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Successful Content Is Ridiculously Easy to Use

Content marketers talk a lot about writing “good” content or content that “performs.”

We whip out our tape measures and scales, poke and prod, and inspect every pixel on the screen for proper keyword targeting and density, alt text copy, calls to action, and appropriate messaging for funnel position.

But Google is a fickle deity. It also wants people to have a good experience when viewing our content, and that means making our content as easy to use as possible.

Hang on — what does it mean to “use” content?

Some people are grossed out by the idea of the written word as a tool, but really, that’s a main purpose of content. The other closely related reason is to boost conversion rates. Content is not art – it serves a clearly defined function.

#Content is not art – it serves a clearly defined function, @Technology_Adv. #writingtips Click To Tweet

Content should answer a question, entertain the reader, or help someone make a tough decision. For example, people use content when they want to:

  • Cook Bolognese sauce using a recipe
  • Get a quick refresher on writing press releases
  • Seek information and input to help decide which car to buy

But intending to help our readers does not mean we’ve done a good job of it. There’s plenty of useless content out there, and we should avoid adding to it.

How to write easy-to-use content

If we’re looking for ways to make our content more usable, we should stop looking to books, magazines, and newspapers. Instead, think of textbooks.

Want to make your #content more usable? Think of a textbook, says @Technology_Adv. #bloggingtips Click To Tweet

Before you groan, think about how a good textbook is formatted: Every chapter or section contains a table of contents, shorter paragraphs, sidebars or glossaries to clarify concepts or terms, and diagrams and graphs to illustrate complicated concepts. Obviously, textbooks are not the pinnacle of user experience or an archetype for quality blog design, but they are designed with user experience front of mind. That’s not just for fun.

Here are some of my favorite usability tips derived from my appreciation of textbooks:

  • Align expectations from the get-go. People are more likely to commit to something when they know what they’re getting into. Include an estimated read time on the page. A good rule of thumb is to figure three to five minutes for every 500 words. 
  • Make the important stuff easy to find. Most people don’t even spend 15 seconds on a web page before leaving. Their reasons for leaving are many but not finding what they wanted is likely at the top. HubSpot created a great checklist for improving site usability, which includes tips for improving visual hierarchy through properly formatted section headers, tables of contents, and other on-page elements. 
  • Avoid dictionary words and frequent compound sentences. We’re shooting for an eighth grade reading level, folks. If your memory of books in 8th grade is as fuzzy as mine was, the most important rules are (1) use a good balance of short and long sentences and (2) opt for commonly used, shorter words. 
  • Use bullet points. Bullet points look clean and punchy. If you have a list in a sentence, break it down into bullets. 
  • Write short paragraphs. By short, I mean two to three sentences. Longer paragraphs are good in some situations, such as when they’re used to aid the content’s organization or scanning. But long paragraphs in long stretches of text look tiring. Readers avoid them. 
  • Insert pictures, graphs, and diagrams. People like pictures. They can process visuals faster than they can process text. Use photos, illustrations, graphs, and diagrams when and where appropriate. Keep the image file sizes low, and activate lazy loading on your website. 
  • Open links in a new tab. Nobody likes it when they click a citation or other backlink and leave the original page. They lose their reading spot, which makes it more likely to give up on reading it altogether. Ensure that each link is opened in a new tab or window. You can do this in your content management system, such as WordPress, by clicking the option to open selected links in a new tab. If you’re writing markup in HTML, format your links like this: <a href=“” target=“_blank”>anchor text</a>.
Nobody likes to click a citation or backlink and leave the original page, says @Technology_Adv. #bloggingtips Click To Tweet
  • Write alt text. And don’t skimp on it, either. As explained in the Moz SEO Learning Center, alt text is primarily for visually impaired visitors using screen readers, but it also displays when images don’t load properly. Search engine crawlers also read alt text. Just remember not to use alt text as an opportunity for keyword stuffing. Make it short and descriptive, and always include a period at the end.

Will this really help our SEO strategy?

The short answer is yes.

According to the UX Collective, Google cares a lot about usability and user experience (UX). In fact, Google considers UX to be the third most important ranking factor when indexing web pages. Among the criteria to determine what constitutes a good user experience:

  • Page load time
  • Time spent on page
  • Accessibility
  • Responsiveness

If we follow the usability tips shared earlier, our content will affect some of these UX criteria. Enabling lazy loading on your site will help load time. Shorter sentences and commonly used words make content easier to read, which makes people want to spend more time on your website. Writing alt text for images makes your content more accessible for screen readers and search engine crawlers.

To some extent, we also can improve usability through our writing that appears on the results page.

  • Include target keywords early in the descriptive titles.
  • Feature the keyword in short and accurate URL slugs.
  • Craft concise meta descriptions that include your keyword(s) and clearly explains what the user can expect from the content. (Note: Google doesn’t consider meta descriptions in its ranking algorithm, but good meta descriptions can increase click-through rates, which Google does consider.)
Good meta descriptions that include keywords can increase click-through rates, says @Technology_Adv. #SEO Click To Tweet

Google didn’t always place so much emphasis on usability when ranking pages, but this method makes good sense. If given the choice between two tools that perform the same function, people will always gravitate toward the tool that’s easier to use. The same is true for two pieces of content.

Now make your content easier to use

The days of factoring keyword volume to determine what good content is are over. While evaluating all the elements of our website still have their place, the ultimate factor – for our audience and for Google – centers on usefulness.

We content marketers must step up our game. That starts with good research and writing and ends with maximum ease of use.

One more way to up your content marketing game – and maybe get some new high scores – is to hear from the dozens of experts and connect with thousands of your colleagues at Content Marketing World Sept. 3-6. Register today using code CMIBLOG100 to save $100. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute