Supply subject area context; avoid institutional context.
In a recent blog post, On the Web, context kills, speed saves, Gerry McGovern states:
A key difference between web writing and writing for print is that on the Web you need to avoid context and instead focus on instructional, how-to, task-based content.
Since one of my seven principles of Every Page is Page One is that an EPPO topic establishes its context, this quote made me think that either Gerry McGovern had gone bonkers or he was using the word context in a very different way than I use it. Turns out that it is the latter. (Sorry if you were hoping for fight here.) I actually agree with almost everything that McGovern says (I’ll get to the part I don’t agree with a little later). In fact, I have said many of the same things before, but in a different way.
Still, it’s worth examining McGovern’s argument here, if only because context is one of the most important concepts in communication, and (therefore?) subject to very different interpretations. Looking at McGovern’s argument will hopefully help make it clear what I mean when I say that an EPPO topic must establish its context.
It is axiomatic in communications that you must establish the context of what you are talking about. If you simply say, “Push the red button”, readers are left to wonder: Which red button? When should I press it? What happens if I press it? Is it my job to press it, or someone else’s? Do I need authorization to press it? Should I press other buttons first? Should I press more buttons afterwards? After I press it, should I stand still or run for my life? Without this contextual information, the instruction “Press the red button,” is not empowering, but paralyzing. If I cannot establish the reason and context for acting, I am powerless to act.
But this is not the kind of context McGovern is talking about. He’s actually talking about this kind of thing:
You need to find the nearest government children’s center. “Welcome to our page which we are no longer updating. The government is committed to the welfare and education of children. Our team has been established based on certain legislation, which we are about to tell you about in great detail. We are a high quality, well trained workforce and we would also like to tell you about how we work.”
This is the institutional context of the information. It is about the organization that provided the information, rather than about the location of the information in its subject area. It does not tell you when to press the red button; it tells you who manufactured the device with the button, who designed the button, and who chose that particular shade of red. But readers, for the most part, don’t care about any of this. As McGovern notes:
But on the Web, people just want to do stuff as quickly and easily as possible. Engaging with most organizational websites is only slightly more interesting than interacting with your dentist.
There is one point on which I do have to disagree with McGovern, though. He writes:
The words people search with set the context. Once they’re at your website, the context has already been established as far as they’re concerned.
Yes, the user’s search terms set the context of what they are seeking, but they don’t establish the context of what they have found. In a great many cases (especially in technical content) it can be very difficult for the reader to establish if the page they are looking at matches the context they were searching for. As I have noted before, findability does not end when the reader reaches a page with the sought information. The reader is following an information scent, and will only give each individual page a sniff before moving on to the next one. If a page does not smell like what they are looking for at first sniff, the reader will generally move on before ever discovering that the information the seek is in fact on that page. Establishing the context of the page in its subject matter is vital to the reader recognizing that the context of the page matches the context of their search.
I have noted previously that we are not always even aware of whose site we are on when we find information through a web search. We are focused on our problem and the need for a solution, not the organizational context of the information provider. And since we are more likely to recognize the scent of the information we are looking for on a page that begins by establishing subject matter context rather than institutional context, it is likely that the pages where we are most likely to find our answers are also the ones where we are less likely to recognize where we are.
This is, of course, a problem for the people providing the information. Many of them are not providing this information out of pure altruism or an unwavering dedication to the proposition that information wants to be free. Most content creators are hoping to lead the reader on to other transactions with them, either by leading them directly to a purchase, or by at least raising their brand awareness or increasing esteem for the brand. I write this blog, in large part, because I want to lead you into hiring me (or my company, Analecta Communications Inc.) to provide content creation, content engineering, or content strategy services. If you don’t notice where this blog comes from, it has no chance to lead you into becoming a customer of mine.
Indeed, there can come a point in the reader’s interaction were they do want to establish the institutional context of the material they are reading. If they have found a repair procedure for a product they own, they may then want to figure out who wrote the procedure, to raise their confidence that the procedure won’t further harm their product. If the content has successfully interested the reader in doing business with the person who wrote it, the reader will then, of course, want to know exactly who that person or company is.
A website does, therefore, have to establish its institutional context somewhere. It doesn’t necessarily have to lead with it, as many sites do, but it has to be there somewhere. The problem is that search engines do not discriminate well between information pages and institutional context pages (nor can they know with certainty which you are searching for at any given moment). Thus, as McGovern notes, readers often end up on institutional context pages that don’t help them solve their immediate problem.
Often, general information that describes an area such as planning gets found in searches when people are actually trying to make a planning application. General marketing material about the launch of a product can be found years later when someone is actually trying to get a price for that product, or find a technical description of it.
This brings us to another important characteristic of Every Page is Page One topics: rich linking. As I have argued before, linking is the last mile of findability. Search may land the person looking for a planning application on a page that describes the planning department. We should anticipate that this kind of search near miss is going to happen a lot. To accommodate it, we should make sure that the planning department page links to the planning application page (and vice versa). And we should make this link a prominent one, not one of a dozen general links buried in the footer, but part of the context setting material for the planning department page, because that is where you have the few second to successfully engage and redirect the reader before they give up looking and start firing off strongly worded letters to their city councilor about how hard it is to get a planning application.
Context, therefore, is vital on the Web. But it is subject matter context that matters. Context provides not only the necessary information scent to allow the reader to recognize a page as the one they are looking for, but also the ability to guide the reader onward to the right content when the search engine has dropped them a little shy of their goal.