Every day, it seems, we’re closer to being one with the borg. 

Technology is more and more intertwined with how we live, how we work, how we exist. 

It’s hard to untangle. It can be even harder to meld. 

When it comes to content, it’s imperative that two key concepts are acknowledged and addressed to achieve an effective communications strategy.

What was once called a “digital life” is now just “life”. 

Write for humans. Publish for Robots. And while those lines are more blurred than ever, it’s important to understand one key distinction when crafting content you want to reach your targeted audiences.

It’s an obvious statement when you read it, but one that needs to be kept front and center throughout the process: Write for humans. Publish for robots.  

In my experience with a range of publications, projects and clients, it’s a notion that I’ve tried to instill wherever I’ve been, but I’ve only recently begun to break it down into two distinct lines of thinking: 

But what does that really mean? 

Writing for humans

For most of my clients, the “human” side of the equation is easier to understand. 

Human beings are messy, scattered, emotional creatures who crave clarity and connection when they encounter writing. They’re busy people and want their time, and their intellect, respected. 

Writing needs to be clear, relatable, and something that audiences can connect with.

It doesn’t have to be short. But it does have to connect. Ideally, it tells a story. 

But not everyone is going to read the whole thing. I have found that compelling writing is similar to the bar of soap metaphor. If you squeeze too hard, it shoots away. If you don’t squeeze it hard enough, it drops away. The article, or blog post that I try to “make” viral is received with a yawn. Sometimes the items that I don’t overthink tend to resonate better. My theory is that it’s because I let my subconscious be more connected to my writing, and that, in turn, allows for a greater connection with an audience. 

This thinking is mostly about the body copy. The paragraphs. But there’s another aspect that needs to be accounted for: The sales job. This is the part that acknowledges people are busy. They are probably not making your article the highlight of their day. They need to be convinced to read further.

Years ago, I covered high school sports for the Washington Post. There were approximately 250 schools that could be covered. My wonderful editor, Neil Greenberger, used to instill in us that early in the story we needed to explain why we were covering this particular school or game. It was a tremendous lesson for a still-in-college reporter, and I’ve tried to apply it everywhere I’ve written since. 

Along with an emphasis on a compelling lead, it’s vital to think about things like the headline, sub-heads, pull-quotes and imagery. Take a look at some of your recent work. Did you do enough to entice people who should care who might be distracted?

Publishing for Robots

The real danger, in the digital age, is thinking that if you’re satisfied with your answer to the question above that your work is done. 

Writing is hard. I get it. There’s a natural inclination to think that once the content is written and edited, that simply publishing it enables you to move on to the next article. 

This would be wrong. 

Way too often, we begin a redesign effort with a content audit and can see, plain as day, how many times people have focused on the humans, and moved on before focusing on the robots.

It’s easy to diagnose, but can be time-consuming to remedy.

Among the things that haven’t been addressed:

  • Description fields are left blank, or are given short shrift
  • Description fields are waaaaaaay too long
  • Images don’t have alt tags
  • Content isn’t tagged
  • Content is tagged, with maybe one or two tags, when a few more could rightfully be applied
  • Headlines aren’t written clearly enough
  • Headlines are too cute
  • Different sections don’t have sub-heads
  • Different sections do have subheads, but they’re bolded instead of given h2 or h3 tags
  • The pages aren’t published so that they can be best shared through Twitter and Facebook

This, obviously, can be difficult to monitor and address. As a bit of shorthand, I often tell clients to think about it this way: Sometimes the most important content in your site is content that’s not on your site. 

Think about it this way. You Google something. You’re presented with choices. Lots and lots of choices. You got stuff to do. You instinctively pick the search result that best aligns with what you’re looking for. This is often found in description fields that never appear on the page you’re clicking to. 

This is a good way to think about the content that’s created for humans vs. the content that’s created for robots. The content for humans is what you can see in your browser. Browsers were made for humans, because it became pretty clear pretty early on that humans weren’t wired to innately read machine code. But the miracle of the internet is in how the machine code has enabled billions of devices to connect, which in turn has enabled their human owners and users to connect with each another. 

To ignore this fundamental backbone of how the internet works is as big a sin as writing a tone-deaf article. 

Thinking like Legos

Whew. I know that was a lot. But there is tremendous value in applying this approach. There is another piece to this puzzle that I wanted to mention, and it is important that the concepts above were covered first. 

Too often, we see one of two things happen with our clients’ content. They either stack what could be three (or four, or five …) distinct concepts or stories together into a single page or article or post. Or they end up with multiple versions of essentially the same content, which just becomes noise.

Multi-colored lego blocks, stacked together and spread out separately. Multi-colored stacks of bricks

For pages with multiple, distinct concepts, each might have different audiences they could reach with their own unique tags, and descriptions. However, because they all live in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, it’s hard to enable the robots to reward their individuality and allow them to get discovered, and shared, individually.

Let’s take staff bio pages for example. You might have multiple people with their bios on a single page. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if each bio had its own URL, you can do SO MUCH MORE with each one. You can tag the page in line with their unique expertise. You can pull in their blog posts. You can show related content on your site that aligns with their expertise. You can use each bio as a virtual home page that provides a gateway to your site’s offerings. 

Multiple, competing bricks of the same color

Red lego blocks, a group of four, followed by a single lego block.We often encounter sites with years and years (and thousands of pages) of content. So much content that nobody even knows where everything is. This often leads to what I like to call “punitive duplication”.

Why punitive? Remember the section above where your content is competing with other web sites for the same attention? Those listings are essentially given a score by Google. Often, when you have duplicate content on your site, that score is essentially diluted, so another site with less clutter can have the chance to jump ahead of your site in the rankings.  This can be even more painful within your own internal search. When visitors use search terms that should point them to a best single page, they can quickly get frustrated with your site (and your organization) if they feel overwhelmed.

Addressing this takes discipline. It ideally should also require a chainsaw. Deciding how to prune and consolidate can quickly get political. It often helps a great deal to bring in an outside voice and perspective to help. This doesn’t necessarily mean that outside voice knows SEO better than you do, but there’s a great chance they aren’t as tied up in the internal politics of your organization. It’s also easy to be too focused on your organization’s internal business goals to the point where they make it harder to truly advocate for your key audiences and their user needs. 

We feel your pain

Few sites do all of this perfectly. We readily admit that we’re looking to improve much of this on our own site, which we will be launching in the near future. It’s a digital version of the story of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. It’s also part of the reason I have been hesitant to write this post, because of how much I abhor hypocrisy.  

But we’re coming clean and working to improve. We go through this process, in some form, with nearly all of our clients. 

Trends change. Technology evolves. Text gives way to video and augmented reality and virtual reality. How we deal with the humans vs. robots / humans with robots question will continue to evolve. But the concepts above likely won’t change any time soon, so it makes sense to strive to instill these concepts throughout your organization wherever you can.