Web-users are fast, focused and read in an F-shaped pattern. People act like information hunters when they are using the internet according to web usability guru, Jakob Nielsen. They usually scan the top two paragraphs and the left-hand side of a webpage and read only about 20% of the words.
People typically spend much less time reading a web page than a printed page in a book or magazine. They are also more likely to move to a new page before finishing the page that they are reading. You have probably noticed this yourself when you are using the internet.
So, how do you write your website so that people will actually use it? You make it easy for them to read your pages in the way that they prefer. Here are seven things you can do to make your website reader-friendly:
1. Short pages
Keep to one screen if you possibly can. This makes it easy for your users to find the information that they want without scrolling. Some subjects, like FAQs and terms & conditions, do require longer pages. Linked lists which have a list of topics with hyperlinks are a good way to display lots of information. A tabbed group of pages can work well for product descriptions if there is a lot of detail.
2. Short paragraphs with short sentences
Short paragraphs break the text up into bite-sized chunks. Short sentences are quick to read and easy to understand. If your readers have to struggle though long, complicated sentences, with multiple phrases and clauses, that go on and on and on for line after line after line then they will probably give up before they get to the end.
3. Important information at the top
Use the physical layout of your page to present information in an accessible way. The top two paragraphs are more likely to be read than any other part of the text. Any words near blank spaces are also easy to read. Headings, the top line of paragraphs and the bottom line of paragraphs are good places to put key information.
4. Load the left-hand side
Interesting, information-rich words should be at the start of your headings, paragraphs and bullet points. Left-hand words are much more likely to be read than words in the middle or the right of the screen. In fact, the first two words on the left are read more often than the third word. Your readers should find juicy nuggets when they look down the left-hand side at the end of their F-pattern scan of the screen.
5. Plain words
The rules of good writing apply to the internet just as they do to books and articles. You should use straightforward, everyday English which clearly communicates what you mean. Cut out grandiloquent discourse, clichés, foreign phrases, jargon and any unnecessary words.
6. Hyperlinks and buttons
People want to be able to move easily to the information that interests them. Text hyperlinks and buttons are the most popular and easy ways to navigate around a website and link to other websites. If you do link to another website, consider whether your users will want to stay in the same window or open a new one.
7. Users first, you second
Think about your website users. What type of people are they? How old, educated, wealthy are they? What is important to them? Why are they visiting your website? Will they be interested in a detailed history of your company? Perhaps they would rather find out what your products can do for them.
If you want to learn how to write well for the internet, take a close look at the websites that you like using yourself. Analyse what works well for you and take note of anything that jars. This will help you to hone your style.
Websites that are relevant and readable tend to attract more users and keep them for longer so it is well worth making your website user-friendly.
• Jakob Nielsen, web usability guru – www.useit.com
• F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content – www.useit.com/alertbox/reading_pattern.html
• How little do users read – www.useit.com/alertbox/percent-text-read.html
• George Orwell’s 6 rules of effective writing – www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/300
About the Author: Margaret Webster is a freelance copywriter. She wrote Network Rail’s website and an intranet site for one of their employee programmes. You can find out more about Margaret on her website www.pagster.co.uk
Her approach is to begin each project by understanding the client company, its objectives and its audience. This has enabled her to write engaging, results-oriented copy for a wide range of audiences as diverse as CEOs of large organisations and track workers on the railway.