Blog & Podcast

Lessons “The Long Room” Can Teach Today’s Think Tanks

Trinity College Dublin is host to one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Holding 200,000 of the college’s oldest books, “The Long Room” is nearly 65 meters in length, features a stunning barrel-vaulted ceiling, and white marble busts of great philosophers, writers, and scholars connected with Trinity College. Simply walking through this room is on my bucket list.

In a talk about information architecture, Clearleft’s Chris How points out the library’s peculiar system of organization—at least it’s peculiar to our modern sensibilities. Books aren’t organized strictly alphabetically, instead they’re sorted first by size. This gives the shelves wonderful orderly appearance, but has to be less than intuitive to browsers.

But intuitive browsing wasn’t the top priority for a library built in the early 18th century. Its purpose was to collect and preserve as many book as it could. This meant maximizing the usable shelf space. By keeping similar sized books together, the space between shelves could be shrunk down, allowing more shelves to be added. There’s simply too much space occupied by air when large tomes have to sit side-by-side with pocket-sized volumes.

Students and scholars at Trinity College had to work around this constraint of the physical world, climbing up and down ladders and walking from row to row to find volumes by the same author. But I’m sure this was seen as a small price to pay for access this incredible store of knowledge.

Sorting books by size may seem like a quaint part of a bygone age, but many think tanks are still organizing their content along similar lines. In fact, separating content by size—keeping the “policy briefs” apart from the “policy studies”—is still a common practice on many websites. Are users demanding this or is this just a holdover from the days of releasing papers as…well…papers?

Similarly, video and audio are often squirreled away in their own little corner of a think tank’s website, rather than being made part of an issue page. Couldn’t a policy maker or member of the media want to listen to a podcast during their commute or watch a portion of a panel discussion while taking a coffee break? If that content isn’t made available alongside written works on the same issue, those options may not occur to them.

Recency is also prioritized over relevancy. This seems to be a byproduct of the way most web content management systems work by default—the most recent content takes over the top position. But does this make sense when user may be looking for context and background on an issue, rather than the latest micro-development in a particularly area of study? If your signature annual study on the issue has been displaced by blog posts, your users have been done a disservice.

Unlike the space-saving librarians at Trinity College, your think tank’s website isn’t bound by physical constraints, nor do you have the market on information cornered, and users know this. Website browsers won’t suffer ladders or disjointed collections spread across multiple aisles. In fact, according to Google’s Daniel An, if it takes over 3 seconds for a page to load, just over half of users will leave it.

So, you have to ask yourself, are you making users climb ladders or are you delivering what they need as quickly as possible?

The best way to figure this out is talking to actual users. In future posts I’ll outline how to conduct formal usability studies to refine the organization of your site, but informal interviews (like a 10-minute phone call) are a good first step that don’t require any advanced prep. Think of someone in the media, or a policymaker, or a fellow wonk with whom you have a good relationship. Ask them to find your most popular content and get them to talk aloud while they try to do it.

You may feel silly talking about something so basic to someone outside your organization, but the curse of knowledge is real—you’re simply too close to your content to see even the most glaring faults in its organization. Only someone who is outside of your organization, who doesn’t already know everything there is to know about your portfolio of issues, can show you what’s unintuitive about the way you present them to users.

Armed with that feedback, you can start playing the part of the helpful librarian. This means organizing information in way that satisfies the demands of your users, but also curating pages to provide users with options they may consider on their own—like promoting your podcast or newsletter. And like a good librarian, you should provide broader context for the esoteric policy topics your site may cover, which you can do by highlighting the studies or short-form content that gives a broad overview of the topic.

Bottom line, because users have some so many others options, you always need to be paying attention to their needs, listening to their feedback, and making sure that none of your content is out of reach.

On-Page SEO Basics to Get Your Content Seen in 2020


SEO can seem like a thing from the early 2000s—something that only scammers and spammers talk about—but Google’s “How Search Work Report” says:

The most basic signal that information is relevant is when a webpage contains the same keywords as your search query. If those keywords appear on the page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text, the information is more likely to be relevant.

So even though Google no longer falls for the paid link schemes or the keyword stuffing BS from the on-page SEO days of yore, they do rely on old-fashioned signals, like frequency and prominence of keywords, to surface the right content to the first ten search results.

Here are a few on-page SEO tactics you can still use to make your content more visible on Google in 2020:

  1. Put Keywords in Your Title: Keyword rich titles rank higher than titles that don’t hit the subject of the page dead on. It’s difficult to restrain ourselves, especially when we think our writing is cute, but it’s best to be straight-forward and literal, rather than clever and oblique, when we’re putting a title to our writing.
  2. Use keywords frequently: This isn’t like the days of stuffing keywords into a page, so don’t overdo it, but you should use the keywords in the title of your content a few times, especially in the first paragraphs of your page. This may conflict with good writing practice, which begs us not to repeat the same verbiage over and over again, but working in the same few words a handful of times can be less clunky than you think and provides Google with a clear signal of relevance.
  3. Link to Relevant Content: Linking to relevant content that relates to your subject matter can help Google contextualize your content and improve your ranking. Give and you shall receive.
  4. Optimize Your URLs: If you’ve got an annual study, quarterly report, or other “pillar content” that needs to stand out, give it a clean and concise URL. So rather than

    insitute.org/taxes/study/2020/awesome-tax-report.html

    Try something like:

    insitute.org/taxes

  5. Lead with the Keyword: Just like George Jefferson, your keywords should be moving on up. Place your keywords at the beginning of a title to signal that they are the focus of your content. So rather than “Why New Hampshire Should Avoid a Sale Tax” try “New Hampshire Sales Tax: Avoiding a Policy Mistake.”
  6. Meta Descriptions: This sounds like something out of a 1990s blogging guide, but meta descriptions still matter. They determine the lines of text after your title in Google’s search results, and that small bit of text has a big influence on click-through rates.

Does On-Page SEO Matter for Think Tanks in 2020?

What really matters when it comes to on-page SEO? Do keywords, titles, URLs, and meta descriptions really matter in 2020? Absolutely they do.

This week on the podcast, Einar and I discuss how think tanks can revise their content to make pages rank higher in search engine results. Using Brian Dean’s “On-Page SEO: The Definitive Guide” as a reference, we talk about SEO basics, guidelines for writing good content, how to boost click-through rates, how UX affects SEO, and deliver some hot pro tips about FAQ schema. If you want your content to be the answer when you ask Alexa a question, we’ll tell you how.

Episode 10 – Homepage Design

This week Einar and I returned to the Nielsen Norman Group’s “Trustworthiness in Web Design: 4 Credibility Factors” and apply its lessons to homepages. We talk about homepages can show professionalism through quality design, build trust through clearly disclosing your group’s purpose, show off your recent high-quality content, and illustrate your connections to the rest of the world. Closing the show, we talked about typical user paths and how your website should inspire action, attempt to get users engaged, and guide them to the most-commonly sought out pages on your site.

Episode 9 – 50 Pieces of Content a Week

Einar and I talk about our approach to the Gary Vee content model—the inverted pyramid approach to creating a ton of content and distributing in every way you can. We talk about how primary content gets broken down into micro content, essentially ads that you put out as posts on social media platforms that point back to your main content. We talk about the role of tertiary content—the long-form posts we write that few people read—and why it shouldn’t be viewed as primary. I go into an example of my in-laws’ bookstore, which has taken this model and seen great success as a local business. Even though this is outside of our client base, it’s a really easy example to grasp and it shows that you don’t need much in the way of original content to draw people to your website and achieve your goals.

All Hail the Mega Menu

The way most people do web navigation is totally wrong. They organize their content by the type of media—wrong. They use drop-downs under each primary category—wrong. They carry over long menus onto mobile devices with small screens—wrong.

How do you avoid all this wrongness? Continue reading this post.

On Episode 8 of our podcast, we talked about the following best practices in website navigation:

  1. Be descriptive. Don’t use abstract menu titles like “products” or “services.” Instead, use specific product categories like “compasses” or “maps” and specific services categories like “custom cartography” both to spell out what your website is about for users and for search engines that are looking for specific keywords and key phrases.
  2. Avoid format-based navigation. Our think tank clients do this too much. No one is looking for a white paper or a “legislative action plan,” they’re looking for information on a particular topic. Your navigation should focus on the subject matter and guide the user to your most easy-to-understand content on that subject first, giving the option to dive deeper only if they want to. Don’t serve up the 50-page essay first, serve them the 30-second clip of the 60-minute panel discussion about the 50-page essay instead.
  3. Avoid drop-down menus. But how can anyone get anywhere without seeing the 12 subcategories we have under “research areas” or “programs” without a drop-down? Either include those subcategories on the “research areas” or “programs” page, or embrace the one acceptable form of drop-down, the mega menu. These menus lay bear the entire navigation of your site, or a whole section of your site, with one mouse-over. Users like them because they make drilling down to exactly what they want fast. We’re not just asserting this stuff, it’s born out by usability studies. Here’s an example of a mega menu from Moosejaw, a clothing and camping gear company:
  4. Use human psychology to your advantage. We tend to remember the first thing we see/hear/read and the last thing. These are called the “primacy effect” and “recency bias,” or so we’re told by people who right “turns out” type of articles on user behavior. Comedians have been taking advantage of this for decades, planning out their sets with their best joke last and their second-best joke first, leaving the audience with a positive impression as they’ll forget most of the material between those bookends. Do the same with your menus. Your most important offering should be in that top or left position, while the second-most important should be in the bottom or right position. An example might be “research areas” in the first position while “make a donation” sits at the end of the menu.
  5. Always. Be. Optimizing. Remove items that rarely get clicked if they aren’t critical. Rename or relabel things that rarely get clicked if you think they’re important enough to keep around. Move items that get clicked often high up in the menu order. The most important thing is to actually measure this behavior and react to it. Most website owners/managers aren’t doing that at all.
  6. For the love of all that’s holy, pay attention to mobile. Don’t be a basic b*tch living like it’s still 2008 and fail to plan for mobile. Letting your CMS stick in a hamburger menu—those three horizontal lines that are supposed to mean something on their own—is really failing your users. Throw them a line and put the word “Menu” or “Topics” or “Policy Research” or something relevant next to that icon so their brains have something familiar to latch onto and guide them to the next action. Also, edit your mobile menus down to what is used on mobile. If your users aren’t visiting certain areas of your website on mobile, or are using them less frequently, don’t include them in the handful of links you stack into that menu.

All of this can be summed up by saying “put the user first.” Don’t try to push some pet project on users through your menu—user your blog, social posts, podcast, videos, and email for that. Don’t try to make your menu clever—be clever in your writing or over cocktails but make menus literal, boring, direct, and stupidly obvious. Use your website on a bunch of devices and try to get to a specific category of content using only the menus. Note when your hand tenses up and your heart wells with rage, that’s a little voice inside you telling you that your menus are awful. Fix them post-haste.

All of this should result in more time on site, more clicks per session, and more users hitting the goals you have for them, like downloading your research, buying a product, or signing up for your lists. All good things.

Episode 8 – Menus & Navigation

In our second episode of the year, we discuss best practices in menus and navigation. We’re still working out our own set of best practices in audio recording, which I think we’ll have worked out for Episode 9. Bear with us. We’re very good at web architecture, web design, marketing strategy, copyrighting, and a few other things, but we’re still on the steeper part of the learning curve with audio recording.

How does roadmapping help our clients?

As we discussed in Episode 7 of our podcast, roadmapping is a strategic planning service that we offer in place of free estimates. You can think of it as architecture for your website. You wouldn’t accept “let’s just start building” as a plan of action for building a house. Instead, you’d hire an architect, or at least use a set of plans that you know had produced a good home for your needs and fit your local environment.

This probably sounds logical enough, but it’s hard to imagine how the analogy plays out. So, how does roadmapping actually help our clients?

  1. The main thing it achieves is getting the right diagnosis of their problems. For example, we’ve had clients come to us because their WordPress site is ugly, counterintuitive, slow, and staff members hate it so they need something better. We’ve also had similar clients come to us begging to switch to WordPress because their current site is ugly, counterintuitive, slow, and staff members hate it. The problems are the same, but the diagnosis are totally opposite. Roadmapping solves this problem by getting to the details of those problems and determining if the problem is really the software platform, or its implementation, design, custom modifications, or something totally different. Roadmapping seeks to get the diagnosis right, rather than move fast on a client-proscribed solution—the “let’s just start building” approach.
  2. Roadmapping also means a much smaller commitment, both in terms of time and money for ourselves and our clients. This means we get to know each other and learn if we agree on the direction of a project before we commit to actually building that project. So far, every roadmapping client has decided to move forward with some version of our plan and have found the experience incredibly valuable, but it does give clients the opportunity to work with us in a smaller way without making the commitment to pay for us to execute a plan and actually build their website.
  3. Clients start much more confidently after a roadmapping session, especially those who have been burned by a previous contractor. By really getting to know your organization, we have a much better chance at building the website you need, rather than working from a template and hoping it satisfies some of your actual business needs, which is a standard operating procedure for most agencies. They sell the same website that solves maybe 60% of the client’s problems over and over and over again. Clients who have been through that process want to avoid repeating it and can breathe a sigh of relief after roadmapping.
  4. A roadmap is also a portable plan. It’s something that has value on its own, not just as a plan for our specific team. A roadmapping plan is specific enough that it can be taken to any agency and give them a clear path to success for your organization. It’s like having plans drawn up by an architect with the option of shopping the build around to multiple construction companies.

This is why we start every project with roadmapping. It produces a plan of action that more accurately addresses the client’s real problems, it decreases their risk in hiring us, it inspires confidence when the build process begins, and it allows that build process to be taken on by ourselves or anyone else.

Episode 7 – Roadmapping

We began 2020 with a new episode of the podcast talking to each other about roadmapping. Einar and I discussed roadmapping, our new approach to working with clients. This new way of doing things replaces the “building what you tell us to build” model we followed for years and instead puts us in the position of consultants who collaborate with clients. We do this by creating a software roadmap, similar to how startups manage their software development. Roadmapping is a paid strategy session and planning service that we offer in place of free estimates.

Lobster Trap Business Tactics

I recently signed up for a trial subscription of The Boston Globe. I don’t want to continue my service, so I visited the Boston Globe website and signed into my account to cancel the renewal. But of course, that would be too easy.

Try as I may, there was no way to cancel my subscription via The Globe’s account settings page.

So I resorted to using Google. I searched for “unsubscribe from the boston globe” and the first link brought me to a page that said:

We accept cancellations for digital and home delivery subscriptions by phone only.

Why does The Boston Globe accept cancellations only over the phone? The answer is of course because they want to give you the hard sell before they let you go. “Get another six months for only $5.99″ or maybe “For just $19.99 you can get 12 weeks of the Sunday edition along with a tote bag.”

This is, of course, an awful customer experience. Similar to the song and dance you go through every 12 to 24 months to bring your cable bill back down to the introductory subscriber rate. We all hate these phone calls.

The Globe also realizes this, in fact, they are counting on it. Our hatred of these call means we’re unlikely to make these unpleasant phone calls to begin with. Essentially, The Boston Globe is forcing you to make a calculation: do I spend 10 minutes having an unpleasant conversation, or just fork over another $4.99?

But this means there are no longer in the business of selling newspaper, instead, they’re holding your credit card information ransom at the bar end of an annoying and degrading phone call.

This practice is not unique to The Boston Globe, in fact, is become all too common in the newspaper business. It’s become so common, it’s one of the reasons why consumers are hesitant to subscribe to any newspaper. They assume it’s a lobster trap—it’s easy to get in but it’s almost impossible to get out.

This practice violates one of the four credibility factors identified by the Nielsen Norman Group’s Jakob Nielsen. That factor is called “upfront disclosure.” I find this to be awkward phrasing, but it’s a way of stressing not only being honest, but also totally open and straightforward with website users. This means not omitting key information, no fine print, no tacking on fees or extra charges, and it especially means making it easy to cancel your account or delete your data.

A “cancel by phone only” policy doesn’t even pass the sniff test.

By contrast, The Washington Post makes changing your account incredibly simple. By logging into their website you can cancel your account, suspend your account, change your payment options, or do anything else that a consumer would expect to be able to do on any modern, non-hostile website.

Similarly, Google has worked hard to fight against the perception that it is a lobster trap for data by making it easy for consumers to permanently delete accounts and personal information. I can recall when this was started many years ago by an internal Google effort called the “Data Liberation Front.” This group worked as an internal evangelist team dedicated to the notion that users should be able to control their data, which included deleting it entirely.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but it makes sense that consumers are more likely to use the entrance to your product if there are clearly marked exits.

We should all audit our own businesses for practices similar to this. You may not be doing something as blatant as the Boston Globe’s policy, but you may be making it harder for customers to leave, thereby making it less attractive for new customers to enter into a new relationship with you.

One practice we’ve identified in our own business is web hosting. Even though we support it for a few legacy accounts, we no longer offer hosting to any of our clients. That’s because we never want clients to feel like they have to continue with us because we are holding their website hostage. So even though it may take longer for both us and the client to set up web hosting under their own name, we find it’s worth the greater upfront costs to give our clients a greater sense of security and the feeling of true ownership over their own sites.

We want clients to know that they can walk away from us at any time. It’s always better for each client engagement to stand on its own merits and not to be influenced by long-term contracts or other hostile business practices. That way every engagement has a clear sense of mutual benefit, rather than lamentable obligation.

We never want to plant the seed of doubt in a client’s mind as to whether they are staying with us because our work is good or because we have some leverage over them.

Long-term customer relationships are not built on “cancel by phone only” policies. That’s the kind of tactic employed by a jealous boyfriend, not a self-confident business.

So be confident in what you provide to clients or customers, and leave the lobster traps to fishermen in Maine.