Content Matters: The Peril of Prioritizing Style Over Substance

typewriter and a cup of coffee

Ever since the beginnings of the Internet, people have been trying to game the system to place first in search results. Some have nefarious intentions; others are just misguided. Ultimately, most people want their clients and potential clients to be able to find and consume their content. 

But if you’re prioritizing style over substance, then you’re already on shaky ground. 

There needs to be a balance, of course, but in much of the discussion about how to better present content online, the focus is often heavily skewed towards structural items like content length, formatting, style, and white space. But what often gets ignored is actually the most important determining factor for your users:


Google's increasing emphasis on user experience and upcoming Search ranking change lists relevant content as a factor. As always, a good user experience includes writing content that aligns with your users’ needs and not your own.

Writing content that focuses on plain language, avoids flowery prose, and is concise and focused is really, really hard.

Writing for the web is it’s own thing, and at the foundation of it is writing. Knowing how to write, understanding how to structure content, and targeting the message to its intended audience are fundamental skills that you need to have. If the content is all over the place, with no focus, and just rambles on, no amount of semantic markup, bulleted lists, or complementary imagery is going to make it better. 

Understand what your readers want

The key words here are “what your readers want.” Not you. Not what you think they should be exposed to, but rather focus on that “what’s in it for me?” messaging that’s so vital to align with user needs.

The best way to know? Ask. Do user research if you can. Or, less formally, talk to your customers and clients about what they need out of a website. You’ll probably find that their behaviour is limited to maybe one or two actions.

If you have access to analytics data on your site, that’s another way to understand what people are looking for and how they’re interacting with your site. 

Keep it aligned

Nobody is reading your site end-to-end. It’s not a book, it’s a website. 

Chances are, they’re not even starting “at the beginning.” Look at your analytics -- likely the home page gets a significant amount of traffic, but not a majority. Often we see numbers like 15 to 25 per cent of traffic is on the home page.

Why? Because people don’t come in the “front door” when looking for content. More and more, they’re using long-tail, natural-language search (“Hey Google! What time is that restaurant open?” or “Alexa! Where is the theatre located?”) 

Ideally, if you’ve got a well-structured site that’s using appropriate semantic markup and content, your users will be driven right to where they need to go. But the challenge is ensuring that you’re aligning the language you use (and for which you’re optimizing your site) with what people are actually searching for. 

Whether you choose to have multiple targetted pages or longer, but well-structured, pages, you want to ensure that the key terms are aligned with what people want. This will also help you with the next part:

Keep it focused

I’m a fan of a good high bounce rate, if it’s there for a good reason. On any site I work on, I want people to spend as little time as possible on it. I want them to be driven where they need to go, in a way that makes sense to them, so they can get what they need done right away.

Most of us want what we want when we want it. For the most part, we know what the transaction is that we’re wishing to execute. That’s probably the vast majority of our search queries. 

Yes, there are times when you want to browse or explore. But for the most part, you want to make sure you’re focused on what the user is looking for and providing them with access to exactly what they need with a minimum of fuss.

Staying focused on the user can be a challenge for many companies, though. After all, you want to expose users to other offerings. You want to engage them more in your business. And, for some reason, you think they want to know your corporate history.

That may be the case for a few people -- but the majority of users just want to get stuff done. So focus on letting them do just that.

Allow intuitive pathways to more information

Like I said, most people just want what they want quickly. But there are others who may be looking for more. Instead of trying to be all things to all people (which is where we get into the ever-scrolling, wall-of-text content), you can satisfy those users by providing them with intuitive pathways to get to more information.

I recently saw an infographic that talks about “skimmers, swimmers, and divers” (I’d share the link, but there are so many versions that I don’t want to inappropriately credit it to someone). Essentially, this breaks down users into three groups:

  • Skimmers: just a high-level scan of the page until they find what they want;
  • Swimmers: also scanning, but willing to spend a little more time when they find something else of interest to them; and
  • Divers: those who want to investigate further a specific topic and are willing to head down the rabbit hole for more information.

You can focus on relevancy for the majority of your audience. Give them just the facts and the actions they need. But by using calls to action, links to related content, and other presentations of information (infographics, videos, related products), you can present the opportunity for those who are interested to learn more about the topic in a manner that’s not only intuitive to the user, but also is not obtrusive. 

You don’t need to force people to read all your content if all they want to do is complete a transaction. And by presenting intuitive pathways to more information, you help people who are still in the exploration, evaluation, or validation stages of their process.

Once you have relevancy down, all the rest of the tools you have at your disposal will only help to amplify that message. 

With Google's recent emphasis on UX in SEO ranking, companies that rely on organic search traffic would do well to conduct a UX audit to ensure that their site scores well on SEO. Contact your web partner or call us to help!

Questions Answered

What is writing for the web?

What does it mean to have relevant user content?

What does google's page experience mean for web content?



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