The Importance of Context in Content

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The Importance of Context in Content

I’ve read two books in the past few weeks, and have been amazed at the difference they make in my understanding of two subjects: Grammar and Algebra. I wish I have had access to these two books while in school, as I know they would have made an impact on my learning and understanding of the subject matter.

I hate x
I used to be really good in Math, until I met Algebra. Then I learned to hate x with a passion. I never understood why endless equations were so important, or how it would affect my life – why are we learning all of this? If I want to find out how many cans of paint are necessary to paint a room, I’ll buy four cans and return one if I don’t use it. That’s what Home Depot is for.

Traditionally, algebra classes are simply about performing harder and more complex equations, and I remember my teachers getting frustrated with me, as I simply did not understand algebra. I think the main reason is that I didn’t understand “why.” Why are we doing this – what does it prove? What am I learning?

Learning the “Why”understanding the why
Enter a friend’s recommendation of a book, “Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.” And now I have to ask myself – why don’t we start math classes with history lessons? Why do we not learn about why these equations were done in the first place and what they were meant to prove? This book showed the history of zero as mathematicians, philosophers and scientists either embraced or refused it.

More than Math
The author showed how zero challenged all areas of life; mathematics, theology, science, philosophy – all affected by the principle of zero. And so was my conception of algebra. By learning the history and context of this amazing subject, and its influence throughout history in so many disciplines, I learned to appreciate what I once hated, the infamous x.

The second book was a fascinating romp into the formation of the English language – Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way.” Now, I love English and language studies to begin with, as that has aligned perfectly with understanding search marketing and semantics algorithms, but this book (again) showed the historical; changes and influences upon our modern language.

I learned to never split an infinitive.
I wish I had been armed with some of this knowledge as I defended my papers from the dreaded grammar errors that seemed to dominate my purpose. Knowing that the “rule” to never split infinitive was the result of an 18th century bishop who decided that English should be like Latin. Never mind that English is not a product of Latin, as are Spanish, French or Italian, and is it impossible to split an infinitive in Latin because the verb and infinitive are hopelessly joined together in the same word. (to speak = hablar. You can’t split the Spanish word “hablar” because the construction of the verb and infinitive are one and the same)

Yet, somehow, the romance of making the English language reflect the Latin language because of the love affair with the enlightened Greeks and Romans stuck, and now fourth graders have to beaten into submission to comply with random phrasing that is nothing like our normal verbal patterns of speech.
If you need an example, try rephrasing the heading of this section, “I learned to never split an infinitive.” In a way that sounds natural. You can’t do it without sounding like a pretentious grammar stickler.

If I had known these things in my youth, I could have argued up another letter grade – or at least befuddled the teacher to an extent that she may question the roots of grammar for the reminder of her life. At the very least I would have been satisfied to be an irritating pest to the teachers that constantly reinforced ancient writing rules that aren’t reflected in our natural speech patterns.

Bringing it together: Context Builds Understanding
In all areas, knowing the historical accomplishments and milestones always promotes understanding. Our modern educational system is not based on presenting this context. I would think that all classes should start with a history lesson of the factors that have shaped the modern understanding – how we got here. I do this in my marketing classes. It provides context as to why there is such crappy advice about search engine optimization on the internet.

Context determines everything. The same content can be presented on two different websites. However, the context of how that content is presented will cause two very distinct reactions. The readability and accessibility of one will usually trump the other, simply based on the context in which it was presented.Context derived from links, content and architecture

Understanding how information works online and how it is viewed by both humans and machines helps to create an understanding of the online marketing world. Understanding the history of online communications can help a marketer realize that social media will last much longer than any campaign, and that he had better be ready for the long-term investment, rather than a short term campaign.

Simply focusing on one part of marketing, say search engine optimization, (or in other words, the equations), without including other factors of usability, analytics, design, marketing and customer testing is neglecting a serious part of a successful campaign. Everything must be done in context in order to fully reach a targeted audience effectively and build a long-term association.

Related Articles:
The Difference Between the What and the Why
Content vs Creative
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About the Author:

Matt has taught Google employees how to understand and use Google Analytics, consulted with Experian on how to present data, developed online marketing training for both Proctor and Gamble and Johnson & Johnson and presented analytics methodologies to Disney, ABC & ESPN. As founder of SiteLogic, Matt teaches marketers how to create measurable and profitable strategic marketing plans.


  1. Jane August 2, 2008 at 8:42 pm - Reply

    I too truly enjoyed Bill Bryson’s book, The Mother Tongue. I read it years ago and it changed the way I think about language. He made the history and context of the English language accessible. (If you like that one, you should also read Bryson’s “The Short History of Nearly Everything” – he puts many historical facts into context in an enjoyable way.)

    I also like how you applied context to web design. Sites are so much more than content. Context gives the content more meaning than just the words on the page.

  2. Linda P. Morton August 14, 2008 at 10:55 pm - Reply


    I have two degrees in English, and I didn’t know where the rule about splitting infinitives came from.

    Maybe I should read your book.

  3. Dr Saxe August 21, 2008 at 8:16 pm - Reply

    Any time a teacher can make a subject interesting and relevant to a child’s life, will make such a big difference. And all it takes is one rotten teacher to ruin a child for a life time.
    I have a young niece that will be taking pre-algebra this up and coming school year and I can only hope that she gets a good teacher that will make this challenging subject some how exciting and interesting enough to make it through the year with success!
    Dr Saxe

  4. A dust collecting fool September 2, 2008 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    Learning the history of your subject is a great begining to a deeper understanding.Online marketing has changed as is constantly changing we now have social media. I also believe in a more whole website approach to marketing not just focusing on SEO.

  5. Good Therapy September 12, 2008 at 7:59 am - Reply

    I felt the same about math and I thought I would never use it. I realized as I participated in more projects that I could use a lot of the math. For example, I am a new home owner and doing different home improvement projects. I think it’s a great idea to give a little history in math classes so that kids can understand the importance of the math.

  6. John at WebsiteBuildingBiz September 14, 2008 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    I’m reminded how lucky I was to get my hands on a copy of One Two Three…Infinity. If anyone enjoys books about putting math into context, this is a great one but about halfway through they’ve gone into time travel theories and quantum mechanics so I’ve never been able to fully finish it.

    Put everything together and it makes more sense, makes the work easier to do and more productive. Good SEO advice from an unlikely perspective!

  7. Chris October 1, 2008 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    I think the importance of context will become increasingly apparent as Google sharpens search algorithms. I also agree that SEO is not what it is all about. There are so many other facets that web site owners must focus on. Like content – thanks for the great content!

  8. Roger Hamilton October 7, 2008 at 7:58 am - Reply

    That was an interesting read. SEO and its methods will change gradually and I agree that contenxt is defintely missed out or the lack thereof in content. I should pick up one of the books you mentioned.

  9. KeeKee October 11, 2008 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    Do you realize what a great teacher you are? I never come to your site and not learn something. Great work.

  10. Sunglasses October 20, 2008 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Your last paragraph is a very powerful statement. Indeed many website owners are preoccupied with PR and search engine optimization that they lost the proper direction on how their website should be treated. We build websites for people, not for search engines. Yes, SEO is important, but it’s not the bread and butter of the overall success of an online business.

  11. Myron Tay November 19, 2008 at 4:55 am - Reply

    Extremely true. I have a client that wants optimization services but refuses to change anything she can actually see onscreen (including the body).

  12. Janet December 2, 2008 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    One must think long-term in order to build a web presence and reach targeted audience. It is a lot of work but being smart about it cuts down some of the useless things we all do.

  13. Jim Heim January 27, 2009 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    I agree. Context is huge. You have to really know a subject matter. And not just a niche, I mean train yourself in the industry so you can be relevant and actually know what the context IS. That’s half the battle.

  14. DTs Flash Drive Blog April 19, 2009 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    I can totally relate to your math experience. However, as often in life, sometimes what we don’t get at first makes sense at a later point and comes in handy. It’s ironic but also conmforting to know nothing is a waste. Yes, context is important and the language that conveys it but to me the best way to present that is with pictures. Think about it, imagery is what really brings a page or post to life.

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