While some offline publishing practices translate well to the web, others do not. This article provides a synopsis of what does and doesn’t work when publishing online.
A few years ago we started seeing an uptick of inquiries from firms with really robust thought leadership marketing programs. These were firms that had published multiple books. They were publishing in HBR and Forbes. On the surface, they were doing everything right. But, they weren’t happy with the results they were seeing.
The effort was there. The visibility and recognition was there. But, for some reason the leads weren’t coming. We’ve since worked with a number of these firms. While every firm is unique, in hindsight, I see a number of reasons why thought leadership programs like these sometimes stall:
- Lack of positioning — The published content covers big, broad topics that are conceptually relevant to everyone, but not pulled from a clear firm positioning that makes them uniquely applicable to anyone.
- Lack of perspective — The firm hasn’t found a unique and compelling point-of-view on the issues they solve that simultaneously attracts some and repels other potential clients.
- Ineffective search strategies — Content isn’t search-friendly; it’s locked up in PDFs or not properly search-optimized leaving the firm largely invisible online.
- Ineffective web strategies — The firm hasn’t taken control of the client’s web journey by planning a clear and directional flow of activities to convert new visitors, engage learners, and guide them into conversations.
- Poor content delivery — The firm is over-relying on long-form content and not delivering its content multidimensionally to meet clients at various points in their arc of attention and engagement.
But, there’s a 6th (and final?) reason that we see programs stall. Firms simply don’t know how to write for the web. Too often, they carry offline publishing behaviors into online media. As I see it, there are 5 fundamentals to writing online:
- Write for Readers, but Tend to Search
- Think Upside Down
- Author and Date Everything
- Write for Scanners
- Target 1,000-2,000 Words
We’ll look at each in turn.
#1 – Write for Readers, but Tend to Search
One of the big mistakes brought (mostly unintentionally) to us in the early days of SEO was the idea that we should write for search engines. This was the recommendation that we should “plug” keywords into our content to make the pages more findable by Google. This stopped working a long time ago. But, even if stuffing your articles full of keywords in an attempt to drive traffic to your site worked, the result tends to be unreadable garbage.
The key point to remember about writing for the web is to remember your audience is the reader — the potential client you hope to attract. Google is simply a channel to reach them.
But, you can’t ignore search engines either. You can’t just write stuff and let Google take care of the rest. This means tending to the critical elements on the page that Google uses to understand what the page is about. Specifically, I’m speaking about the headline, the page title, and the URL. Before you hit publish on your article, make sure you’ve taken the time to describe the article in language someone might use to find it if they didn’t know it existed. Then, use that natural language in those 3 critical page elements. Your goal is to triangulate around the ideas the article expresses, not necessarily stuff specific keywords into each aspect. We covered this in our article about on-page SEO best practices a few years ago, yet I’m surprised at how frequently firms don’t take the time to do this. Even after they’ve spent hours, weeks, or months developing the thinking on an article to publish.
#2 – Think Upside Down
Most of us developed our early writing skills with short stories or papers in school. One of the key habits in developing a short story is to leave a little intrigue as the plot unfolds. Think about every good novel you’ve ever read. The book pulls you in and unravels the story a little bit at a time as you go. A great story usually leaves the best for last.
Writing for the web is the exact opposite of this. Best practices generally are to tell readers exactly what’s in store for them at the very front of the article. In fact, we tell authors to provide a 1-2 sentence summary at the beginning of every article that outlines exactly what’s covered in the article. Web readers have short attention spans. We hold their attention by letting them decide right away how much time they want to give, if any, to the content being provided.
#3 – Author and Date Everything
This might sound trivial, but we’ve found this detail to be a critical component of success. No respectable publication — be it a newspaper, a periodical or a book publisher — would think of publishing anything without an author and a date. This is one of those rare instances where offline publishing habits should be brought online.
Authoring your content provides credibility that the thinking was produced by a real person. It also has the added effect of humanizing your firm. While you want clients to do business with your firm, they still have a desire to understand the individual people and perspectives that comprise it. In order to trust what you have to say, they need to understand who wrote it.
Dating your content allows the reader to determine the relevancy of the thinking on their current issues. Some topics have longer or shorter shelf lives than others. An article on cybersecurity might only be relevant for a few months or a few weeks while an article on leadership development might stay useful for decades. Clients know this and adjust accordingly.
Evergreen content is evergreen because it has relevance that stands the test of time. Clients won’t be fooled into thinking timely content is evergreen simply because it lacks a date. More likely, they’ll simply hit “back.”
#4 – Write for Scanners
When we read on the web we generally don’t read the way we might read a book or a newspaper. We’re more likely to scan the article by reading the subheads and/or reading the titles of charts. Essentially, we read the article in little snippets or bites. Collectively, the subheads provide a synopsis of sorts that can be found simply by jumping from one to the next and gliding down the page. Once we’ve scanned the entire article top-to-bottom, we decide if we want to go back into the details communicated between them.
This has been proven time and again by eye tracking studies. As we test how people read web pages over and over, a familiar pattern forms that starts to like like an “F.” For this reason, breaking your article into a series of subheads, often accompanied with bullets is often known as developing “F-shaped content.”
Now, there’s an added benefit of structuring content in this form. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — it’s only quality content if Google says it is. And, of course, Google knows that web readers prefer to read this way. So, when it’s looking to infer the quality of an individual site page, all things being equal it places priority over articles that are structured the way we read online.
Google likes articles with short sentences. And, short paragraphs. That are communicated through subheads.
- And, use bullets.
- Because it makes them easier to read.
- On a computer or mobile device.
#5 – Target 1,000 – 2,000 Words
Unlike a print publication, a website has unlimited inventory. And, unlike a printed article, a web article can be as long as you make it. There’s no right length to a web article.
But, there is a right length to what it takes to communicate an idea with enough depth to make it worth the reader’s time. And, there is a right length to fit with the attention span that web readers tend to give an article.
Over the years, we’ve found that this magic spot is somewhere between 1,000 – 2,000 words. Articles shorter than this often lack the substance necessary to provide objective and interesting insight. They’re much less likely to provide the depth in thinking needed for the article to be deemed valuable, and hence rise in search engine results over time. Articles longer than about 2,000 words tend to require more time than most people will provide to read a single article online.
The average person can read about 200 words per minute while comprehending about 60% of what they’ve read. So, an article of 1,000 – 2,000 words would require the average person about 5-10 minutes to read, which is towards the ceiling of the amount of time we see people spend with articles on a firm’s website (at least based on the analytics).
The added benefit with longer articles is that some SEO research has found a correlation between the first organic search result for a topic and the length of the respective article. In fact, in an analysis of 1M Google searches, Backlinko found that the average page length of the first organic search result was 1,875 words.
Now, I would not argue that the inverse holds true — you wrote a long article so it will rise in search. Rather, I would argue that it takes some reasonable length to say anything of value. Therefore, longer form articles provide a higher level of quality to the reader. They’re more likely to be read, shared and linked to. Hence, they’re more likely to rise in search.
In most ways, the web is just like any other publishing media. Readers value and reward quality. That said, what constitutes quality to web readers (and Google) just looks a little different than authors and editors have often come to expect from their years working with print media. I hope this article will help you improve the overall effectiveness of your firm’s self-publishing efforts.