As web content professionals, we are inherently mindful of audience, messaging, voice and tone, editorial style, and readability. However, an element of web writing often not top-of-mind is findability.For many, findability is synonymous with SEO. Search Engine Optimization—getting more of the right traffic to our website through organic search engine results. But, is that our only findability goal?Once people arrive on our website, do they know where to go? How easy is it for people to find and use content on our website? Beyond answering users’ initial questions, what are the opportunities for them to discover content they didn't know to look for?
SEO is an important part of findability, but it's not the only part. Our content is more than a destination, it's also a helping hand—guiding people towards discovery and learning. Maybe that discovery is a product. Maybe it's an announcement or an event. Maybe it's an idea that shapes users' perceptions of who we are and why they should care.
Findability helps shape the web user experience. Beyond SEO, writers impact people's ability to find and use content by:
Let's explore these concepts a little bit and how they help user on their way.
Have you ever landed on a webpage with a header image that wasn't clearly related to the page topic? Or, clicked on a link and ended up somewhere unexpected? Or, told to "SUBSCRIBE!" before even knowing what the content is about?In these instances, content appears irrelevant because it seems out-of-place. There is something about the content and its relationship to the surrounding environment that makes it appear confusing or misleading. Sometimes this means content is not organized or grouped in a logical way. Sometimes this means content is published on Facebook, when the topic is intended for LinkedIn. Sometimes this means content is speaking to parents when it should be speaking to students.Content is made relevant by the context in which it's perceived. Writing for the web means considering not only what content our audience cares about, but also when, where and how they will interact with it. We need to understand user behavior.
To help establish context, consider:
Raise your hand if you've ever reminded someone, "It's on the website." Maybe, like me, you send them a link and say: "The info is at the top of the page." Sigh. If only people would read on the web.The truth is, people do read on the web—but, they only read what they care about. (Shocking, right?) If content doesn't appear relevant, they won't read it.
To imagine how people read on the web, consider your own reading behavior. When you open a magazine, do you read it straight from cover-to-cover? Or, do you first scan the headlines, look at images, read pull quotes and browse other page elements that pop-out on the page?
We can't expect people to start at the top and read to the bottom of our website—or even a single web page. For our content to be found, it must appear relevant at first glance.Scanning elements are your "introduction." This is the content people read first. This is where we need to communicate purpose and relevance.Here are some content elements that enhance scanning:
It's easy to overlook valuable information if it's hidden beneath a non-descriptive header, confusing link text, or irrelevant images—even if it's at the top of the page.
I hope someone reads this webpage and then leaves our site and forgets about it.
Said no author ever.If you define the purpose of a webpage, most likely it reflects an action by the user. Maybe you want the user to read and share a news article. Maybe you want them to review policy information. Maybe you want them to view a promotional video. Rarely, is the action nothing.
I hope this website only has a limited amount of information on the topic I'm interested in.
Said no web user ever.Our users also desire more. They want to discover valuable information (emphasis on valuable). They want to be introduced to something new if it's relevant and meaningful. These overlapping objectives by author and reader should be cherished—this is the mark of successful content.I work with a lot of universities, and I'm constantly amazed by the number of dead-end webpages I see—even landing pages. If you publish a news article and reference one of the amazing academic programs you offer, you enhance findability—and usability—by linking to it. Inline links are extremely valuable because they are contextually relevant to the current topic, they’re not irrelevant calls-to-action.No webpage should feel like a dead end. If a student is visiting a Career Service page, they are most likely looking for guidance. Respond by offering some "next steps" to help them on their way.
Great writing has always meant focusing on your audience to communicate clearly. Where the shift in thinking occurs for web writers is taking on the role of concierge. It’s not enough to simply publish useful content—to be valuable, content must also be findable. And that means thinking beyond the content on the page to consider how people experience that content. We need to provide good customer service.Viewing our content through the lens of findability, the real question we're asking ourselves is, “How can I help?”
Rick Allen has worked on the web his entire career to help shape communications and content strategy. Rick is co-founder of Meet Content, an online resource aiming to empower higher education to create and sustain web content that works. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc., a content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick partners with organisations big and small to drive and sustain bold goals.