The Science of Writing Content for Websites
Do you want to breathe new life into your website? You know that having the right kind of content can boost your traffic and sales. But what is the right kind of content for websites?
This is an important question. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. There have been scientific studies on the best ways of writing content for websites, and these studies provide useful answers for website content writers.
Readers Scan Websites
Jakob Nielsen was a pioneer in studying how users read on the web. In a classic series of studies conducted in 1997 and 1998, he found that people don’t read website content the same way they read print.
Most website visitors are looking for useful information. Their goal is to find that information as quickly as they can. These information seekers are not going to read every word on the screen. Instead, they will scan the page, looking for the information that is relevant to them.
How Much of a Page Do Website Visitors Read?
Later studies showed with greater precision how much website visitors scanned and how little they read. These studies found that when website users are looking for relevant information, they read, on average, only about 20 percent of the words on the page.
Recent Studies Confirm That Readers Still Scan
The internet (and the way people use it) has changed a lot since the early usability studies were done in 1997. Recent studies show that the early results still apply. A study conducted in 2018 found that website visitors skimmed articles, rather than read every word, even when the articles were only 300 words long.
How to Apply the Science of Usability to the Art of Writing Content for Websites
The science has shown that information seekers want to quickly scan websites to find what is relevant to them. Website content writers can help these users have a good experience by making it easier for them to find what they are looking for. These writing techniques help readers scan websites more efficiently:
Put the Most Important Information First
Whatever is on top of the page is easiest to find. Use what journalists call the “inverted pyramid,” where an overview of the most important information is presented first. More detailed information follows.
Break up the Text
A solid wall of text is difficult to scan (and also difficult to read). Having a lot of white space on the page separates the different topics and makes it easier for users to find what they need.
Use Clear Headers
Headers make it easier for scanners to zero in on exactly the information they are looking for. As a bonus, search engines pay particular attention to keywords that are in headers. For both of these reasons, it’s better to make your headers clear and descriptive than to try to use clever wordplay.
Use Numbered Lists or Bullet Points, When Applicable
There is a reason you see lists so often online. They are easy to scan. Both help break up the text, but bullet points are more common because they can be used in more situations.
Information seekers can scan more efficiently when content is concise. When writing content for websites —
- Get right to the point.
- Avoid “fluff” — words that add nothing of value.
- Use short sentences. The usability.gov site recommends aiming for no more than 20 words per sentence.
- Use short paragraphs. Usability.gov recommends no more than five sentences per paragraph.
- Avoid long articles that require a lot of scrolling.
What About Reading Content on Mobile Devices?
More and more, people are accessing the internet on phones and tablets rather than on laptop or desktop computers. Do the findings of the earlier studies about how people read on computers apply to the way that people read on mobile devices?
The study results were mixed. Some studies found that reading comprehension was better on computers than on devices, but other studies found no difference.
Either way, though, it is at least as important — and maybe more important — to be clear and concise when writing content that will be read on mobile devices.
Do These Techniques Have to Be Used All the Time?
The usability studies discussed here were done with people who were seeking specific information. Sometimes, however, people use the internet for other reasons. Long-form journalism, for example, has recently made a comeback, at least for a niche audience. Those readers presumably want to read every word.
Most of the time, the techniques revealed by usability studies — top-loading important information, breaking up text, using header and lists, and being concise — are the best ways to write content for websites. However, there may be exceptions, depending upon your audience and the purpose of your web content.
Hiring experienced website writers is a good way to ensure that you will get the best techniques for your company’s particular needs.
Marjorie R has written articles online for more than 15 years and has also written humor for American Greetings and crossword puzzles for the New York Times. She wrote an entertainment blog that was consistently in the top 5 in the Google search results, and at its peak was #1 out of a total of 66,499,997 results. She has a B.A. in Psychology from UC Berkeley, an M.A. in Creative Writing/English from SF State, and a J.D. from UC Hastings.