Writing for the Web — and Getting It Read

SAN FRANCISCO — Writers beware, no matter how good you think you are,

chances are Web surfers don’t have time to pour over your precious prose.

Surfers scour the Web or leverage search engines to find the information

they want and if your site doesn’t deliver the goods quickly, they’ll

probably just click elsewhere.

“Most bad writing happens when we try to demonstrate how smart we are,”

said Chris Nodder, user experience specialist at Nielsen Norman Group. “You might think,

‘if you can’t keep up with me, you must be stupid.’ But if you suppress your

ego, and think ‘What can I, the writer, do for you, the audience,’ you’re 90

percent of the way” to producing effective content.

Nodder covered a range of material, from microcontent in links to

content you to have to scroll to find (vertical scrolling is OK; horizontal

scrolling: “No!”), during an all-day seminar on writing for the

Web here at the posh Mark Hopkins hotel.

One topic of discussion focused on ways to making content clearer and

more accessible to readers. Nodder emphasized simplifying content to make it

as accessible as possible. Use tables and lists to describe features rather

than a dense block of text, particularly for technical subjects or product


“A lot of traffic to your site is coming from search engines, not people

going to your home page directly,” Nodder said. “So it’s essential that

users find where content on the page is, so they can get to their goal as

fast as possible.”

He suggested every Web page should have sufficient signposts indicating

where else readers can go for more specific information and related

resources such as white papers.

Three types of signposts

Nodder listed three types of important signposts:

Navigation: The structure of your site including vertical and

horizontal navigation, related links and “bread crumbs” that provide an easy way for users to return to sections they

visited previously.

Microcontent: URLs, links and captions that contain important

content about your site.

Metadata: The titles, headings and “hidden information” about how

users navigate your site that can be gleaned from such programs as Google Analytics.

Nodder encouraged content providers to be up-front about their limitations

and readily provide links to sites that cover areas they don’t or to ones

that provide more in-depth content.

“I seldom see this, but it’s a sign of confidence in your own place on

the Web,” Nodder said. “You’re helping your users, and they’re going to

bounce away anyway, so you might as well get the credit. You look smarter

and [can become] a more valuable site that’s a resource.”

Speaking of getting credit, Nodder said many sites miss traffic by being

too clever or following newspaper techniques that aren’t as effective

online. “In the print world, you’re taught to use teasers to draw people
in,” he said.

But search engines often give more weight to headlines, so a clever or

unintelligible teaser isn’t going to get found unless the right keywords are

included. “If you want to be smart with triple-level puns, go write your

novel; don’t use the Web as a vehicle for your ego,” Nodder said.

For Webmasters, Nodder had one other big “do not”: opening links to an

external site in a new, separate window. “You’ve just broken the back

button,” he said. “Most users are running full screen and aren’t familiar

with how tabs work. Even if your site is still there [in the background],

you’ve just taken them away and they’ll probably forget it’s still there

till they’re ready to shut down.”

NNG used

to have a hard-and-fast “never do this” rule about opening new browser

screens, but now notes one exception. “If you’re opening to a document

handler, like a PDF page,” Nodder said, “we’ve found people generally close

them when they’re done, so that’s OK.”

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