Capturing readers’ interests in this exploding digital universe can be immensely challenging. A study from analytics service Chartbeat found that 55 percent of visitors spend 15 seconds or fewer on a webpage.
Good website writing is the key to beating these statistics. Well-written content that’s optimized for the web rises to the top of search results while holding readers’ attentions.
Some writing tips apply regardless of whether your prose appears on screen, printed page or carved into a pyramid wall. Other tactics are especially relevant for digital scribes. Follow these 11 principles to make sure your website content gets the attention it deserves.
1. Know your audienceIt sounds simple, but so many writers put pen to paper—or finger to keyboard—before thinking about who it is they’re trying to reach. Before drafting content, ask yourself these questions: Who is my primary audience? What about a secondary audience who can influence and inform my primary audience?
For example, say you’re creating a website for a law firm. Your primary audience might be existing clients. However, your secondary audience is much broader, and could include other attorneys, law reporters, or anyone who might need your services in the future. You’ll need to make sure your content is both accessible and interesting to all of these audiences. What kind of questions might these groups ask about a particular topic? What kind of information do they need?
2. Follow the "inverted pyramid" modelWeb readers have short attention spans—they’ll decide whether your site has the information they need in seconds. Structure your content like an upside-down pyramid or cone. The most important messages go at the top of the page. Then, gradually drill down to the more specific, supporting information. End with tangential details.
For example, say you’re creating a webpage about a conference. The most pertinent details—a description of the theme, date and location—would appear at the top of the page. Supporting details like speakers and their lecture topics would follow. The less important information—such as conference organizers, the history of the conference series or a list of related resources—would appear at the bottom of the page.
3. Write short, simple sentencesLong sentences are for Charles Dickens—the short attention span of today’s reader demands sentences of 35 words or fewer. Focus on using nouns and verbs; use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Don’t use words like “equanimity” or “obfuscate” when words like “calm” or “confuse” will do.
4. Stick to active voiceUse active rather than passive verbs, and specify the subject of the sentence. For example, rather than writing “A coffee was ordered,” write “The man ordered a coffee.” Instead of saying “Products can be ordered on our website,” say “You can order products on our website.”
Active voice helps create succinct, reader-friendly sentences. It’s also more direct; when you speak directly to the audience (“You can do it”) it’s more engaging than saying “It can be done.”
5. Show, don’t tellDon’t limit your prose to generalities and high-level statements. Specific, real-world examples help readers better understand and visualize your messages. Consider these two descriptions:
This is the best dog toy money can buy.
We made the “Rough Rover” dog toy from durable, 100 percent natural rubber, designed to resist punctures and tears from even the most dedicated of chewers.
Which version gives you a clearer picture of the type of toy you’re buying? Specific details in the second description show readers the dog bone rather than tell them about it.
As an added bonus, more specific, descriptive product information helps your website's SEO and gives customers the information they need to make those purchases.
6. Nix the jargonThe web is for everyone—not just technical experts. So make sure information is understandable for the educated non-specialist. Spell out acronyms on first reference. Avoid insider language. Explain complex or niche terms. And provide hyperlinks to other articles where readers can get more background information on a particular topic.
Consider this sentence:
The journalist grabbed a SOT from the MOS, drove back to the station and put the story in the can.
Many of these terms are comprehensible only to broadcast journalists. A reader-friendly revision would be:
The journalist interviewed a bystander about the incident, and recorded her statement to include in the story.
This tip is especially important if you work in a technical industry, but want your website to attract non-expert customers. Remember that you need to write for your audience (see point #1) and not for your colleagues. Using accessible language will help you come across as approachable and open—just what you want to convey to future customers.
7. Make text scannableIn addition to putting the most important information up top, make sure text is easy to skim. Most web readers will scan the page to find the specific piece of information they’re looking for—if they don’t find it easily, they’ll move on.
Don’t believe it? Try paying attention the next time you open a webpage you haven’t seen before. Are you reading every word beginning to end? Or is your eye jumping around, looking for the information you want?
- Instead of text-heavy paragraphs, use bulleted or numerical lists. Instead of one long page of text, organize content into labeled tabs.
- Always include “white space.” This is the empty space that surrounds paragraphs, images, and other elements on your web page. Though it may seem like this is just wasted space, it’s actually a web designer’s best friend. Comfortable amounts of white space around text make it more legible, and more enjoyable to read.
- It’s also important to divide content into sections with descriptive sub-headers. For example, a webpage about climate change might “chunk” information under the following
- What Is Climate Change?
- Drivers of Climate Change
- Current and Projected Impacts of Climate Change
- Solutions to Reduce Emissions
- Learn More
These sub-headers not only help readers navigate the page, they’ll help search engines find your content. To try this on your own site, use the Heading element. Use one H1 (Large) Heading at the top of each page, use H2 (Medium) Headings to separate your main content, and use smaller H3 Headings for any minor points underneath your H2s.
Check out this post for even more tips on structuring the text on your website.
8. Incorporate multimediaSometimes a picture—or infographic or video—really is worth a thousand words. Research shows that 90 percent of the information transmitted to the human brain is visual, and people process visual information 60,000 times faster than text. An easy-to-read chart or graph can also do a better job of explaining a complex topic than text alone. If you're not a graphic designer by trade, there are a lot of great services out there that can help you make graphics yourself, like Canva and Piktochart
Images also help break up text, making your page easier to read. We recommend having at least one image on each page of your website.
9. Think like a search engineReaders find web content through many different paths—social media sharing, links from other websites, email sharing, and search engine results. That last method is especially important for web writers. Text could be extremely well-written and informative, but if it’s not optimized for search engines, chances are few people will find it. Think of your audience again: what search terms would they type into Google? Make sure to include those terms in headlines and sub-headers. If you're not sure what words are best to use, check out this post on conducting keyword research for your website.
10. Layer website contentThe great thing about a website is that it’s easy to direct readers from one page to another. Help readers find more great content by hyperlinking certain words or phrases to other relevant resources, especially those on your own website. This will help keep people engaged with your content and moving through your site.
For example, say this sentence appeared on your cooking website: Ratatouille is a low-fat dish that consists of seasonal ingredients like eggplant, squash and tomatoes. You could hyperlink “low-fat dish” to a page with other blog posts on healthy eating.
Building these internal links within your own site also helps your SEO, but keep in mind that links should always be relevant and helpful. Visually, if you overload your text with links, people won't know what to click on. Google recommends keeping the amount of hyperlinks on a page to a “reasonable number.”
11. Leave them wanting more
Good webpages end with a call to action. Is there a person a reader should contact for more information? An interesting video they should watch? How about a related blog post they can read or a report they can download? This strategy helps direct readers to other areas of your website and encourages them to promote your content to their friends and family.
Keep these calls-to-action succinct, and begin them with action verbs like “download,” “share,” “join,” “sign up,” “learn more” or “watch.” To really draw the reader’s attention, try designing a box or button for the call-to-action. And of course, make sure to include a hyperlink that actually allows readers to fulfill the action you’re asking them to take! On Jimdo websites, it's easy to create a call-to-action button with our Button element.
Writing in general is hard work—writing content for your website, even more so. The best web writers out there employ equal parts creativity, science, and research. With these tips, you’re prepared to create effective content that resonates with even the most flighty and time-pressed of internet readers.
And once your content is written, read this checklist for designing easy-to-read text on your site.
Sarah is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, MD. Her work has also appeared in Popular Science, Audubon, OnEarth, GOOD, Grist.org, Inhabitat.com, and several other publications. When she's not creating compelling online content, Sarah enjoys reading, cooking, watching bad reality TV, and pampering her dog, Clancy.