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Improving the Reach of Our Science: People Can't Use What They Can't Find

Dan Majka, senior cartographer/analyst, and Tara Schnaible, usability analyst 2/11/2013

6 ways to improve search results for blog authors, content creators, and site managers
How can we get more attention for the Conservancy’s science?
Would you believe that the answer could be found in a dirt path? Or in a men’s restroom?

Putting Information Where People Will Find It

How many times have you seen a dirt path cutting through a patch of grass? Known as desire paths to landscape architects, these grooves are created when people repeatedly take the shortest path between two points, while ignoring the sidewalk thoughtfully designed by the landscape architect.
Not surprisingly, humans take the easiest and most efficient route that meets our needs. This tendency has huge, often overlooked, implications for how we distribute and communicate our science. Simply put, we cannot control the path someone will take to find information. But we can understand his or her path, and put information along their way.
Suppose you work for a partner agency, and your boss gives you an assignment to collect some background information on a conservation project. Where do you start? Do you go to nature.org or the Conservation Gateway? Probably not. If you’re like most folks, the easiest, most efficient path is to go to Google and click on a couple links that come up on the first page. How can we distribute our data to take advantage of this?
One way is to improve the search engine optimization (SEO) of our conservation data, documents and communications so people can find them easier. Most websites receive up to 50% of their traffic from search engines, and nearly all clicked links come from the first page of results. Yet if we search for topics and systems important to the Conservancy, our content is often nowhere to be found.
I tried searching for one of my favorite Conservancy tools, ClimateWizard, without using its name. Searching for the terms, climate maps and climate change scenario maps, I found ClimateWizard as the 48th result, while it did not place at all for the term climate change data. Fortunately, ClimateWizard was ranked fifth for the term “climate change maps.” The reason ClimateWizard ranks poorly for related keywords has nothing to do with the quality of the tool. Instead, the main reason is simply because it does not have much keyword-laden text describing its utility.
How about a search for sustainable fisheries, one of our global priorities? WWF has the sixth-ranked search result, Conservation International has the thirteenth. To find a Conservancy article, you have to click through to the 53rd search result.
While advanced SEO can be a technical endeavor, there are a number of easy, best practices we can follow to make our work more findable by the public. These practices can be summarized as: write high-quality content using your audience’s language, and format it using correct HTML.

Making the Most of a Captive Audience

If we can’t control the path people take to find information, why don’t we put our data in their way?
I spotted these waterless urinals (see photo on next page) at an Arizona staff retreat. Meticulously mounted above each was a placard describing their importance for water conservation. Look a little closer — does anything about the signs look off to you?
Waterless urinals with water conservation signs. Image credit: Dan Majka/TNC.
The signs weren’t mounted more than four feet above the ground!
But…uh…what does this have to do with science communication?
It illustrates the opportunity missed when we fail to make the most of a captive audience. The sign touting the water conservation benefits of the urinals could have had virtually 100% readership had the installer placed the signs at an appropriate level for
their audience. How often do we put compelling content where our audience is looking? When we do have an audience’s attention, how often do we give them something to remember?
Wikipedia has the sixth highest traffic of any website, and is one of the first results to show up in a web search. Why don’t we improve Wikipedia pages for topics most important for the Conservancy, and link back to a Conservancy webpage when relevant? Testing shows websites are used 30% more when visitors are referred from Wikipedia.
Contrary to what you might be thinking, this isn’t something that our digital/web folks should be responsible for. Anyone can edit Wikipedia pages, and it only takes a couple of minutes to learn how. Whether it’s a specific ecological system or geography we work in, a conservation planning or analysis technique, or an environmental policy, thousands of topics have pages on Wikipedia related to our work. Check a couple out — are they telling the whole story?
I recognize that we don’t have a way to reward the spread of our ideas on third-party websites, and certainly wouldn’t recommend pumping major resources into such an effort. But if we truly care about winning hearts and minds, and there are existing websites that already receive a lot of viewership, shouldn’t we consider putting our data where people are already looking?
Effective conservation in the 21st century requires us not only to produce great science, but also to deliver it efficiently to those who need it most. By nurturing a sense of empathy towards our audience, and bringing our data and ideas to them — instead of expecting them to come to us — we can improve the reach and effectiveness of our science.
For some simple steps to improve reach, we’ve compiled the following list:

6 ways to improve search results for blog authors, content creators, and site managers


1. Use the language of your audience in titles and descriptions of reports, data and blog posts. Translate TNC and technical jargon.

2. Use phrases of 2-5 words that include keywords relevant to your topic throughout your content. 

3. Use variations of keywords and phrases throughout a web page or blog post.

4. Insert keywords into proper headings to break up your text. In HTML, headings look like this: <h1>, <h2>, <h3>. Google weights keywords within headings higher, but it has to understand where headings are on your page. <h1> is usually reserved for a page’s title, while <h2> and lower break up a page into sections, like report headings.

5. Include a page summary using the <meta name=”description”> tag in the page’s header. Google will usually display the 156 characters as the summary for each webpage when listing search results.

6. Use alternative text for images (e.g. <img alt=”map of Arizona grasslands”>.This serves two functions: 1) it makes an image’s content understandable to those with visual disabilities, and 2) improves the image’s chance of appearing in Google’s image search.

Colborne, G. 2010. Simple and Usable Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design. New Riders Press.
Norman, D. 2010. Living with Complexity. The MIT Press.
Redish, G. 2007. Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works. Morgan Kaufman Publishers.
Yahoo. 2010. The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World. St Martin’s Griffin Press.
Photo credit: Flickr user Moff via a Creative Commons license