10 tips to write better content

Writing for the web

Writing content for the web

Writing for the web is similar to writing for print but requires even more concentration! Here are 10 tips to improve your web content and encourage visitors to stay on your site and to come back for more.

Site visitors tend to have shorter concentration spans than print readers. They can drift from one website to another to find relevant information, especially if they don’t immediately find content relevant to them. If visitors bounce because they can’t find suitable content on your pages, this will affect your search engine rankings.

Use headings well

Most visitors to your site won’t read every word you write. They will skim your pages looking at your headings to find relevant sections. Use headings to break up your content and contextualise it for the reader. Headings must be relevant to the content and give a clear description of what follows. This is usually how visitors gauge the value of your site and whether or not to read further. Ensure your headings describe the content of the section and are relevant to the page.

Summarise the section before going into detail

After the heading, each section should begin with a summary. Similarly to how visitors scan headings, they scan the first few sentences after a heading to understand its context.

Value your visitors’ time by summarising the content of each of your headings first, then go into detail in the following paragraphs. This way, a visitor will scan and read further, when they see what they are looking for.

Visitors are more likely to look further into your page and your site than they would otherwise. This is because they know what to expect.

Use lists effectively

Lists are important on the web because they contain information in summary form. Lists are a good way of providing important content.

Most people scanning a page will read a list. This is because a list is a great way of judging content without reading everything. Because of the use of bullets or numbers, they also tend to force the eye to jump to them.

How to make lists effective:

  • Use short, concise and informative lists to set out important information;
  • Organise lists efficiently;
  • Maintain a logical order (even for unordered lists);
  • Be consistent in setting out lists (use commas or semicolons);
  • Only use lists where appropriate or they lose their impact; and
  • Use bullets or numbering where appropriate.

Use links

Links are another way to direct readers to pay attention. Readers focus on links and lists equally.

You can grab attention by using styles and colour to clearly identify links within your text. Links are blue and underlined in most browsers by default. This emphasises them compared to other text. Even when you alter link styling in CSS, it is important to make in-line links distinctive.

Clarify text links correctly. Don’t be tempted to say “Click here”, “More” or “Next” when you can say “Part 2: Five more ways to improve your content”. Give your readers a reason to click on a link and always tell them what to expect.

Be clear and succinct

Writing for the web requires brevity and clarity. Use short concise sentences. Only use one idea in every paragraph. If your normal style is elaborate, edit it when you have finished.

Start removing all excess words. Instead of saying “To begin with…” say “First…” Cut your word count using this method. Web readers are not usually interested in subtle uses of language – they want clear, non-emotive content.

If you say the same thing several times in different ways, eliminate repetitive ideas. Visitors don’t want to read the same thing again.

Consistent language is important. Make sure that your use of the first, second and third person is consistent and clear; don’t jump from ‘We aim …’ to ‘I hope that …’ unless the change has been signposted. Also, don’t change your voice unnecessarily – if your content doesn’t use conjunctions normally, be careful when you do use them; also, be consistent about when you use apostrophes: i.e. “Do not” or “Don’t”.

Beware the passive voice. Ensure your content is active, direct and current. Using the active voice makes your meaning clear for readers and avoids sentences becoming over complicated. You can change a passive voice easily, e.g. “Your car was damaged by me” to “I damaged your car”; “The recommendations are being considered by the Board” to “The Board is considering the recommendations”.

Use examples

Examples are a great way of conveying your meaning. Use them liberally in well-written content to express your ideas well.

This post uses examples to explain the use of active and passive voice in the previous section.

Readers are more likely to understand an example than a concept. If your content is too abstract and your ideas are inaccessible, your readers will go elsewhere.

Speak to your audience

Coaching your audience will encourage them to continue reading but lecturing them is more likely to push them to another website.

It’s important to speak to your audience and be personable. This is even more important when writing direct content, using active sentences or instructional text. You can break your voice by making it more natural – using shortened words and conjunctions (“We’ve considered this…”, “While doing this, consider that”).

Let ideas flow

When writing content, your ideas should follow a logical order. This enables readers who are skimming your page to follow the logic even if they don’t follow your arguments or reasoning. Think carefully about the patterns that should form your content and move your content and sections around until they seem to flow correctly. Avoid any leaps from one unfinished idea to another.

Proofreading

Proofread your content before you publish. Make sure it makes sense, is grammatically correct and is properly spelled. Read each sentence forwards and backwards when you proofread.

Your eye skips and jumps words when you read content and your brain fills in any gaps and corrects mistakes as it goes. Misspelled words that have the correct first and last letter are more difficult to spot when reading normally. You can usually spot mistakes by reading from the last word of a sentence to the first.

When you have finished writing, read it aloud and change anything that is unclear. If you stumble over your words or need to reread the sentence, change it. Then, get someone else to read it for you and change anything they find difficult to understand or read.

Conclude with a call to action

Let’s face it, not all your readers will bother to reach the end of your page before going elsewhere. However, those that do will want to know what they can do next. You can reward them with a call to action and encouraging them to take the next step.

“Thanks for visiting, come back again” is not an effective call to action. “Find out about our services”, “Look at our portfolio”, “Get a quote for our product today”, “If you found this interesting, read this article on…” are all effective calls to action.

Avoid words that have a negative connotation when trying to encourage a reader to take a specific action: “Subscribe to our feed” can imply that the reader will need to pay a subscription fee (even when this is not the case); “Join our news feed” has a positive meaning of being part of something or becoming a member.

When using calls to action, don’t use too many and don’t confuse your readers with too many options: “Join our RSS feed and leave a comment” offers too many choices. Effective calls to action require readers to do one thing.

How to quadruple your blog readership overnight

Goolge Analytics graph

Google Analytics showing a spike in traffic

This post is about how to dramatically increase the readership on your blog overnight and is based on my recent experience with Redcentaur Blog. It involves some Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), some good timing and, let’s be honest, a huge dollop of luck.

Writing successful posts…

To set the scene, I need to tell you a very short story. I recently upgraded my blog installation from WordPress 2.7.1 to WordPress 2.8 and the process did not go very well. Completely baffled, I decided to tweet for help on Twitter, meanwhile re-reading the codec and the upgrade instructions. Eventually, I got the upgrade to take hold. You can read about my experiences of upgrading WordPress by viewing the post I wrote at the time.

When I looked at my twitter replies the following day, I noticed a response from one of my followers suggesting I post an entry about how I resolved the issues I had with WordPress. This is how the post came about. I wrote it quickly to get it out and help others who were experiencing problems with their own installations.

Search Engine Optimisation

When I wrote the post, I didn’t put much thought into the meta tags or excerpt, both of which I always include in my posts. On this occasion, I tweaked the first paragraph of the post to form the excerpt and put together some keywords based on the core of the post. I called the post ‘Upgrading to WordPress 2.8 – Don’t Panic!

Subconsciously, by going against my usual instinct and not over-thinking the meta tags, I somehow managed to hit the core of the post.

Good timing

By listening to my follower on Twitter and understanding the needs of people to find answers to the problems they were having, I managed to get the post on my site very quickly and it must have had some value for many people. I offered sound advice and help at a crucial time.

Result

Later that evening, I checked my analytics for site activity and noticed an incredible spike in the hits my site had received. Further investigation showed that this was mainly a result of Google search results and Twitter referrals.

Looking at the search results that brought people to my site I noticed that all but a handful of the top 30 results were related to the WordPress installation post I had published a few hours previously.

Table of search results

Table of search results

I checked with Google search, using the keywords used by people visiting my site and found that I was ranked in second position, right below the WordPress codec itself.

Google rank number 2

Google ranking of the post

Conclusions

This has been a valuable lesson about the power of writing relevant and useful posts that people need. It has also taught me the true value of SEO when it is directly linked to the content of your page. For a post that was (let’s admit it) rushed, its value has been in helping others to overcome a problem. It was timely as I saw a need and answered that demand; and it involved a huge amount of luck thanks to the follower who suggested I write a post about my experiences.