How to Solve 5 Common Web Publishing Mistakes
Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a similar story for web sites. To be successful you have to get the basics right.
Web Publishing is not solely the domain of media companies anymore. Inbound marketing is becoming crucial for customer acquisition and retention. The ability to make engaging content that creates interest and informs consumers is becoming a core competency for an increasingly diverse group of companies in a variety of industries.
However, most web sites fail to attract a following. There is more involved than just producing content and putting it online.
Web sites are used, not just read. The easier you make it for people to navigate through your content, the more benefit and enjoyment they will get out of what you want to tell them. For any web site to be successful people need to be able to get what they want with a minimum of effort.
Fortunately, most of the common mistakes are easy to fix.
Mistake #1 Hiding Content: Users go to web sites to see great content. Unfortunately many web publishers do all that they can to hide it. One of the most common mistakes is to lead with a section name (i.e. Business: Huge Stock Market Rally).
Section names are useful for categorizing content internally and for navigation, but aren’t very interesting for readers. In fact, people tend not to see sections names unless they need them. They mostly use them to find their bearings after they get lost on a site.
If there is a stock market rally, readers will know it’s has something to do with business; if someone wins an Olympic Gold Medal, it doesn’t take a genius to know that it’s a sports story. Categories are much more important for publishers and editors than they are for readers.
Magazine Publishers understand this in print. Cover lines are enticing and get people to want to open up the publication. Once inside, a table of contents and section names help the reader navigate.
The top of any home page should be dedicated to showcasing content. Headlines need to be primary. Sections can be shown below the first screen, on the menu and, possibly, in a small gray font next to the headline.
People want to see something new when they go to your homepage, not that you have the same sections that were there the last time they visited. Sections have very little informational value. For more on the subject of revealing content, see here (points 6-8).
Mistake #2 Innovative Design and Internal Brands: For the most part, web site design should follow convention. For users to be able to navigate the web site, it’s useful to have familiar things in familiar places.
Again, magazine publishers understand this in print, but seem to get lost on the web. Magazines start with a table of contents and some short articles, the “feature well” makes up the middle, etc. People who read magazines are familiar with the basic format and know where to find what they want.
A related problem is the use of internal brands for navigation, such as calling a discussion area a “Café” or a sex advice section “Passion.” Using “original” names for navigation just makes it harder for your audience to enjoy your site. Navigation links are like road signs, they need to be descriptive.
There are many areas to innovate on a web site. Innovative functionality, original content and dynamic infographics are all excellent ways to make a site unique and interesting. However, unconventional design and navigation will most likely result in confusing your audience.
Mistake # 3 Ignoring Entry Points: While it is natural for web publishers to focus on the home page, more than 50% of the audience never sees it. If you want your site to be successful, you need to think about how people actually use it rather than how you wish they did.
There are many ways to land on a site, including search engines and external links. It is important to understand of how each article functions as a landing page. This is easy to research using conventional usability testing.
One effective strategy for creating entry points is to create short articles and reference pages that are very search engine friendly. Internal linking can maximize search engine visibility and draw audience to your site. While including basic information might not be sexy or exciting, it’s a great way to draw audience in.
Finally, it is a good idea to have parallel, consistent links in articles so users always know where they can go to find the next article. Related stories, recent stories and top stories for the day all work well.
Mistake #4 Over-linking: Offering links for users to find more content is essential to navigation and usability). However it’s often overdone. Links should be treated as if they were ads, good in moderation, but disastrous in excess.
Links are work; they require the user to make a choice. Finding great content is their reward and since someone put forward the effort to get to your page, there is no value in spoiling the experience for them.
The point of creating great content for your audience is so that they can enjoy it. Loading the page up with columns full of links inevitably reduces the space for reading and makes text harder to read. Moreover, it sends the wrong message: “Thanks for coming, now go somewhere else.”
Links should be limited to one column with three or four blocks of five links, not including utilities like search. This can be difficult in many blog templates, because there is limited functionality on the menu bar, but it still makes sense to minimize as much as you can.
Try to have as much reward for as little work as possible.
Mistake #5 Ignoring Semantics: The ability to create semantic metadata on the web is one of the great advantages over print publishing. Relationships can be created between different content written at different times for different purposes. (See The Semantic Web)
The New York Times takes semantic metadata very seriously and has developed a sophisticated tagging system based on the subject, place, organizations referred to and the author of the article. (See here for more about the New York Time tagging system.)
This allows them to create relationships between content that would be impossible otherwise. They have tagged literally millions of articles and photos, all of which users can potentially access from current stories.
While not every effort can be as developed and elaborate as The New York Times, every publisher needs to pay attention to relationships between content. Often, important relationships are not obvious when the article is written, so simply tagging what seems important at the time is not nearly enough.
One simple way to improve the semantics for your web site is to build reference pages for important topics and terms and then linking those pages to individual articles. This will create metadata automatically and it is easier to keep reference pages updated than to continually update your tagging system.
Bringing Digital Colonies to the Mainland
Perhaps the biggest mistake that conventional companies make online is to create “Digital Colonies.” It usually starts innocently enough. Senior management recognizes the need for a digital strategy, there is some reluctance among incumbent staff and new talent is sought out and hired.
The new digital group is then separated, either purposely or tacitly, from the core business processes. This inevitably leads to a digital effort that is irrelevant and unlikely to perform well.
Whether your company is publishing online as an extension of a core media business or as a marketing function, your web site needs to communicate effectively. To do that takes more than a few simple rules of thumb; you also need to have a message worth paying attention to.
A website that is separate and therefore irrelevant to your company is unlikely to have much meaning for anybody else.