In my wanderings through the web, for shopping, information or even when getting acquainted with a new client, I’m often amazed at how difficult those websites make my task of finding what I need.
What companies often do not realize when going online is that writing content for the web is different in many aspects than writing content for the off-line media.
The wrong way of writing content for the web is characterized by:
- Content rich articles, sometimes monstrosities with more than 1,000 words
- Content-rich paragraphs, having multiple sentences
- Overly creative headlines, sometimes trying to get clever with the readers
These companies are losing quite a bit of potential customers, hence revenue, by not realizing that writing for the web is a lot different than writing for the off-line media.
How much do users see on the web?
Dr. Jakob Nielsen shows a result of analyzing 45,000 pageviews containing between 30 and 1,250 words.
The following table shows the maximum percentage of text users could read during an average visit to pages with different word counts:
As you may notice the curve approaches 20% very rapidly as the word-count increases.
In a case of a very modest page, containing 250 words, the average user will read less than 40% of the content. This fact alone should raise a red flag for anyone planning to upload an existing magazine article to his website.
The best practice would be to have short and precise pieces of content, having 250-500 words. And, to concentrate your main ideas towards the top of the content.
But wait, it gets better…
What do users see on the web?
In a different study, Dr. Nielsen examines user behavior on a page since first arriving at a site.
After recording users’ eye movements with an infra-red camera, Dr. Nielsen discovered a common pattern in the page reading behavior:
- Users first read (scan) across the top two paragraphs of content
- Users proceed to quickly scan the first few words of the content
These two parts of the reading pattern create a resemblance to the letter F, which sometimes can be the letter E if the user scans the third paragraph as well, as demonstrated in the following image:
Before Writing Any Web Content
Keeping the above findings in mind, one should always think about the following guidelines when writing content for the web:
- Keeping the first part of content and precise, having 250-500 words
- Revealing the main idea at the beginning of the content, preferably in the first two paragraphs
- Informative, rather than creative, headlines
- Main keywords at the beginning of the headline
- Using bullets and numbered lists, that are easier to scan, instead of long multi-sentence paragraphs
- Keeping the content between 2500 and 4000 words
Research on how users read on the Web and how authors should write their Web pages.
- A short summary of the original findings: How users read on the Web
- How little do users read? — users spend 4.4 seconds for every extra 100 words on a page
- An f-shaped pattern for reading web content, as seen in eye tracking studies
- Eyetracking of people reading email marketing newsletters
- Low-literacy users exhibit different behaviors
- PR and press releases on corporate websites (103 design guidelines based on usability studies of how journalists visit company sites)
- The writing style for print vs. Web
- Blah-blah text: Keep, cut, or kill?
- Email newsletters (165 design guidelines: scannability even more important than for websites)
- Writing transactional email and confirmation messages
- Teenagers on the Web: poor reading skills and low patience levels mean that text has to be ultra-concise for teens and that more information must be communicated in images
- Tagline blues: what’s the site about?
- Passive voice is redeemed for Web headings
- World’s Best Headlines: BBC News
- Use old keywords when writing to be found by search users
- Show numbers as numerals when writing for online readers
- Microcontent: writing headlines, page titles, and email subject lines
- Nano content: the first two words of links and titles
- Company name first in microcontent? Sometimes!
- Long vs. short articles as content strategy
- Kindle Content Design (writing for Amazon.com’s e-book reader)
- iPad and Kindle Reading Speeds
- Write inverted pyramids in cyberspace
- Information pollution
- American English vs. British English
- Twitter Postings: Iterative Design
- Distributing Content Through Social Networks and RSS (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, and RSS)
- Corporate Blogs: Front Page Structure
- Intranet usability, including guidelines for intranet content, news on intranets, HR manuals, and how to present information about projects, teams, and individuals on intranets
- A full paper documenting the original research from 1997 (long): Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web (unfortunately this paper was written for print and not online)
- Case study: Applying Writing Guidelines to Web Pages improved usability by 159% when rewriting sample pages from a popular website
- How to write “About Us” pages for a company’s or organization’s website