What's Web Content? How Do You Create Effective Written Content?
There’s a nearly endless supply of website content out there. Videos, photos, memes, tweets, social media posts, emails—they’re all content. But the most common form of content, and often the most neglected, is the humble written word. Written content is the simplest means of communicating who you are and what you have to offer to your audience.
But writing effective content that will rank on Google, engage your audience, and compel that audience to do what you want them to do requires an understanding of the basics of marketing, user behavior, and SEO.
Written content is a form of digital marketing, which means you need a content strategy—that is, you have to write with a specific goal in mind.
“A… B… C. ‘A,’ always. ‘B,’ be. ‘C,’ closing. Always be closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING.” – Glengarry Glen Ross
The above is probably one of the most overused and abused quotes in the history of film. But it’s a good reminder that if your business’s or organization’s website is intended to achieve a goal of some sort—get people to throw money at you, participate in your organization, sign up for a newsletter, buy a product, whatever—then your website is really a digital marketing platform.
For our purposes, digital marketing is defined as using the Internet in some way to compel an audience to take a desired action. If your website is a marketing platform for your business, by extension every piece of content on it is a marketing piece and needs to have a desired goal in mind. From the most sizzling sales copy to the humblest of ‘upcoming events’ descriptions, every piece of text on your site should be geared towards getting the visitor to do something you want.
This doesn’t mean that all your content needs to be sales oriented. That’s overkill. And can be extremely annoying. Nobody wants to spend time on a website that’s the equivalent of wandering into a car lot and immediately being jumped on by a dozen rabid salesmen. Sometimes, people just want to kick a few tires in peace.
When I say that your content is a marketing piece, what I mean is that all the content on your website—service or product pages, blog posts, etc.—needs to have a purpose. When you create a page or post, there’s usually a pretty obvious goal attached to it:
- Buy a product
- Request an appointment
- Fill out a contact form
- Sign up for a newsletter
Some goals can be subtler and more long-term, such as getting a visitor to view you as an authority or trust you, as is often the case with word-of-mouth driven industries like construction, where someone will visit a website to validate what they have already heard. The goal may also just be to get a visitor to talk about you with their friends and family, or just to know that you exist. (If you want to see a page designed to fulfill several of these goals in a low-key manner, take a look at PMM’s web design service page.)
If you don’t know why you’re writing something or can’t identify a goal for it—this is too often the case with blog posts—then it doesn’t belong on your website. Before you even sit down at your keyboard, you should have a need that you’re going to meet, or better yet, a question that you’re going to answer.
Every web search is a question. You can’t write a piece of content until you understand the intent of the question you’re trying to answer.
“It's the question that brought you here.” – The Matrix
When Josh is explaining the concept of SEO, he often likes to start out by asking, “What is a Google search? What is a person doing when they type something into Google?” His audience will often volunteer suggestions like, “looking for something,” “telling Google what they want,” and so on. After allowing everyone to brainstorm for a few moments, Josh will ultimately step in and say, “A Google search is a question.”
The next time you do a Google search, look out for a section titled “People also ask” that sometimes shows up in the result, with a list of questions relating to your search topic. This is one of the biggest hints that Google and Josh are on the same page when it comes to the value and purpose of search engines. Insert question, receive answer.
Every search is a question. And the addition or removal of a couple words can seriously change the question being asked:
- “Trans-Am clutch part” = Where can I buy a clutch for a Trans-Am?
- “Trans-Am clutch mechanic” = Where can I find someone who can fix the clutch in my Trans-Am?
- “Trans-Am clutch YouTube guide” = How do I replace the clutch in my Trans-Am?
(Apparently, this search is being performed by Burt Reynolds, but I digress.)
We often talk with clients about “search intent,” which can translate to, “what is the intention of a person performing a search?” There are four types of search intent:
Informational: Informational searches are general who/what/where/why/how type questions, and probably make up the vast majority of Google searches.
- Who is George Washington?
- What does the check engine light mean?
- Where in the nearest Chinese restaurant?
- Why is the sky blue?
- How do you get scorch marks out of a sofa?
Navigational: In these cases, someone is wanting to go to a specific website or even a specific page on a website, but doesn’t want to go to the bother of typing the URL into a search bar (or doesn’t remember the URL). Someone may search for “Facebook” to get to “facebook.com,” or “post modern marketing seo” to get to “postmm.com/seo.”
Transactional: These are searches Internet users perform when they’re ready to buy something:
- Rolling Stones tickets
- iPhone sale
- Deck chairs amazon
In this case, a user knows what they want to buy. Now it’s just a matter of who they’re going to buy it from.
Commercial investigation: These are searches that someone does when they know they want something, but they’re comparing and contrasting alternatives. They are likely looking for comparison articles, or looking at Yelp, Amazon, or Google reviews. These searches often include words like, “best,” “top,” “vs,” “cheapest,” “near,” etc.:
- Best auto repair shop
- Top restaurant in Sacramento
- BMW vs Mercedes
- Cheapest desktop printer
- Roofer near me
Now you understand the intent of the question. But, you need to ensure your content will answer it appropriately.
There’s guy’s who answer the questions right… and there’s guys that don’t.” – The Departed
Let’s return to our Trans-Am-related search examples: “Trans-Am clutch part,” “Trans-Am clutch mechanic,” and “Trans-Am clutch YouTube guide.” It’s pretty obvious that the search intent differs quite a bit from one to the next.
- “Trans-Am clutch part” is probably a transactional The Google user knows what they want: a clutch. Now they’re trying to figure out who has what they want.
- “Trans-Am clutch mechanic” is a commercial investigation. The user is trying to rapidly narrow their search down to mechanics that specifically deal with that type of car.
- “Trans-Am clutch YouTube guide” is a hybrid—it’s both navigational and informational in nature. They are asking “how do I replace a Trans-Am clutch?” But they don’t want a written guide. They have thrown in the word “YouTube” to try to ensure that they will be directed to a video tutorial on YouTube.
Answering each of these questions/searches requires taking a very different approach to successfully (1) catch the attention of the searcher and (2) give them what they want.
Trans-Am clutch part: A local auto parts store could answer this one with a page detailing all the Trans-Am clutch parts they have (implying that they’re your go-to source for clutch parts). That would very effectively answer the first question, and probably draw a lot of business because it’s obvious that they offer the solution the search is looking for. But if a mechanic created that same page, it wouldn’t work very well. The search implies that the user wants to buy a part and can do the work themselves, while a mechanic wants to sell a service.
Trans-Am clutch mechanic: A mechanic could answer this by creating a page talking about the problems that warrant a clutch replacement. After all, if someone is looking for a clutch mechanic, they probably at least suspect that they have a busted clutch. The mechanic would be well-served to have a section talking about common reasons clutches fail, what the symptoms are of a busted clutch, and maybe a discussion of how to choose a good clutch mechanic.
Trans-Am clutch YouTube guide: This is a tricky one, as it dictates not only the information being sought, but also the form that information should take. Someone seeking to answer this question (and related searches like “Trans-Am clutch video guide”) would probably be best served by creating a written blog post that details how to replace a Trans-Am clutch, and then creating a video to complement it, which could be embedded in the post. This way, you can appeal to those who want a video guide (and they’ll either land on the blog post see the video, or directly on the YouTube page with the video), as well as those who want a written guide. You’ll have cast your net as wide as possible, while answering a very specific question.
As you can see, these three questions being asked by three different audiences require three very different answers. And it takes a lot of thought as to how to best answer one of those questions. Odds are that if you just decide to sit down one day and write a blog post talking about Trans-Am clutches, you will likely answer (1) the question that isn’t relevant to your business, (2) the right question but in the wrong format or manner, or (3) none of the questions at all.
Before you sit down to write a website page or a blog post, you need to take the time to nail down not just what the topic it is going to be, what question(s) it will answer, and how you’re going to accomplish that.
Something to keep in mind—if you write a page or blog post and don’t cite any sources (usually in the form of linking out to whatever webpage you pulled information from), it’s probably not a very good piece of content. When you just write something off the top of your head, it’s easy to resort to writing in vague terms, without a lot of specificity.
You should always be doing research, regardless of your level of expertise. Successful content almost always projects a great deal of authority. It shows that you know what you’re doing. One of the best effective ways of doing that is by citing your sources, using backlinks to leverage the authority of others on your own behalf. When you’re bold enough to say, as LeVar Burton used to put it on Reading Rainbow back in the day, “You don’t have to take my word for it,” you’re making your authority all the more evident and believable.
Planning out the structure of the content on a page can help you craft content that more effectively answers your targeted questions.
“So, how the hell do you plan on doing that?” – Saving Private Ryan
For a piece of content to have value, knowing your topic and the questions to address isn’t nearly enough. Your content needs to be carefully structured to effectively answer those questions.
Imagine picking a textbook up, only to flip through the pages and find that it was a single block of text, without chapter titles or sections with subheadings to give you an idea as to what any one page was talking about. It would be a nightmare to use. You’d toss that book back on the shelf and move on to the next one.
This is why effective web content is broken up using H1 and H2 header tags, which give context as to what a page and each of its sections is about. (If you don’t know what a header tag is, you’ll want to look at the linked blog post before you continue.)
When we are training a client on how to write more effective blog posts, we often advise them to plan out a blog post by sketching out what the H1 and H2s will be, so that they have an outline to follow and keep them on track during the writing process.
For instance, some time ago I put together a how-to guide for a client that helps families place their elderly loved ones in retirement or care homes. In the guide, I sketched out a hypothetical blog post titled, “How to Choose a Senior Home Care Provider,” with the following sections:
- Should you choose a private caregiver or an agency?
- How do you find local senior care agencies?
- What questions should you ask when interviewing care agencies?
- How to perform a background check of a caregiver or agency.
- How to talk to your loved one about hiring a care agency.
- What level of care does your loved one need?
- How do you evaluate the quality of care provided by a senior care provider?
A good rule of thumb when evaluating your blog outline is that a random person should be able to look at the outline (comprised of the H1 and H2s) and have a good sense of what the blog post is about. In the above example, it’s very obvious what ground that blog post will cover. I could hand that outline to a writer who doesn’t know a thing about senior care homes, and they would be able to do the research necessary to answer those questions and write a very informative blog post on the topic.
In the example above, I’ve ensured that I will answer all the questions I wanted to answer by making the questions the H2s. Why yes, it is the easy, lazy approach. But it also ensures that I hit all the points that I need to hit, and don’t wander off track.
If you take a step back and find your title or subheadings are maybe a bit vague or confusing, or don’t naturally lend themselves to answering the questions you’ve previously identified, then you need to reword them to be more specific and on topic.
Once you have a detailed outline in hand, it becomes a lot easier to write a useful, focused piece of content. You know ahead of time what dots you want to connect, and thus how the information for one section needs meander its way to the topic of the next section, ultimately creating an informative piece of content that’s more than the sum of its parts (or subheadings). At that point it’s just a matter of sitting down and doing the actual writing.
Lastly, you need to establish a way to measure the success of your content, with a goal in mind.
“Everything we do is collated and quantified. Everything sticks.” – The Dark Knight Rises
Alright, we’re at the end. But we’re not done yet. Remember, content is a form of marketing. The goal in the end is to compel the reader to do something. As I noted way back at the beginning of this post, the goal is typically to sell something, persuade visitors to book an appointment, get signups for a newsletter, validate positive word-of-mouth, etc.
But no matter what your goal is, it needs to be structured in a way that is quantifiable. Your goals must be measurable. If you can’t measure your efforts—or the efforts of your marketing company—then you have no idea whether what you’re doing is working. And marketing is pointless if it doesn’t turn a profit.
How do you measure your efforts? Typically, the goal defines the means of measurement:
Product purchases: This is pretty simple. If you roll out your new content, don’t make any other changes, and see your sales increase, there’s a good chance that your content is spurring the improvement.
Appointment Requests, Lead Submissions, Newsletter Signups: If you’re in a booking-based business and you see an uptick in appointment requests when nothing else has changed but your content, then that content is probably why. But we can take this a step further if you use a submission form on your website. Most website forms have the option to indicate what page a form was submitted from, so even if you have a contact form on every page of your website, you can tell which ones were submitted from the page with your new content.
If you use Google Analytics, you can actually analyze the flow of traffic on your website. This lets you determine if a lot of your visitors are discovering your site through that new page or post—or are clicking through to it—and are having their decision-making positively impacted by what you have to say.
Validation: Let’s say you’re a construction or architectural firm, and you have added some recent, very impressive projects to your website. The goal here is that when someone is referred to your business and they check out your website, that they will see those project descriptions and go, “Okay, these guys can definitely do the job, they’re worth considering.” You should be able to measure the success of your efforts by (1) an increase in leads coming into your business, and/or (2) asking those who contact you what led them to reach out to you. Sometimes the best and easiest way to assess the success of your efforts is the old school approach of, you know… asking: “How did you find us? What motivated you to pick up the phone?”
Whatever approach you take, you need to have some way of measuring the success of your efforts. Otherwise, you have no idea of whether you’re on the right track, or if you need to tweak your strategy. Your time is value. Don’t waste it on content that isn’t bringing people to your door.