Some were good, some were bad, of course. But what struck us most of all was the alarming number of sites that insisted on a feed or regularly updated slot in a prominent space on the homepage entitled News.
One of the tenets of our web-writing best practice is that "news should really be news. But none of the stories on these sites are really news at all. This is problematic, we'd argue, for several reasons:
- You're giving users what you care about, not what they care about. Whether you provide financial services or sanitary products or drama workshops, the chances are that of all the kinds of content that people come to your site for, your idea of news is very low down their list. The fact that you've appointed a new sales director for the North of England, or that you've applied for a new ISO standard, or that one of your team has raised a load of cash running up a mountain on one leg, is simply not that interesting to anyone outside your organisation. Perhaps you think such a story is important because it speaks about the kind of culture your staff enjoy, or shows how much you care about quality. But really, no. Your average web user just doesn't care. Why? Because they are in a hurry, and they are after answers to much more fundamental questions: Do you stock the product I'm after? Do you understand my needs? Can I trust you? Are you cheaper than that competitor site I just looked at? How do I get I touch? Do you deliver? Where's the information I want? And so on. As web owners, your job is to identify these priorities, find the ones that coincide with your own, and plan your content accordingly. You have limited space, your users have limited time; new sales directors and sponsored runs are a waste of both.
- You're not in the news business and you're not being search-friendly. When you start using a word like news online, you place yourself in immediate competition with the likes of Reuters, the BBC and CNN. Few people will ever search for your news, and if they did they'd probably search for news about you on one of these big players who are actually, like, real news providers. So whenever you use the word news in a title tag or headline, you're using one of the most fought-over words in all Googledom. And you're passing up on an opportunity to use a keyword or phrase as part of one of those vital content elements that people might actually search for in relation to you and your products and services. So you're pretending to be something that you're not, and a the same time you're reducing your chances of being found by people likely to care about what you really are.
- You're producing smelly fish. It's bad enough reading irrelevant internally-focused anecdote masquerading as topical items of mass interest on a homepage; then you turn to the Press or News section proper and you see where all these stories have gone to die. As content guru Gerry McGovern puts it in his latest, Killer Content: The web is full of filler content. "The press release a staple of most corporate websites is a good example of print content that gets published because it's the easy way out." Originally, press releases were not meant to be published. Instead, they were supposed to be released to the press as a story hook, something that might get them interested in writing a story in their publications. Your website is your publication. You should be taking your press release ideas and turning them into compelling stories that communicate clear messages your customers care about. Simply putting press releases up is the lazy way out. Most of your customers care to read your press releases about as much as they'd care to open a bag of two-week-old fish.
Of course, some of that news content may be usable, in some form. An award win or professional accreditation can go in your About us or Testimonial section, while staff achievements or interests can perhaps be reflected in your careers area. It all needs thinking about, working on, turning into fresh content users can stand the smell of.