To write for humans, understand robots
May 29, 2020
Between blogs, social media, and email, don’t you feel like you’re reading more than ever before? And yet the sheer quantity of content that’s being produced, is even greater. So filtering happens:
- Email clients add focused inboxes that show only a subset of the mail you receive, whatever the email client thinks is important.
- Bidding on paid search and paid social gets more expensive.
- Google gets pickier about what to display for a search, and starts including factors like site speed and usability.
All of these things have something in common – because of the huge amount of content that’s out there today, where your content ends up isn’t just determined by things that you do, or by the quality of your content. It’s also determined by code, software, and robots. (Err… algorithms. Let’s say algorithms, that might be more accurate. Although, robots.txt anyone?)
Creating the right content is important, of course, but if you don’t take the algorithms into account, your content won’t reach your customers. Organic search drives over half of website traffic, depending on how you estimate.
That means, when your customer has a problem, the first thing they’ll often do to solve it, is to Google it. Fortunately, organic search is the place where the algorithms are easiest to work with.
Algorithms and SEO
If I’m interested in buying a tiny watermelon:
- I open google.com.
- I type in “tiny watermelons”.
Once I hit Enter, Google ranks the incredibly large number of pages in its index according to their relevance to your query – plus lots of other things, like your search history, location, and more. Then it displays the result.
Since I sell tiny watermelons, I care the most about this last step, in which Google decides whether anyone will see the tiny watermelon content my team has worked hard to put together.
And as a result, everyone spends a lot of time trying to understand Google’s algorithms. Moz, for example, will even show you a history of algorithm updates, together with its historical view of your search visibility.
Google (and other search engines) have been really clear about what matters for getting your content ranked, and, if anything, they’ve gotten better at it over time.
- The quality of your content, of course, is critical. Do you understand your topic, and does what you’ve written provide useful information? Is your article long enough to cover the details of whatever you’re writing about? Does it help your visitor?
- Closely related to this: Is the experience on your site high-quality? Meaning – does your site load fast? Is it easy to get to reading without lots of popups or interstitials? How’s the mobile experience?
- Does your content add anything new to what’s already out there? Summaries can kind of work. But the best content does the same thing that your business does. It adds new value and new ideas that aren’t already out there. From a keyword perspective, this helps you rank for stuff that’s highly relevant that nobody else is ranking for. From a content quality perspective, it makes your resource more complete than what’s already out there.
- Is your content being read? It’s a little bit of a chicken and an egg problem, but the more your content is read and shared, the more backlinks it’s likely to have, and the more likely search engines are to think it’s helpful to visitors.
There are lots of other things you can optimize for. So many! We’re here to tell you that we think the bullet points above are what really matters. So few content marketers nail these items – and they are, in fact, so hard to do well – that doing a good job here is likely to deliver serious results.
Every content marketer needs to deal with algorithms today. Organic social, email, and every other marketing channel requires some attention to getting your content delivered to your customers, not just writing it. Fortunately, for most content marketers, organic search algorithms line up reasonably well with writing and producing great content.
Can longer forms have better engagement?
May 28, 2020
If you run a B2B website, part of what you’re trying to achieve is form fills. You want to get people to give you their contact information so you can:
- Have them talk to a rep now, or
- Keep communicating with them in hopes of having them talk to a rep later.
Isn’t that it? (If you’re B2C, it’s not so different, maybe instead of “talk to a rep” you want them to buy something directly.)
Most of the time, when you receive this information, it’s a trade: Your visitor gives you their contact information, you give them access to a whitepaper, or brief, or webinar with information they want.
A much more desirable situation, though, is that your visitor fills out the form because your content establishes your credibility and the value of what you offer to solve their problem. And so they want to stay in touch!
Because you, as a content marketer, are partly graded based on form fills, we want to suggest a different way of thinking about this critical part of your content stack, based on the latter scenario.
Boring old best practices for forms
There are a lot of guides out there on form UX. Norman Nielsen Group guides are classics, and here are their guidelines for web form design(https://www.nngroup.com/articles/web-form-design/), with links to plenty of other resources.
All advice on form usability will say that you want to avoid as many as obstacles as possible to getting your form filled out, and add as many incentives as you can. This means:
- Making it clear what the promise of your content is and why the user should care. This means landing page text that’s compelling and clearly describes what the user will get.
- Keeping it short. Use as few form fields as possible, of course. Also consider omitting optional fields altogether. And consider using tools that automatically enrich the data so you don’t need to ask for Company when you have an email address.
- Design is key. The placement of labels, indicating which fields are optional, etc. are all important to avoid confusion. Reduce the cognitive load of filling out your form. And remove any questions about your credibility by keeping your form design consistent with the rest of your site, and generally keeping the design of form controls at the same level as everything else.
But even better…
Instead of thinking about it as a transaction, think of it as a conversation
Here are some frustrating realities about gated content:
- People will give you whatever information they need to, to get the asset they’re interested in. That might mean a personal email address, which a lot of companies regard as unhelpful.
- It might also mean a fake email address, for which the workaround is to email your customer their asset. If you email their content, they have to give a valid email address, right? Unfortunately, the context switch required to fish your asset out of their inbox, when they were already in their web browser, makes it much less likely that they’ll look at it.
- Gated content isn’t indexed by search engines. That means people won’t find (or read!) a lot of your best stuff.
What if, instead of this adversarial model, visitors wanted you to have their personal information because they see you as delivering valuable information?
Why longer forms can have better conversion
Here’s an interesting article by VentureHarbor about a couple of cases where longer forms actually had better conversion rates. Why?
If you think about the form as part of a conversation, you’ll see how this could be true.
- Short forms may not be credible for some products or services. If you walked into a car dealership and a salesperson asked you a single question, would you think they were in a position to help you buy?
- If a user views information as necessary to get what they want – for example, they want to talk to you on the phone, and so you ask for their phone number – they’ll fill out the phone number field with accurate information.
- Forms can be fun! Try asking a user about their day, or what their favorite color is.
- A form can serve an important purpose for your user, which is to help them think through a process, or think about what they really want.
Also, don’t forget about an important hidden function of forms – maximizing conversion rate isn’t everything. You want to use your form to set the stage for an experience with your brand, and to disqualify prospects who aren’t a fit.
Really making it a conversation: live chat
Live chat can be helpful for lots of reasons. With that said, not every industry or website finds live chat effective, and not every visitor wants to engage in real-time. Experiment to see what works best for you.
Forms are important – there are lots of best practices out there. But instead, think of forms as a conversation, rather than a transaction. Motivate your prospects, and think about how the content leads logically, and naturally, to filling out the form.
Search experience optimization
May 23, 2020
Google is solving a hard problem – based on just a couple of words, it has to figure out what you’re looking for.
For simple, straightforward queries, like a stock quote or “how to wash a car”, it might be easy. But for something more complex and with less obvious intention, like “pie”, there’s much more guesswork to do. Are you looking for pictures of pie, information about what types of pies exist, baking instructions, or something else entirely?
Once Google has guessed what a searcher meant, it has to rank billions of pages by the likelihood that each page will be what the searcher is looking for. And there are lots of factors at play – with machine learning now part of the picture, arguably an infinite number!
To make this job as easy as possible for Google, make it easy for your searcher. Create pages that are easy to navigate, and easy to use.
Leave an information scent
We talk about information scent a lot. It’s an elegant metaphor for the process a user goes through to get closer and closer to the information they’re looking for, until they eventually find it. A strong information scent lets users feel confident that you’re about to provide them the information they’re looking for.
In search, your main opportunity to start a user on a trail is through the meta title and meta description. A compelling call to action and a clearly relevant page title in a search engine result provide a better experience for your user, and is likely to drive more traffic that something that’s auto-generated by your Wordpress instance. A clear title and description also help Google, of course, understand what your page is about.
Once users are on your site, they have to be able to find what they’re looking for easily. Your users like clear navigation – and so does Google.
We cover this more in our article about designing navigation for SEO, but generally, you’ll want to:
- Keep your navigation bar labels, page URLs, and page titles consistent. If you have a page comparing hydroelectric turbines and nuclear turbines, make sure the page title, page description, and URL reflect this. And, make sure every link that points to the page – especially the ones in your nav bar – use consistent anchor text describing the contents of the page.
- Include the most important pages in your site in the navigation. Because the navigation bar appears on every page, it’s a hint that Google will receive over and over again as to what content you consider the most worthy of visitors’ attention.
- Keep related information together. Keep your navigation lean, so that related information is grouped together on a single page—for example, have all your information on flanges appear together. You’ll be making the correct destination extremely clear for visitors, and for Google, too.
Be thoughtful about pages you take down
Navigation isn’t just about the content you have today. When you add a page to your site, you’re responsible for helping visitors to that page, even after you take it down.
If you stop selling a certain type of laserdisc caddy, redirect the visitor to something else that’s highly relevant to their query, such as your Laserdisc Caddy category page offering similar products. Better still, put a message on that page telling the visitor that the particular product they came in for isn’t available, but here are other suggestions they might like.
That’s a better experience for the user. And it tells Google that the new page is relevant for visitors to the old page, which helps it rank better in search results.
Make your site accessible to all visitors
Many of the things you can do to improve your site for Google will also make the experience better for human beings, and vice versa.
For example, you can provide a simple text representation of any image on your site (known as “alt”, or alternative, text). Adding this text is important for vision-impaired visitors so that their screen readers can parse the images you’ve added. But since Google’s bot can’t see what’s on your site, it also reads your alternative text and uses it as another clue to what the page is about.
An important lens for looking at SEO is the whole experience of searching for things on your site. Optimize for your visitor’s experience, and you’ll be optimizing for Google, too.
- Making your site accessible for everyone isn’t just the right thing to do – Google is one of your users.
- Providing a great experience even for people who land on content you’ve taken down.
- Make your navigation clear and useful, and Clear the path to the information your visitor is looking for.
How live chat can improve content performance
May 21, 2020
Live chat can’t directly affect your SEO and content performance, since it’s ephemeral and private, so Google has no way to index it. But it can indirectly help you in a huge number of ways.
The more time you spend with customers, the better. Data has a way of isolating marketers, but real live conversations can help fix that. That’s true for you as a marketer, and also for your customers, whose experience is often dramatically enriched by talking to an actual person.
Chat data informs keyword strategy. From a strategy perspective, questions that your customers ask are key inputs for building a keyword strategy. If you run a guitar shop and you get a few questions every week about “double-necked guitars”, be sure to at least evaluate “double-necked guitars” as a topic you might want your SEO strategy, and your content strategy, to deal with.
Ideas for new content and updates to existing content. Even if not every live chat phrase is strategic, chats with your customers are an important source of ideas for new content to write, or reasons to make existing content more prominent. Do you get asked frequently about whether you also sell ukuleles? If you do, consider adding more information about ukuleles to your navigation so visitors can find it themselves. Ask visitors whether your answers meet their needs, and for bonus points, tag prospects so that you can follow up with them when you publish new content that addresses their questions.
Objection handling in advance. Questions can also let you pre-address common misconceptions. If a visitor is interested in buying a cheap guitar for travel, ask them why – and take the opportunity to inform them that quality guitars last longer, and hold up better, when you’re traveling with them.
Insight into trends. What customers ask on your site gives you information about trends that might affect your business. In a couple weeks after a meme-worthy performance on a reality show, are you noticing more questions about keytars? Write a post explaining what these are and what to consider when buying, and send that out in your next newsletter to all of your early adopters.
Better experience is good for SEO. Most generally, better customer service and experience leads to more time on site, more backlinks, and more recommendations, which are key to SEO performance and to as many people seeing your content as possible.
Live chat is not particularly new, but it’s getting more and more popular. And experiences with human beings are still popular, and will continue to be. Using chat as a way to connect with visitors not only improves your site experience, but it can also give you a window into what your customers are thinking, which can increase the value and reach of your content.
What is the content stack?
May 17, 2020
Most people have heard of the idea of a “technology stack” – a set of technologies where each fills a specific role in getting something done.
A web development stack might have: A database, a backend language for things that happen on the server, and a frontend language that controls interaction with the user. A marketing technology stack might have: Email marketing software, CRM, web analytics, and a bunch of other stuff that all works together to run all of marketing.
People think about the “stack” as something technical – and the term does in fact have a technical origin – but all it means is a bunch of different solutions for smaller problems, working together to solve a larger problem.
We think that this “larger problem” exists for content marketers today – and so we like to talk about “the content stack”.
What’s the content stack?
There was a time that you could produce content, distribute it digitally, and know that in many cases, it would generate revenue for your business.
A reasonably good article might rank on Google, and draw someone to your site. And you might not have a lot of competition, so that visitor would probably be interested. Then some proportion of those visitors would reliably convert to leads that you could close.
Today, there’s a lot more competition than ever before – lots of other channels, lots of other content, and lots of other products.
Far more content is being produced, which means getting people to click on your article is harder. There are more channels, which means visitors are spending less time overall on any one channel. Once a visitor arrives on your site, you have very little time in which to convert them to a lead. And even once they’re a lead, odds are there are more products competing for the deal than there might have been a few years ago.
In the past, you could ask your content marketers to produce whatever seemed right, but today, that doesn’t solve those problems. Instead, you need a solution for the entire “content stack” – creating the right content, distributing it across all your channels, ensuring that visitors convert when they land. And of course there’s also strategy and analytics that underpin all of this.
Components of the content stack
Production: In some ways, this is the part of the content stack that’s most straightforward to solve. How do I convert my ideas about what to produce, into (generally written) content? This used to be enough, all by itself, but now it’s the foundation of a successful content performance strategy.
Distribution: Once your content has been produced, how do you get it into visitors’ hands? Organic search is an important channel to master, so as part of your content stack, you’ll need to consider whether your website is set up for SEO from an organization and technical perspective, whether your content is indexed efficiently, and so on. But there are so many other channels as well. For social, are you using the right hashtags? Do your reps know about their content, and can they easily distribute it to prospects? What about customer success? Email?
Conversion: If you can produce the content, and effectively distribute it, that’s important. But for new visitors, are they actually converting to leads? This is where landing page best practices, high-quality copy, and easy-to-use forms come into play.
Strategy: You’ll need a strategy that underpins all of this. We really like using search data as a general guide to what you should create – the data is public, it’s easy to use and verify, and it’s easy to understand. But you’ll also need to consider things like what’s relevant to your business right now, and where in the funnel you should focus.
Analysis: Rank tracking is important, and so are clicks. But ultimately you want to see, for each piece of content, how many conversions it led to, and ideally, what kind of revenue that generated. Other important pieces of data include form conversion rates over time, for example.
If you want your content to perform, you have to produce high-quality content that’s valuable to your customers. But there’s so much else to address to make sure that content reaches them, and generates revenue for your business. If you’d like to talk more – we’re happy to; reach out anytime.
How to set up your nav bar for the best SEO
May 4, 2020
The navigation bar is obviously a critical part of how people use your site – though it’s not the only way that visitors find things, it’s often the main way that new visitors find out about what you have to offer. Visitors use the navigation bar to:
- Understand your site, and what it’s about, in general
- Navigate directly to content they’re looking for
- Get information about your brand – the words you use, interaction style, and the general navigation bar design say a lot about who you are.
We’ll deal here with (1) and (2).
Navigation bars aren’t about SEO, or at least not in the way you think
We don’t recommend placing extremely heavy weight on SEO when designing and populating your navigation. Navigation bars serve a huge number of important functions, and SEO is a subset of those. But more importantly, usability is a cornerstone of good SEO – great usability means information is easy to find, which results in more backlinks, more popularity, and lower bounce rates.
So let’s talk about usability first. (And for a good list of general usability guidelines, see our usability audit.).
Navigation bar guidelines for usability – “information scent”
You may have heard about the concept of “information scent” – when a user is focused on a task, they’ll follow links that seem to head toward what they’re looking for.
The navigation bar has a vital role to play for these users. For most visitors to your site, it’s the first place they’ll look to start tracking down the specific information they’re looking for. There are a few things you can do to make that job easier for them.
Make the navigation bar easy to scan. Through design, layout, the items you choose, and how you categorize them, it should be easy for a visitor to look at the navigation and quickly find a promising link to click on. How many items you have doesn’t matter by itself, it’s really about how the menus are organized and laid out. Short menus with 5 - 7 items work well if they’re a text list, but a lot of evidence suggests that “Mega Menus” with dozens of items can work well too, if they’re built thoughtfully.
Guide users to the most helpful content. It’s true that users are likely to be actively searching for information on your site. But they want to – and will – put the minimum effort into this. Good navigation should help your users by anticipating what they want to click on – don’t give everything on your site equal weight under the assumption that the user will want to browse.
SEO considerations for navigation bars
Now that we’ve established what really matters, there are a couple considerations to keep in mind that are specific to SEO.
First, navigation bars tell Google what the most important content on your site is, because the pages in your navigation bar are, as a result of being in the navigation bar, linked from every page. This tells Google that you want visitors to go to those pages. Which, of course, you do. If you have general, broadly-applicable pages that you want to rank – you can consider putting these somewhere natural in the navigation. For example, have a “Learn” menu that links to guides or explainers.
Second, the labels you use in navigation bars send a strong signal to Google about what a particular page is about. Make sure these are consistent page content, URLs, etc. And make sure you have real content that supports the labels you’re giving these pages. (Our on-page audit template can help with that.)
- Usability is the key, even for SEO
- Make your nav bar easy to scan
- Guide your user to the pages they’re most likely to be interested in
- If you have great content that isn’t ranking, it’s OK to put a limited amount of this in the navigation bar – provided it’s general and helpful to most users
- Keep your navigation bar labels, page URLs, and page titles consistent, and make sure you have great content behind each nav bar item
Simplify, or your users will do it for you
March 1, 2020
We used to run a rotating carousel on the front page of our .com site. Rotating carousels are very useful for solving political disputes about who gets real estate on the front page, but not for much else.
One day I tested to see what percentage of clicks landed on each banner. The results were extremely unbalanced. Over 90% of clicks were on the first banner, then a few percent on the next, and a very small number on the third. Few visitors even saw past the first banner, much less the subsequent ones.
Users come to your site to perform a very specific task. (I suppose you might work at Amazon or something like that where someone could conceivably just be browsing, but for most sites, someone will be there do something in particular.). That includes searching for information.
They develop blindness to anything that isn’t on the way to completing that task. If it’s information, your users are following information scent. If it’s a specific action, they’re looking for whatever pieces they need to be get that task done. “Don’t make me think” is the advice, and it’s really good advice, because users need to be shown very specifically want to do in order to get what they want.
In doing so, what you’ve built and what users see are two completely different things.
For many of your users, the advanced features in your app just don’t exist, because they’re not relevant to the task at hand. Similarly, on your website, some of the calls to action and some of your copy just isn’t there, because it’s ignored or, in the case of banner blindness, not even seen in the first place.
And some of the best A/B testing results I’ve gotten have been the result of simplifying, to remove obstacles to what users are trying to do or learn:
Remove text from some onboarding emails, add bulleted lists instead of paragraphs where appropriate, and repeat the call to action: 30% increase in clicks
Change “Our software, hosted on the infrastructure of your choice” to “One-click setup”, and remove a diagram: 50% increase in clicks
Make the next step on a page sticky, so that it always occupies the same position in the sidebar even as the user scrolls down the article: 500% increase in clicks
Remove the menu bar from our landing pages: 20% increase in successful form completions
In example (2), we decided not to talk about a salient feature of the product. That’s OK. It didn’t exist for the user, anyway. They simplified it in their mind. We can re-introduce it later when it’s appropriate for the task at hand.
You have to simplify, or else your user will do it for you. The major risk in letting the user do the work is that they’ll simplify it wrong, because they don’t understand it. In simplifying, they may even end up with nothing.
Instead, do your user the service of removing anything that’s not completely necessary for the task at hand.
February 17, 2020
It’s easy to think that content is a one-time thing. You write a blog post, and it’s done. Or you create a whitepaper or give a webinar, and you’re done. But it’s much more accurate to think of your content as something you’re saying in an ongoing conversation.
That’s great, because it means that you can:
- Promote old content, including linking to it from your new content.
- Consider using old content as a template for your new content.
- Update what you have instead of creating something new.
It also means that you’re regularly auditing your old content to see if it’s still correct, relevant, and on-brand. And you’re updating calls to action on your old content so that they point to the most relevant current offers.
Of course, that’s what you should be doing with as much content as you can, starting with your best. But what about that page you created for an event that’s already passed, or a webinar that covers an old version of your software?
As usual, it’s all about intent. What was your visitor trying to achieve when they visited this page? How can you best help them achieve that, given the content you have, and given the resources if you have if you can’t update everything?
1) It’s a blog post or presentation relating to an earlier version of your product. Your visitor might be looking for something related to that version. So don’t just take it down. Leave it up, but add a banner pointing to new content.
2) It’s a listing for an event that has already passed. Maybe your visitor is looking for the content from that event; can you put a link to it on that page (or even better, add it directly to that page)? If not, they have some interest in attending an event, presumably. Can you 404 the page but tell the visitor where your upcoming events are?
3) It’s information that is not outdated, but is off-brand, or uses old messaging. It’s surprising that this page still comes up on search. Does it make sense to revise this page? If not, can you pick the page on your site that’s closest to that content, and forward the visitor there?
If all else fails, 404 it, but provide site search on your 404 page. 404s don’t hurt you in search. And track that information, since it can be a useful way of seeing what content visitors want that you don’t have.
February 17, 2015
Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave instructions for the battle.
The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful.
The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?”
Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.”
Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?”
Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me.
But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.”
– Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are