How to write effective web content

Published on June 15th, 2009 by admin

Here are some tips on how to make the most of your content and leave a lasting impression.

Let go of the words

Users don’t read, they scan

People are often busy and don’t have the time to read large paragraphs of text. If they see a wall of text they will either go somewhere else or at best they will bookmark it to “read later” which of course they never do.

Write simple, short sentences

“Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left” – Steve Krug

You don’t need a lot of fancy words and long paragraphs to convey your message. After you’ve finished writing your content go back and start cutting the hell out of it. If you’re finding it difficult ask a friend to help.

Use simple words that everyone understands

People aren’t sitting at the computer with a dictionary ready to look up your sophisticated use of the english language. Use words that everyone knows and conveys your information quickly and efficiently.

Also don’t use jargon in your website just because everyone else at your business does. Chances are, the general public won’t understand and won’t find your content valuable. This is especially true if you work in technical or medical fields.

Content is not copy

Copy is trying to sell an idea or product. Content delivers useful information to the user. Here are some key differences between the two.

Copy Content
Encourages a call to action (ie register, purchase a product etc.) Conveys information
Keywords first, user second User first, keywords second
Has little or no useful information Has a lot of useful information

Keep lines between 50 and 80 characters long

If it’s too short then people will have a hard time connecting the lines and understanding the information. If it’s too long then people will become tired and have a hard time switching to the next line. The optimal reading length is between 50 and 80 characters. Don’t freak out however if your lines are 45 or 87, these are just guidelines.

Use headings to break up your content

Your headings should summarize your content

Users are impatient on the web, they will scan the whole document first and then decide if they want to read it or not. Especially now where they don’t necessarily know if the content is viable. Afterall, they don’t know who wrote the content.

Effective headings should do the following

  • Get them interested
  • Provide a context for each section
  • Break up the page and make it more readable

Headings should answer questions

Write headings with their questions in mind. For example, on a page about pet food have headings like “What should my cat eat?” The less the user has to think the better. This is a great way to write “document-like” content.

Use the imperative when giving instructions

If you find yourself constantly repeating “how do I. . . ” simply remove that phrase and rewrite it as an imperative. This is a good way to give tips or advice.

Avoid using noun headings

Nouns label things and though they may be appropriate at times, chances are you can achieve the same thing by answering their questions. You are having a conversation with your user you can’t do this with nouns.

Use lists to simplify

Use lists to break up paragraphs and present key facts

When you start writing paragraphs of text ask yourself if you could break down what you’re writing into lists. or use a combination of the two.

Take a look at this paragraph.

“When you come camping, make sure that you bring a jacket, water bottle, flashlight, bug repellent sleeping bag, good shoes, warm clothing, sunglasses, and a bag to carry it all. Our trained staff will provide the rest. “

And now look at it when it’s been converted into a list.

When you come camping please bring the following:

  • Jacket
  • Water bottle
  • Flashlight
  • Bug repellent
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Good shoes
  • Warm clothing
  • Sunglasses
  • A bag to carry your equipment

Our trained staff will provide the rest.

Use numbered lists when you are giving instructions

Present instructions in a tidy numbered or ordered list. People will quickly realize that it’s a list of steps and perform the sequence of actions.

These directions are a good candidate for using an ordered list:

“Take Route 1 South from Machias approximately 15 miles. After passing the town of Robbington (Blueclyffe Motel on your left), you see Mill Drive on your left, and Perry’s chocolates on your right. The sign for Smith’s Dairy Farm is less than a mile further on your left (water side). It is the first left hand turn (dirt road) after the “Ferry” town marker on your right.”

As an ordered list.

To get to Smith’s Dairy Farm please follow these directions

  1. Take Route 1 South from Machias (approximatly 15 miles)
  2. Pass the town of Robbington
  3. Keep driving until you see the sign for Smith’s Dairy farm on your left (water side).
  4. Take a left onto the dirt road (after the Ferry town marker).
  5. Follow this road until you see Smith’s Dary Farm on your left

Use tables to answer questions

Think of tables as “if. . . then” statements

Use tables when you have parallel sentences to show their relationship.

For example look at this sentence.

“If you want to file a tax return by mail please see this link: However, if you want to file it by email please see this link:

Now take a look at it when it’s been put in a table.

If you want to apply by. . . Then go to the following link

Use tables to compare

Tables are great any time that you have information that relates to each other.

Country Population in 1900 (in millions) Population in 2000 (in millions)
Canada 5 30
Great Britain 40 59
Japan 45 126
United States 76 281

Use links that are meaningful

Use links that describe the content

Use link titles that reflect the content in which you are linking too. For example, if you are linking to someone’s portfolio you would write it something like this. check out Joshua Bolduc’s Portfolio

This makes it easier for the user but also helps with SEO (search engine optimization). If the link is meaningful the search engine spider will crawl this and associate its title with the link.

Don’t use “click here”

Never never never use “click here!” People scan the page and they will skip over anything that says “click here” they simply don’t want to read the text that explains it.

“Click here” also does not provide any useful information for search engine spiders and will not help your ranking in Google.

Further Reading

Letting go of the words – Inspiration for this article came from this wonderful book. Many thanks to Janice Reddish for writing it.

Don’t Make Me Think!

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