Just a quick note before I get to the post: I had planned on publishing a podcast today, but no matter what I did it just kept sounding terrible. Between this dreadful cold I have and my ambient environment being extremely noisy (and having no control over it), I decided to scrap it. However, after thinking about it for a while, I decided that until I can make the podcast a more valuable experience for you, I’m going to put it on hold. Because in addition to the issues outside of my control, I just wasn’t happy enough with its content. This is my own fault for being too busy to manage it in the way it needs. If you were enjoying it, I’m sorry for taking it away from you for a while.
Search changed everything
This post is going to be about more than just blogging, but blogging is a huge part of it. I’ve been subconsciously brewing this post for a long time, but the final piece fell into place when I got an email from from my friend Jim Taggart, who sent me a link to this article about Google “making us stupid.” He suggested I might be able to find implications in it for blogging. After a couple days of letting it stew, I think perhaps I can. And without the hand-wringing and moralizing. You don’t have to read it to understand this post, but it’s worth reading.
People are funny: one the one hand, we love the new when it delights and entertains us… but when we are required to make changes and do things differently, we tend to hate the new. I don’t think at all that Google is making us stupid, although that’s an interesting example of how a good headline works. I do think that how we think, read, write, and talk is evolving because of the advent of search. You could say–without the slightest amount of hyperbole–that search changed everything. I feel that understanding this will make you a much better writer for the web than any list of superficial tips and tricks.
Search existed before Google, and it will exist afterward. Using a database is nothing more than a search by a different name: query. Databases existed before the internet. The advent of nearly all text and data becoming digital means that searching in order to find whatever is wanted has become the most important activity in “digital consumption”: the finding, accessing, and reading/watching/listening to art or information.
Think of the web as a gigantic database of the human race. Through our various input methods (a WordPress dashboard, Facebook, comment forms) and output methods (web pages, video, audio, games, images, data) we work with this huge database. It’s a very, very messy database (this is a rough analogy, I know… try not to think about it too deeply). And you don’t get anything out of a database unless you query it correctly.
If you knew in the first place how people were going to access the information, wouldn’t you want to create and structure that information in a way that makes that process easier?
This is why SEO, for better or worse and in all its white and black hat glory, has become such a powerful tool.
But it’s more than SEO
The days of “clever” pun-filled headlines are gone. You have–whether you realize it or not–been sent to headline writing school, where each lesson is an exercise that results in clicks… or not. The amount of traffic and leads/sales you get is your “grade.” I know that any headline I write needs to be relevant to the right people out of context as it randomly appears in people’s social media streams, email inboxes, and RSS readers. To paraphrase an old copywriting proverb, the headline has only one job: to get clicked.
New era, new body
It’s not just the headlines that are different, now. The actual content of a piece of… er.. content has also changed. Our expectations of content have also changed. You’re just not going to find a comma separated list comprised of more than three items, anymore. You’d put that into the form of a bulleted list. Gigantic walls of unbroken text do not get read. This is not to say that long articles don’t get read–they certainly do. But they’re formatted and written differently than a magazine article was fifty years ago.
When you open an article on the web, you probably do not simply begin reading at the top and continue straight through to the end. If you see a wall of unbroken text comprised of long paragraphs, it’s likely you won’t bother. Whether it’s because you lack the patience or whether it’s because most of the content you find online isn’t compelling… who can say? The Atlantic article argues for the former and blames Google for it. But I know as well an any long-time web writer that most of what you find online is just shit.
And I wonder if that’s part of the reason why we skim and scan: we don’t want our time wasted, and we’ve learned that much online is indeed a waste of time. If an initial scan doesn’t look promising, we leave. Not understanding this is the difference between subheads and other elements on the page that keep the reader, and elements that communicate to the reader: don’t bother, not worth it.
I’m not discounting that the ubiquity and easy access of smartphones has changed things. A Halloween cover of the New Yorker magazine in recent years was a painting of parents taking their children out trick-or-treating, except every parent’s face was lit by the blue glow of a smartphone held up near their face. As much as I love and benefit from technology, I found it a sad statement. And yet that person might be reading your blog. You want them to read your blog. You want them to think of you as the expert, the go-to person for your niche. Whether they’re doing that when they shouldn’t be (in your opinion) is out of your control and not your concern.
Compelling and relevant wins the day
Headlines and content which are compelling and relevant cut through the noise and hold scattered attention. Your biggest competition isn’t your competition, it’s that the person reading your post on her iPhone has to stop so she can order her latte at Starbucks. In that situation you’re probably lucky she chose to read your post at all, considering all the options available to her at that moment.
If you make your goals relevance and compelling content, the details of how don’t matter as much. Even if you break every “rule” in the web writing book, if your content is compelling and relevant, people will strive to consume it, as I proved in my post about experimenting with your blog. For a period of time, I wrote posts that had no sub-headings and few bullet points. People still enjoyed them and found them valuable. They put in the effort to read them.
Search, selection and action
The process of choosing what to spend your time on is one of search and selection. Sure, the most obvious form of search is to go to Google and type something in the little box there. But whenever you open your Twitter stream or Facebook stream, you’re also looking at a kind of search results. It’s just in a different form, and you saved the search criteria and think of it as “going to a page”, not “executing a search query.”
Within those search results, you select what it is you’re going to give your attention to.
From there, as a writer, you have the profound task of trying to get the reader to take action. This is where writing comes together with marketing and web design: you want the reader of your content to take action. It’s not as simple as writing a book or a magazine article.
You can’t unsee this
Once you see how people use and consume content online, you cannot “unsee” it. Nor would you want to, because your goal is to help people while earning your keep. You can rail against mobile digital culture or you can benefit from it. Instead of a simple list of tips and tricks, what I wanted to do here is get you to really understand how and why people consume content the way they do so you can make sure yours gets read.