Content Rule #1: The Blank Sheet Of Paper Test

Ian Lurie Aug 30 2016

Nothing gets taken out of context more than web content. Except maybe innocent remarks by public figures. Search engines pull bits and pieces from your page. People cut-and-paste. Aggregators grab headlines. We all tend to ignore the lack of context and write like we always have: We assume readers will see all our stuff together.

I’ve frequently mocked the results. I’ve also talked about techniques for headline writing and the like.

But I looked back and can’t find a single place where I lay out the rule. So here it is:

The Blank Sheet of Paper Test: If you wrote this text on a piece of paper and showed it to a stranger, would they understand the meaning? Is this text fully descriptive?

You can apply this to headlines, ALT attributes, title tags, captions and any other text that might end up shown out of context.

For example:

“Fix a flat” isn’t fully descriptive. Will it teach me to fix a tire? Offer a service that fixes a tire for me? Is it for bicycles, cars, motorcycles or the spare tire around my gut?

“How to: Fix a flat bicycle tire” works better. I know exactly what I’ll see if I keep reading.

Another example:

Mustang Rides Into Sunset

versus

Ford Mustang Rides Into Sunset

Some writers might say the first heading is a little more stylish. I get that argument. You have to balance style versus clarity yourself. I always lean towards clarity.

It’s Not Just For Headlines

Use the Blank Sheet of Paper Test for ALT attributes and image captions. The text should fully describe the image:

“Happy people” isn’t sufficient:

This needs a detailed description

This needs a detailed description

“Frighteningly perfect, somewhat racially balanced beautiful people laugh and make me feel inadequate” seems better.

It’s also a dynamite standard for title tags. Title tags should fully describe the page. If they pass the BSPT (that’s Blank Sheet of Paper Test, because I’m tired of typing it), they’re good. This doesn’t pass, and it’s a lousy title tag:

700c Road Bike

Compare that to this:

Domane SLR 8 Performance Road Bike w/ Dura-Ace – Trek
(A guy can dream)

I know, if you’re not a bicycle person this might be meaningless, except you know it’s a speedy bicycle. But that’s enough. Here’s something a bit more mainstream:

Broccoli

versus

Organic Broccoli Florets, pre-cut, pre-washed, no bugs

The bugs part is especially important to me. I’m fine with bugs, but once a few beetles creep out of a head of broccoli, Dawn (my better half) wants to set fire to it.

It’s not just a minimum

The BSPT is about the maximum you should write, too. If you’re describing things that aren’t in the image, on the page or in the content, you need to re-think. If your page sells broccoli florets, then this is a spammy title tag:

Organic broccoli florets delivered wholesale retail broccoli recipes

If it isn’t on the page, don’t include it.

Same for an image:

Seven people meeting consulting with Portent doing SEO, PPC, consulting and analytics in Seattle doesn’t work here:

This needs a detailed description

No

“Fully descriptive” means “describes the thing to which it’s attached,” not “describe the entire universe.”

It helps lots of stuff

The Blank Sheet of Paper Test improves:

  • User experience, because people know what they’re about to read/watch/hear
  • SEO, because search engines want to know what they’re about to rank
  • PPC, because page relevance is part of quality score, and the BSPT is all about relevance

It’s not my idea, by the way. I can’t remember who taught me this test. But it’s held up well over 20-odd years of digital marketing stuff.

Give it a shot. If you’ve got a title tag, headline or something else you want to test, leave it in the comments.

1 Comments

  1. Love this! I’ve had clients do it with page titles and headlines, but never thought about applying it to alt text. In 20 years, I’ll write this blog post for my company and try to remember that I learned it from you ;)

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