Writing content is easy. Well at least it is for me. I learned how to become a production writer while I was working full-time at a consulting company before I restarted my company. I was responsible for 50 articles a year for a newsletter for TechRepublic.com (one a week). At the same time I was still writing for Developer.com and other publications. I was working full time and cranking out articles at the rate of over 75 per year. It was a crazy time and like a few other times in my life, sleep wasn’t easy to come by in large quantities. However, I learned how to make sure I was writing – and writing reasonable quality stuff – every day. So when it came to needing to rebuild my web sites I thought writing content would be the easy part. I mean how hard could it be?
Well, it doesn’t have to be hard – unless you’re super picky like I am and you want Killer Web Content. I want the kind of web content that helps people find me when they’re searching. I want to connect with them when they’re reading and I want to engage them as they’re investigating. While some of those skills are skills that are core writing skills, some of the skills are things unique to the web – in particular helping people find you when they search is a critically important topic and one that’s often overlooked.
Snakeoil and Search Engine Optimization
One of the things that’s been frustrating to me for years is how little people really understand search engine optimization. Too many people sell expensive packages to help people put keywords and descriptions metatags in their content and they tell them that it will make searching all better. It’s like we’re back before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the need to be able to backup claims that you’re making about what the product does. It is snake oil sales men telling us they can cure everything including cancer.
The reality is much different. First, Google was born out of a very simple idea. That is the most interesting research is the research that has been cited the greatest number of times. It’s positively simple. So in Google search (and other engines now), the more inbound links your content gets the more likely it is to be what people are looking for when the word they search for is on your site. Because people are trying to game the system there are all sorts of caveats and modeling and sophistication, however, at its core this is the truth about search engine optimization. The more quality inbound links you get, the better your search ranking.
Sure words that appear in the title are weighted more heavily. If you use words repeatedly it has more weight than it only appearing once. Keywords and description metatags are somewhat helpful for some search engines. However, there’s one small twist to this story and that is that the customer must be searching for the words that you use. Here is where the magic happens.
Whether you’re someone who reads and writes English, Spanish, French, German, or Mandarin Chinese our words are imprecise. No two people understand words exactly the same way. They’re all flavored, colored, tinted, and skewed by our experiences. If you’ve ever had to try to name a baby and heard “I don’t like that name. I knew someone with that name and I didn’t like them.” You’ll know how things as simple as names have different connotations to different people.
In my information architecture presentations I speak about how you can have synonyms – two different words that mean essentially the same thing. You can have homonyms – two words that sound the same but are spelled differently. You can also have words that are the same but have different meanings. For instance, consider nursing. This is a profession. It is also something that mammals do. If you’re searching for one you don’t generally want to find the other.
The point of all of this is that the search technology that has made our lives so much better is based on a rocky foundation. It’s based on the words we use not necessarily the ideas that we have in our heads. So as we look for search to be “magical” we have to realize that search is only as good as the words that we use – and the words that our customers use to find us.
Since search engines work by matching, we want our content to match the words that users are searching for. Do they search for car, vehicle, auto, or automobile? Well, as it turns out they happen to search for car more than automobile. But how would you know that?
The good news is that you can figure out what users are searching for by leveraging Google Trends and Google Adwords keyword planner. Google trends allows you to see how a set of words have been searched for over time. It’s great for seeing how a term is becoming more – or less popular. For instance, you can see how knowledge management is getting searched for less and less over time.
Google Adwords, the way that you purchase search engine listings, has a tool called keyword planner that allows you to see how many searches a given set of words get in a month. Using this tool – or some of the third parties that process similar information for you – you can find which words people are searching for. Whether or not they’re looking for what you have to offer or whether they’ll buy from you or not may be questionable – but it’s possible to find out what people are searching for.
I’m not proposing that you buy Adwords. I’m proposing that you use the tools to determine what words your customers are searching for.
Killer Web Content talks about carewords – that is words that your customers care about. While you won’t find it in the dictionary it’s an incredibly powerful idea. The tricky part is figuring out what the carewords are for your audience. This is left as an exercise for the reader. This process really comes in two flavors. First, there’s the process of finding the words that they’re searching for. That’s what we just discussed. The second exercise is what words they’re looking for as they’re reading your content. These may be – but don’t have to be the same words.
Sometimes the words that lead someone to your site are not the same words that will lead them to a decision to buy. Consider my situation. The factors that lead people to find my site are some variation of speaking and leadership. (I’m intentionally not being as specific as I could about the exact words they use.) Once they’re on my site, they’ll want to see things like I’m an engaging speaker and that I’m credible through testimonials and credentials including awards and years in business. They want to see enough to build interest in me as a speaker. However, one of the key factors that they’ll need to know is that I’m approachable. They might call this “down to earth” or “real” but they want to know that they can get to me and get me to come to their event.
So the words that got someone to the site (speaking or leadership) aren’t the same words they need when they’re investigating (interest and credibility builders). Those aren’t the same words that they’ll be looking for when they’re ready to reach out to me. All of these are their carewords. They’re all words that my customers will read for, scan for, and seek out. I just have to know exactly what they are so I can incorporate them into my writing.
In my Information Architecture talks I speak of information scent. This is outgrowth of optimal foraging which was put forth in the 1970s. Basically this says that animals seek to do their foraging in an optimal way and they leverage their sense of scent to help them find the best way. Information scent is the extension of this idea that people look for something in the content which leads them to believe that they’re on the right path. That information scent is whether they are able to scan and see the carewords they expected.
One of the things that we often see on the information architecture side is pogosticking. That is people go to search and hop in and out of the various results. This indicates that the information scent isn’t right. They’re getting to pages but these pages are apparently not what they’re looking for. Thus the information scent in the description or summary of the search result isn’t enough to help them decide that they don’t want to view the contents.
Of course all of the information scent in the world isn’t enough if at the end of the day you can’t drive action. No matter what the web site is the goal should be to drive some action in your world. Whether it’s furthering a cause or furthering a sale your content should be moving a prospect forward to something. While some may object to saying that a church or civic organization’s content should drive action, I counter with don’t you want them to join you in your civic or religious mission? Every web site’s goal should be to further the cause.
The problem with driving action is that it’s notoriously hard to do. We’re living in a world of information overload (See The Information Diet and The Paradox of Choice.) We’re overwhelmed and so even the tiniest barrier causes us to not want to act. The book Demand spoke of hassle maps and how small barriers can prevent action. Even small changes can create large changes in outcomes. Helping people feel comfortable, helping them believe that you understand them and are the kind of person they want to work with can change the results you get.
In knowledge management circles there’s a debate. It’s between the father – Polyani – who says that “you know more than you can tell” and the son – Nonaka – who says that “tacit knowledge is unarticulated knowledge awaiting transfer.” In other words one says that it’s not possible to capture every bit of knowledge from someone. There is no magic brain sucking device. The other believes that given time and effort you can get everything out of someone. While I appreciate the rather hopeful view, I can’t believe it. In part because of Gary Klein’s work.
Gary Klein discovered this idea of recognition primed decisions (RPD) that are based on our experiences and that we build mental models to simulate events. (See Sources of Power.) In his work he struggled for years to get fire commanders to explain how they made decisions and only after great pain realized that they made decisions by creating a mental model of the situation. The mental model they made was informed by their experiences. As a result looking from the outside in their decisions made no sense. After all, how could someone know how a fire was going to behave before it did?
It’s this problem that’s at the root of why carewords aren’t necessarily the words that people will tell you are important. We have beliefs about our beliefs. In other words, we want to believe we’re compassionate, rational people – even though we know deep down that we’re not. Whether you believe that our brains are lying to themselves (See Thinking, Fast and Slow) or not, we don’t know how to articulate everything that we’re looking for.
This is why the process of finding the carewords – and the process of writing killer web content is so challenging. You can’t write good content until you know the right words – and finding the right words is difficult. However, if you’re willing to find the right words then you can create your own Killer Web Content.