Content & The Editorial Workroom: How to Begin Tracking Your Content

No Content Strategy? Try These 3 Things to Start Moving in the Right Direction.

Raise your hand if you have no content strategy.

Raise your hand if you have a partial content strategy (in the clouds around your head, somewhere…).

Raise your hand if you are a genius. All of your hands should now be in the air, ‘cause you can point your organization in the right direction towards a content strategy by starting with these small steps (and always claim to be a genius—humble brag my people).

Recently at work, in tandem with multiple fortuitous circumstances, I was able to assist in setting up some editorial management for content. It’s just a start, mind you, and rather opposite of the “ideal” methodology (business goals –> content strategy –> editorial calendar –> content creation and maintenance, #amIright?). But if you, like us, need to work with priorities that change on the fly, demanding clients no matter the validity of their requests, and a multitude of contributing teams, you might try some of these first steps we have taken.

1. Compile Task/Work Lists

Ideally every piece of content would roll up to a top-level strategy. But sometimes it’s necessary just to gain that measurement of the current state. This can be difficult, however, without a spreadsheet or task management system of some kind. In our office over the last two years, we have slowly consolidated into one main project management system, Asana.

Everyone enters their projects differently and even uses different tracking methods (my team uses complexity scores; another team relies more on time logs; yet other teams rely on output). The one thing we all do, however, is enter our content-to-be-done into Asana as tasks. Knowing that the majority of our teams enter the majority of their content as tasks into the system (or spreadsheets, which can be imported into Asana), I thought I’d take a stab at organizing it all into an editorial calendar.

List of content assets in Asana
Fig 1: All the content assets/tasks in Asana

In Asana, this meant setting up a project and literally just tagging each content task as part of the project (1 hour – that’s all it took).

Calendar view in Asana
Fig 1.5: Calendar view of content assets/tasks

You Don’t Have a Project Management System (& Heads Will Roll Before You Get One)

You don’t need a project management system to make a list, however. The good, old-fashioned spreadsheet will do just as well. It’s true that you probably can’t rely on all your content creators entering things into a spreadsheet, and that might not change, but change for good sometimes rests on the shoulders of you—the superhero in plainclothes.

Spreadsheet version of editorial calendar
Fig 2: Y’all are best pals with the spreadsheet, cheap, easy, but hopefully not that easy…

Writing things down holds people (yourself included) accountable. It’s something to measure. Lists are the best friend of measurement and tracking; they are data points in and of themselves. They are also the easiest place to start.

Generally, people just need a rallying point. It’s not that they don’t want glory, lauds, and honor, it’s just that they don’t know how to go about it. All it takes is that one person starting the process.

2. Assign Categories—Thereby Setting Up an Easy, Quantifiable Way to Show the Output You Are Creating

One thing I would add to your soon-to-be-editorial calendar is categories (tags/columns—whatever). Why? These categories will help you see what track your content is on. Who’s your audience? What type of content is being created? Categories will section your content and add that special razzle dazzle to a spreadsheet or list.

On our editorial calendar (notice it’s not a list anymore—IT’S A CALENDAR), we use these categories:

  • Audience
  • Content Type
  • Marketing Priority (if aligns with specific)
  • Service/Topic

This gives you an immediate view of what’s been done and where the majority of your time and budget commitment is going. While it doesn’t equate with the complexity of creation or the time spent on it, this data is still an easy, quantifiable way to show the output you are creating.

Fig 3: Content created for University of Utah Health during August, 2018, sorted by audience; I wish the color palette was different, but I tried to limit myself to something others would find professional.

Once again, organizing by category will tell you if what you are creating is directed at the audience you are trying to reach. You are using your list as data points, in this case to tell a story about your current state.

For example, in Figure 3 you can see we are creating content for all the inhabitants of Noah’s Ark a lot of people. While the content is pretty evenly divided along what the organization prioritizes, this graph brings up interesting questions. Should we be spending so much of our creative power on content for patients? What are we asking those patients to do when they come to our content? (More embarrassingly, do we have calls to action on our content for that particular audience?)

For some people, understanding what’s happening right now helps them to focus on where they need to go. Plus, people really like graphs and charts. Trust me on that one.

Graphs and charts from content report
Fig 4: Charts and graphs created in Excel showing the content lists sorted by different categories; 15 content pieces aligned with clinical marketing priorities and 14 with academic. Btw, 91 total assets was like a freaking miracle for us at U of U Health. I think we broke the bank on that one.

3. Communicate the Work That’s Been Done

Once you have compiled your list of what content has been published in the past week, month, quarter, I recommend posting it somewhere. You could:

  • post the list on an internal intranet/blog.
  • email the list to your department at large.
  • email the list to your boss.
  • email the list to other important stakeholders.

Anywhere you can communicate the work that’s been done is good. People want to be recognized and included, particularly if upstairs is impressed by your organizational and list-gathering capabilities. You might even get people to commit to—wait for it—deadlines…

Action, Information, Reaction: Feedback Loops Can Lead to Change!

What you have just done in compiling this list and emailing it out is create a feedback loop. You have taken what everyone mostly already knows and just made it available real-time. While some would write this off as so easy – then why haven’t they done it yet?* Research has shown that feedback loops help us change:

“Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Action, information, reaction.” —Thomas Goetz, Wired Magazine

By compiling this list, you are helping people see some organization in their work. You are showing people what was accomplished in a certain period of time and how that could possibly influence the future. You are helping people engage in—eek!—thinking about cause and effect, value, return on investment.

Those Fragile Toes We Stepped On—Change Is Hard

As change does, this will step on some toes. Even if you try to communicate when, where, why, and how what you are doing is a force for good, someone out there will claim that they never knew about it and why didn’t you tell them?^

This work-culture attitude, that change is hard, takes work. However, few things are more motivating in favor of change than these things:

  • Inclusion
  • Competition
  • Appearance
  • Demonstration of advantages

When faced with someone who hates what I’ve done, the only thing I can say is this: Sorry to tread on your toes. Please give me your feedback. I would love to involve you as your work is an important part of our content initiative.

Is it Flattery or Genuine Appreciation?

Occasionally I mention to people that I treat all my clients like they are unique and special. This includes co-workers, collaborators, and upper management. Some would call that cynical and manipulative. The difference is that I actually (99.99% of the time) mean it!

There is something to appreciate in everyone. If you can find it, you will succeed. That doesn’t mean sidestepping accountability, but appreciating what your co-workers accomplish.

Benefits of Measuring Your Current State –> The Editorial Calendar

Some may say that if you don’t have a strategy, why bother with an editorial calendar? It’s true that an editorial calendar does not replace a content strategy; however, sometimes it’s enough to start with what you have and make incremental changes in the direction you would like to go. Even little changes can lead to great waves.**

The benefits of gathering this information and putting it in one place are these:

  • Help instill a feeling of unity between content creators (technically, you are working towards the same goal).
  • Foster collaboration.
  • Gain a true appreciation of just how much work others are doing.
  • Communicate that you care about the content being produced.
  • Nudge content creators towards thinking in terms of audience-based content.

This is a simple (but often boundary pushing^^) step in the right direction. Sometimes it’s a gargantuan effort, particularly if you are working with people who don’t play well together, but often the initial act of compilation can push your team/s towards seeing the current state of things. On the path to Valhalla, we heroes must create the path. After all, nobody starts out a hero. It’s the journey that truly defines you. (See Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007, Bloomsbury Publishing.)

P.S. You also don’t have to tell them that next up, you are going to start examining vanity metrics more closely for patterns and that you are going to point out holes in your current content assets and maybe challenges in the creation process. World domination takes time my friends.

*This is a defining concept of modern art. Just think—we could all be smearing ketchup on weird glass blocks and have a show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But we didn’t. So we can’t.
^Quite frankly, I don’t blame them. Stress at work can lead to hair trigger tempers when it comes to change. Not that I have ever gotten upset like that…
**Sometimes only clichés can accurately capture your truth. Is that lazy writing though? A question for another day.
^^Hello paradox, my old friend. Why is it so hard sometimes to take one step forward?

Website Redesign

Audit, Rework, Edit, Do ALL THE THINGS

Get Ready image courtesy of “How to Win in Pacman” https://www.wikihow.com/Win-in-Pac-Man

There’s nothing that makes the web team tetchier than when a client says: “We need a complete website redesign.” Want to know why? It’s ‘cause there are so many possible meanings rolled up into that phrase. We need a few more specifics.

Are you talking about actual design—colors, fonts, images? Or do you mean you want to rework content? Are you concerned about navigation? Is there a feature you think everyone would use that doesn’t currently exist?

I often find that people have a hard time identifying what’s not working; they just have an idea about how it’s “supposed” to work and they want it “fixed” yesterday.

To help you all with that, we’ve come up with an outline of our ideal website audit and rework process, because it involves multiple things. While you can break some of these down into smaller projects themselves, if you don’t keep the first step in mind, you are losing the trees for the weeds.

STEP 1: DISCOVER/DEFINE

Pac Man and a few fellows: ghosts, food, surely some accessories will come along as well…

The discovery process helps us define what we want to accomplish as well as who our users are and what they need. Most major flaws in website design and structure occur because this first initial step is skipped. You also need to focus on your largest audience.

  1. What is the purpose of the site, desired outcomes, or success measures?
  2. Who are our audiences? Who is our largest audience?
  3. What are our audiences’ top tasks? When they visit the site, what are the most important things they are hoping to do?
  4. What is the overall timeline?

Once again, it’s easy to become overly focused on tactics—replacing images, adding content, moving widgets—as opposed to actually defining what the measure of success is for your website.

STEP 2: RESEARCH

All the Pac Man characters you may encounter in the game; image courtesy of common domain; find original on http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Ghosts_(Pac-Man)

Now you figure out how people are interacting with your current site, more specific behaviors your users have, and maybe some dirt on your competitors. Some of these steps can be streamlined however. Use your time judiciously!

  1. Do some user/UX testing to see how your current site is performing. This can help you identify problem areas.
  2. Review existing analytics to see what users are doing on your site and what pages they consider most important.
  3. Review existing web content, including a content audit. We are happy to assist with this.
  4. Create some user stories/jobs-to-be-done. Think through what a user needs to accomplish when they come to your website. Try to pick a few different users/tasks to represent your audience/s.
  5. OPTIONAL: Review your biggest competitors.*
  6. OPTIONAL: Review what sets you apart from your competitors.*

Keep this other thing in mind as well: Just because someone else is doing it, doesn’t mean it’s working for their users.

People often want what they like and have to have what they think is best. That’s nice and all, but this site isn’t about us; it’s about our users. (I know—it’s depressing. It’s like film actors and screenwriters, whose favorite scenes end up on the cutting room floor, or writers, whose best bits get edited out of the action.)

STEP 3: OUTLINE

Multiple different versions or levels of the Pac Man game; image courtesy of common domain masonicGITpacman game https://github.com/masonicGIT/pacman

This step complements the research you have previously done and helps you create a true map of user flows, content hierarchy, and priorities.

  1. Do some card sorting or tree testing or other types of testing to explore terminology, labeling, and the best navigation structure. It doesn’t have to be really fancy actually, you can do some on-the-fly testing with friends and neighbors that will tell you a lot, just by watching them complete some tasks.
  2. Define goals for each website page type (examples include education, about, news, and the like).
  3. Determine what content needs to be pruned out and archived.
  4. Determine what additional content is needed. Once again, USE CAUTION. It’s best to get a product out quickly even if it’s minimal and then add onto it.
  5. Build a sitemap with appropriate content hierarchies. This sounds difficult, but it’s about prioritizing what content is the most important for your users and featuring it up front or highest up in folder structure.

Priorities are SO WICKED IMPORTANT. If your site is perfect when you publish it, it’s too late. Everyone else will either have moved on or that thing you spent hours and hours perfecting will be out of date by the time you publish.

STEP 4: IMPLEMENT

Pacman and ghosts cross-stitched
Cross stitched by yours truly. I may have to make some more…

The pitfalls in this step mainly involve coddling the perfectionists. You will be most successful if you emphasize the need to produce a minimum viable product or, in other words, get the simplest version out there right away and add to it (iterate). This way you won’t be held up by others’ caveats.

  1. Assign writers to write/rewrite/edit content.
  2. Rework page structures. (Carefully! There are some pitfalls to this, especially when working on a timed roll-out plan with a live site.)
  3. Get sign-offs from stakeholders on changes/website pages in the test environment. (If you have a test environment open only to certain users. If not, no sweat!)
  4. Schedule redirects from pages to be archived to newly structured folders/pages. Using redirects tells Google where you have moved content on your site relevant to your users. It helps you retain link equity that previous content has earned (SEO optimization tool).
  5. Publish live!! And throw a party!
  6. Run spell checks and broken link checks.

CONGRATS!!! But—it doesn’t actually end here. Just FYI. There’s maintenance, content guidelines and editorial processes to determine (governance), workflows to figure out, and so much more. It gets out of hand so quickly! Like a child with a set of permanent markers or a cat who finds where you hid the treat bag…

Here’s wishing you the best of luck!

 

*This process can be very time consuming and can take precedence over everything else. Do NOT let it overwhelm what you need to accomplish.

**Extra byline for Mike Rockwood here who threw his hands up and said “I’ll outline it for you!” at least, metaphorically.

^Initially published on University of Utah Health’s intranet Pulse

Content Strategists, SEO Analysts, UX Experts, Oh My!

A Musing on the Age-Old Question: Who Does What, When, & With Whom?

Question for you: What’s your job title? And now next question: What do you actually do? I find navigating the area of job roles and responsibilities rather interesting. In a recent conversation with my colleague about what constitutes the SEO’s responsibilities as opposed to the content strategist’s, we were both a little stymied—there was a lot of overlap!

Where does your yellow brick road go compared to mine?

Who’s responsible for what, when, and with whom? And where does your yellow brick road go compared to mine? I’m gonna’ dig into this a little deeper and see if I can find any answers (preferably ones I like…).

The Who

Content Strategists: Front-End & Back End

A content strategist, in the words of strategist Ann Rockley writing for the Content Marketing Institute, “come[s] in two main types: front-end and back-end.”* The front-end strategists “typically have a love for the content and the customer experience. They make recommendations about the content itself.”

According to Rockley, this could include answering questions like these (paraphrased):

  • Who’s our target audience?
  • What content do they need most?
  • How well do we meet those needs and how can we do it better?

Back-end strategists “have a love for structure, scalability, and technology.”

They answer questions like these (paraphrased):

  • How is content organized and delivered (what is the taxonomy)?
  • What content governance processes do we use so that our content is not duplicate or redundant?
  • How do we customize this content modularly to best match the user’s needs?

One of the things I love best about content is the structuring, organizing, delivering, and processes. Who doesn’t want to make sure it’s all structured beautifully (also called information architecture^) and that it’s sorted in the most effective way?

Interestingly, this differs slightly from the description of a content specialist. After perusing job descriptions for a content specialist, I found these main defining points:

  • Create written content for web
  • Optimize that content for SEO
  • Research keywords and apply to content
  • Write blog/articles, do site updates, post content
  • Provide/research marketplace competitive analysis
  • Organize and structure content (information architecture)
  • Do other tasks related to content development

Next up, those search engine optimizers.

SEO Analysts

A search engine optimization analyst or specialist or consultant, or just plain SEO, “analyzes and reviews websites and their incoming links in order to provide expert advice, guidance, and recommendations…seeking to earn more natural search engine traffic and higher ranking positions.”** This involves things like:

  • Web page optimization
  • Keyword research and analysis
  • Keyword mapping
  • Focus on user experience
  • Diagnosing technical SEO issues
  • Auditing websites
  • Optimizing sites for local search
  • Completing online competitive analysis
  • Writing effective headlines, subheadings, title tags, meta descriptions, and the like
  • Improving existing website content
  • Creating the sitemap
  • Numerous other things

What I see here, and what I’ve experienced, is that an SEO has a keener understanding of the data surrounding web metrics and how to interpret this data. They also understand information architecture, competitive analysis (obviously), and technical website function in order to improve the quality of websites.

UX Experts

The descriptions I have found for this specialty are, interestingly, the most nebulous. Here is a great definition I found from UX Designer:

“…the term UX designer describes a wide ranging responsibility to ensure that an end product achieves its core (often business) objectives whilst providing its users with the most effective, efficient and enjoyable experience as possible.”

The definition of a UX expert is the most nebulous.

More granularly, this might break down to skills defined by these roles:

  • UX Researcher (user analysis & profiling plus other insight gathering and planning activities)
  • Information architect (page/content groupings, hierarchy, placement)
  • Interaction designer or UI designer (related but not the same interface creation focused roles)
  • Visual designer (brings the interfaces to life from an aesthetic/brand/creative perspective; some overlap with UI designer)
  • Usability testing expert (ideally provides a continuous user feedback loop allowing timely updates to design thinking)^^

The blog post What is UX Design? 15 User Experience Experts Weigh In on User Testing Blog has some interesting thoughts from several user experience experts.

Of course, if you want to get real-time with this, you can also examine the more recent rush to list positions for UX writers. UX Booth has this article showing job listings from Amazon, Dropbox, and Paypal (all the cool kids are doing it…).

If you made it through all those job descriptions, I’m impressed! Now in this who’s-doing-it, let’s examine how everything works together—or if it does.

The What

Now that we’ve got all the players, let’s take a look at the cross-overs between responsibilities. I’ve created this nifty Venn diagram to illustrate the patterns I’m seeing:

Venn diagram showing the skills that overlap between the rolls of a UX expert, SEO analyst, and content specialist

That’s a lottttttttt of overlap. And I don’t think any one area ultimately owns any one of the shared tasks.

The When

So when do these experts work together, and do you need all of them on your yellow brick road? I think it all depends on what you are trying to achieve and the skill sets you have on your team. From my experience, collaboration between job roles is the best way to achieve a great product (or perhaps it’s just my preferred working method?).

The overlap between content, SEO, and UX is considerable.

There must be a product owner who represents the user (and there’s another wrench to throw into the mix…), but the product owner should not dictate the methods or tactics used by the experts/specialists (and this includes all of the above: content strategist and specialists, the SEOs, and the UX peeps). This leaves the experts to think about and analyze user needs and craft a product to meet those needs.

The best thing you can do for your experts and specialists, IMO, is to clearly define roles. I work pretty amicably with my co-workers, and many of our skill sets overlap, but sometimes it helps to understand who is handling what, if only for organization’s sake.

As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman write in their book First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, the key to having happy employees, successful employees is (in part) ensuring they know the answers to these questions:

  • Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  • At work do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?***

I also recommend spending time actually trying to understand what your employees do before either hiring more people or assuming you know the extent of their work. It’s possible they are already doing things you aren’t even aware of that match the skill sets you think you need. It’s equally possible to give an employee the chance to get training and grow to fulfill a need you think you have.

Where does your yellow brick road go and with whom? Who do you all work with to craft your products? What are their titles compared with their roles and how do they overlap? Do your experts know where they are going?

Lemme’ know if you’d care to. I’d love to hear more about how these skill sets work together in other organizations and what you think the essence of each role is.

 

*Why You Need Two Types of Content Strategist https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2016/02/types-content-strategist/

^”Information architecture (IA) focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way.” It also involves these things:

  • Organization Schemes and Structures: How you categorize and structure information
  • Labeling Systems: How you represent information
  • Navigation Systems: How users browse or move through information
  • Search Systems: How users look for information

Source: Information Architecture Basics https://www.usability.gov/what-and-why/information-architecture.html

**What Does An SEO Consultant Do? http://www.contentmarketingspot.com/search-engine-optimization/what-does-an-seo-consultant-do/ via @seoincolorado

^^ Also from UX Designer http://www.userexperiencedesigner.co.uk/new-what-is-ux-designer-ia.htm

***There are 10 more of these Qs, but I think you get the gist. And read the book. It’s not half bad.

The Art of the Content Audit

Originally published on Pulse, University of Utah Health’s intranet, June 12, 2017, this is a case study about a content audit for the Women’s Health Services website at University of Utah Health.

Content, if you haven’t noticed, is a complex beast. For example, we spend a lot of time focusing on good content, what it is, where we get it from, and how we deploy it. But we spend less time than we ought on considering the outcome we want from the content we curate and post.

A content audit is a tool that allows us to review the content we have and take its pulse. It’s a great benchmarking tool with which to craft and test which content pieces are performing the best and where there might be gaps in the content. If there is important content missing that would benefit our users, a content audit is likely to reveal this.

Goals​

For our content audits [at University of Utah Health], we have identified these specific goals:

  • Reduce number of website pages with thin or low-performing content
  • Combine pages with thin content OR flesh these pages out, depending on website goals
  • Archive pages that are out of date, no longer applicable, or very low performing
  • Identify areas where we might want to add content

Where to Start

An audit can be as in depth or concise as the site necessitates. You can also tailor the information you collect in the audit to fit your overall site goals. The typical content audit might include these items:

  • Analytics
    • Page views
    • Time on page
    • Bounce Rate
  • SEO factors
    • Meta title & length
    • Meta description & length
    • H1 heading
    • H2 heading
    • Subtitles: additional use?
    • Word count
  • Content type (video, form, text, etc.)
  • Contact information
  • Images
    • Type of image
    • Image alt text
  • Affiliated documents
  • Duplicate content
  • Last modified

We determined to add in these additional audit points as particularly applicable to our patient-facing sites:

  • Call to action
  • Referring physician link included?
  • Specialist list included?
  • Related MBM specialty?
  • Affiliated service line
  • Affiliated marketing campaign
  • Affiliated research or other programs
  • Any additional content
    • Patient experience story included?
    • Health Feed/Scope inclusion? [U of U Health blog and podcast respectively]
    • Related tags to Health Feed/Scope
    • Clinical trials inclusion?
    • Patient education?
    • Vendor library content included?

Once you have outlined what you would like to inventory, you can begin to collect the data.* Take a look at the content inventory for our women’s health services website:

Redacted content audit women's health
What the full content audit looks like for women’s health services; please forgive the omission of analytics data!

Now that we’ve inventoried the content (rather exhaustively), we can examine how each piece is performing and make some assumptions as to whether the page should be kept, revised, or removed.

Example: Content About Midwives

Previously, we had two website pages about midwives on our women’s health services site.​ The page /what-is-a-certified-nurse-midwife.php receives far fewer page views than the /midwives.php page. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly as the time on page is over 1 minute. That’s a lot of time in our virtual ‘verse. So the content is important to those who are looking at it, even though the page doesn’t receive a lot of traffic.

In this case rather than get rid of the content, we are going to optimize it by moving it onto a page with more visibility, in this case /midwives.php. This should increase the main midwife page’s value while indicating to Google that we have both updated our site and checked our content for accuracy. (When search engines crawl websites they look for a number of factors that might tell the importance of the webpage. One of these factors is the date the page was last modified.)​

Webpage featuring content about midwifery (or midwives) on University of Utah Health’s women’s services website

The sticky navigation (a navigation bar stays with you as you scroll down the page) allows readers to access all the content about midwives and our services without leaving this page for another. Thus we’ve consolidated a low-performing, but important, page into the content with which it fits, letting the search engine know that we’ve updated the content by modifying the page, while keeping content that is clearly valuable for our readers.

End Objective: Increase Quality of Page Visits

This is just one page treatment out of many options that we might use when it comes to structuring content. All of the content audit goals lead to the most important objective of our content strategy: increase not just traffic to the website, but the quality of the traffic; namely, we want this content to show up for the right people at the right time in the right place.

Where Do We Go Next?

What happens after an audit? We look at the recommendations we’ve made after reviewing each page and determine who is responsible for whatever action needs to be taken. We also track the progress of the content updates.​

Ideally, we apply this process to all our websites on a regular basis, ensuring that our content remains up to date and within best practices.

And that, my friends, is the short of it (the long is all wrapped up in all that data and detail gathering). In the next few months, we’ll keep checking in on this content to see how the website data analytics change (usually we must allow about six months to get a relatively accurate picture of how the content is performing—performance has leveled out by then after the significant changes have been made to the site by then).

*I’m afraid I’ve had to redact the data here; I’m sure you understand!.

Be Brief! And Other Paradoxes of Long Form Content

After All, Brevity Is the Very Soul of Wit*

“Be brief!” says Howard Rauch, author of Get Serious About Editorial Management.1 “Following this should be duck soup for most editors,” Rauch writes. “But that’s hardly the case.” What does Rauch mean by this? Should our sentences consist of only three words—noun, verb, direct object? Or should we seek for more, as the long form content movement progresses?

Primarily, Rauch references sentence structure and grade reading level. He writes of something called the Fog Index, a quantitative measuring resource I will have to check out. He brings up, what is for many of us, a fantastic point: how long are our sentences? What grade reading level are they written for? For whom are we writing?^

But how does this figure in to long form content?

Long Form Content

At first glance this long form business appears to be based around search engine marketing, but hark! What is the end goal of search engines? I find the answer to my question “What does a search engine do?” confusing:

What does a search engine do?

Apparently, a search engine is a web index. That’s nice and all, but how does that help me? Web indexes in search engines provide us with results to our queries on the internet. So, let’s ask Google another question: What is the point of search engines?

The result can be found with an even better question: Why do people use search engines? Dummies.com suggests the top uses for a search engine are:

1. Research,
2. Shopping, and
3. Entertainment.

While my experience certainly does not support the ordering of that list, it definitely supports the content. (My experience rarely equates with the 99%, however, I can only guess that it does make up some part of that total percentage as someone, somewhere, does relate with my experience, probably that miniscule .00000001 percentage of people—I call them friends).

If those are truly the top uses of search engines, then it behooves the search engine to try and align the quality of their web indexing to match those user goals. If search engines are focused on users, then it follows that perhaps we should be too.

Why have I followed this train of thought so thoroughly? Because I focus quite a bit of energy on thinking about applying SEO guidelines to my work. And SEO best practices should be very aligned with content best practices. While search engine results can’t tell us why users are doing something, they can certainly tell us what they are doing.

And if what they are doing is spending a lot of time and energy on long-form pages, perhaps we should spend some time focusing on quality long-form pages.

There and Back Again**

Not too long ago, I recall breaking up long form pages of content. These pages were miles long—well the web equivalent of miles—with anchor links and “back to top” under every section. If long form is The Thing, why then did we change our pages a couple years ago, breaking up information into tabbed pages?

I tend to think we followed a design trend. Or perhaps it was the explosion of SEO-gaming tactics, writing multiple short articles about nothing—fluff punctuated by keywords leading to higher search results. There were also things like microblogging and tumblr.

Design-wise, in a desktop focused industry, it was a way of making vast amounts of information more visually palatable. The web however, as all other things do, evolves. What remains constant is the centrality of search engines in our lives.

With this brief reminiscence, we now ask: long form content, what are you now?

Long Form: 2,000+ Words

A return to Search Engine Journal indicates long form is primarily 2000+ words formatted in whitepapers, e-books, and how-to guides. Short form content, like blogs, social posts, and emails (although I’ve seen some reallllllly long emails…) are apparently also useful, often referencing this long form business.

The best length guidelines for content that I’ve found focus more simply around your audience. What are their needs? What research are they conducting? What do they need to know to make a purchase? What tasks will your content help them to?

Longer form content for webpages focus on these user tasks. What does our user need and how can we deliver that information?

In my work at University of Utah Health, we discovered in our content audits that pages packed with information approximately 1,600 words more or less in length performed very well, at least as far as number of visits and time on page. Whether these met marketing and conversion goals, however, is another story!

Duck Soup^^

Our mission then is clear: we must be brief—but not too brief—focusing on our users’ needs. We must write for our readers using well-constructed but not overly wordy sentences. Our brevity must be more than a haiku but less than a dissertation, and I like to think witty.

Shall we organize a duck soup tasting?

  1. 2017, Get Serious About Editorial Management, Howard S. Rauch, pg 120.

*A sentence that was for Shakespeare, indeed very brief.
^Note: I write this primarily for myself to study and consider the vocation of content. If you are reading it, then wow! Please continue!
**A reference to Bilbo Baggins’ recounting of his journey in The Hobbit. If you don’t know who hobbits are, you have missed out.
^^An idiom meaning something easy to do or accomplish, which became widely used after its use as a title for a Marx Brothers film in 1933