Tag Archives: content writing

Don’t make me scroll

When I started work in the online world, we had to fit all our content into quite small screens. The first site I managed was built for 800 x 600 px screens. The site was an intranet, serving content to 9,500 postal employees, ranging from corporate desk dwellers to posties, couriers, truck drivers and everyone in between.

We had a lot of content, tools, lookups and directories and every man and his dog wanted a link on the home page. Yet somehow we created simple, easy to read pages with very little scrolling needed to find the content – none on the home page or any of the menu pages.

Today even laptop screens are around 1366 x 768 px and desktop screens are getting bigger and bigger. And today every other web page seems to need screen upon screen to display its content. Scrolling is the new black.

Why?

With all the space we have at our fingertips, why are we hiding content ‘below the fold’ or worse off the side of the screen?

A colleague told me a while ago that “people like to scroll”. What people? I thought. Bored ones? Ones with nothing better to do than traipse around websites in the hopes of finding something interesting to click on?

I don’t think so.

I think this new trend of long web pages comes from somewhere quite different.

Ego

smug

We’re all so proud of our fancy websites, we’ve forgotten that site visitors are only interested in what the site does. Specifically, what it does for them and the task they are trying to complete.

Today’s trend is to pack our sites with glossy graphics and funky designs. We’re taking up all the room we used to give to content. All these pretty design elements make us feel so good about our swish looking websites that we honestly think our site visitors will love them as much as we do and scroll around them to take in the full experience.

Given how many websites these days have huge hero banners on their home pages and top menu pages, are you surprised that I’ve come to this conclusion?

OK, so we have the i-generation, swiping around their tablets with gay abandon but research shows that they don’t really like scrolling either. And why would they? Scrolling (or swiping) means the site visitor has to think about what they’re looking for and hope that they’ll find it in that mysterious space ‘below the fold’.

There is a very good reason why Steve Krug’s book “Don’t make me think” is so popular among digital UX folk. People don’t like having to think through whether a website has what they’re looking for. They don’t want to have to go looking for content. They want it on the first screen they see – no guessing, no effort, no scrolling.

There is another possible source for the trend towards long, multi-screen web pages.

Laziness

garfield

As a web content producer, it’s so much easier to dump all your content onto one page. Breaking content up into manageable pieces takes effort:

  • You have to think how to split the content into pages that can each stand up by themselves.
  • You have to then decide how to link those pages so that clicking between them makes sense.
  • And you have to build multiple pages (GASP) and fit them into the site architecture.

This all takes time and effort which you could be putting toward doing something much more interesting or creative.

Why put in all that work when it’s so easy for site visitors to just scroll down a single page?

There is a simple reason – because they won’t scroll.

Despite the swiping craze of the i-generation and the current trend towards longer, banner-heavy pages, site visitors still are still reluctant to scroll too far below the fold. If you don’t give them a really good reason, like reading to the end of this article ;-), people won’t pay attention to content below the fold (they are 84% more likely to read content above the fold[1] than below).

So if you put a link or interesting piece of content or functionality one or two screens below the fold, only one in seven people who visit that page will even see it, let alone engage with it.

What’s wrong with designing shorter pages anyway? They’re quicker to load, easier to read and more likely to be seen in their entirety by site visitors. Sure, they take a bit more effort to create, but we’re digital professionals aren’t we? We like to put a bit of effort into our work – it gives us something to be proud of.

And think – if your content is broken across three pages, you get three page views out of each site visitor who engages with it not just one.

[1] The Fold Manifesto: Why the Page Fold Still Matters Amy Schade – February 2015

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The content writer who knew too much

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and wondered ‘What on earth are they on about?

You heard every word they said, almost all of the words were in plain English and the sentences were grammatically correct, but at the end of it you were no more the wiser.

Fortunately you can ask them questions and get clarification. “That sounds fascinating, I’d like to know more. What was that bit about jelly sky scrapers?

Imagine if you couldn’t ask questions. If you could only listen to what they wanted to tell you, with no way of letting them know that you were completely lost.

If you were a website visitor.

That is the exact situation our visitors are in when they come to our sites. All they can do is navigate around our sites and read we write. They’re at our mercy.

It sounds kinda cool when I put it that way, doesn’t it – I am the web writer, you’re at my mercy!

Sorry, I digressed.

Of course, they aren’t really at our mercy at all. They just have to click the Back button, or worse the Close button, and they’re gone. Off to a website that talks their language and makes thing clear.

While they’re on our sites, they can only have that one-sided conversation and we’re the ones talking. If we want them to hang around, we have to make sure we’re making sense.

Yes, I know, we have social media now. They can Tweet or comment or iMessage or send us a terse email. But none of those things will make what we’ve written any clearer.

Well, not without a serious time delay while we read what they’ve Tweeted, commented, iMessaged or emailed, thought about it, rewritten the content, had it approved and then (eventually) published it.

Hold on”, you say “I’m a professional online content writer, of course I make sense”.

OK, so making sense might not be the right phrase. We all know how to write concise, readable English. That’s not the problem.

So what am I on about?

Imagine if I started telling you about this amazing new present I’d bought myself.

It’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful metallic blue, made from carbon fibre, goes like the clappers and it only cost me $7,500.

Plain English, the grammar’s not too bad. I think most people would understand what I’ve written.

But what on earth am I on about?

A bike? A car? A motorcycle. A jet ski?

At that price, it could be any of the above. I’m so keen to tell you all the positive features of my new toy, I’ve forgotten the most important feature – what it is.

It’s obvious to me what it is, I’ve been riding around on the thing all week. It doesn’t even occur to me that you might not know what I’m talking about.

OK, this is a fairly simple example and one we’re unlikely to replicate on a website, although I have seen product descriptions that aren’t that far off the mark.

But I think you get the point. When we write about something we know, and it’s really hard to write about stuff you don’t know, it’s easy to forget that your reader doesn’t know the things you do.

Steve Krug puts it this way “After you’ve worked on a site for even a few weeks, you can’t see it freshly anymore. You know too much.”

Another way to look at it is to cast yourself back to your geeky 12 year old self (or your geeky kid brother’s 12 year old self) when you played Dungeons and Dragons (or the ‘cooler’ equivalent you played because you weren’t a real geek).

Remember how that went? You’re in a maze. You don’t know how big the maze is or where it goes. The only information you have is the clues your Dungeon Master gives you. You get a little bit more information each time you make a move. You have try to remember where you’ve been, what you’ve picked up along the way and then figure out how to get to the ‘goal’ of the game.

Sound familiar?

Our website visitors have the same challenges. The only information they have is what we give them. They have to try to remember what they saw on previous pages and then figure out how to get to the page that will let them do what they came to our site to do.

It’s incredibly easy to forget that our visitors don’t know what we know. We spend all day, every day on our websites. We know where everything is, what it does and what it doesn’t do.

They don’t. All they know is what we show them on whichever pages they go to.

Steve Krug goes on to say that the only way to find out if your content works is to test it and I can’t say I disagree with him.

You’ll never see your site clearer than through the eyes of another – someone who knows nothing about your site or what it’s promoting.

As online writers, we have to know a lot about many things – how to write quality content, the ins and outs of website accessibility and design and every little detail and selling point of the products and services our site promotes – now and then it pays to turn to someone who knows nothing and ask them how you’re doing.

Sophie Fanning – Website Trainer – www.ftwo.com.au

Dog with leash in its mouth

Obedience training for your website

Change is good – but how much is too much?

It’s amazing how much time you can waste, tweaking a website. I launched a new site a month ago and not a day goes by that I don’t make some small change to it. This morning I spent four hours trying to get it to render nicely on a mobile.

It still doesn’t display properly, not sure why. Cascading style sheets are not my forte

Still, I managed to add some useful content while I was in there, and I fixed a navigation link, so I didn’t waste the whole morning.

But the question remains, how often should you update your site and when should you draw a line in the sand and say “enough, this is done”?

Well that really depends on the size and complexity of the website.

In theory we should publish new content to our sites as often as we can – get our good news stories out there, start conversations with our customers, keep our social media initiatives rolling along and keep the site “live” in our customers’ minds.

But what about our core content? How often should we update that?

I ask this because I have edited and republished every page on my site, on average, around once every second day for the last month. This may be a bit excessive, but I am a perfectionist when it comes to my own content and the site (and the company it represents) are both rather young.

Many of the large corporate websites I’ve worked on had pages that haven’t been touched since they were first published.

I worked on one site that had the same content on the home page for over 6 months. The only thing that changed was the latest news release and that didn’t get updated as often as you’d think

Regardless of the age-old saying about the immediacy of websites and how they can be updated in real time, most website content isn’t updated half as much as it should be.

There are some pages that are updated regularly, they are small in number and usually related to one of three things:

  • Sales
  • Social and content marketing
  • News and public relations

These are the areas of the site with metrics that management care most about – How much are we selling online? What are our customer saying about us? and What good news are we telling our customers?

The rest of the site, the pages that outline who we are, what we do, how to contact us and how to get support for our products and services, they often remain untouched from the day they are created.

Typically what happens is this:

Rebuild – the site is rebuilt as part of a move to a new CMS platform, a company rebrand or some other large IT or marketing-led initiative.

This is usually done by a project team with KPIs around speed and delivery, rather than content quality or usability. All the content is pushed through the necessary signoffs as part of the project.

There is often a large well-funded team working on the project, with access to any part of the company when and how they need it.  This I know, as I have often been part of that team.

At this point, the site has high visibility in the company due to the expense of the project.

Launch – the project delivers and the site is launched to an unsuspecting public. The project team all celebrate a successful delivery and then go on to the next gig.

Maintenance – the site is now turned over the BAU team. Often the same people who were looking after it before the rebuild. The spotlight is no longer on the site, as the project has been delivered.

One of two things tends to happen at this point, depending on the attitude of senior management.

  1. If management are savvy in the world of web, the web team are given a mandate to keep the site current and the tools, resources and authority to do so.
  2. If management are not so up with the play, the web team are left to their own devices with little direction or accountability beyond keeping the lights on.
    They may have KPIs around online sales or the number of blog posts they publish, but they will have little or no incentive or power to maintain the overall quality and currency of the site.

I’d like to say that scenario 1 is the more common, but in my experience we often end up at door number 2. Most companies will only put time and energy into a whole-site review when they’re rebuilding the site for other reasons – the new CMS / rebranding exercise we met earlier on.

Many poor web teams end up with a site that has no clearly identified owners, little or no governance around who signs off which changes and a company that is all care and no responsibility. Everyone is a “web expert” these days, thanks to Google, Facebook and their ilk, and will happily tell you what is wrong with the company website, very few people are happy to take responsibility for putting those wrongs right.

So we’ve gone from one end of the spectrum – updating pages every day – to the other – leaving pages to stagnate.

Which is worse?

I can tell you that one of them takes a lot less energy, but that probably isn’t relevant right now, unless you’re the resource manager for a web team.

I do know that I’m planning to tone down my updating rampage from now on. I need to concentrate on other things, like getting clients. But there are other reasons why I need to leave my site be for a bit.

One is Google. Agile though Google is at crawling through the worldly wise web, even those huge data farms can’t reindex my site every day. I need to keep the site structure and content constant for a bit, so Google can catch up with me.

The other is customers, which is more relevant for me. We humans are creatures of habit, we like a bit of familiarity around us. If I constantly change the content on my site, I’m preventing site visitors from forming a comfortable view of what I have to offer.

So I’m going to cut back on my edits. Maybe only update once a week, rather than every day. I’m optimistically telling myself that from now on, the only changes I’ll need to make will be publishing links to my blog posts (ie this) and my You Tube posts. Now wouldn’t that be nice?

As for those larger corporate websites I mentioned, how often should they change their content? The best answer I can give is – when the content needs to be changed.

Yes I know, a “how long is a piece of string” answer, but bear with me.

The key is not necessarily to update or change content but to make sure that content is still up to date and relevant to your customers.

The trick is to make sure it looks up to date.

On the sites I’ve managed, I set a review date against all of my pages – 6 months for information pages, shorter for more high traffic areas, like product or sales materials. I’ve also made sure that there is someone there to conduct that review when it comes along.

Yes, I am a governance girl! I’m quite good at getting people to step up and own site pages.

I also made sure that the last publish date was visible at the foot of each content page on the site. Even if I’d only changed the colour of a button, the page looked up to date.

Remember, perception is reality!

Dog with leash in its mouth

Obedience training for your website

www.ftwo.com.au

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.