Top ten tips on writing for the web
The best web content is like an ambassador for your business. It carries your messages out into the community, builds your reputation and wins over your ideal customers. Here are some of the tools and techniques I use.
1. Understand your user’s environment
People reading your web content are surrounded by distractions. They might be reading your content in a noisy office, with a meeting in ten minutes, and a busy home life. On the computer screen itself, they’ll often have several windows open. On top of this, online content is inherently more difficult to absorb than printed content.
What does this mean for you? In a nutshell: you can’t expect users to have the zen-like concentration and patience you had when you wrote your website. As web usability guru Steve Krug puts it, ‘Don’t make me think.’ If you understand this fundamental fact about your users’ environment, the rest will follow.
2. Break your content up into digestible chunks
Some sites use their homepage to tell users everything there is to know about the business. The effect is like sitting next to an overly talkative stranger on the plane. It’s exhausting. Research shows that, on average, most people only read 20% of the content on web pages. Are you filling your site with information that isn’t being read?
There is definitely a place for in-depth and detailed information on the web, if it’s relevant. But this place is usually deeper inside your site (eg, Home > Resources > Articles > War and Peace). Use your homepage and landing pages to give summaries or samples, then link to more detailed content. If users want to find out more, they’re in control. The evidence shows that giving users this control makes them more likely to prefer using your site.
3. Make it easy for people to navigate through your site
Imagine your local supermarket suddenly rearranges everything. Now, flour, chicken breasts and detergent are all on the one shelf. What’s more, the labels on the aisles have been changed to obscure phrases like ‘innovative food solutions. ’
Your content should be organised into logical categories, with similar information grouped together. Each category should be clearly labelled so that each page ‘does what it says on the tin.’ You can test the labels you’ve given your pages by showing the labels to a friend and asking them what they would expect to find there.
4. Identify your users’ top tasks, and make completing them easy
Knowing your users’ motivations and needs is the core of any marketing exercise. With the internet, though, we have to be even more focussed: what tasks do your users want to complete on your site? Perhaps it’s finding out background information about your business. Or buying something online. Whatever that task is, make sure the directions and features of your website are prominently displayed. Include a call to action at the end of each section: ‘contact us’, ‘buy now’, or ‘read more.’
5. It’s not about you – sell the benefits
Some web content is inward-looking, with long paragraphs about how amazing Company X is. Most users aren’t interested in this information. They want to know what’s in it for them. What would you do if the check-out person at the supermarket began with a five minute spiel about the history of their store, where they were located…? Avoid the ‘me-me-me’ trap by describing how your business meets people’s needs. Use ‘you’ language as much as possible.
6. Make your content easy to scan
People take just six seconds to decide if they will stay on a new site. When they first come to a website, their eyes flit around the page, looking for the parts that interest them. Too much web content is written as a long series of paragraphs. The density of this information will overwhelm most visitors to your site, making them switch off. You can guide people through your content by using visual signposts such as headings, images, and bullet lists.
7. Use fewer words
Using shorter sentences with only one or two ideas will give your message a much better chance of sinking in. Long sentences that string several parts together will lose people towards the end. On the web, your sentences should usually be no longer than 17 words. If a sentence is longer, can you break it up? Varying sentence length is important – too many short sentences will sound robotic. But it’s a good principle to aim for.
8. Use simpler words
Being concise will help your users complete their top tasks. If there’s a simpler word that’s accurate and right for your brand, use it. Instead of saying ‘accordingly’, why not just say ‘so’? Think about the version of a word you use, too. Instead of saying ‘we are engaged in the provision of services,’ use a more direct, active form. ‘We provide services’ gets your point across more clearly.
9. Edit your content
The secret to great web writing (or any writing) is not being a genius who can write perfect sentences the first time. It’s editing. When I first wrote the lead sentence for point 8, it was: ‘Being concise is one of the best ways you can guide people towards completing their top tasks.’ That’s not offensive, but it is longer than it needs to be. Editing also involves checking for potentially embarrassing typos and grammatical mistakes. Some editing tips:
- Don’t edit something straight after writing it. If you do, you’ll see what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote.
- If you can, ask someone else to edit it for you. Anyone with good writing skills can help spot typos. A professional web writer will give you this second opinion, as well as specialist advice on adapting your content for the web.
10. Maintain your content
Web content is like a garden – it needs regular maintenance to keep it healthy. Over time, your content can become less relevant or less accurate. Links can stop working. This can instantly damage your brand, but unless the user is extremely loyal (or dedicated to giving feedback), they won’t tell you.
Keep your website healthy by creating a content plan that lists each page, when it should be reviewed, and by who. Then allocate the time to make this happen.
Here are a few resources that go deeper into writing for the web:
Don’t make me think, Steve Krug. A very accessible book on structuring your website for easy navigation. It’s also a good guide to web usability generally.
Clout: the art and science of influential web content, Colleen Jones. A book that focuses more on the nuts and bolts of writing good content.