Content, structure and relevance: the ploy

Attracting and retaining an audience on the Web requires the skills of a playwright, and the ability to skilfully combine three inseparable components: content, structure and relevance. Content is one of the hot new buzzwords of the new millennium. Without content, your site can be aptly described by Macbeth’s despairing lament: “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Substitute Flash and Shockwave for “sound and fury” and you’ve got the picture.)

“Despair” describes the second of these three components, because if you don’t create a site structure that helps people find all that fine content you’ve created, they’ll give up and go elsewhere – or go mad with the searching, with results every bit as tragic for your job prospects as the Scottish play is reputed to be for actors. And the part about “signifying nothing”? If the content they do eventually find isn’t relevant to visitors, they’re not going to come back any more than Lady Macbeth.

The problem with content? Everyone talks about it, but nobody agrees on what it is. And that’s hardly surprising, since content is in the eye of the beholder, and there are so many different beholders: some of us want pretty pictures (naughty or otherwise), others want design specs that would make engineers wince, and some want both in a single package. Defining the necessary content is only part of the solution; the larger part involves figuring out how to make that content interesting to the audience we want to attract. Since we can’t succeed without doing both, you shouldn’t put information online until you clearly understand whom you want to attract and what you can say that will interest them.

The problem with structure? The belief that modern search engines can compensate for an ill-considered structure for your information is a pernicious myth. Site designers who rely on search engines to help people find the information they seek are doomed to disappointment. Admit it: search engines are the second-most frustrating invention after the computer itself.

Sure, they work sometimes, but when they fail, you’ve frustrated and perhaps enraged the searcher. I haven’t heard of anyone going mad from fruitless searches, but I everyone I’ve talked to has tales of horror about failing to find something crucial and never returning to a site again.

So structure involves more than search engines: it involves a close understanding of what people are likely to be looking for and how they’ll be looking for it. Build a structure that supports that behaviour, and provide a site map that displays that structure so they can use it to search effectively, and the odds are they won’t need to use your search engine at all.

Finally, don’t neglect the oldest search technology in the book: the index. A skilled indexer has a better understanding of human thought processes than any two interface designers, and a good index provides an unbeatable tool for finding things.

The problem with relevance? Too many people believe the myth that content must always be new to remain relevant. That’s far from the case. Certainly, news broadcasts lose their relevance if they’re not timely, but entertainment doesn’t have to be fresh and new to be attractive – witness the sales of all the recent Beatles anthologies. For that matter, the core of the information you provide can be entirely static if visitors will need to return to that same information time and again–as is the case for an online dictionary. Relevance too lies in the eyes of the beholder, and you need to know the what those eyes are seeking before you can determine what’s relevant.

The equation’s simple: success equals content plus structure plus relevance. Sites with staying power combine all three; sites that forget one or more become the next “dot-bomb” story in the financial pages. Each of these merits its own article, which I’ll present in coming columns.

Hart ([email protected]) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.

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