Best practices

The way users read on the web is different from the way they read printed pages. For most people, reading onscreen is tiring for the eyes, and 25% slower, so users scan the page until they find information relevant to their search and then they read.

Create scannable pages by using:

  • Meaningful sub-headings
  • Bulleted/numbered lists
  • One idea per paragraph 
  • Inverted pyramid style (start with the conclusion)
  • Lean text (short paragraphs, short sentences, short words)
  • Bolded keywords

Get to the goods

The web is a user-driven medium. People want to complete a task, and do it quickly. If a website is difficult to navigate or read, they'll leave.

  • Focus on the user, not on yourself. Users are self-absorbed and task-focused. Find their top tasks and make them easy to do.
     
  • Keep content short and to the point. Consider what information the user is seeking and make it immediately available. Avoid unnecessary introductory text – phrases like "welcome to this web page."
     
  • Break text up into easily digestible "chunks" with clear, consise headings. Get used to writing meaningful sub-headings.
     
  • Bold relevant words and use bulleted/numbered lists to make it easy for users to scan content.
     
  • Use plain language. Even the most sophisticated users appreciate straightforward writing. Keep your sentence structure simple and avoid uncommon words, slang and jargon.
     
  • Keep visitors engaged with a "call to action" on every page. Users should be guided to the next natural step on every page.
     
  • Links need to give your user a good idea about where they're going. Don't use "click here" or the URL as link text. If the link isn't clear to your new user, briefly describe it.

Remove content

More important than adding content to your pages is removing unnecessary content from them. On many higher ed pages, upwards of 75% of content is garbage, especially in admissions and financial aid pages. So think about what's outdated, irreverent, unnecessary, or should be moved to a different page. Can parts of your long sentence be removed and it still deliver the same message? Does the user really care about that detail? Has that instruction already been defined? Think slim. 

Simplicity Wins over Abundance of Choice

Why Use Whitespace?

Readers need rest between ideas. Too much cluttered content is taxing on your reader's brain, and less scannable. Keeping everything "above the fold" is outdated and bad web design.

How to Use Whitespace

Use side boxes sparingly. They should contain at most a small ad and/or your top task links. Your page likely already has side boxes, which are the left menu and Contact box. Users eagerly scroll down when your content is relevant.

Use the body of your page. The body area should contain 90% of your content, using heading + small paragraph pairs. It might look boring, but this format is extremely scannable and usable.

Include your cornerstone content. Remove the rest.

Imagine with me for a second . . . someone has just arrived at your website, and this person has no idea what you’re talking about. And this is an important visitor.

Pretend further that this single visitor could make the difference between success and failure for your business. She has no time to waste poking around your site trying to figure out what you’re all about, so she immediately picks up the phone and calls you, demanding an explanation.

What do you tell her?

You’d probably give her essential information about how you understand her problem, options for solving the problem, examples of how you can help, and explanations of why you perfectly meet her needs, right? And I’m betting you’d want to explain it in the most compelling fashion you could, given what’s riding on the deal.

In a nutshell, that’s what Google wants you to do with the content on your site. 

Copyblogger

Use sub-headings (like this)

Try to place a heading above each paragraph. While users often scan past bodies of text, they'll usually read headings, so it's important to make them count.

Keyword headings

If you place key words in your headings, it makes it easier for your user to scan and find their target. That's when you have to get inside the head of your user and ask yourself, "What key language will catch their attention?"

Example: On the Radon page, we want to announce a training for professionals where they learn about radon in drinking water and air. How do I insert this training? I'll insert a short, scannable heading that strikes a chord with my audience. Now comes keyword research. What language relates this audience most strongly to this thing?

  • Training? (what it is)
  • February 27, 2015? (when it is)
  • Professionals? (who they are)
  • Radon in water and air? (the complete topic)
  • Radon in water? (what everybody's calling it) Bingo! Use the language everybody's calling it. Those other details can come later, if needed.

Be specific in brags

Frou frou is a bragging sentence that doesn't prove anything. An easy indicator of whether something's frou frou is asking whether competing or similar units--colleges, departments, labs--can list exactly that same statement on their page. Instead of frou frou, use unique claims with support, especially including numbers. Your general brag statement, if linked to a page with support, would also be fine.

Visitors want to know why your school is special and what you’re proud of as an institution. Gather those statistics, rankings, and awards, and make them easy to find. Nielsen Norman Group

Cite benefits, not features

One of the most repeated rules of compelling copy is to stress benefits, not features. In other words, identify the underlying benefit that each feature of a product or service provides to the prospect, because that’s what will prompt the purchase.

Copyblogger

Remember your priority

There's a priority dichotomy that places web pages between a Generalized and Targeted page. 

Generalized

This page is like a Swiss Army knife: it does a lot of things OK. It has an assortment of links for various audiences doing various things. The user isn't targeted, their action isn't guided, and it's up to the user, whoever it is, to hunt and find what they're looking for. This page results from authors mindlessly adding content while forgetting the primary goal of the page.

Targeted

This page is like an ice pick: it supports one goal really well. The verbiage, links, and a call to action are all on target. Your conversion rate is much higher for this user to do your thing: applying, contacting, donating, joining your group, or believing in some idea you're promoting. Every time you add anything, ask yourself whether your content supports your target goal.

Can't it be both?

No.

Don't Shout

Don't be the web equivalent of a carnival barker. Exclamation marks and/or ALL CAPS don't help at all.

Write good link text

The simple rule is to make your link indicative of where it goes. Users don't click frivolously. Rather, they click links like handing out money. You must earn trust by giving a clear indication of what this link means.

Do:

  1. Link the noun, verb + noun, or even an entire sentence--whatever is descriptive of your destination.
  2. If the link context isn't perfectly clear of what this link does for the user, provide a short description with the link.

Don't:

  1. Use "Click here," the URL, or other unclear language as your link.
  2. Use extra formatting (e.g. bold, ALL CAPS) for your links.

A Link is a Promise

“Learn More” Links: You Can Do Better

Additional Reading

  1. Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts
  2. Copyblogger - Free e-books on persuasive writing and marketing.
  3. 4 U’s of Web Copywriting - Quick and dirty rules on persuasive writing.
  4. Terry College - This is the best template for UGA websites.
  5. University Websites: Top 10 Design Guidelines
  6. Writing Right for the Web videos
  7. 10 Tips for Good Web Writing

Portions retrieved from http://www.dal.ca/webteam/web_style_guide/writing_for_the_web.html