Website copy: a different approach

 
Deutsches Bundesarchiv, 1926. Photographer unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Deutsches Bundesarchiv, 1926. Photographer unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Website copywriting is very different to writing for print – we need to cater for different user goals and for how much harder it is to assimilate information from a screen. Reading on a smartphone is like trying to read the newspaper through a short telescope! Here is a list of considerations for improved website usability.

Use meaningful headings and subheadings

Well-written headings describe clearly and enticingly the content of your page, ideally using keywords. Avoid generic words like ‘overview’.

Subheadings entice readers to scrolling down your page because they can easily see the next topics.

Use images and pull quotes

Images and pull quotes help to break up a wall of text just like subheadings do. It provides visual pauses to help your reader assimilate all the information.

Start with the key messages

Help readers achieve their information goals quickly. On landing pages, use clear headings and concise page descriptions so they can continue on their journey smoothly. On destination/information pages with a lot of text, put the key information at the top – also known as the Inverted Pyramid – so your reader can assess whether the page has what they are looking for. 

Use short sentences and short paragraphs

To aid reading on screen (and particularly on a mobile screen) break your text into short, easy to digest sentences and paragraphs. Use about half the number of words you would in print: 300 to 500 words per page depending on the topic and purpose of the page. This rule of thumb excludes blogs, essays and other specialist content – audiences accept this in-depth content deeper in the site. A blog can easily run to 800 or even 2000 words.

Your content is an intersection, not a destination

Your content pages will be one stopping point on your reader’s journey. Treat your page as part of a web of information on your site by linking to other pages that provide more information on a key topic, and, where appropriate, to other pages on the web. If you provide value (even if that means linking off to another site) you enhance your usability and reputation. Keep external links as ‘further reading’ at the bottom of the page.

Sticky content

Think about how you can make your content ‘sticky’. If the page they land on does not have the content they are interested in, how can you guide them (through links) to the content they are interested in? 

Click here

Avoid linking from the words 'click here', instead make the link the words that describe the topic of the page you link to, ideally words that match the page heading.

Compare:
Generic: ‘For more information about her research, click here.’ 
Clear: ‘Read more about Anna Casey's marketing research.’ 

Make your page stand alone

A user might come to your page directly from a search engine, so the page needs to be able to stand alone. The logo, menu and page heading do a lot of work for you, but don’t launch into a topic assuming they have travelled down your pathway pages. Your introduction paragraph must provide context.

Use plain English

Without dumbing down your ideas, use plain English over jargon or unnecessarily complex words. This will make your content accessible to a wider audience. This is important on the high-level pages where you have a wide audience. You can introduce more complexity deeper in the site, for example, on a bio page where your niche audience is looking for more detail and insight.

International audiences

When you use te reo Māori or a colloquialism, either put it into context so that its meaning is clear, or offer a translation. 

Use the active voice

The active voice creates clarity, vibrancy and movement. It describes ‘who’ did ‘what’. Stories become clearer and you avoid ambiguity. Don’t overdo it however; it can get repetitive, and the passive voice is sometimes the better choice to foreground your subject. 

Compare:
Passive voice: ‘The doors will be opened with great excitement.’
Active voice: ‘We open the doors with great excitement.’

Write for the channel

Be aware of the channel you are writing content for. An information page on a website will have a different tone of voice to a blog and to a social media post. If you are writing a blog, have a read of Writing a blog: the right ingredients.