There is a lot that machines and algorithms can do for us — the list goes on and on. But one problem the legions of talented engineers at work in Silicon Valley haven’t solved is the constant, pressing need for well-written content.
As fellow Search Insider Janet Driscoll Miller recently pointed out, Google’s updated algorithm is now focused not just on keywords, links and visits, but whether or not the content is altogether “good”: whether it’s really relevant to a search query and ultimately useful to an audience. In other words, simply having a keyword strategy isn’t enough. Those keywords must be packed inside content that is original, and purposefully written by people with some subject-matter expertise and a vested interest in the goal of informing, educating or entertaining a particular audience.
From Web site copy to blog posts, press releases to white papers, SEO and social strategies depend on good content strategy, and good content strategy relies on good writing. The people who know this better than anyone are journalists. Without realizing it, they invented the concept of what we now refer to as the keyword — and their practice formed the basis for how the search engines crawl, index and present information (i.e., headlines, subheads and ledes.)
So what can journalism teach us about good content development? As it turns out: everything.
The Headline is All
Headlines always include the key point of a story, and the best often reflect a rising or sustained meme (a.k.a. keywords) that audiences are actively following. And you’ll notice that headlines are rarely complete sentences; this is a remnant from print, where column inches are at a premium, but today enable us to quickly convey only the most essential details in just a few eye-catching words. While headlines should include your most important keywords or phrases, they must be written honestly and relevantly, naturally referring to the content they promote. Finally, well-written headlines should not only have some heat, they should also include the sizzle. They must catch the reader’s attention. Good headline writing takes a lot of practice, so spend time studying headlines at the best news reporting organization and then get to work on your own.
Always Use the Inverted Pyramid
Journalism 101 teaches students the best way to organize information is to put the most important stuff at the top and the increasingly less important stuff farther down in the story. This organizational tactic is called the inverted pyramid. It was originally developed because journalists of yore (that is, the print kind) never knew how many column inches a story might ultimately get because editors routinely cut them to fit the available space. Today, this practice addresses the short attention spans of audiences, many of whom only read the first or second paragraph of something before clicking away.
Don’t Bury the Lede
It’s not a misspelling: journalists use “lede” instead of “lead” to distinguish how they leverage the leading part of a story to grab a reader’s attention from other meanings associated with “lead.” And the number-one rule about the lede? Don’t bury it. Everything you write should have a point; you’re either breaking a piece of news or advancing a thesis, and you should never, never bury that information. It should be right up front, and written in such a way that it immediately engages readers’ attention and pulls them further into the story.
Use Vivid, Active Prose and Edit, Edit, Edit
Journalists are simple people. They avoid jargon. They compose simple sentences using standard subject-verb-object construction. They’re highly suspicious of snake-oil salesmen — or, as we call them today, MBAs. Journalists seek to uncover the truth of any matter and to present facts in a straightforward, unsentimental way. At the same time, they also look to use vivid prose to describe situations so readers can see it in their own mind’s eye.
Most important, journalists edit, edit, edit, avoiding superfluous words and phrases. And they are constitutionally allergic to anything that looks self-serving (except when covering politics). Adopt these instincts and your own content will be more accessible, more comprehensible and more engaging.
As usual, there isn’t enough space to list all the rules journalists use to produce interesting, engaging and useful content, but these high-level and basic rules should serve you well. Please leave your own journalistic advice and tricks in the comments section below. Next week in my content strategy series: what broadcast news can teach us about creating good video content.