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10 23 2007

Every time you venture to a website that gives advice about websites, you’re bound to run into the line “content is king.” In truth, the value of your site is by and large that of your content. Aesthetics and marketing only go so far. People come to a site with a goal, and that goal is always content focused. Yet we seem to often sacrifice this in the name of design.

Our evangelism for semantic code is all in the name of usability, many of us spend time in design critiques or wireframe discussions about the usability of workflows, the proper words to describe a key menu element, or even going to bizarre lengths to keep out that one last wrapper div that we feel we could find a way around. But at the end of all this, we’re using image replacement on header text, and leaving content handling in the hands of the questionable practices of rich-text emulators. Nothing wrong with that, right? It’s a pretty standard practice on the web today.

However, that image replacement you used on the header text renders it unusable to a browser text search (Cmd/Ctrl + F), a practice becoming more and more common these days. And the HTML spewed forth from the web based text editors not only dismiss proper semantic formatting of text in many cases, but leave more subtle touches out that can really come in handy for a reader. These touches include the use of <acronym>, <kbd> which I used above for a keyboard command, or elements such as <address> which come in handy for microformats, cell phones, and search engines.

And it’s not Just Code and Functionality

But what’s more unsettling to me is not just the way we mark up our content, but the type of content and its presentation. “Top X” lists seem to be all the rage in the blogosphere, but when is X just too high a number? I came upon a post at Mashable that had 250 items. Two-hundred-fifty. When trying to look through the list for intriguing items I eventually felt a sense of information overload, and then it hit me — this is why we have hierarchy. This is why the internet has hyperlinks.

It’s simply far too many items for a human to take in. It’s more or less something I would expect to be regurgitated as a set of search results and be able to navigate as such in more manageable chunks. This way of presenting content is just unusable by a human. Think of it as Google presenting all of those search results on one page, grouped in categories, but in no particular order.

And what of style? Those new to information design or with weak knowledge of typography tend to ignore the legibility and readability of their content. Well designed content should have proper line-length, kerning, tracking, and leading. The text on the page should be given high priority in the design of a page. This plays hand-in-hand with the idea of clients asking for design mocks before discussing what content is to be presented on each page and how.

And What About Documentation Format?

I can hear the collective “huh?” now. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, you may have heard of the MLA documentation style or the APA documentation style. These are two of the most popular ways essays are formatted, complete with work cited lists, related works and more. Why don’t we do this on the web? In some form many of us are committing plagiarism when we write on the web because hardly anyone follows a documentation format on the web. In fact, I don’t believe there are a set of rules for the web just yet. But why not use some of the great ideas that these formats provide? Bibliographies not only allow us to increase our credibility when we can back our claims with credible sources, but put further content at the fingertips of those who desire it for further reading.

Taking the Dive

This is all in addition to the some of the fundamentals of writing for the web, sub-headings, bullets, efficient use of style in places to make your content easy to skim. Why not make it useful beyond its mere words with more semantic markup within the content rather than just around it? CSS styled headings that are accessible by browsers. Works cited, footnotes, the list goes on and on with things we could do to make our content more usable to our readers. But is it worth the effort? I plan on incorporating more of these items here at my blog, but what do you think? That’s what I’d like to find out from you, why not share your thoughts?



  1. A good read, I was checking over a friend’s essay recently and I had a similar notion. I already footnotes on my posts whenever I feel like deviating from my main topic (which I always do), and in terms of citing works, online it’s a case of using hyperlinks, most of the time within the text, but again I suppose they couldin the forms of footnotes also.

  2. i have to agree that content is what people are looking for, but let’s face it a bad design will drive people away, even if you have good content. who wants to read an article on a site with blinking banners, 10 different fonts and no idea about color? we have all been to those sites and we leave as fast as we can.

    balance, balance is the word that pops into my head. good content followed up by a good design. i think sometimes we get lost in the behind the scenes details when all the world sees is the end result. yes the behind the scenes stuff is important, do not get me wrong but the content is important as well. you can have the best looking site in the world but if all you have for content is “lorem ipsum dolor sit…” you are not going to have many repeat visitors.

    i think that equal effort should be placed on content as well as design. a well designed site with good content is so refreshing to see that i tend to feel more relaxed when i find one, like walking into a bookstore, i can take time to poke around check out the site and not feel rushed to leave. it is nice to see one.


  3. While I really like your grid style theme, and your interesting write ups. Visual learning has proceeded to tell us not to write long posts, but shorter ones with more visual styling.

  4. Kyle, I think you hit the nail on the head with this one.

    I agree about what you’re saying about content managers, but how do you get around this? I’ve struggled to find a solution, especially when you hand projects to clients for them to maintain. You can’t teach them how to code from scratch. Even if you tried, I’m sure semantics would go out the window after just a few updates if you’re not keeping an eye on them.

    Usability and accesibility are certainly hurt by having Content Management Systems take over the backend, but I personally don’t loose sleep over it. I feel like having those things are great and I strive to enforce them in my personal projects, but the lack of the things you mention don’t seem to affect too much in a commercial project. If it did, it should be identified prior to launch and should be prioritizied and enforced on updates. My two cents.

    What you are saying about content, I couldn’t agree more. The good/bad part about the internet is that anyone can write. Now I don’t pretend I’m the best writer ever. Far from it. In fact I wish my English was half as good as my Spanish, obviously. What I mean is in terms of content of writing, there is so much stuff out there that, at least for me, it becomes more about filtering the tons of junk from the decent stuff. In that regard I see why social bookmarking sites could be great, but fail only to generate more trash. There is a certain web design magazine that I won’t name that insists in producing these top X lists. I find it to be nauseating.

    Documentation, now that’s a tricky one. If you are writing a serious piece, then yes, back it up with a bibliography. That is a brilliant idea and something that I think should be addresed more often and I personally haven’t thought of myself. My only caveat is that online, with the notable exception of known and respected figures, everything smells fishy to me. In a world of wikipedia-based “truths”, I find that the only credible sources come from people that are well established in the “real” world as well. I really like this idea, and I’m going to try to incorporate this myself.

    About adding better markup to enhance the usability of a site, can you think of any literature on that subject? Also, what do you think about microformats and how do you think it fits into this?

  5. Rodrigo: I think Microformats have a huge role here, if we mark up our content in a consistent fashion then it becomes usable in so many other ways that don’t necessarily deal with usability from a reader’s perspective, but being able to take that data and use it in other ways in other apps due to it being well formed.

    As far as literature on the subject I think it’s relatively scarce, especially in print. And even when writing this post I couldn’t find anything detailed on the subject; just a passing reference from time to time in accessibility articles. So, that said, I hope to delve deeper soon, perhaps in the next post. :)