Reviving Anorexic Web Writing

Monday morning began precisely as Monday mornings are not supposed
to begin: with an argumentative prospective client standing in my
office (sans appointment) telling me why I should stop what I’m
doing and build him a “quick and dirty” website for his
latest project. I smiled at him, nodding in all the right places, and
when he stopped talking for just long enough I said, “All that
sounds great. When you’re ready to give me the content you want
to use so I can see what I’m dealing with, let’s

The client balked. “Can’t we just add that later, once the
design is finished?”

My inner writer growled, but my outer designer smiled, accustomed to
the request. “Sorry; can’t do it. The content is the heart
of the website. I can’t build you a body until you give me a

Content is the heart of a brilliant user experience. From the body content to the alt
text to the footer, the words that shape the page lie at the very
center of an engaging visit. If the words aren’t beautiful and
meaningful, the sleekest design in the world won’t compensate for
it. The body can never replace a missing heart.

But we’ve gone astray as an industry, and we’ve starved
all the life out of web writing. The kind of writing we encourage is
lifeless, insipid, and calorie-free. If we want to get back on
track—to allow writers to write wonderful user
experiences—we have to change our expectations and our rules.

A history of anorexia

I have always been disheartened by the ubiquitous advice to keep all
writing on the web short, though I understand where the advice comes
from. For years designers and writers worked separately, designers
working their magic to make the website as flashy and awesome as
possible while the writers, if they were invited to the party at all,
were given a paltry few days to whip up some words to fill the white
space on the page. Because the two teams worked separately, much of the
purpose of the website was lost: pages were designed to be looked at,
but not read. Line lengths were much too long. Typography was unheard
of. Color schemes were not designed to facilitate easy reading.
Center-aligned text in Comic Sans ruled supreme.

In those dark days, the people writing the web copy weren’t
actually writers: They were secretaries, product engineers,
and—horrors!—designers; more often than not, the content
was thrown together as an afterthought by someone who didn’t know
a semicolon from a hole in the ground. Web writing was simply painful
to read. Not only were the pages not designed for reading, the content
itself wasn’t worth reading. As a result, writers and
designers cultivated impatient, lazy readers, and this in turn bred the
advice to skip the art of writing altogether and merely summarize.

Years later, however, things are looking much better. Designers and
writers collaborate more, and line lengths have become manageable and
typography has become more standardized and reader-friendly. Talented
writers often lend their skill to website creation. Yet though our
situation has improved, the advice to omit words, chunk content, use
bullets, and keep it short remains. This is sometimes, but not universally good advice. I thought I was the only one who felt this way until I read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think!
wherein he writes, “No one is suggesting the articles on be shorter.” I cheered inside! Except that people are suggesting this. Because we haven’t yet figured out the difference between content and copy.

Writing the heart of the web

The distinction I make between “content” and
“copy” is my own: I don’t pretend this is an industry
standard. But we all know copy when we read it: it’s the
marketing fluff that serves no purpose but to take up space. It
doublespeaks and obfuscates. It’s the inflated speech of the
politician using many words to say nothing, the sales pitch of the
greasy used-car cretin whose crafty euphemisms try to disguise the fact
that his product sucks. Copy is recognized by its pervasive use of
agonizing words such as “leverage,” “optimize,”
and “facilitate,” or a litany of intolerable phrases such
as “economically disadvantaged,” “heavyset,”
“law enforcement officer,” and “ethnic
community.” Writing like this is self-conscious and
boring—what’s wrong with saying Marvin is a poor, fat cop
from the ghetto?

(If you find yourself writing like this, by all means, use bullets
and omit words. The less of this pain inflicted upon the reading public
the better.)

Content, on the other hand, fills a real need: it establishes
emotional connections between people. The writing has heart and spirit;
it has something to say and the wherewithal to stand up and say it.
Content is the stuff readers want to read, even if they have to print
it to do so. (And readers will print a long piece; just because
something is published online doesn’t mean it must be read online). Content is thoughtful, personable, and faithfully
written. It hooks the reader and draws him in, encouraging him to click
this link or that, to venture further into a website. It delivers what
it promises and delights the attentive reader.

I remember the first time I read Shelley Jackson’s My Body.
I was enchanted by her narrative, compelled to click her many links, to
delve deeper into the stories about her arms, her legs, her breasts. I
wasn’t concerned about how long I was reading. I was not at all
bothered by her lack of headlines, and I most assuredly did not pine
away for want of a bullet. This is real writing: beautiful, lucid,
captivating. It doesn’t matter what the subject is; content
should enrich our experience of any website, be it a university website
or a personal blog. Give me passion and give me flair, and I will give
you my full attention, page after page after page.

As our culture becomes increasingly digital, the art forms that
support it must be constructed with the same care, deliberateness, and
gusto as our traditional media. Intelligent content is the literature
of our time. It is not enough that our printed books and magazines are
ardently written and meticulously edited. Our culture loses much if we
encourage online writers to sacrifice grace and personality on the
altars of pith and scannability. Perhaps better advice is to encourage
writers to say exactly what they mean with precisely the words
required, however many they may be.

But anorexia on the web is not restricted to the substance of the
main article on a page. Perhaps the worst cases of undernourished
writing are found in alt text and footers.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Where I work, writers don’t write alt text.
Designers do. (And they write it not because they think it’s
important, but because it’s a Section 508 requirement and they
have to.) While I’m sure there are many reasons that this task
falls to designers, I bet none of them are good reasons. alt
text does a tricky thing: it translates a visual experience into a
coherent, semantic expression. It takes the implied and makes it
explicit—an emotional trigger palpably interpreted. With a mere
handful of words, alt text must relate the full impact of an image to those who can’t, for whatever reason, see it.

That takes skill. That takes a writer.

I admit to having overlooked alt text. Until a year ago I sniffed at the idea of creating useful alt
text for images. “If a user is blind,” I reasoned,
“what does he care that I have a photograph of the university
tower on my website?”

My fellow designer shrugged. “Well, I guess if you don’t really care about what the image says,” she said slowly, “you really don’t need it in the first place.”

My ensuing epiphany was embarrassingly obvious. Thoughtfully constructed alt text is valuable because it provides emotional content; it should make the reader feel something. Given a photograph of the University of Texas tower, for example, simple alt
text that says, “UT tower” might not be terribly useful to
someone who has never seen the tower, though it may be useful to
someone who knows what the tower looks like. But alt text
that says, “Evening view of UT tower aglow after a big Texas
win” is better, because it is meaningful to anyone, sighted or
not—it projects pride, kinship, tradition. It conveys very
particular emotions using revealing language.

Even though I prided myself on being a writer-cum-designer, smugly
aware of the importance of emotional connections on the web, I wrote
vapid alt copy—when I bothered writing anything at
all. As a result, my content suffered. When I allowed myself to write
thoughtless words, even in alt text, my approach to
content writing was weakened. If I want to heal our anorexic culture of
writing on the web, I have to use every opportunity to imbue my web
projects with good, strong, meaningful language. I have to acknowledge
that in this digital-media-rich culture, most of the content people
encounter comes from writers like me—from blogs, news sites, and
online journals. Don’t I owe it to these people to offer rich,
healthy reads? If I feed them garbage, am I helping my culture? Can I
justify offering junk-food copy if I offer it in bites and chunks?

The last words

If alt content is wanting on the web, footer content is downright insulting.
Most footers are useless. They usually contain a handful of throw-away
links, maybe a copyright statement, and contact information. Nobody
reads them, because they’re not worth reading.

I don’t know why we let footers languish in frivolity. Books
have back matter, with bibliographies and indices and endnotes and all
sorts of interesting, useful information for the curious reader. I know
plenty of voracious readers who read the back matter gleefully, even
taking the time to read about the typefaces used in the book. Book
publishers indulge their reader’s hunger for information; why do
we treat the online reader with any less respect?

One of my favorite footers is found on Emily Gordon’s blog.
This is a writer’s footer. This is information to be enjoyed. She
talks about herself, offering notes on what she’s written and why
she’s writing. She directly addresses her reader assuring him of
his privacy. When I get to her footer and see all that she offers down
there at the bottom of the page, I feel like she expected me to read
that far, and is acknowledging my visit. I love that she’s taken
the opportunity to offer me more information than I asked for, in a
place I didn’t expect to find it. I feel rewarded at the end of
reading her blog, and that’s what I call a wonderful user experience.

I realize that writing like Shelley Jackson’s and Emily
Gordon’s won’t be appropriate to many web projects. There
is a time and a place for copy. But what I don’t accept is the
persistent attitude that all writing on the web should adhere to the
standards of copy. I challenge the idea that web writing, which
increasingly is becoming the soul of literature and media in our world,
shouldn’t be beautiful and meaty, even lengthy where appropriate.
And I encourage writers to think of themselves as central to the
user’s experience, and to treat their own content not merely as
king, but as heart, soul, and breath. We owe it to our craft,
ourselves, and our culture to revive that which we have too long let


Better Writing Through Design

Good web design has a signature style: It’s approachable,
it’s easy to understand, and it packs enough punch to catch the
roving eye of even the most mercurial user. Web designers know this
doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of a finely
honed process that asks—and answers—important questions
about a site’s intended audience. You might call it “visual
language” or “design vernacular.” Either way, what
you find in a truly good design is a unique perspective. A point of
view. A voice.

It’s no accident that we use such
language-based terms to describe effective design on the web. The web
is all about communication—from the position of a navigation
element to the size and shape of a button, every detail furthers the
conversation. So how is it that the very foundation of the web, written
text, has taken a strategic back seat to design?

You do
research. You devise tack-sharp strategy. You sweat the details. All to
create a design that truly speaks to your user. Does your copy do the
same? Apply a design process to your words as well as your images and
you just may find your voice.

Say it, don’t display it

It’s one thing to write copy that fits on a website. It’s quite another to write copy that fits in
with a website. You wouldn’t try to force an incongruous visual
element into a carefully considered design. Same goes for written
content. Even if you’ve wisely designed a site around the content
it delivers, written copy may fit neatly physically but still ring
false to the intended audience.

Ideally, you should work
with a writer from day one to design the voice of the copy in
conjunction with the visual language of the site. And getting a writer
involved early can help you solve lots of other problems—from
content strategy issues to information architecture snags. Remember
that writers are creatives too, and they are, in many cases, the
keepers of the content your design ultimately serves.

you simply don’t have the resources to hire a writer,
you’ll have to keep an ear on the language yourself. This is
where the user experience research you did way back in the design
concept phase comes back into play. It helps you design your words.

Make personas more grata

remember those burning questions. The ones you ask yourself every time
you kick off a new project. They probably go a little something like

  • Who’s visiting this site?
  • What does she want to know?
  • What does he want to do?

you’ve ever worked with them before, you know how invaluable user
personas can be to answering these questions. Maybe they’re not
of the fake-name-and-glossy-headshot variety, but even the most
rudimentary personas (i.e., “my mom” or “the
skeptic”) transform your audience into real human beings. Human
beings with day jobs, complicated espresso beverage orders, and no time
to waste looking for things instead of finding them.

In a
sense, you create characters from these personas. Establish what your
characters will respond well to, build in contingencies for second- and
third-tier players, and you move closer to an effective design. Not
coincidentally, effective storytelling works much the same way. It
demonstrates how different characters respond in different ways to the
same situation. The only thing missing from this analogy is a narrator.
Time to write yourself into the story.

Call me Ishmael

people why they love the stories they do, and you often hear the same
response: “I really identify with the characters.” Create a
persuasive voice for your website by giving your users someone to
identify with: A first-person “narrator” with a distinct
yet welcoming personality. Developing this personality shouldn’t
be too difficult. You did the heavy lifting when you created your
original user personas. Now you just need to create one more.

First, try adding these to your list of questions:

  • How do I want to make this user feel?
  • How would I carry on a face-to-face conversation with him?

imagine your target persona’s peer. Someone who shares her
interests and speaks with her, not at her. A professional video editor.
A fellow foodie. A sports car enthusiast. That’s who you’ll
channel to find your voice during the next step in the design process:

Sing in the rain

Ah, that
magical moment when Moleskines reach capacity, people pass out from
dry-erase fumes, and there are no bad ideas (except for that
one…). The time-honored brainstorming session (even confined to
one brain), helps you build design concepts around strategy. No reason
your copy can’t come along for the ride.

you’re sketching designs, jot down a quote or two. Collect tear
sheets of words as well as images. Shoot rough video of someone you
think would make the perfect spokesperson. Remember that by introducing
your narrator persona, you’re creating an expert peer your users
will come back to for advice, information, and inspiration.
That’s worth spending some time on. It also makes the actual
business of copywriting much easier. Learn the language, then tell your
story—not the other way around.

Work on your dialogue

a voice for your site and you do more than make words and images play
nice. You engage your users in a discussion you both want to carry on.
So if you find yourself laboring to craft the perfect written sentence,
improvise. Speak what you want to say, then write it. Email it to a
colleague. Chat it. Text it.

Great web design reflects the
way we interact, and the primary vehicle for that interaction remains
text. We share, we chat, we comment, we tag, and we do it all via the
written word. The web is One Big Conversation. Let’s talk.


Feature Richness and User Engagement


The more engaged users are, the more features an application can
sustain. But most users have low commitment — especially to websites,
which must focus on simplicity, rather than features.

In designing any user interface, one of your key decisions concerns the tradeoff between features and simplicity. The more features, the more complicated the system inevitably becomes:

  • Features have to be shown to users, so screens get busier.
  • Menus get bigger and/or more numerous, making it harder for users to find the features they need.
  • Features must be explained, ballooning the size of the help system and/or the manual:
    • Fatter documentation takes longer to read and makes it harder for users to extract a good conceptual model of the system.
    • More docs also make it harder for users to find the explanations they need.
  • Each extra feature offers more rope for users to hang themselves: they’re more likely to use the wrong feature,
    either as an error of intent (a mistake caused when they think the
    wrong feature is the one they need) or as an error of execution (that
    is, a slip, as when they click the wrong button in a crowded toolbar).
    Conversely, Steve Jobs famously defended the Mac’s one-button mouse by
    pointing out that users would never click the wrong mouse button.
  • The number of feature interactions grows by
    the square of the number of features: more can go wrong, and it becomes
    harder for users to understand why a change in one corner of the system
    has an effect in another corner.
  • The more options users have to choose from, the more time
    it takes their brains to prepare for action and decide what to do. Even
    if a fancy feature can theoretically execute a task faster, overall
    system use often slows because users spend more time on the mental
    operations required to choose from among features than they save from
    the more efficient feature.

The answer seems clear: minimize features and chase simplicity at any cost. This is indeed the case for most user interface design, but not for all projects.

User Engagement Levels

Users’ willingness to learn
is the most important factor in how much complexity you can allow in
the user experience. If people are extremely excited about a user
interface, they’ll welcome more features and will spend the time to
figure them out.

Mostly, though, users have a low engagement level with user interfaces and just want them to get out of the way. People don’t want to spend time learning, they want to spend time doing — a well-documented effect called the paradox of the active user.
(It’s a paradox because people might save time in the long run if they
spent more time learning about powerful features. But, empirically,
users almost never want to do this, and you should design for how
people actually behave, not how you wish they behaved.)

Shallow Engagement with Websites

Where does your website fall on the 1-3 scale of user engagement we saw for Photoshop? Outside the scale,
at level 4. People don’t want to read 20 pages of instructions to use a
website. They demand instant gratification or they leave.

The user engagement level with websites is incredibly low, as dictated by information foraging: people don’t commit easily to any individual site, because it’s so easy to get to other sites. Skimming the cream from each site is usually the superior browsing strategy.

As studies in my recent book document, users visiting a new site spend an average of 30 seconds on the homepage and less than 2 minutes on the entire site before deciding to abandon it. (They spend a bit more time if they decide to stay on a site, but still only 4 minutes on average.)

Thus, websites should have almost no features: focus on the words.

To determine how much complexity you can afford in a user interface,
you must analyze user engagement levels: Do they care deeply, or do
they just want to get something done as quickly as possible? Typically,
users care less than you think! You’re not important to them. This is
one of the main reasons companies need systematic usability studies: to
make explicit the fact that outside customers don’t find your design as important as you do (because you work on it all year).


Commenting on google news – follow up,

The instructions are:

 * How do I submit a comment to Google News? *

If you have been mentioned in a story and you would like to submit a comment to Google News, you can do so by sending an email to The email should contain:

  – Your comment
  – A link to the story you are commenting on
  – Your contact details: your name, title, and organization
  – How we can verify your email address.

For example, if the Tooth Fairy wanted to comment on a recent story about dental hygiene, she might sign her comment:

“Sincerely, Tooth Fairy.

Verify my identity by losing a tooth and placing it under your pillow. Iwill leave you a business card along with a small payment for your tooth. Alternately you can call 1-800-TEETH-4-ME and speak to my assistant, The Tooth Mouse, who can confirm my email address and comment.”

It is important that we are able to verify your identity, so please include clear instructions with your comment. If further information is needed, we will follow-up over email.


Google news allowing comments

Google News now allows organization and individuals that are quoted in the stories it indexes to post comments in reply. Here’s an example (hat tip to the Lost Remote blog).

This has the potential to be a much more efficient way to respond to online news than most others we have experimented with. It’s been a long time since I took a reporter to lunch, but I remember they used to tell me they often used Google News to research what other journalists had written about a topic before starting their own stories. [Erik Eckl, Beaconfire].

Here’s a link where you can see how it works.


Suppose your company, boss or political candidate discovers that
their Wikipedia article is wrong, or has subtle inaccuracies that
nonetheless paint them in an unfavorable light? Most people unfamiliar
with how Wikipedia works consider only two solutions: edit the article
or sit on their hands. Unfortunately, neither approach typically
results in the optimal outcome: a factually accurate profile containing
trustworthy information.

Search marketers and reputation management professionals should
know that there are legitimate ways to correct errors in Wikipedia.
Knowing the right way to fix things is even more important now that
Wikipedia results frequently appear in the top listings of Google
search results. The good news is that Wikipedia actually offers a broad
range of options for correcting inaccurate or negative entries, and
even better, all are easy to use and take little time to implement.

My last column
looked at examples of inappropriate editing originating from a United
States Congress IP address—meaning one politician’s staff was
attempting to use Wikipedia for less than ethical purposes. This time
we’ll confront the opposite problem: an anonymous vandal inserted false
information to the biography of United States Congressman Steve
LaTourette of Ohio. For four months, Congressman LaTourette’s staffers
were aware of the falsehoods but did nothing to fix them because, as
spokeswoman Deborah Setliff told the Plain Dealer of Cleveland, they feared a PR backlash if they edited the page.

The most serious problem occurred in the second paragraph. According to the Plain Dealer story:

“LaTourette’s anonymously authored biography on one of the
world’s most visited Web sites claims he once disrupted a law school
assembly honoring England’s Prince of Wales.”

The exact text as it appeared in Wikipedia was:

“A graduate of the University of Michigan, LaTourette
studied law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and had the
dubious distinction there of disrupting a school assembly honoring
Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. LaTourette was roughly removed by
the Secret Service.”

The really damaging aspect of that allegation is how it bears a
tangential resemblance to the truth. There actually had been a student
disturbance when Prince Charles visited that law school. LaTourette was
enrolled at the time but had nothing to do with the incident.


Wikipedia and its volunteers do care about edit vandalism and the Biographies of Living Persons
policy makes this problem a special priority. LaTourette’s staff could
have e-mailed the Wikimedia Foundation, either directly or via the Open Ticket Request System (OTRS) that creates a tracking number for each query.

As a Wikipedia administrator I see the opportunity to go deeper than
OTRS and fix the underlying problem: this article obviously wasn’t
being watchlisted. Watchlists
alert active editors of changes to particular pages. These are among
the most powerful tools for combating vandalism. To solicit more
volunteer watchlisting, LaTourette’s staff could have contacted two
projects that are interested in the article: WikiProject Biography and WikiProject U.S. Congress. Most article talk pages contain links to one or more WikiProjects. A good general contact point is Wikipedia’s Counter-Vandalism Unit.
Inappropriate edits usually vanish within minutes when enough editors
watch a page. Best of all, the site’s volunteers will solve future
problems while you sleep.

Wikipedia also maintains noticeboards to address specific issues.
Here’s a short list that every search marketer or reputation management
professional should keep for reference.

Site administrators insist on reports that include page diffs like the one displayed above for the vandalizing edit. These are accessible through the tab at the top of each article. Here’s the history of the Steve LaTourette article.


Each date-stamped line provides a (last) option at the second
column from left. Selecting that leads to a visual display of the
difference between that page version and the previous one. That, in
Wikipedia jargon, is the diff. It shows exactly what happened,
which account or IP performed the edit, and when the change occurred.
Cut and paste the relevant diff URL whenever you need to present
evidence. Standard wikimarkup is to enclose URLs in single brackets.

Now here’s where this knowledge becomes especially valuable: a
little wikisleuthing sometimes turns up other interesting information
that a reputation management professional can put to creative use. From
the diff of the vandalizing edit I get a full list of this IP address’s


That shows a pattern of gossipy edits to biographies, mostly of Ohio
politicians. Some Wikipedia vandals exhibit a pattern of ideological or
profit-motivated edits. If I had noticed this IP during its spree of
March 6 and March 7 I would have blocked it from editing for a while.
Any editor can issue warnings
for clear policy violations. A word of caution: no matter what your
opinion about a user’s conduct, keep the legal angle offsite. Wikipedia
doesn’t mind if you actually take someone to court, but threats of a
suit have a stifling effect on discussion and could end your site
editing privileges. Other strategies may yield swifter and more
satisfying resolutions.

Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota got an unexpected
boost to her reelection campaign last year after an anonymous vandal
attacked her Wikipedia biography. Several strange claims entered the
article including a baseless charge that she was pregnant by a
nonexistent staffer. It’s uncertain whether the opposing campaign
coordinated the vandalism, but shortly afterward its campaign manager
sent an e-mail to several of the state’s bloggers
that cited the vandalized Wikipedia biography and added an accusation
that Herseth was a “home-wrecker.” Rather than damaging Herseth’s
reputation, the tactic backfired on challenger Bruce Whalen to such an
extent that the Rapid City Journal editorial board called for a public apology from the Whalen campaign. Herseth won the election.


New Global Study From MTV, Nickelodeon and Microsoft Challenges Assumptions About Relationship Between Kids, Youth & Digital Technology

The report found:

  • Technology has enabled young people to have more and closer friendships thanks to constant connectivity.
  • Friends influence each other as much as marketers do. Friends are as important as brands.
  • Kids and young people don’t love the technology itself, they just love how it enables them to communicate all the time, express themselves and be entertained.
  • Digital communications such as IM, email, social networking sites and mobile/sms are complementary to, not competitive with, TV. TV is part of young peoples’ digital conversation.
  • Despite the remarkable advances in communication technology, kid and youth culture looks surprisingly familiar, with almost all young people using technology to enhance rather than replace face-to-face interaction.
  • Globally, the number of friends that young males have more than doubles between the ages of 13-14 and 14-17 — it jumps from 24 to 69.
  • The age group and gender that claims the largest number of friends are not girls aged 14-17, but boys aged 18-21, who have on average 70 friends.

Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications and How to Avoid Them

In the last several years we’ve seen the rise and fall of many
social web applications. While most of our attention gets paid to the
hugely successful ones like YouTube and Facebook,
we can also learn a lot from those that have failed. Here are some of
the common pitfalls that lead to failure when building social web

1) Underestimating The Cold Start Problem

If you build and release your social web site and nobody uses it,
you have the cold start problem. This problem affects most social
sites, and directly results from designing for the network. The effect
of the network is that nodes on the network (web sites) have attention momentum.
We pay attention to certain nodes (sites) already, and so if
you’re trying to add one to the network then you have to build
your own attention momentum over time. This is not easy.

Too often, though, this hurdle is underestimated. The first step is
to admit there’s a problem. Say “This is not working. Our
early users are not using the site how we want them to”. You
would be surprised at how often this doesn’t happen.
Instead, what often happens is that more money is pushed into features
or marketing, which is precisely the wrong move.

Strong social sites build value one user at a time. If one user
finds value, then they’re much more likely to tell others or
invite their friends. Strong sites don’t succeed by attracting
“markets”, satisfying entire groups of people with a
certain feature set. Instead, they succeed on a smaller level, really
focusing on individuals and their immediate social network. Then they
can branch outward. One strategy in particular is to design for your
friends, get the system working well for them, and then release it to a
broader audience.

2) Focusing on Too Many Things

I got this email in my inbox the other day from a well-meaning entrepreneur who was building a new social web site:

“(our site) aims to combine the best elements of
Digg, and StumbleUpon, as a mechanism of social discovery
and personal expression – but with the unique element of

I get so many of these it’s not funny. This is a clear case of
focusing on too many things. If you can’t describe what your site
does with a single, clear idea then you’re trying to do too much.
In addition, a comparison to other sites in this way is a bad idea,
because they’ve already beat you. They already have a strong
brand while you have a weak one.

The ease of adding social features makes overload likely.
Development frameworks make adding friends, tags, profiles, blogs, or a
host of other social features much easier than it was even a couple
years ago. This is the opposite to a barrier to entry, where the hard
part is building something at all. Instead, the ease of adding social features is a barrier to focus. If you have every feature under the sun you’re probably not focused as well as you could be.

So focus on one thing that isn’t being addressed. It
can’t be something like “the unique element of
real-time”. It has to be something inherently valuable, like a
common frustrating activity. Nail that one thing to the ground, and
show people how you do that one thing better than anybody else.

Think of the most successful social sites out there. They usually
focus on a single thing. YouTube (video), Netflix (movies), eBay
(auctions), MySpace (friends), Flickr (photos), (bookmarks)
and most of the social features on those sites are aimed at making that
one activity better. These are just the giants. There are many more
niches that are successfully designed for that are even more focused.
Threadless focuses on t-shirts. on music. etc…

3) Lack of Sustained Execution

What makes Google so terrifying to their competitors is that they
never stop getting better. They’re executing each and every day
to make their software the best it can be. For example, in September of
last year they did the unthinkable: they completely killed off the
interface paradigm of a solid, growing product: their Google Reader software. But they replaced it with an even better interface that was universally acclaimed.

It’s too easy to fall into the desktop software mindset of build, release, and wait for the next cycle. But with social software, you don’t have the opportunity to stop improving.
Your community is always growing and changing and so your management
has to as well. There will always be things to do, screens to improve,
questions to answer, and wording to tweak, support docs to update.

This can seem daunting, but I think it’s mostly about mindset.
If you see it as a sustained problem, then it will be one. If you see
it as an opportunity for continual improvement, your outlook will be
more positive.

4) Pointing the Finger when Missteps Happen

When you mess up on a social web app, as you undoubtedly will, you
have to come completely clean or your users will smell your fear and
hate you for it. Social sites are not typical software…they ebb
and flow depending on the community and how it evolves over time. You,
as the manager of a community, must act accordingly.

Consider the recent Digg dustup
in which the Digg community pushed back on the site after they tried to
remove a certain DVD-cracking code from user-submitted entries. At
first, Digg tried to explain the situation away by saying they were
legally obligated to as the result of a cease-and-desist letter. The
basic message was “our hands are tied”.

But then the Digg community overwhelmed the site and got the DVD
crack code up anyway. The failure of Digg management to stand up for
their users initially resulted in the user’s aggregate behavior.
Digg didn’t lose out, however, as this community passion provided
an opportunity for them to ride the wave, so to speak, reversing their
course and standing up to the cease-and-desist. Their apology letter
and reversal suggests they quickly realized that pointing the finger
wasn’t the right course. Only by accepting responsibility for
their user base could Digg keep their respect.

Here’s a template for how to say you’re sorry.

5) Not Appointing a Full-time Community Manager

No matter how prescient your designers and how well thought out your
design strategy, there is no way to design a perfect social web site
that doesn’t need ongoing management. Yet, some social start-ups
fail to recognize this and launch their app without a designated
caretaker. The result is a slow failure…the worst kind of
failure because it’s not immediately apparent that it’s

In any decent social app, use and users are always changing, always adapting and pushing the limits of your software. So as Matt Haughey, founder of Metafilter, says in his excellent Community Tips for 2007, “Moderation is a full-time job”.

The success of many social start-ups proves this to be true. Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, when asked about making online communities work, admitted there is no silver bullet, but added:

“A lot of our success came from George (Oates),
the lead designer, and Caterina (Fake). Both of them spent a lot of
time in the early days greeting individual users as they came in,
encouraging them and leaving comments on their photos. There was a lot
of dialogue between the people who were developing Flickr and their
users to get feedback on how they wanted Flickr to develop. That
interaction made the initial community very strong and then that seed
was there for new people who joined to make the community experience
strong for them too.”

Stewart’s description is exactly how George described it to me when I met her at SXSW.
She could not over-emphasize the value of her and Caterina spending so
much time with users…24 hours a day greeting them, showing them
how to use Flickr, and generally saying “Hi”. It was clear
to her that a huge part of the early success of Flickr resulted from
that personal attention, that personal connection that someone on the
other end cares about what’s going on. A full-time community
manager is crucial to providing this level of attention.

6) Not Building Archived Knowledge

When your social app begins to grow and you start to attract more
and more new people to the fold, you begin to see trends in their
initial confrontation with the software. The same issues crop up
repeatedly. People have the same problems over and over again and the
community manager spends more and more time answering the same

For example, uploading that first batch of photos might be
intimidating for those folks who have never done it before. Let’s
imagine they all run into the same problem: how do you get photos out
of iPhoto and into your Flickr account? There are certain steps to do
this, but it is not entirely clear, especially if you’ve never
had to export pictures out of iPhoto before.

It’s the community manager’s role to help people at this
stage. They’ll chat and email with the person to help them along.
But their role should also include figuring out when archiving common
problems will make a big difference to a large group of users. If the
process of exporting from iPhoto is archived at a URL, then the
community manager only has to point people to the brand new
“exporting from iPhoto” page instead of explaining it over
and over again.

One strategy to avoid repeating the same things over and over again
is to use these interactions to feed a FAQ or a user’s guide.
Whenever you start to see trends in help, add it to your FAQ and add a
section to the user’s guide. This will allow the community
manager to focus on the latest, more unique problems without having to
rehash older issues again and again.

This seems pretty obvious now that we’ve talked about a
general case. But it’s not so obvious when you’re in the
heat of battle and these issues are cropping up unstructured for the
first time. The secret is to observe patterns in the questions people
ask but also in the underlying cause of the questions while leaving
enough design time dedicated to creating a healthy set of resources
that can serve future users.

7) An Over-Focus on Social Value

This may sound counter-intuitive, but it is possible to focus too
much on social value when creating social web applications. Why is
that? Well, because much of the motivation within social sites is
actually rooted in personal value, or answering the question:
“what’s in it for me?”. I’ve dubbed this the Lesson because it was
who gained so much attention for the social value of tagging but it was
really the personal value of saving bookmarks that drove the site.

At the beginning, when you’re building the service, is not the
time to focus on social value. There is no social value because there
is no user base. So adding tags in the hopes that people will discover
new things is probably premature at this stage, for example. Instead,
focus on how a single person can use your service even if others
don’t share or tag anything.

Think about YouTube, a killer
social app. Even at the very beginning YouTube was providing personal
value: hosting your videos for free. If they had been charging for this
feature, no social design in the world could have caused the growth
that free video hosting did. So while YouTube excels at getting viral
growth out of the sharing of videos, they’re providing a
valuable, personal service at the same time.

It should also be noted that altruistic people, or people who do
things for the good of the group regardless of personal benefit, are
incredibly rare. They’re so rare, in fact, that they make a very
poor population to design for. There just aren’t enough of them
to make up a significant population in any area. Even Wikipedians,
who have been called altruistic at times, are mostly driven by
reputation…the reputation they gain from their peers and other

8) Not Enabling Recommendations

Thoughtful recommendations are the best possible way to increase
your user base. It is word-of-mouth in action. When someone takes time
out of their day to say something really nice about your service,
making an honest-to-goodness recommendation, you will definitely see
positive results. The question is, are you making it easy for your
users to recommend you?

In our world lots of people make recommendations, but many of them
are paid to do so or are looking after their own interests. Take, for
example, the Publisher’s book descriptions on These
are always super-positive…they explain why the book is so great
and why you should buy it. They would never contain anything negative,
never contain anything that might potentially hurt the sales of the

And, as a result, the book description tells us exactly what we
would expect from a publisher. To Amazon’s credit, they have over
time given individual reviews and ratings more prominence on the
product page, signaling that that content is more valuable to users.
And of course it should be…those people aren’t biased in
the way the publishing house is.

Netflix Tell a FriendMany
sites add incentives for recommendations so that people give them more
freely. Netflix, for example, allows you to give “free
movies” to friends while you tell them about the service. This is
a good approach. Netflix does not reward you for this…the act of
giving is all that you get. If Netflix did give you a free movie that
would introduce too much bias…and while more people might make
recommendations it would quickly turn into a case similar to the
publishers…as people would realize that there is something in it
for the recommender.

9) Failing to Set a Good Example

People tend to imitate the behavior around them. It’s how we
learn. We don’t just gravitate to a new place and automatically
know how to behave there. We watch others and do what they do.

A solid strategy, and one that is often overlooked in social sites,
is to set a good example of what a member of that community does.
Specifically, to have a member of the project team illustrate what good
behavior is. Do they send helpful messages to others? Probably. Do they
post friendly comments? Yes. Are they happy to be here? Yes. So good
examples start with the caretakers of the site…what they do will
be mimicked by the initial set of users.

A good example of this is Seth Godin and Squidoo. Seth continuously eats his own dog food (he’s created dozens of lenses). One of his more popular lenses is The 8 Free Things Every Site (or Lens!) Should Do,
in which he gives advice about how to attract attention to your web
site or lens. In creating this Seth is adding value to the service,
giving others a good example about how to use Squidoo, and also selling
the service itself.

From a social standpoint, this has a very positive affect. If
Squidoo is good enough for its founder, then it’s probably good
enough for other folks, too.

10) Failure to See the Larger War

One of the few metrics that matters for social apps is how many
people are using it. But no matter how fast you can grow, this
doesn’t happen at once. It’s actually a series of battles
over time, crucial moments that you overcome that generate the next
level of attention for the application.

Many social sites fail to see the larger war of which they are a
part. Instead, they focus on one or two explosive moments, like being
Techcrunched, that will make or break the service. But the truth is
that getting Techcrunched is just super-fast attention…the
people coming from Techcrunch are not motivated people who have
incentives to use your service in the way that those driven by
word-of-mouth will be.

Techcrunch is not word-of-mouth. Getting Techcrunched or Slashdotted
or getting Dugg…is like being involved in a drive-by shooting.
I’ve also heard it described as getting seagulled…they
swoop in for the attack and are gone in a second. Here at Bokardo this
has happened several times, and each time I get less and less value
from the attention. The people who come are not my main audience,
although a small number of them might start reading regularly. The
event surely isn’t like a great recommendation by a peer or
reviewer, which is what social design is all about.

Seagulls Attacking

So the larger war is a long-term focus on providing value not the to
TechCrunch crowd, but to a much more specific population that really
cares about what you’re doing. This population doesn’t do
drive bys…their attention is much more valuable than that.

11) No Business Plan other than to Grow

The success of MySpace and Facebook has really caused an over-focus
on growing a huge user base to eventually sell or show advertising to.
Percentage-wise, the number of social apps that reach this size is
relatively tiny…these sites are extreme outliers but are super
well-known because they get all the press. We all have to admit, the
success of 23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is a great story.

All too often, however, social sites have no other strategy than to
follow in the footsteps of these Black Swans, to grow and grow and grow
over a year or two and then to figure out how to make money at that
point. But the hard part isn’t figuring out how to monetize a
site with millions of users. The hard part is surviving long enough to
grow that big.

The first problem, put brilliantly by Josh Kopelman, is to get users to pay a penny. He calls this The Penny Gap,
which happens when the multitude of competing services are free and the
biggest challenge becomes getting users to pay even a penny for what
you have. He says:

“The truth is, scaling from $5 to $50 million is
not the toughest part of a new venture – it’s getting your users
to pay you anything at all. The biggest gap in any venture is that
between a service that is free and one that costs a penny.”

While it is possible to make money on a huge user population by
advertising or selling out to a Google or Yahoo, it’s an
incredible risk that only a few people will successfully navigate a
year. Wouldn’t it be better if your users were paying you all
along? Offer them tiered services, with a free plan that provides the
basic valuable service and premium plans that provide something more.

Josh Porter



The URL will continue to be part of the Web user interface for several more years, so a usable site requires:

  • a domain name that is easy to remember and easy to spell
  • short URLs
  • easy-to-type URLs
  • URLs that visualize the site structure
  • URLs that are “hackable” to allow users to move to higher levels of the information architecture by hacking off the end of the URL
  • persistent URLs that don’t change

In principle, users should not need to know about URLs which are a machine-level addressing scheme. In practice, users often go to websites or individual pages through mechanisms that involve exposure to raw URLs:

  • people guess the domain name of sites they have not visited before: if possible, secure the name of your company and main brands as domain names
  • even when people have been to a site before, they will often try to guess or remember the site name instead of using a bookmark or history list: have memorable domain names that are easy to spell
  • the social interface to the Web relies on email when users want to recommend Web pages to each other, and email is the second-most common way users get to new sites (search engines being the most common): make sure that all URLs on your site are less than 78 characters long so that they will not wrap across a line feed
  • shorter URLs are better since people often type them manually
  • do not use MiXeD case text in URLs since people can’t remember the difference between upper-case and lower-case characters: all-lowercase URLs are usually preferred (domain names are less of a problem since they are case-insensitive – usability would increase if webservers would ignore case in resolving URLs)
  • use a spelling-checking webserver to minimize the damage caused by the inevitable typos

Persistent URLs Attract Links
Links from other websites are the third-most common way people find sites (after search engines and email recommendations), so build your site to make it easy to attract inbound links:

  • Linkrot equals lost business: make sure all URLs live forever and continue to point to relevant pages.
  • Do not move pages around but keep them at the same URL: it is very annoying for authors of other sites when their links either stop working or turn into pointers to something different because the original page has been moved and replaced by something new. There can be reasons to reserve a special URL for the current edition of a column or other special content, but the article should be stored at a permanent URL from the start and this URL should be listed on the page that is accessed through the temporary or varying URL.

Update added 2007:

Edward Cutrell and Zhiwei Guan from Microsoft Research have conducted an eyetracking study of search engine use (warning: PDF) that found that people spend 24% of their gaze time looking at the URLs in the search results.

MSR used Microsoft’s own search engine (fair enough), but their results match what we found in our eyetracking research which included the current market leader as well as the #2 search engine in addition to MSN.

Users have evolved a firm model of search behavior which they apply
across search engines, which is why it’s probably a lost cause to make
a non-standard search user interface.

We found that searchers are particularly interested in the URL
when they are assessing the credibility of a destination. If the URL
looks like garbage, people are less likely to click on that search hit.
On the other hand, if the URL looks like the page will address the
user’s question, they are more likely to click.