Writing for the Web
Writing for the web is something of an enigma. Generally speaking, well-written online content has two important characteristics: clarity and conciseness. Website visitors want straightforward copy with an intuitive structure to help them reach an end goal or accomplish a task, like learning about a degree program or making a gift to Michigan Tech.
In theory, it should be uncomplicated to produce such copy. The reality: writing simple content is rarely a simple task. Web content needs to be accessible to anyone who happens to land on your web page. On the other hand, it is crucial to understand and speak to your key audiences (for us: prospective and current students, faculty, and staff; parents; donors; and industry partners).
Web writing is complicated by two factors: your audience’s time constraints and the ubiquitous competition your website faces. You must capture your readers’ attention within 3–5 seconds or risk losing them forever in a single click of the mouse. As a web content author, you must have a grasp on how people read web pages.
In short, there are high expectations for web content. Online content should be
- engaging, and
- easily understood by a variety of audiences.
How we can assist you
The good news: the web team is here to help you make your website users happy and keep them coming back again and again. As we assist in launching new sites, we keep the following tips in mind during content development. As you continue to maintain your existing content—or create new content—we hope the same tips can help you, too.
Content can make or break a website. Make sure you're putting your best foot forward by keeping these content guidelines in mind as you write for the web.
Write stellar content
Be credible, relevant, and concise. Build your authority by linking to credible websites, citing relevant statistics, and saying everything in as few words as possible. After all, according to web usability studies conducted at Stanford University, a user absorbs only three quarters of the content on a page. Make sure users retain your content by presenting great writing.
Start with the conclusion
Web writing demands a unique structure. Present the most important information first, and provide readers with greater detail as they scroll down the page. Placing the most important information at the beginning of a web page helps not only users, but also your page’s search-engine rankings. Search engines give more ranking power to the words and phrases in the first few paragraphs of a web page than subsequent copy. To boost your website’s search-engine rankings, make sure the most important written content appears at the top of your pages.
Only one idea per paragraph—and keep it short
Web pages must be concise. Users don’t read content word for word—they scan pages for the information they need. Short, to-the-point paragraphs are better than long, convoluted ones. As a rule of thumb, paragraphs shouldn’t exceed 5 to 6 lines. Readers become easily overwhelmed by walls of text. Break up ideas into bite-size pieces (this method is called “chunking” text).
Use the active voice
Write using action words, and don’t be afraid to tell your readers what to do. Keep readers flowing through content with calls to action and when appropriate, instructions.
Even with great content, poor formatting can still undermine a page's success. Enhance your page's content with these formatting tips.
Headings provide a hierarchy for your content, making pages easily scannable and information more accessible.
Headings are an effective tool for summarizing main points, and subheadings highlight supporting content. Make sure to include relevant keywords in main headings, and keep the length in the 4-8 word ballpark (in any case, a heading should never spill over onto a second line).
There are six levels of web page headings: H1–H6. The generally accepted best practice is to limit the heading hierarchy of a given page to four levels. Read more about using web headings.
Try to use lists and bullets—not paragraphs
Wherever a numbered or bulleted list could logically be used, use one.
Lists help readers
- find important information,
- scan long pages quickly,
- navigate complex content more easily, and
- take away key points.
Seven is magical
When it comes to numbered and bulleted lists, seven is the magical number (known as Miller’s Number). Studies have shown that a person’s working memory can hold only seven to nine pieces of information at one time. When possible, limit your list items to seven.
Crafting hyperlink language
Once upon a time, hyperlink language such as “click here” and similar verbiage littered the web. The problem with vague hyperlink text is that when taken out of context, the reader has no description of the linked web page. As a consequence, the search-engine ranking of the offending page could be lowered.
It is always safest to use link text that is as descriptive as possible, for example:
Although proofreading sometimes feels like an inconvenience, you’ll thank yourself later for taking the time to proofread now. Set your work aside for a while and revisit your writing. Spell check can be a useful tool, but remember its capabilities are limited. Quality control requires a human brain.
Search-Engine Optimization—Best Practices
Writing search-engine optimized (SEO) content isn’t hard. When you stick to the writing tips outlined above, you should see your web pages’ search-engine rankings soar. And that’s important. Having SEO content increases your odds of showing up within the first few results on a search, which is crucial considering 75 percent of users never click past the first page of results.
Your optimized content will rank high in search results—meaning you have a greater chance of reaching your intended web readers. For more information about writing SEO content, read our Top Five Ways to Improve SEO Rankings.
Files and Folders
It is also important to prepare and name your pages and files appropriately. This is especially important when considering web folders and downloadable files. The general rule of thumb is to only use lower case letters and hyphens (-). Do not use spaces or other symbols. For more details, read about Characters to Avoid in Directories and Filenames.