1.4. Presenting Content
Content is king. Content is certainly king if your business model is to publish content on the Web and make money from advertising with traffic drawn by the content. Your first rule should be: Don't "dis" the king. In other words, don't do anything to distract from the content, make it harder for surfers to find content they need, or make the graphics that frame the content too jazzy. In particular, if the graphics seem too important, they will distract from the content.
1.4.1. Page and Site Design
These rules of content presentation can be put positively (rather than negatively):
Figure 1-3 shows Braintique.com , http://www.braintique.com, a site designed as a content vehicle, following these rules of content presentation.
As it happens, following the rules of content presentation I've outlined will serve you well with search engine placement (see Chapter 3). But that's not the point of these suggestions here. The point is usefulness and transparency to site users. If viable content is presented in an accessible fashion, then indeed "they will come."
Figure 1-3. Braintique.com is designed to present content
If you are targeting your content specifically for Google's AdSense program (or a competitive contextual engine), you should also bear in mind the following:
1.4.2. Page Size
How much content should go on each site page? Like Goldilocks and the three bears, the answer is not too much, and not too little: just the right amount of content.
It's in the interest of the site publisher to keep pages short, because the same amount of content spread over shorter pages makes for more pages. And more pages on a site means more places for advertising, which in theory might mean more revenue.
However, if you break an article up into many short pages that a user has to click through, users will find it irritating and vote with their time by frequenting the site less often.
The happy medium is to be natural about page length. The natural length for a content page is the content that will reasonably fit into a maximized browser window without having to scroll.
Don't gratuitously break an article into multiple pages unless the article really is longer than a few browser-sized pages. Also, don't break an article (even if it is long) unless there are natural breaks in the content. Anytime there is a new Level 1 header in an article, it's a good sign that you could break to a new content page without the break feeling forced.
A related issue is to be careful about the width of your content pages. People will be looking at your web pages using a variety of hardware, operating systems, and browsersthe most important variable being the monitor size. You don't want your readers to have to scroll to the right because part of a content web page is off the screen. This is very bad form and may also obscure content advertising if it is positioned along the right border of the page.
The answer is to design pages for lowest-common-denominator displays. In practice, content pages should be no wider than 800 pixels. Pages 800 pixels wide (or less) should display without scrolling on most (although not all) computers; some displays are still only 640 pixels wide. (For more on this issue, See "Positioning Ads," later in this chapter.)
1.4.3. Separating Content from Design
When you create content web sites, it's imperative to use mechanisms that separate web page content from design. The purpose of separating content from design is to let you:
The simplest way to achieve these goals is to use includes server-side includes to position site graphics such as navigation bars. A server-side include is a file that the server includes within another file (the inclusion is specified by a special directive). When you view the HTML source code in a browser, you have no way of telling whether the main file was generated using includes or not.
Includes can also be used for advertisement code, such as that provided by Google's AdSense. By changing the code in a single include, you can change the navigation bar or advertising parameters across all the content pages on an entire site.
I explain the mechanics of using includes to separate content from design in "Content Architecture," later in this chapter.
Server-side includes work well to separate key design elements (and advertisements) from content, provided your content site doesn't have too many pages and assuming that each page doesn't have a great many repetitive elements.
If many of your content pages are essentially the samemeaning they have the same elements but the value of the element differs from page to pageyou should probably be using a templating system. Templates use special tags for the common elements, with the actual content for each page that replaces the special tag specified, often using content stored in a database table. This means that an appropriately written template file and one or more database tables can populate and create a whole raft of web pages, one for each row in the table.
PHP is one of the most popular server-side programming languages available on the Web (most inexpensive Linux/Apache web host services let you program in PHP without any additional configuration effort). You can find out more about PHP at http://www.php.net or by picking up a copy of O'Reilly's Programming PHP: Creating Dynamic Web Pages by Rasmus Lerdorf and Kevin Tatroe.
If you are a programmer, or have access to programming talent, you can create your own templating system using PHP or some other language. But why reinvent the wheel? A popular PHP templating system, available for free download, is Smarty , http://smarty.php.net. One of the great features about Smarty is that it caches a web page the first time it is generated from a template. Subsequent calls to the page, unless the template or data have changed, open the cached pagemeaning the web site isn't slowed down by page generation each time the templated page is opened.
A server-side include mechanism is a great start for creating a manageable content site andfrom a technology standpointwithin the grasp of almost anyone. (I explain the server-side include mechanism and how to use it to lay out a content site to receive advertising in "Content Architecture," later in this chapter.)
Templating is a good next step if you (or an associate) have the technologic sophistication and expect to be managing content sites with thousands of pages. It's particularly important to use a system of templates if you expect to generate pages using data from a database.
Suppose you are managing a site with not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of pages. You have multiple authors, a team of editors, and a workflow process to make sure that work is fact-checked, copyedited, and approved before it is published. In this case, you'll want to use Web Content Management software (WCM) to provide content and design separation, template features, workflow management, and more. Commercial WCM packages are available from vendors including IBM, FileNet, Interwoven, Microsoft, Stellent, and Vignette.
No matter what mechanism you use, it is vitally important to separate form from content so that you can easily keep your site design fresh and tweak advertising positions.
1.4.4. Keeping Content Fresh
Have you ever tried to keep fresh-caught fish fresh? It isn't easy. Neither is keeping site content fresh. But sites, and their content, need to stay fresh. It's not a big deal to change the overall look of a site by changing the graphic used as a navigation bar every month or sothat is, if you've set the site up with server-side includes so that editing one file creates a global site change. But keeping content fresh is a trickier issue.
Since search engines appreciate new content, some sites go to great lengths to provide content that appears new, for example, by displaying syndication feeds on the site's home page. This may help with search engines (I have more to say on this point in Chapter 3), but it doesn't do much at all for your primary audiencereal people.
Quality content sites need to strike a balance. You need to have a core of worthwhile reference material that doesn't change much. You also need to keep content site fresh. As you plan your successful site, you should consider what strategy you will use to keep people coming back for the latest and greatest. For example, do you plan to keep up with the latest events in a technology niche, such as a programming language? Will you feature articles about current cultural events (which are constantly changing by definition)? Or will your site present interesting blogs with frequently added entries?
1.4.5. Positioning Ads
Studies have shown that ad positioning is crucial to content revenue generation. Positioning means the physical position of an ad on a web page, the size of the ad, and also which page(s) on a site carries an ad.
Although there are some general guidelines for what works best with advertising positioning, it is far more art than science. You should expect to spend a fair amount of time tweaking ad position to see what works bestanother good reason for having a site mechanism in place that allows you to change ad settings globally by editing one include file.
Tweaking ads is good for another reason: you don't want ad fatigue to set in. Ad fatigue is a term used by webmasters to describe the phenomenon in which visitors to your site are so used to the ad display on your site that they ignore it. Experimenting with new ad positioning (and colors) is a good way to combat that "same old, same old" ad feeling and avoid ad fatigue.
Most studies show that ads positioned above the fold do better than ads lower on a page. Above the fold means visible without scrolling. The smaller the monitor, and the lower its resolution, the less screen real estate there is above the fold. In other words, a monitor running at 640 x 480 pixels screen resolution has a lot less available real estate above the fold than a monitor running at 800 x 600, which in turn has much less area above the fold than a monitor running at higher resolution.
If you want the maximum eyeballsand you should, because more eyeballs means more advertising revenueyou should try to place ads so that they will be above the fold on lower-resolution monitors. It certainly makes sense to target 800 x 600 monitor resolution, because this is widely in use. Don't finalize your ad positioningand web site and page designwithout checking it out on an 800 x 600 monitor.
Some research has shown the vertical ad blocks the kind Google calls skyscrapers work better than horizontal ads . However, from the viewpoint of basic geometry, it is easier to fit a horizontal ad block above the fold than a vertical skyscraper: the lower part of the skyscraper is likely to be below the fold. So if you decide to go with vertical ad blocks, make sure they are positioned as high as possible and that at least one ad (assuming the skyscraper contains multiple contextual ads) is positioned above the fold.
One other major positioning issue is context. From the viewpoint of a content publisher, you'd like to position ads so they are not only contextually relevant but also lead to a high click-through rate.
Google's AdSense attempts to place only contextually relevant ads. With some notable lapses, AdSense is pretty successful at this. In any case, you can't exercise a great deal of control over the ads that AdSense displays on your siteyou have to trust that Google gets this right.
There are some important aspects of context that you can control, although there is no reliable analytic research about what works best. Some sites use graphics and positioning to make contextual ads blend in with the site and appear almost part of the editorial content. Other sites feel that keeping the appearance of editorial integrity is vitally important and so use color and position to instantly indicate that the ads are separate from the body of the content.
Overloading pages with ads generally does not work because viewers tend to ignore pages that have too many ads. If you're working with multiple ad programs and kinds of ads to generate a revenue stream, you can make an important contribution to ad context by deciding what kind of ad should go with what content. For example, it might make sense to advertise books on Amazon on a page of book reviews.
There's also a school of thought that believes ads should only be placed on "boring" pagesfor example, registration pages, login pages, resource pages, exit pages. (An exit page is a page designed to launch a visitor onward following a visit, for example, an order confirmation.) One reason for placing click-through ads on resource and exit pages is that visitors will be leaving your site anyhow from these pages. You won't be losing traffic by providing click-through opportunities.
The more general logic for placing ads only on boring pages is that it gives your site a clean, inviting, ad-free lookand that visitors are more likely to click on ads in the context of boredom than in the context of exciting content.
Whatever strategy you decide to try, if you will be varying ad programs depending on context, you should attempt to implement this programmatically rather than by manually adding and deleting advertising code from individual HTML pages.