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Every Page is Page One

Thursday, September 1, 2016

On this week's episode, Byron chats with Mark Baker, author of Every Page is Page One. In the interview, Mark explains why every page must establish context, and how writing short can improve your content. In addition to holding the title of author, Mark is the President and Principal Consultant for Analecta Communications Inc.

Byron:      Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with Mark Baker. Mark, welcome.

Mark:       Thank you very much.

Byron:     We’re going to talk today about your fabulous book, “Every Page is Page One.” I was thinking every word is page one, everything you do with writing is under a microscope. Tell us a little bit about the book and particularly the title.

Mark:       Sure. Well, the title, “Every Page is Page One,” really comes from a realization I had a few years back about how fundamentally different writing for the web is from writing for books. And in a book, we kind of assume there’s page one, and it has a special job to do. It has a special job of introducing and getting the reader hooked and keeping them running along and then pages two, three, four, five and six, they follow on. And they have sort of a less of a responsibility because the reader is already hooked and they’re moving along. But on the web, it doesn’t work like that. We search for things. And when we search for things, we don’t land on a site. Very often when you are searching the web, you got a list of pages, you don’t look at what site they’re on. You look at sort of a little summary, you click on them, here’s the information they want here, “Yes, No.” If it’s “No,” I’m gone. And I never knew what site I was on. So the web isn’t made up of sites, it’s made up of pages. And every single one of those pages essentially has to function like page one. It has to do that job that the job of page one of a book has to do. Say, “Yes, I have the information you want and I can put it into context for you. I’ll make sure it’s appropriate for your needs. I’ll make sure that everything gets covered.” This is the responsibility of every single page when readers are coming in like this.

Byron:      What’s all of that doing to the actual quality of our writing do you think? In other words, does this reality make a storytelling and writing better or worse?

Mark:       Well, I think that it depends on how well the writer adjusts. If you are thinking about your writing in book terms, if you sit down and write a book, and then upload that book as a bunch of pages to the web, they are not profoundly not going to work. Because people will come to page 97, it was written to be page 97, and they need it to do the job of page one and it doesn’t do it. It wasn’t written to do it. As it just doesn’t work. And I’m sure we’ve all hit pages on the web like that where you disclaim, “Well, what? I have no idea where I am. I have no idea of context. I have no meanings of the sort of moving around in this content set other than maybe there’s a table of contents beside it and I can sort of work my way up the table of contents.” But you know what? Nobody does that. What they do, they go back to their search results and they get the next result of the search results and go look at that. So, it’s a profound challenge to how we write. But writing short units can make the content better. Writing big things is hard. And so by forcing us to write small things, they can actually do better and the results are the techniques we can use to make them better.

Byron:      “Bite-size nuggets,” as they say. Tell us a little bit about your technical writing background. And then the book is really geared right from the subtitle down towards technical communication as you called. Can you define technical communication and your background in it?

Mark:       I would say technical communication in this context really means a communication that has a descriptive purpose more than an emotional one. It’s helping somebody understand something or do something. I don’t think that the “Every Page is Page One” concept only applies to that kind of information. But I think that marketing material has always kind of been that way anyway. This is not such a big adaptation for marketing material because people don’t write novels as marketing material or not very often. So that marketing material is already typically short, already typically established as a context. So, really the purpose of the book and I recognize the irony that it’s a book that does this, that says you can’t write like that anymore. And I will say there are exceptions. There are still things you need to write books for. But for a vast range of informative content, we need to break that old model and start to… And the reason we need to do it is and how our readers behaved.

Byron:      You need to obviously optimize content for both to the readers and search engines that you use these days. How does your book help us optimize for both?

Mark:       I actually think the needs of the reader and the needs of the search engine are very, very similar. Because what the readers trying to do and the search engine is trying to do is establish the relevance of the content for a particular purpose. The search engine problem is that the reader has expressed their purpose in a quite fuzzy way. The genius of search engines is you can type in the six words and it will go actively find stuff that’s relevant to that, which is amazing. But it’s the same problem because when I click on something on a search, and I look at the page that comes up, I am trying to make a decision is this relevant to what I want or is it not relevant. And I will give it five or six seconds to be with that. Incredibly short how much time we have to get that across. And so one of the principles of “Every Page is Page One” writing, is that every page must establish context. And if you do the things that establish context for a reader, you’re actually going to find that path, whether it’s a paragraph, or whether it’s some fields of information, but however you do that establishing context, it’s actually going to be doing pretty much what SEO recommends you do in order to identify the topic for the search engine. So it really is the two are one in the same in fact.

Byron:      I loved your introduction that talked about information foraging. Can you talk a little bit about that study you’ve stumbled upon and how it relates to really a lot of the theme of your book?

Mark:       Oh, absolutely. I mean information foraging I think is one of the most interesting observations about how humans use information. And it makes a lot of sense, because the research skills that one is taught in school, or we used to be taught in school, I don’t know what they teach anymore. But sort of a very library oriented and they have kind of assumed that you’re going to do a lot of very precise work to narrow things down. And it’s actually quite energy inefficient that style. It may be very accurate, but it’s very expensive in energy expenditure.

Byron:      Yeah, I followed them, yeah. And just to back up for one second so everybody can understand it before you go too deep into it. So several people in the study and also somebody else had included it. “If people on the web, web followers had a pattern similar to,” what they called “Optimal foraging patterns of wild animals.” Yeah, that’s the fun part of it.

Mark:       Absolutely, yeah.

Byron:      Yeah. So go ahead. Carry on then.

Mark:       Yeah. So this is the thing. What they discovered and this is a study done at Xerox Park and one of the cool things about the web is that you can study how these things work because you can see all the patterns of behavior happening. They said, “Okay. We’ve looked at this pattern of how people go through websites and how they search the web.” And they went and looked and said, “Where is there another pattern that’s the same?” And it is this pattern of wild animals foraging for food. And the thing about the wild animal is it’s all about “calories in, calories out.” How many calories do I have to expend in order to get a certain number of calories in? So if I’m eating all the berries on a bush, and I’ve eaten all the ones that are easy to get, now, am I going to go to the next bush or am I going to keep digging and tearing this thing apart to get all the berries on the inside or the berries that are really hard to reach that take more effort, more calories, burn to get those berries? Well, the answer depends on how close the next bush is. The next bush is a foot away, I’m going to step over one foot and I’m going to eat the easy berries on that and then I’m going to keep on doing that and all those internal berries that were hard to get are not going to get touched. But if the next bush is over the mountain or across the river and I have to swim across the river to get to it, then I’m expending far more energy and I’m not going to do that. I’m going to keep tearing apart the one I’ve got. Well, in the book world, you get on your bike, you go to the library, you go through the card catalog, you go to the shelves, you get the book off the shelf, you go home, you sit down in your armchair and you start reading. Well, if I decide this book “Ah, I’m not getting a lot out of this book,” but am I really going to get back on my bike and go to the library again and do all of that. Maybe not, I’m going to give this book a bit of a chance. I’m going to start tearing it apart to get the berries in the middle. But if I’m on the web and I hit a web page and I go, “This looks good. Um, maybe not.” Then it is so easy for me to go the next one. There’s been a lot of complaints saying the web is killing our attention span because people spend so little time on individual pages. But I think that’s a complete misinterpretation of what’s going on. People’s attention is focused on what they want to know. The thing is if this page isn’t satisfying that I can move to the next page so quick. But I’m not going to spend time digging through this unpromising page. I’m going to move on and move on and move on because I’m pursuing my goal. And so compared to the book world, what we have to do on the web, is we have to establish very, very quickly whether this the thing you’re looking for or not. And if it’s not the thing you’re looking for, then we want to get you away from getting that easy as possible because that keeps you in our content instead of going back to search and going to somebody else’s content.

Byron:      So all of this sounds reasonable and logical, but how do we actually put it to work when we’re creating content?

Mark:       Well, in “Every Page is Page One,” I developed a list of seven principles that I think help to determine what a topic should look like. And the first one is simply that it should be self-contained. It shouldn’t have to depend on a next page or previous page, it should stand alone. The second one is, it should have a specific and limited purpose, it’s there to do one thing. The next is it should conform to a type. That means it should have a very definite layout. We should be able to look at it and recognize what it is. Think about it as you foraging the web for recipes. You know what a recipe looks like. You know what the headings look like. You can recognize that it’s a recipe just by glancing at it. That’s the power of having any very specific topic type. Also, specific topic type helps you make sure that you create content that does everything it needs to do. So that’s important. Establishing context as I said is absolutely key and the topic type helps you do that. Where it gets interesting is I think, where it starts to get a little challenging for people is topics in “Every Page is Page One” topic assumes the reader is qualified. In other words, we don’t hang around to give a bunch of information to people who may not be quite ready for this yet. If you think about a recipe, that’s how that works. Nobody in a recipe stops to explain what whisk means. Or how to separate an egg, they just say these things and they assume that if you don’t know, well you go find out. That’s how we actually have to go work on the web because if we don’t, the topics get big and bloated and there’s all kinds of stuff in them and nobody can forage them successfully. So you need your topics easy to be forage, easy to recognize, easy to use for the person actually ready for them. If you try to stuff it with all this stuff that or if somebody’s not quite ready for this, some kind of a beginner, might not be quite ready, if you put all that stuff in, then no one can recognize it, it’s not forageable content anymore. Then, topics need to stay on one level. It shouldn’t leap up to big picture points and then suddenly dive down into detail the way that you might do in a book because you’re moving between detailed explanation and the high-level concept is a legitimate part of how you do the overall exposition of the idea. But people want to choose for themselves when they do that. They don’t want that imposed on them. They want to decide when they want the example. The want to decide when they get the big picture. And the final principle is: “Every Page is Page One” Topics Link Richly. There’s some controversy around linking because there're studies that have been done that say that, “Oh, people could be distracted to buy a link, or people’s reading could be slowed down by a link.” And if you are genuinely writing a book that has to be read from beginning to end, and that’s how it has to be, then that’s all true. But in the web world, it is a hypertext environment. People actually move around it by following links. Links are what establishes what information foraging theory called, “Information send.” Readers will follow the scent of information as long as it remains strong. Well, the way it allows a reader to follow the scent of information through your content is through the links you provide. And so links are absolutely essential in this. Because if you don’t provide them, then readers will go back to the search and onto somebody else’s content. It’s how you stop readers from going back to search and off and losing them. And you can lose your reader on the web in seconds because they’re totally free to leave at any time. And the next berry bush is always right next to them. They can always leave.

Byron:      In the book, you talk a little bit about “Information Scent.” Which is an interesting concept. Could you explain “Information Scent” and how you actually create scents with content?

Mark:       Yeah. Information scent is sort of an extension of the information foraging. How does the wild animal find their food? Well, they find it by its scent. So, can I smell the food? And it turns out that this is a pretty good metaphor when people are searching for things. We know that people don’t always use the right search terms for what they’re looking for. In fact, they often don’t even search for the right thing, they kind of take a guess at what it is they want. And then they will look at the results there and that may lead them to make another search or to follow some links and gradually they learn, they follow way through the subject matter because we don’t always perfectly understand what we’re looking for. And so when you don’t perfectly understand what you’re looking for, you can’t have logically optimized search pattern. You’re kind of working your way through it. And it about does this feel like it’s getting me somewhere? Do I feel like this is leading me where I want to go? And so this why I say, “Links are important.” Because this is how it lets people move when they need to move. So the scent of information is whatever it is that makes the reader feel that they’re getting closer to what they’re looking for and that can be anything from appropriate keywords, but it also could be a vivid story a vivid way of expressing something that gives the reader the “ah-ha moment” that lets them move on, it can be the key distinction that needs to be made between two concepts because people don’t know which way to go, they don’t understand the difference between the two things. And so making that indistinction and maybe providing a link off in two different directions at that point provides a key piece of information scent that helps the person to continue on towards their goal.

Byron:      What metrics do you use to determine that? Your concepts here work. In other words, what’s the performance that you would expect from a well-written page that is designed around information foraging versus a page that is not designed as such?

Mark:       Most of the studies that I’ve done on this and the work that I’ve looked at, because the bigger focus here is technical communication and technical communication, is my own field. Direct results are really hard to measure. If you’re in marketing, you can measure how many newsletters signups did I get? How many clicks on my ad did I get? Whereas, your goal with technical communication is often somebody used the product correctly and was happy. But you don’t get a feedback loop on that. You don’t know that that’s happened. So what I’ve looked at is the web has this property where the good stuff rises to the top. What I’ve essentially done is that what stuff is rising to the top, look at it, what common characteristics does it have? A really good place to find “Every Page is Page One” topics is Wikipedia. Wikipedia content, it’s the number three site on the web, I think, in looking at the elects or rankings. So it’s enormously successful despite having no advertising, no commercial push behind it. This is the stuff that filters upwards naturally on the web. And when we think of the web as being just this huge information filter, if the web was just a pile of stuff of that size, it will be unusable. It’s really a filter. David Weinberger has this phrase about in “Everything is Miscellaneous,” he says that, “Our preference now is, include everything, filter it afterwards.” With all the tools on the web are really about filtering. And he says, “Even then, what the web really does is it filters forward. It brings the good stuff to the fore.” So if you look at what come to the fore and say, “Okay, what are its characteristics?” So you can look at sites like Statoverflow which is a question and answer site for programmers where not only the answers but the questions are ranked through a social algorithm that takes the best questions and best answers and brings them forward on the site which in turn brings them forward in Googling. You can say, “Okay, what are people doing here? Why is this answer preferred over these other answers? Why is this rising to the top?” And a great deal of the principles that I just talked about, really about analyzes the cream and see what makes the cream different from the whey.

Byron:      Fantastic. It’s really been great having you with us today. Thanks much.

Mark:       Oh, you’re most welcomed. Thank you.

Byron:      Yes, indeed. Two final questions for you. Who would you like to get ahold of you and how can they get ahold of you? Bill Gates perhaps?

Mark:       What?

Byron:      Bill Gates perhaps?

Mark:       Bill Gates. Yeah, I think he’s got other problems. But, no, what I do for organizations is really help them get their content into “Every Page is Page One” format. So I do consulting on that, I do training. So I have a two-day course for writers on writing on “Every Page is Page One” style. Anybody who wants to contact me can send an email to: info@analecta.com or I have contact forms on the “Every Page is Page One” website or the Analecta.com website. Anyone of those will do. Probably the easiest one to find is simply to search for “Every Page is Page One,” and that will get you to the “Every Page is Page One” website and the contact form there will get to me.

Byron:      Terrific. Mark, thanks so much again for being with us today.

Mark:       You’re most welcomed. Thanks for having me.

                 Byron:   Yes, indeed. Thanks for tuning in everyone. We’ll see you next week. Thanks.