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Is Your Content Fit to Print?

  |  February 18, 2003   |  Comments

Great online content should be easy to bring into the offline world.

Usability is a topic I've steered clear of for several reasons. First and foremost, there are far too many gurus on the topic already.

But let's talk about something more basic. Let's talk printability.

I'm referring to the simple act of printing out a Web page. Did I say simple? How many times have you printed out a page and found it a.) unreadable because the background is pitch black; b.) missing key words on the right margin; or c.) three pages too long because of advertising, useless lists of related links, or generally uninteresting text tagged on the end?

Since I've been haranguing ClickZ readers about the importance of meaningful content all these years, it's my duty now to harangue Web site creators about the importance of printing content.

It's not merely annoying when I can't print content or when all the words are obliterated. It's enough to lose me as an interested reader.

I don't have statistics on how many users print out Web pages, but I'm willing to bet it's a fairly high number. Some people simply can't tolerate reading large text blocks on a monitor. Others demand a certain "portability" for their Web reading. So after you've developed sparkling content, it's a good idea to ensure it's printer friendly.

Granted, many sites claim to offer "printer friendly" versions, but there's broad interpretation of what's friend and what's foe. A truly printable page should:

  • Eliminate colored backgrounds. I don't know about you, but I paid over $30.00 for my last inkjet cartridge. I want to think it won't be wasted on unreadable backgrounds or strange bars and graphics that obscure text.

  • Remove information that has no meaning on paper. This includes links to related articles, online surveys, and navigation bars. Consider removing banner ads as well, unless this means significant revenue loss (note that NYTimes.com retains one banner ad at the top of the page). For users, printing banner ads is a tremendous ink-waster. As they can't be clicked, many ads are less effective.

  • Use black, serif text. Ever print a page with type so gray you'd think you were reading it in the midst of a London fog? Printer friendly text is serif, sized 10 or 12 points, and black.

  • Display the URL of the original version on the printed page. It's a wonderful reference. Including the date on which the information was posted is even nicer.

  • Have just the desired content. Don't worry if the printed page looks nothing like your lovely Web site. If content is "good enough to print," simply having printed text in hand will satisfy readers. Look at ClickZ's printer-friendly version. It eliminates pictures (including those lovely author mugs!) and all navigation elements (yes, there are banner ads, and the text is sans serif). Also look at the International Herald Tribune's site, which offers wonderfully crisp print outs.

For more insights on the simple but overlooked topic of printability, see Walt Crawford's article in EContent or the piece in NUblog, which include useful advice for your Webmaster. As Crawford points out, if you create meaningful content, printability should be a primary concern. "If your content is short and worthless," he adds, "you don't need to worry about printing."

Granted, many of you think the printability problem has been solved by most Webmasters. Think again. Crawford points out Yahoo News's printer-friendly version chops off critical text in the right margin. It should be noted msnbc.com doesn't even offer a printer-friendly option.

Here's something else to think about. Last month, a team of New Zealand-based doctors concluded sitting in front of a computer for hours on end may increase the risk of blood clots. For the sake of your Web site visitors, make your pages printer friendly. Encourage folks to read the print outs as they move around a bit. Think of it as a safety measure.

P.S.: For the record, I tried to print this AP story from Yahoo News and got, "A team of New Zealand-based doctors diagnosed a life-threatening case of this type of clot in a 32-year old man who regular 12 hours a day using his computer..." Another case of missing text... and garbled printed content.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon is the executive director of marketing and public relations for Memorial Health Services, a five-hospital health system in Southern California. In this capacity, she manages promotional activities for both traditional and new media. Susan is also a marketing communications instructor at the University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

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