I think it’s well accepted that people read websites differently from traditional printed documents. But what are the main differences? And how should these affect the way you write web content?
The most obvious difference is that most people scan web pages rather trying to read every word. So rule one is to make key information not just easy to find, but almost impossible to ignore!
Think where your eye went when you opened this post – did it go to the bold, underlined text above?
Judicious use of bold text for important words and phrases will help you to attract the reader’s eye where you want it to go. But don’t overdo it – too may elements calling for attention will only confuse people.
Where possible put important information into bullet lists – particularly the benefits of the product or service you are describing. Make each bullet point short and snappy. People often only read the first couple of words in each one, so aim for about that number – or at least make sure you put the important words first.
Sub headings also help. I bet your eye found the one above the previous paragraph.
Effective web copy has to be concise. Don’t try to get two ideas into a paragraph because people won’t get to the second one.
Also, aim for half or less of the amount of copy that you would use for a printed document. This takes real discipline. You have so much you want to say about all the great things you can do for your customers – try to put it all in and they will probably read none of it.
Hopefully, the page you are writing will have a well defined purpose. You should be clear in your mind what you want or expect readers to do next; make sure that your copy leads them naturally to this decision and try to exclude anything that does not flow towards that next step. Flow is the critical word here – you have to be subtle.
What surprises many people is that overt marketing language can be a barrier between your message and your audience. Claiming to be the best in the world or having the lowest prices anywhere is likely to make your readers a little cynical. Also, they will have to evaluate the reliability of that message before concentrating on what you really need them to know. Striking a balance between positive, benefits-led copy and marketing hype is not easy. But getting it wrong could make everything you have invested in your website a waste of time and money.
If you want to get really technical you can read various reports into eye-tracking research. These studies track how people’s eyes move over a web page on screen and produce a map of where they spend most time. These studies reinforce all of the points above. They also suggest that there is an F shaped pattern to many interactions.
Readers tend to read horizontally across the top first (suggesting that horizontal navigation bars can be an advantage). They then scan vertically down the left hand side, looking for anything eye-catching before going across, usually a couple of times. Finally they scan down the left hand side of the rest of the page.
I wouldn’t get too bogged worrying about the technicalities of eye tracking but it can help sometimes to have this F shaped pattern in mind when positioning critical information. On the other hand, being concise, reasonably objective and thinking about how your page can be scanned effectively should be things you think about every time you write a page for the web.