Writing for the Web and Getting It Read

By David Needle | Posted June 23, 2008

Writers beware, no matter how good you think you are, chances are Web surfers don't have time to pour over your precious prose. Surfers scour the Web or leverage search engines to find the information they want, and if your site doesn't deliver the goods quickly they'll probably just click elsewhere.

"Most bad writing happens when we try to demonstrate how smart we are," said Chris Nodder, a user-experience specialist at Nielsen Norman Group. "You might think, 'if you can't keep up with me, you must be stupid.' But if you suppress your ego, and think 'What can I, the writer, do for you, the audience,' you're 90 percent of the way" to producing effective content.

Nodder covered a range of material, from microcontent in links to content you to have to scroll to find (vertical scrolling is OK; horizontal scrolling: "No!"), during an all-day seminar on writing for the Web at the posh Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco.

One topic of discussion focused on ways to making content clearer and more accessible to readers. Nodder emphasized simplifying content; use tables and lists to describe features rather than a dense block of text, particularly for technical subjects or product details.

"A lot of traffic to your site comes from search engines, not people going to your home page directly," Nodder said. "So it's essential that users find where content on the page is, so they can get to their goal as fast as possible."

He suggested every Web page should have sufficient signposts indicating where else readers can go for more specific information and related resources such as white papers.

Three Types of Signposts

Nodder listed three types of important signposts:

Navigation: The structure of your site including vertical and horizontal navigation, related links and "bread crumbs" that provide an easy way for people to return to sections they visited previously.

Microcontent: URLs, links and captions that contain important content about your site.

Metadata: The titles, headings and "hidden information" about how users navigate your site that can be gleaned from such programs as Google Analytics.

Nodder encouraged content providers to be up-front about their limitations and readily provide links to sites that cover areas they don't or to ones that provide more in-depth content.

"I seldom see this, but it's a sign of confidence in your own place on the Web," Nodder said. "You're helping your users, and they're going to bounce away anyway, so you might as well get the credit. You look smarter and [can become] a more valuable site that's a resource."

Speaking of getting credit, Nodder said many sites miss traffic by being too clever or following newspaper techniques that aren't as effective online. "In the print world, you're taught to use teasers to draw people in," he said.

But search engines often give more weight to headlines, so a clever or unintelligible teaser isn't going to get found unless the right keywords are included. "If you want to be smart with triple-level puns, go write your novel; don't use the Web as a vehicle for your ego," Nodder said.

For Webmasters, Nodder had one other big "do not": opening links to an external site in a new, separate window. "You've just broken the back button," he said. "Most users are running full screen and aren't familiar with how tabs work. Even if you're site is still there [in the background], you've just taken them away and they'll probably forget it's still there till they're ready to shut down."

NNG used to have a hard-and-fast "never do this" rule about opening new browser screens, but now notes one exception. "If you're opening to a document handler, like a PDF page," Nodder said, "we've found people generally close them when they're done, so that's OK."

Adapted from Internetnews.com.

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