The Golden Rules of Writing Content for Your Website

june 2019

Capturing readers' interests in this exploding digital universe can be immensely challenging. A recent study from an analytics service, Chartbeat, found that 55% of visitors spend 15 seconds or fewer on a webpage. The short attention span of today's reader demands sentences of 35 words or fewer.

Good website writing is the key to beating these statistics. Well-written content that's optimized for the web rises to the top of search results and holds readers' attention...

1. Know your audience:

It sounds simple, but so many writers put pen to paper - or finger to keyboard - before thinking about who it is they're trying to reach. Before drafting content, ask yourself these questions: Who is my primary audience? What about a secondary audience who can influence and inform my primary audience? How will they find my site online?

For example, say you're creating a website for a law firm. Your primary audience might be existing clients. However, your secondary audience is much broader and could include other attorneys, law reporters, or anyone who might need your services in the future. You'll need to make sure your content is both accessible and interesting to all of these audiences. What kind of questions might these groups ask about a particular topic? What kind of information do they need?

Audiences find web content through many different paths - social media sharing, links from other websites, email sharing, and search engine results. That last method is especially important when you write for the web. Text could be extremely well-written and informative, but if it's not optimized for search engines, chances are few people will find it. Think of your audience again: what search terms would they type into Google? Make sure to include those terms in headlines and sub-headers.



2. Follow the "inverted pyramid" model:

Web readers have short attention spans - they'll decide whether your site has the information they need in seconds. Structure your content like an upside-down pyramid or cone. The most important messages go at the top of the page. Then, gradually drill down to the more specific, supporting information. End with tangential details.



3. Write short, simple sentences:

Long sentences are for Charles Dickens - the short attention span of today's reader demands sentences of 35 words or fewer. And according to webpagefx.com, the average adult reads at a 7th to 9th-grade level. So website content thats accessible and easy to read will naturally reach a wider audience.

Focus on using nouns and verbs; use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Don't use words like "equanimity" or "obfuscate" when words like "calm" or "confuse" will do.

If you're not sure what grade level you write at (like most of us!) then it's useful to check how your texts score on readility models. Most of the popular models are based on the length of words and sentences in a text. Your text's readability is then scored by a number or an education level. These three tools will scan your text and score its readability:

  • The Readability Test Tool
  • The Readability Calculator
  • Can your text be easily understood at a 7th to 9th-grade reading level? Check how it scores on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level to find out.


  • 4. Stick to active voice:

    Use active rather than passive verbs, and specify the subject of the sentence. For example, rather than writing "A coffee was ordered," write "The man ordered a coffee." Instead of saying "Products can be ordered on our website," say "You can order products on our website."

    Active voice helps create succinct, reader-friendly sentences. It's also more direct; when you speak directly to the audience ("You can do it") it's more engaging than saying "It can be done."



    5. Show, don't tell:

    Don't limit your prose to generalities and high-level statements. Specific, real-world examples help readers better understand and visualize your messages. Consider these two descriptions:

  • This is the best dog toy money can buy. Or
  • We made the "Rough Rover" dog toy from durable, 100 percent natural rubber, designed to resist punctures and tears from even the most dedicated of chewers.
  • Which version gives you a clearer picture of the type of toy you're buying? Specific details in the second description show readers the dog bone rather than tell them about it.

    As an added bonus, more specific, descriptive product information helps your website's SEO and gives customers the information they need to make those purchases. Take a look at the example below - they explain in mouthwatering detail why their gourmet foods are the best choice.



    6. Nix the jargon:

    The web is for everyone - not just technical experts. So make sure information is understandable for the educated non-specialist. Spell out acronyms on first reference. Avoid insider language. Explain complex or niche terms. And provide hyperlinks to other articles where readers can get more background information on a particular topic. Using accessible language will help you come across as approachable and open - just what you want to convey to future customers.



    7. Keep key terms consistent:

    Keep key terms consistent across your site to avoid confusing your visitors. For example, if you're a photographer, don't offer "photoshoots" on one page then call them "photography sessions" on the next.

    Make a list of terms that describe your company and group together any words you use to mean the same thing. Pick your top choice and stick to it everywhere your website. Like this:

  • Use: invoice | Not: bill
  • Use: photoshoot | Not: photography session, photo appointment, shoot
  • Do you call your customers clients, patients, or users? Do you refer to services, packages, or plans? Once you have this list, you can use it to review any text before you publish it.



    8. Make text scannable:

    In addition to putting the most important information up top, make sure text is easy to skim. Most web readers will scan the page to find the specific piece of information they're looking for - if they don't find it easily, they'll move on.

    Instead of text-heavy paragraphs, use bulleted or numerical lists. Instead of one long page of text, organize content into labeled tabs.

    Always include "white space". This is the empty space that surrounds paragraphs, images, and other elements on your web page. Though it may seem like this is just wasted space, it's actually a web designer's best friend. Comfortable amounts of white space around text make it more legible, and more enjoyable to read.


    It's also important to divide content into sections with descriptive sub-headers. For example, a webpage about a photography course might organise information under the following headings:

  • What you'll learn at a glance
  • Understanding exposure and camera modes
  • Composition techniques
  • Working with natural light
  • Our next course dates
  • These sub-headers not only help readers navigate the page, they'll help search engines find your content. Use one large (H1) heading at the top of each page, use medium (H2) headings to separate your main content, and use small (H3) headings for any minor points.



    9. Incorporate multimedia:

    Sometimes a picture - or infographic or video - really is worth a thousand words. Research shows that 90% of the information transmitted to the human brain is visual, and people process visual information 60,000 times faster than text. An easy-to-read chart or graph can also do a better job of explaining a complex topic than text alone. Images also help break up text, making your page easier to read. We recommend having at least one image on each page of your website.



    10. Leave them wanting more:

    Good websites end each page with a strong call-to-action (or CTA for short). Is there a person a reader should contact for more information? An interesting video they should watch? How about a related blog post they can read or a report they can download? This strategy helps direct readers to other areas of your website and encourages them to promote your content to their friends and family.

    Keep these calls-to-action succinct, and start them with action verbs like "Download", "Share", "Join", "Sign Up", "Learn More" or "Watch". And of course, make sure to include a hyperlink that actually allows readers to fulfill the action you're asking them to take.