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Usable Content: a Blogger’s Introduction

You’ve probably heard of usability. Back in the day, when the web was wild(er) and free(r), usability proponents like Jakob Nielsen encouraged site owners to stop doing things like displaying yellow text on black backgrounds, shun the Blink and Marquee tags, and focus on helping users do what they wanted to do on websites.

These days, usability is crucial to the success not just of blogs, but of online businesses—much of the information we read about reducing friction and improving sales pages, for example, is based on usability principles. So are the layouts of popular blog themes, online image albums and video players, and so on.

But we can go further than this, to look at the usability of our content. Content usability isn’t often talked about, but as content creators, bloggers should get their heads around this idea.

What is content usability?

Content usability focuses on making the information we publish as usable a possible to the users our blogs target.

content usability

Copyright Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com

An example: if your blog targets people with dyslexia or other reading and comprehension difficulties, you’ll tailor your content to their needs. That might mean tweaking your layout, avoiding certain color combinations, changing your default fonts, altering your writing style, and so on.

Another example: if you run a blog that’s focused on promoting special offers (like a deal-aggregation blog, for example), you’ll want to make sure that every aspect of your content is targeted to readers achieving the goal of taking up those deals. Maybe you’ll make the deal links stand out through color choice. Perhaps you’ll also provide the details of each deal in a sidebar so that users don’t need to scroll through your content to find the links. Perhaps you’ll pull out the key aspects of each deal into a “vital stats” list that appears at the top of every post, for the same reason.

As you can see, the notion of content usability is closely tied to your audience and your blog’s purpose. That said, there are some general usability principles that you should consider in formulating your content.

Principles of content usability

Aside from the most basic ideas of content usability—accurate spelling, good structure, and so on—there are a few content usability principles that bloggers often ignore.

Use consistent formatting

Darren’s provided some detailed formatting advice for bloggers, and formatting is a big deal for usability.

The real key to formatting usability is to use formatting consistently, so that headings of the same level are given the appropriate markup (second-level headings are all H2s, for example), emphasis is always used in the same way, and so on.

This matters for a range of reasons that aren’t limited to the fact that human beings are reading your blog posts—SEO and screen readers, for example. But at its most basic, formatting tells readers something about the nature of the content you’re presenting, and about its component parts.

If I use italics for emphasis here, and bold here, you may well become confused, even subconsciously. Why are those two items (they could be headings, or titles, or images, or buttons) presented differently? Are they different? Okay, so that formatting might not make my content unusable, but it does reduce its usability. How? By increasing confusion.

Don’t underline online text

Using underlines on web text wasn’t cool in Jakob’s day, and it’s still not—even though web design, and web users, have both come a long way since then.

In the good (or bad, depending on how you see things) old days, underlines on text were reserved for hyperlinks—that was the signal to web users that the text was linked to another resource. It still is on many sites, and many of us still regard an underline as the standard form of web link.

Underline your text without a link—for the sake of emphasis, say—and you’ll confuse more than a few of your readers.

Include links

The web offers us a great benefit over every other communications medium in that when we refer to something or someone, we can show readers what that is without breaking the flow of our engagement with them.

Let’s imagine I’m talking to you about content usability, and I want to mention readability, but I’m not sure if you know what that is. Instead of that nice, subtle link I just included in the previous sentence, I’d probably end up saying something like this:

“So, yeah, content usability includes factors like readability and … oh, so readability’s about how easy it is to read and take in—like, comprehend, really—your stuff. So there are these online tests that let you paste in your content and they’ll tell you how readable it is; they’ll give you a readability score that corresponds to school grades and—what’s that? Oh? You know about readability? Cool. So … what was I saying again? Oh yeah, content usability…”

The web offers us the ability to suggest further reading and deeper insight without breaking the flow of communication, or telling readers things they don’t want or need to know. Links make your content more usable, because they make it more useful. Links help your readers to achieve their goals through your blog. Don’t just mention brand names, individuals, or websites: link to the them. And link to them in a way that helps readers predict what they’ll get if they click on the link.

Use pertinent words and phrases

If your content is going to be useable for your audience, surely speaking to those readers is a big part of the communications picture.

You’ll notice here on ProBlogger that we refer to bloggers a lot. We frequently refer to your blog, your audience, and your niche, as these are all terms that are part of the blogging vocabulary, and we all understand what they mean. As a secondary term, we do refer to your site, but only to avoid repetition. First and foremost, we call ourselves bloggers.

This isn’t about SEO—although of course it helps. This decision is about talking to our audience in the terms you understand—terms that resonate with you. Another example: when I first started with ProBlogger I asked Darren specifically if he (and you) referred to your blog visitors as “readers.” This is standard terminology on this blog, but it wasn’t for other publications I’ve worked on.

This may seem like a minor issue. But imagine you read three articles on ProBlogger, and not one of them contained any mention of blogs or blogging or readers. Imagine if all they referred to was sites and end users. You might start to question whether the content was really suited to you and your needs. You’d probably wonder how applicable—or useful—it was to your situation.

Use the words your readers know, understand, and expect. And use them consistently, so users aren’t jarred by a proliferation of terminology. This will help to make your content more usable, though again your readers may not realize it consciously.

Use the most appropriate content form

Content isn’t just words—we have at our disposal diagrams, photographs, video, sound, and interactivity in various forms. Often, written content should take a supporting role. It’s up to us as bloggers to discern those moments, and to use the tags, captions, and other tools available to us to augment, rather than replace, the appropriate content form.

In all cases, we should make the most of those possibilities, even at a text level. If your blog post doesn’t fit into list format, don’t write it as a list post. If as you’re writing, you find that your post becomes a list, go back and make that clear in the title and opening paragraphs. Telling users what they can expect—and then meeting that expectation—is vital to usability.

Think laterally

I’ll admit that I can be a bit slow on the uptake as a web user. That’s not good, because I use the web a lot, and I get grumpy when things don’t go as I expect. I can think of plenty of examples, off the top of my head, where usability could be better.

Each of these examples arises as a result of the point I made above: that on the web, we, as bloggers, can link to resources. That’s the up-side; the down-side is that we, as readers and users, can get confused about what can be clicked on, and where it will lead. Very confused, in some cases.

Like Darren’s Workbooks page—I really want to be able to click on the book titles there! I was looking for a book there today (ProBlogger’s Guide to Blogging for Your Business). I scrolled down, found the title, clicked! …aaaand nothing. I had to go all the way to the scroll bar again, drag it down, and click on the link.

Can your blog’s users click on the things they expect to?

Or, take Google’s page header (it’s not a blog, but it deserves a mention). When I started using Google+ I had some questions and started looking for Help. I saw that little cog in the top-right corner, but I thought it provided access to my settings, not help. Even the page footer, standard location for Help and Privacy links, lacks a link to Help!

Help-less

I expected to see a Help link in this menu bar. Is that so wrong?

Does your blog clearly indicate what’s what, and what leads to where? You might need to do some user testing to find out the truth on this one.

And what about this shot from Copyblogger? This box appears at the bottom of Copyblogger’s right-hand sidebar. I don’t know about you, but I’m a lazy clicker. The box has one link. So (my whiny-teen-alter-ego whinges), why can’t I click anywhere on that box to access the link?

Why can't I click anywhere?

Copyblogger kudos box: not so clicky

Does your blog make users work harder than they need to?

These kinds of issues may require some lateral thinking—or some user testing—to uncover, but correcting them could make your blog, your newsletter, your sales pages, and your content in general, a whole lot more usable.

Making content usable

Okay, so people don’t talk much about content usability. But people who create content and publish it should have a firm grasp and consciousness of the concept and what it means for their users. We’re not always going to get it right, but we owe it to ourselves and our readers to strive constantly to improve content usability.

How can you do that? You could review some of your content using the ideas I’ve mentioned here, and see where you could make improvements. You could play around with wireframing software like mockingbird to create different presentations for your content. Perhaps you know a usability professional who you can speak to about the principles of usability—or you could just pick up a book on the topic at your local library. Once you get started, you might like to do some user testing to see if you are actually making your content more usable for readers.

If you need a little extra impetus, consider that in many cases, better content usability means better content reusability. Format your posts well, use reader-appropriate language, link wherever you can, and employ the appropriate formats for the message you’re delivering, and you’ll be much more easily able to repackage that content into a saleable format down the track.

How usable is your content? Are you conscious of usability as you write and prepare posts for publication? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

About Georgina Laidlaw

Georgina Laidlaw is a freelance content developer, and Content manager for problogger.net. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Jacob says:

    Wonderful read, Georgina. Since I love SEO, I tend to take everything back to SEO–which you mentioned briefly in the beginning. By increasing content usability, you increase the amount of time that people spend on your site. More so, you decrease the amount of people that are clicking back away from your site rather than going forward to another article–this is the bounce rate.

    By making content usable, you show search engines that your site is useful to visitors so it would be good for the search engine to rank you high. Considering the business of a search engine is to provide the most useful content to visitors, ranking high quality sites means that the search engine gets a better reputation. For so long, that was why Google was so good.

    In the end, decreasing bounce rate and increasing the amount of time spent on a site means that your site is more usable. And, that’s a great thing in the eyes of the search engine which, in turn, can mean even more traffic for your blog.

  2. Anand says:

    Good ideas and useful tips….Thanks,hope i improve my content writing skills and make it usable….

  3. Bruce says:

    Wow,

    Good tips and insite . . . putting them into practice will take – yes practice. Thanks.

  4. Megan says:

    There is nothing like a few appropriately placed bullet points to break up text and make your articles easier to read and een more importantly, easier to scan. lets face it most people do not read an entire article – they scan for the best bits. As writers it is our job to highlight the best bits.

    there is nothing I hate more than finding it hard to find a link which ought to be there. I am guilty myself of not adding links to my posts. I am usually too interested in publishing them ASAP. But if it improves readability and usability, I should take the time.

  5. Harrison Li says:

    Well said Georgina! Guess it was about time to have someone actually point this out, I hate reading content that gives no information with real value, just bs after bs, quality content is really content with actionable steps that can be taken live straight away.

  6. Lars says:

    Ha! You are so right.. That’s actually one of the largest issues at the moment. Making homepages look decent is easy with WordPress, making it useable.. That’s another story.
    Thanks.

  7. At first I thought that the reason that Google’s main menu bar lacks help icon is becuase the product “Google Plus” is actually in a field trial. It is not even the beta version.

    But then I noticed that help is not available on the “Google.com” main page as well.

  8. Susan Silver says:

    Great introduction to usability prinicples. I think anyone who manages their own blog needs to at least know the basics. Especially now that Google and other Search Engines are serious about load speed and site previews.

  9. Himanshu says:

    good tips. help improve my post writing skills

  10. Bret says:

    Usability is something most people don’t think about EVEN when it goes wrong. All a web user will think it ICK and that rhyme’s with CLICK, as in, click-away-from-your-site. Or something.

  11. I once wrote an article called “How to go about an article you wish you had written?” on my blog. Not this is one of the articles I was referring to. Useable content is crucial to your blogs and websites success. It all comes down to knowing your audience and understanding there needs.

    Using content can really can be just anything. Using content can be laughing at a humorous post, picking up a step by step guide to turn me into a vegetarian etc. Really just anything.

    I like to write a introduction to the topics I discuss and than provide a bullet list of the main fact (steps) for my readers to pick up the info easily and make use of it.

  12. hashif says:

    Great Article to read on..These tips are really useful for Me to improve my writing skills..

  13. “We owe it to ourselves and our readers to strive constantly to improve content usability.”
    Tottaly agree. Very useful tips. Thanks for honest writing.

  14. Booey says:

    There is a help option on the Google bar. On the far right is setting icon. In the drop down list is a help. They have a help there for all of their services that uses that black bar.