Design for Your Content
By Sam Roberts – Website Copywriter, Internet Researcher and Advertising Copywriter
Why design for your content?
I remember putting together my first website – when I was about 14 – and how long it took me to get the design just right. I planned it all carefully in my head, working out all the pages I thought a site should have (Main, About Me, Pictures and Links!). I even drew out a sitemap on paper, to make sure everything was perfect!
Then I painstakingly taught myself .html (this was back in the days before WYSIWYG editors were around), and drew out each .jpg from scratch. It took me several weeks, but eventually the site was finished. All I needed to do was to write the content to fill it. It was only then that I realised that I didn’t have a single thing I wanted to say.
I designed my second website when I was in High School, and it was a far more ambitious affair. I made a page for each of my friends, and filled it with things I knew would make them laugh. The home page was little more than a list of links, because I wanted people to be able to find their pages easily. The design flowed naturally from the content, and unlike my first website, this one was a huge success. Because I had written it with my audience in mind, rather than trying to fit the content around the design, it was more accessible, and people took the time to read it. As a result, the site became very popular, and people still talk about it now, even though the site has been offline for years.
Both of my sites were very basic, amateur efforts, but the principle applies equally no matter what size the site. Design is important, but content is king. The web is a communication medium – if you publish something online, you obviously have something you want to say, and you cannot afford to let your words be overshadowed by your flashy new website. You need to learn to design for your content.
Design to communicate
The most important part of your website is the content itself. You have something to say, and you must make sure you say it, or all your effort has been wasted. But there’s no point in just regurgitating a few paragraphs of marketing hype – web users are surprisingly savvy, and they can see through that in an instant; an instant in which they will have hit the back button and moved on down the list of search results.
You need to find out what people are looking for, and give it to them.
Do some research; think about which terms you would use to search if you wanted to buy your product, and then look them up. Have a look at who your competitors are, and what they are doing. Research on Wordtracker and see if there are any other keywords you could try.
Then use your imagination. Think about why people might be looking for your product and write for them. If your site advertises a skiing hotel in Switzerland, don’t just advertise for ‘hotels in Switzerland’, provide useful articles about skiing, and then point them to your hotel in the middle of a ski resort.
When you know what content you require, you need to write it. The key to this is that it must be written well – you want people to read it and find the information useful. There’s a lot of rubbish out there, and if people find a genuinely useful article they will remember it and come back for more. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for writing better content:
- Write clearly. Write succinctly. People get turned off by huge blocks of text, so keep it as short and sweet as possible.
- Don’t feel you have to explain every little thing, but don’t assume that your readers know everything that you do. If they did, they wouldn’t be reading your article.
- Use references to strengthen your arguments, and link to sources where people can get more information. Don’t be afraid to link to sites other than your own. It will only make people trust you more.
- Talk as yourself. It’s the web; you can and should be informal. People like feeling that they are listening to a real human being. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.
- Don’t overuse colloquialisms – not everybody is from the same country as you, and it’s easy for things to get lost in translation.
Design for ease of use
People don’t like reading as much text on a screen as on a page. Therefore, you must make things easy for them. Design your website to complement and enhance the text, and be careful not to overwhelm it with fancy menus and images that distract your readers from the important stuff: your content.
Split the text into easily digestible chunks; use short paragraphs made up of short sentences. Give each topic its own separate page if it makes things easier to read. Five concise pages are better than one single sprawling mass of text.
Use bullet points and lists to make things simpler. Emphasise important things using header tags or bold to make them stand out. Basically, try to break things up as much as possible into smaller sections that people will be more inclined to read.
Design for accessibility
Not everybody who uses the web can see perfectly. Some are visually impaired; others may even be blind. Yet they are still quite capable of using the Internet, provided that web designers follow a few basic rules to make things easier for them.
- Fonts should be resizable – it is tempting to restrict fonts to a specific size in order to preserve your design, but it is important that you allow users to choose for themselves. There are a huge number of articles on the web about creating layouts that will respond dynamically to changes in text size.
- Many visually impaired people use screen-readers to navigate the web – one way in which you can improve their experience of your site is to make sure you use proper .html, improving the accuracy of the screen-reader.
- Don’t use images to as a source of information, but to reinforce the information given in the text. Ideally, your site should work just as well with images off. Try viewing your site with a text only browser, such as Lynx, to get an idea of how it will be seen by a screen-reader.
- Make sure you make good use of your image alt tags. Give a concise description of the image contents. If you include a lot of your site’s meta keywords, you will help your SEO too.
You need to make sure that everybody can access and view your content, and that it looks the same on everybody’s computer. That means testing. Get as many people as you can to test out your site in different browsers, different resolutions, and different platforms. Make sure it works in the same way in all of them.
As with my first site, if you emphasise design over content, your users will get bored and move on, and your site will sink back into anonymity. By following the suggestions in this article, your website will be rejuvenated, and your content will get a chance to shine. People will read what you have to say. If they like what they hear, they’ll come back again and again…