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The Paradox of Content

Earlier this week, I wrote about “the catch-22 of relevance” and mentioned how SEO relevance ultimately comes down to a website’s content… “It’s no easy task to provide lots of great, high-quality content week in and week out. But that’s what it boils down to.. providing great content.” But content is a tricky thing.

What is content?

Let me clarify what I mean by “content.” The dictionary definition of the word “content” tells us that everything visible to a user on your website’s pages is considered your website’s content. But what I’m referring to with the word “content” is the meat of the sandwich. Header, footer, nav, sidebar, ads, etc.. all that is extra. People don’t come to your website to check out your footer. You don’t eat a burger for the slice of cheese on top of it. Users visit your site for the main content (the all-beef patty).

On most commercial websites, this main content tends to be comprised of product descriptions, sales pitches, articles, white papers, or other information. It’s often accompanied by photos, videos, screencasts, etc.

What’s the big deal?

We’ve established that content is the bread and butter of a website. As search engines go, content is the metric by which all sites are graded… What is this website about? How much info does it provide? How often is it updated? For search engines, content is the be-all and end-all of a website.

To humans, though, content is a little less cut-and-dry. Text content is great and it can be extremely informative. But, to a human user, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We are not meant to envision the world in lines of text. (Sidenote: I found it impossible to think of a word to use in that last sentence that didn’t, in some way, imply the use of seeing, vision, eyes, etc). 90% of the information we receive is gathered through our eyes. Of course, that includes reading, but it also means that we rely on visual stimulus for the majority of our mental process. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t get a ton of visual stimulus from reading line after line of text.

So what’s the point?

The point is that text content will be largely ignored by human users. Every usability test ever conducted has shown that users don’t read, they scan.

Another catch-22 (sort of): web authors want to attract users. To do this, they employ SEO efforts. SEO strength is built on relevance. Relevance is determined by content. Text content is written for human users. Human users largely ignore text content.

The Paradox

The paradox of content is simple: high-quality content brings users to your website… and when they get there, they won’t read your content.

The Exception

Blogs treat content differently than commercial or “informational” websites. Blogs exist because someone wants to publish content and someone else wants to read that content. These might be the exception to the rule.

Clearly, there are more exceptions to the rule than just blogs (news sources, wikipedia, etc). And, since every user is different, nothing is ever universally true. But, in the commercial web world, the rule applies almost across the board.