Multimedia and the Thin Content Issue

One issue that comes of frequently in my forensic audit work (especially on news and informational sites) is how multimedia pages all too often have little to no content in the form of descriptive, crawlable HTML text. Examples of such pages most often include videos, infographics, photo galleries, and interactive charts.

Publishers all too often, think, “this is the content – it’s not text because we know people like visual content”.

And for many site visitors, that thinking isn’t wrong. Unfortunately that can’t be said about all visitors, and all consumers of your content.

Different Mind Models

The first, and most important consideration, is human visitors – actual consumers of your content. Not all people visiting sites are visual in the way they process information most effectively. Or for certain types of content, they prefer reading rather than watching, even if they might otherwise, in different circumstances, enjoy video content.

I most often like to use myself as an example – when I visit a news site to consume information, I almost never go directly to that section of the site where video files are the primary content. I prefer to read words on a page. It’s just how I prefer to process information. And if you force a video file on me, with auto-play on, and auto-sound on, it actually annoys me.

This isn’t to say I’m atypical though. I’ve found over the years that many other people feel the same way.

It’s Not Just Me – Public Opinion on the Issue

Imgurians speak up against multimedia as clickbait without readable text options

To illustrate this, I recently came upon this gem on imgur, a highly popular sharing site where you get the full range of humorous, insightful, and educational content and personal commentary from a wide range of people in all different age groups and from all different socio-economic backgrounds.

Note imgur is site is visual in nature, which you may find ironic here. However it’s a site built ENTIRELY on visual content and text commentary – it’s entirely UGC (user generated content), and as such, I go to the site expecting visual content AND text commentary, often on a massive scale.

As I was browsing through the site this week, I came upon the above post – that speaks to this very issue. (Warning – foul, crass, and often very disturbing commentary can be found on that site – as a UGC driven site, with a mostly “free-for-all” posting policy, this is reality).

Note how this meme speaks directly to news sites, and the expectation of content presentation type.

Over 1,000 people upvoted this in less than 24 hours – moving this content to the front page – a big deal on imgur – 99% of content NEVER makes it to the front page.

And here are some of the comments on that post:

imgur comment confirming readable text content matters

At the time of my writing, this is the top comment (with 185 people “points”(upvotes) for this one comment. Site abandonment, all because some people prefer to not have to be forced to watch a video.

Almost all of the comments that follow are more of the same in their displeasure with video-only content on news sites, each with its own reasoning or even other annoyances about why video-content on news sites are not liked by some people.

more people confirming reading text articles is preferred over watching videos on news sites.

Sometimes, it’s also a matter of circumstance why video based content is not even viable.

Inability to have sound on, or a desire to read through a transcript are an issue.

Sometimes, it’s specifically related to how the brain works in some people as far as information absorption is concerned.

some people prefer tutorials to be written / readable text they can follow at their own pace

And the number of comments with more supportive sentiment of the frustration of this post, is important to note. Some are quite adamant about how they feel.

Many other people agree - give us actual text content, for several different reasons

Note – not ALL who commented agree. Some people did express a different opinion.

Note how the comment below offers a reason why they disagree.

Some people of course, do prefer video content

That opinion, at least on this post, is one of only two comments on the entire thread (out of fifty seven comments posted) in opposition to video-only content on news sites.

And let’s not forget – imgur is a VISUAL content site, with commentary below it. The vast majority of value for visitors IS the visual content, however even then, the commentary is often hilarious, enjoyable, or otherwise educational (if you can get past the fact that some comments are vulgar).

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Data Usage and Page Speeds

Two additional considerations here are data usage and page speeds. As the world moves to a more mobile-centric media consumption model, data usage sensitivity becomes more important.

In this instance, it doesn’t mean that you should abandon video entirely – we can have an entirely different full-day discussion about that notion. However it is a consideration and needs to be weighed as part of the overall process when we talk about large video files, or interactive charts or infographics.

So, at the very least, remember to consider data usage when deciding “should we use multimedia assets as the primary content for this specific piece of content?” – and weigh that with the ease with which some of those multimedia assets can be created or shared.

Speed is another matter entirely, that requires much more serious consideration all too often. When I do an audit on a news or informational site, I often find that multimedia assets contribute significantly to slowing down of page speeds. When they are the primary content, it means that even asynchronous loading isn’t always going to help you.

So that too is another consideration that needs to be made, especially in this day and age when code and asset bloat from multiple ad networks and shiny object widgets further degrade performance (and even data usage cap considerations).

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The Impact of Failing to Accommodate Different Mind Models

Let’s, for this discussion, focus more on cases where you have decided that multimedia assets are the primary content.

When at least some site visitors come to a site expecting written content and they don’t get it, those visitors are more likely to abandon the page entirely, and abandon the site. Some of them will come back again, hoping for a better experience. Others will not.

Some of those visitors will tell others and rant about it online. Not always anonymously – often by mentioning brands in their rant.

Some people who came to the site via a search engine, will go back to the search engine in an attempt to find another source for a topic.

None of that helps overall site quality, authority or trust signals – even when looking at those from a purely human / social perspective.

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Accessibility

That then brings up the fact that visually impaired or hearing-impaired visitors are also likely to have problems getting any value, or complete value from your multimedia assets.

As a result, an entire sector of society is left out of the equation. Hearing-impaired people may be able to use a device or a video setting to get transcripts, however have you even considered that when posting multimedia?

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Search Engines as Users

Beyond Then we have search engines. A statement I have been making for several years is that, like it or not, search engines ARE users – they DO consume your content. And if you want the traffic that comes from search engines, you need to acknowledge this reality.

And no matter how sophisticated search crawlers and algorithms have become, those systems are just not capable of fully translating multimedia content into raw data for algorithmic evaluation purposes. And when they can do that to some extent, all context is lost regarding headlines, bold or bullet-pointed call-outs, and more.

This then causes search algorithms to fail to fully understand content volume, quality, uniqueness, or topical focus.

Media type content is always a challenge for SEO. As much as we don’t like to accept it, search engines are users of content. So while the common mantra is “create content for users”, if we want that content given maximized value by those “algorithmic users” (search engines), we need to find ways to accommodate that reality.

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Accommodating All Users

Here are the most common suggestions I make to clients in my audits when it comes to ensuring multimedia content pages can be better understood by search engine crawlers and algorithms, and where that also helps address many human users and their needs.

The best approach here is to take the visual content, and create a story around it. Written word stories that can compliment the visuals. Many visitors will only care about the visual content. Others will appreciate the deeper descriptive story.

While it pains me to reference CNN (they do a LOT of things counter to top tier SEO because they CAN – they’re CNN), this is a case where I can point to an example that is relevant.

With CNN, for example, even though that site has a vast volume of “video only” content, a significant portion of content has a video at the top of the page, and a written story beneath it. Often not labeled in links to that content, as being video based.

One issue I don’t like about CNN is how much of the articles they have about a given topic are written content, and yet they stick a “pseudo-related” video (auto-play, sound on) above it. I came there to read about a current news event, not to watch some archival outdated video.

Don’t use those kind of video placements as an example of “how to do it right” though. Please!

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Combining as an Option

Another technique is to combine multiple pieces into fewer individual pages. That brings up an additional set of challenges (such as page bloat and speed problems). However it is one technique to be considered.

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Change the Layout

With infographics – especially very big single-image infographics, a good workaround is to take the initial infographic, offer a thumbnail link to it on the main indexable content page, and write an editorial opinion piece on the contents of it. Or if you own the infographic, you can slice it up into smaller pieces, and write content and commentary around each of those smaller pieces.

Sure, it’s just easier to slap an infographic up, and maybe link to it using the code the creator of that infographic provides.  Except THEIR site is the one actually benefiting, since they’re they’re the creator.  So if you don’t add your OWN content, what’s the sticky value for YOUR site?

And if you are the original content creator, do you just want your exact same content replicated across half the web if there’s no differentiation?

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The Goal for Users and SEO

The goal in all of this is to help meet the needs of more user types (human and search engine originated). So it’s critical that whatever content you create not just be slapped up onto the site artificially.

That may very well mean fewer content pieces being created. Yet when it’s high quality, helpful, educational, informative or emotionally impactful content, the value is worth the effort.

  • You’re much more likely to get more people to stay on-page longer.
  • You’re much more likely to get more people willing to share your content.
  • You’re much more likely to get search engines to formulaically assign higher value scores to that content.

When you do that work with enough individual pieces of content, as a result of those value-gains, you’re much more likely to see a given section of the site, and in turn, the site overall, improve in search engine ranking.