Web content really IS critical!

August 26th, 2004


Today I had the pleasure to hear web content guru Gerry McGovern speak at a full-day workshop in Wellington, New Zealand. He’s got to be one of the very best speakers I’ve ever heard! His course material, his sense of humor, his thought-provoking insights, and especially his Irish accent — had everyone in the audience mesmerized. Here’s a sampling of the day’s take-aways:

  • Action vs. reaction: If a site visitor’s action results in a reaction from your web site that has a wait time exceeding that of the action, the visitor will become frustrated. That frustration will build as more . For example, clicking on the File menu tab only takes a second, so the time it takes for the menubar to appear underneath should take no more than a second.
  • 80/20 rule of content: For many sites, less than 20% of the site content accounts for over 80% of the pageviews. With it was 1% of their content accounted for 99% of the pageviews. In fact, 35% of their pages had never been viewed! That’s well over a million pages of content that people at Microsoft worked hard to write ? for nothing. Focus your efforts on the copy that will be read, not on the copy that won’t.
  • Columns: Readers use their peripheral vision to keep track of the beginning of the next line down while they are reading across a line. So with text that has a long linewidth, it becomes difficult to read. Gerry recommends a three column format, with 20% or so of the width going to the first column (use this column for navigation), 60% or so dedicated to the middle column, and another 20% or so for the right hand column.
  • Call for action: Always end your pages with a clear action for the reader to take. Never leave the reader hanging, wondering what to do next. The center column at the end of the body copy is a critical piece of real estate for these calls for action.
  • Links in copy: According to Gerry, links in the middle of body copy distracts the readers making it difficult for them to read the paragraph, and it connotes “hey, click on me… the rest of this text is really boring!” Instead of embedding links within the body copy, consider using the right hand column for the related links. If there are important links there that take the reader to the “next step,” also repeat them at underneath the body copy in the center column.
  • Simplicity: Einstein purportedly was quoted as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Apply this idea to your web copy. Keep your copy as short and simple as possible. People tend not to read long copy on the web. With a 300 word page, 50% will read it to the end; 500 words, 20%; 1000 words, 5%. Gerry recommends headings of 4 to 8 words, summaries of 30 to 50 words, sentences of 15 to 20 words, and paragraphs of 40 to 70 words.
  • “Kill your darlings”: William Faulkner once said this. If there’s a particular expression or way of saying something that you’re particularly fond of, delete it from your copy, because you’re probably overusing it.

Gerry covered so much more than this, but it would take a book to cover it all. Oh, wait a minute… there is a book covering it all. Buy Gerry’s book, Content Critical.

Spiders like Googlebot choke on Session IDs

June 25th, 2004


Many ecommerce sites have session IDs or user IDs in the URL of their pages. This tends to cause either the pages to not get indexed by search engines like Google, or to cause the pages to get included many times over and over, clogging up the index with duplicates (this phenonemon is called a “spider trap”). Furthermore, having all these duplicates in the index causes the site’s importance score, known as PageRank, to be spread out across all these duplicates (this phenonemon is called “PageRank dilution”).

Ironically, Googlebot regularly gets caught in a spider trap while spidering one of its own sites – the Google Store (where they sell branded caps, shirts, umbrellas, etc.). The URLs of the store are not very search engine friendly: they and are overly complex, and include session IDs. This has resulted in 3,440 duplicate copies of the Accessories page and 3,420 copies of the Office page, for example.

If you have a dynamic, database-driven website and you want to avoid your own site becoming a spider trap, you’ll need to keep your URLs simple. Try to avoid having any ?, &, or = characters in the URLs. And try to keep the number of “parameters” to a minimum. With URLs and search engine friendliness, less is more.

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