De-clutter your website

Putting away winter clothes and getting out summer things makes me think, yet again, that I must get rid of some. Everything I don’t wear makes it harder to find the thing I want.

It’s the same with a website: every extra page or bit of information means work for you to manage and makes the site harder for users to navigate. So an annual de-cluttering is well worth the effort. Users will find what they want more easily and your site will be more effective.

Organisations that audit their websites often find that many of their pages are never visited. Many other pages are visited by people who don’t want to be there at all. They’ve been attracted by material that isn’t central to what the site offers and by words and phrases that are not specific to the site’s purpose.

In an article called “The accidental website visitor”, the web consultant Gerry McGovern says that, far from being an asset, these users are a liability to a website. Part of the solution is to reverse the search engine optimisation: remove general terms that are only vaguely related to the site’s purpose and use specific terms that exclude the accidental visitor.

Some organisations have discarded as much as 80% of the content of their websites and seen them improve dramatically. Users get what they want more quickly and are more likely to return. The organisation becomes more efficient when calls to customer services or the office are drastically reduced.

We are about to discard a whole section of the Clarity website. If you think we’re losing useful material, do let us know. However, if it’s not what you’re looking for, you almost certainly won’t notice.

Summly, summaries and blurbs

If anyone needed proof of the value of summarising, Yahoo’s purchase of Summly for millions of pounds is surely it.

Summly is an app, created by 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, that uses an algorithm to provide automatic summaries of news stories found on the web. Announcing the deal with Yahoo on Summly’s website, Nick D’Aloisio said

“As we move towards a more refined, liberated and intelligent mobile web, summaries will continue to help navigate through our ever expanding information universe.”

He developed the app to save time, having found searching the web on his mobile laborious. He was getting far more information than he needed as he revised for his history exam.

We all need summaries. Busy executives want a single page that gives them the main thrust of a long report. Web users want an idea of what’s in a site, a section or an article before plunging in. They don’t want to waste time reading things that aren’t relevant. Summaries or blurbs guide them through a site to what they want.

In our Clarity training courses, we cover summary writing and give people tips on how to do it. For example, select a single strong message and back it up with one or two telling facts. If you include too much detail, the reader won’t be able to take it all in.

Websites need style

Having a style guide is essential for a professional-looking website or publication. We at Clarity have written style guides for clients, usually big companies, but having one specially written is probably beyond the means of small and medium-sized businesses. For the rest of us, the best thing to do is to borrow someone else’s.

I recently came across the government’s digital style guide and thought it really good. After several months, it’s still in draft – alpha not even beta – which reinforces my view that compiling one’s own tends to be a never-ending task.

As well as the familiar advice about addressing the user as “you”, using simple language and avoiding awful phrases such as “delivering improvements”, it has helpful tips specific to websites, including search engine optimisation. For example, “Frontload keywords” in page titles: that’s web-speak for “put important words at the beginning”. The style guide gives the optimal length of a description meta tag, tells you how to code subheadings and so on.

Best of all I’ve seen so far is “This isn’t a dumping ground for information that doesn’t fit the other headings.” The phrase “dumping ground” is used more than once, recognising that too many websites are full of information that gets in the way of what users actually want. So “if you can’t find a place for it, don’t use it.” That’s good advice.

Accuracy matters

I came across this page: http://www.eusprig.org/horror-stories.htm the other day. It’s a long list of instances where mistakes caused by single keystrokes in spreadsheets have caused losses of millions of pounds or, in the case of the 2012 Olympics, the selling of 10,000 non-existent tickets.

For anyone who wasn’t already convinced, this shows it’s worth having someone check your figures. But is the same true of words?

We at Clarity naturally think it is. And there’s plenty of evidence that spelling mistakes can cost money. Online selling relies on the written word. Misspellings reduce users’ trust in a website and put customers off. One online retailer doubled its sales after identifying and correcting a spelling mistake.

For marketing via email, correct spelling matters too. With so many phishing emails out there, you have to convince consumers that your communication is genuine before they decide whether it’s something they’re interested in. If your marketing email raises too many red flags, your customer will never even see it because it will go straight to the ‘Junk’ folder.

For more guidance on how to write good marketing emails, check out about.com’s list of tips, tricks and secrets.

Good websites save time

I’ve just had an exchange of emails that started at the “Contact us” page on a company website. The website provided an enquiry form, I filled it in and got an email reply. I replied to their email and they replied to mine.

What’s the problem? The problem is that it was all unnecessary. The information I wanted could have been on the website. If it had been, I wouldn’t have needed to enquire and they wouldn’t have needed to reply.

The underlying problem is that too many organisations see their website as an opportunity to tell you what they want you to know, rather than what you in fact want to know.

In our web writing courses, I tell people that their websites exist to answer users’ questions. If they design and write their websites with that in mind, they save their companies time and money that is otherwise wasted in answering customers’ queries.

A beginner’s guide to search engine optimization

The world of the internet is ruled by search engines. Your writing might be lovely, but it’s a shame if nobody reads it. How do you ensure that you appear high up in the search engines’ results list?

Well, to put it simply, you can’t. The big search companies, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing, offer advertisements that make your site appear on the results page, but savvy searchers have grown wise to this and tend to ignore it, or else they’re using ad-blocking browser plugins. The big three have grown wise to SEO tactics from the 90s – some of the more fun ones being huge lists of words in a font the same colour as the background and link exchange programs – remember those?

Nowadays, it’s generally agreed amongst SEO types that you need to do a few key things:

1. Make sure each page on your site has a title and meta description and that they are accurate. Meta keywords are useful too, but there’s a lot of evidence that they’re ignored.

2. Have an XML sitemap that tells search engines how your site works. How? Sort one out for free at www.xml-sitemaps.com/

3. Use simple URLs, so if your page is all about cats, try to use a URL like: yoursite.com/cats

4. Offer something unique and useful. The higher the quality of your content, the more likely people are to return to your site and tell their friends about it. The more visits you get, the better you’ll do in search engine rankings.

5. Include words and phrases people commonly search for. If you sell toys for cats, assume people will search using simple terms, such as ‘cat toys’.

This really is just the tip of the iceberg. You can find a more extensive introduction at Google’s Webmaster Central blog in their SEO starter guide.

Don’t make me…

I am driven wild by websites that force you to do things you don’t want to or haven’t time to do. No wonder so many websites fail. You want to buy; they want to sell, but they don’t take the trouble to make it easy for you.

For example, I wanted to buy some sheet music. I went to the publishers’ website and was required to register in order to buy. Why? To make it more convenient, they said. Well, not for me, for one piece of music, and I don’t want to give my details to any more people than is absolutely necessary. Result: I went to another website that didn’t require registration and the publishers lost a sale.

My former car insurance company asked me to complete a questionnaire online. It’s my “former” car insurance company because it doubled my premium and I found a cheaper option. The questionnaire was well designed and easy to use, until it got to questions about my new policy. These questions would have required me to dig the new policy out of a drawer and had to be answered before I could move on to the next page. Result: either an aborted questionnaire or wrong information because I refused to spend time looking it up.

I wanted to buy a ticket for a short train journey from a small station near me in Oxfordshire. Yet again, the website required me to register, with not just an email address and password, but all sorts of contact details. I reluctantly filled in the form, only to discover at the next stage that I couldn’t buy the ticket online anyway because the station didn’t have a ticket-dispensing machine. Result: a total waste of time.

What has all this to do with writing? Good writing is writing that considers its readers. It doesn’t waste their time; it makes life easy for them. Websites that are primarily interested in what suits their marketing departments, or can’t be bothered to think what life is like for their users, deserve to fail. Considerate websites offer users the option to do what suits them and are likely to be more successful.

If you’d like evidence of how much websites may be losing by making people register, have a look at Jared Spool’s article The $300 million button.

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Clarity trumps persuasion

Not Persuasion with a capital P. I’m not suggesting we could outdo Jane Austen, but that headline did lift my spirits. It’s the conclusion of some research into what makes a good website, carried out by marketingexperiments.com and reported by Gerry McGovern in one of his weekly newsletters.

The researchers found that it was more important to be clear than to try too hard to sell whatever it is your website is offering. Specifically, it is vital to answer three questions that users will ask when they visit your website: Where am I?, What can I do here? and Why should I do it?

In other words, your site must be easy to navigate and make clear what people can get from it.

In marketing terms, it means quantifying your value proposition. Don’t say what you offer is “best”, “amazing”, “wonderful”. Tell them how much better it is than its rivals, in what way it is amazing and what it does that makes it wonderful.

People are liable to be turned off by vague hyperbole. By being clear and specific, marketingexperiments.com’s research found, you may greatly increase the effectiveness of your website.