important notice: this is the unabridged version of a post first published on bnet.co.uk
After a decade and a half of evangelisation by the likes of Seth Godin (re his book entitled: Permission Marketing) and those who followed in his footsteps, Marketers are now finally waking up to the idea that pre-formatted communications aren’t the right way to engage with customers (re Forrester’s Laura Ramos’s report on why Marketers, even in B2B have to get to grips with a new communications paradigm). So now is the time to hone these story-telling skills in your Marketing department and write valuable content for the Web. But what do I mean by valuable content? I mean content that brings value to your visitors, which could possibly initiate discussions, questions and comments (I’m talking about articulate comments, not cyber-babble).
In this article, I have expressed my views about writing for the web (also summed up in a creative commons slideshare presentation per below), based on what I have been able to implement successfully in the field over the past 15 years, in order to find out how that can be done:
Step 1: the idea that web text has to be terse is not a good idea
It is often said that people don’t read on screens and that as a consequence you shouldn’t write long pages and keep long stories short. There are several reasons why this is not relevant:
- If your site is performing well, most of your visits will come from search engines, not from your own links (based on my experience, I would say that ballpark figures range from 40 to 70+% of readers coming from search engines, 70% being applicable to pure content-orientated websites). And text-related search results won’t show pages with no text,
- It is true that people don’t read in the same way on the Internet (see step 3), but it is false to say that they don’t read anything on screens. Besides, when content is good they will probably print it out in order to read it offline. After all, this will not be counted as an additional visit but it is as if not more important than online reading,
- Search engines are fond of text, and indexing is based on keywords, not images, and certainly not hot air. One of the key success factors for your SEO (i.e. search engine optimisation; we’ll get back to this subject in a future post) is that the keywords your visitors will be searching for will be present in your pages more than once. If your text is too short and doesn’t comprise these keywords, it is bound to remain the Internet’s best kept secret,
- A good story doesn’t depend on its length, but on the author’s ability to retain the attention of his readers. Otherwise, many a classic novel would have been banned due to excessive length and numerous repetitions.
To sum it up in a few words, if your text is too concise, it won’t be seen by your visitors because most chances are that they will never even land on your page (QED).
Step 2: spice up your text with images, not the other way round
(note: that is to say if your website isn’t about paintings or photography or luxury goods )
I have often found that people are mesmerised by pictures. Yet, there are a few problems associated with this:
- First and foremost, you might see the pictures but search engines won’t. OK, Google has an image option but the way that images are indexed on Google is dependent on the text that surrounds them (amongst other elements we’ll describe in a post dedicated to search engine optimisation),
- Flash animations aren’t really a good idea. Since the 1990’s I have seen several cyclical trends with regard to Flash technology. Every once in a while, a flurry of flash-based websites will crop up and then disappear because they are mostly irrelevant, unmaintainable and above all unseen by search engines. There are statements all over the Web mantioning that flash animations are indexed but this is only partially true. Lastly, visitors hate flash animations, if I judge by all the comments I see in the surveys I carried out on the subject. I would recommend that you use flash technology only when it’s really needed, for high-end luxury products for instance, or art-related websites, and also for interactive presentations/applications which bring actual value-add to the visit process,
- Large pictures placed on a web page tend to kill the text around and below them (more details on pictures and eye-tracking here). All the eye-tracking tests I have seen performed on this particular subject tend to converge and even e-commerce websites are falling prey to this kind of issues. When asked to click a promotional link for instance, users usually avoid clicking on the large banners that have been installed for that purpose – even very visibly – on the web page. At best they will see that an animation is moving but they will seldom read it and click it. Is this a valid explanation for the very poor ratios delivered by advertising banners? This remains an open question.
Step 3: hypertext, hypertext, hypertext
What Sir Tim Berners Lee has to be remembered for is not the Internet (which was created in the 1960’s) but the http protocol which enables html pages (themselves an evolution of the sgml publication language) to contain rich text for online publication. Most of our readers will probably not know that the ‘ht’ in http is an abbreviation for hypertext, i.e. the ability to transform a text into a hot link which will take you to another page/image/etc. called a URL (unique resource location). Without html, the web wouldn’t exist, so I fail to understand why so many communications and media professionals still want to build websites in which there are no links.
As a consequence, when creating a new web page, one should immediately think about not just adding links to it, but actually shaping the content around those links.
Jakob Nielsen – probably the world’s most revered web usability expert – is proving the point on his page (http://useit.com) on which no images exist but in which all the text of the home page is made of links. Internal links, external links, links to videos, glossaries, resources, partners, podcasts etc. the list of possibilities is endless. And all link-less websites should be ditched immediately.
The web is not a place for a cut and paste from your Corporate paper brochures, there is no value for your visitors in doing that, and they won’t come back to your website if you do this.
Step 4: Good content shows in the title
Often I see product managers coming to me with requests about their web page and when talking to them I realise that they haven’t really thought of the people who will be visiting these pages. They keep their minds focused on their product names but they fail to ask themselves two important questions:
- What is the generic terminology for my product vs the product name which net users will only use if they know it,
- What is the problem that my product is trying to solve (Michael Bosworth would have used the term ‘painpoint’) which I could describe here (see step 6 for details).
And most of the time, I can tell from the title of the page that these elements, and possibly many other Marketing aspects which have nothing to do with the web, have been overlooked.
So working on the title of your page is a good place to start your Internet Marketing work for shaping web content. Please note that a good title is usually made of a combination of three keywords separated with hyphens or commas.
(note: As understanding SEO means knowing how to search for information, I would recommend that you read).
Step 5: Keywords mean a lot
Once a good title has been found, one can start working on the keywords that we would like to see indexed by Google. If those keywords are nowhere to be found in the page, then you stand absolutely no chance of being indexed properly by Google and other search engines (keyword tracking tool available here, courtesy of Google).
A keyword is a combination of words, in which the order will matter (as an aside, foreigners using accented words will face another challenge, for accented words are indexed separately from non-accented ones. e.g. “café” is not identical to “cafe” for a search engine).
And keywords mean a lot, not just about what you are describing, but about what net users are searching, the problems they have, the solutions they are looking for and even who they are. Keywords will tell you a lot about your users/visitors.
Step 6: Creating valuable content
So now that we have taken all first 5 steps into account, it is now possible for us to work on building valuable content for our web pages and to focus on our visitors. We can split the latter into 3 different categories:
- Your client/visitor understands his/her problem, and has identified a solution: detailed, straightforward product/solutions descriptions should be made available to address this requirement. Diagrams should be plentiful, descriptions should be clear, technical terms defined in a glossary. Interactive applications can also be developed so as to facilitate clients’ choices and search when there are many devices for instance,
- Your client/visitor knows he has a problem but isn’t aware that a solution exists, in which case his/her point of entry will be the focus on the problem via a search engine. Your buyer or influencer will browse the web in order to find information relevant to his/her problem and he/she will use the keywords that are relevant to this particular problem. Putting yourself in the shoes of your client/visitor will help you guess what these keywords could be,
- Your client/buyer doesn’t even know that he/she has a problem, let alone that a solution exists and that you are selling it. Attracting buyers and influencers of that kind to your website will require more effort than just shifting your boxes. Most ICT vendors know this situation, since type 3 customers are probably the most numerous, and it’s often dubbed evangelisation. Evangelisation is when you have to prove to your client that this solution he/she hadn’t thought about is bound to solve a problem he/she didn’t know he/she had. And the best way to do that is to demonstrate the problem, either through ROI analysis, consulting, or even what is called opportunity assessments (engagements in which clients are shown that a problem exists and that solutions can be found). Your website can also act as an opportunity assessment (see outsourcing example available here) if you build your pages in order to target this population and demonstrate that the problem exists. Those pages will mostly be aimed at the ecosystem of your clients, and your content will have to be usable by this ecosystem (namely by consultants) who can in their turn use it to advise their clients.