Web content

Writing for the web follows the basic rules of writing – for example, use clear, coherent language, and ensure that the content is copyedited and proofread. However, web content has some important differences in structure and format, mainly as a result of how people use the internet.

Web writing must be brief and to the point, because web users:

  • are often looking for specific information
  • are task-oriented and want content they can act on
  • want to construct their own experience, often by piecing together content from multiple sources
  • read very few words (around 28% of the words on a page in an average page view).

Basically, website users are looking for information, and they want to invest as little time and effort as possible to get it. This section provides some ideas on how to write and design a website that makes this easy for them. It covers:

Tip. Web users do not read – they scan pages for information. As a result, web content must be written so that it can be scanned easily. Specifically:

  • summarise your content up front – interested people can then read more if they wish
  • use short paragraphs (each containing 1 key idea) and leave plenty of white space
  • use descriptive headings to provide readers with clues about what is on the page
  • outline information using bullet points.
Download our quick guide for easy reference: Keep it short, keep it focused – web-writing basics .

How people read on screen

Studies that track users’ eyes as they read a webpage show that most people tend to read in an ‘F’-shaped pattern (see figure below). They read the first paragraph (or the first 2 paragraphs), then skim down the left-hand side of the content. Attention is also drawn to bullet lists and hyperlinks.

This means that:

  • the most important information or a summary should be in the first 2 paragraphs (or these should at least be compelling enough to make people want to keep reading)
  • headings, subheadings, paragraphs and lists should start with keywords (information-carrying words) that users will notice as they scan down the left-hand side.

Heat map from user eyetracking study, showing the typical ‘F’ shape

Source:  Eye Tracking Competence Center Switzerland

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Including your audience

Keep your audiences in mind throughout the drafting stages, to make sure you are meeting their needs (see Understand your audience for more information). Think about the main groups of users and their:

  • needs (ie what they want to know or do)
  • expectations and understanding (ie what they might be looking for and what they might already know)
  • behaviour (ie what pathways they are likely to choose to find information).

It can be helpful to develop personas to use through drafting and testing, to keep your content on track (see Personas for more information).

Test and refine content with your users – what is logical or navigable for you might not be for someone else. An iterative process of testing, tweaking and testing again will help to make sure your users can find and understand your content easily (see Listening to your users for more information).

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Headings and structure

  • Use an ‘inverted pyramid’ construction – load the most important information at the top of the page (see News articles and press releases for more information on this structure).
  • Write clear and informative headings – headings and page titles are often displayed out of context on search engine results pages, so they must contain enough information for readers to identify the content. Start with keywords, not articles like the or an.
  • Write for scannability – create white space by using short paragraphs, lists and subheadings.
  • Ensure that your information architecture suits both your topic and your audience.
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Language and length

  • Be succinct – online readers skim content, and will quickly abandon longwinded sites. If articles are long (1,000 words or more), add a short summary up front.
  • Write short paragraphs – shorter paragraphs are easier to scan than long blocks of text. Single-sentence paragraphs can draw attention to key points that might otherwise be buried. Dot points are very useful. (See Crafting clear paragraphs and Cutting long sentences.)
  • Write in plain English – use active voice and simple words that people can relate to. (See Clear and appropriate language.)
  • Speak to readers, not at them – have a conversation with readers and help them to engage by using I, we and us. (See Using first, second and third person, and impersonal voice.)
  • Think about what your audience needs and is looking for, not what you need or want your website to say. Consider the tone your audience is most likely to respond to. (See Knowing your audiences and Connecting with your audiences.)
  • Use numerals (1, 2, 3), not words (one, two, three) – numerals help people to scan and identify numbers. When reading online, users scan the page for clues that might answer their question. If the answer they seek is a number, the numerals stand out on the page and are easier to identify.
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Actionable content

‘Actionable content’ means content that users can easily understand and use to take action.

Many websites aim to include actionable content, because they provide users with guidance on specific topics or processes. They aim to tell users how to go about a procedure, or what they need to think about or do in a particular circumstance.

To make your content actionable, talk directly to users and suggest what they should do in a simple way. Actionable content is written in an active, rather than passive, voice:

Talk with your doctor about equipment that could help you.
Medical professionals can provide guidance on the equipment available.

You may wish to think about using visual methods to convey information to your audience.
Your audience may have conceptual knowledge that could be accessed through graphical representations and meaningful infographics.

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Microcopy is the online text you find on buttons or key areas that tells you what to do and where to go:

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Good microcopy talks directly to users and encourages – but does not order – action.

Tips for writing good microcopy are to:

  • speak in ordinary language – use words you would actually say to someone rather than something you might see on a form
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  • be friendly – use warm, encouraging, first-person language
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  • explain things – users are more likely to act if they know why it is important 
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Search engine optimisation

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is important because most people find information online by using an internet search engine. SEO is about attracting people to a site by ensuring that its pages appear near the top in search engine results.

Keep the following in mind for SEO:

  • Write clear, unique and informative metadescriptions. The metadescription appears on a search engine results page, and when URLs are shared on social media sites. It should tell users what the page is about and encourage them to click through to the site.
  • Include keywords in all headings and page titles. This helps the search engine to understand the content on the page and how relevant it is to the search query. However, do not stuff content with keywords – this undermines the user experience and makes pages harder to read.
  • Speak the user’s language. Use simple terms that people are likely to search for, and avoid cute headlines or made-up phrases.
  • Offer stable URLs. Ensure that other sites can link directly to each piece of content, and make sure links remain up to date and functional.
  • Update frequently. Search engines prioritise content that has recently been updated. Frequent or regular updates with new content help the site to stay near the top of the search engine results page, and also attract incoming links and social chatter.
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