You may be aware I work for SitePoint, arguably the leading publisher of resources for web designers and developers in the world.
Until recently I was the day to day Managing Editor of sitepoint.com, the flagship of a growing network of websites devoted to helping professionals and dedicated amateurs keep up with developments in web technology.
Lately, I’ve stepped aside from these duties to focus on building editorial relationships between SitePoint and major web technology companies like Microsoft, Adobe and a few significant others.
In the course of this, I was asked to provide some notes to writers on what makes an article on web design or development great, rather than just good.
“Great” in this context has a meaning fairly specific to web publishing, measured by benchmarks including these:
Pageviews: Unique visitors indicate the number of people who visited, but the number of returning visitors is also an important indicator of popularity among those visitors. It’s important to judge this in comparative terms. For the kind of article we’re talking about, articles should be compared to other articles on the same website, and against articles on similar websites. All things being equal, a great article will not only get pageviews in its first month that might be 10% of the site’s total, but will continue to draw good traffic over time.
Time on page: the time visitors spend on the page indicates how much ‘meat’ the article holds, whether readers are engaged by the content either as they follow the tutorial aspects or as they think about the views presented. It also means advertisers on a page can expect equivalent sustained exposure and a greater chance of clickthroughs.
Sharing: the number of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Digg, Reddit, emailed links. Obviously, the more the better, as they indicate readers’ willingness to promote the article to an interested audience.
Comments: both the number and nature of comments between readers and the article author. A mediocre article can generate hundreds of comments but, more importantly, a great article will generate comments that are vibrant, positive and relevant.
Followup Action: Good articles tend to include calls to action for the reader through page links, sales and email options. Great articles will get a high clickthrough rate on these.
Influence: Really great articles will be referenced by other writers, bloggers, conference speakers etc not only for their intrinsic value but also jumping off points for new or different ways of doing things. Great articles can themselves become famous for their influence.
Now that we have some ways to judge whether an article is great, we can isolate the factors that contribute to an article achieving greatness. I’ve identified some factors – there may be more.
An article author who is known to readers and has a proven track record of producing credible articles has a head start over unknown writers in terms of attracting readers and thus reaching more easily the critical mass that drives an article to greatness. Professional peer respect can be important, but note that respect is no more important than notoriety. Being able to articulate facility with a topic is another key to creating a great article. That doesn’t mean writers have to show off their knowledge, rather they need to make it apparent that they know their stuff so well they don’t need to show off.
Getting facts straight is essential. This requires not only checking for errors but also considering how the facts are presented and supported. Links to source material, references in other articles and explanations of how conclusions may have been reached all help to make a reader feel comfortable about a writer’s accuracy. Great articles don’t make fundamental mistakes and don’t carry typographical errors.
Great articles tap into the zeitgeist, the news of the day, rumours, software and hardware releases, fads and conjecture to make the reader feel they are up with the times, or – even better – ahead of the times.
Great articles often emerge due to reader interest in a topic on which the writer has focused, or sometimes by the writer stepping away from the mainstream focus of attention to create a new topic of interest for readers. Publishing the right article at the right time requires paying attention to context, from big picture commercial considerations and current events through to the publishing outlet and page layout. The purpose is not to change the context so much as accommodate it.
Great articles convey ideas – or even just one idea – to readers so that readers start having their own ideas. Readers respond positively to writers who can be articulate about their ideas, how they realised them and where those ideas might lead. Making implications explicit is a hallmark of great articles.
There is no set voice that a writer can adopt to ensure an article achieves greatness. However, great articles do tend to have a clear voice, whether the voice is that of “the industry insider”, “the teacher”, “the colleague”, “the cynic” or “the careful researcher”. The most successful instructional articles address the reader directly.
Great articles explain what the writer wants to convey in enough detail to convince the reader that whatever is being written about is feasible. Readers should be allowed and encouraged to work through the detail. Code samples and demonstration pages are often found in great articles.
Great articles provide solutions. They may be solutions to long standing problems, new issues, to problems the writer identifies for the first time or even problems the writer deliberately sets up. The solution may be completely new or it may improve on an existing solution. Articles that complain about an issue or point out a problem without offering a solution rarely achieve greatness.
A great article is neither too long nor too short. That’s not much help, I know, but there simply is no template for the length of a great article. It depends on the topic, the writer, their style, the readers, the design of the website on which the article is displayed. I find 1500-2500 words is a good range but I’ve seen great articles of both lesser and greater length.
Great articles not only encourage the reader to do something, they make it easy, often providing the means to do it in the article itself. Many of the other factors of greatness (credibility, accuracy, ideas, detail, solutions) can be enhanced by providing an opportunity for the reader to try something themselves.
A huge slab of brilliantly written text displayed in 8 point spread across a wide screen will only rarely be perceived as a great article. Paragraphs need to be short, maybe only a sentence. A layout that corresponds roughly to the proportions of a printed page is common to many great articles. Like a magazine, multiple columns can make reading easier. Photos, screenshots, drawings, graphs etc serve not only to please the eye but also to convey information effectively and to complement the text. Great articles use visuals well.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Some articles are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”.
Some hit the key benchmarks without really being great articles, just very popular ones. And some articles are great without ever being recognised as such or hitting any of the benchmarks. Even really great articles can disappear without much attention in the morass of the web.
Ultimately, though, it seems to me most great articles come about as the result of committed research, drafting and editing informed by passion, judgement and connection with the reader.