10 Tips for Building a Better Web Site
1. Start at the bottom
How can you decide what to put on the homepage before you have decided what should be in your site?
Plan your pages and the sections or categories you are going to put them in, then write the pages and finally write the home page with all the content in mind.
2. Break up your information
A website I worked on recently had a lot of information on very few
pages. The information was there; it just wasn't very easy to find.
When I worked with my client to break the pages into smaller chunks
and put them on different pages
with more specific headings, the site appeared richer and the information was easier to find.
Users prefer clicking to scrolling, in other words moving laterally rather than vertically, and they want the task made easy. Breaking up information makes more work for the writer or editor, but there is not much point to having lots of useful information "somewhere" in your site if the user can't find it.
3. Lead users to what they want
If users are to find what they are looking for, and not waste time reading information they are not interested in, they need to be led step by step to what they want.
For the writer, this means offering a few choices that make sense
to the user, narrowing the range at each step, so that the user does
not have to read pages that do not interest her. It means giving the
specific information—an article, for example—a heading on the page,
summarizing it on the page above, headlining it on the page above that
and putting it in one of the sections or categories that appear in
the main navigation.
Again, the writer needs to think from the bottom up, so that the user can find his way from the top down. Writing summaries, headlines, and links are essential web writing skills.
4. Keep the navigation simple
Web users have little patience and are easily confused, so make the navigation as easy as you can. This mean using terms that the user will immediately understand. One of the problems that commercial websites have is that promoting the brand names of their products conflicts with making their sites easy to navigate. Users should not need to know the brand names of, for example, a range of suitcases before they can look for one that is the size or type that they want.
The words used for top-level links should be generic terms. They should also in many cases be the same as the terms used in other web sites. "About us" might not be your first choice for a phrase to label the section describing your organization, but it is understood by everyone, and this is a big advantage. If you try to be clever and use something different, you simply add to potential confusion.
5. Anticipate users' questions
A website exists, or should exist, to answer users' questions. In
the perfect site, as soon as a question arises in the user's mind there
will be a link to provide the answer. We may never achieve perfection,
but if our starting point is always the
user's needs, we are on the right track.
Links in the text, also known as contextual links, are helpful to
users and they should be carefully written to match the main navigation.
If possible, they should use the same words as the links in the menus.
Even small variations can raise a
doubt in the user's mind and that doubt may mean the end of the visit.
For example, if the link in the menu is "Register," does the link in the text that says "fill in our registration form" lead to the same page? Using the same words for both links gives users confidence that they know where they are going.
6. Make it look easy
Your text should look easy to read. However well you write, if you present your readers with long, windy paragraphis, you will put them off.
Text should be divided into paragraphs of two or three sentences with white space around them. Informative subheadings should be written above your paragraphs to enable a user who is scanning the page to see a list of contents. Text should be in a readable font and in a color that contrasts strongly with the background. Users should be able to alter the size of the font on their computers to suit their own needs.
7. Put your best bits first
On the web, writers need to be more like journalists than academics or novelists. Users are impatient and have many other options if your site doesn't give them what they want, so make it interesting from the start.
8. Use more verbs
The web requires concise writing because users don't want to waste time. As a general rule, choosing a verb rather than a noun to convey your idea produces a more concise sentence.
Rather than using the noun "investigation," as in "carry
out an investigation," why not just "investigate"? Nouns
often require linking phrases, such as "in terms of" or "with
regard to" that make your sentences verbose. Rather than talking
"the date of inheritance with regard to the property," say "the date you inherited the property."
The web requires dynamic writing because users are active. Much of
what you write on a website is aimed at offering the user choices of
action, so your words need to embody that dynamism, as in "Find
out," "Read about," "Buy online," and
9. Check your style
If website users are easily confused, writers can help them by using words as consistently as possible. There are many reasons for having a style guide—identity, ethics, professionalism—but nearly all involve consistency.
Consistency is perhaps even more important on a website than in print, because users move quickly from one page to another in no particular order. They are easily thrown by inconsistencies in terminology, spelling, and presentation.
It's probably not a good idea to draw up a style guide from scratch: You may never finish the job. Several respected media organizations publish their style guides. I use the Associated Press Stylebook.
10. Write with search engines in mind
Writing for the web is about writing both for users and for searchers.
I start from the assumption that it is in the interest of search engines
to produce accurate and informative results, which should mean that
content that brings no benefit to
users will not work in the long run. So writing for searchers means using words and phrases they are likely to enter into a search engine to find your site.
This is more likely to work if each page has distinctive content that is reflected in the title of the page (<title> in HTML), the <description> in the metadata, and to a lesser extent the key words and phrases, <keywords>, in the metadata.
Your links, which tend to attract the attention of search engines, should be informative rather than mechanical—avoid "click here"—and if possible contain important words and phrases.