Writing For The Web – Content Guidelines For Better Engagement

To engage online audiences, you need a different tack than traditional writing calls for. Attention spans are shorter than ever – if your writing isn’t clear, concise, and compelling, people won’t read it. Today, we’ll cover some essential guidelines you should follow when writing web content. Some might be jarring if you’re used to more academic writing, but following these rules is the way forward.

1. Frontload Your Content

Frontloading your content means presenting the most important information first. This is essential today: If skim readers can’t find the information they need immediately, they’ll just click off. You need to grab their attention right away. Show them you have the info they want. This is also important since more users don’t read to the end. If there’s something you want them to know, say it up front!

To write an essay, you start with an introduction, and you gradually build up to your conclusion. To write effectively for the web, you need to do the opposite and come to the point immediately. Web content should use the ‘inverted pyramid’ style seen in news articles.

What Is The Inverted Pyramid Style?

The inverted pyramid style is designed to prevent burying the lead. To use this style of writing, always start with the most compelling or essential information at the beginning. Follow it up with supporting details and finish off with any extra information. This structure means visitors can immediately grasp your main point at a glance without every section, which risks them losing patience.

Google Leak Reinforces the Need to Frontload Content

Aside from benefiting users, frontloading your content will also boost your Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). You might have heard about the recent leak of Google Search’s internal documentation. It was full of interesting revelations, but there was one I that stood out to me: Google’s crawling tokens prioritise the first part of a blog. This reinforces the need to include essential information and keywords first. If you’re interested, you can read all about the technical side of this and more insights from the leak in iPullRank’s article, Secrets from the Algorithm.

2. Use Active Voice

Using active voice rather than passive makes your content easier to follow.  Active voice emphasises the subject performing the action, making sentences easier to read. For example, ‘The developer fixed the bug’ is more direct and easier to read than ‘The bug was fixed by the developer.’ 

Here’s a detailed look at why active voice is always better than passive voice when writing for the web:

  • Clarity: Active voice provides clarity by clearly identifying who is doing what. For example, ‘The team completed the project’ is clearer than ‘The project was completed by the team.’
  • Brevity: Active voice usually results in shorter sentences. This makes your writing more concise and easier to understand. For example, ‘She wrote the article’ is shorter and more direct than ‘The article was written by her.’
  • Engagement: The active voice is more energetic and creates a stronger connection with the reader. It makes your writing more dynamic and interesting. For example, ‘The company launched a new product’ engages more than ‘A new product was launched by the company.’
  • Authority: Using active voice makes your writing more authoritative and confident. It shows that you know what you’re talking about and helps establish credibility. For example, ‘We guarantee satisfaction’ sounds more confident than ‘Satisfaction is guaranteed by us.’

Less Passive Tense = Better SEO

As far as we know, Google doesn’t take passive tense into account when ranking websites. But, it’s a given that anything that makes your content less user-friendly will hurt your SEO.  Here’s how passive voice does that:

  • Reduced Readability: Passive sentences are often longer and more complex, making them harder to read. This can cause users to leave your site, increasing bounce rates. Search engines notice this and may rank your page lower.
  • Lower Engagement: Passive voice can lead to less engaging and less impactful writing. Lower engagement means readers are less likely to stay on your page, share your content, or link to it. These poor metrics signal to search engines that content isn’t valuable and relevant.

3. Be Concise

Being concise is essential for effective web content. Web readers often skim, so getting to the point straight away helps keep visitors engaged. Here’s how to achieve conciseness:

  1. Use Short Sentences: Break complex ideas into shorter sentences. This makes your content easier to read and understand.
    • Wordy: ‘Due to the fact that there was a large crowd, the event was postponed.’
    • Concise: ‘The event was postponed due to the large crowd.’
  2. Avoid Unnecessary Words: Cut out filler words and phrases that don’t add value.
    • Wordy: ‘In order to improve your writing, you should practice regularly.’
    • Concise: ‘To improve your writing, practice regularly.’
  3. Stick to the Point: Stay focused on the main idea and avoid tangents. Each sentence should support your main point.
  4. Use Simple Language: Choose simple words over complex ones. For example, use ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’.

4. Break Up Ideas into Bite-Sized Chunks With Subheadings

Be sure to break up your content with plenty of subheadings. This will make it easier for readers to digest. Subheadings also make it a lot easier for readers to scan web pages as they scroll. Here’s how to do it effectively:

  • Use Descriptive Subheadings: Your headings should be descriptive and informative and give a clear idea of what each section is about. For example, instead of ‘Introduction,’ use ‘Why SEO Matters.’
  • Keep Sections Short: Break long sections into short paragraphs. Avoid long sentences and walls of text. This improves readability and keeps readers engaged.
  • Highlight Key Points: Use subheadings to highlight key points and make your content scannable. This helps readers quickly find information that’s the most critical.
  • Maintain Consistency: Use a consistent format for your subheadings to give your content a cohesive look.

5. Write in Plain English

Plain English refers to clear, straightforward language that avoids complexity and jargon. This makes your content accessible to a broader audience and improves user experience.

To write content in plain English, use simple and familiar words. Write short and simple sentences, aiming for no more than 25 words. Avoid using technical terms and industry-specific jargon unless necessary. Be direct, stating your main point clearly without unnecessary words. Use active voice to make sentences more engaging and easier to understand. 

Practice Makes Perfect

When you start writing in plain English, it might be a bit jarring at first. It’s drastically different from much of the writing we learn in school, so it takes some getting used to. Once you get the hang of it, though, you’ll never turn back. Not only is it quicker to read, it’s quicker to write. The Plain English Style Guide has been an invaluable resource for our team, and we highly recommend reading it. It’s from the Plain English Campaign, a training organisation trying to spearhead better web writing.

Here’s a great example of a before and after from the Plain English Campaign:

Before: If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.

After: If you have any questions, please phone.

My guess is you could hardly get through the first sentence. Although it’s an extreme example of what not to do, that kind of writing is an easy trap to fall into when you’re trying to sound more formal or academic.

6. Know Your Audience And Speak Directly to Them

Understanding your audience is crucial for creating effective web content. Knowing your audience helps you tailor your message to their interests, needs, and language. Identify your audience by considering their demographics, interests, and level of expertise. Are they professionals, beginners, or experts? This will influence the language, tone, and complexity of your content.

Use a tone that matches your audience. For example, use a conversational tone for a general audience. Use a more formal tone for professionals. Address your audience’s needs by providing relevant information, solutions, and insights. This approach ensures your content is useful and engaging.

Engage your readers personally by using pronouns like ‘you’. This creates a connection and makes your content feel more direct and engaging. Know your audience. Speak to them directly. This creates content that resonates, engages, and holds their attention. It ensures your message is effective and impactful.

Crown is listening the Speaker giving talk at business meeting. Audience in the conference hall. Business and Entrepreneurship. Copy space on white board.

7. Follow Accessibility Guidelines

Following accessibility guidelines ensures your web content is usable by everyone. This includes people with disabilities. 

Use headers to organise your content. This makes it easy for users to navigate. Instead of a vague heading like ‘Introduction’, use ‘Understanding Solar Energy Benefits’. This helps all readers, including those using screen readers, to know what to expect.

Provide alt text for images. This allows screen readers to describe the images to visually impaired users. For example, instead of ‘Image1.jpg’, use ‘A family installing solar panels on their roof’. This provides context and understanding for those who cannot see the images.

Write in plain English to make your content accessible to those with cognitive disabilities. Simple language and short sentences help ensure that everyone can understand your message. For example, use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’ and ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’.

Ensure good contrast between text and background. This helps all readers, including those with visual impairments. For instance, black text on a white background is much easier to read than grey text on a light grey background.

Use clear, descriptive link text to help users understand where a link will take them. Instead of ‘click here’, use ‘read our solar energy guide’. This can help people using screen readers, to navigate your site more effectively.

8. Use Numbered or Bulleted Lists

Using numbered or bulleted lists is important for web writing because it makes your content more readable and easier to scan. Readers often skim online content, so breaking up text into lists ensures users can find the information they need quickly while scanning pages on your website.

When to Use Numbered Lists: Numbered lists are ideal for items that follow a specific sequence or need to be prioritised. For example, step-by-step instructions, rankings, or ordered tasks benefit from numbered lists. They indicate a clear order of actions or importance, making it easier for readers to follow.

When to Use Bulleted Lists: Bulleted lists are perfect for items that don’t need a specific order. They work well for listing features, benefits, or options. For instance, when outlining a product’s features, a bulleted list provides a quick overview without implying a hierarchy.

Best Practices:

  • Keep List Items Short: Each item should be brief and to the point, helping readers quickly grasp the information.
  • Use Parallel Structure: Ensure each list item follows the same grammatical pattern. For example, start each item with a verb or noun for consistency and clarity. This helps readers process the information more efficiently.
  • Be Clear and Concise: Avoid unnecessary words and focus on the main point of each list item. Clear and concise items improve readability and comprehension.

9. Self-Contained Paragraphs

When writing for the web, each paragraph should be self-contained. This means readers will understand what the paragraph is about even if they haven’t read the previous one.

Self-contained paragraphs ensure that readers can understand your content even if they only read parts of it. This improves comprehension and user experience, keeping readers engaged. Additionally, it is beneficial for SEO as search engines value content that provides clear and complete answers to user queries, which can improve your page ranking and relevance.

Best Practices:

  • Focus on One Idea: Each paragraph should cover a single idea or topic. This keeps your writing clear and focused.
  • Use Clear Topic Sentences: Start with a topic sentence that summarises the main point of the paragraph. This helps readers quickly grasp the key idea.
  • Be Concise: Keep paragraphs short, typically 2-4 sentences. This makes them easier to read and less daunting for skimmers.
  • Provide Context: Ensure each paragraph can stand alone by providing enough context. Avoid assuming the reader has read previous paragraphs.

Web Writing Tools and Resources We Love

The Elements of Style, illustrated by Maria Kalman.

Writing for the web specifically and following all the above guidelines can be a bit of an adjustment. Having a good writing toolkit can make the process much easier. Here are the tools and resources I rely on time and time again:

Hemingway Editor: This tool is excellent for simplifying your writing. It highlights complex sentences, passive voice, and adverbs so you can eliminate them. It also gives you a readability score, so you can make sure your content is easy to understand. My one gripe about Hemingway is its grammar and spelling checker. It’s pretty basic and can make mistakes.

Grammarly: Even the best writers make mistakes, so editing and spell-checking is important. Grammarly is my preferred tool. It helps you catch mistakes, fix sentence structure, and keep your writing concise. It checks for spelling errors, grammatical issues, and some basic style suggestions.

A-Z of Alternative Words: Sometimes, you just know there’s a simpler way to phrase something, but nothing comes to mind. This resource from the previously mentioned Plain English Campaign is my answer. It helps you find simpler alternatives to complex words. For example, use “end” instead of “terminate” or “start” instead of “commence”. This ensures your content is easy to read and understand for a wider audience. You can find the full list at Plain English Campaign’s A-Z of Alternative Words. I have it bookmarked and refer to it regularly!

Style Guides: Style guides can improve the quality of your writing and help you stay consistent. One of my all-time favourites is ‘The Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White. Even though it’s over 100 years old, the advice it provides on writing clearly and concisely is timeless. You can read the PDF version of The Elements of Style for free online. The Economist also has one of the most respected style guides. It has hundreds of tips and rules to follow to become a clearer writer. You can read the truncated version of The Economist Style Guide for free online if you don’t want to buy the book.

  • Juliette Owen-Jones
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