The single most important thing you can do to improve your website is have audience-centered content that follows web writing guidelines and best practices. No other strategy has greater potential to positively impact the effectiveness of your website than good web writing.
Importance of Writing for Web
- Users scan webpages – they do not read them like printed text
- Users of all levels of education want and expect clear and concise text on webpages that allows them to quickly scan the available content
- Effective web writing improves the user experience across the board – increasing the effectiveness of your website
- Effective web writing is an essential strategy for improving your search engine optimization (SEO)
Best Practices for All Content
All web pages and content should be:
- Concise and clear
- Not redundant
Guidelines and Best Practices
Improve Usability of Text:
- Use simple/plain language
- Use active voice
- Be clear and concise
- Ensure all content is accurate and not outdated
- Avoid jargon
- Define acronyms on first use
- Avoid acronyms in headers and sub-headers
- Write for 8th-grade to 10th-grade reading level
- KU follows AP style, in addition to having its own KU Style Guide and KU Diversity Style Guide
Make Pages Easy to Scan:
- Design pages with clear and logical organization and flow
- Use bulleted lists in place of dense paragraphs
- One topic per paragraph
- Paragraphs should be no more than three sentences in length (exceptions: news/blog articles, etc.)
- Use well-written headings and sub-headings
- Front-load headers and sub-headers so keywords are up front
- Avoid lengthy and/or flowery intros
- If necessary, use bold formatting to emphasize keywords
Reading vs. Scanning
Users scan webpages - they do not read them like a paper or book. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, “On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” Over time, web researchers have observed many different types of web reading patterns as users work to find the information they are seeking. Your goal should be to make your pages easily scannable to reduce the amount of work users do to find what they are looking for.
Writing Content for Audiences
Once you have identified your primary and secondary audiences, you can tailor your content to meet their specific needs. Every piece of content and aspect of design on your website – text, images, graphics, colors, layout, formatting, organization, etc. - should be passed through the filter of audience.
Make sure every page on your site takes into account the intended audience and makes the necessary adjustments to meet their specific needs. Always ask yourself, does this content add value for the intended audience. If not, consider removing it or changing it to add value.
According to Nielsen Norman Group’s Kate Moran in The Biggest Mistake in Writing for the Web (video), “The number one biggest mistake in writing for the web is not understanding the people who will be reading the content.” Moran goes on to say there are three questions you need to ask to ensure your content is meeting the needs of your target audience(s):
- Who are you writing for?
- Ask yourself, what do they know?
- Use that information to identify knowledge gaps and fill them
- Use that information to avoid using jargon
- What do they want?
- Ask yourself, what are their goals? Why are users reading it? What are they looking for?
- Adjust your format and structure to best serve those goals and needs
- Adjust your content to ensure you are adding value for your target audiences in everything you include
- What do you want?
- Ask yourself, what do you hope will happen from the copy?
- What impact will that have on the reader?
- What actions do you want them to take?
Source: The Biggest Mistake in Writing for the Web (video) (Niesen Norman Group)
Additional Tips for Writing for Specific Audiences
- Write your web copy like you speak – use clear, positive and active language
- Use the words you think your target audience(s) would use conversationally
- Use the words you think your target audience(s) would search for in a search engine
- Consider the journeys the members of your target audiences will likely take on your site.
- Can they find what they are likely looking for quickly and easily?
- Is anything getting in their way and making them work to find what they need?
- All web content (text, images, graphics, etc.) should be tailored for specific audience(s).
Correct Use of Header Classes
This critical element of website design and writing is too often overlooked, but it is one of the most important determinants of user experience on your site. Correct use of header classes (e.g., H1, H2, H3…) is critical to your site’s SEO (search engine optimization) and essential for accessibility.
Page Titles vs. Header 1
In KU CMS - SUNFLOWER, you must add both a page title and a Header 1 (H1) to each page. There should only ever be one H1 on any page.
As a general rule, the page title should be the same as the Header 1 (H1). However, there are times when after careful consideration your page title and H1 may need to be different.
Examples of times when a page title and H1 might differ:
- Page title: About
Header one: About Pharmacology & Toxicology
- Page title: Research
Header one: Our Research
Header Classes Are Not for Aesthetics
Header classes should never be used to achieve aesthetic goals like bolding or font size. Header classes should be deployed carefully and strategically for page organization and searchability. If you need to change the appearance of a header class, use CSS to modify the styles while preserving the structural value of the header class.
Using the Correct Header Tag
Headers that use header classes tell users, search engines and screen readers the hierarchy of information on the page, as well as how the various sections relate.
Just like headers in a common word document, header classes create an index within the page that helps users find the information they’re seeking. Page titles and H1s are the top-level of importance and all sections on the page should relate. H2s are the second most important information on the page and so on.
Clear and well-written headers are critical when a user is listening to your pages with a screen reader (e.g., JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver, etc.). Take the time to imagine how your web pages would sound if they were read aloud.
Screen Readers and Header Order
Also, keep in mind that screen readers allow users to tab through a webpage from header to header. Headers must be ordered logically with only one H1 per page and the rest of the headers ordered logically to meet accessibility requirements and provide a quality user experience. For example, you must have an H2 on the page before you should use an H3.
Searchability + Search Engine Optimization
Like screen readers, search engines in browsers also look at the hierarchy of information on your pages based on the header classes. That information is used to create your search results.
Select your header classes and write your headers with organic searching in mind. If a user is seeking your information, what are they likely to type into a search engine (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Bing)? It is especially important to make sure all your page titles and H1 are optimized for searchability.
Page titles, headings and sub-headings are all examples of “micro-content.” In short, for websites, micro-content is content that allows users to scan a page quickly and understand what information is available without reading further for additional context.
Viewers make decisions based on the quality of a site’s micro-content. Ask yourself “Can viewers find what they’re looking for using only the headings and sub-headings?”
- Microcontent: A Few Small Words Have a Mega Impact on Business (Nielsen Norman Group)
- Company Name First in Microcontent? Sometimes? (Nielsen Norman Group)
Front Loading Key Terms
Another strategy that impacts the effectiveness and searchability of your headers is the location of key words. Always front load headers and sub-headers with the key words (i.e., search terms) so they are the first or second word in the phrase.
Example of bad: Alternative Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Example of good: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Healed by Birds
- Microcontent: A Few Small Words Have a Mega Impact on Business (Nielsen Norman Group)
- Plain Language is for Everyone, Even Experts (Nielsen Norman Group)
- Writing Digital Copy for Specialists vs. General Audiences (Nielsen Norman Group)
- Video: The Biggest Mistake in Writing for the Web (Nielsen/Norman Group)
- Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web) (Nielsen/Norman Group)
- Applying Writing Guidelines to Web Pages (Nielsen/Norman Group)
- Writing Style for Print vs. Web (Nielsen/Norman Group)
- Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web (Nielsen/Norman Group)
- Writing for the Web (Usability.gov)
- 5 Principles of Web Writing (NPR)
- Don’t Write Your Website Copy Until You Answer These Questions (MediaBistro)