Episode 4: Content
For those of you just joining us, over these opening episodes of the Tunnel 7 podcast I’ve been exploring the different components that go into building a successful website. To date, we’ve covered website standards, information architecture and visual design. Now if you’ve missed any of these episodes I encourage you to check them out on the podcasts page. Today we talk about content.
If I had to pick one area that clients consistently underestimate both in terms of the time involved and the importance to their website it would be content. There is a saying on the web that “Content is king.” While it may not be wearing a gold crown the content of your website, I would argue, is the single most important piece of your website.
Prerequisite for success
The internet is a very competitive place. Think about it. In any field there will be literally hundreds or even thousands of websites that are in direct competition with yours. They’re not just from down the street either. They can be from halfway around the world. How do you stand out from the competition? While your first answer may be the visual design of the website, research has shown that visual design makes only a first impression. Quality content is the reason why visitors stick around and click further into your website. A website with a weaker visual design and stronger content will trump a website with a stronger visual design and weaker content. Now while I’m certainly not advocating ugly visual design this fact does illustrate the importance of your content. It really is a prerequisite for your website’s success.
Connecting with your audience
Writing content is easy, right? Yes it is. But writing good content isn’t easy. It takes time. As an example, just last week I spent several hours refining a single two sentence introductory paragraph for a website. Why did it take so long? I wanted that paragraph to connect directly with the audience that would be reading it. When they read that paragraph I want them to say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I need. How do I learn more?” and click deeper into the website. And that is what good website content does. It connects with your audience and draws them in rather than push them away.
One of the biggest issues I see with client website content is that it talks more about them as opposed to any benefits one may receive from working with them. Yes, there will be a place to talk about yourself but keep the focus on the benefits you offer to connect with your audience in a direct way. To do so I recommend the following:
- Write for your audience, not yourself. OK, this one isn’t terribly specific to a website but it is a good place to start. When writing content put yourself in the shoes of a member of your audience and, like I mentioned, speak to the benefits you offer.
- Tell your whole story and leave the marketese out. Never assume that anyone visiting your website knows anything about what you do. Your content should clearly tell what you do but should not rely on a heavy marketing slant. Research shows that visitors detest the marketese.
Formatting website content
Website content also brings with it unique challenges that printed materials do not have. Think about it. People on your website are always one click away from leaving. They literally have millions of different websites they can go to ... instantly. It’s not surprising then that website visitors have limited attention spans and tend to skim more then they read on a website. If your visitors can’t easily find what they are looking for they will simply go elsewhere. Be sure when you’re writing your content that you take this into consideration. I recommend the following:
- Keep paragraphs short. Fifty words per paragraph is plenty and less is even better. People simply skip large blocks of text on a website and they should be avoided.
- Use lists whenever possible. What better way to feed content to a person scanning text than a list? Lists are easy to skim and easy to digest. Keep them short and they are ideal for website content.
- Use section headings extensively. Like lists, section headings give a skimming eye something to stop on and consider. Headings also have the added benefit of helping with search engine rankings so use them often!
Importance of content with search engines
That’s right. The connection between your content and how well your website ranks in search engines is a direct one. Your website content largely determines how your website shows up in search engines. Over the years search engines have become sophisticated enough to simply read your website content as you or I would (as opposed to relying on meta tags, hidden text and other older tricks folks used to use to inflate search engine rankings). How well your website ranks for a given keyword is the direct result of the search engines finding (or not finding) that keyword in your content. If search engine rankings for particular keywords are critical to the success of your website be sure that those keywords are included within your content. This will be the foundation from which all other search engine optimization efforts will be built.
One word of caution, however. Be careful to keep your human audience in mind. Content should, above all else, be easily readable and make sense to them. Your audience should not be able to look at your content and realize you’re more concerned with stuffing keywords for search engines than speaking to them.
Importance of regularly updated website content
With all the competition on the internet you want to give your visitors a reason to keep coming back to your website. This is accomplished by regularly updating and adding content. Think about it. If you have two websites in the same field and you visit both today and again in one month, and website A has the same content it did a month ago, and website B has new and updated content, which are you most likely to visit in the future? A stagnant website is one that will lose traffic over time. By not offering your visitors anything new a website quickly becomes dated and stale. Is that the message you want to send to your visitors?
Content updates need not be grand to be effective. Something as simple as updating a small news widget on a homepage will show that your website is regularly updated and current. You might also want to consider writing a blog, which is a great way not only to create new content but to connect directly with your audience in a somewhat less formal manner. If you don’t have time to write a blog then you may want to consider relying on your website visitors to add content. User generated content from forums, comments, reviews and the like all help keep your website fresh without you having to write anything. You could also incorporate RSS feeds from related sources to keep your website looking fresh. I have used this technique on client websites with good effect.
Website content is critical to the success of your website project. Be prepared to spend time putting quality content together. Remember that your website is one of countless others in your field. Well written and regularly updated content will speak directly to your audience, pull them further into your website and give them a reason to keep coming back over time.