They say that only two things in life are certain. Death and taxes.
Online, a similar mantra now exists.
Only two things online are certain. Information overload and Google.
The impact of both of these has led to a dramatic shift in the focus of both web design and marketing in the past few years. The result is a far more focused approach to both disciplines that is bringing reward for those who are embracing the new simplicity of purpose.
So what has been going on to drive this shift in focus?
Cleaning Up Dodge City
Although a lot of people don’t like to admit it, Google is the lawmaker of search.
In recent years Google has been making louder and louder noises, through channels such as Matt Cutts and an endless stream of algorithm updates, about their vision for search and the sites people navigate to through it.
This vision is very simply about delivering exactly what people are actually looking for and giving it to them quickly.
Great information with a functional presentation, nurturing and retaining visitors. This is the focus Google wants us to have and it is measuring us through metrics such as load times, bounce rates and engagement.
Panda, Hummingbird, Penguin, all of Google’s updates are driving towards their view of online utopia. They will never quite get there, but the wise understand that riding the tide will deliver a more stable online business for the long-term.
Average Joe’s Head Exploded
People’s attention spans are getting shorter. According to statisticbrain.com our average attention span in the year 2000 was 12 seconds. In 2013 it has been reduced to eight seconds.
The attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.
So what has driven this reduction in average attention span? The answer is the Internet. We are bombarded with information day and night.
The simple life is now constantly broken up by our obsession with flicking through twitter on our cellphone, or firing up our iPad to post how it’s 3AM and we can’t sleep.
Access to information is instant and it’s everywhere. People have quickly learned to filter online information to get at what they need. 17% of page views last less than four seconds. That shows that we all now Google, click, scan, click back to Google. It’s become part of everyday life.
The message is clear. Old internet design and content strategy had lost touch with the modern user. They need clear and concise information, on topic and delivered in a way they can view and navigate without parsing.
Simple, Intelligent Web Design Does Not Mean Boring
Design standards have improved dramatically in the past few years. Those who understood Google’s message and the demands of users, evolved fast.
Although there is an awful lot out there which is bad, the days of incredibly complex graphics and CSS layering, excessive animation and navigation nightmares are coming to an end.
The clean, simple slab grid is now everywhere. From the apps on your phone to Windows 8, the flat and rectangular interface dominates.
Image attribution: StartBloggingOnline.com
On the web, more and more sites follow this flat grid structure. Gradients have been replaced by strong, complimentary colors and shades.
Even off-the-shelf products such as WordPress themes, now offer far more grid layout options to allow you to build strong and simple interaction. Products such as the WordPress Genesis framework demonstrate this new approach, focusing solely on delivering a strong and minimalist UI that exists to aid content presentation.
This evolution through Google and end user demands means that things are actually simpler than ever in terms of web design. There are four clear, key focuses now:
- Moz is a perfect example of purposeful web design. Always seek to reduce clutter
- Embrace simplicity and design beautifully within it
- Narrow your focus purely to content presentation and navigation
- Design websites that are device responsive
Value Has Finally Become King
In exactly the same way as web design has evolved to focus on four key elements, so content has had to evolve for exactly the same reasons.
When I speak of content I don’t just mean the written word. Although a huge amount of people out there are still completely blind to it, video is where it’s at. Putting video above the fold, supporting it with great content and a clear next step, will dramatically improve your metrics.
And it’s these basics, which the elite embraced several years ago, that are now the focus of everyone who understands the demands of Google and end users.
The linkbuilding gold rush became the content marketing gold rush.
Both failed for the same reason. The focus was purely on generation, rather than considering the website visitor. So traffic was driven to webpages by linkbuilding, where people then simply bounced off because the content was unsatisfactory.
Once Google strangled linkbuilding, people started generating massive amounts of content because they were told Google liked “freshness”. But the lack of focus and quality, sometimes completely unreadable, meant that the same problem existed. People arrived at the site and clicked away again.
The focus was wrong. It was all about a process to drive traffic, rather than working hard to nurture the traffic they had.
Both of these problems could well be the reason why people’s attention spans have dwindled. The SERP’s was so full of poor writing, sales pages and thin content, that it became the norm to have to trawl through site after site to find what you were looking for.
Due to a lot of changes and hard work, Google has started produce much more relevant results pages. The people who produce value in their content, through a brand-driven unique angle, reap the benefits of lower bounce rates and more loyalty.
This loyalty then drives a feedback loop. Users reward content of value with things that cause Google to take note — backlinks, off-site discussion, social buzz, and, only recently becoming a focal point, low bounce rate.
Just Do What Works
Unified design and content standards, based around the exact same principles, means that deviating from them runs the risk of user abandonment.
But the great news is that we live in a brand new age of simplicity, which can make web designers and content writers jobs easier. There are fewer things to worry about. Just stick to the principles and generate a solid strategy.
Designers can get the satisfaction of producing beautiful simplicity. Thinking hard about things as simple as color and usability, rather than how they are going to get that huge splash image to fit together in all browsers, when it’s diced into 20 parts and you will go to hell if you use a table.
In terms of design, we can now take advantage of a more diverse tool box. Even three years ago very few people would have contemplated an off-screen menu. Now users routinely swipe the edge of screens to reveal navigation structure. The design area is no longer limited to the webpage itself.
For content generation, the focus on brand and value is refreshing. It allows all of us to focus on presenting a unified message that will allow a business to position itself uniquely within its market, to show its expertise and passion.
Content is no longer pieces of loosely joined together media. There has to be a strategy that demonstrates a clear purpose for every single piece as part of a unified content experience.
The Person Who Matters Is Not You
It’s all about satisfying the end users’ needs, through presenting great information in a hassle-free way. That was the ethos that existed at the start of the Internet, when a webpage was pretty much blank other than the information and a highly relevant image.
And you can forget the nightmare of worrying about parallel mobile strategies and designs. From now on a website needs to be instantly responsive to everything. A single unified approach, that effortlessly delivers the same message whatever the browsing platform, and that loads wherever the consumer is accessing it from.
As an example of how delivering on users browsing expectations gets results, the clothing company Bench saw more than a 100% mobile conversion rate increase when they implemented a fully responsive design strategy, using a custom Magento cart.
The people who matter, those who consume the information web designers an content writers create and present, expect everything we have discussed here.
They expect instant and recognizable formats that allow them to get on with whatever is important to them. They want it to be fast loading, simple and concise.
Why has it been so hard to deliver that?