A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Your About Page Is a Robot

Like the rest of your website, your About page is a robot. You load it up with information, give it directives, and send it out to represent you in the world. Although forums, blogs, and other two-way forms of online communication help bring humans back into the equation, you’re pretty much stuck with the robot model for relatively static essentials like the About page—but you do get to decide what kind of robot you want to use.

Why the About page matters

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The About page exists to:

  • provide visitors with essential facts they need to interact with your company,
  • give visitors context for the information they find elsewhere on the site,
  • differentiate your organization from others like it, and
  • give visitors a reason (several reasons, ideally) for doing whatever it is you want them to do: contact a sales lead, join a campaign, send money, buy a widget.

Important stuff, and not too tricky, but while most organizations now recognize this page as an important opportunity to communicate, many still don’t. But why not?

Because they’re using the wrong kind of robot.

Meet our heroine, Ms. Patience. She’s selecting service companies to send an RFP to; as part of her prep work, she needs to get a little information about the Knock-Doodle Corporation. Little does she know that her quest will lead her through the gallery of useless machinery. First up: a bucket of bolts we like to call Dumb-bot.


Dumb-bot meets information requests with a frozen metal smile and a blank-eyed stare. Dumb-bots can be a little unnerving, and certainly don’t serve anyone’s marketing goals. Let’s take a look.

Ms. Patience: Excuse me, I’m looking for a little information about your company.

Dumb-bot: [Stares straight ahead]

Ms. Patience: For starters, I need to know what you do.

Dumb-bot: The Knock-Doodle Corporation is a global services and solutions provider.

Ms. Patience: All right… But what, exactly, do you do?

Dumb-bot: [Falls over]

Ms. Patience: [Blinks]

Dumb-bot in action

Ask.com has a friendly enough About page. The copy is a little vague, but it’s useful—until you select the Company Overview link and get shunted to what looks like a different website (new logo in the corner, new company name, same domain…) with only the following to guide you:

IAC Search and Media delivers world-class information retrieval products through a diverse portfolio of Web sites, portals and downloadable applications. IAC Search and Media’s search and search-based portal brands include: [list of companies]

We know you’re in there, Dumb-bot. The blandness of the copy is even more jolting when you’ve just come from Ask.com’s warm, friendly bubble, but the real killer is that it provides nothing like the “company overview” we were promised.

You may also have run into the Dumb-bot 2000, a more sophisticated model that holds up a sign reading “over there” before returning to its mechanical stupor. This advanced version is visible on pages like Continental Airlines’ About page, where the company apparently has room to link to resume-writing tips, but not to include even a brief description of who Continental is, what it does, and what makes it different from other companies. Contrast it with Delta’s About page, which provides a concise overview and a more judicious selection of links.

So what’s the story? Does Dumb-bot’s menacingly bland exterior hide a malicious intelligence dedicated to world domination? Is it the result of someone (or a committee of someones) failing to recognize the importance of serving user needs? Perhaps… but I believe I’ve discovered the secret: these bots are actually Roombas that have been accidentally “repurposed” into a marketing role. Given that, I think they’re doing a reasonably good job.

The Sales-o-matic

Not so with our next mechanical menace. If you’ve ever had the educational experience of ordering service from a U.S. cable or telephone company, you’ve probably run into one of these. Sometime in the last five years, a bright-eyed business prodigy realized that long hold-times on customer service lines provided a captive audience—the perfect chance for cheesy recorded sales pitches that drone on and on while your neck cramps from holding the phone with your shoulder and an hour of your life drizzles into the slime-encrusted maw of the telecommunications beast. Ew.

Less egregious, but still irritating, are the answering systems that require you to wait through a ten-second recording of the company’s tagline before explaining how you can get the information you need. An About page cluttered with subjective superlatives and self-congratulatory descriptions is just about as effective: your visitor asks for real information and you delay them with marketing fluff instead.

Let’s test it on Ms. Patience.

Sales-o-matic: Good afternoon! You’ve reached the global headquarters of the Knock-Doodle Corporation, where world-class business solutions create real-time advantages! We are committed to providing you with the best possible service by living our mission of the best possible service!

Ms. Patience: Ahh, hi.

Sales-o-matic: Do you like to save money? If your answer is yes, I’d like to tell you more about our—

Ms. Patience: Actually, can just you tell me how many employees you have?

Sales-o-matic: Knock-Doodle Corporation is the first solutions provider to truly embrace the global economy. 46,874 subject-matter experts strong, Knock-Doodle Corporation offers a deep pool of intellectual capital grounded in our worldwide—

Ms. Patience: [Drowns the sales bot in a pool of its own intellectual capital]

Web users are not a captive audience. Don’t treat them like one.

The lawbot

And now, the opposite of the sales bot. This one shows up almost exclusively on the internet, possibly because anyone who tried it offline would get kidney-punched. In response to requests for general information, the lawbot spits out the legal equivalent of machine language, overwhelming the reader with information that’s irrelevant or unimportant to the vast majority of visitors.

I’ve been picking on relying on Deloitte for examples since the days when their About page included portraits straight out of a funeral parlor. Here’s the way the first paragraph of their About page begins:

Deloitte refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, a Swiss Verein, its member firms, and their respective subsidiaries and affiliates.

Not really a rip-roaring start, but it gets better, right? Well, they do offer a few chunks of useful information in the next sentence, but here’s how that same paragraph ends:

Services are not provided by the Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Verein, and, for regulatory and other reasons, certain member firms do not provide services in all four professional areas.

And the next two paragraphs:

As a Swiss Verein (association), neither Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu nor any of its member firms has any liability for each other’s acts or omissions. Each of the member firms is a separate and independent legal entity operating under the names “Deloitte,” “Deloitte & Touche,” “Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu,” or other related names.

In the U.S., Deloitte & Touche USA LLP is the member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, and services are provided by the subsidiaries of Deloitte & Touche USA LLP (Deloitte & Touche LLP, Deloitte Consulting LLP, Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP, Deloitte Tax LLP and their subsidiaries) and not by Deloitte & Touche USA LLP.

That’s the whole page. As you can see, they can barely contain their own enthusiasm. Let’s just let Ms. Patience lie on the divan with a cool cloth over her eyes, shall we?

The funny thing is, back in 1999, Deloitte’s About page copy wasn’t so bad (and had a better URL, too). They used quotes from real people and talked about concrete achievements; an updated version of that copy (with better photography) would be worlds better than their current trance-inducing legal litany.

An About page should provide context and necessary facts, but should also give the reader compelling reasons to do what you want them to do. Legal text doesn’t do that. It can go on its own page—or at least get shoved down to a place where it can be safely ignored.

Taking stock

Now that you’ve been introduced to the most irritating of web-bots, have another look at your About page. Does it achieve all the goals outlined above—without making any distressing noises or turning your visitors away screaming? If not, let us consider the qualities that will make your About page something useful to you and to the visitor:

Intelligence and consideration

In each of these above examples, the real problem is a lack of attention to the user’s needs and the way that the organization’s communication goals can be met while serving those needs. The first and most important way to improve your About page is to think very carefully about what your visitors—members, clients, potential employees, members of the press, investors, current employees, donors, or fans—need and want from your About page. Personas are a useful tool for this sort of thing, but even a quick brainstorming session should produce results better than the ones we’ve seen above.

Once you know what your visitors want, make it easy to find. Want to keep your “press room” in its own section? Fine, but link to it from your About page anyway. Don’t hide things or force users to respect your internal organizational divisions. Give them what they need.

Distinct personality

Resist the temptation to be bland. You need to convey important facts clearly and concisely, but make sure you also talk about the actual humans who make up both your organization and the group it serves. Quotes are great and good photos are helpful. A natural, friendly, confident writing voice does much to humanize your site, and the About page is an ideal place to demonstrate great writing skills, even if the rest of your site needs to be quite technical.

On the other hand, resist the urge to be irritating. Imagine yourself using the text of your About page in a conversation with a sharp colleague from another company. Would you really say it that way? Puffed-up language that would be out of place in an intelligent, one-on-one conversation probably doesn’t belong on your About page—or really, anywhere else on your site. (But let’s dream small for now.)

A laser gun

Instead of clogging your About page with subjective fluff, use verifiable accomplishments to make your case. Don’t say that your company is a leader—show it leading, via recognized awards, case studies, or useful statistics. Instead of saying that your non-profit helps people, point to concrete accomplishments and recognition.

But what if you don’t have evidence? If your organization is relatively new or if it operates in a sector in which concrete accomplishments are hard to define, you have a trickier job, but the theory still holds. Real leaders don’t need to wrap themselves in banners proclaiming their leadership; clear, confident, user-focused communication goes a long way toward establishing credibility. Incomplete, ill-considered communication does the opposite.

And the winner is…

So now we have a smart, considerate, well-armed robot with a distinct personality. Oh, and great language skills are crucial… think less Data, more Bishop. Select the right robot and tune it up a little, and your About page will seem a lot more, well, human.

And then Ms. Patience can finally send you that RFP and take a well-deserved vacation.

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