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What is the content stack?

May 17, 2020
📓 Article

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.

Conclusion

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
📓 Article

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:

  1. Understand your site, and what it’s about, in general
  2. Navigate directly to content they’re looking for
  3. 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).

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.).

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.)

Conclusion

  • 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
📓 Article

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.

Content expiration

February 17, 2020
📓 Article

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.

Young warrior

February 17, 2015
📓 Article

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