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Follow web standards

To effectively communicate online, you need to follow web standards, design for reading, and repurpose print materials for the web.

Expect users to skim and scan

Users can decide in as little as five seconds whether your site is useful to them. Users often scan pages in an F pattern focusing on the top left side of the page, headings, and the first few words of a sentence or list. On average, users only read the first two words on each line.

In a famous 1997 study, Nielsen and Morkes found that 79 percent of their test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word. Even with more people using the web, the percent of content that is read on a website has not increased by much. Here are some facts to consider when writing web content:

  • In a 2008 study, based on analysis of 45,237 page views, Neilson found that web users only read about 18% of what’s on the page.
  • As the number of words on a page goes up, the percentage users read goes down.
  • To get users to read half of your words, limit your page to 110 words or fewer.

Write for the web

After identifying your users and their top tasks, it is time to actually write for the web. If you think it would be easy to just duplicate information you’ve written for print documents, you are wrong. While the information is helpful, it’s not in the right format for the web. Remember, people scan web pages and only read about 18 percent of what’s on the page. This means you need to cut whatever you have in print form by 50 percent!

Good web content uses:

  • The inverted pyramid style: Begin with the shortest and clearest statement you can make about your topic. Put the most important information at the top and the background at the bottom.

  • Chunked content: Don’t try to pack everything into long paragraphs. Split topics up into logical sections separated by informative headings.

  • Only necessary information: Use only the information your users need to achieve their tops tasks. Omit unnecessary information.

Remember

Your content is not clear unless your users can:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Use what they find to meet their needs

Sources

  • How Little Do Users Read?, Nielsen Norman Group.
  • Eyetracking Web Usability, December 14, 2009, New Riders Press.
  • McGovern, Gerry, Killer Web Content: Make the Sale, Deliver the Service, Build the Brand (and other works), 2006, A&C Black.
  • Nielsen, Jakob, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity (and other works), 1999, New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis.
  • Redish, Janice, Writing Web Content that Works, 2007, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco.