Writing for the web close

Michael Wells
Michael Wells
In Codegent College
19th January 2011
Writing for the web

When I offered to write an article for this month’s newsletter on ‘Writing for the web’ my first concern was that there wouldn’t be enough information out there. How wrong I was! The good news is that all the information I came across is easy to understand and implement and is consistent across all of the sites that you visit. However the bad news for me is that I then had to try and write an article for the web on ‘Writing for the web’ that follows these principles.

So here goes!

Whether you are having a new website built or managing one on a day-to-day basis, it can take up a lot of your time, especially when you start factoring in tasks such as managing enquiries and payments. As a result, creating the copy is often left to the last minute or isn’t refreshed or reviewed on a regular basis. It is essential that your site looks and functions correctly but it is also imperative that you are giving your users the information they need in the correct format.

Nobody will know your business as well as you do but when writing copy it is important to consider whether you have the necessary skills in-house. If not, I would always recommend using a copywriter and, providing you give a good, clear brief, they should have no problems in conveying the right information to your audience.

It’s web, not print

Writing for the web and writing for print are very different as the user interacts with the mediums in very different ways. Never try to take what you have and what works offline and apply it online. Users read online text a lot slower than they do printed material. Also copy on the web tends to be a lower resolution and therefore isn’t as much of an enjoyable experience, so it should be short and precise.

‘As a guide copy on the web should be 50% less than the paper equivalent.’
Cornell Information Technologies, Cornell University.

The reader’s attention span is also reduced online. They will scan a web page to get the information they need and will quite often be doing this whilst undertaking other tasks or flicking between other sites. They can also be distracted with flashing banners or other things on their screen. So again short, concise copy is essential to get information across.

Target audience

You will have specific audiences and geographic locations that you are targeting. However a website, as a general rule, will be available to anyone in the world so it is suggested that you should always write for an audience of all ages, locations and languages. And always write your copy on the basis that the reader has English as their second language.

Structure and content

Here are a few pointers that you should bear in mind when thinking about your copy

  • With the web, users will scan the page to find the information they want. It is therefore important that your copy follows a consistent structure throughout.
  • Before you start you should list the key objectives for the page first - what do you need to say and why. This will help you to keep the copy concise and informative.
  • Headings should be explanatory and informative as users will make a decision there and then as to whether they are going to get the information they need from that page and your site.
  • Following the pyramid rule – give the conclusion first and then expand this out further down the page with more information – the who, what, when, why, where, how.
  • Restrict your ideas to one per paragraph so as not to over load the user or run the risk of them missing a key point.
  • Use calls to action at all relevant points and make sure that they clearly highlight what the user needs to do and why.
  • Use bold and italics sparingly so as not to confuse or overwhelm the user. Bold the words that summarise the information on the page and make sure that when combined they make sense.
  • Ensure that linked text stands out on a page but again make sure that on scanning the page the user can see what they are clicking through to. ‘Click here’ doesn’t tell the user what they would click there for – this is especially important when you audience might be using screen readers.
  • Capital letters are also a big no-no as it gives the impression of SHOUTING!!
  • Break up big blocks of text with smaller paragraphs, bullet points and quotes.
  • Keep sentences short and to the point.
  • Don’t use unnecessarily complicated words and avoid slang, abbreviations and acroynyms.

Tone of voice

Keeping it simple and to the point shouldn’t mean that your branding message and tone of voice online isn’t consistent with the rest of your branding communications – but do remember to keep it informative rather than ‘fluffy’.

SEO

It is essential that your website is optimised for search engines particularly through the use of keywords within the copy. Keywords should fit naturally into the copy you are writing, but if not make sure that they are not in there at the cost of making a sentence sound unnatural or forced. Users will notice! As a general rule a keyword shouldn’t appear in a paragraph more than twice.

Translation

If you are looking to translate versions of your site then the points I have mentioned above are still just as important. Ensuring that you retain the correct tone of voice in a different language and that the copy is appropriate to that culture is essential and should always be done by a native speaker.

Testing

There is no reason to expect that your copy will be perfect first time. So don’t be afraid to test different copy, headlines and calls to action where possible. User testing will enable you to get an insight into what works well. When trialling different versions track page visits and users subsequent actions such as clicking on a specific link to assess what works and what doesn’t. There are various tools available to let you run A/B and multivariate tests, from Google Webmaster tools to specialist software such as http://visualwebsiteoptimizer.com/.

Make it about you

Finally, your website is the window through which the world can view your organisation. It is how they will judge you and get to know you so above all, let your copy portray your brand personality.