August 11, 2011 by bradcharlesbeals
Odds are you have copy on your website that can—with no diminished value in usability—be replaced with the words blah, blah, and blah. Jakob Nielsen refers to such copy as zero-content word count. These are words, phrases, and sentences that contribute nothing because our brains have stopped recognizing them as meaningful. And it’s the language that comprises most website text.
As web users, we have qualifier assumptions, a host of words in our heads that we’re ready to see—professional, progressive, state-of-the-art, efficient, any positive modifier, and a lot of vague action verbs such as integrate, facilitate, develop, excel. Nothing constructive happens with these words because nothing is added to the user’s perceptions. “High-quality” is already there in our assumptions; every business thinks it’s high quality, so we’re inoculated to it. It’s become a nonsense word. And there are nouns too: integration, process, cutting-edge, synergy. They add nothing substantive. The words we present must construct something new in the user’s thinking or they’re empty and without value. They have zero content.
So what does zero-content word count look like? One way to identify it is to ask would anyone advertise for the opposite of what I’m writing? For example, “we provide unique opportunities” says nothing because there’s no one out there saying “we provide common opportunities.” And if there’s no one saying the opposite, or at least something very different, then you’ve got no room for differentiation. Unique is an assumed qualifier, so the word adds no value to a user’s experience. You may as well use the term blah, or maybe yada, because your reader will scan over unique in just the same way.
So how do you add value through words? There are many ways, but the remedy for zero-content is simple: say what you do. If you’re a plumber, don’t tell me how your service is professional or state-of-the-art. Say instead, “We clear drains up to 200 feet.” Those seven words add value by building in the user’s perception something as opposed to nothing. Otherwise, save yourself some time and paste in blah blah blah, or leave it blank. It won’t matter either way—your user can’t see it.