20 Pro Tips for Publishing Content in the Technical Era
Here in EIT, we obsess over our data, particularly our data from Google Analytics. We can learn a lot from this data, and we have over the past few years. We look at it again and again, sometimes multiple times a day just to make sure our hunches and intuition are properly aligning with the design and development changes we’re constantly making on our sites. Today we’d like to share with you some of our tips and best practices for publishing content on the web.
1. Don’t Give It Away
All too often we see headlines created like ‘John Brown wins Farmer of the Year Award‘. The problem here is, you’ve already told me everything I need to know about the article! What incentive do I have to click on the headline and actually read more? I don’t. And while that’s fine for some announcements, it’s not always suitable for all of our content. Furthermore, when a user reads a headline, but doesn’t click on it, we have no way of recording that action (it’s as if it didn’t even happen). But clicks we can measure.
A better headline in this case would have been ‘24 year old Wins Prestigious Farming Award‘. You didn’t tell me who, or which award, in this case, you’ve probably piqued my interest and I’m likely to read further!
2. Ask Questions
What we’ve found over the past two years is that if you phrase your headline as a question, it tends to get more traffic (particularly from places like Google). Why? Well it’s because when most people search, they phrase their query as a question, i.e. ‘Why are my impatiens dying?’
- Good Headline: “Stress related damage to Impatiens”
- Better: “Why are my impatiens dying?”
3. Don’t Over Do It
This relates back to #1, you could theoretically obscure your heading so much that it’s too vague or ambiguous to your user and that could deter them from clicking. You should always ask yourself, would I click on this headline? Also, avoid writing headlines that are too long, remember, just because a headline looks like it displays well (or fits) on your laptop, doesn’t mean it will look nice on a mobile phone screen (or inside an RSS reader).
4. A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words
It’s true, users love pictures — especially in our line of work. One of the biggest pieces of feedback that trickles in through our ‘Was the Content On This Page Helpful?’ widget pertains to posts that don’t have any images. You could write a killer article about ‘How to Control Fall Army Worms in Bermudagrass’, but without a picture, how will your user know what to look for?
5. Caption the Right Way
If you’re going to add a picture to your post from the Media library, make sure you enter a caption for it, this will ensure the text stays ‘glued’ to the picture on the page. You can run into problems if you write a whole paragraph and say something like “in the image to the right”, because on a mobile device, the image might not be floated to the right, it could be above or below the paragraph. The user experience shouldn’t depend on what device he/she is using.
A lot of the information you create is, for the most part, timeless. That is, the methods you may write about for controlling fire ants today will likely still be relevant in three to four years. However, in the blogosphere, three to four years is an eternity and folks will abandon a post before even reading it if they detect or perceive it to be out of date. This is one of the reasons we moved the actual date of a post to the bottom of the page (we don’t want our users to leave preemptively). You can read more on that approach from Tim Ferris. The exception? If you’re writing about rainfall totals for 2014 (or another specific time period, etc), by all means use a date.
7. Use the Right Words
Some words resonate better with users than others. For instance, if you were preparing to write a post about Bubble Gum, you should consider ‘Chewing Gum‘. Is there a difference? Do people favor one word over the other? If they do, you should favor the more popular term, it will help people find your content through search. You can easily compare two (or more) words or phrases for their popularity at trends.google.com . You should also keep in mind that popularity of terms can vary geographically. There can be subtle differences by region of the country (for instance, are you more likely to say Soda, Coke, or Pop?).
8. Track Search and Respond Accordingly
If you’re not looking at what people search for on your site, or at least asking your IT team to tell you, you’re missing a HUGE opportunity. When people conduct a search for something on your site it’s usually either for content they strongly desire or content they weren’t able to find on their own by looking around your site. Either way, you should adapt your content strategy. For instance, if you were to notice that the most searched phrase on your site was for ‘soil test’, but you also knew that you didn’t have any information on your site about how to take a soil test, well – you ought to create a new page! Likewise, if folks are constantly searching for ‘jobs’, maybe you need to make your ‘Career Opportunities’ link more prominent in your design.
Here are our Top Ten Most Searched Terms (across all 180 sites) for the past year:
- soil test
- soil testing
- master gardener
- summer camp
- soil sample
The takeaways? We probably need to create an authoritative page on How to Take a Soil Sample (three of the top ten searches were related to that). We should also consider moving the Jobs link higher up on the page.
9. Use Headings and Sub-headings Abundantly
People don’t read egregiously large blocks of text unless they have their nose buried in a book. On the web, people scan pages for relevant information, when you fail to use heading tags (h1, h2, h3, …) to break up your content into meaningful sections, you risk completely putting the user off. Take a look at these three screen grabs. The copy on each is exactly the same. The only differences include spacing, headings and images. Which one are you more likely to read?
10. Stop making PDFs, Nobody Reads Them
“The World Bank recently decided to ask an important question: Is anyone actually reading these things? … Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes.” -The Washington Post [read the full story]
If that story isn’t enough to deter you, you should consider the large file sizes and clunky experience your mobile users will have.
11. Don’t ever use “Click Here” or “Here” for a link
Just don’t. It’s so 1999. Use some actual text to describe your link. Google will love you.
12. Leverage Analytics
I’m not just talking about Google Analytics here, which can provide some really meaningful metrics like number of PageViews and Bounce rate, I’m talking about Retweets, Likes, Mentions and Pins. No matter what platform you’re publishing on, there’s data out there you can get your hands on and use to churn out some powerful inferences.
13. If You Want Your Users to Take Action, Make it Easy!
If you send out an email asking your users to take a survey to give you feedback and don’t promise them it will take less than “3 minutes” or is just “2 quick questions”, they’re likely going to ignore you. Make it easy, and let them know you’ve made it easy.
14. People Still Print
In the past two years, we’ve personally seen over 60,000 pages printed across our network. That’s an incredible amount, especially given our rapid expansion into digital media. But don’t forget, in Extension, a lot of the content you write can be printed out and tacked on bulletin boards for employees to see – it can also be used for handouts in workshops.
15. Put Less on the Table
Tables can be very complex. It’s not unusual to see a table (particularly in the Ag Chem Manual) with multiple rows and columns, sometimes with rows and columns merging together in some places and diverging in others. In the word of print, that’s great, but when you’re creating tables for the web, our best advice is to keep them as simple as possible. Remove low priority or superfluous (and redundant) information where ever you can. You don’t want your users to end up with something like this:
16. Avoid Acronyms and Internal Jargon
We have both new and returning visitors coming to our site each and everyday. New users are typically unfamiliar or unaccustomed to a lot of the internal acronyms we use everyday like ESMM (Eat Smart Move More). Even though you know exactly what these acronyms means, you should assume every visitor to your site does not.
17. Be Perfectly Clear
We used to have a menu link on our site called ‘People‘ which took you over to a staff directory listing. However, we soon realized that ‘People’ was a bit ambiguous, what content were users expecting to get when they clicked on that link? In our first attempt to fix this and be more clear, we changed the link to ‘Staff‘, but then started wondering if users would mistake it for ‘Staff Only’ or ‘Internal Staff Links’. Ultimately we changed the link to ‘Meet Our Staff‘, which most appropriately aligned with the content we were aiming to deliver. The lesson? Be as clear as possible. Always ask yourself if the link text you’ve chosen could be misinterpreted, if it could be, choose something less risky.
18. Don’t Be Afraid to Add a Little Personality
Below are examples of 404 Error Templates (the pages you see when a website can’t find the content you were looking for. It’s typically a frustrating moment for most users, but if done the right way, you can mitigate some of that pain with a little humor. Which site would you be more likely to revisit?
19. Promote Your Content Everywhere
It’s great if you are actively talking about your content elsewhere (like Social Media), but remember, your ultimate goal is to drive traffic to your site and build engagement. You can’t do that if you give away all of your information at the source. For example, compare the following two tweets relating to a new article about ‘Killer Cicada Wasps are Now Active’, which is more likely to bring a user to your site?
compared to …
20. The World is Becoming Instant
People want information they can act on right away, if you don’t create some sense of urgency for them, they will put you off (and may never return). In a recent study by MailChimp, their team compared the success of two different email subject lines. Would one subject line entice users to open an email more than another?
- Meet the Confidant
- Store Opens in 7 days
8% more people opened the email with the subject ‘Meet the Confidant’. Why? Because they felt like it was information they could use right now. Whereas the alternative headline communicated to them that “this isn’t important yet”.