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Improving Your Content’s Signal-to-Noise Ratio

by Christine Anameier on November 4th, 2010

If you grew up in a certain era, you probably remember fiddling with the dial on a car radio, trying to tune in a station. When you found the signal: hooray, music! And in between? Noise. Sometimes, web content can seem a lot like the static you hear between stations.

Is your website broadcasting loud and clear? Even if your content is terrific, presenting it the wrong way can make it seem like static. Let’s look at what you can do to make your signal heard.

Even good content can be noise

When we talk about web content, we talk about messaging and audiences—what your site is trying to say, and who you’re saying it to. If something is clearly off-topic or doesn’t apply to any of your audiences, it’s noise. Most people who work on content will accept that verdict, if grudgingly.

Where things get a little touchier is when something is only marginally relevant. Or relevant to the wrong audience. Or not clearly focused. The information you needed yesterday may be noise today. Perfectly good content will be noise to somebody.

The bottom line: When you’re looking for information, everything that’s not what you need at this very minute is noise.

Noise gets in the way

When there’s too much noise, it’s hard to find the signal. With that car radio, we all had days where we got fed up with the static and popped in a cassette.

Sometimes content is labeled vaguely, and this only compounds the problem. If people can’t tell at a glance whether something is what they’re looking for, you’re probably making them work too hard.  And if you make your audience work too hard, they’re likely to wander off and find a site that gives them more help.

If your site has too much static, they’ll pop in the cassette—and, for that visit at least, you’ve lost them.

Boosting the signal

So, how can you break through the noise and get the most out of your content?

Segmentation. We often recommend segmenting content by audience, if your audiences can self-identify, like “Patients” and “Doctors.” (Or sometimes you may need to organize your content by task, or by where the content falls in the purchase cycle.)

Prioritization. Understand your audiences and their tasks, and decide what your website is trying to do. Then make the site structure— and the page structure—reflect those priorities.

Clear labeling. Specific and accurate link text, page titles, and headings are essential. They’re like the numbers on that radio dial. Without them, your audience is just fiddling around hoping to stumble upon something worthwhile.

Content Strategy Signal to Noise Ratio

In many cases, improving your signal-to-noise ratio doesn’t mean deleting a lot of your content. It means finding a better way of organizing and presenting what you’ve got.

Chances are, you’ve got the information people are looking for. Put a good clear signal out there, and they’ll keep tuning in.

  • catherine

    I like this concept – makes a lot of sense. I do have a problem I’d like to raise about your recommendation for segmentation (bit of a tangent, this). University websites almost all segment according to whether you are a prospective student, a current student, faculty, alumni etc. I find this makes accessing what I want impossible, when what I want to know is “what courses do you offer in medieval theology?” (or similar popular mainstream subject) because I don’t readily fall into these groups. If I click Prospective Student (the most likely, you’d think) i end up buried in instructions about majors and grants and how cool dorm life will be. This is a major noise problem obviously. Invariably it doesn’t matter which I user group I self-identify with, I can’t get to where I want to be easily. So I wonder if there are situations where segmenting by user is actually a hindrance. In your doctors vs patients example, if I want to know what other options there are for treatment of my condition, it wouldn’t be entirely obvious to me which to select. What criteria would you be looking at to determine if segmentation by author is going to decrease or increase your signal:noise ratio?

    Btw am VERY excited Kristina is coming to Webstock, looking forward to attending her workshop!

  • catherine

    Sorry, that second to last sentence should read “… determine if segmentation by audience is going to decrease…”

  • Christine Anameier

    [I think a blog glitch ate the reply I posted the other day. Reposting.]

    You raise a good question. Segmentation by audience makes the most sense when the audiences (a) know who they are, and (b) are looking for different information. But often there’s an overlap where some content is of interest to multiple audiences. Providing some alternate navigation can be useful there. For example, provide links to the course catalog from the Prospective Student section *and* the Current Student section, and/or provide a link from a navigation bar that all audiences see.

    The medical example is interesting, because that doctors-vs-patients segmentation is so common. It also meets both the (a) and (b) criteria above. Content written for physicians will sail over the heads of most patients, and content written for patients doesn’t go into enough detail for physicians. Mixing the two groups’ content could lead to a lot of confused patients and impatient physicians. Segmenting by audience there works well for most, and the outliers—such as patients with a medical background or a strong scientific bent—will probably figure out that they can go check out the other group’s content.

    Thanks for your comment, glad you’ll be doing the workshop!

  • pj

    This is exactly the article I needed to make a simple point for a new physician’s web site. thank you.

  • Solanina

    Nice article,
    but the ‘right single quotation mark’ after “content”  (“content’s”) is causing problems because it is an invalid URL character.

    A normal apostrophe would do.

    In general URIs as defined by RFC 3986 may contain any of the following characters: A-Z, a-z, 0-9, -, ., _, ~, :, /, ?, #, [, ], @, !, $, &, ‘, (, ), *, +, ,, ; and =.

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