Writing for the Web 101
Generating content for your website is a critical aspect of having a site that meets the needs of your customers and clients. But writing for the web is very different than writing a research report, an article, or other type of printed document. While the audiences might be the same, the environment and your readers’ purposes may not be.
You’ve probably heard the statistic that you have about 10 seconds of your website visitor’s attention until they decide they can find what they need here or leave. So people are not reading your webpages, they’re scanning to figure out if this site or page is the right place for them to be.
Whether or not you have the services of a professional content strategist or copywriter on hand, you may be the best person to write your website copy (or at least the first draft). You know your company, your offering and your market landscape the best. For those cases, here are some general guidelines that will make writing for your website easier, your intentions more clear, and your visitors happier.
Use the inverted pyramid news writing style
Summarize the page’s content in the first paragraph. In the next paragraph or so, you can provide supporting details with the most important details first followed by the lesser ones.
The first 11 letters of each chunk of text are the most read and people often skip whole words. Think about the words people would search on to find your content and then use those words in your headings and in the first few sentences of your paragraphs.
Headings should provide useful information about the content. “Welcome” is not as descriptive as “Looking for a lightweight mountain bike? We have three new carbon frames just in.”
Keep it short
Create information hierarchy. Use techniques like accordion functionality, jump links, or inner page navigation to control the amount of content a visitor first sees. This will prevent information overwhelm and give them the ability to drill down for more info if they want it.
Chunk it out. Break up long paragraphs into smaller ones. One-sentence paragraphs are fine. One word paragraphs are fine. Alternate very short paragraphs with longer ones to create a nice rhythm. This also makes the page much easier to read on mobile devices.
Swap out complicated words with simple, short ones. Believe it or not, the use of short words actually increases the perception of intelligence and improves retention.
Use contrast in size, color, and typography between your headings and paragraphs to enhance readability and scanability.
Use bulleted lists. Only use numbered lists if you’re showing a specific order or ranking.
Then cut it in half
People read 25% slower on screen than do on paper and most read only about 20% of the content on the page. You can usually cut out half of the amount of words you’d use in a printed article and still have meaningful text while increasing comprehension levels.
Don’t click here
Rather than writing “click here,” which is not at all helpful for a visitor or search engines, highlight keywords in a sentence to form your link text. Most likely these keywords are just the ones that people are looking for.
Test your content
You don’t need a fancy usability lab to do this. Grab your mom, grab a friend, and ask them to read through the content. Even if they’re not your ultimate audience, they should be able to catch any glaring errors and obvious points of confusion. A rule of thumb: after 5 seconds of looking at your homepage, someone should be able to tell you what your site is generally about.
Good content is important to improve comprehension, elicit action from your visitors, support your viral marketing efforts, and improve your search ranking. It’s important to keep it fresh and relevant. If you have a good website content management system, you’ll have the flexibility to continue to tweak your content for improvements. Now will you have the time to do that? That’s a topic for another day.