How to produce quality content

We all want quality content. Nothing is more likely to lose an audience than badly designed, poorly written, uninformative content – and no-one sets out to produce that.

But what is quality? How do we know when we are getting it right? How can we measure it?

Content is the difference

What we do know is that content is king. In a multi-channel universe with millions of sites shouting for attention, there’s only one thing that differentiates your page from the rest – content.

Content is also all you have working for you at the crucial “zero moment of truth”, the period in a user’s decision-making process when the research is done before buying, according to Andrew Bredenkamp. He is the founder and CEO of Acrolinx, a linguistic analytics software platform, and he was a speaker at the recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Companies are slowly waking up to the reality that content matters for the bottom line. We’ve moved from a time when content was operating as little more than glorified placeholder on websites whose sole purpose was to carve out a corner of the web and bag a domain name.

Companies had to have content, but cared little about it, Dr Bredenkamp said. Now, they still have to have it but they want it, because they know content gives them a competitive advantage. Whether your aim is to get new customers or to retain existing ones, it’s content that’s going to do the job.

Who decides what quality is?

So, how do we make sure our content has the quality it needs to deliver? The problem is that quality is deeply subjective, meaning many things to many people. Ask copywriters and content designers what good quality is, and they’ll talk about the words, grammar, spelling, style and tone. They’ll want tight copy with a logical structure that’s clear and easy to read, in short sentences and paragraphs, free from typos and inconsistencies. They’ll also be concerned about the substance of the material: how engaging, interesting and informative it is.

They’d have an eye on what we might call its authorial quality too. Is the content coming from an expert or enthusiast who knows the subject inside out and wants to communicate that knowledge for others’ benefit? Does the content have authority, build a relationship of trust with the reader and genuinely put their interests first?

The content strategist’s view

The content strategist, meanwhile, would look at the bigger picture. They’d be thinking about content and its role in the sequence of steps users are likely to take fulfil their needs, and how content could create a consistently positive experience throughout the user journey regardless of the platform or device they’re using.

In larger organisations this could involve co-ordinating a number of content-producing teams who each have their particular agenda to push. If the sales team’s material sings in harmony with the after sales team, for instance, then customers are more likely to get a unified, integrated experience. Uneven content that pulls in opposite directions conjures up a chaotic vision of a brand. Disjointed, inconsistent content tracks with poor ratings for reputation, Dr Bredenkamp said.

Quality for marketing

Ask marketeers the same question about quality and you’d get a quite different answer. No doubt they’d be delighted if the content did everything the content strategist and content designer wanted – though this isn’t their primary concern.

They’re far more interested in the findability of the content. They need hits – and whether this is on the back of fancy prose is irrelevant. What use is well-written high-quality content if no one finds and reads it? Quality content for them scores highly on the search engine results page (SERP), and draws users towards their website and away from their competitors.

Don’t try to trick Google

Working out what Google wants has long been the preserve of the search-engine optimisation (SEO) experts, who have traditionally used every weapon in the armoury to give their content an edge. What is becoming clearer is that the old SEO techniques are not nearly as effective as they once were. As many people in SEO will tell you, the days of using content as a vehicle for keywords and backlinks to dupe Google’s algorithms are numbered.

Google is doing what it can to neutralise the tricks of the trade and people who game the system. After all, the search engine wants to offer content of high quality too – search results that provide good information to the people looking for it. It doesn’t want to give them a parade of keyword-bloated SEO-tweaked trickery that fools algorithms as much as it short-changes its users.

Searching for quality

A measure of how important this is to Google can be seen with the care it takes over perfecting its search processes. Every year it makes at least 500 changes to its search algorithm, occasionally adding to this with major overhauls, such as Google Penguin and Google Hummingbird, that can make significant differences to how it gathers results.

Google’s systems are further augmented with the input of real people – providing a human element to Google’s search iterations that is better able to evaluate content and detect true quality. Google search quality evaluators, as they’re known, scour pages looking for characteristics such as expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, satisfying information and a positive website reputation – measures that are far more difficult for an algorithm to assess.

Make your own quality

As Google gets more interested in the question of content quality and how to measure it, where does this leave us? Should we just accept that quality is whatever Google says it is? Doing so would be to fall back into the old modes of second-guessing Google’s designs – and this contradicts what Google has been trying to tell us for the last few years. Their message is clear: think less about trying to please Google and more about delivering the best possible experience for users. Get that right, and, in theory at least, high search rankings will follow as a matter of course.

We are in a position, then, that the meaning of “quality” among those who have a stake in creating it, is becoming far more closely aligned than it has been previously. Quality for copywriters, content designers, marketeers, content strategists and search engine optimisers seems to be increasingly about responding closely to the needs of users and ensuring a positive experience for them across platforms.

It’s not just user needs

But there’s more – and this point can be painful to hear for people passionate about content.

It’s not all about the user. Our services to users are built upon the aims and objectives of our organisations. Quality requires time, thought, investment, planning – among the reasons that many companies have been slow to embrace it. There’s no reason to go to the trouble if your quality content is not achieving what you want it to.

High quality content does not automatically become highly effective content, as Lucie Hyde, Barclaycard’s Head of Content and Digital Channels, said in a later presentation at the meetup. A Bach cantata is of exquisite quality, but it’s not going to be a dancefloor hit in Ibiza.

Getting the conversion

Your content has to be effective. This could be commercial effectiveness, clinching the sale, or it could be non-commercial, fulfilling an obligation. It has to achieve what it sets out to – and make what Bredenkamp called the ‘conversion’. It’s not enough for content to be of a high standard – although it definitely helps. The more problems there are with the content, the lower the conversion rate tends to be, he said; the fewer style errors there are, the higher the rate.

You have to know the needs of your organisation to create a definition of quality. When you work out exactly what your business needs are, then you’re better able not only to recognise quality, but measure it too. Comparing the conversion rate of one page against another very quickly gives you an idea of what works and what doesn’t, he said. Your notion of quality can then be supported by something indisputable – data.

Quality is driven by data

There’s nothing like data to cut across disagreements in the meeting room about the direction content should be taking. Content producers may have style sheets and writing guides, they may be writing “on brand” and “on board”, they may be getting the top readability scores and high search rankings. But, as football commentators are so fond of saying, there’s only one statistic that really matters – and with content it’s the conversion rate, the ultimate measure of the effectiveness and quality of your content.

Quality is about context as much as standards. It’s about recognising user needs and mapping them to the objectives of your organisation – and it all has to be done with the right style, tone, accuracy and relevance to engage and entertain. It’s a lot to ask, but nothing worthwhile ever came easy.

Many thanks to Dr. Andrew Bredenkamp for his contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.

Twitter @abredenkamp

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