How to unbury your awesome and useful content

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The last time I worked on a client’s content strategy, painstakingly reviewing thousands of pages on their existing website, I noticed that I felt exactly the same as when I’m cleaning out a closet. It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves mixture of annoyance and determination. I find myself muttering, “What is THIS doing here?” and “Ugh. Chuck it.”

Most non-profit and higher education websites we’ve redesigned are suffering from buried content when they first come to us. It's understandable, since organizing large amounts of content—not to mention all the people who are contributing it—is no easy task.

The Columbia University Center for Career Education (CCE) had exactly this problem. As we were digging around their old site, we discovered a goldmine of great resources for students looking for a job or internship—articles on everything from using LinkedIn, to acing a career fair, to writing a thank-you letter after an interview. But these articles weren’t benefitting Columbia’s students very much. That’s because they were all housed on one giant page of linked PDFs that lived about 42 clicks* deep into the site. Here are a few measures we took to help their content see the light of day, and some tips for you to do the same.

* Number of clicks may be slightly exaggerated.

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CCE's awesome career resources were housed on one very long and uninspiring table. And consider yourself lucky if you could find it.

Make sure users want or need it.

An important part of research and discovery is to figure out what content your users need and want the most. But how?

  • Review your analytics to see what content is currently most and least popular.

  • Survey your users about what new or existing content they are most interested in. Sometimes users ask for content that does not yet exist on the site, which is a good sign that it should.

  • Get input from your staff about what content they think is important for users to have. For example, CCE's staff often help students find careers they can pursue with a certain major, so they wanted to offer resources on this topic.

Once we’ve looked at all three of these angles, we look for discrepancies. Is there existing content on your site that nobody ever visits, but that your users and staff think is important? If so, that's a good sign that important content is getting buried.

Use a topic-based navigation.

In a site with hundreds of articles, handouts, videos, and webinars, a traditional hierarchical navigation doesn’t cut it. If you organize all this content hierarchically, it means the user has to drill down through many sub-categories. If the user looks in the wrong section, they have to backtrack and start over. Also, what happens if a single article could live in more than one section?

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The old navigation grouped content into hierarchical categories that require several clicks in and tell you nothing about the subject matter.

Switching to a topic-based navigation that uses tagging had a few benefits for CCE:

  • They can organize content by topics that are meaningful to their students and alumni—words like, “Jobs,” “Internships,” “Resumes,” and “Networking.”

  • Seeing these topics in the main navigation helps users quickly understand what the site is about and zero in on content of interest.

  • The tag pages group related content together, making it easier to browse and discover.

  • Content can now live in more than one place. For example, an article on Networking for Veterans lives under both the “Jobs” and “Student veterans” tags without having to replicate the content.

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The new navigation is organized by topic, so users can easily find content that's of interest to them with only one click.

Convert PDFs to web pages whenever possible.

Every year, CCE publishes an 80-page career planning guide as a printed booklet. They used to excerpt PDF pages and link to them on their website. As part of the project, we helped their PDFs into individual web-based articles that came up more easily via the site search.

Your users will have a better browsing experience if your content lives in web pages rather than in PDFs, for a few reasons:

  • PDF layouts are not responsive; they're designed to fit a particular sheet of paper. Users on phones and tablets might have to pinch, zoom, scroll sideways… and let’s face it, nobody wants that.

  • PDFs take over the browser window, which means the user loses the site’s navigation, share links, related content, and other features provided by a web page.

  • HTML content is better optimized for search engines and users with disabilities. It also typically loads faster.

Help users discover new content.

Once CCE’s content was converted to web pages and appropriately organized by tag, we also wanted to make sure that users could had multiple ways to discover additional content throughout the site. Whenever we conduct usability testing, we typically see three kinds of users—and any one person uses all three methods to some degree.

  • Navigators.These users primarily use the main navigation to get around, so tag pages work great for them.

  • Searchers typically go straight to the site-wide search, or to another searchable section and whittle down the results by various criteria. We made sure CCE’s resources would be searchable by topic, type, industry, or audience.

  • Browsers scroll up and down on pages looking for content that’s of interest to them. For these users, featured resources on the homepage and related resources on other pages can be helpful.

Write great headlines and choose an enticing photo.

On the new site, articles were going to pop up in various places—in search, on tag pages, in related content areas, and featured on the homepage. We encouraged CCE to make these teasers as engaging as possible by crafting great headlines and choosing appealing imagery.

On CCE’s old sites, the content was labeled sensibly but didn’t have an inspiring headline. In our content workshop, we showed them how to write a headline that inspires curiosity or promises a benefit. A few examples:

Old title New headline
Finding a job - second interview You Got a Second Interview! Now What?
Finding a job - researching organizations What to Know Before You Go: Researching Organizations
General Resources - Action verbs 200+ Action Verbs to Spice up your Resume
Skills - Professional Image Your Professional Image: Put your Best Foot Forward
Skills - Networking with Alumni Tools for Building Connections with Alumni

We didn’t want the site to end up with a million stock photos of resumes. We encouraged CCE to get photography that featured Columbia's diverse students engaged with various stages of the job search process—planning, talking to a counselor, networking, and so on.

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Each resource now has an engaging image and headline to get students interested and help the discover new content.

Just say no to outdated content.

Few things make me sadder than running a usability test and watching a user discover an event and say, “Wow, I’d love to go to this!… Oh. It’s from 2012. [crestfallen sigh]”

It’s only natural to want to preserve everything your organization has ever done or thought about in perpetuity on your website. And if your website were a home, we’d call this hoarding. Nothing buries your awesome content faster than outdated news, events, and bios of staff who’ve long since retired.

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Now, where on earth did I put those web pages?

A better approach? Decide on automatic expiration dates for time-sensitive content. For example, have news unpublish itself after, say, 3–6 months. For more evergreen content, make sure you have a periodic review cycle to freshen it up.

Pro tip: avoid typing dates or names of specific people into your pages. If that person ever leaves, poof—all the pages that reference her name are suddenly outdated. Dates should be handled dynamically using a date-picker, not manually typed in, so that your CMS can know when to expire them.

Simplify and streamline each page.

Let’s say all goes well and your user has found his way to the right page. Don’t celebrate just yet—we’ve seen plenty of usability testers fail or give up on a task even when they are staring at the correct page.

Why? Users tend not to read word for word; they scan the page looking for clues. Time to break up that wall of text so they can find what they need. A few tips:

  • Divide pages into sections using headings. Headings are like grocery store aisle signs, directing the user to the right place on the page. If sections are longer, accordion headings can help condense content.

  • Bulleted lists are your friend. Turn your paragraph full of comma-separated items into a bulleted list for the win.

  • Put links on descriptive text. Users are voracious link hunters. Don’t make them read the whole paragraph to figure out where they’re clicking to.

  • Write to a 6-9th grade reading level. This one is always a shocker for our Ivy League university clients. It's not that your users aren't smart, but simpler words and sentence structures are more more skimmable.

My favorite tool to simplify web content is the Hemingway App. Paste in your wordy, overcomplicated content, and it’ll highlight the problem areas for you. It even suggests simpler word replacements.

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Nobody ever says utilize in real life. Like, “Hey, are you utilizing that ketchup?”

The results: happy users

When we had Columbia students user test the new website with its freshly unearthed content, we had spectacular results. My favorite test was when we asked students to figure out what they could do with a Philosophy major. Users found the appropriate resource in an average of 23 seconds and rated the task a whopping 9.8 out of 10 for ease. One student remarked, “This is really nice. I didn’t know the website had specific information for certain majors. I don’t remember it from the old website.”

In fact, the old website did have the exact same page. All we did was unbury it.

What hidden gems lie in your website that you’d like your visitors to use and enjoy? Get in touch if you'd like our help.

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