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The difference between quality content and surface content

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Content design, Experts in what we do, Start with user needs

The words be descriptive, be descriptive on a pastel background

Content is king. This concept has swept through the digital world and if I’m honest, it isn't necessarily a good thing.

Content marketing, blogging, articles, and infographics exploded from organisations. They tried to increase their online presence by meeting a customer need and indirectly promoting their products. Like a hotel chain writing a city travel guide with the purpose of indirectly promoting their own company.

The problem? Quantity over quality. Churn and burn content was used to help search engine optimisation (SEO) and it gave the appearance of organisations ‘being digital’.

The value of quality content

Organisations want excellent content at little cost. Why? Because it’s difficult to quantify the conversion path of a user reading ‘ten must-see locations’ and booking a holiday. I get it. You're a business and there needs to be some return on investment.

The problem is that content is about giving people what they’re looking for. It's essential to building brand awareness and bringing in new customers/users/readers. Content is a powerful tool and it can be as important as good customer service. But so many organisations just don’t seem to get it.

Surface content

'Surface content' is what we call content that doesn't provide value for the reader. They often know little more than when they started reading. You see this a lot in articles and blog posts that have been churned out quickly.

They’re all filled with 'fluff' words and no useful information for the reader to take away. It's misleading and time-wasting. All because the organisation wanted to write some content but didn't take the time to produce something of quality or, in fact, usefulness. It's a bad user experience that all content creators should avoid.

The difference between surface and depth

Creating great content isn't just writing some generic adjectives. It's writing about something in a unique way. This makes for valuable content that people want to know.

So how can you tell if you’re writing surface content or quality content? Ask yourself: what is the user taking away from this sentence, paragraph, or page? For example, if you’re writing teaser text about the staff of Parliament, do you know what the page is about or is it generic content:

Find out interesting information relating to the role and function of our staff.

You get an idea of what you’re about to click on, but there’s a lot of words that don’t say anything. It has no substance. An alternative might be:

Read about the role of MPs, Lords, and staff. From what MPs can do for you, raising issues in the House of Commons and how they are elected, to the work, membership, and history of the House of Lords.

It includes the different types of people and highlights what you’ll learn about their roles. It also pulls out specifics so you know what information is available on the next page. If space is an issue, you’ll need to give more of an overview. Just make sure it’s a descriptive one.

Recognising surface content

Sometimes it can look like a lot is being said when it's not. Identifying 'fluff' writing or 'surface content' can help you as a writer and a reader. Here's an imagined example:

There’s lots to see and do at the Houses of Parliament. A day out with the family wandering the Palace of Westminster should not be missed.

This text is trying to engage us but doesn’t tell us what we can do or what attractions we can see. It also excludes those who are not visiting as a family, and there's no way to know what we're missing out on.

Users can come to a website from all over the world. You can’t assume they already know why your product or attraction is worth checking out, even when it’s as iconic as UK Parliament. An alternative might be:

Wander the 16th century Westminster Hall, immerse yourself in the Parliamentary atmosphere of the House of Commons, marvel at golden decor of the House of Lords, and learn about the rich heritage of the iconic Palace of Westminster. Read more about tour features, prices, and opening times.

Content shouldn't waste users' time

The moral of this story is create quality content. Be descriptive. Remove 'fluff words'. Don’t use generic adjectives. Be specific.

If people arrive on your website and it provides them with exactly what they were looking for then you've saved them time and frustration. You become a trusted source of information they'll return to again and again.

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  1. Comment by Sarah McIlwaine posted on

    Thanks for this! Useful.

  2. Comment by Dave posted on

    Nice job describing the difference between surface content and actual content. I never heard of surface content - but yes, your definition makes sense - it skims the surface. It's interesting to see sites that can regurgitate info, and not say anything. It's even more useless when in videos - some sales people can go on for an hour without getting to any valid point.