There’s a lot of content out there. A lot. It’s all over the Internet – in content marketing, social media updates, and blogging. Certainly, individual users contribute their own content. But the average person’s status updates and blog posts about niche interests or their day-to-day lives are spare change compared to the overwhelming amount of content created by businesses.
While the era of spam and black hat SEO tactics is waning, poor quality web content still runs rampant. What’s a designer to do?
As a designer in the content creation world, you’ve likely heard one or more of the following buzzwords tossed around:
They all mean the same thing: Eventually, the amount of information produced will overwhelm us. Market analysts, futurists, and other clairvoyant types have been predicting the arrival of info overload for decades. In essence, the amount of content available (supply) will exceed the amount of content that can feasibly be consumed (demand).
In early 2014, Mark Schaefer, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions and a long-time content strategist, posted a controversial article that garnered a lot of attention – and a lot of pushback – from other big-name content creators.
Schaefer’s argument? Content marketing isn’t slated to last. With so much information cluttering the Web, only well-funded major name brands will have the capital to produce and publish high quality content, and they’ll drown out the competition. As a result, small companies and startups will be unable to keep up with or break into the world of online content.
According to Schaefer, the amount of content on the Web doubles every 9 to 24 months. Further, thanks to the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine, many pages that would otherwise be deleted and lost in the ether are now stored in an online archive for consumers to peruse. The Internet Archive has been cataloguing information since 1996 and currently grows at a rate of 20 or so terabytes per week.
If info overload is the phenomenon, then content noise is its cause. Marcel Digital, an online marketing and web design agency, conducted a series of small interviews with industry leaders in the content marketing field, representing brands like Moz, Search Engine Land, and KISSmetrics. Marcel asked them provide their own definitions of content noise, as well as to identify what it looks like.
The consensus? The word “noise” refers to content that takes up a lot of space and demands a lot of energy, without providing much – or anything at all – in return.
Here’s a brief summary of the experts’ opinions:
As you can see, content noise is pervasive. An abundance of online publishers serve solely as venues for poorly written guest posts, created for SEO purposes and to build up do-follow backlinks. With little quality control and a massive output of published content, it’s easy to spot a site like these – especially becausetheir websites are poorly designed and, often, downright unnavigable.
So it all comes down to this: There’s a lot of content on the Internet. A whole lot. But as a marketer, what can you do about it?
Content marketers agree: High quality content is the foremost component of a strategy that breaks through the noise. But it’s not the only one.
Consider some of the best content creators in the digital marketing industry. The experts who responded to the Marcel Digital survey represent a few of these leaders, alongside the blogs at sites like HubSpot, Convince and Convert, Marketing Sherpa, and others.
Although the tone and specific types of content they produce differ, these industry leaders all have something in common: high quality web design. It’s a much less discussed strategy for combating content noise, but it’s also every bit as effective.
For the average web user, the choice of sifting through the overload to get to the worthwhile information is hardly a conscious one. Instead, users naturally gravitate toward well-written content that is presented in a way that is easy to digest; ergo, quality depends on an intelligent combination of both factors.
When it comes to designing a webpage to combat content noise, you’ll want to follow the basic principles of web design – and then some. A number of different factors go into good web design. Optimize for readability and navigability, and create a layout that showcases the content you want your readers to focus on.
Here are some best practices for creating a website to complement the content you’ve produced to break through the noise.
Fabian Stetzer, the CEO of EyeQuant, believes that web design should take the human brain and visual movement into account – which is to say, neuroscience can tell us how we interact with the Web. It’s an interesting theory and has great potential for designers. Let’s take a closer look.
EyeQuant itself is an artificial intelligence program designed to show precisely which areas users are most likely to focus their gaze (and, secondarily, their attention) on a given webpage.
Its algorithms derive from multiple eye-tracking studies and neuroscientific research, using the movement of the human eye as it looks at computer screens and at real-life retail items. In a nutshell, the program predicts where on a webpage users are most likely to look.
For example, in the case of the Google homepage, the program shows how the eyes first gravitate toward the Google logo. Consequently, the logo directs the eyes toward the website’s focus: its search box.
On Amazon, EyeQuant shows how users first look toward the center of the screen. Quickly, their eyes gravitate toward recognizable graphics – including human faces, images of products being promoted, and boldfaced text. These insights are invaluable to marketing web designers, who can use the program to optimize the viewer’s experience and increase sales.
The takeaway, then, is that visual impact is a critical component of a web design that stands apart from content noise. The program also shows that the design of individual elements of a webpage isn’t enough; context is just as important. According to Stetzer, “If everyone’s dressed in red, being green wins.”
Breaking through the noise means making sure your visitors know exactly what they’re getting when they visit. Avoid wasting their time by placing a prominent headline that clearly communicates to your viewer what they’re in for.
For search engines, the threshold of acceptability in terms of webpage load time is 2 seconds or less. Your headline may only be a few words, but – if you place it intelligently within your page design – it will be the first piece of content your viewers see. They’ll use it to gauge whether your content is relevant to their needs or interests.
The bloggers at KISSmetrics don’t recommend trying to cram a huge idea into your small headline. It doesn’t have to appeal to every visitor; what it should do is appeal to the 20 to 35 percent of visitors who comprise your target audience.
In terms of design, your headline should use a dramatically larger font size than any of the text that follows it. Use a high-contrast color to set it apart from the background, and make the surrounding text slightly more subdued to keep it from competing with the headline. If the headline isn’t the first thing you’re drawn to on the page, it’s not doing its job.
Minimalist design is one surefire way to make sure that any content you feature is the main focus of your site – and, additionally, to give it some space to breathe. Minimalist web design has historically concentrated squarely on the needs of the user, giving them precisely what they’re looking for quickly and with no effort on their part.
To some extent, the widespread popularity of mobile Internet browsing is to thank for the resurgence of minimalism in design. As mobile devices became more and more optimized for the Web, designers needed to clear away any extraneous design elements that would detract from the content. Stripping these sites down also had the added bonus of significantly reducing load times.
At the core of minimalism is figuring out which elements are most important. Consider the purpose of your site. If any design element doesn’t support your site’s purpose, it’s not worth keeping, so chuck it. Keep the number of colors to a minimum, and make ample use of whitespace.
Finally, what do you want users to do? In other words, what is the call to action? Do you want users to download an eBook, sign up for your newsletter, or comment on a blog post?
Make the signup or comment form straightforward, without lengthy explanations or too many information fields. If users are accessing your site from mobile, they’ll be even less patient than desktop users.
Your viewers should focus their attention on what you want them to see – but if they’re not interested in that particular page, you need to give them the option to explore the rest of your site. While some users will close the window if they don’t find what they’re after on the page where they’ve landed, some members of your target audience will be inclined to look elsewhere on your site to see if other content resonates with their needs.
That’s where navigation design comes in.
Navigation should be easy to identify and even easier to use. Elements of minimalist design apply here, too; if navigational menus include too many links, users may feel overwhelmed. Remember, we’re trying to stand apart from the overwhelming presence of content noise – not add to it! Generally, the maximum you should aim for is five to ten navigation menu items.
Users should know where they are on your site. They also need to know how to go back to a previous page, or how to find the homepage. If your site’s interface is complex, you can’t assume your visitors will know how to interact with it.
For example, while parallax scrolling is a highly effective tool for engaging a user with your content, it’s not always the most obvious method for sending them down a page. Make sure your visitors know what to do when they arrive at your site. If you want them to scroll down, place a directional arrow or a simple command to let them know how they should interact with your site.
The Internet provides an invaluable platform for businesses to communicate with consumers. According to a study conducted at Northwestern University, “Very few Americans feel bogged down or overwhelmed by the volume of news and information at their fingertips and on their screens.” Instead, they feel enthusiastic about the diversity of options for receiving news and seeking out information.
So as much as content noise is a problem, it’s also important to note that Internet users have – and use – a multitude of tools to control how much data they interact with. They can opt out, unsubscribe, sign out, browse incognito, block, unfollow, mute, and – of course – hit the “off” button. As a designer and content creator, your job is to provide a refuge from the noise with a unique, valuable customer experience.