Note: This is an article I originally wrote in January of 2011. Much has changed, and much remains the same. I’ve made some minor edits to the article below.
Users come to your site to complete tasks
The web is a functional, task-oriented place. We want to find the information we’re looking for online quickly. We go to the web to get answers to our questions or to complete specific tasks. Imagine the last time you went to your bank website. Were you browsing, or did you have a particular task in mind, such as finding your account balance or looking at current interest rates?
The web lacks context
We come to the web to do, and we already have the context when we get to the website. Print lends itself to length, and because print is delivered to the reader, it comes with lots of contextual language.1 If visitors come to your site looking for something specific and don’t find it, they will click the back button and move on to the next website.
Understanding how users read on the web
It’s easy to think writing for the web is similar to writing for print. The first instinct is to obtain the exact text from printed materials and copy and paste it to your website. If you do this, you should realize users don’t read web pages word for word; they skim the contents looking for specific trigger words. To ensure success, web writers must understand how people use websites and how they read on the web.
Research – how users read on the web
In the summer of 1997, three studies were conducted at the SunSoft usability laboratories in Menlo Park, CA. Eighty-one randomly selected users ranging from highly technical to a novice were asked to perform various tasks on some pre-selected websites.
The first and second studies were exploratory and qualitative to generate insight into how users read web pages. The third was a measurement study to quantify the potential benefits of some of the most promising writing styles identified in the first two studies.
Conclusions from the studies
The research concluded that scannable, concise writing styles positively impacted user performance and subjective satisfaction. The study also showed that 79 percent don’t read web pages as they read print. Instead of reading from beginning to end, they scan the page, looking for words or phrases related to their desired task.2
Writing clear and concise web content
Web writers must write clear and concise text using various formatting options. These options include:
- sticking to one idea per paragraph
- writing and using concise sub-headings (which summarize paragraphs)
- using numbered or bulleted lists
It’s also a good idea to eliminate wordy sentences and try to cut the word count to half that of conventional writing. The web isn’t about communicating with long words and overly descriptive sentences. The web is about communication with speed. Use simple words. For example, use “tried” instead of “attempted.”
Formatting options for web copy
- Use subheadings to break up your content into meaningful sections and subtopics.
- Keep your paragraphs short and to the point.
- Use bulleted or numbered lists for key points or steps. They can make key points easier to scan.
- Experiment with various styles to see what works best for your content and audience.
Real-life web writing examples
Review the scenarios below. Remember, visitors come to a website to accomplish a task: viewing their checking account balance or logging in to their college website to submit an assignment.
In this example, a family physician is trying to find healthcare reform information for their patients. The text was found on the American Academy of Family Physicians home page.
With the health care reform debate entering its most critical period, patients across the country are asking their family physicians for answers to questions such as — “Which health reform claims are true? Where can I find a bipartisan source for more information? Why are the reform proposals being reviewed by Congress important to me, your patient?” The AAFP has created a one-page information sheet (1-page PDF) that physicians can download and share with their patients.
With health care reform entering a critical point, patients are looking for answers to health care reform questions. Give them answers with the health reform patient handout (1-pg PDF).
Summary of changes: The sentences needed to be more concise. The questions a patient might ask were removed. If a physician sought this information, they likely encountered the questions already.
The next scenario is a Poplar Bluff Federal Credit Union (PBFCU) customer who wants to learn more about online banking. The text was found on the PBCFU website.
Internet Home Banking – The Credit Union Way
Developed exclusively for FLEX Credit Unions, FLEXTeller is the latest in Internet Banking technology. Accessible through any web browser, FLEXTeller provides a real-time connection and a secure site to view account information. Members may make transfers between accounts, view and download account history, view recent check clearings, view cleared checks, and even apply for a loan, all online. FLEXTeller gives you access to your financial information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Poplar Bluff Federal Credit Union uses the latest secure technology so that you can feel safe banking online. Using online banking, you may:
- Make transfers between accounts
- View and download recent transaction info
- View recent and cleared checks
- Apply for a loan
Summary of changes: Much of the text was omitted. Most visitors would have yet to learn what FLEXTeller is. Because the user is already on the site, there is no need to include “Accessible through any web Browser.” The list of online banking tasks was split into a bulleted list to improve scan ability. Finally, most people realize the web is 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Writing meaningful link names
When linking to files or other web pages, don’t make the link name “click here.” Link names should describe what is being linked to and be included in sentences naturally. Longer link names can be better if they provide relevant contextual information3. Descriptive link names also let the user scan the page to find the information they seek without reading entire sentences or paragraphs. If you’re linking to a document, such as a Word file or PDF, include the file type in parenthesis after the link name.
Example link names:
- Click here for information about the XYZ ballot initiative.
- Click here to see the earnings for your school.
Descriptive link names:
- McGovern, Gerry. “How the web is different from print.” New Thinking 08 Dec 2008: web. 21 Sep 2009.
- Morkes, John, and Nielsen, Jakob. “Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web.” Useit.com: Jakob Nielsen’s website. 01 Jan 1997. Nielsen, Jakob, web. 21 Sep 2009.
- Brinck, Tom, Darren Gergle, and Scott Wood. Usability for the web: designing websites that work. Illustrated. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2002. Print.