When writing for the web, effective 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.
Best Practices for Web Writing
In theory, it should be uncomplicated to produce scannable, simple, easy-to-read web copy. The reality: writing web content is rarely a simple task. Web content needs to be accessible to anyone who happens to land on your webpage. On the other hand, it is crucial to understand and speak to your key audiences, for example:
- prospective and current students
- prospective and current faculty and staff
- parents and influencers
- donors and industry partners
- news subscribers and media
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 or tap. As a web-content writer, you must have a grasp on how people read webpages.
Top Tips for Web Writing
In short, there are high expectations for web content. Online content should be:
- easily understood by a variety of audiences
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.
The Michigan Technological University brand is more than our logo. It's how we look, sound, and feel to our audience. It is the intangible thread that connects every department, team, and area. University Marketing and Communications shapes affiliated brands to strengthen and elevate our overall institutional brand. Learn how to write on-brand copy.
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 less than three quarters of the content on a page. Make sure users retain your content by presenting great writing that follows our editorial standards.
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 webpage 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 webpage 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.
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).
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 webpage headings: H1–H6. The generally accepted best practice is to limit the heading hierarchy of a given page to four levels.
Wherever a numbered or bulleted list can 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.
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.
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 webpage. 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:
- Grumpy Cat, a feline turned internet sensation, is actually quite friendly and content. This kitty's peevish-looking expression is likely due to feline dwarfism. According to her owners, Tardar Sauce has a fairly normal life, outside of the occasional media engagement or public appearance.
Links are helpful and visually attractive to your readers; however, there is such a thing as too many links. Limit total links per paragraph to one or two and try not to put links too close to each other.
Cramped links and too many links can create readability issues and issues with clicking—especially on touch screens.
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.
Hyphens are a punctuation workhorse. We use a lot of them in online writing. But misuse can lead to a misunderstanding, grammarist’s gall, or typesetter’s tizzy.
There’s help for all of us—en and em dashes. They’ve been around forever. Think small (hyphen), medium (en dash), and large (em dash).
The en dash (–) is longer than a hyphen (-) and is most often used for comparisons, ranges, and connections.
- The Michigan Tech–Northern Michigan hockey game is Friday.
- This is the fall–winter issue of the magazine.
- The Houghton–Chicago flight is operated by United Airlines SkyWest.
The em dash (—) is longer than and en dash (–) and is most often used for explaining, separating, and interrupting.
- Our last three presidents—Stein, Tompkins, and Mroz—focused on research goals.
- Undergraduates collect, catalogue, and examine—they dig in right away.
- Wildlife Ecology and Management—BS
- She can—she will—pursue an advanced academic degree.
These keyboard shortcuts will work in most cases.
En dash: Option–Minus
Em dash: Shift–Option–Minus
En dash: ALT + 0150 on the numeric keypad only
Em dash: ALT + 0151 on the numeric keypad only
Style guides vary on how hyphens and dashes are used. Michigan Tech’s Editorial Guide will show you examples of how we use hyphens and dashes.
Many people consider dashes too fussy and give in to hyphens. Remember the goal is clarity. Write online text that is easy to read. And, when appropriate, give your text a better break.
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 webpages' 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.
How We Can Assist You
The good news: the web and writing teams from UMC are here to help you make your website users happy and keep them coming back again and again. As we assist in launching new external reputation and recruitment sites, we keep the following tips in mind during content development. As you create your own websites or continue to maintain your existing content—or create new content—we hope the same tips can help you, too.