The ten “Cs” of really great web content

This post is for non-technical people who manage web content. The 10 Cs of great content will help keep your site looking good, functioning well, and satisfying your visitors.

no1#1: Clear

Be sure your site’s navigation is easy to follow and content is well organized and easy to find. Survey after survey show what people want most from websites is quick access to information. “Web users are getting more ruthless and selfish when they go online, reveals research… Instead of dawdling on websites many users want simply to reach a site quickly, complete a task and leave,” according to web guru Jacob Nielsen, as reported by the BBC.

So how can you give these ruthless web surfers what they want?

  • Simple, clear navigation that is consistent throughout your site. Never move navigation around from page to page.
  • Strive for a navigation system that allows users to go from any page in your site to any other page in as few clicks as possible (one, hopefully).
  • Always name your navigation buttons and links with the clearest, most direct language possible. Navigation is not the place to be clever.
  • Mark the subject of pages and text with clear headlines and subheads. Don’t keep people guessing about what the content is about.
  • Employ every means possible to help visitors find the content they are looking for as quickly and easily as possible, including a good site search feature and a site map page.

no2#2: Concise

The famous quote, “If I had more time, I would have written less,” is attributed to Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal, among others. Whoever said it, the point is clear — it takes time to edit copy to the essentials and improve the quality of the communication. As a rule people do not read web pages as thoroughly as they read printed materials — they scan. Because of that, you must write for the web in scannable blocks.

  • Break up blocks of text more frequently online than in print, using headlines and subheads.
  • Don’t cover more than one topic in a paragraph.
  • Change paragraphs into numbered or bulleted lists to help readers scan text quickly.
  • Break up text with graphics.
  • Use photos and illustrations with brief captions, rather then large blocks of text.

no3#3: Clean

Clutter is the enemy. To give people what they want — quick access to the information they are seeking, which means they want to cut through the clutter. That means you need to cut out the clutter. Look at every page on your website. Are there extraneous elements? Delete them. Is there unnecessary text? Edit it. Are there more images than are needed? Out with them. Every page should have one theme, and everything on that page should support it. If it doesn’t it should go.

no4#4: Cohesive

Websites should follow the tenants of good graphic design. Page templates, text styles, design elements like photography and illustrations, color palettes, and all other content should be handled consistently throughout the site.

  • Don’t use more than one or two font families site-wide.
  • Keep headline, subhead and body copy text sizes uniform on each page and from page to page.
  • Develop a color palette and stick with it.
  • Use the same photography or illustration style throughout your site.
  • Make sure all pages follow consistent templates.
  • Place navigation consistently, as explained in C1.

no5#5: Complete

Yes, it’s very important to cut the fat from your website. But there is always a danger of cutting too deep, or in some other way failing to deliver the content your site visitors are looking for. The most obvious are things that are literally missing: missing images, missing text, missing pages. But how do you get beyond the obviously missing content? Well it’s tough to know what your audience is looking for without asking them.

  • Add comments forms on appropriate pages on your site to gather visitor input. Ask them what they were looking for and whether your website delivered.
  • Survey your site visitors. What better way to know what they want than to ask them. There are several good, inexpensive (even free) online survey tools. Use one to send a survey to emails you gather from subscribers or customers on your site (be sure they have opted in to such emails, however).

Conduct hands-on testing with your target audience. This is called usability testing, and can be done formally by professional usability testing experts, or informally by you. Formal, comprehensive usability testing uncovers much more than just missing, unclear or superfluous content, it tells you if your site navigation is effective, and if all the bells and whistles on your site are working for people the way you want them to. Such testing gives you rich information on the experience web surfers have upon visiting your site. Even though functionality is tested, content is still often a main focus of usability testing, since content is what matters!

Hiring a professional research firm can be expensive, and it may be a waste of time and money. As an alterative, you can conduct your own informal usability testing. According to web guru Jakob Nielsen, you only need five people to test your site. After you find five people representative of your target audience, follow the guidelines in this post on usability testing.

no6#6: Call to Action

You must be sure it is unmistakably obvious what you want the readers to do, and them tell them to do it. A call to action (CTA) has long been touted as the one absolute necessity in any marketing communication or advertising message. It is even more important online to be sure you make it clear what you want your audience to do.

  • If you want them to call you, place your phone number prominently on every page.
  • If you want them to place an order, create a button that say “Order Now.” Buttons are proven to get more clicks than text links when you want online users to take action.
  • If you want them to fill out a form, ask the to please do it now.

You should always give your site visitor a clear idea of what will happen next if they take the action you are requesting. For example, next to a “Order Now” button you should say either, “You will have an opportunity to review order details before submitting,” or, “Order will be placed when you click this button.” Put yourself in the visitor’s shoes and let them know what’s coming — if you keep them guessing they may fail to act altogether.

no7#7: Clickable

Amazingly, there are websites that actually hide the existence of hyperlinks in text simply because of the text formatting used. Don’t format your text links to be exactly the same style and color as regular text, so that the visitor must roll over the link for the underscore or hover color to show. This breaks our rule number C1: be clear, don’t keep them guessing.

  • Make sure text links are a different style from plain text so it is blatantly obvious that they are links.
  • Use either a different color or an underscore or both to indicate a link.
  • Be sure that links to other websites open in new browser windows. And to meet W3C accessibility guidelines, such links should warn the user that a new window will open.

When your site visitors click a link, make sure it goes somewhere! When you link to another website you have no idea when that site will reorganize or just go away altogether. That’s just one of the reasons that all links that take visitors off your site should be set to open in a new browser window. Worse yet is links between pages within your own site that are broken. To be certain you don’t have dead links:

  • Run a link check routine as part of your regular content review (described in content mistake #1). Your CMS or web authoring software may have a link checker built in.
  • Or, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has a simple online link-checking tool.

no8#8: Clever

How important are search engines to the success of your website? Depending on the nature of your site, it is probable that from 50% to upwards of 80% of the traffic arrives at your site via a search engine. Understanding how search engines rank your site in search results will allow you to be clever when you prepare your content, so they rank you higher all the time.

There is an enormous amount of information about SEO (search engine optimization), and all website content managers should study up! Most SEO is common sense, and basis of any good SEO program is the right content.

You should analyze your site’s traffic so you know where visitors are coming from and what keywords they have searched for when they arrive at your site. Those are essential clues for you to prepare compelling, sticky content that will keep your visitors happy and keep them coming back for more. Your site probably has some type of traffic analysis tool like Webtrends or Omniture. If you don’t have a good traffic analysis tool, install Google Analytics, it’s free! Then regularly review the results and continually enhance your content so it is optimized for the keywords for which you want to rank high in search results.

no9#9: Compatible

Your site’s content must display properly and consistently in all major web browsers. This is a BIG one. Building and maintaining websites can be a messy business. Unfortunately your site visitors are using a broad variety of web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, etc.) including the old and new versions of those browsers and different operating systems (Windows and Mac). The worst part is that all these browser and OS combinations seem to want to display your web pages differently. On top of that you don’t have any control over how the user sets up his system, fonts, etc. Plus everyone has a different size monitor.

Yikes, what’s a webmaster to do? Here’s what:

  • Don’t assume if your site looks good in all browsers, you simply must test it.
  • Set the standards you want to meet: the browser, OS and screen size specs for which you want your website to look good. I recommend at minimum the latest version, plus one or two versions back, of: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome.
  • Design for a 1024 x 768 screen size.
  • The only way to make sure your site looks good and functions properly is to set up a Windows PC and a Mac with the browsers for which you have decided to optimize. Then, go through your site page by page and look at it, test the links, test and submit any forms, etc.
  • To test many different browsers, use an online tool like Cross Browser Testing.

no10#10: Compliant

Is your content is accessible to disabled web visitors according to W3C guidelines? Did you know that in 1998 Target settled a class action suit brought by the National Federation for the Blind, and the result was not only forced to fix its website to make it accessible the disabled, it also paid over $6 million for claimants, plus undisclosed attorney fees. Clearly if you are a high-profile national brand you must pay attention. There are many blind, visually impaired, hearing impaired, and people with other disabilities who use screen readers and other aids to surf the web. We should strive to make our content accessible to them.

Most compliance issues are technical and are dealt with when your site’s navigation and page structure are initially designed. But some accessibility issues must be addressed every time content is added or edited on your site, even if the site is already W3C compliant :

  • When images are added, alt tags must be included. An alt tag is an alternative text description that makes it possible for visually-impaired web visitors using screen readers to understand the content of images. Alt tags also help with search engine optimization by increasing keywords for the actual content on your web pages. You CMS should provide a way to add an alt tag for every image on your site.
  • Links that open new browser windows or that leave your site should include a description to that effect. For example, hover over this link and note the description that appears.
  • Other types of content, video for example, presents more difficult challenges from a compliance standpoint. Your organization should formulate a policy as to which of the W3C guidelines you will meet, and then implement content strategies accordingly.

Is it time to review your website’s content?

It’s possible that just during the time you spent reading this article, something on your site has gone out of date. Better check it out!

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