Why write for the web?
Writing for the web is fundamentally different from writing for written media. In this post I will explain why writing for the web is something else and why it is important to apply these “Writing for the web Guidelines”.
How visitors read a web page
Reading from a screen is different from reading from paper. Generally people take less time to carefully read and understand the text. Also, they scan a page quickly, looking for hyperlinks and headers.
Jakob Nielsen’s famous eyetracking study shows this very clearly:
Users focus on the top part of the page, then quickly scan in a vertical direction, mostly in a F or E shaped pattern.
Of course the type of page determines the exact way it is handled. People will take the time to read through a long blog post if they are interested in the subject. When looking for products to buy in a web shop visitors will tend to scroll down a full page.
But in general keep these things in mind:
- Users do not read thoroughly.
- If they don’t find quickly what they are looking for they’ll leave.
- And unless you’re writing a literature blog, people are not interested in long sentences and eloquent words.
How search engines read a web page
Although we write for our visitors, if the search engines can’t find us no one will read our web page. So it is good to understand how a search engine “sees” a web page and how it determines what is important and what not.
Readable text versus images
Search engines use automated “bots” to crawl the web. Since it is a computer program it cannot understand pictures or any other multimedia, hence the importance of readable text. This is why most Flash websites are really bad for SEO (search engine optimization): because all the text is in images. The same goes for video or audio. It is great to have video on your site but make sure that at least you have a text summary of what the video is about.
Note: also for accessibility reasons you should always have a text alternative for information contained in images, video or audio.
How a Search Engine decides what is important
How can a “bot” decide which text is important and what not? Not that well! That’s why searching the web is sometimes so frustrating. But here is part of the search engine’s logic:
- Keyword density – how often does a word appear in the page.
- HTML tagging – A word used within a header (h1,h2, h3) must be more important than words within a regular paragraph. Same for hyperlinks, alt tags, etc.
- Page titles – The title that you see in the browser window has significant weight.
- URLs – www.mydomain.com/kayak-tours is clearly about Kayak Tours.
- Words located higher in the web page are more important a than words at the bottom
Graphics versus Text
Note that the focus is on readable text. Not on gorgeous design. In fact, one mistake many designers and business owners make, is to have too much graphics on their site and not enough text. Especially when it comes to the home page, which is the most important page because it is your first impression.
Some bad techniques for a Home Page are:
- Having a Flash Intro or a Splash Page as your intro page (you lose about 25-35% of your visitors!!!)
- Hardly any text on your Home Page, just images and click-throughs.
- No clear explanation about what the site is about, what you offer and where you are located.
Visitors & Search Engines
Although we need certain techniques uniquely for search engines, most of the issues mentioned above are important for real people as well.
An image can say more than a thousand words, but sometimes people turn off the images in their browser. Also, don’t forget about visually impaired people, or users viewing your site on a mobile device (smartphones, etc.).
And use enough text and explanation about who you are, where you are located and what you do. Realize that not everyone coming to your site knows what your business is about. Someone from New York might be looking for a landscaper and end up on a local New Orleans lawn mower’s website. Also make sure that on your homepage it is very clear what type of services or products you offer. I have seen numerous sites where it took me several pages before I understood what the site was about.
Using semantically correct HTML
Using Headers and breaking up your text in short paragraphs is also user-friendly. Again, remember the scanning type of reading. A page with clear headings and clear outstanding keywords is more pleasant to read and easier to scan.
Giving your page a more explanatory title than “Home” or “Products” helps a user find his browser window back.