It’s the oldest cliché on the Web. “Content is king” we’re told again and again but spend any time looking for good reading material on the Internet, and you can’t help but feel it’s a message that’s just not getting through. Instead of finding site after site filled with fascinating information and helpful advice, we get poor, keyword-rich articles cut-and-pasted from each other. Instead of new information, we get the same old information retold in a similar form. Instead of exploring the Web continually in the search for new learning, we find ourselves heading back to the same half-dozen or so sites we always use and trust – and often those sites are from the big, professional boys like the BBC or CNN.
It’s blogging’s fault. The idea that anyone can write the first thing that comes into their head and that other people would find it interesting was always going to be a bit self-indulgent. It can happen. But it happens when publisher moves away from him- or herself and follows a few rules. They don’t have to follow all of them but just including one or two in a post can be enough to turn a website into a favorite site and a post into something worth reading instead of browsing and leaving.
Too Many Websites Think Research is Repeating
The first rule is to provide new information. Far too many websites consider research to be repeating what’s already been said on other sites, and usually without attribution. The only way to gain readers doing that is to hope that yours is the first site that your readers see. When the subject’s popular, the odds are going to be low.
New information though doesn’t have to mean breaking into the Googleplex to steal their corporate secrets. It can be something as simple as pointing out what other sites are doing, or even better offering interviews. China Beat, for example, examines media coverage of China but rather than simply repeating what news sites are saying, it also contacts scholars and runs Q&As with them. That could be done with a quick phone call or even a list of questions sent by email. It takes a little effort but the results will always be original and new. It’s good content.
A second rule is to serve the community. Digital Photography School does this very well. Run by professional blogger Darren Rowse, the site operates in a very competitive environment offering advice to budding photographers. DPS manages to stand out by offering advice that others wouldn’t have thought of but mostly by involving the community of photographers. Obviously, you have to have a community to do that – which requires offering good, original information in the first place – but once you have those users, making them feel a part of the community keeps them loyal and returning.
Forums are Content Too
Darren does that by making clear that he too is a photographer with the same interests as his readers (as well as being a professional blogger, something he doesn’t try to hide) but also by offering a forum. That gives his users a locus to exchange views but it can also keep him in touch with the concerns of his users so that he can keep serving them content that he knows they’ll find interesting. Highlighting the week’s hottest threads on his blog’s home page makes the forums even more important and shows readers that this isn’t just a site that offers information, but one in which other photographers like themselves exchange information.
It’s not a strategy that a website can do from the beginning — you’ll need a critical mass of users first. But changing the dynamic of a site from one in which an omniscient publisher provides information into one in which a community also shares information can be one rule that gives a site attractive content.
And a third rule is to provide practical, actionable information. That’s not always as easy as it sounds because often you’ll be competing with other sites offering the same basic details. There are plenty of sites, for example, ready to offer advice on different aspects of home improvement or solving basic computer problems. When every other site is offering the same content, you’ll always struggle to stand out.
One way to do that though is to offer a huge range of actionable advice. GameFaqs, for example, offers tips to computer gamers. Its main selling point is that it’s offering information that can’t be found elsewhere – although much of it probably can – but really the reason it stands out is that it’s hard to find all of that information elsewhere in one place. A mass of solid and reliable details, even if it’s not all completely original, can together make up a content-rich site.
You only need to follow one of those three rules to be offering good content on a website but there is a fourth rule that every site has to follow: the content has to be well-written.
That’s the hardest rule of all to follow. Too many blogs read as though they written by tenth graders with learning difficulties. They use stream-of-consciousness in the belief that it makes the blog more personal, instead of editing and rewriting to make it clear. And that should always be the goal because there’s really only one rule for good content: offer useful, interesting information in a clear, understandable way.
Follow that rule and your site will rule its niche.