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Writing for a Web Audience
Learn these ten Web writing tips to gain your Web visitors' trust and keep them coming
back for more.
Studies show Web visitors don't read; they skip and scan. Will your Web site
accommodate them? Also, solid, well-written, grammatically correct Web content
is crucial to gaining the user's trust. Following are 10 tips to help you write
for the Web in a way that gains the trust of your readers and supports their
style of Web browsing.
In May 2000, Stanford University and The Poynter Institute released the
findings from their joint study on how people read news on the Web. By tracking
eye movements, researchers determined that on their initial visit to a page,
people paid more attention to text than to graphics. Within the text, they first
scanned (in no particular order) for headlines, article summaries, and captions.
Most readers (nearly 80% in the Stanford-Poynter study) read article
summaries rather than complete articles. When reading complete articles, most
scanned -- reading only about 75% of the text. At the same time Web visitors are
scanning your Web page, they may also be skipping over to your competition.
Readers in the Stanford-Poynter study kept multiple browsers open, switching
among multiple Web sites.
While the Stanford-Poynter study focused on reading news on the Web, the
results were similar to various studies conducted by Jakob Nielson, Jarod Spool,
and others in the mid-1990's. These studies resulted in the following key
- Most readers scan.
- Screen reading is significantly slower than reading print.
- Readers understand more when reading less (50% fewer words work best when
rewriting formal papers into Web pages).
The Resources list at the end of this article
provides links to some of these studies.
Scanning and skipping and trust -- Oh my!
To write well for the Web, we must adjust our writing to help readers who scan
the page and skip back and forth among multiple sites.
But there's more to it than that. In a survey about trust and the Web, John
Rhodes found that solid, well-written, grammatically correct content is crucial
to gaining the user's trust. He also found that freshness and frequent updates
are critical factors.
Here are 10 Web-writing tips designed to gain the trust of your readers and
to help them scan and skip to their hearts' desire.
1. Punch up headlines.
Web visitors scan first for headlines, so you should make every heading word
meaningful. The Web is not the place for funny, cute, or silly headlines.
Format the first heading as an HTML <H1>, and make sure it clearly
summarizes the page. It's what users will read first to learn if they want to
read further on the page.
Clarify the content of each section with section headings, formatted as
<H2>s in HTML.
While you may need to break up sections into sub-sections (with corresponding
meaningful <H3> headings), I wouldn't recommend nesting headings any
deeper than that. Deeply nested headings require that the user work hard to
decipher organizational meaning. Instead, break up a complex Web page into
multiple related pages -- one for each primary topic.
2. Emphasize key concepts.
Help your readers scan for key concepts by emphasizing important information.
You can emphasize by using bold or colored text, or by highlighting the text
with a different background color. But don't use italics for emphasis because
italics are difficult to read on a computer monitor. There are just not enough
pixels to render italics clearly.
Make sure that emphasized keywords are visually distinct from hypertext
links. If you use the standard underlined blue for unvisited links and purple
for visited links, use a different color and style for emphasized keywords.
3. Harness the power of lists.
Lists are great for scanning. They slow the reader down and bring attention to
important information. Use bullet points when the sequence of information
doesn't matter. Use numbered points when it does. But don't make the mistake of
writing full sentences and paragraphs in each list point. The whole idea of
lists is to make it easy to pull out key concepts. Here are some examples.
Facts about lists:
- Easy to scan
- Slow the reader down
- Emphasize important information
To create a numbered list in HTML, type:
- <ol> to start the numbered list
- <li> to start the first list item
- Information for the first list item
- </li> to end the first list item
- Repeat steps 2 - 5 for each additional list item
- </ol> to end the numbered list
4. Create meaningful captions.
Because Web users focus on text over graphics, make sure to caption all graphics
When readers scan for information, they first see the Web page's headings,
bold text, and captions. So give them the most information you can by making
sure each caption reveals information that's not spelled out in headings or
A meaningful caption also helps visually impaired readers gain understanding,
even when they cannot see the associated graphic.
5. Simplify for understanding.
Reading from the screen is slower than reading from print, so make your users
happy by giving them less to read.
Use fewer words, smaller words, and simpler words, and place those words into
simple sentence structures. When you're done writing, wield a sharp editor's
knife on your words to reduce every sentence to its essence.
Utilize=use. construct=build. Create your own list of word substitutions to
simplify your writing.
Puns and metaphors serve to confuse. Puns are difficult for international
users to understand, so avoid them. Likewise, avoid metaphors, which too many
people will take literally.
6. Invert the pyramid.
The inverted pyramid style is bottom-up. To write this way, start by stating the
conclusion. Then build upon the conclusion by summarizing the most interesting
and important supportive information. Next provide detail about each important
point. Then close with background information.
This style of writing fits well with the needs of people who scan. They can
get the key points quickly, and continue reading for detail only if interested.
Organizing information from most important to least important works well for
users who scroll more now than in the past, but still react most strongly to
that which is visible. In printed newspapers, the most important information is
placed above the fold. Likewise, you should place the most important online
information above the scroll line to make sure it gets read.
7. Write one idea per paragraph.
Make sure each paragraph contains one idea only, and summarize that idea in the
first sentence. The Stanford-Poynter study found that people who scan read the
first sentence or two of each paragraph and thus may miss any additional points
made further into the paragraph.
8. Make each page stand alone.
Don't expect that users will enter your Web site at the home page and work their
way through the site in an organized manner. Thanks to the power of search
engines and offsite links, visitors may enter your site on any page at all.
Because of this, each page needs to stand alone, and your prose must not assume
that they have already read any other page. Provide context to help users
understand where the page fits within your Web site.
Breadcrumb links are an excellent way to place each page in context within
the hierarchy of the Web site. These are a horizontal series of text links
connecting to all parent levels of the hierarchy above the current location.
Keeping each page independent will also help visitors who, like the readers
in the Stanford-Poynter study, keep multiple browsers open to jump among Web
pages on multiple sites. With all that activity, they're clearly not reading
your pages in sequence.
To reduce the need to scroll, it makes sense to split long documents into
multiple pages. But do so in a way that each page can stand on its own. It
should cover a single sub-topic thoroughly, and it should provide context to
place the page within the longer document.
Wendy Peck places a page about Fireworks Typography in context within a
multipage article about using typography in graphics design. She provides clearly labeled hypertext links to each of the other
sub-topics, and includes navigation buttons that show at a glance the number of
pages in the article and the location of the current page within the article.
Figure 1. The Fireworks Typography topic appears in context
within a multipage article map.
9. Link wisely.
Links can help reduce clutter by moving definitions and background information
to separate Web pages. But when concentrating on content, people often ignore
embedded links. They don't want to be interrupted by having to wait for another
page to load.
You can solve this problem by putting explanatory text into a sidebar in the
left- or right-hand margin on the same Web page, or create mouseover tooltip-style
text for glossary items. These techniques
allow users to stay on the same page when reviewing definitions for unfamiliar
Figure 2. A tooltip-style glossary definition is less
disruptive than a hypertext link.
The HTML code for the mouseover tooltip shown in Figure 2, which works for
Microsoft Internet Explorer (version 4.0 and greater), is as follows:
<a style="cursor: hand" title="glossary definition">word</a>.
To implement it in Netscape (at least through version 4.7) you would need to
If your Web page includes links to a number of cross-referenced documents,
move the links to a sidebar in the margin. That may free up space to include a
title and some explanatory text for each cross-referenced document.
When you embed links within your writing, don't reference the link itself.
You'll interrupt the reader's concentration by commenting on the link with
phrases such as "Click here and follow this link."
10. Be current, accurate, and credible.
Capture the trust of your readers by offering information that is up-to-date and
Test for dead links frequently. If a link doesn't work, it's certain to
irritate. Unless you know it's only temporary, remove it.
Make sure your facts are correct. A new year often brings new statistics. If
you quote statistics, be sure they are current and accurate.
A simple way to improve credibility: Skip the marketing hype. Replace it with
well-written, interesting, and useful information.
Give credit where credit is due. If your site has multiple authors, give each
one credit with a byline. Bylines are personal touches that add credibility to a
Web site. And don't just quote information from a study or survey; you'll gain
credibility by providing a direct link to the source.
If you follow these Web-writing tips, you'll gain Web site visitors' trust
and keep them coming back for more.
Project Eyetracking Study. In this study by Marion Lewenstein, Greg
Edwards, Deborah Tatar, Andrew DeVigal (2000), 67 test subjects read online
news sites as they normally would, while their eye movements were tracked
and recorded into a database. A key finding in this study: Online news
readers tend to look at text and spend virtually no time looking at graphics
-- even when those graphics are photographs that augment and enhance the
textual information provided on the Web page.
- Survey: What makes users
trust a Web site. In this survey by John Rhodes (1998), some respondents
claimed they would never trust any Web site. Three primary trust factors
surfaced: good content, simple design, and few grammatical errors.
- User Interface
Engineering Scrolling Study. Users say they don't like to scroll, but
this 1998 study by Jarod Spool found they are willing to scroll as long as
the page gives them strong clues that scrolling will help them find what
they_re looking for.
Writing Guidelines to Web Pages. Research conducted by John Morkes and
Jakob Nielsen in 1998 showed that Web users generally prefer writing that is
concise, easy to scan, and objective (rather than promotional) in style.
Incorporating these and other attributes into a redesign of Web content
required trade-offs and some hard decisions, but the results were positive.
The rewritten Web site scored 159% higher than the original in measured
usability. Compared with original-site users, users of the rewritten site
reported higher subjective satisfaction and performed better in terms of
task time, task errors, and memory.
SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web. When John Morkes and
Jakob Nielsen conducted studies in 1997 to determine how users read on the
Web, they found that users do not actually read -- instead, they scan the
text. A study of five different writing styles found that a sample Web site
scored 58% higher in measured usability when it was written concisely, 47%
higher when the text was scannable, and 27% higher when it was written in an
objective style instead of the promotional style used in the control
condition and many current Web pages. Combining these three changes into a
single site that was concise, scannable, and objective at the same time
resulted in 124% higher measured usability.
- IBM's IBM's
Ease of Use site offers Web
Design Guidelines that can help your site retain visitors and attract
- IBM offers training courses in user-centered design -- find out more here.
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