Friday, January 8, 2010

Writing for Your Website

Content is STILL King

For better or for worse, the words that we use set a tone, and form, in others, a distinct impression of our personality. Of course, when we communicate "in person," we augment our words with a continuous, real-time feedback loop in the form of facial expressions, body language, and gestures, all of which go a long way toward influencing how the listener responds to the messages we're trying to convey. These factors all contribute to whether or not our words are credible, and whether or not the listener "trusts" us as a messenger.

In the online world, we lose access to the non-verbal cues that are so important in our one-to-one communication. As a result, our audience evaluates our online messages very differently, and — without the ongoing reinforcement of our body language and expressiveness — it is MUCH more difficult to evoke trust and, in the case of say, a sales message, to move toward a "close."

Content is More Important Than Ever

Writing for the web requires a slightly different approach than, say, scripting what you'd say in person, or even in a telephone conversation, where some limited real-time feedback is still taking place. To compound things, according to web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, during an average site visit, users read only 28% of the words on the typical web page. So you really need to get to the point quickly... and convincingly. Nielsen says, for example, that the introductory paragraph(s) found at the top of many Web pages — what he refers to as "blah-blah text" — is typically skipped-over by readers, who tend to go directly to more action-oriented content, such as product features, bulleted lists, or hypertext links. So, Nielsen recommends that writers "cut to the chase" with their web content. Don't waste word count on generic, feel-good material. Hey... it's not going to make your prospects or customers "feel good" anyway, so why bother? Your site visitors only want to learn whether or not your product or service will help to solve their problems — and as quickly as possible — so they can leave your site and move on to other business.

When prospects — or clients — visit your website, they don't have the same opportunity to analyze what you're saying against a continual flow of non-verbal cues. Accordingly, it's really up to your choice of words to help them decide whether or not to trust what you're saying, and ultimately, your business and brand. The words you choose, and the way in which you present them, create an impression in the mind of the reader, so be respectful of your audience, and when writing web copy, try to put yourself in their place. Limit hyperbole— words like amazing or unbelievable — and stick to a more basic style of writing. Also, you should write in terms that reflect your audience's language, as well. If your audience typically calls something a "widget," but you refer to it as a "doodad," you're gonna have a communication problem.

Making Your Website Headlines Work for You

Writing good headlines for your website has nothing to do with writing great literature, or even articles in newspapers or magazines. Great website headlines are worth their weight in gold, but knowing how to create them is not particularly intuitive, nor is it something that you can learn by emulating what you read in newspapers and magazines. In traditional print media, the reader has clearly decided to engage and browse through the publication, while on the web, there are an unlimited number of distractions, all just a mouse click away. Folks who are browsing a website typically don't wander through the site looking for articles of interest, in the same way that they might with a magazine or newspaper. They rely on search engines to search and discover content, so once someone manages to find your site, you have an extremely limited window of opportunity in which to engage them and maintain their attention. For maximum effectiveness, you'll want to:

  • Ensure that your content is easily found via search engines
  • Increase your visibility and exposure on the topics about which you write
  • Attract better-targeted visitors who have real interest in what you have to say

While this article is not focused on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), there are many aspects of your writing style that can help to bolster your ranking in search engines. Headlines can be particularly important. To write effective headlines for your website, you'll want to:

  1. Keep your title short — Three to six words is the ideal length, with ten words probably the limit. Search engines such as Google give "high relevance" to only the first set of words you use in the title, and they will typically display only around 8 to 10 words in their results pages (Google and MSN; Yahoo displays up to 16 words). Also, Google looks at the opening keywords of your title and checks to see whether or not they are reinforced in your own content before deciding where to place your page inside search engine result pages.
  2. Don't try to to be "clever," by using irony, puns, plays on words, or any other journalistic approach. Your title should really be more of a "label" for your article, making it easy to find for folks who are using search engines to find articles (such as yours) that are actually of interest to them. Remember, too, that on the web, headlines are often displayed out of context. Make it easy for visitors to find yourcontent!
  3. Your headlines should be able to stand on their own If somebody was to read your title without the associated article, would they have a clue about the content? Your headline needs to be self-sufficient, and make sense when the rest of the content is not readily available.
  4. Use the same terminology that your visitors would use — Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects, and think about what search terms they would use to search for your product or service... or, better still, your competitor's product. Use this knowledge to craft headlines that will be most meaningful to your audience.

Website Body Copy: Short and Sweet

First, make your "word count" for online viewing about half the word count you might use when writing for print collaterals. Many users find it tiring to read too much text on screens, and they also tend to read more slowly on computer screens than they do on paper. Use simple sentence structures. On the web, convoluted writing and complex words are even harder to understand than they are in print. Remember that web users are impatient and critical. They haven't gone to your site because you are a wonderful person, but because they have something that they need to accomplish. Write in a simple, non-hyperbolic style that allows them to quickly find the information they need.

Also, recognize that visitors especially those arriving through a search engine can enter your site at virtually any page, and they can easily move back-and-forth between pages, so make sure that each page is independent of the others, and covers its respective topic without assumptions about the previous page (or the home page, for that matter) having actually been seen by the visitor. It's also a good idea to provide links to background info or explanations to explain names or concepts that might not be clear to the casual reader.

Limit the amount of scrolling that your visitors need to do, and put your most important information at the top, so that it can be seen without any scrolling at all. If you do feel the need to have lengthy pages, make sure that you provide a "Back to Top" anchor link at both the bottom of the page. Also, the Web is a fluid medium, so update your content frequently. Statistics, numbers, and examples all need to be recent, or your company's credibility will suffer. For example, before a conference, your page about the event might have a link to a general info page or even a registration form; afterward, you might have a recap of the event, or provide links to slides or transcripts of a presentation that was given at the conference.

Lastly, most web visitors scan pages; they do not read word-by-word, so if you've got a lot of uninterrupted text, think of ways to make your document easy on the eyes. For example, to make important words or ideas stand out, use highlighting, as it will aid in their visual scanning of the page.

Fresh Eyes Can Improve Your Web Content

Keep your writing crisp and simple. Each paragraph should contain just one main idea; use a second paragraph for a second idea, since readers will often skip over any ancillary points as they scan over the paragraph. When you finally think you have a good finished product, be sure to have others proof it... not just for typos and grammatical errors, but also to see if it "makes sense" to a casual reader. Readers who don't really know much about your business can often make for great editors... their lack of industry or product knowledge enables them to spot problems that might not be obvious to you, so enlist your spouses, friends or relatives. The end result will be better for the effort!

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