On the Web, content is king. Or should be. If you want people to visit, stick around, and come back, whether you help run a corporate or other organizational site or have put together a home-grown hobby site, give them substance to satisfy them.
The appearance of your Web site is still important, helping to establish professionalism and credibility. But the information and other substantive material you provide -- the "content" -- matter most.
Several studies have backed up this commonsense notion.
One study, from the Poynter Institute and Stanford University, showed that, unlike with newspapers and magazines, people who read Web news sites typically focus on the text first, looking at photos and other graphics afterward. People on the Internet operate in "Internet time" -- fast. They don't linger over Web pages as they would a newspaper or magazine when drinking a cup of coffee.
Another study, by Forrester Research, showed that what people value most at a Web site is "direct paths to the content I am looking for." Next was "proper labeling of menu items." After this, people most valued "great search."
People reading Web sites, for the most part, seek substance over style, usefulness over flash. They want to get want they want quickly. Here are some ways to make this happen:
- People should know almost immediately upon accessing your site why they should stick around, what's in it for them. Instead of relying strictly on fancy graphics and animations, which often just slow visitors down, you should use meaningful headlines, subheads, and menus and other links. Headlines, links, and similar labeling text are better when clear than merely clever.
- Make background information about yourself or your organization available from the home page, if appropriate. Discerning readers will look for this to help determine the authority and legitimacy of your content. If you include advertising, separate it from the informational content to avoid compromising your objectivity.
- If your site consists of more than a few pages, provide a site map or index that displays all the interior links for those who want to get their bearings from the outset. Providing navigational buttons to the site's major sections at the bottom or edge of internal pages helps people stay oriented. An internal search engine lets them home in on just what they're after from the get-go.
- It's usually better to keep text brief. Break up long passages into multiple pages. Many people don't scroll down Web pages, focusing instead on the first screen of text. If your text is longer than one screen, use the inverted pyramid style of newspaper writing, putting your most important information first and later elaborating.
- Tell the whole story. The Web makes in-depth elaboration possible by having fewer space restrictions than any other medium. People may feel cheated if you leave out important information.
- Text should be accurate, complete, and interesting. Check for spelling and grammatical errors, broken links, and other mistakes that can undermine your credibility.
- Include a "Last updated" or similar message. If you're not finished with a page or section, don't link to it and apologize with an "Under Construction" sign. It's far better to link to pages after you've completed them, preventing frustration when readers click for content they can't access.
- Resist the temptation to swipe content you see elsewhere and repurpose it for your site, whether it's text, photos, illustrations, music or video. Get permission. This is especially important if your site is a commercial one, to reduce the likelihood of lawsuits. For tips on getting permission and dealing with the licensing fees sometimes involved, check out Richard Stim's "
Getting Permission to Publish: Ten Tips for Webmasters." To make it easier for other sites to license your content, you can partner with an online copyright clearinghouse such as iCopyright.com.
- If you don't have the time or talent in-house to create content, you can farm the job out to a freelance writer, independent site developer, Web design shop, technology consulting firm, interactive agency, or conventional advertising or public relations agency.
- Another option is contracting with an online syndication service such as YellowBrix. Among other things, this service provides continually updated news and business information categorized by industry that you can have automatically delivered to your site.
- Finally, periodically reevaluate the quality of your content. Make sure the information is still current, accurate and complete. Test links, both internal and external, to ensure they're still working.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.