About those changes…

… they definitely happened, just not on the blog.

In the last couple of months, I’ve continued to expand my contract content strategy/web writing work, changed my professional work, and continued to figure out how to be a dad. But you know, other than that… not too much going on.

The biggest change is that I joined Volusion as a Sr. Content Strategist! I’ve been there for 2 weeks, and I’ve already started to feel more comfortable wearing the official “Content Strategy” hat. I’ve been doing most of these things for years, but never with the gravitas of having the actual CS title attached to my name. That and the fact that my team actually believes in it, understands it (as much as any of us do) and is as excited about having a content strategist on their team as I am to be there.

So with that, my contract work will likely take a backseat for a while (and this blog will likely remain in the trunk). But as I get more settled in, I think it’ll actually give me more time to write here, and certainly a lot more fodder for the blog mill.

In other news, I’m currently writing this post at #BlogathonATX. This is why I love Austin.

Content Strategy in the Wild: Labels, Design & User Expectations

A recycling bin at Austin-Bergstrom Airport.

I’m returning from a long hiatus with a new bit I call “Content Strategy in the Wild.” These posts will apply real-life examples of strategy, design and usability to our work on the web. The first one comes from a photo I took a few months ago at Austin-Bergstrom Airport.

At first glance, the design of this recycling bin is pretty straightforward.

  • The traditional green and blue colors communicate that this is a recycling bin long before you are close enough to read the print.
  • When you do get close enough, the labels clearly explain the types of materials you can recycle at this particular location.
  • The 50/50 split between green and blue help users separate the materials between paper materials and plastic or cans.
  • The specially shaped openings further reinforce this division—only flat paper materials can fit through one opening, while round cans and bottles easily fit through the other.

So far, so good.

A Quick Usability Test

But now imagine you’re eating a quick lunch at the gate before your flight. It’s almost time to board, so you look around for a trashcan. This is what you see:

Clear labels and design tell me exactly what I need to know.

The big “RECYCLE” logo is clearly visible on the side, and you think, “Yes, I should recycle this instead of throwing it in the trash.”

Above that, it clearly states “Plastic Bottles & Cans.” So you get up and take your plastic bottle over to recycle.

As you get closer, you notice the bin is clearly divided into two sections, so your bottle must go in the blue section on the left.

Now, directly in front of the bin, you reach to put your bottle in the blue section, labeled “Plastic Bottles & Cans,” but the opening is the wrong shape.

The labels are switched on the top of the bin.

Upon closer examination, you realize the blue section is now labeled “Newspaper & Magazines Only,” with a slotted opening for paper products. The “Plastic Bottles & Cans” go in the round opening to the right, clearly labeled and colored green.

What Happened?

There’s a conflict between the expectations this design sets for users and the ultimate actions they are expected to take.

A recycling bin at Austin-Bergstrom Airport.

Now I realize this is a very minor inconvenience. It took approximately 1 millisecond to recognize what happened and move my arm 6 inches to the right. Obviously I’m not going to be so confused by this design that I just drop everything in the floor.

But it was bad enough that I noticed, and that goes completely against the point of the design.

The best designs go almost completely unnoticed. Clear labels, colors and design cues can make usability so natural that people don’t even realize they doing what the designer intended.

If the labels on the front of the bin matched those on the top, I would have walked up, thrown my bottle into the green section and gone back to my seat, without ever noticing how or why it worked.

So What Does This Have to Do with UX or Content Strategy?

Online, it’s not as easy to recognize where you are when you’re lost, and confused users are just as likely to leave as they are to hunt around on your site. Here’s how these lessons apply to your site:

Content Structure
This design started with the right intentions. Instead of throwing everything into a single bin that would need to be sorted later, the structure, colors and messaging create a clear line between recycling paper and recycling bottles/cans.

If your site serves more than one function, don’t muddle it all together, or you can confuse your users and cause more trouble for yourself down the line.

Labeling
Think of the labels on the front of the bin as your main navigation labels. Do people have a clear idea of where they will go if they click on that link?

In this case, I thought I had a clear idea of where I was going—the blue section for plastic bottles. But that turned out to be wrong. Make sure you’re not misleading your users with vague titles, unclear SEO keywords or blatantly wrong labels.

Design Cues
In the case of this bin, the traditional colors and standard recycling logo make this bin immediately recognizable, while the clear delineation of green and blue gives me a hint that there may be two different sections.

How does this compare to the overall design style of your site? Do your design elements create a recognizable identity from the beginning to the end? If there are obvious distinctions in content, are they reinforced by obvious distinctions in the design? (For example, if your site has an educational area and a transactional area, can your users easily tell the difference between them?)

Calls to Action
Think of the openings in the top of the bin as your calls to action. Is it easy for your users to understand what you want them to do? More importantly, does it align with what they wanted to do in the first place? If you and your users aren’t on the same page, it doesn’t matter how easy you make it for them—they’re not going to do it.

User Expectations
Ultimately, this all comes back to anticipating, understanding and meeting user expectations.

In this case, the airport anticipated my needs for a recycling bin and they understood that I would react to the colors, labels and design to put my bottle in the right place. And in the end, it wasn’t a seamless transaction, but we both achieved our goals—I just had to look around for a second.

But online, it’s just as easy to click the back button or close the tab as it is to keep looking around, so make your site as user-friendly as possible.

In Defense of Snake Oil

I’ve been thinking a lot about SEO recently.

Working on several large websites and balancing new content with existing strategies from external SEO consultants, I’ve grown more and more frustrated with the lack of attention to actual user needs.

As a proponent of content strategy (and as an unapologetic English Literature and Creative Writing major), I’ve always had issues with SEO tactics that sacrifice good writing for higher rankings.

In her new book Clout and the fantastic article “Make Your Content Make a Difference,” Colleen Jones uses the term “SEO Snake Oil” to describe the dubious, exaggerated and outright deceptive practices found all too often in web writing today.

There’s only one problem with that term, from my perspective. We’ve given Snake Oil bad name.

A Little Historical Context

It turns out, oil made from the Chinese Water Snake is extremely high in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a natural compound commonly used to treat joint pain and arthritis. Chinese laborers brought Snake Oil to America while working on the Transcontinental Railroad. As they shared it with their fellow workers, it became a popular commodity, but importing it from China was too expensive.

Fortunately, since most people who made their way out West during this time were enterprising businesspeople, there was no shortage of entrepreneurs willing to step up and fill the market’s needs.

Some may have had medical backgrounds and might have even believed they were creating a product that would benefit their customers. But they could have no way of knowing that North American snake oil had significantly lower levels of EPA, providing little or no medicinal properties.

Others weren’t so innocent. In fact, their products were so unsuccessful and their sales practices so amazingly bad that they actually turned their product into a derogatory term for the entire business, then for any business or offer that seemed too good to be true.

From the ever-prescient Wikipedia:

The “snake oil peddler” became a stock character in Western movies: a travelling “doctor” with dubious credentials, selling some medicine (such as snake oil) with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence, typically bogus.

At best, these products were harmless and provided no actual benefit to their users. Some did provide actual results, but through the use of dangerous or toxic ingredients (including opium, cocaine, alcohol and nerve agents!).

What began as something that allegedly worked, but couldn’t really be explained with exact science, became a haven for shady businessmen and con artists of all stripes.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Losing Faith in SEO

Many legitimate SEO practitioners face a similar challenge. They can’t explain exactly how their processes work, or give precise success rates. But this is an honest response to the ever changing proprietary algorithms and philosophies of Google, Yahoo and Bing. But it sounds shady.

When people realized there was money to be made, SEO was infiltrated by amateurs, hucksters and snake oil peddlers who promise fast results with little effort. And many of them succeed in achieving higher rankings, but often to the long-term detriment of their customers.

Like the dangerous active ingredients in many patent medicines, black hat SEO tactics work in the short term, but sites risk tumbling out of the rankings as search developers refine their algorithms. Think of the long-overdue update to Google’s algorithm that punishes link farms and content aggregators.

Anyone who works in search engine optimization, marketing or other search-related fields has to accept their association with these “SEO Snake Oil” salesmen. No matter how honest or serious your work, the industry has been branded a hoax.

But there is one practice that never gets punished by the search engines–creating genuinely valuable, informative content that users enjoy reading and sharing.

Rescuing Our Work from the Snake Oil Peddlers

Maybe it’s naive, but I always approached SEO with the faith that search engine developers were constantly working towards an ideal “human-ness.” That whenever I search, their goal is to identify the content that I would choose if I could read and memorize the entire internet at any given time.

Over the years, this philosophy has led to heated discussions with internal SEO specialists and outside consultants. When it comes time to choose between keyword density and user-friendliness, I’ve always chosen the latter. What good is content that ranks well but puts off any potential customer that finds it?

As Colleen Jones writes “we should stop defining ourselves by the discovery medium and focus on the content itself.”

The most important element of good SEO is good content. Sure, it’s important to include relevant keywords, contextual links and other SEO-friendly features–not because they’re good for SEO, but because they’re good for users. (That’s why search algorithms account for them in the first place.)

Keywords serve as a sort of “filing system” for us to tell search engines and users what our content is about. As content becomes more flexible, or “orbital,” keywords become more important to that content’s flexibility and usability.  But they also become more personal, more human.

Instead of stuffing countless related terms into a piece of content in hopes of catching a few long-tail searches, we’re moving back to categories, taxonomies and hierarchies–filing systems–that help our users find and organize the content that’s most meaningful to them. Or in the case of orbital content, social search and CMS’s, helping our content find them.

And if that approach benefits our search engine rankings, so much the better–for us and for search engines. If it helps our users find and share quality content, then it will very quickly help search engines do the same–especially as they adjust their algorithms to include more human or human-like content assessments.

Used correctly, this new-meets-old-meets-new approach will help reduce the prominence and effectiveness of “SEO Snake Oil” practices. It will help users find the content they need and avoid the content they don’t.

And that’s been everyone’s goal all along, hasn’t it?

 

Content Strategist: Bad Mother F…

This isn’t so much a response (and it’s definitely not a review) of Erin Kissane’s excellent new A Book Apart No. 3, The Elements of Content Strategy. It’s really more of a randomly inspired rant.

Image courtesy of http://pulpfictionbmfwallet.com/

I just finished the book, and will hopefully be writing a better response soon, but one line stuck with me early, and I couldn’t resist:

…many sites are still built around internal org charts, clogged with mission statements designed for internal use, and beset by jargon and proprietary names for common ideas. (pg. 9)

First, let me say, “Amen.”

Second, spending my formative teenage years in the 90s, I can’t hear the word “beset” without picturing Samuel L. Jackson packing a very large .45

So without further ado, I give you:

 

Content Strategist: Bad Mother F

The path of the righteous reader is beset on all sides
by the inequities of weak messages
and the tyranny of proprietary names for common ideas.

Blessed is he who in the name of clarity and good content
shepherds your readers through the valley of jargon,
for he is truly his client’s keeper and the finder of lost users.

And I will strike down upon thee
with great relevance and furious usability
those who attempt to bore and deceive my readers.

And you will know I am the content strategist
when I lay my spreadsheets upon thee.

 

That’s all.

You may now return to your thoughtful, meaningful discussions of content, curation and governance. I’ll just be over here quoting movies to myself and laughing for no reason.

How to Carve an Elephant

Continuing on my joke theme, the title of this post is based on another long-time favorite:

“How do you carve an elephant?”
“Start with a block of stone, and cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

The challenge in writing an effective ad or web page isn’t in figuring out what to say, it’s in figuring out what not to say. One of the hardest parts for clients and managers to understanding is that it’s okay to narrow your focus onto one specific audience or offer. Sure, it’ll miss for some audiences. But it’ll be a direct hit for others. You can’t say all things to all people, and you can always hit that other audience next time.

That’s why it’s important to define the audience and the goal at the very beginning.
And that’s where the joke comes in.

You don’t have to know exactly what your elephant is going to look like before you start, but you have to know you’re carving an elephant. Then, relentlessly cut away anything that doesn’t get you to that goal.

Now, there is a line here. Cut out anything extraneous, but not so much that you lose the actual point of your content. More Picasso than Rothko.

But it’s easy to know how much to write or how much to cut when you have a defined audience and a clear goal. Go in without that, and you’ll get exactly what you planned for. Nothing.

Postscript:

I decided to take my own shot at this topic after reading a few great posts in the last couple of weeks, like this one from Brain Traffic and another from Copyblogger.