Tips for Writing Effectively for the Web

Professional Writer and Editor

Though good writing has many of the same characteristics whether on the Web or in print or other media, writing effectively on the Internet does require some additional know-how and effort. For one thing, people scan (rather than read) text online even more than they do on paper. Because there is so much information available—more than you could ever read in a lifetime—people browsing and searching on the Web read over information very quickly. Readers also often want to be able to find related information easily, so it is important to link to other pages in your site (and to other sites, if appropriate) so that the additional information is readily available.

When readers do find your site (often through a search) among the literally millions of sites that are out there, your writing should be interesting, concise, and useful so that readers will want to remain on your site—and so they will keep coming back later. If it’s not, they’ll go back to their original search.

The tips below will help you to construct sites that are user-friendly and that more effectively communicate the information you want to share with those on the Web.

Title
Include the most important words of your Web site, article, post, or other online document in your title so that readers will know right away what your site or document is about and so that you will receive optimal search results. (See below for more information on search engine optimization.)

Main Point
Clearly and succinctly summarize the main point of your Web site, article, or post in the first sentence or paragraph of your home page, article page, or About Us page. If you work for a company selling products, for example, briefly introduce the company and the service you provide to your customers.

Organization of Your Site
When creating content for a Web site, use tabs, drop-down menus, and internal links so that readers can quickly navigate from one page to another on your site. Make important pages (particularly those that contain contact information, order forms, or shopping carts, for example) available from every other page on your site. Also, make the text of your tabs, menus, and links intuitive so that readers can immediately tell where they will go if they click on them.

Similarly, every page on your site should have a title in order to make the page easily identifiable so that readers always know where they are on your Web site. Because most readers will probably find your site through a search, they may or may not enter your site through the home page. Thus, both the purpose and organization of your Web site should be transparent.

If your site will contain many pages, group the pages logically and use drop-down menus in your navigation bar so that readers can easily see what information is available and how it relates to the other information on the site. There is nothing more frustrating when visiting an unfamiliar site than not being able to quickly find the information you are looking for.

For that same reason, it is important to make the navigational tools on your site easily visible. Make important links—whether hyperlinks or icons—and buttons large and unique enough so that they can be readily seen (by incorporating design elements, effective labeling, and the like).

Including a map of your Web site is also wise if your site has many pages and levels of content. With a site map, your readers can even more easily see the content available on your site and how the different pages relate to each other.

Audience
When writing for the Web, keep in mind that you are writing to a potentially worldwide audience. Though most readers will already be interested in the specific topic you are addressing (which is why they found your site or post in the first place), you don’t know how much knowledge they will already have about the subject. Spell out acronyms on the first use and possibly define obscure or field-specific terms (though don’t overdo it, as that may distract your readers). Unless you are writing solely for a very specific readership, avoid jargon.

When creating the content for your site or article, do ask yourself who your intended audience is, and write accordingly. Though anyone may potentially stumble onto your Web site or post, you still want to target your audience so that your site or Web page is as effective as possible.

Readers’ Needs
Because of the potentially diverse audience, unless your site or article truly is just for you (and if it were, I don’t think you would be reading this article), you need to focus your site on meeting the needs of readers. Tell about, for example, the benefits of your products or services, the importance of your organization’s cause and how it will help others or make the world a better place, or the successes of your research and how the information you have found will be useful to readers. If the purpose of your site is simply to share information with others—rather than selling a product or service or soliciting donations, etcetera—make the information as clear, useful, accurate, and thorough (without going overboard) as you can.

Short and Concise
As indicated above, people scan content on the Web; they rarely read it word for word like they would a novel. For that reason, it is important to convey information in a readily accessible, reader-friendly format. To do so, generally follow the guidelines below:

  • Use bold headings and (subheadings, if needed), and leave a space between paragraph breaks.
  • Keep paragraphs short.
  • Generally keep sentences and words short, as well.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words, and use the active voice (rather than passive voice) as mush as possible.
  • Use bullets, numbered lists, and the like when possible to break up text and so that lists of information are easily readable.
  • When possible, use vivid, descriptive, powerful words. Though it is important to judiciously repeat key terms (see search optimization below), you don’t want your writing to be monotonous or repetitive.
  • Make every word count.

Search Engine Optimization
If you are developing a Web site, you have likely heard of or read about search optimization. Simply put, search optimization (also known as search engine optimization, or SEO) is the process of improving the amount and quality of traffic to a site by using targeted keywords and phrases so that the site receives a top ranking when those keywords and phrases are used in a Web search. Writing your content with search optimization in mind is essential if you want others to find your Web site or page, particularly if the subject of your Web site is a common one.

You may have heard the expression that “content is king.” This is especially true of the Internet, so make sure that the content on your site is relevant, and don’t “stuff” your Web site with search terms simply to try to achieve better ratings, as Google and other search engines will actually hold that against you and will likely drop your ratings or may even blacklist you for employing such tactics. Therefore, use important terms judiciously.

As you determine the meta tags, page titles, headings, and information that you want to include in your site, examine the Web sites of similar organizations, or of your competition. Identify the tags, headings, and terms that they use, and make sure that you use them, as well. This should help significantly in increasing your visibility on the Web.

The amount of content is an important consideration, as well. In many cases, the more relevant, worthwhile content you have, the more likely it is that your site will be found. Longevity is also a factor. A site’s ranking often improves over time as it becomes better known and receives more interest (user traffic).

Being Linked
One of the primary ways that your ratings with Google, Yahoo!, and other search engines are improved is when other sites link to your site. This is one indication to search engines that your content is worthwhile and of interest to others. To get other Web sites to link to your site, again, you must have useful, relevant, easy-to-read, and accurate information.

Linking to Other Sites
Though you will increase your optimization by having other sites link to yours, you might also find it helpful to readers when you link to other Web sites yourself, and doing so should also improve your search engine ratings. Just as other sites’ linking to yours indicates that your content is worthwhile, your linking to other worthwhile, related sites likewise demonstrates that your content is worthy of being categorized with theirs. When linking to other sites, tell readers about the site that you are linking to and indicate how it relates to your site. And make sure to provide proper context—don’t just throw them out to the wild-wide Web without any clue as to where they are going. Therefore, use descriptive text as your link, not just “Click here” or similar phrases.

Not:  For additional information about this fascinating topic, click here.

But: For additional information about this fascinating topic, visit windsurfing2die4.com.

Don’t overlink, however—too many links on your pages can be distracting. Link only to information that really is relevant and worthwhile.

Review Your Site
After you have created the content for your site, review it. Determine if you have included all of the important information necessary to meet your readers’ needs and promote your site, and delete any content that is repetitive or unessential. Check your content for accuracy, and revise any text that seems unclear or vague. Also check to make sure that all of the links, buttons, dynamic graphics, and other functions work correctly. Look to see if you have included the photos and other images that you planned to, and determine if it might be worthwhile to add more graphics to enhance (not just enlarge) your site. Finally, read over your pages for typos (punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and other grammatical errors).

Feedback
In addition to reviewing the site yourself, while you’re constructing your site or after you’re finished (but ideally before you go live), have a colleague, friend, or professional writer or editor read over the site and give feedback. Jot down any questions the person has or any comments for improvement. You can also allow visitors to your site to provide feedback. This can be a very effective tool for helping you to continue to improve your site and making it even more user-friendly

Submitting to Search Engines
Ideally, only after you have written, reviewed, and revised your content should you submit your site to search engines. Keep in mind that for some search engines, repeatedly submitting your site is effective; however, for others, such as DMOZ, your site can be penalized, or even removed, for doing so. Once you have submitted your site, it may take a few weeks for you site to be indexed by the search engines (that is, it may take a few weeks for your site to show up when you search for it). And it may take even longer, perhaps several months or more, for your site to show up in a general topic search. Again, this depends on how well you implement the methods of search engine optimization discussed above and how many other sites are out there that relate to your same subject. If your topic is a common one, receiving high rankings may require a lot of effort and a lot of time—but the results will likely be well worth it.

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