Writing for the Web

Writing for the web is huge and scary. Web site owners are beginning to realise that the quality of their content—particularly written content—is absolutely vital. Stakeholders can no longer provide the code-heads with terrible writing and expect the professionals to make it work. They need to learn how to write effectively on their own.

That scares some people nearly to death.

And the ironic thing is—writing for the web is easier than you think.

Mediæval scholar works at a writing desk.
Mediæval scholar works at a writing desk.

Write for People

Don’t try to get all clever trying to con Google into ranking you higher. Google hates it when people do that. Just write good, useful, relevant information in a way that people can read quickly and easily. Use these tips to help your users; Google will reward your efforts by also ranking you higher. Simple things like ensuring your page loads fast (because you’re using small filesize images and other media elements) go a long way.

Read Before You Write

Jakob Neilsen is the premiere usability guru that everyone else cites. He’s been writing about usability since the dawn of time (or a little earlier).

Neilsen has a great series of articles on Writing for the Web. Consider these articles required reading. Yes, many of them were written before 2004. And they are even more relevant now than they were then. Search Engines like Google use Neilsen’s principles in their ranking systems, so if you follow Neilsen’s guidelines, your web content will have a better chance of ranking higher in Google. Everybody wins.

Research Before You Write

If you’ve already written your article, seriously consider re-writing it. Call it a new draught or updated version of the article.

Start with the raw information that you want to convey. Break it down into distinct, discrete topics. Each of these topics will provide the foundation for your writing. Each topic will end up on a single page.

Brainstorm each topic thoroughly and take note of the main words associated with the topic. Then start doing your keyword research to determine which of these words you wish to target. Keep your notes, though; you should review your content regularly and determine whether the keywords you’ve chosen are still the best choice two years down the road.

Write for Scanning

Everybody says it, and it’s absolutely true: people don’t read anymore. This isn’t just a web phenomenon; it’s epidemic in society.

So deal with it. Write accordingly. Help your visitors to scan your site and ignore the information they aren’t interested in.

  • Start with clear, succinct headings that clearly convey what your visitors will find in each section.
  • Get to the point. In fact, give your visitors the point within the first paragraph; preferably in the first sentence. Build your case later.
  • Carry on by emphasising or strongly emphasising key phrases in each paragraph. (If you’re doing it right, these should be similar to the keywords you identified before). Don’t use <i> and <b> elements to do this; <em> and <strong> will rank much better in Search Engines and will also be much more usable.
  • Use lists; they’re very easy to scan.
  • Provide text equivalents for images, audio, video, and other rich media. Google won’t index all those keywords in your interview mp3, but you can include them in your attached transcript.
  • Use simple language. The web is not the best place to showcase your extensive vocabulary and linguistic gymnastics. Just get the point across. Your visitors will thank you.
  • Stay on topic. Keep the page to the subject at hand. If you feel the urge to divert on a bunny trail, make a new page for that topic and link to it. And limit each paragraph to one idea.
  • Crosslink. Link to other pages in your site. Don’t expect your users to hit your homepage first; make it easy for them to find other, related information easily.
  • Be honest. Give the best, most current and accurate information you can. Cite your sources (by linking to them wherever possible). Nobody believes a liar unless the liar is trying to get elected to public office. For example, this article is partly (and loosely) based on “Writing for a Web Audience” by Constance J. Petersen of Smartisans.com who had a great summary of lots of other similar articles. And don’t fret too much about getting other sites to link to you; write it well, and you’ll be found. Don’t open these links in new windows; it makes you look insecure and pushy, and it’s much less usable.
  • Insist on Web Standards. Make sure your web development team are helping you mark up your content properly according to a World Wide Web Consortium Standard Markup Language, such as HTML 4.01 Strict or XHTML 1.0 Strict. It will help. Trust me.
  • Use Metadata. Make sure your Content Management System supports modifying your page’s <title> element and Meta Description tag. Ask your web guys about adding title attributes to hyperlinks and other elements.

Building Buzz

If you have the capacity to write regularly, do it. Those weekly articles, no matter how short, can encourage your readers to return regularly to your site. Each article adds another keyword-rich piece of content that Search Engines can index for future searches. Even five minutes a week writing an article that comments on (and links to) a current news article can be incredibly valuable.

If you plan to write regularly, read 10 Tips on Writing the Living Web by Mark Bernstein for additional considerations.

Happy writing!