When writing for the web, it helps to understand that when we read online, we usually only skim; our eyes may scan a headline, then focus on the next few lines of text, before jumping to a subhead or caption. We’re not necessarily looking for in-depth information. Instead, we’re seeking answers to our immediate questions, before we move on to our next task. This method of navigating information calls for a shorter, more direct writing style.
Usability expert Steve Krug advises web writers, “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.” He admits that actually removing three quarters of a passage is probably extreme, but removing half is often a realistic goal.
In addition to your primary content, be sure to look at all of the writing on your site. Useless messages such as “Welcome to this website” should be deleted. Krug defines these inane introductions as “happy talk” and then adds, “Happy talk must die.” Instructions also tend to be too wordy. For instance, there’s no need to introduce a list of links or a form, since it’s obvious what you want the reader to do.
Being succinct is even more important with so many users now reading online content from a mobile device. Think about how your text would look if you were reading it on your phone and cut accordingly.
Get to the Point
In most academic assignments, you start with general observations and gradually narrow your focus until you reach a specific conclusion (the “inverted pyramid”). This approach won’t work online because online readers aren’t reading closely; they’re merely skimming for a relevant word, phrase, or link. So, instead of using the inverted pyramid style, put your thesis or main point up front and let readers decide whether to continue.
Break It Up
Break up long passages of text to help your readers find information quickly. Use subheadings and lists to divide texts into chunks of information. If you’re presenting data, consider using diagrams and charts.
Establish Key Words for SEO
Make sure readers can find your site by improving how it’s ranked by search engines—a process known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). One way to boost your site’s ranking is by using key words strategically. Choose a primary word or phrase that your readers would use in discussing your topic and then repeat it on your page or site, especially in page titles, headings, and subheadings. If possible, make your key words part of the page’s URL as well.
Subheadings offer an additional benefit when it comes to search engines. Because search engine algorithms assign more importance to headings than to text in a paragraph, placing your key words in subheadings can improve your page’s search engine rank, ensuring that more readers will see your content.
Choose key words that are meaningful to your readers; avoid industry jargon. For example, a writer working in the airline industry might write about “low fares,” but passengers are more likely to search for “cheap flights.”
When possible, write as though you are addressing an individual rather than an abstract group. Make your topic relevant to the reader.
Ex. Vague Message to Group:
This article will help students improve their study habits.
Ex. Direct Message to Individual:
Learn to study more effectively.
What do you want readers to do once they’ve engaged with your content? Offer suggestions using active verbs.
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Remember that most readers come to a website looking for particular information or hoping to perform some activity, such as signing up for a class or contributing to a cause. Help your readers achieve their goals.
If you’re working on one page of a larger website, be sure to use the same terminology and format as the rest of the site. If one page lists job openings under the heading “Jobs,” the next page shouldn’t list the same openings under “Career Opportunities.” It may help to create a style sheet outlining things like which terms to use, what to capitalize, when to use bold, and so on. You can also have one person review the site periodically for consistency.
Plan to update the content to your webpage or website regularly. Regular updates are particularly important if the information you provide changes frequently or for certain kinds of online content, such as blogs, which are meant to be added to on a regular schedule. Of course, if your site allows comments or feedback, you’ll need to keep up with those reader interactions, as well.
But even seemingly static online content, such as a page on a historical event or figure, can start to seem outdated quickly, so plan to make updates. Frequent additions and modifications can also improve your site’s ranking by search engines, which tend to favor more active sites. Therefore, it’s best to establish a regular schedule for updating information and performing maintenance, such as checking for broken links.
The need for maintenance is a good reason to post only the essentials; you don’t want to post content if you can’t maintain it.
Design for All
You (or your web designer) should build your site to accommodate the needs of all users, including those with disabilities. Doing so will make your website easier for everyone to use. For instance, you should supply a written transcript of any audio content on your site; that will allow users with a hearing impairment to access the information, but it will also assist anyone using your site who doesn’t have access to speakers.
Any images you use on your page should have alt attributes, which are text descriptions that appear on a user’s screen whenever an image won’t render properly; they’re used by screen-reader software that makes websites accessible to anyone with a visual impairment. (Search engines also note these attributes when indexing images, so they’re another place to employ your site’s key words.)
You should also avoid the phrase “click here” in your links. Many online readers no longer click; they tap a screen, speak a command, or move a cursor with a wheel or a keyboard. Other users may employ assistive devices such as a puff stick rather than a mouse. Besides, your readers know how to handle web links. Use a phrase that describes the content readers will reach by following the link, not how you want them to get to it. For example, instead of saying, “Click here to read the summer issue of our newsletter,” use one of the following:
Ex. Read the summer issue of our newsletter.
Ex. Newsletter, summer 2015.
Tables present a particular challenge to anyone who uses a screen reader to hear web pages spoken aloud. Most screen readers simply read the contents of a table from left to right and top to bottom, as though the table’s divisions weren’t there at all. Consider writing a brief summary of the table.
Ex. This table shows a gradual increase in new home sales in College Station, Texas, in 2015, as opposed to the sharp decline nationwide for the same time period.
How formal your language needs to be when writing online depends on your audience and purpose. A personal blog entry may be quite relaxed, while the official site of a charitable organization will be less so. But remember that, no matter what the content, egregious errors in grammar and spelling, as well as inaccurate information, will hurt your credibility.
You should also note that the rules you’ve learned about giving credit to your sources in academic writing also apply when you’re writing online. You may not need to offer the full citations you’d use in an academic paper, but you still need to acknowledge material you found in other places.
Halvorson, Kristina. Content Strategy. New Riders, Berkeley, 2010.
Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think. New Riders, Berkeley, 2000.
McGovern, Gerry. Killer Web Content. A & C Black Publishers Ltd, London, 2006.
Walter, Aarron. Building Findable Websites. New Riders, Berkeley, 2008.