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Has Google grouted the curiosity gap?

Google on Tablet

Has Google grouted the curiosity gap?

When people start to read an article, particularly if it’s a news or informative piece, they do so hoping that they will know something by the time they have finished that they didn’t know before. This distance between what they know and hope to know is called the ‘curiosity gap’.

Copywriters, journalists and anyone in content marketing should be aware of the need to bridge that gap, and how to do it. In modern media, writers like to keep the gap unbridged for as long as they can get away with, but are they always doing this in the right way?

The term, or at least the concept behind it, has been around for decades, but the highly competitive world of online media means that even traditional media has started using it in ways they never used to. As an example, if you Google the question ‘When does the World Cup start?’ you will see that recognised newspapers like The Daily Express, The Mirror and The i are playing the game.

Screenshot 1

Aware that people often Google in a questioning format, they are setting their title tags in ways that mimic the way people search. You could argue that The Express has done the best job of the three because even the snippet below the title doesn’t answer the question, so you have to click through to the article to find it. The Mirror and The i both tell us in the snippet that it begins on June 14th, although we may still want to click through for a more detailed answer.

Google, of course, is playing the role of a very efficient tiler and trying to keep the curiosity gap watertight with its answer boxes that appear before any of the results. In this case, a table shows the dates and times of the first few games.

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Nevertheless, many people still prefer to read an article, and are aware that Google’s answer boxes are not always accurate. The algorithms often try to pick the answer to your question out of an article, but sometimes they take it out of context and give an answer that makes little sense without reading the article in full.

Traditionally, the worst thing a writer can do is fill in the curiosity gap right away. For example, if you were to write a 500-word piece to answer the question of ‘when does the World Cup start?’, it’s advisable not to open the piece like this:

“The World Cup 2018 starts on Thursday, June 14th with the opening match between host nation Russia and rank outsiders Saudi Arabia kicking off at 4:00pm (GMT) at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.”

Why? Because that answers the exact question the reader was looking for within 33 words. However brilliant your remaining 467 words are, many readers will stop reading there and then, having had their curiosity gap instantly filled.

However, the ultimate goal now, perhaps ahead of even being the top-ranked answer, is to be the site Google uses for its answer box to a particular search term. Google may see that slightly ham-fisted opening paragraph as the perfect answer to the question, so should we actually be answering as clearly, quickly and concisely as possible?

I would say a clear answer is very important, both in terms of quality writing and satisfying search engines, but you should still do what you can to get your readers reading, and delaying the nitty-gritty details until later in the piece is a good idea.

Recently, I’ve even noticed many cookery sites employ this style of leaving the most important details until late on in the piece, with some of them doubling up as lifestyle blogs. With this page, for example, look at how much preamble we get. By the time we get to the important matter of the ingredients and cooking method, ‘Erica’ has pretty much told us her life story, but if all that was buried deeper in the page, we probably wouldn’t read it, nor would we see the pictures of her delicious-looking cake. She’s been clever enough to realise that the blog about the cake is not what people have come to the site to read, but it is a relevant supplement to the recipe and makes the article more of a complete piece – thus helping both its readability and rankability.

Perhaps most importantly of all, don’t make the curiosity gap so wide that there’s nothing on the other side. Last year, we wrote about the dangers of an article not delivering what its headline promised, using a Liverpool Echo article about Easter eggs as an example. The technique of not answering the question may get the reader to digest the full article, but it will also harm your future relationship with that reader and damage your site’s reputation as a reliable and high-quality resource. Too many of these fake promises, and sites will start to lose visitors.

John Murray

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