Google News: You can see a sample of this gadget above the posts in the main area of my blog page. I find it useful not only to keep track of news, but also provide something of value to my visitors so that they can read the day's news while reading my blog at the same time. The articles rotate at fixed intervals, and the subject area also rotates, giving the viewer a broad array of relevant and up-to-date news. To create this gadget, go through the steps to add a HTML/Javascript gadget to your blog, give it a title, then paste the following code into the content box:

<iframe frameborder="0" width="728" marginheight="0"
src="http://www.google.com/uds/modules/elements/newsshow/iframe.html?topic=h,w,b,n,t,el,p,e,s,m&rsz=large&format=728x90"
height="90" marginwidth="0">
</iframe>

This Day In History: This is a free gadget provided by The Free Dictionary to spice up your blog and provide some extra value to your readers, who may learn something new from the information provided from history in this gadget. The gadget is more static than I would like it to be (the content never changes throughout the day even though there may have been multiple interesting things that happened on that date in years past), but it is better than nothing. Ideally, I would have preferred a gadget in which various historic events in different areas like science, technology, sports, etc., and different years, are rotated throughout the day, but until I find a gadget like that, I will stick with this one! You can see a sample of this gadget below all the posts in the main area of my blog page.

Spottt and BlogUpp: These are publicity tools you can use to generate visibility for your blog. These two gadgets give you the ability to publicize others' blogs on your blog, and in return, your blog gets visibility in others' blogs. I have talked in more detail about these two gadgets in my earlier post about traffic exchanges.

Feedjit Widgets: Feedjit provides you with embeddable widgets that can provide you and your visitors with lots of information. The free widgets can be found here, and include a free traffic feed (to help you understand where your traffic is coming from), a free traffic map (to show the geographic locations of your visitors), page ranking by popularity, and recommended reading. The last widget looks at the behavior of past visitors to this page and recommends other pages on the site that these visitors went to, as guidance for later visitors.

I have found that these widgets are not very visually appealing, but a couple of them (the page popularity rankings and recommended reading) are somewhat useful. Unfortunately, the traffic map is not resizeable, and gets cluttered very quickly, so I would not recommend the visitor map from this website. Continue reading on for a much better choice that I personally use and recommend!

Revolver Maps: Revolver Maps produces real-time visitor maps that are visually pleasing. There are two main types of visitor maps you can get from Revolver. One of them is a rotating globe with visitors marked with dots, the other is a plain 2D map with visitor locations marked on it. Both maps are resizeable, so you can size them to fit the size of your sidebar. The maps themselves can also be colored in several different ways, and can have seasonal color variations imposed on them. The visitors locations "glow" adding to the visual appeal of these maps. All in all, I find this map to be an excellent visual element that adds a touch of class to any web page.

FlagCounter: If you have ever wanted to know exactly how many visitors visit your blog from each country of the world, then FlagCounter makes just the ideal widget for you. They make a highly customizable widget that shows you a list of countries your visitors came from along with the country flag, and optionally, the two letter internet code of the country. Next to each flag is the number of visitors from that country. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to just show the flags without the visitor numbers being revealed (or even show the visitor numbers as percentages), and I prefer to keep my traffic stats to myself, so I do not use this widget, but I can see this widget being very useful to some other bloggers. The FlagCounter site also has a support forum to get any questions you may have answered.ShareThis: ShareThis enables you to add an icon to the bottom of each post that enables your visitors to submit a link to that post to networking sites like Reddit, Digg, Twitter, Facebook, etc. They can also use the button to bookmark the link in their Del.icio.us account, Google Bookmarks, etc. This is a very useful gadget since it enables your visitors to publicize your content to a wider audience.

Outbrain: This is a small gadget that also goes below each blog post, and enables your visitors to rate each post using 1 to 5-star system. The gadget also recommends further reading options to your visitors in the form of links below each post. The gadget is unobtrusive, and blends well with your blogger template so that it does not stand out like a sore thumb even on busy backgrounds.

There are literally millions of other widgets and gadgets that are being produced on a daily basis by various people around the world. What I consider useful is not necessarily what you might consider useful, and my tastes may not match yours either. So, feel free to do your own research by scouring other blogs for interesting gadgets as well as doing google searches for interesting blogging gadgets. Some other sites specializing in widgets and gadgets are WidgetBox, Wowzio, SpringWidgets, YourMinis, Widgipedia and Widgiland.

Hope you found this post useful in customizing your Blogger page. Gadgets have the ability to provide you a lot of information about your visitors while also helping your visitors navigate your blog, rate its content, provide you feedback, etc. Make sure you take full advantage of various gadgets in marketing and improving your blog. If you use and find a lot of value in gadgets I have not mentioned in this post, please feel free to comment on this post with information so that I can try them, and include them in a later post.

If you look at the sidebar of my blog, you will also notice a large number of banners provided by various non-profit organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, the World Food Program, The American Red Cross, etc. These organizations are worthy of all the publicity (and possibly, donations) they can get, so please consider visiting their sites, and getting the code for their banners and flash widgets, so that you can provide them publicity and visibility through your blog. Note that if you click on any of these banners, you will be taken directly to the organization's website, so you do not have to play any role in collecting or conveying donations to these organizations through your blog.

Before I let you go, there is just one more gadget I want to talk about:

Dilbert: Like a true geek at heart, I love Dilbert cartoons. The Dilbert widget enables you to embed the Dilbert cartoon right in your blog's sidebar so that you don't have to leave your blog to read each day's Dilbert! The gadget is flexible enough to enable you to scroll backwards and forwards through multiple days or weeks. The site gives you several sizes to choose from, and hopefully one of them will fit well on your blog template.

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