There is a lot that goes into developing good content for websites, and there are a lot of schools of thought into how to develop text that is "just right" for search engines and customers alike. We've heard all the arguments about content before. "People don't read, they just look at the pretty pictures." "Lots of text is needed for SEO." "Not everybody skims text, some like to read word for word." "Not everybody reads word for word, some like to skim and scan."
On the surface these appear to be quite contradictory points, but they are not. In fact, each is valid in its own way, but none of them negate the reasons for writing good content for each page of your website. For the sake of argument, lets say that there are three types of people surfing the web: those who read page content word for word (mostly), and those who skim read (mostly) and those who avoid words (mostly).
I say "mostly" in each of those simply because nobody does it any one way all the time. Readers will often skim past sections that don't interest them. Skimmers will skim until they find the details they are looking for and then read a bit before skimming on. Non-readers actually do have to read in order to navigate and will, at some point, settle down to read something in order to make sure they are buying the right product.
So the question is, how do you build a web page that satisfies each of these three types? It's really not as difficult as it sounds. I'll break down each of these types using the example of an online DVD store.
Non-readers don't have much use for lengthy text. They navigate by looking at pictures and links, until they find what they are looking for. Most DVD shoppers probably fall in this category (which is why I used this example). These shoppers likely are not browsing to discover what DVD they want to buy because they already know. They don't need to read a synopsis of the movie plot, who stars in it, or even how or why it was rated (by the MPAA or users) because they likely have already seen it. For these shoppers, the cover art is just about all they need. To find the movie they want they simply navigate to or search for the movie they seek, and when they find it, look at the price and perhaps the shipping options and they are all set.
For these types, words get in the way. But that doesn't mean you can't have words on the pages of your site. In fact, so long as the words are not obtrusive and preventative to their search and navigation experience, these non-readers will simply blow right past it all. It's inconsequential to them. But what we learn here is that having words on the page is not a problem whatsoever, provided that the wordage doesn't overpower and prevent their shopping experience.
Readers read almost every word on a page. They want to know about the product and know they are making the right decisions on their purchase. In our DVD store, the readers are likely those who are buying a movie that they have never seen before, most likely as a gift to someone. In this case, it's important for them to glean as much information in the shopping process as possible, because they need to make sure they are buying the right gift.
It's likely that these shoppers don't buy DVDs much. They need to know about the company, read up on shipping and return policies, and will be looking for anything that might make them feel uneasy about any particular store. To drive these visitors to the sale, text is an important part of the process. From the home page through the categories, all the way down to the actual product page, where they will read synopsis info and customer reviews.
Text does not need to be lengthy but it does need to be informative. These shoppers need to know what separates a Sci-fi from a Fantasy flick, an action movie from an adventure story, a horror from a psychological thriller. To some, these are very subtle distinctions, to others they are a world of difference. To the unknowledgeable it's the content that will make all the difference, guiding them through these distinctions and helping them narrow down their selections.
The skimmers are often the most overlooked in the writing process. These people fall right between the non-readers and the readers. They don't really read the content, but they do look to it to provide quick visual cues that help them find the product and information they are looking for. They are often just as ignorant about the product as the readers, but reading word for word isn't their style so they don't. This is why it's important to make your text skimmable, so these non-reading readers can get a "sense" of the content without having to dive in word for word.
Our DVD shopping skimmers are most interested in knowing what category they are looking through and look for any visual cues (pictures and text) that will easily assure them this is the category that has the type of movie they are looking for. They'll also skim through customer reviews, reading a few sentence of each along with the customer rating. They may read some in their entirety if they find it interesting.
For skimmers, as for readers, it's still just as important to make your text compelling to read. But even more important, is to put that compelling text in the right places where it will be noticed by the skimmers. Put your most important (most visually arresting and compelling) verbiage in the first sentence of any paragraph. Don't bury it in the middle, otherwise it will be lost completely. Use headings that draw interest but are also quick to read at a glance. If it's too long, it's just part of the unread word-jumble the skimmer sees. You can also use bulleted lists and short bolded sentences to draw the skimmers eye to important information. Writing for skimmers is really more about formatting and word placement, doing all of this so the information can be gleaned by a mere glance.
Can good content be added to any or all pages unobtrusively, while still being available to those who want it? Absolutely. You just might have to be a little creative. Think of how best to add content to your design in a way that is visually appealing, without being a hindrance to the non-readers.
We've heard it said that text is important. And for SEO it is... just as it is also important to two of the three types of shoppers working their way through the sales process. To the third type, the non-reader, text is almost entirely inconsequential. But it doesn't have to be a stumbling block either, provided it is implemented in a way that doesn't interfere. And that is the real trick to any kind of marketing, having the right pieces, in the right places, in the right way. There is no concrete answer how to do this and text implementation can and should vary from site to site. But don't for a second think that you don't need it. You do.
I chose to use the example of an online DVD store because that struck me as the type of site that most people could easily make an argument for little or no textual content (with the exception of the final synopsis) being necessary. But through that example, I've proven that the text can be an important contribution to the sales process as the shopper drills down through the site. These principles can be applied to any product site. The amount of text needed at any given point may vary, but the need for text won't.
Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.
If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.
Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.
Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.
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