My 14-year-old daughter said she feels like we’re living in a book but don’t know we’re living in a book. I feel like we’re living in a movie and somebody pressed “pause.” I can only say that because my husband, three teens, two dogs, and myself are safely “sheltering at home.” But all we have to do is turn on the TV to see the tragedy and death reaching across the world.
So what does that mean for small businesses doing content marketing? Should we continue publishing our planned content during this time, as if nothing were happening? Should we publish content that “checks in” with our audience, just to say, “Hey, we’re still here?” Or should we just step away from the keyboard?
If you’re publishing content that helps people get through this crisis with their mental, physical, and financial health intact, publish away.
- If you have a restaurant, publish recipes that people can make at home — especially if they can be made from ingredients most people have on hand.
- if you run a fitness center, publish content on how people can maintain their fitness levels at home or in their neighborhoods
- If you run a grocery store that’s been experiencing lots of outs, publish content on how customers can make substitutes. (Apparently there’s a shortage of yeast, because everyone is suddenly making beer bread!)
It’s time for content marketers everywhere to put our money where our mouths are.
Otherwise, it’s time for content marketers to get your own content in order (me, too!) All content should add value, but especially now. With thousands sick and dying, and schools and businesses shuttered indefinitely, what content can we publish that truly adds value?
If you can’t honestly say that your content is adding value to someone (other than yourself)…well, just hush, y’all. There’s something better you can do with your time.
Instead of publishing content that adds no value right now, take advantage of this “pause” to get your own content in order.
Hopefully, we’ll never face a situation like this again, so let’s make the best of it. Let me share some tips for giving your website a “glow up” so you’ll be ready when things go back to normal.
I’m going to show you how to audit your website and update it for everything from regulatory changes to new SEO best practices. For any of this to work, though, you have to step out of your normal role and look at your website as if you had never seen it before.
How to audit your website like a stranger and get your own content in order
Fact-check and troubleshoot the basics of your site
- Are your address and contact information correct?
- If your “about” page lists staff members, is it up to date? Or does it include people who left the company when Elvis was still alive?
- Have you updated your copyright to 2020?
- Do your contact forms work, or does the information disappear into a black hole? If you have a “help” email address, does anybody ever check it?
- If you have premium/gated content — meaning customers have to provide an email address to access it — do you ask for separate consent to add them to your mailing list? (This goes back to current regulations and digital policies.)
And for the love of all that’s holy, make it easy for people to buy from you, whether that’s a link in the navigational menu or a form on each page.
Move on to your site structure
Think of it as spring cleaning. (Have you ever cleaned out your closets and thought, “How in the world did we collect so much garbage?”)
Websites tend to do the same thing when their growth isn’t planned and intentional. You end up with important pages that don’t have a link in the navigational menu and/or pages in the navigational menu that aren’t that important. Or maybe you’ve written a bunch of great blog posts that aren’t organized in a way that make sense to humans or Google crawlers.
It’s amazing how many mistakes you can see in your content structure when you pretend you didn’t create it. That’s why “get your own content in order” is my top recommendation right now. Look closely for these problems:
- If someone landed on your homepage, how much effort would they have to spend to find out who you are, what you do, and who your customers are? Don’t make people work for it…just spit it out already.
- Is your navigation user-friendly? I wrote for one company who buried the link to their blog in the footer and then wondered why they didn’t get any traffic. Make sure that the most important parts of your website — your “about” and “contact” pages, your blog, your portfolio, an FAQ page, etc., are part of your primary navigation menu.
- Are your blog posts structured in a way that makes sense? Good content structure is important for a number of reasons. For one thing, it helps customers find the information they want. But the way your content is structured and the way you link from one blog post to another also tells Google how to crawl your site.
The most recent “best practice” is a pillar content strategy. That means dividing your content into different buckets based on what they’re about, writing an “epic” (i.e. long) post to be your piliar piece for that particular bucket, then linking all other posts about that topic to the pillar piece. Here’s an illustration from Hubspot.
So let’s assume the five content pillars are Content Marketing Best Practices, SEO, Social Media, Link Building, and Regulatory Requirements.
Around each of those pillars would be individual blog posts about that topic. Blog post topics surrounding social media, for example, could range from the current best image sizes for each platform to the top 10 automated posting applications. Each of those posts would link to the SEO pillar page and, if appropriate, to each other.
Pro tip 1:
This is obviously a lot easier if you do it from the beginning, but you can go back now and do it. You probably already have content clusters even if you’ve never thought of it that way. You may have to change a few words here and there to make a blog post a better fit for a cluster, but this is the perfect time to do it. ,
Most people remember to link from new posts to old posts. But it’s just as important to link from old posts to new ones. Go to posts on related topics, choose “Edit,” find relevant anchor text, and then add the link to the new post.
Make sure you’re compliant with regulatory requirements
Let me start by saying that I’m neither a lawyer or a digital policy expert. I’m not qualified to tell you exactly what to do about compliance; my job is just to point out some of the things you should consider given the current regulatory environment. For specific guidance, talk with your legal counsel or a digital policy consultant.
With that said, these considerations should be high on your list:
- A privacy statement: These can get pretty complicated (which is why you need expert guidance), but at the very least you need a statement on your website that explains what data you collect from customers, what you do with it, and what they need to do if they want to see or delete their data.
I can’t give you specific privacy guidance, because that’s above my paygrade. The details depend on where you live, because laws vary from country to country and even from state to state. You can find some links on my Resources page, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) website is a reliable source of the latest requirements. If you’d rather work with a digital policy consultant, there’s no better than Kristina Podnar (and, no, we’re not related!).
- An accessibility statement: You also need a statement that explains your commitment to making your site accessible for everyone and gives contact information for people who are having trouble using your site.
Accessibility is important for two reasons: 1) You want everyone to be able to use your website, and 2) there are a lot of lawsuits targeting companies whose websites aren’t accessible.
One of the biggest “misses” I see in my time online is videos that lack captioning. Videos are becoming more popular all the time; if you use them, don’t forget to add captioning.
Another recommendation is to have descriptive alt tags — alt tags that describe an image rather than just stuffing the field with keywords.
Again, though, the W3C is your best resource for accessibility guidelines.
Make sure you’re talking to the right audience.
This is especially important for your home page and about page, and you’d be shocked at how many businesses get this wrong. Subject matter experts — especially in the tech industry — tend to write for other experts. And that may work for B2B companies. But if you’re B2C, take a fresh look at your content and make sure it’s not a victim of “the curse of knowledge.”
If customers who land on your home page can’t immediately figure out who you are and what the heck you do, they’re not going to buy from you.
When it comes to your blog posts, make sure you’re writing for your customers. When I first started my blog, I wrote posts about writing, freelancing, etc. But it finally occurred to me that I was actually writing for my competitors, and they weren’t going to hire me. That’s when I made the shift to writing content for businesses that need to hire content marketers.
Startups often get this wrong, too. They tend to write blog posts about the challenges of being a startup. And they may get a lot of traffic from other startups experiencing the same challenges, but, depending on their product, they may be completely ignoring their customer base.
If you find that your blog posts — or even your homepage — are talking to the wrong audience, fixing that should be your top priority.
Update your SEO
Google’s algorithms change constantly as they try to steer the internet in the way they want it to go, so if you haven’t revisited a page or blog post in a few years, you may have a huge opportunity on your hands.
Pro tip 2:
When I did this, I found out that I had done absolutely nothing to optimize my own homepage. No keywords, no metadata…nothing. Oops.
Make sure you don’t make the same mistake. It’s really amazing how you can spend so much time optimizing a blog post only to realize you’ve given no thought whatsoever to the SEO for your site as a whole.
It’s going to take some time, too, because it means poring over every single bpage and blog post on your site. But trust me — it’s worth it. And if you don’t make the time now, you probably never will. I highly recommend starting from your oldest blog post and working forward. If you start with your newer posts, you might conclude that everything is fine and then quit to soon.
I also highly recommend using one of the many tools that are available. Yoast and Squirrly (the one I use) are two of the most popular WordPress SEO plugins. As you can see in the screenshot below, Squirrly helps you optimize either a page or a post by giving you specific tasks to do. When you successfully complete those tasks, that block turns green. Admittedly, I still struggle with a few of them, like “Content is Google Friendly.” But I’ve got an explainer video to watch as soon as I have time, so I hope to turn that one green soon.
Squirrly also walks you through optimizing your metadata — again, for both pages and posts. If you don’t have an SEO specialist on your team, you’re likely to find all of these set to the defaults, which are usually taken from the first few sentences. If you like to write creative intros like I do, that’s not what you want in your metadata. You want your metadate to summarize what a post is about, and Squirrly helps you do that.
Pro tip 3
Squirrly also helps you conduct keyword research, as do most other tools. But you have to be careful. These tools base the keywords they recommend at least partially on how many people are searching for those keywords as well as your chance of ranking for them.
But here’s the thing: With Google moving toward semantic (natural language) search as well as voice search, the long-tail keywords these sites recommend often don’t make sense — as in, you’d look like an idiot if you tried to use them in a sentence. For instance, I often get “What is a content creator?” as a suggested keyword. It works fine as a subhead, but it’s hard to use naturally in a sentence. Another one is “content marketing portfolio example.” That’s definitely how I’d type it if I were looking for examples of good portfolios, but try using it in a sentence. You can do it, but it sounds stilted, especially if you sprinkle it through your content enough to count as a keyword.
So…use the heck out of the SEO tool of your choice, but be smart. Yes, most people are searching for what we used to call “long-tail keywords,), but they take shortcuts; they don’t type sentences.
My takeaway for this one is to research your keywords, and write content that answers the questions people are searching for. Their searches might not be full sentences, but your answers should be.
Check your images
Take a look at all of the images in the post and ask yourself these questions:
My husband and I mucking it up on a rare date night.
- Do you give proper attribution, if required?
- Do they meet current social norms for inclusion and equity?
- What are the alt tags? Are they keyword-stuffed, or do they describe the image?
- Do they meet the standards of quality people expect today? Older images can look pixelated on today’s high-res monitors.
- Do they include pictures of employees who are no longer with the company? If so, consider updating them with photos of current employees.
- Are they compressed? Uncompressed images slow your page down, and page speed is important to Google. It’s also important to customers, who aren’t willing to wait much more than three seconds for a site to load.
If you use user-generated content, there are additional things to check for when looking at images:
- Do you have the proper permissions? Sometimes people who are thrilled to see their content on your site aren’t so happy when it’s featured in a multi-million dollar marketing campaign. Your submission form should clearly spell out every way in which a user’s content may be used.
- Do you have permission from everyone in a photograph? Keep in mind that users who submit photographs can only give you permission to use their photograph. They can’t grant permission to use the image and likeness of other people in the photos– it’s not theirs to give. In that case, you’d need to get all of the people in the photo to sign releases.
In addition, it’s important to check for logos of other companies. Strictly speaking, using their logos — someone in the photograph is wearing a Nike cap, for example — to promote your business could be considered trademark infringement.
- Watch out for things that might damage your brand: Especially for crowd shots, take a good look at the background and make sure there are no wardrobe malfunctions and that no one is doing anything…awkward.
Check your links
There are tools for this, but, since you’ll be going through your blog post-by-post anyway, I recommend doing it manually.
- Are there any broken links? If so, either delete them or find new ones to replace them with.
- Are there links to any businesses that you don’t want associated with your brand? We’ve all seen the scandals some brands find themselves embroiled in; give some thought as to whether you should take that link out.
- Are there working links that are outdated? Don’t link to pages that are more than two or three years old. Change happens fast these days; if a post is older than that, it’s likely that either the advice or some of the facts and figures are wrong. So find a comparable link with new information. (Besides, you might get a little Google love for updating your site.)
- Are you giving away authority and “link juice”? While it helps to link to authoritative sources, it’s also important to remember that a “do follow” link is, in essence, a vote for the other site. Think carefully about whether you want to give authority to another site. If not, you can set it to “no follow.” That’s especially useful in list articles, like my Resources page. At the very least, set your links to “open in a new tab” so that you don’t actually drive people away from your site.
- Check your internal links, too. Are all of your blog posts linked to the appropriate pillar page? And do the pillar pages link back to all relevant blog posts? If you’re going back and arranging an existing blog around pillar content, this is an important step.
Wrap it up by codifying your learnings into digital policies
Now that you’ve got your website all freshened up, make a plan to keep it that way by creating digital policies spelling out how and what you’ll publish on your blog and social media channels. Doing so will not only help keep you compliant with the many new regulations being passed about digital content, it will also help you keep your blog focused on your core business objectives.
It’s also important to remember that different countries may have drastically different regulations regarding digital activity and data privacy. And, typically, it doesn’t matter where your business is located; what matters is whether citizens of those countries are among your customer base.
Your plan should also lay out your rules for various social media channels as well as — and this is important — what employees should do in certain situations. COVID-19 and the ensuing quarantine make a perfect example. Your response needs to come from the C-suite and to be consistent across all channels.
Employees should also know what to do when people criticize your company on social media. Should they reply in real-time? Or should they just forward it to someone who can resolve the issue? Because even the best of intentions could go south quickly:
To sum it up, when you create your digital policies, make sure you include directives for another situation like this, when people want to know their favorite brands are still out there but aren’t the least bit interested in being marketed to. That would be akin to marching through neighborhood streets hawking Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Pro tip 3: You need expert advice on digital policies
I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to stress it one more time: I’m neither a lawyer nor a digital policy expert. I know many of the things to look for, but not all. And I’m not qualified to tell you specifically now to fix them.
Nor am I in a position to help you create your digital policies. I strongly recommend that you discuss these issues with your legal counsel. If you need somebody to walk you by the hand through developing digital policies, I can’t recommend anyone more highly than digital policy consultant Kristina Podnar. And, no, we’re not related, although I very much wish we were. We connected due to our shared last name and have had the pleasure of working together on several occasions since. I served as content strategist for her book, “The Power of Digital Policy,” and let me just say this — you have no idea how much you don’t know. I think I earned at least a virtual Master’s in working on that book.
So if you need help with your digital policies or in determining whether your website is compliant with all of the regulations that apply to you, get in touch with Kristina. You won’t find anyone better.
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