Writing for the Web
People read online for the same reasons that they read print documents: to obtain information or knowledge, to complete forms and applications, or to be entertained. The key difference, however, between habits of print readers and online readers is that online readers are more likely than print readers to be researching, not reading. Here are some recommendations for producing successful websites.
Consider these study results:
- Four out of five people scan online content rather than read word by word.
- On a typical Web page, readers read only about one-fifth of the content.
- The more words on a Web page, the lower the percentage of words readers are likely to read.
- Readers tend to read closer to one-half of online content when a Web page’s text is limited to about one hundred words.
Most of these figures date back to the late 1990s, when fewer people went online, Web design and architecture was less sophisticated, and much of the content was functional (now, many websites, like this one, are equivalent to periodicals or books), but the findings are still essentially valid.
For that reason, clarity and conciseness — advisable in any form of communication — is even more important in online content. In many circumstances, readers will be drawn to easily accessed information. Rather than presenting paragraph after paragraph of content in blocks of text, as is routine in print publication, give readers multiple reference points:
- Use headlines that are informative first, and clever second, if at all.
- Break content up into small blocks of text separated by subheadings.
- Organize brief items into numbered or bullet lists.
- Provide information in captions for photographs and graphics.
- Place the most important information at the top of a page or at the beginning of a piece of content.
The primary goal for the owner of a website, whether it’s a commercial site or one whose primary purpose is to provide information or impart knowledge, should be to increase the number of readers and retain those readers. To that end, websites should be designed and organized to help visitors
- locate what they need or want
- understand what they locate
- apply what they locate to satisfy their needs or wants
How do you know what readers want from your website? Try these strategies:
- Analyze reader communication — comments, emails, and other contact.
- Engage with readers by asking them directly by email or through the site itself.
- Note, in your site analytics, the most popular pages and the top word searches.