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Writing for the Web


As a content manager, your primary job is to create content for display on your website. More than likely, that content consists of a combination of written and visual communication. Communicating to an online audience is a beast of a different kind. The online audience brings an entirely different approach to reading, and a different set of expectations as well.

Generally speaking, an online audience is looking for a combination of information and entertainment, and they don't want to have to look to hard to find it. Research has shown that approximately 80% of online readers only scan the page, and of those 80% only 15% actually go back to read content word for word. For you, this creates a challenge. How do you get your point across to the rest of them?

Audience and Purpose

The first step is to consider why people are visiting your site. These days you can find just about anything under the sun on the Internet, and you want to make sure that you are seen; to do this, you need to understand your audience. Are people visiting your site to find information, to chat with other users, to research, to seek employment, to shop, or to make a business connection? Understanding why people come to your site will help you focus your content and speak more directly to your audience.

Your audience consists of two types of users: the real audience and the intended audience. The real audience are site visitors who you have already snagged. You already have them reading your content and using your site. Likely, when they arrive at your site they already have a purpose in mind and know exactly where to go to serve that purpose. These are readers who you want to keep. The other side is the intended audience. These are the users you want to attract. You need to ask yourself how you're going to turn the intended audience into your real audience. Part of doing this is asking yourself what the intended audience expects to find upon arriving at your site. You want to serve up these expectations in an easy and attractive package.

Once you have determined who you are aiming your content at, you need to think more specifically about the tone you want to establish with those users. If you have a site devoted to health care, chances are you don't want to come across as too laid back and casual, or users might not view your organization as professional. On the other hand, if your site caters to social networking you don't want to come across too stiff and formal, because that's not much fun. Generally speaking, if you are aiming for a professional and formal presence you are going to want to address your audience in third person. Avoid the use of I, we, our, you, etc. For a friendlier, informal tone you may want to be more conversational in tone. In that case, think abut how you speak. You likely talk to others in a combination of first and second person: I, we, my, you, yours, ours, etc.

Once you have considered tone, stereotype your audience a bit. Normally stereotyping is frowned upon, but you want to understand the “normal” site user and make sure the content speaks to the appropriate intelligence level. Make sure the literacy level of your site speaks to the appropriate audience. For example, a high percentage of Internet users are teenagers. While they represent a high population of online readers, they also tend to be inexperienced and impatient. This group is going to be looking for instant gratification and isn't going to spend much time actually looking for information. On the flip side, consider a group of professionals who are visiting a site to read professional articles specific to a trade. This group is going to be far more methodical in nature, will be able to read and digest a more technical vocabulary, and is more likely to be willing to search around and read a bit to find what they're looking for. This group might also dismiss a site that appears too simplistic and juvenile as not worthy of their professional attention.

How does this all relate to your content? Specificity. You need to create content that is directed to a specific audience. Identify the group of users who visit your site, identify what they are looking for, and specifically address that. Put it right up front and center for them so they know they have arrived at the right place as soon as they land on your homepage. Avoid being too general and vague. All this will do is force the reader to look around for more information, and today's audience is more likely to move on instead of move forward.

Visual Cues

The online audience is highly visual. Often content managers find themselves working closely with site designers to ensure the written and visual communication makes the biggest impact possible. When a site visitor arrives at a web page, the general behavior is to scan the page. There are some common scanning patterns the human eye will naturally follow. You can take advantage of this natural behavior and cater your content to it. A study released by Jakob Nielsen, “How Users Read on the Web,” indicates that many users move their eyes over the page in an F pattern. The eyes scan from left to right across the top of the page, left to right across the middle of the page, and then from top to bottom down the left hand side of the page, which is a common location for site navigations.




Another popular eye scan pattern is a spiral:



Remember these patterns as you create content, and deliberately place the most important information in their paths. This will help ensure that users' eyes naturally see the information you want them to see.

Another easy way to draw readers' eyes to important information is by efficiently using titles and headings. These stand out on the page and a reader will often scan these first. Place titles and headings in the path of the natural eye scan patterns, and make sure that they speak directly to the information readers are looking for. Make titles and headings meaningful and informative. It's wise to avoid the cute and clever, because often people just won't get it, and readers who aren't native to your language might just get confused. You may want to work with a designer to create style sheets that will allow you to customize the color and fonts of headings in your content.

A general rule is to place the most important content “above the fold.” Think of the web page as a piece of paper. If you fold that page in half horizontally, so the top of the page meets the bottom, the most important information should always be placed above that middle fold. In the eye scan patterns the top of the page was always scanned first, so the logical thing to do would be to place the most pertinent information along the top. Also, take advantage of white space to define main areas on the page, as it provides the eye a natural cue to pause.

Use bullet lists to recap main points or other important information on the page. Often, readers will scan titles and headings, then scan bullet lists before deciding whether or not to read written content. When it comes to the written content on the page, brevity is the word of the day. Be concise. If you use paragraphs, make them short and to the point. Use very specific topic sentences, because online readers are likely to scan the first word of each paragraph and stop only at those that seem to address what they are looking for.

Mechanics Count

Don't neglect the mechanics. Grammar does count. Poor grammar, poor writing skills in general, imply a lack of professionalism and invalidates information. Think about it. If you go to a surgeon, and the surgeon mispronounces body parts or procedures while describing your surgery, you're probably not going to feel very confident. The same goes for written content. Take some time to review some common pitfalls, such as there/their/they're, its/it's, who's/whose, affect vs. effect, etc. Technology has enabled society to become very lazy when it comes to communication, which has leeched its way into writing. People are so used to sending a quick email or text message that they've sacrificed quality. LOL, cu l8r, ruok, IMHO.... these aren't words! It's one thing to use these types of things when emailing your friends. It's another to place them in your formal communications. Do not, ever ever ever, use these shortcuts in your formal written content. Please.

The quality of your written content will also affect your site's visibility. Many search engines are grammar parsers. They are going to break down your written content and specifically look for nouns, verbs, and adjectives to match search terms. Use active language, and be precise in your word choice. Use terms that are common. A “digging implement” is just a shovel. A “four tined food spearing instrument” is just a fork. Don't try to sound fancy. Think practical.

When it comes to structure and organization of the written content, a good rule is to use an inverted pyramid structure. If you have a body of written content on a page, such as an article, the introduction and conclusion should contain the same basic information. Sometimes, revealing the conclusion of a study in the introduction will make readers want to read on. Place key information (who, what, when, where, why) early in the piece. Some readers don't scroll down the page, or they might not click forward in a paginated piece, so if you save important information for later in the piece it may never get read.


Don't forget, again, to focus on your audience. Make the style of your writing match the audience you are directing the writing to. Consider your use of first, second, and third person. Be active in your writing (think resumé) and avoid verbosity. Use the Internet to your advantage by hyperlinking readers to supplementary information instead of trying to cover every detail in one place.

The style you use in approaching your readers is important. Unfortunately, the Internet has become a breeding ground for distrust. Everyone has heard of Internet scams and often people are wary of blindly trusting what they read on the web. Present your organization as professionally as possible. It might be obvious, but don't swear, don't use slang, and invest in a good design. Avoid the temptation of trying too hard to sound intelligent. It will show. If you conduct sales on your site make sure that full disclosure is made regarding costs or limitations of service. Make sure there is no question left unanswered, and direct people to where they can find information not clearly stated on the site, including any outside sources you may use.

Another thing you should consider steering clear of is the over use of buzz words. They sound impressive, but convey no additional meaning. Words and phrases like facilitate, implement, participative management, customer-centric, utilize, synergy... they're everywhere. It seems like organizations adopt these as a way to sound up to date and in the know, but eventually, the chosen buzz words change, and then what? By using common, direct language from the beginning your point will always come across. The problem with buzz words is that they seem to infiltrate the way people think, speak and act.

I'm experiencing a non-proximity distance issue with a vital file.” So.... you're out of the office today?

Because of your predisposition to your position’s productive capacity, it would momentarily be injudicious, as per governmental standards, to advocate an increment.” Guess you're not getting that pay raise, huh?

Enclosed is a summarized hierarchical itemization of the componentry.” Also known as a parts list.

Just say it like it is!

WebGUI Tips

As you work in WebGUI there are a few things you can do to make your work easier. For example, if you are creating a long document to display in one location, you should consider breaking that document up into a series of smaller assets on the page. For the first asset, reveal the piece's title, and then in the Display tab of each following asset simply select to hide the title so that all the assets will appear as one cohesive piece on the page. This will allow you greater flexibility with the piece. You can easily drag and drop the individual assets into new positions to quickly rearrange content. Each asset will have its own URL, allowing you to hyperlink to a specific location in the piece. You will also be able to edit or remove a single asset, for instance a single paragraph, without affecting the entire piece.

You will also want to become familiar with the Rich Editor. Using the rich editor you can easily insert hyperlinks to external pages as well as individual assets within your site, insert images into assets and store those images on the server, create tables and manage fonts. A quick tip: while working in the rich editor you can avoid having a double spaced return by holding the shift key down while making the hard return. This will create a single space return instead. You can also use a browser with a spellchecker or have a site administrator enable WebGUI's. The spellchecker will appear in the rich editor once it is enabled.

Work with a designer to create style sheets to help maintain a consistent appearance throughout the site, and allow you to display titles and headers in different colors or font styles. These options will appear in dropdown menus in the rich editor.

Become familiar with shortcuts. Shortcuts allow you mirror content throughout the site. This is a great time saver if you have content that is repetitive located throughout the site. You will be able to make a number of shortcuts, place them throughout the site, and update all of that content by editing only one asset. For example, you can make a shortcut of an article, place shortcuts of that article in a dozen places, and by editing the content of one of them all twelve of them will reflect the changes.

WebGUI has a content filter, which is available in the Admin Console. The content filter will allow you to set a replacement value for specific words or phrases. This is a simple way to replace common offensive terms. If someone on your site posts to a discussion forum and uses offensive language, WebGUI's content filter will catch that and automatically insert an inoffensive term instead. You can also use the content filter to automatically replace specific words or terms with a hyperlinked version. For example, if a user posts to a forum and mentions an affiliate of your organization, you can set the content filter to automatically insert a hyperlink for that affiliate.

In the Properties tab of every asset there is a URL field. WebGUI will allow you to create your own URL. Take advantage of this by creating URL's that are noun/adjective rich. This will make it more visible to search engines. You should use dashes to separate words in the URL.

Use WebGUI's workflow and versioning systems to your advantage. Set up content approval as a method of facilitating collaboration and proof reading. The approver can then receive content to review and edit before it appears on the live site and avoid mistakes being published. In the event that content is published in error, versioning will allow that content to be removed by rolling back the version tag.

Snippets are often used by designers, but can be helpful to content managers too. They are great for reusing content throughout the site to insert into other assets through AssetProxy. You would want to consider this for content such as legal disclaimers or copyright information that appear at the bottom of multiple pages.

As with any type of writing, there are never rules that are set in stone. These are simply some tips and guidelines to keep in mind as you work. By keeping these things under consideration your job will be easier, as will that of the reader.


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