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It Comes Down to the Words

  |  November 6, 2002   |  Comments

Words are your site's most precious asset -- or worst liability.

The success of your Web site comes down to the quality of the words you publish on it. Words are your most basic asset and building block. Metadata, classification, and navigation are made up of words. Your content depends on words. Search engines index words, and people search using words. Why do so many sites regard words with so little respect?

Many people don't really care about the words they use. They flick them onto a page as they flick dandruff off a coat collar. This disdain is particularly evident on the Web. Trillions of words are published on millions of Web sites. Much of this publishing is of appalling quality.

Many managers don't view words as important. They pay lip service, sure. But when it comes down to paying more for better writing, they don't want to hear about it. Rewarding the better writer? They don't want to know. So their sites remain substandard.

"Never forget that the heart of The Irish Times is its journalism," stated Conor Brady, recently retired editor of the paper. "Yes it's wonderful to have a state-of-the-art plant.... But it's all built on what journalists do."

Organizations continually fall into the technology trap. Technology is based on promises of automation, greater productivity, reduced costs, and fewer people. In many areas, technology has wonderfully fulfilled this promise, as with building cars and making computers.

Technology promises little for content. Shakespeare, Joyce, and Yeats didn't require word processors to express their genius. Some would say word processors facilitate a decline in writing quality.

One writer, explaining why he always wrote the first draft on paper, stated: "My mind moves slower than my fingers." This is the kernel of the technology/content issue. Without clarity of thought, a capacity for communication, and a way with style, content is nothing. These skills do not come easily. They're rarely mastered. Technology can impede, rather than encourage, their development.

I ran a workshop recently where we talked about the importance of headings and summaries on the Web. The audience (mainly professional writers) agreed. One lamented the organization he worked for didn't want to invest in writing skills. The constant refrain was, "How can we automate this?"

You can't automate the creation of quality content. Someone, somewhere, has to write the stuff. If she's not good at her job, the process becomes not only redundant but also counter-productive.

Poor content harms your reputation, reduces productivity and profitability, and impacts a company's value. If you're not going to do it well, don't do it at all.

"Never forget we work for the reader," Conor Brady told his audience. It's not unusual to find organizations that have given little to no consideration as to who might actually read what's on their Web sites. Forget your reader and you can forget success. This holds true for an intranet, an extranet, or a public Web site.

Words are tools. Learn how to master them. Technology won't help. Think, read, and write. A lot.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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