A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

How Using “The Elements of Style” Can Help Your SEO

Stylish websites show up at the top of search results.

When I say stylish, I don’t mean minimalistic websites with a black-and-white color scheme. I’m talking about websites with great, stylish writing. These sites feature a strong, unique writing voice that showcases their organization’s identity and help it stand out to readers and search engines alike.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is important because some studies suggest that organic search can drive more than 50 percent of web traffic. Showing up on the top page of search results is key to getting that traffic to come your way. To do that, you need style.

William Strunk Jr. published the first edition of The Elements of Style, the premier English writing style manual, almost 100 years ago. E.B. White later expanded and modernized the manual, and  the advice is still relevant today. Search engines are looking for some of the same things that readers have been for hundreds of years: clear examples of great content. (Whether search engines’ oh-so-secretive algorithms do a good job of assessing quality is another debate.) But for now, let’s see how writing by the The Elements of Style will get your blog post/web copy/etc. in the good graces of Google.

1)   Active voice

Search engines analyze a variety of things in the 0.33 seconds it takes to display search results, but the most important is what your website is about. The clearest way to convey that is by writing in active voice.

Always make sure that your subject is the one doing the action. For example, you would want the headline on your page to read, “Organization lobbied Congress,” rather than “Congress lobbied by organization.” (Organization is the subject.) The latter might lead the search engine to believe your post is about Congress, rather than the efforts of your organization.

Search engines also assume that the most important keywords in headlines and titles come at the beginning, so writing in active voice will ensure that the subject is at the beginning of the headline.

In general, it’s good practice to do all of your writing, not just the headline, in active voice because it’s easy to understand on the first read and it cuts down the word count.

Which brings us to the next one…

2)   Omit needless words

Strunk and White are huge advocates for concise writing. Not only does it make for a stronger argument; it also makes a strong case for your post in search results. Search engines usually display a snippet, or description, that helps people discern which site has the information they’re looking for. Many of these blurbs are pulled from the meta-description, but sometimes, if a few sentences of the post particularly match the search query, those sentences might be used as the snippet instead. Those descriptions are usually truncated around 150 characters, so omitting needless words will help make the most of that character limit.

Here’s an example of a snippet that didn’t follow The Elements of Style:

Why Printed Books Matter
Jan 16, 2013 – There is no doubt that people love printed books. The question as to whether these books will survive in a world of electronic readers is…

Now, omit the needless words and another complete thought now fits in the blurb.

Why Printed Books Matter
Jan 16, 2013 – Without a doubt, people love printed books. Whether these books will survive in a world of electronic readers is up to the students who…

It might not look that different from the first example, but being able to fit the extra words, particularly “students” gives the audience a better idea of what the argument will be. Perhaps they are a student, so they’ll be more likely to click on this link to find out why they are important to the future of printed books.

3)   Put statements in positive form

People rarely search for things they don’t want.  That’s why you should follow Strunk and White’s advice to only use the word not when you really mean it. “Why Latin is Useless” is a much stronger headline than “Why Latin Is Not Very Useful.” Plus people who are searching for others who feel disillusioned with the ancient language will not be searching for keywords that include “useful” and “Latin”” in the same sentence.

More proof: positive-form keywords are searched for more frequently. According to Google’s keyword planner, “useful” and “uselessness” average about 33,100 searches per month. The keyword “not useful” only averages 320 searches per month.

4)   Do not overwrite

“When writing with a computer, you must guard against wordiness.  The click and flow of a word processor can be seductive, and you may find yourself adding a few unnecessary words or even a whole passage just to experience the pleasure of running your fingers over the keyboard and watching your words appear on the screen.”

White and Strunk perfectly described my guilty pleasure. Make sure your content is focused. Search engines not only look for the search query within the body of your post, but it also looks for keywords that are commonly related to the search query. For example, if you’re writing about e-books, the search engine might also look for words like “e-reader,” “download,” “authors.” Keep that in mind next time you want to take a couple paragraphs to go on a tangent about pineapples. The search engine might get suspicious of the lack of related keywords and rank your page lower.

5)   Write with nouns and verbs

This is a pretty much a theme throughout the entire Elements of Style guide. Be specific. Those adverbs like “really” and “very” don’t add meaning to your sentence. Using too many pronouns can make it confusing as to who’s doing what.

Now, let’s say you’re writing a sentence to link to a video somewhere else on your blog. You may be tempted to write a link that says, “Click here.” Not only is that language bad for usability, it also does nothing for your SEO.

Instead of interrupting the flow and style of your writing with a “click here,” use specific nouns and verbs to indicate where the link really takes you. “Download file,” “Sponsors list,” and “Video of epic snowboarding fail,” are all much more useful links.

People want to know what they’re clicking on, and the more people that click on your links, the better SEO for the video. Those specific anchor tags will also help put more keywords in the blog post and help establish link relevancy, all important factors in SEO.


The Elements of Style was never meant to be a bible of SEO hacks. It provides guidelines for good writing, and that’s the real way to get an audience.

Strunk, William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.


Surviving Mobilegeddon: What you need to know about Google’s New Algorithm

A few weeks ago, Google announced a major change to its algorithm that will favor mobile-friendly websites in search results on mobile devices. Maybe you heard the word “mobilegeddon” buzzing around?  Google says this change will make it easier to get “relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices” when searching from a smartphone or tablet.

But what does this all really mean? And how will it actually impact your organization?

All hype aside, here’s what you need to know:

Understanding Mobile-Friendly Design

Simply put, mobile-friendly design aims to ensure that your website can be easily viewed from a mobile device.  This can be achieved through responsive design (website resizes based on the size of your screen) or a mobile specific site (a different template is used based on the device you’re using).

But why does this really matter? The verdict is unanimous; we’re no longer living in a one-screen world and that’s changed the way people use the internet.

Earlier this year, we shared just how big an impact the rise of smartphones and tablets is having on our clients’ web traffic, with around 32% of visitors coming from these devices. And industry trends mirror this statistic. In fact, last week, Google announced that more “Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan.”

Are you Mobile-Friendly?

First things first: Is your site mobile friendly?
More importantly, does Google think your site is mobile friendly?

In anticipation of the update, Google provided us with a handy tool that answers just that. Enter your website’s URL and wait for the moment of truth.

If you’re mobile friendly, congrats! Google will factor this into your rank, potentially improving where your site lands in Google search results on mobile devices.

If you’re not mobile friendly, hold back the tears. Google will tell you what’s wrong with your site and offers tips and suggestions for improving it. But before you dive in and make any major changes to your website, it’s important to understand the impact this has on your website traffic and what you can do about it.

Data is your Friend

While, overall, mobile traffic is certainly increasing, every case is unique. Hop on Google Analytics and look at the percentage of visitors who actually come to your site from mobile devices. More importantly, look at the percentage of mobile visitors accessing your site from Google.

Google Analytics will help you determine if a change in your ranking could result in a major loss in traffic for your organization or if it will go unnoticed. For example, one of our clients sees more than 25% of their traffic come from mobile search. For another client, mobile search results in less than 2% of their visitors. What you find can mean the difference between a potential loss of 20 visitors…or 2,000.

Note: Make sure you benchmark your traffic before and after the switch to see the real results. Keep in mind that Google’s rollout of this algorithm has not been instantaneous so it may be another week or two until you have clean data.

Know your Options

So you failed. And you’re expecting a change in your traffic. What can you do?

Mobile Redesign. The most obvious solution to Google’s algorithm change is a mobile redesign of your site. While there are several viable approaches,  we always advocate for a responsive design…and so does Google. While a mobile specific site will still meet Google’s requirements, they are not preferred.

Mobile sites can be easier to implement, but more difficult to manage (requiring maintenance of both desktop and mobile versions). A responsive site simply creates a more seamless experience for the user.  Content can be easily shared across devices, page load times are often faster, and there’s a single URL for all versions, which can all help improve your SEO.  Talk to a web developer and see what’s right for you.

Mobile Optimization. It’s not all about the platform. While having that mobile-friendly design is key, ensuring your content is optimized for mobile can be just as important.

From the technical side, make sure the content you’re adding to the site is playable on all devices. Don’t block CSS, JavaScript and image files, and focus on load speed. For example, content created in Flash won’t load on Apple’s mobile devices. If your visitors can’t use your site on mobile, having a mobile-friendly template is pointless.

Approach your content from a mobile perspective. Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Remember the screen size people will be viewing your site on and how much content will actually be visible at a given time.
  • Use short headlines with easily readable text.
  • Place clear calls to action and important content up top. Assume your visitors won’t scroll all the way to the bottom.
  • Can you touch it? Leave enough space between links where it’s actually usable on a touchscreen device.

Lessons Learned

This algorithm change was inevitable and the right direction for Google, the industry, and most importantly, the end-user.  Take advantage of this change and join the ranks of a mobile-friendly world today.  Your organization and your visitors will thank you.


Struggling with donations? 7 secrets to nonprofit marketing

The biggest misconception about nonprofit marketing is that you need money to make an impact. False. In fact, studies show that today’s Americans are more inclined than ever to look for ways to give. In 2014, the number of online donors increased by 15 percent.

Although Americans like to engage with social-conscious brands and seem to be giving more than ever, many nonprofits struggle with converting support into donations. Seventy-nine percent of consumers say they would donate if given the opportunity, but only 65 percent have actually done so this past year.

Here are seven ways to make sure your organization meets its donation goals this year:

1. Understand your audience

Understanding what motivates potential supporters is crucial to making emotional connections with them, thereby increasing donations.

A recent study by Charity Dynamics and NTEN found that the more individuals feel connected to organizations, the more likely they are to show support in the form of donations, volunteering, event participation and issue advocacy.

Put simply, once you know your audience, you’ll be able to craft donation asks that resonate with them, thus leading to increased financial support. Asking questions similar to the following can help you understand target publics:

  • What type of people care about our organization? Why do they care?
  • How old are people in our target audience? What social media platforms do they use?
  • Where does our target audience get their news? What are their interests?
  • What demographics are missing from our donation list? How can we turn those supporters into donors?

2. Create a plan

Hooking your audience with a compelling message is only the first step toward creating a loyal following. Unfortunately, however, most marketers stop here.

As many as 40 percent of marketers don’t back their messages with a defined content strategy—a plan for improvement based on audience reactions to stories, keywords, headlines, images, videos, infographics and general message organization. Maybe this is why 71 percent of Americans report being confused by the message companies use to talk about their efforts and impacts.

Now more than ever, it is important for websites to be optimized with messages that direct visitors to content that motivates donation, or conversion. Taking a pledge, signing a petition, making a donation, or subscribing to a listserv are all examples of conversions, and all are direct results of  a successful content strategy.

The best way to create a successful content strategy is to experiment with the above content types and adjust your content over time.

3. Implement with simple design.

Design matters. If your visitors have to click more than once to make a donation, you’re making them work too hard. Remember: visitors do not equal dollars. Attracting visitors to your website is only half the battle, the other half is directing their attention to the donation page. Ask yourself: Is it easy to find? Is it compelling? Does it make an emotional connection?

IUCN Red List does a great job of creating a user-friendly donation page with a compelling explanation to supplement the ask. Once a visitor makes the decision to donate, they are taken to a page that is aesthetically pleasing and free from clutter. The bright green “Donate” button contrasts well with the red navigation bar, and the site is optimized for mobile. This website gets an A+ for messaging, aesthetics and and user friendliness. Where’s my wallet?

IUCN donation page.JPG

5. Use levels and explanations

Creating donation levels can be crucial to the success of your campaign strategy, but is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Ask too little and you risk receiving less money than a donor originally anticipated giving; ask too much and you may scare people away.

A good strategy for determining your donation levels is to take a look at your recent donation history. What was your lowest gift last year? What was your highest gift last year?

Consider making the lowest donation level $5-$10 higher than your lowest gift to encourage larger giving. When determining your highest increment, use similar logic. If you rarely see gifts larger than $500 then don’t list $5,000 as your highest level. No matter what you choose, run giving levels for a test period, then stop, evaluate, and adjust accordingly.

SaturdayPlace.org does an excellent job at using donation levels to explain exactly where their donations go. Not only does the website allow you to choose the increment at which to donate, but the donation page also uses infographics and a scroll bar to explain exactly what each contribution will provide for the organization’s end users. Explanations help users visualize their gift coming to life, which makes them feel more connected to the cause, and ultimately, more likely to donate.

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 4.32.29 PM.png

4. Be safe with donors’ money, not sorry.

Although people are becoming more comfortable completing transactions on the internet and via smartphone, donors like to know that you’re taking their money seriously. Requesting a Trust or SSL seal for the bottom of a donation form can do wonders for improving the perceived security of your website.


Integrating online payment systems like PayPal can also boost perceived security of your organization and save donors valuable time and attention. PayPal securely stores customer information so they can skip forms and make contributions with a click of a button.


6. Reward donors.

People like gifts. Plain and simple. Gifts remind donors of the causes they care about and reinforce the notion that their contributions are appreciated. But appreciation can come in many shapes and sizes.

Too often we see nonprofits spend frivolously on swag thinking it’s the golden ticket to donors’ wallets when they can be saving hundreds of dollars rewarding supporters with free giveaways like e-books, exclusive web content, or even digital thank you letters.

Although traditional, WWF does a great job at rewarding donors. I mean, who doesn’t like free T-shirts and tiger totes?


7. Go mobile!

If you glean anything from this blog post, I hope it’s this: Go mobile! Studies show that responsive design doubles giving on mobile devices.

In addition, each usable email sent during an average nonprofit fundraising campaign nets $12.46 in revenue. This statistic holds a lot of weight when you consider how much mobile email is on the rise. By the end of 2018, worldwide mobile email users are expected to total over 2.2 billion—that’s 80 percent of all email users and more than 30 percent of the world. Woah.

Recent news about Google’s algorithm further backs the decision to go mobile. This week, Google announced its plans to make serious changes to the way it ranks websites. Starting April 21, Google’s algorithm began favoring responsive websites (sites that change format when resized on tablets and smartphones). Put simply, if your site isn’t optimized for mobile devices, you will likely see a hit to your ranking on mobile searches. Time for a redesign? We can help.  

Does your site pass the “mobile friendly” test? Use this tool to find out.


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Wearable Is the New Black: What Wearable Design means for Your Website

If you’ve visited a tech blog or even skimmed through your Twitter timeline recently, you probably know that wearable technology, like the Apple Watch or Google Glass, is making a huge splash in the tech industry.

You may be wondering how you could ever use a website the size of a postage stamp on a wearable. Well, research from Cisco says it’s possible. According to their discoveries, 9.1 percent of web traffic will derive from wearables by 2019.

Which raises the question: now that we’ve gotten the hang of designing responsive sites for tablets and mobile phones, how do we begin to implement responsive design for wearables? As a comparison, below are some examples of some of our clients’ our responsive sites, compared with the screen size for one of the Apple Watch models.


responsive3 responsive4 

While you may be unsure of the specifics (or even what exactly it is), you’ve likely experienced a tangible difference when navigating a responsive site.

Responsive design ensures that a website displays and performs well, whether on a phone, a desktop computer, or a tablet. A website with responsive design gives users access to web content on their phones or tablets without the clutter and excessive load times of a website only designed for desktop computers.

Because of their app-like features, responsive sites are faster and more user-friendly, making it easier for visitors to access information on the go.

This positive user experience goes a long way: users who visit responsive sites are more likely to develop long-lasting relationships with companies because of their attention to detail and consumer needs. This often translates into support and donations, as we’ve seen with many of our clients. It’s safe to say that responsive web design has become a new standard for web development.

What Responsive Means for Wearables

Because of the limited screen size, wearable technology takes responsive design to an entirely new frontier. But, at least for now, many wearable retailers like Apple are avoiding the issue of responsiveness by restricting web browser use.

Expect this to change. If wearables hope to become the new standard, retailers won’t be able to limit browser use for long. Access to information on the web is too important to consumers to ignore.

Without even marginal access to the web and online content, wearables stand no chance of changing the ways in which we value and prioritize technologies: the Apple Watch will be the next Google Glass, with the potential to change the industry, but none of the practicality to actually live up to it. This likely means that, in the coming years, websites will need to be optimized for computers, tablets, phones, and wearables.

The size of wearables presents as many new challenges for consumers as it does developers. For developers, the challenge will lie in prioritizing the content featured on wearables and coming up with user-friendly interfaces. For consumers, the challenge lies in productivity. My advice for consumers: wait out the gold rush until design trends establish a status quo. As for developers, now is the time to take advantage of this new creative challenge to design for the future and implement your wearable web design.

What Developers Can Expect for Wearable Web Design

Designing for new devices can be a challenging proposition; here are some things for developers to keep in mind when beginning the journey.

  • Cross-app optimization: Wearables are optimized for cross-app functionality, meaning users will likely be prompted to add articles and blog posts to reading lists for future viewing on other devices, rather than attempting to read them from tiny screens.
  • Capacity at the forefront: It’s crucial that web designers and application developers alike consider the limitations of hardware for first-generation wearables. Regardless of how beautiful a site may be, users will be less likely to interact if it means tethering themselves to a charging cord shortly thereafter.
  • Even less clutter: Check out an example of a potential site design for the Apple Watch. This serves as a great example for a way in which companies can maximize their screen real estate while still engaging users from the jump.



Email Marketing: 5 Big Mistakes

How many unread emails are in your inbox right now?

I’ve got Groupon, Linkedin, The Boston Globe, my alma mater, Ticketmaster, Rent the Runway, Zipcar, Proflowers, Bluehost, and Seamless. I could go on.

I’ll delete most without opening.
The ones I do open? I skim them. Five seconds, tops. Then I delete.
An email that actually convinces me to open, read, and click is pretty rare.

Well…I’m busy.

I’m not the only one. Your followers are just as likely to trash your email.
Open rates vary by industry, but, on average, it’s about 20 percent.

Even people who do open your emails aren’t reading every word. They’re just as likely to skim as I am.
Users spend only 15 to 20 seconds reading the emails they do open.

But email is very important. For every dollar spent, the average return on investment is about $44. And for nonprofit fundraising campaigns, each usable email can net $12.46 in revenue a year.

You need to send emails.

But how do you keep people from clicking the trash can? How do you get users excited about your emails? How do you get the results you want?


  • Have something to say.
  • Say it quickly.
  • Make it easy.

With that framework in mind, here are the five biggest mistakes I see time and time again, mistakes that cause my cursor to hover over delete:



I just laid down some enticing stats about how your email list helping to generate revenue. But pause for a one second.

Your email list is not an ATM.

Every email in that database of yours belongs to a real person, a real person who is kinda interested in your organization.

You can’t send out email after email asking people to donate or register or whatever. Before someone will take action for you, you need to build your relationship and demonstrate your value.

Take donations…
If I’m going to donate I have to go get my purse, dig through who-knows-what to find my wallet, pull out my card, type in a sixteen-digit number, type in my address…it’s a lot. I have to have some pretty strong feelings for you before I’ll donate.

Instead of just peppering your list with donation pleas, you need to give them what they want. Why did they sign up for your list in the first place? What do you have to say that is relevant to them? What do they care about? Think about what your audience wants and give it to them.

Once you’ve got that going, you can send an email asking users to take action. But keep a good proportion.
For every five emails you send, four should be content your audience cares about.

And speaking of sending…


Sending Too Much

Tuesday and Thursday are still considered the best days to send your email because the open rates tend to be higher. However, everyone got the message. These days are becoming very crowded. It’s worth exploring other days, looking at your data, and seeing what works best for your audience.

Every audience is different.
I’ve got some clients that send an email every single day. I’ve got others that send an email once a month.

How often does your audience want to receive emails from you? How often can you send an email without them becoming annoyed?

It really can depend.
But a good place to start? Once a week.

If you’re seeing tons of unsubscribes and a low open rate, try sending fewer emails.
Interested in sending more emails? If you have the content to support it, try a pilot program sending emails twice a week. After this has been going for a while, check your stats to determine what your audience likes.

But even within a single list you might have some users that want more and some users that want list.
Which is why list segmentation is essential.

You’re going to have users who want emails once a day. Some, once a week. Others, once a month. Many email marketing platforms allow you to have an unsubscribe page where users can select their frequency. When a user is annoyed that you’re blowing up their inbox, instead of unsubscribing entirely they can just select “once a month.” Instead of losing leads, you’re letting them tell you exactly what they want.


Subject line

Should I delete an email or open it?
Often, it depends on the subject line.

In your subject line you’re explaining what you have to say and why it’s relevant to your audience. You’re explaining, immediately, the value of your email and how it’s something the user wants to read.

So first and foremost, your subject line needs to be relevant.

It also needs to be the right length.

A good subject line is short – it gets to the point. It displays well in your user’s mail clients and allows a little bit of a content preview.
I recommend keeping your subject line under 50 characters, including spaces.

Also, keep in mind that your subject lines can be big triggers for automatic spam filters. Using all-caps or special characters (including exclamation points) increases the chance you’ll be marked as spam.


Too much text

Everyone is busy. Most users are going to spend only 15 seconds or so looking at your email.

So, it’s safe to assume your users are not going to read your four paragraphs of text. (And this is especially sad since it took you quite a while to write.)

You need to get to the point right away.
And yes – your email should have just one point.
Say what you need to say, say it briefly, and provide users with links to more info.

Assume your users are skimming. Break up your text to make it easier for them to get the most important information quickly. Headings and bullets are your best friends. Find a way to make your links stand out. Use buttons, video thumbnails, or contrasting colors. If the purpose of your email is to send the user to your website, they should be able to find that link immediately.

I should note that you should be careful about relying solely on images to draw attention. Some programs, like Outlook, block images automatically.


Ignoring Mobile

With mobile, load time is always a concern. If a page takes more than a few seconds to load, a user will give up. This is also true for emails on mobile.

What’s the number one way users are reading their email?
Their iphone.

Today, more email is read on tablets and phones than on computers.

So why are so many people ignoring mobile?

You’ve likely heard about responsive design – how a webpage resizes and realigns content to display well on any device. But fewer people are using responsive design in their emails.

Often, a design that looks great on a computer will be unreadable on a phone. Sometimes the fonts are too small, sometimes the columns are too narrow.

You likely have a responsive template – whether it’s custom or out-of-the-box, most designers are making email templates responsive. But if you’re managing your own content, it’s likely not responsive.

Which means you need to test. And test. And test. Before you send an email, make sure you can read it on mobile.