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How to Write for a Website


General Tips for Writing Online Web Content and Suggestions for Common Web Pages

1. Understand your users:

  • Make sure you understand the interests, culture, needs, regional word usage, and limitations of your users in order to write for them.
  • Don't talk down to your audience - or up (e.g., too much technical/industry jargon if they aren't in the industry)
  • Stick close to your audience's knowledge base, needs, and likely technology

2. Use clear wording throughout site (especially in page titles, headings, navigation, and links):

  • Use simple, most commonly understood, short, clear words (plainspoken language)
  • The more concrete your text, the better ranking in search engines (because these are the words users search by).
  • Write in short, clear, straightforward sentences (clear short blurbs; enticing tone, clear descriptions)
  • Get to the point quickly and explain what's in it for the user
  • Don't use jargon, cute, technical, fancy or overly difficult words (people can get lost and give up)
  • Avoid sarcasm, subtle word play, cliches (may not cross cultures)
  • Be informative - if it is easy to find answers then people will trust and revisit your site

3. Incorporate popular, relevant keyword phrases into your text

  • To learn about what phrases people are searching with for your industry, type in key words through Google AdWords' Keyword Tool. Start by inputting one main key word for your industry (e.g., yoga) and analyze what comes up. Then search on several potential 2-3 word phrases - the goal is to find popular phrases that are searched on by your specific niche market (e.g., yoga classes marin).
  • Click on the column "Local Search Volume" to sort by the most popular search words for the prior month for your country.
  • Make a list of popular phrases and incorporate these throughout your website - focusing on one to three unique phrase(s) per page. Sort your chosen phrases for a page in order of importance.
  • Build your page text around your chosen phrase(s) for each page (giving highest priority to your most important phrase(s)).
  • Integrate 2-3 repetitions of the phrase(s) within the text, working to make it appear seamless. Incorporate the chosen phrase(s) into headings, subheadings, lists, bold text, and near the top of the page wherever possible (these have more weight with the search engines). Don't use more than 2-3 repetitions of each phrase on a page (this can hurt the pages ranking with search engines).
  • For your chosen search words, also incorporate lots of synonyms, antonyms, related terms and word stemming (e.g., "running", "runs", and "ran" for the search word "runner") into your text to increase your ranking with the search engines.
  • Great report on search engine rankings

4. Find the right tone and language:

  • Use active rather than passive verbs
  • Use customer-focused language (label sections and categories according to the value they hold for the customer and words commonly used by the customer). Ask customers what they look for when they need a particular type of information.
  • Most people prefer a conversational tone to a formal tone because it's more personal and direct.
  • Use consistent tone throughout your site, in your e-mails, and in your advertising. Readers appreciate this. They know what to expect.

5. Use consistent style standards:

  • What's the right usage (spelling, capitalization, grammar)? Two options:
  1. The Associated Press Style Guide (use, e.g., 'e-mail', 'Web site', 'on-line') and a lot of optional punctuation like commas and hyphens (Quick AP Guide).
  2. "Common" or "down" style - the way you see these words most often on the Web ('email', 'website', 'online') - also tends to eliminate all but the most critical punctuation.
  • Decide on a style and use it consistently throughout your site. You may want to create a style guide for your site.
  • Don't use all lowercase letters for titles, categories, and other links (not only is it not scannable as mixed case, but also invariably you'll need to break with the style standard for a proper name, which will look inconsistent)
  • Use all uppercase letters sparingly or not at all as a formatting style (it is not as easy to read and can make your page look busy or loud)

6. Tips for marketing a product, service, or your company:

  • Sell the benefits not the features - good content sells itself
  • Avoid marketing lingo, empty hype, or self-congratulatory statements (this is the leading cause of lost sales - the more florid the description the more users tune them out)
  • Give people the facts and let them come to their own conclusions
  • Be honest - credibility is important on the web
  • Highlight noteworthy accomplishments humbly. Mention only recent and relevant noteworthy awards
  • Appear knowledgeable without coming on too strong

7. Streamline wording:

  • Users read on average about 100 words on interior pages and 10-20 (to the point) words on a home page. Focus the initial page on information everyone needs. Even though your site visitor may not read beyond the initial overview section, add about 250 words in all to your home page to increase your website's ranking with the search engines.
  • Add 100-250 words per non-home page - try for 400 maximum if you need additional wording (articles are an exception). In Microsoft Word, you can use the Tools > Word Count feature to determine total word count. If you are optimizing a particular page for the search engines, add at least 250 words.
  • Users will spend most of their 25-35 seconds on a page figuring out where to go next, not reading word-for-word
  • Omit any unnecessary words (they can make the site seem daunting)
  • Goal: write 25 to 50% of what you would normally write for printed material (benefits: reduces noise level, makes useful content more prominent, shortens the page (less scrolling), increases how much is actually read). Craft your content to convey the maximum amount of information in as few words as possible.
  • Avoid repeating content (reduces their impact and clutters page). Instead feature each item clearly in one place (exception: repeat items that belong in multiple categories or include links to the same page but offer synonyms that represent words your users use to describe the content).

8. Create easily scannable content:

  • In general, make sure that your content is easy for readers to skim through to find pertinent information. People scan a page's content first and sniff out the main points in a matter of seconds then they decide whether or not to read more.
  • To make the text more readable, use headings and subheadings, lists, short paragraphs, bold text for important concepts, white space, and graphics.
  • Imagine there's no text at all--only headings and subheadings. What would you say? Make them the story. (It might be the only thing a reader skims.)
  • State your topic at the beginning of each:
    • Sentence
    • Link
    • Paragraph
    • List
  • Avoid dense, unstructured text (this is a major turnoff - it implies hard work to extract information). Instead use headers, bulleted lists, and bold faced text to structure page.
  • Divide information into appropriate and manageable groups
  • Start with the conclusion so that users can read the first line or two on a page and still get main point. Then give supporting facts.
  • Emphasize key points in larger or bold font and avoid bolding items that are not relevant to user's scanning interests
  • If people don't immediately see anything of significance or feel overwhelmed they leave

9. Write in easy-to-read paragraphs:

  • Include no more than about three sentences per paragraph (5 sentences maximum). Use bulleted lists whenever possible. The shorter, the better.
  • Readers like short, insightful, information-packed stories.
  • Focus on only one topic or idea per paragraph
  • People should be able to read the initial topic sentence for each paragraph and decide if they want to keep reading that paragraph.

10. Choose an appropriate reading level for your audience:

  • Write to an 8th grade reading level for a general audience
  • Write to a 6th grade level for the product, home, and category pages
  • Web users with low literacy may be as high as 30% (43% of Americans read at an 8th grade level)
  • Make low literacy a priority especially if you are targeting a general audience
  • Older people have a lower educational level
  • To lower the level of reading difficulty of your text:
    • Use simpler words with fewer syllables
    • Use shorter sentences and paragraphs
    • You can run your text through Check Text Readability to determine it's current reading level.

11. Give users what they want up front:

  • Don't hide any information the user might want - e.g., customer support phone numbers (it may be best to display this prominently on every page), shipping rates, prices, etc.

12. Use of imperative language sparingly:

  • Only use imperative language such as "enter a city or zip code" for mandatory tasks, or qualify the statement appropriately. For example, you might say "to see your local weather, enter a city or zip code"
  • People are naturally drawn to "calls to action" wording, especially if it is next to a recognized widget, such as an input box or a dropdown menu.

13. Reveal content through examples - why?:

  • Often it takes more words and space to describes a category than it does to show some of the category's content and link to more information. Examples can also:
  • Help instantly communicate what the site is all about, so users know whether they are on the right site for their needs.
  • Reveal the breadth of products/content offered
  • Be more interesting than generalities - there is a better chance of piquing user interest if you provide something concrete to read or look at instead of just abstract category names.
  • Help users successfully navigate - show what lies beneath the abstract category names.
  • Help differentiate categories, saving users from clicking through categories just to see what's there
  • Be better for people who don't understand your language very well
  • For example, show top five stories followed by a link to all breaking news, show actual products that are on sale, with their prices (link directly to a detailed product page rather than general category page - unless the example is very short/self-contained and no more information is available - then go to the category page.
  • Show small pictures of the products or other content in each department, so users can do a quick visual sweep to see if they are in the right place
  • When displaying products, add links to general categories so people know that more than one product is available in that category (make sure users know which is a product vs. a category link). Put product link directly next to the product information (complete description and reviews), while offsetting the category link with a small amount of white space (e.g., "complete listing of mystery novels")

Suggestions for Standard Web Pages

1. Header and Navigation on all pages:

  • Add a tagline directly next to the site ID (logo/company title) in the header area of each page. This is read by the visitor as a description of the whole site and is the only place on the page where users most expect to find a concise statement of the site's purpose. Use a tagline that is:
  • Clear and informative
  • Around six to eight words long
  • Conveys differentiation and a clear benefit
  • Personable, unique, lively, clever (as long as it's clear)
  • Don't use a motto (e.g., "we bring good things to life")
  • Word the navigation menu titles and headings to help explain your company and/or site, but do not use jargon or uncommon words in your navigation to avoid confusion

2. Home page:

  • Add a mission statement, displayed in a prominent block on the home page, which is a terse description of what your company offers and why you stand out. Make sure it is visible without scrolling. You can add colorful bullets and/or section titles if it is wordy and bold keywords to make it scannable by your visitors. Write just enough to get the point across - the shorter, the better. Only mention a maximum of four great benefits. Don't use the mission statement as a welcome blurb or promotion. It's very important to test this with someone who doesn't know what the site or company is about to make sure your overall message is getting through.
  • You can also add testimonial quote(s) that help to explain company and/or site
  • Use focused bullet points and images of products/services
  • In general, a home page must answer four questions users will have when they enter your site (and answer it at a glance, correctly, unambiguously, and with very little effort):
    • What is this? (What site have I arrived at?)
    • What do they have here? (What does the company do?)
    • What can I do here? (What products/services are offered - especially what are the new products/developments). Enable visitors to find good, relevant stuff in seconds - be able to answer: what are my choices and how can I get to the most relevant section for me?
    • Why should I be here - and not somewhere else (online or offline)? Communicate immediate value from users' point of view and explain what benefits the company can offer. Also explain how this company differs from competitors.

3. About page:

  • Highly recommended (trust and credibility are major issues on the web - users need to know who's behind a company, how it's funded, and whether it's credible). This is the most trust enhancing element you can add.
  • This is an opportunity to cement a company's identity and reinforce credibility. Shine light on talents and give highlights of products/services offered, give history, mission, vision statement, information about key people in the organization
  • Key information readers typically look for:
  • Information about the top executive(s) or official(s)
  • Organization's philosophy
  • Full contact information (physical address and phone number) - people are frustrated when this is not readily available. Revealing full contact information is one of the leading markers that people use to judge a company's trustworthiness.
  • Historical timeline and milestones

4. Contact page:

  • Provide physical mailing address, telephone and fax numbers, email address, link to directions/map page, online form for requesting information (include privacy policy about email usage).
  • If you provide an online 'feedback' mechanism, specify the purpose of the link and whether it will be read by customer service or the webmaster

5. Frequently Asked Questions page:

  • Based on most common questions asked of receptionist/employees. Gives space for thorough answers.
  • Make sure they aren't questions you wish people would ask
  • Keep them up to date (ask customer service/technical support frequently for any new questions that are coming up)
  • Provide candid answers

6. Testimonials:

  • It's a great idea to add either a testimonials page or display testimonials on various pages throughout the website.
  • Only include testimonials if you can provide sufficient information about the person making the statement (e.g., name and city). Otherwise, the testimonial will reduce your credibility.
  • Where available, link to the full testimonial online (e.g., in an article)

7. Product or Service pages:

  • In general:
    • Use common, everyday terms
    • No fluff or unnecessary words
    • No jargon or made-up words
    • Add meaningful illustrations
    • Allow people to enlarge photos (fill 1024x768 screen)
    • Don't use unrelated or purely visual graphics or photos
  • What to avoid with illustrations:
    • Images that are too small to show details
    • Images that are not zoomed in enough
    • Images that are zoomed in too far to show context
    • Images that don't show size comparison (if a product is small, add maybe a coin or line ruler for comparison)
    • Images that don't show the product from critical vantage points
    • If a product is worn by people, show a picture of it worn
  • Layer product pages:
    • Reveal key points first, make it easy for shoppers to get specifics
    • Add links to all other product-related topics:
      • Product details
      • Photos, illustrations, demos
      • Frequently asked questions
      • Customer and expert reviews with a link to a complete review
      • Troubleshooting and maintenance
      • Accessories and parts
      • Manufacturer information
      • Coupons/rebates
      • Related accessories (allow users to select these)
  • Product page should support both new and returning customers. Include:
    • Maintenance manuals
    • Warranties
    • Replacement parts
  • Show only recent, relevant major awards on product pages
  • Support comparison shopping:
    • Add side-by-side comparison table
    • List features in priority order based on customer's perspective
  • Provide all pricing information up front (product cost, shipping charges, etc.)
 
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