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”
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.”
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.”