The power of nuance and why words really do matter on the web

When redesigning a site for a client, our team works hard to get sign-off on improving content quality — especially the language used. Getting this level of influence is often a challenge. Large sites usually have many content “owners.” In our experience, few of these domain experts are also experts in optimizing online content, either for readers or search engines. These folks can underestimate the importance of nuance to the success of their content.

Frankly, I don’t blame them.

Until the advent of the Content Interest Index, there really hasn’t been a way for content managers to gauge success. The best they had were more global, site-wide metrics.

NOTE: This Tools + Tips post on GrokDotCom provides an excellent run-down of some existing engagement metrics for overall site performance.

In other words, in the well-worn words of Tom Peters, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Without measurements showing the effect that content quality has on readers, many domain experts overlook the power they wield.

This is unfortunate. I’ve seen small content changes make impressive differences in response. Here is a quote from the web site of Thom Pharmakis that sums it up well:

I own a decades-old Italian car that is so highly strung, the valve clearances need to be checked every 3,100 miles … just .001 inch out-of-tolerance will cause a discernible lag in performance. Selling copy is that sensitive. Every word, every paragraph space, the placement of every comma or ellipsis or dash is meticulously considered. Little alterations have drastic effects. Which makes the difference between blistering performance … and sitting stranded by the side of the road.

Here, here.

Another Way by Thom Pharmakis

As a side note, it takes more than a phenomenally gifted writer to score a bulls-eye on the web. Thom’s statement is displayed on his site as nothing but a graphic (shown above, and found on his site). That means his wonderful metaphor is impossible for search engines to read and index.

Even when your audience is non-human — and is in this case a search engine robot — it’s not so much what you say but how you say it!

5 Replies to “The power of nuance and why words really do matter on the web”

  1. Jeff,

    Great post. You’ve hit upon my frustration as a business person who uses the Web to market his products and services.

    I’m no expert in SEO, copy, or Web design, so I hire these functions out. Finding someone who is great at all 3 – and can keep up with the constantly-changing landscape of the Web – has been an ongoing adventure for me.

    What’s the answer? I don’t think I’ve found it yet.


  2. Yeah, David. It’s particularly challenging for an entrepreneur such as yourself to find someone who is the complete package. Even I — someone who seeks to hire these types — find it tough going. Hiring someone with strength in all three skills is like catching lightning in a bottle.

    A more viable solution for me is putting together a team of specialists who work well together. I have, but the price tag of hiring such a “dream team” is such that independent consultants like yourself would find them cost-prohibitive. It’s similar to hiring out the work of other professionals, such as accountants or attorneys. Smaller businesses can rarely justify going with one of the powerhouse firms.

    I occasionally learn about freelancers with some combination of the three skills you mention. Contact me if you’d like the information about a few promising candidates.

  3. Jeff,

    Thank you for your insights.

    I often wonder, mainly because I hear this from my clients, if having these services all in one place isn’t the way of the future. As we become more and more inundated by the proliferation of information, and the number of choices we have moves beyond infinite, folks are looking for a more direct answer to their challenges.


  4. How ironic that his advice is only available as a graphic, that is, of course, until you hijacked it and typed it out on your blog…

  5. That was a really great way of putting things into perspective. Thom Pharmakis really summed it up well. I actually checked out his Web site and loved how the whole graphic encompassed the whole page. That’s definitely one effective way of making a point.

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