Category Archives: Uncategorized

Responsive templates – are they really the answer?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about responsive design. Do you know about ‘responsive’? It’s the magic new template style that displays your content beautifully regardless of the device your customer is using.

It works a bit like this:

You have one website and one set of content. No more mobile sites. The templates for your site detect the device your customer is using to view your site and rearrange the content and resize the images to match.

See?

For example

Your site on a desktop might have a three column layout with large images, local navigation in the left column, ads in the right column and content in the middle.

Your site on a tablet could be a two column layout, still with large images but maybe the navigation is now “hamburger menu” style (I’m hoping we all know that a hamburger menu is the wee three-line icon that, when touched, expands out with a site menu).

Your site on a smart phone screen would only have the one column, smaller images and the faithful hamburger menu tucked away as an icon in the top right hand corner of the screen.

Although your site looks quite different on each device, the core content remains the same. So an article that appears in the middle column of your desktop site, is now (unchanged) in the main left hand column of your tablet and is the sole visible content on your smart phone.

Neat isn’t it?

But is that really enough?

Do we really use content on our phones, tablets and computers in the same way?

I’m a bit skeptical about the idea that the same content works equally well on desktops, tablets and smart phones. Like most digital natives these days, I have the trifecta of a laptop, a tablet (totally in love with my new iPad) and a smart phone. And I definitely don’t use them in the same way.

All the usability testing I’ve conducted, or watched, tells me that most other people also use their different devices in different ways.

Using smart phones

If you’re anything like me, your smart phone is never more than a few feet away from you. It’s the first thing you reach for when you want to know something quickly.

“What’s the address of that restaurant we like?” Google it on your phone.

“Are there any ATMs around here?” Check your bank’s app on your phone.

“When is the train due?” Look up the schedule on your phone.

I use my smart phone for quick tasks, requiring very little time or attention from me. Also, my phone is good for location-based searches, using the GPS on my phone

Tablets

My tablet is usually nearby but I only pull it out if I need a bigger screen or a keyboard (I have one of those covers that doubles as a keyboard, SO cool). The tablet is great for reading on the train, watching movies (good old YouTube) and general web browsing. It is also nice for writing emails, as long as I have a surface to lean on.

I find I spend longer on the tablet than I do the phone. I reading is much easier and I’m prepared to do more of it. The phone is very much get in, do a task, get out. The tablet is a bit more of a leisure time device.

Laptops and desktops

And then there’s the laptop. Now I am lucky. I have a solid state drive on my laptop, so it starts quickly, but it still only comes out when I want to get serious.

When I get the laptop out (and yes, it lives in a laptop bag, in a cupboard, so I really am “getting it out”) I have a specific task in mind and I’m willing to put some time into getting it done.  Recent tasks on the laptop were:

  • planning and booking an overseas trip
  • applying for jobs (I am a contractor, so this is a fairly frequent occurrence)
  • shopping around for car insurance

These were all fairly time-consuming tasks with a high level of commitment on my part. I was fairly determined to see them through, so I sat myself down away from other distractions and focused on each task.

This seems to be one of the distinctions between PC/laptop use and use of tablets. Many people pull out their tablets while watching television, sitting on the bus or train or chatting in a café. PCs and laptops aren’t quite as portable (yes, I know laptops are portable, but not nearly as much as tablets – none of this is exact you know) they usually sit on a desk or other dedicated area.

I find my attention span and concentration on my task is much higher when I’m using my laptop or a computer at work (call me Pavlov’s dog if you will but I am trained to take computers seriously).

So what’s the answer?

So what does all this have to do with responsive templates, I hear you ask? Good question.

I don’t think rearranging content to fit into different sized screens is the be-all and end-all of device-specific usability. I think there is more to making content work well from device to device than just layout.

To make our site content work for our customers, across all devices, we need to understand what tasks they do on each device and what detail they need for those tasks. We need to tailor our content to match those tasks and how they differ depending on the device being used.

Leaning on responsive templates to solve the “device problem” is thinking only about layout. Tailoring the layout of your site, without modifying the content will result in either:

  • smart phones pages that are hideously long, forcing customers to scroll (or swipe) through unending screens of content to find (or try to find) what they’re looking for or
  • desktop pages that are so light on content that they tell the customer nothing.

And when you think about it, I’ve only looked at the three main types of device. I haven’t even looked at smart TVs, game consoles or smart watches. Imagine trying to write the same content to fit on that spectrum of screen size.

Responsive templates are a really nice way of cleanly reorganising the structure of your site so that it displays nicely on the devices our customers use to view our web offerings. But I don’t think they can totally replace m.sites or tailored content.

If you’d like some help shaping your site content for all manner of devices, have a chat with F-Two consulting. We can help you teach your website how to talk your customers’ language.

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Search engine optimisation – it’s simple if you try

There’s a lot of talk about SEO at the moment. With every woman and her dog using Google as the ‘home page’ of the internet we all want page 1 SERP (that’s Search Engine Results Page for those playing at home) rankings for our preferred keyword, or words.

Google doesn’t make this easy. We have to contend with a zoo of Pandas and Penguins ready to relegate us to the hinterland of SERP page 2, 3 or even 4 (or worse) if we don’t play by Google’s rules.

Metadata is out. Link building is in – but only if you make legitimate and worthy links from credible websites. Government is best. 

Start building ‘bad’ links and you’re out on your ear, back on page 4 again.

So what is the secret to good SEO?

Sadly there’s no silver bullet, but there is a fairly simple exercise you can try that will definitely bump you up the results ladder, as long as you don’t use it in anger. Google knows when you’re not playing nicely.

Most SEO boffins will tell you, and Google will agree that the best way to get good SEO results is to publish good content eg, an interesting article, a useful calculator or a viral video.

And who am I to disagree?

But I’d go a little bit further.

Just because your content is good or interesting or useful, doesn’t mean it’s always going to rank well. You can give it a little bit of help with my favourite SEO, and web content management technique – consistency.

Google (and other search engines, let’s not be too one-eyed here) looks a number of elements when ranking web pages:

  • Page title – the text in the <TITLE> attribute near the top of your HTML (it appears as the tab or window name at the browser of your window)
  • Page name – the text used identify the page in your site navigation and site map
  • Page heading – the text in the first <H1> attribute after <BODY> in your HTML. Ideally you should only have one <H1> on each page
  • Links to the page – the text used between <a href> and </a> when writing links to that page
  • Content on the page

If all of these elements use consistent terms to describe the page and its content, and if your page content remains true to those terms (yes, these are your keywords), then searches in Google (et al) using those terms should return that page fairly high in the SERP.

There is one other page element you might want to spend some quality time with. Although Google no longer pays any attention to the <meta name=”description”> attribute for searches, it often displays the meta description text as the blurb under the page name in the SERP. Google might not read the description, but your customers will.

So you might want to polish up the meta descriptions too.

I know this all sounds a bit pedestrian and basic (and painstakingly nit-picky), but I tried this technique on the website of an Australian tier-one utility provider not long ago and saw improvements to our SERP rankings almost right away.

Some of our pages jumped 20 to 30 places in their SERP ranking.

So don’t despair if your content isn’t the latest ‘killer app’, the most popular video YouTube has ever seen or the coolest calculator this side of the FX-86 (that’s an 80s maths class reference for the Gen Xers), with some simple content tweaking your pages could be up there with the Google stars.

If you’d like some help with your SEO or your site content in general, have a chat with F-Two consulting. We can help you teach your website how to talk your customers’ language.

Distributed authorship or a central web content team?

When I began my journey through the wide world of web management, websites belonged to the IT department. They were hand built creations, coded in HTML, JavaScript, SQL and harder codes.

In those days websites were mostly online versions of the company’s marketing brochures, product catalogues and other printed material.  The actual ‘web’ stuff was functionality – early ecommerce engines, online forms, mailto addresses that let a customer send a message to the company with one click.

Actual ‘web’ content was an infrequent after-thought, sometimes added in after the developers had done ‘the real work’.

Then a few plucky souls managed to convince the devs that they could code basic HTML, without breaking anything. They started writing more web-specific content in between the chunks of code.

The Web Content Writer was born

These early web writers soon realised that people don’t read content on a computer screen the way they do on paper. They started editing copy down to make it easier to read on the screen.

About this time, some other very clever folks were working on the concept of Document Management Systems. A way to store documents in databases, using metadata instead to folders to save and find them.

It didn’t take these clever people very long to realise that the same thing could be done for web content. It took them even less time to realise that web content could be stored and served up in bits – images, codes, text, bits of functionality – rather than whole pages.

Now the content of the website could be separated from the code. Devs could write code to create page templates, control the navigation structure and create cool functionality.  Content could be added in afterwards, by non-technical people.

This separation of code and content is the definition of web content management.

Web Content Management was born

This opened up a whole new way of managing websites and brought them out of the IT department.

Website usually ended up being looked after in one of two ways:

  1. Content being added by – the Marketing team, Sales, Corporate Communications – whoever had a stake in the message.
  2. Dedicated web content teams, responsible for the site content and structure.

These two models of site content management are known as Distributed Authorship and Centralised Management. The question is, which one works better?

Over the years, I’ve worked in both models and they each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Distributed Authorship – lets content owners or subject matter experts write content directly into the site. You can be pretty confident that what they write will be factually correct.

If your distributed authors also write content for other media in your company, you can also be confident that the message will be consistent across those media.

What you can’t be so confident about is consistency across your website.

Even though most of the site design and formatting is locked down by the content management system, the authors still have to format their content – bold, italic, tables etc. If different authors across your company all format in subtly different ways, you site starts to look a bit, well, inconsistent.

And that’s just the formatting. What about the content itself? If you have different authors writing pages for your site, how confident can you be that your site will speak with a single voice? Or even a similar accent?

This is true, not just for the words on the page, but the headings, links, page name and the page title (the one in the HTML – it appears as the page name in your browser window). You know, all that webby stuff that sites like Google use to find your page and rank it higher than everyone else’s?

The average distributed author is probably not going to understand just how important these pieces of content are. Even if they do understand, will they know the right keywords to feature, and how to integrate them with all the other pages on your site?

Centralised Management 

OK, you say, distributed authorship has some problems. So why doesn’t everyone use a centralised management model?

The simple answer is time. Even the best web content teams end up being bottle-necks for content getting onto the site.

Enforcing all those site standards takes time.

Depending on the size of your company, and therefore the website, a centralised web management team could be handling 100s of page updates a week (or day if the company is really big). Each update needs to be:

  • checked against the company’s web standards
  • assessed for usability, SEO and other optimisation requirements
  • made in the pre-production site
  • reviewed and approved by the content owner
  • scheduled for publish

That is a lot of work.

The number one complaint I’ve always heard about web content management teams is that they take too long.

So which one’s the best model?

I’d love to have a simple answer for you. But it really depends on your priorities.

If speed and technical accuracy are key, distributed authorship is the way to go. If site consistency and standards are paramount, a central team is more likely to deliver.

My preference will always be centralised management. Given the growing pressure for web sites to be usable, optimised for search, optimised for smart phones, tablets and desktop and accessible. I just don’t believe distributed authorship can deliver a quality website.

But if your company has a large website and a high number of daily updates, you may have to use distributed authorship just to keep up!

If distributed authorship is your model, my advice is to build as much quality checking into the content sign-off process as you can.

Are FAQs really frequent?

Three customers go to a website… None of them can find what they’re looking for. What do they do?

The designers of the site might tell you they’d look in the Frequently Asked Questions.

Really? Are FAQs really that attractive to site visitors trying to find a particular piece of information or complete a task?

Why are they called FAQs anyway? Are they frequent? Who asks them? Are they just questions? Surely they’re answers too.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot of FAQ sections for large websites and I am usually the one who comes up with them. They weren’t the result of an extensive poll of customers’ queries or the culmination of a Q&A session with the call centre.

They were just collections of every extra piece of information I thought was relevant to a new site section of piece of functionality.

So where did FAQs come from?

According to Wikipedia, they are as old as the internet itself (circa 1982). Apparently NASA was a bit taken aback that new users of ARPAnet’s SPACE weren’t downloading old messages to find the information they were looking for. They just posted questions instead

Fancy that, internet users wanting a simple way to find information. Who’d have thought?

Not long after NASA invented FAQs for the SPACE mailing list.

It’s been a while since 1982. The internet has change almost beyond recognition, but we still have FAQs.

Ask yourself this… when was the last time you actually went to a website’s FAQs and found an satisfying answer?

If the answer is “recently, and yes I found just what I wanted” then I take my hat off to that site (or you). I’m fairly confident that the answer is more likely to be “I didn’t even realise the site HAD FAQs”.

Please Mr / Mrs information architect… use your imagination and set those “FAQs” free. Let them live with the content they “answer” questions about. Put them at the foot of the page or (going out on a limb here) incorporate them into the content as … CONTENT.

What do you reckon? Doable?

Now where did that come from?

Try this trick…

Find our your site’s top ten internal search terms. Ask Omniture or Google Analytics, they’ll know.

Now type them into your site search. Better yet, type them into Google, using the site:your URL

Look at the results.

Find anything you don’t like?  That old product page you thought you’d ‘retired’?  That PDF application form you’d replaced with an HTML one? Maybe even some test content you didn’t realise had been published.

It’s very interesting to see your site the way Google sees it. This is the way most of your customers see it. You can learn a lot too.

Running internal site searches like this every few months is a good way to clean house.

Is there an unexpected page appearing at the top of the search results page? Look at all the links you have pointing to that page. What words are they using?

Many years ago, if you Googled click here you’d get the download page for Adobe Acrobat reader. An interesting use of link text but probably not what Adobe would’ve chosen as their top keywords.

Try doing the same in your ‘site:www[your domain.com.au]’ search. Type in terms like; click here or find out more. Try read more or simply more.

I bet you get a lot of results.

These are all the pages where your content writers took a time-out from their usual brilliance and creativity and defaulted to the four most popular, least customer-centric, link names on the web. Weeding these out of your site could improve your user experience significantly.

It doesn’t stop there. Google can let you know what other under-garments your site is showing.

Do your PDFs show really ‘codey’ URLs? Most content management systems give PDFs and other downloads URLs with terms like ‘blob’ and ‘blobheader’ in them. Total machine talk.

Usually you’d mask these with nice ‘usable’ link text. You can’t mask URLs in search results.

It might be time to talk to your server guys or your devs about a download repository with a human-friendly URL.

My favourite Google ‘site:’ search was when I found a rather heated memo from the project manager who’d built the site to the project owner, stating what was wrong with the site and recommending it not be put live. Now how that got there I’ll never know, but I can tell you it got ‘nofollow’ed and ‘noindex’ed in RECORD time.

The internet is a funny place. It has a long memory and nowhere to hide.

It doesn’t hurt to play customer now and then and look at your site with Google’s eyes.

So you want to write online content

Why wouldn’t you? Online is cool. It’s where all the action is these days.

And you? You’re a great writer. You’ve written heaps of stuff – direct mail letters, brochures, magazine articles… and you’re a gun at emails.

Writing for online should be a shoo-in for you. You use the web every day. You know what good online content looks like.

How hard can it be?

Well… It might be a bit trickier than you think. The online world is a fairly unforgiving place and web natives have really short attention spans.

Think about the readers of your non-online material, your DMs, brochures and magazines. They hold your content in their hot little hands. They have picked up your brochure or magazine and have committed their precious time to finding out what it says. They are already invested in reading what you’ve written.

All the visitor to your webpage did was click a link. They may not even know what was behind that link. They just clicked it because it looked like it might, possibly, lead to something they’re interested in.

The average web visitor takes less than five seconds to decide whether a page has the information they want. If it doesn’t, click, they’re gone.

Five seconds. Think about that. Five seconds to convince your reader that your page is the be-all and end-all of their information search. It’s not very long.

In those five seconds, your page needs to tell the site visitor what the page is about, what it can do for them and what they can do on it. No excess content or waffly words allowed. Every word on your page has to pull its weight.

And to make it worse, your page is fighting with hundreds of millions of other pages just to get those five seconds. Google, Yahoo, Bing and the others don’t play favourites. They won’t even find your page unless it’s ‘optimised’.

So not only do you have to write tight and transparent content, you have to make sure that content can be found in the first place.

Search engine optimisation. The art of outsmarting Google. Well, really, the art of playing by Google’s rules so you outsmart all the other sites competing for site visitors.

Google and its brethren are all about keywords. Whatever the site visitor types into the big white search box is the keyword or words for that search. You page’s only chance of appearing in the search results is by having that word or words in its heading, its html title and at least some of the links pointing to it.

If you’re lucky, your page appears on the first page of the search results. Why is this important? Well only one in ten people look beyond that first page, so if your page isn’t there, not many people are going to find it.

OK, so now your page is beautifully written, packed full of keywords and ready for all comers.

Well almost all comers…

Have you assessed your page for accessibility? Accessibility means optimising your page for page readers, as used by visually impaired site visitors.  Around 360,000 Australians are blind or have low vision. Have you made sure they will be able to read your page?

Online content, it’s not quite as simple as it seems.  It’s a lot of fun though.

What is it with social?

Can someone please tell me when online content became all about ‘social’?

I get that ‘social’ is an important part of any content strategy, but surely there’s more? Aren’t well written, informative ‘content’ pages still vital parts of any good online presence?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of ‘social’. This is a blog, after all. I tweet. I’m also quite the Facebooker – and not just selfies and food shots. To be honest most of my Facebook activity of late has been sharing my wedding photos with my friends and family.

So yes, I would be last person to claim that social media has no place in an online strategy. I’m just a bit concerned that we’re all getting so excited about Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the gang that we forget to build quality websites. Shouting our message out to the world via the various social channels is great, but what happens when people follow our shout back to our site?

If we don’t give that site and its content as much love, care and attention as we do our Pinterest pages, then we’re not going to have a very pleasant ‘social’ life. Our websites are still the faces of our companies.  If they are badly written or hard to navigate, no amount of good social media will make up for the negative impression our site gives our visitors

OK, you may say I am just a bitter ‘old style’ content writer, not coping with the transition to the ‘new wave’, and you may have a point. I have been writing content for websites for a long time.

But here’s the thing. People haven’t changed that much. We still use websites in very much the same way as we did before social media came on the scene.  We research the products and services a company provides, we look up contact details, we try to find the right process to access a service from our local government or the tax office. All of this is content.

True, we might also jump on Twitter or a consumer blog to see what people have said about that company or agency. But if a company has clear, concise and straight forward content that is open and provides the site visitor with all the information they need, this can counter the negative impressions left by not so positive social media comments.

If we, the content writers, do this well, we can go a long way to instil confidence in our site visitors that our company is one they want to transact with.

So where do I see the role of social media vs straight site content? To me a company’s web site and its content make up the ‘face’ of the company. Websites are how companies present themselves, and their products and services, to the public. Websites are the modern shop-fronts.

A company’s website is the one place where that company can control its online presence.

And social media? Not so much in the company’s control.

Social media has a number of roles to play. All of those roles have one thing in common – customer control. Social media is where a company can start or finish a conversation, they can’t control it.

Used well, social media can be many things. An effective channel to the call centre, a powerful tool to build and leverage brand ambassadors or an easy way to garner customer feedback and keep your finger on the pulse of your industry.

Social media definitely has a place at the table of your content strategy, but I still believe that without quality content on your site, social media will only attract unwanted attention.