Here comes the science bit: How to write clear content on complex topics

Mar 13th, 2014

In a recent video, Google’s chief webspam warrior Matt Cutts tackled a question that many content writers, especially those working in technical or scientific industries, find themselves asking on a regular basis: “Should I write content that is easier to read or more scientific? Will I rank better if I write for 6th graders?”

Like teething pain or income tax, jargon is an irritating but necessary reality of life. From dentists’ malocclusions to accountants’ IR35s, specialist terminology is, at worst, grating mumbo jumbo and, at best, an indispensable means of communication for professionals across every industry.

However, when it comes to online content, many writers are unsure of whether they should be writing for industry boffins or buffoons. They find themselves asking how much detail they should go into when dealing with complex technical or scientific concepts in a company blog, whether they should use specialist language in their website copy and, if so, whether they need to explain expressions that casual readers are unlikely to be familiar with.

Like Ben Holland from Phoenix, Arizona who posed the question to Cutts, many writers creating content for the web also wonder if writing for different levels of knowledge will affect their search engine results page rankings.

‘First and foremost, you need to explain it well’

In short, Cutts advises web content writers to:

– explain concepts well;

– try to err on the side of clarity;

– feel free to include scientific terms or industry jargon but to be aware that it’s not going to make that much of a difference as far as ranking is concerned.

Cutts’ answer is in line with Google’s overall stance on content writing. Google wants writers to create truly valuable content that satisfies its users’ needs. To create something that will attract and engage real-life human beings, writers must concentrate on writing content that is effective and quickly and easily understood.

In the words of Matt Cutts, “first and foremost you need to explain it well”. This may seem like common sense but it is something that has been long overlooked as content creators abandoned the reader to focus on manipulating search engine rankings through keyword stuffing and content duplication.

‘Think about the words the user is going to type’

Google’s ‘Hummingbird’ algorithm update has changed content marketing for the better. Websites no longer rank highly on the basis that they regularly churn out worthless content stuffed with keywords. Instead, Google has been refined to better understand conversational, long-tail search queries and to sift the web to pick out content that is likely to be relevant and valuable to the user’s specific query. In keeping with this, Cutts advises writers to “think about the words the user is going to type, which is typically going to be the layman’s terms”.

For example, a nervous patient attending a hospital appointment for an MRI scan may ask ‘how does an MRI scan work?’, rather than ‘How does  Magnetic Resonance Imaging discriminate between different body substances based on their physical properties to provide detailed images of soft tissues?’

Good content writers understand that clarity and complexity are not mutually exclusive concepts. In the above example, both questions are essentially asking the same thing, but the former – which uses simple, non-specialist language – is far more likely to be asked by a ‘layman’. A good writer can produce a piece of content that answers these questions in a way that satisfies both the layman and the more knowledgeable reader.

An effective online article on this subject might explain the basics of how an MRI scan works in a way that the reader without a background in medicine or science will find easy to understand. It might then gradually deepen in complexity to offer answers that meet the needs of the more knowledgeable reader, without alienating the layman. It may do this by explaining the meanings of medical or technical terms in the main body of the text, through the use of infographics or by including a glossary of specialist terms.

Sometimes, inevitably, content will be aimed at a reader with a higher level of assumed knowledge and will be unsuitable for the average user. More often, though, effective content can attract inexpert readers while still answering the questions of more knowledgeable readers.

‘Err on the side of clarity’

Cutts says: “If you are erring on the side of clarity and on the side of something that’s going to be understandable, you’ll be in much better shape because regular people can get it”.

This makes complete sense as the last thing any writer wants to do is alienate readers researching a topic that is unfamiliar to them by providing an impenetrable mass of legalese, business buzzwords or other vocational vocabulary.

If your web page is what Cutt calls ‘an opaque wall of scientific stuff’, he says you need to find some way to pull people in. If you write polished, well-structured, original content that helps users to get to grips with technical or scientific concepts in an easy-to-understand way, your content is more likely to appeal to a variety of users. It is also more likely to stand the test of time and be seen and shared online. As a result, your brand’s reputation as an authority in its industry is likely to be enhanced and you are more likely to see an increase in the number of users converting to customers – which I’m sure you’ll agree is well worth the effort.

To watch Matt Cutts answer this question and a host of others, visit The Short Cutts.

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