Writing content for an online audience

Whether it’s writing content for a single business blog or an entire website, if we understand how a web user processes content it helps us build the the best experience for visitors to our site. Plus, we’ll get more bang for our buck as it makes better use of those hours we put into writing and rewriting content.

Understanding online reading behaviour

Studies into online reading behaviour began as early as the late 1990s (by the Nielson Norman Group) using eyetracking and heat maps to determine user behaviour when taking in information from a screen. You may have seen these images, which gave rise to the term ‘F-shaped reading pattern’.

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The findings show that in many contexts, we scan rather than read content to find what we are after, and that there are patterns to the way we scan. Exceptions to this will be when we are specifically visit sites in order to read features or long form articles – and there’s certainly a place for these.

Whatever the nature of our web-browsing, we more often than not are there to find what we need to know – as simply and quickly as possible.

How to write scannable content

As web users dip into content, it’s important to make sure the most important information they need to know is structured and positioned where it is unlikely to be missed.

Borrow the inverted pyramid structure

When a journalist writes a hard news story, the most important facts are delivered straight up. Once these have been communicated, the journalist knows that he or she can elaborate on the story, knowing if the reader only gets to paragraph three and goes no further, then they have absorbed the essential details of the story.

We need to think about why visitors are coming to our pages. If we are marketing an event, what information should we be providing straight up? Most likely it will be performers, dates and venues, with instructions or access to tickets. Other details like the festival history, information about the event curator etc. can certainly be included but are placed later in the page. For those who are really interested, the information is there to discover. For those who just want to get tickets, they’ll be able to do so quickly, and won’t have bounced off to another site in the meantime.

Write headings

Headings are a simple way to highlight the topic of the following paragraphs and to break up blocks of text into more digestible chunks. Put the most important content or keywords to the left of the heading if possible, as this is where they stand the best chance of being noticed, by both search engines and the reader.

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Use short sentences and punchy paragraphs

One idea per sentence and one topic per paragraph is a useful basis for your structure. If you bury an insight toward the end of a paragraph, it will likely to be missed. Trim sentences also improve the readability of your page.

Make time to re-read your page or post several times before you publish it online. Any repetition or tautology? Have you taken 20 words to say what you could in 10? Concise text is rewarded by both readers and search engines alike.

Highlight with bold text and anchor text

If the essence of a paragraph can be summed up in a few words, consider making them bold. Anchor text is another way to emphasise texts, as words which anchor a hyperlink are generally highlighted. It’s worth spending a few moments about which words you want to emphasise. There’s rarely any benefit to glean from ‘click here’!

Organise with bullet points and lists

Lists can present certain information quickly. Some tips for bullet points include:

  • keep each point short
  • keep punctuation to a minimum
  • 5 (or 10 at most) items per list
  • ordered logically to allow easy comprehension.

Illustrate with images and graphics

It turns out that our experience as consumers of information on the Internet has made us develop some pretty finely-tuned sh*t detectors. We are much more likely to spend time scrutinising an image if we feel it is closely related to the content; and next to no time if we perceive it to be a fluffy, feel good image with only superficial relevance.

A relevant image makes for great content, as does graphic elements such as tables or illustrations which present information visually. Just remember to include ‘alt text’ if you are able. Alternative text is a simple captioned explanation for users and (Googlebots) who are visually impaired.

The importance of communicating clearly in a fog of information

There are many web sites offering information for users seeking certain answers, but much of it is not optimised for an online audience. By providing well researched content that is also well organised and easy to scan, visitors will be more likely to find the content they are after – and return there next time.

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Heidi McElnea

Heidi manages written communications for the various digital and print design services offered by Orion Creative. It’s a colourful blend of website and social media content, email marketing, e-learning, copy for print and scripts for voice overs.

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