Writing for the web is no different than writing for print except for the fact that your online readers are constantly distracted and most won’t read your content word by word. Here are some tips to help you create more web-friendly content that your online audience is more likely to read and share on the social web. These notes were initially part of a presentation that I delivered at the India Social summit.
The web is like a battleground where you are continuously fighting against so many factors to grab the attention of the reader. He has unread messages in Gmail, someone pinged him on Facebook - there are so many distractions that it will be hard to hold his attention. If your content is short, precise and well-presented, he will appreciate it.
People on the web have short attention spans - they’ll read the headline of your story and probably the first few lines and then zoom off. Thus you should use the inverted pyramid approach to catch their attention – put the most important parts of the story at the top that can be seen without using the scroll bar.
The headline is almost as important as the story because it will be visible in search engines, RSS readers, email newsletters and social shares. Good headlines are like short summaries of the article but free of jargon – the reader should be able to guess what the article is all about just from the headline itself. Here are some good headlines.
Eye-tracking studies suggest that people don’t read web pages, they scan pages in an F-Pattern. Thus you need to present content in such a fashion that important parts don’t go unnoticed. Add a table of content if you have a long article. Use headings and sub-headings (like h2, h3, etc.), add captions to images, use italics or bold text to emphasize important points and put interesting information in pull quotes. Use short paragraphs and each paragraph should convey exactly one idea.
When you are writing on the web, you are writing for a global audience and therefore you should avoid using jargon or complex language in your content. Make no assumptions – you know what NSFW stands for but not everyone does so spell out the acronyms. Use humor and slangs with care as what’s considered funny in your culture may not be so in other countries. Also use the Readability Test to know if people who are less fluent in English can easily grasp your writing style.
Sometimes you have to use numbers in your content that can be difficult to visualize. For instance, the US spent anywhere between $4-$6 billion fighting the war in Iraq. How big is that number? If you can add another number to the same story saying the US spent X amount on medical research or that Y amount is enough to feed million people, your readers will be able to connect better with your story. Apple didn’t stress the number of pixels in the new iPad, they said it has more pixels that your HDTV.
When you are writing about a product, a service or maybe a restaurant where you had dinner last night, try to put yourself in the shoes of the reader and think what additional questions they may have related to that topic. Your content should answer all of them. Your aim should be create a page that is the best resource on the web for that topic. Use Five Ws, a proven journalistic technique, to get the complete story on a subject.
Make sure that all information in your content is accurate and comes from trusted sources. If you are using facts in your content – like the average age of an African elephant is 70 years – you should cite credible sources to support that fact.
If you have an idea for a story, don’t publish it right away – think over it for a day or two, edit and the final product will almost always be better than your initial draft. Darren Rowse calls it the idea marinating process.
When you are writing on a not-so-unique topic that dozens of other sites have covered in the past, analyze what others have missed or how you can make existing content better. For instance, you can include fresh data, you can include quotes from experts, you can create videos around the topic, you can present information in an alternate form – like a chart, a presentation or even as an ebook.
Spend some time reviving your old content. Sometimes your content doesn’t get the attention it deserves and it just sits there in the archives gathering dust. You can use Google Analytics to learn about stories that didn’t click with your readers, analyze the missing pieces, think how you can make the content better, and push it again. If you include “factual” content on your site – like which is the most popular social site – this kind of data needs to be updated regularly because that what your readers will like.
The content that you create must be readable across difference devices and platforms that your audience are on. Often times we create content that looks good on the desktop but that quality is lost as soon as we switch to a different device – say a mobile phone. That’s a missed opportunity. If you have embedded YouTube videos in your content, make sure you offer an alternative thumbnail that links to the YouTube video for environments that don’t support Flash or HTML5.
Users will consume your content in different forms. Some will save your stories to InstaPaper for reading later, some will print your articles as PDFs while others may send your stories to their Kindle. It is important that your content looks good when it is saved across different mediums. Do not ignore the print stylesheet because if you create good content, some people will print it on paper.
The first image and the thumbnail image of your story, or the image that your have specified inside the OpenGraph tags, should be clear, high-quality and predictable. That’s because these images will appear when your stories are shared on social networks like Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook and even Google Plus. You may have a great headline but if the attached image thumbnail isn’t great, the story can sometimes go unnoticed.
The other reason to have good images in your content is that they “pause” a reader when he or she is scanning your content. Use an image format depending upon the content of the image – for instance, images that have text are best served as PNG files. Avoid using stock images on your content especially the ones that are very common. Use the Similar Images option is Google Images to determine how popular a “stock image” is and if it returns too many results, don’t use that image.
Do not ignore video. It does take some effort to produce videos but it will be well worth the effort. YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine and if your produce video content, you have an opportunity to show up there. Also, Google is no longer a collection of 10 blue links but a mixture of images and videos. Good videos have great audio. Shoot and record at 720p (1280x720). Apply to become a YouTube partner and that will help you add custom thumbnail images to your videos. Keep you video length short, really short because it is difficult to hold a user’s attention for more than a few minutes.
SEO is no rocket science. This starter guide [PDF] from Google covers nearly everything that you need to do to make your good content more search friendly. Use good headlines, the content should be scannable, use good-quality images with captions, have an easy to navigate site structure and use Sitemaps to help search bots discover your content. Here’s more useful SEO advice from Google.
You should know how people are consuming and sharing your content. The new social analytics feature of Google Analytics can help track most of the social activity happening on your site and, accordingly, you can put the right social sharing buttons around your content.
You may think that Page Views are the best indicator to determine the success of content but that may not be the case. A reader lands on your page from Facebook, scans it for a second, doesn’t find anything interesting and leaves. This activity registers as a pageview in Google Analytics but the visitor didn’t find anything useful. The metric that gives a better idea of user behavior is “average time spent on a page” – if they are just coming and leaving, there’s definitely something wrong with the page content or there’s a mismatch between your headlines and the story.
You might think that the web has an infinite appetite for content and the more you feed it, the better. That’s not the case though. It takes effort, time and lot of thinking to produce good and useful content and that will clearly not happen if the goal is to publish as many words as possible in a day.
- Content Strategy for the Web – by Kristina Halvorson
- Writing for the Web – by Lynda Felder
- The Yahoo Style Guide – by Chris Barr
- The Elements of Content Strategy – by Erin Kissane
- Writing Web Content that Works – by Janice Redish
The Facebook Like illustration is courtesy Charis Tsevis.