When you launch a website, it’s like driving off the lot with a brand-new car. It’s shiny and perfect in that moment, but over time it starts to get worn down. If you ignore routine maintenance long enough, your car will inevitably grind to a halt.
Web developers are familiar with this concept in terms of “technical debt,” the theory that writing easy—rather than reliable—code will create compounding issues for a website further on down the road. Basically, it’s like repairing your car (or your website) with an extravagant amount of duct tape.
In a similar vein, I would define “content debt” as sub-par or incorrect formatting that makes your website look juvenile or unprofessional. As such, content debt is a far sneakier problem than technical debt, because a website can have tons of content debt and still work just fine. Here’s a closer look at some common causes of content debt, and how you can avoid them:
Type 1: Spelling and Grammar Mistakes
Grammar and spelling mistakes may seem relatively minor, but they tend to erode customer confidence. The thought that runs through my mind is: “If they’re messing up on little things, are they messing up on big things too?” And that is exactly the sort of doubt we want to avoid in our customers’ minds.
For example, there’s a really well-known, popular tool that I use all the time. But in their documentation about how it works, they use “it’s” when they ought to be using “its.” Not just on one page, mind you, but all across the website.
Fortunately, this issue has a simple fix: Use an editor like Hemingway to double-check not only your spelling, but also grammar when writing for your website.
Type 2: Poor Image Selection
Images can make or break a website. A dopey-looking website can really get classed up with high-quality images. Conversely, an amazing, award-winning website can be utterly wrecked by bad images.
This one is admittedly a little subjective, but if you’re including icons that look like screenshots from Microsoft Word or “Under Construction” banners in your web content, I’d argue that you have an image selection problem.
Type 3: Inconsistent Formatting
Recently, I worked on a website with about 20 different content editors. As the website dev, I did content quality checks to make sure we weren’t making formatting mistakes.
As I reviewed the content, it was easy to see that every editor had their own distinct style, their own little preferences for how they liked to format content. Some people preferred using lists, others liked using tables. One user would format phone numbers like this: (863) 123-1234, while another preferred the period format of 863.123.1234.
On its own, that’s not too bad, but they were also doing this sort of thing for links, lists, headlines and so on. Eventually, inconsistent formatting can get to the point where browsing from one page of your website to another is a bewildering experience for the user.
Consistency, on the other hand, helps your business look professional. It’s a small, easy way to inspire the user with confidence, rather than confusion and doubt. Here are some quick principles for how to achieve consistency on a WordPress website:
1. Let the WordPress theme make your content look good
Generally, it’s good to stick to basic heading tags, paragraph and list styles. Let the WordPress theme you’ve chosen set the color for your content, whether it’s a link, a list or a headline. This keeps the content appearance centralized and easy to adjust.
2. Choose a format, and document it
Whether you’re dealing with phone numbers, fax numbers, links, emails, addresses or any other content that can be formatted in a specific style, choose a style and stick to it. The problem is that everyone makes these little decisions in their head, but we leave those decisions in our heads, instead of writing them down somewhere.
3. Be progressively consistent
Start by applying consistency to the small things; they are the things most easily changed. But don’t stop there: as you apply the principle of consistency to larger and larger things, the entire website will improve.
Type 4: Junk Markup
If your website has a junk markup infestation, it’s probably because it snuck in when you were copying and pasting content from somewhere else, like Gmail, Microsoft Word, a design program or even another website.
We had a website recently where I fell into that last trap. I thought I was safe just copying and pasting from another website, only to discover that a bunch of markup for creating columns of content had come over with it. I had to redo a lot of my content importing after I noticed that error.
Here are a couple of examples of junk markup:
<li style="line-height:1.8">A list item</li> <p class="p1">Some paragraph text</p> <div class="description">I wanted this without the "div" tag.</div>
<li>A list item</li>
Some paragraph text
I wanted this without the "div" tag.
Fixing this for new content is simple: in the WordPress Editor, click the clipboard with a “T” on it to paste in plain text mode. When it comes to existing content, you have two options.
To fix junk markup on a single page, select the text you want to fix, then click the Eraser button in the WordPress Editor. Doing this will remove the junk markup, but leave the rest of your markup (like lists or heading tags) alone.
To fix junk markup site-wide, you can use a plugin like Better Search Replace to search across all the website content at once and strip out junk markup. Be careful though, because this plugin searches all the fields in your database, not just the post content. The Pro version (minimum $59) does let you restrict the search to the post content though.
Type 5: Unused WordPress Shortcodes
Here’s a WordPress-specific example. If you’re not familiar with WordPress, it uses special tags called shortcodes to make it easy for editors to add complex modules without writing code. For example, [gallery ids="32,45,97"] would add a gallery with specific image IDs to the page.
The problem is that sometimes, a shortcode is deactivated or deleted, and then WordPress doesn’t know what to do with the shortcode tag, so it’ll just plop it out on the page, like [really-good-example-generator].
To me, this is like finding cobwebs on a website: it tells me that nobody is keeping up on the content. If this part of the content is out of date, then what else is out of date or irrelevant?
You could follow the same tactic as our last example and use Better Search Replace to strip out unused shortcodes, but fortunately, there’s an even simpler solution. The WordPress plugin Remove Orphan Shortcodes will remove any unused shortcodes in one fell swoop—all you have to do is turn it on!
How to Cultivate Debt-Free Content
I think a lot of people have this idea that creating a website is like writing a book: just write all the pages, set all the features up, add some social sharing buttons, and boom, website’s done, no need to touch it ever again.
To my mind, having a website is much more like caring for a garden. In order to have a good website, you need to cultivate the content and keep the weeds of poor formatting away. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all your gardening work has to be done the hard way, with your bare hands and brute strength. Every good gardener has trusty tools to call upon, and when something is too difficult, they simply look for a better tool. Some guys prefer weed whackers, but I’m partial to flamethrowers. Whatever gets the job done, right?
As a final word of advice, consider setting up a “Formatting Guide” page on your website to keep track of how you prefer to format content. This will be a help to you and anyone else who works on the website content in the future. Saved knowledge is sharable knowledge.