Bad Content Equals Bad Sales

    April 16, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

What I like about Jakob Nielsen’s posts most is the grumpy-old-man-ness in the underlying tone. It makes me almost think he’s family. But along with the why-doesn’t-anybody-ever-listen-to-me attitude comes some sage-like advice. This time it’s about how bad content trumps other design flaws in terms of what’s bad for business.

But before that, it’s about elevator buttons: 

The curse of working with Don Norman is that half the elevator buttons I see make me angry: Why can’t these guys do what Don told them to do 20 years ago? 

Then again, Web designers don’t do what I told them to do 13 years ago, so why am I surprised?

 Hmmm. Yes, very Eeyore with a touch of Rabbit. 

I have no idea what he’s talking about in terms of elevator buttons, but the gist seems to be that some things have a simple fix. Though the New York Times‘ proclivity toward ambiguous information scents* wafting about its linked invitations was irksome, and a couple of other sites had issues with navigation and category pages, what drew Nielsen’s steely stare the most was general lack of information about a jazz concert.

Lincoln Center’s calendar of events mentioned just the artists, the date, a couple of tools, and a weak call to action. "That’s it. No player biographies, no description of the type of jazz they play, no quotations from reviews, no links to independent reviews, no audio clips so you could actually hear the band," said Rabbit.

Er, Nielsen. The biggest problem is that most likely only jazz-lovers who are already fans of the listed musicians will bother themselves to buy tickets. He predicts Lincoln Center could sell five to ten times as many tickets to casual listeners if only there were a little more information to go on to entice them.

So here, though I’ve teased him, is where we find Nielsen’s strength in providing a concrete example to go along with that now age-old maxim "content is king." Likely, some hear or read that maxim and skirt the edge of it with a vague understanding, and find eventually the trap of creating content for content’s sake—or worse, scraping content from elsewhere—without any real strategic purpose or sense of how exactly they are to produce great content.

Not everybody is Shakespeare, for crying out loud. Nor should they be. On the web, it’s usually not about art anyway, but about digestible, usable information.

But both Nielsen’s Lincoln Center and New York Times examples show how to expand basic content in order to make it more useful to the site visitor. For Lincoln Center, the devil is in the details, or lack thereof. By adding in-depth information about the jazz band and examples of their work, the site designer provides an opportunity for the end-user to be persuaded. But there’s also something subtler at work. If the jazz band (event, product, etc.) you are promoting is worth the time to create in-depth information about, it sends a signal to the visitor that what is promoted is worth checking out.

The same subtlety is at work in creating a good information scent for links. Rather than word the link generically, i.e., "More Products," the user can be coaxed into clicking the link more by providing a clear, concise message. Instead of the next random product, the designer invites the visitor to explore "How to Romance a Cactus" or "Grumpy Old Man Relief."

Get a mention of that last one on Oprah and you won’t need a website. The point is even link text counts as content. Even better, Nielsen has the numbers to back up the idea that content that is lacking can hurt sales.

"Our user testing of product pages shows that people are much more likely to buy when a page answers their questions about its offerings…," he writes. "My guess is that, by adding more information, the site could sell at least 5 times as many tickets to non-fans. In studying the ROI of usability improvements, we sometimes find a sales increase of 1,000% or more. So, adding meaningful content might even make this page a tenbagger for non-fanatical customers."

Anyway, as Eeyore would say, thanks for noticing me.

*"Information scent" refers to the anchor text used for a link that gives a reader an understanding of where the link will lead them. The New York Times’ anchor text of "Next Article in Business" or "More Articles in Business" didn’t cut it, in Nielsen’s view.