Lately the Internet is rife with the phrase “content is king.” What? Content has always been king.
Content, of course, is anything that contributes to your message: words, illustrations, photographs, videos, and, increasingly, design. A web site needs to look good and BE good.
The appreciation of good content is as old as the first stories told around a cave dweller’s campfire. Good content has always driven the film, book, magazine, and other media or entertainment industries.
In fact, the term “content is king” actually goes back to 1974. The phrase was used in a book called Magazine Editing and Production by J.W. Click and Russell N. Baird. (I actually own this book.) The phrase has also been attributed to the title of a Bill Gates essay dated 1996.
So why is “content is king” just now making such a splash on the web?
Short answer: Because the web has become the new black.
Longer answer: It’s not a recent splash. It’s just taken a while to go from industry buzz to household word. The trickle-down is constantly being ramped up so as to reach everyone possible. Selling people on the idea of content is about making money, after all.
Important note: The web has been around since 1991.1 What took so long for everyone to become concerned about content (and thus design)?
1. Design technology has evolved. Design tools have taken a long time to mature. Compared to the beginning of desktop publishing in the mid-1980s, web design software has taken longer to become fully WYSIWYG as well as capable of making virtually any design happen.
For one thing, web sites also need to work on a variety of platforms and browsers. And every few months there’s a new challenge, such as mobile technology.
Plus, web site owners are not a homogenous group. There are many more small businesses than there are large ones. Small businesses generally have fewer resources and limited access to marketing intelligence.
Finally, thanks to the web, many, many people still believe that they don’t really have to do anything to market their web site. Crazy, right? In about 2000 most of us stopped paying $10,000 a year to the local Yellow Pages for a directory listing and one quarter-page ad.
Today, many people believe they can get away with paying $0 for marketing, because the web is free, right? The right audience will just find the lucky business owners.
2. SEO (search engine optimization) has evolved.
SEO as we know it today has been around since about 1999, when Google developed its first search algorithm, designed to help people find useful search results. (Until then people used to “pay to play” — paying search engines such as Yahoo to appear higher in search results. Some web site owners still believe they have to pay to play.)
SEO has matured dramatically over the past five or six years. Much of the ever-evolving search algorithm rewards web sites that educate, delight, and involve their audiences. But mostly, Google rewards those who try to help their audiences the most.
So the “content is king” crowd believes, as do I, that it’s important to provide information that your audience is looking for. Some instances of great content might be:
- how it works
- isn’t this interesting?
- Info about how to reach your company
- Images (e.g., illustrations and photographs)
- Anything you think your audience wants
You can hardly turn around on the web without running into ideas for improving your web site’s content.
So why isn’t web site content improving faster than it is?
- Good navigation and usability takes time, effort, and money.
- Competition for attention is stronger than the excitement most web sites generate — web sites need to prove themselves worthy of your time.
- Web site owners don’t really believe that good content is important, or else they would implement it at just about any price.
We can only hope that in the very near future someone develops a test that evaluates a web site’s curb appeal and overall success, including usability, writing, and SEO. Perhaps then web site owners will stop farming the job out to themselves, their neighbor’s teenager, their office assistant, or even their internal print department.
Web design, writing, and usability need to be practiced by professionals. Professionals with design and advanced writing degrees, or at least heaps of experience.