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
<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?