Google “writing for the web”, and you’ll get millions of hits. 141 million the last time I looked. Obviously, I haven’t read all those pages. But the ones I have seen often leave out or skate over two key points.
- Say something interesting!
- Remember who your reader is
Most web writing articles focus on the mechanics. Keep things short. Use bold to highlight keywords. Use subheads to guide readers to information, and bullet points to make your text easy to scan.
These tips are all based on the web writing article’s favourite stat: web readers assess pages in about 3 seconds. And they are all valuable advice. But if you ignore the other two key points, you won’t have successful online communication – no matter how many tips you follow.
Say something interesting!
You’ve probably heard communications professionals complaining that people don’t read anything. That’s why you have to make web pages short and easy to skim. But that’s only true up to a point.
Yes, people assess a page in 3 seconds. But if it is relevant, they will stay until they have all the information they need.
Conversely, if you don’t have something interesting to say, it doesn’t matter how web-friendly the page is. Your reader will be gone in 3 seconds.
And by interesting, I mean interesting to the reader – not to yourself or your company. Think about what they want to know, rather than what you want to tell them. In business communication, you always have a message you want to get across. But that should be woven around the interesting info rather than replacing it.
Who is your reader?
Written communication should always be based around the reader. So keep in mind who you’re trying to talk to. Specialists or a general audience? Casual browsers or people looking for further information?
Many articles on web writing say to stick to everyday language. Never use jargon. But if you’re talking to a specialist audience, jargon is everyday language. You can use technical language to talk to engineers and tech-heads. Business speak is OK when you want to reach managers. Just don’t expect other people to put in the effort to understand.
Knowing your audience isn’t just about who is reading the page. Think about how they got there too. If someone reaches your page through Google or just by general browsing, you have a 3 second window to get them to stay. That’s when all the usual web writing tricks apply.
But if they come to your page through a “Read more” link, they’ve already decided they are interested in the topic. Now it’s up to you to give them the depth they came looking for – especially if you’re aiming for a specialist audience. Shorter is better. But not if you don’t deliver the level of information the reader wants. Even web usability guru Jakob Nielsen writes 1500-word web pages!
One last point
Remember your audience is a person not a search engine. Search-engine optimization of text is important to help people find your communication. But don’t optimize to the point that a person won’t enjoy reading your page. That’s a sure-fire route to a 3-second “bye bye”.