Writing better content for usability and SEO

On the web people rarely read things carefully, if they read them at all. Jakob Nielsen identified the now familiar F-shaped scanning pattern decades ago, and many writers for the web employ some version of his advice for adapting content to this behaviour.

As content takes a more prominent role in marketing and SEO in particular, what are some key considerations and techniques in approaching content production?

Shorter isn’t necessarily better

Merely making things shorter isn’t enough. The blunt, functional emails familiar to work environments may be short, but their brevity is more often the result of being written quickly than carefully. No wonder so many people cite work email as a source of confusion and resentment.

But texts which are both shorter and clearer are more difficult to write, especially without practice. In sacrificing words we don’t want to lose meaning.

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.

And here’s where a lot of content-related SEO strategy goes wrong. In the drive for rapid deployment, scalability and maximum ROI, nuances are often glossed over.

Dumbing down

A key principle for clearer content is keeping reading levels low. In general this means aiming for a Flesch-Kincaid score of around 8, i.e. a typical 8th grade student (around 13 years old) should be able to read it. Slightly above the level of a tabloid newspaper.

It’s hard not to see this as a kind of anti-intellectualism, forgoing depth and meaning in favour of popular appeal. But this this needn’t be the case.

I strongly recommend reading this fascinating analysis by journalist Shane Snow. In short, his work shows that most of our finest modern literature is written at or below 9th grade levels of comprehension. This includes works by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Hemingway and erm… Dan Brown.

As he points out, most assume that a higher reading level equates to better writing. Yet even those who’re capable of reading at higher levels prefer reading at lower levels.

We should, he says, aim to reduce complexity in our writing as much as possible. We won’t lose credibility by doing so. Our readers will comprehend and retain our ideas more reliably. And we’ll have a higher likelihood of reaching more people (emphasis mine).

Natural language processing and SEO

We know Google goes beyond merely matching search terms to keywords in content. Various applications of natural language processing algorithms have been around for a while and, more recently, RankBrain — an artificial intelligence — has been helping to make their web search results smarter.

One possible outcome of this is that we’re closer than ever to the ideal of search engines’ really understanding the content they index. But while AI is making incredible leaps, there’s still a long way to go.

Consider the Winograd Schema Challenge. A kind of Turing Test, these demonstrate subtleties in natural language that we humans take for granted:

Q: The town councillors refused to give the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence. Who feared violence?

Answer 1: the town councillors

Answer 2: the angry demonstrators

Q: The town councillors refused to give the demonstrators a permit because they advocated violence. Who advocated violence?

Answer 1: the town councillors

Answer 2: the angry demonstrators

While the answers seem simple to us, this is because we can draw on a wealth of “common sense” understanding of how the world usually works. Deprived of the knowledge that it’d be highly unusual for town councillors to be advocating violence, the answer’s far less clear.

So not only will your site’s visitors appreciate clearer content, search engines will too.

Tools for clearer writing

Writing clearly is harder and takes longer, but like any skill it develops with practice. Here are some tools to get started with.

GDS design principles

The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) won much praise for its design of the GOV.UK website. Brilliantly usable, it’s based on 7 key design principles which can easily be applied to content writing. For example:

  • Start with needs – Know what your users actually want. If you don’t know, research.
  • Design with data – Learn from the real world, and apply it. For content, this can be data from typical web analytics packages, social sharing data, and detailed “over the shoulder” session tracking with platforms like Hotjar.
  • Do the hard work to make it simple – As above, shorter and clearer is harder. “Don’t take ‘It’s always been that way’ for an answer. It’s usually more and harder work to make things simple, but it’s the right thing to do.”
  • Understand context – Consider where and how your content will be used. What devices will it be viewed on? Are visitors likely to be multi-tasking?

Plain Anglish

Anglish is an attempt at creating a “purer” form of English by removing Latin influence. Stick with it, I promise this makes sense.

In short, English is a Germanic language which acquired a French (therefore Latin) influence after the Norman Conquest. This influence was greatest on the language of the upper classes, and therefore on language concerning topics of culture, religion, law, politics and the like.

As a result, many of the more complex sounding words in modern English have Latin origins. The trouble is that Germanic equivalents are usually much simpler and more widely understood.

Now, I’m not advocating writing in pure Anglish. Some Germanic words like beseech and harbinger are as likely to confuse as Latinate ones, like concomitant and egress. But the general point is sound. As George Orwell put it, never use a long word where a short one will do.

Hemingway App

Hemingway is well known for his sparse and to-the-point style. As you’d expect, then, the Hemingway App helps trim the fluff from your writing until it’s clear and easy to read. It does this by encouraging you to avoid adverbs, passive language and complex sentences.

It’s pretty brutal and, in my experience, takes some persistence before you’ll get used to it. It’s easy to feel like nothing you write will please old Hem. Two things are important:

  1. It takes practice. You need to learn how to re-construct your sentences, and be more direct than perhaps you’re used to. The real beauty of this is that you have to improve your thinking. As Einstein said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
  2. You don’t have to take it too literally. At fist you’ll want to get rid of every single highlighted “mistake”, but you don’t have to. If you can’t simplify without destroying meaning, leave it alone; just keep an eye on the overall reading score.

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