You’re on the internet all of the time, but have you ever stopped to pay attention to the way you digest content on the web? What happens when YOU open your laptop and a new browser window?
I don’t know what your web browsing habits look like, but here’s what mine look like most mornings:
Open email. Scan email for good/bad emails. Decide I don’t really want to answer all of the emails right now… and find something else to look at…
…Ooh news! NPR and NYT headlines. Skim headlines. Find article about sea level rise in NYC. CLICK…
…Read first paragraph… skim second. Start scrolling for the headers… Get distracted by ad for a rug you were looking to purchase! Click ad. Buy rug…
…Whew. I need a break to stretch my back. I haven’t looked at Instagram all morning! Pick up phone, get lost for 15 minutes…
… and, back to email. Someone sends you a link for a book they think looks good… and off you go.
See how scattered it is? I’m skimming content, looking at multiple sites at once, and moving very quickly. All of that probably takes me less than 30 minutes.
You probably do something very similar! And guess what? SO DOES YOUR VBV.
Nothing on the web moves slowly or singularly. The web, by its very definition, it is all connected! Which makes it difficult to stay focused. One thing leads to another leads to another leads to another…
This constant stream of information makes it difficult to keep anyone’s attention for long, even someone who really, really wants your product or service. There’s always the temptation of something better (the next episode of The Crown, a higher number in Threes) or a ping from Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram that alerts you to new, exciting information. It’s almost impossible to resist those pings – they light up the reward center in your brain, just like a sugar rush.
HOWEVER. You must cut through the pings and override the temptations if you want your VBV to stay for any length of time. Thankfully, the marketing world and the writing world have been looking at how to capturing audience’s attention online for decades, so you don’t have to start from scratch.
Here are the guidelines to follow for writing on the web, so you can at the very least grab your VBVs attention long enough to make them want to read more. Or keep reading. Or buy something!
Things to Use When Writing for the Web
Headings are the larger text that you find at the top a paragraph or a series of paragraphs. Headings are used to organize your content into digestible chunks and signal what’s coming up next in the text. No one has time (well, more like no one has the patience anymore) to read even three full paragraphs these days, especially if they don’t know what’s in them!
Your VBV will use headings to skim your content and decide what to read. These headings must tell your VBV what’s coming up clearly, concisely, and hopefully, interestingly. If they know what’s coming and they are interested, they will keep reading.
↣ How to use headings: Every paragraph, or at least every 2 or 3, should have a heading. The heading should be short and to the point, and in a larger font than the rest of the text – or at least a different color.
↣ What makes a good heading? A good heading should be short and tell your VBV the useful thing about what is coming up in the content, so that they can decide whether or not to keep on reading. Grab their attention!
↣ Why headings work: Headings are like turn signals in a car – you have to let people know where you are going! Otherwise, everyone ends up tangled at the intersection. So do your diligence, and let your VBV know where you are going so that they can follow along with you.
Things to Use When Writing for the Web is the heading for this section. It tells you what to expect from the upcoming section, a list of things to use when writing for the web.
A list is a list, of course! Which is to say, a list is a short series of items, lined up, one underneath the other, that are related in some way. A list can be numbered or bulleted, or simply indented. Lists should include a header that tells your VBV what’s in the list.
↣ How to use lists: when you have a series of things, instead of using commas, use a bulleted list. Anytime you can make a something into a list, do it! You should have at least three items in your list.
↣ Why lists work: The short lines make lists easy to scan, which means it’s easy to read. It’s easier for our brains to skim down a column and digest the information, rather than scanning across a whole page and putting them into a list ourselves.
Three Types of Lists
- Bulleted Lists
- Numbered Lists
- Alphabetized Lists
Bold, Italic, Underline & Uppercase
There are four ways you can easily draw attention to text: by bolding, italicizing, underlining, or using all uppercase letters. Each one sends a slightly different message and all should be used sparingly.
↣ Bold: signals that you feel strongly about something and/or that you think it’s important. It draws attention quickly. I really like to bold the first sentence of the first paragraph – it visually draws attention down from the larger header into the paragraph itself.
↣ Italic: signals that the content should be read more slowly and with emphasis. Or, italics can be used to signal an aside to the conversation.
↣ Underline: signals that the content is definitive, in that it’s the only one. Underlining should be used even more sparingly than the others, as a last resort and only if you really know what you’re doing. Why? Early in the 90s, when the web was in its infancy, underlining was the main signifier of a link (along with that bright blue color that still crops up as default sometimes). Nowadays, color is often used in place of underlining, but most people are still familiar with the underlined word as a link and might try to click on it. Don’t create confusion!
↣ UPPERCASE: signals extra, extra emphasis, as if you were shouting and waving your hands about when reading the word out loud. All caps comes across as yelling or shouting online – again, use it sparingly.
Quite simply, links take you from one place on the web to another place on the web.
How do you know a link is a link? Some people and websites still use underlining, which is always a solid choice. Others use a different color text to signal a link, and some use both! A link should also change slightly when you hover over it – it might not have been underlined at first, and when you hover over it, it becomes underlined, or perhaps it changes color. This is called a “state change”, and it’s used to draw attention to the link, subtly.
↣ What makes a good link? The most helpful links tell your VBV exactly where they are going. When writing link text, ask yourself, “What will my visitor get when they click on this link?” and then answer that question in the link text. Links should not be creative. Your VBVs are looking for specific information, not guessing what’s behind Door #1 on The Price is Right.
↣ How to use links: Links are great for usability AND for SEO – don’t be afraid to use them! Now, don’t dump them in like rainbow sprinkles on a vanilla cone, but do use them where appropriate – anytime a word or phrase connects to something else on your website, or to another website that has crucial information, go ahead and link them up.
Two Types of Links: Internal Links and Outbound Links
Internal links keep your VBV on your website. They transport your VBV from one place on your site to another place on your site.
Outbound links send your VBV somewhere else. They take your VBV from your website to a different website, maybe for more information on Twitter or Facebook, or simply to information on another website.
The web is built on connections, so it should not come as a surprise that Google values links. Good, quality links, that make sense within your content show, that you’re sharing information that other people on the web think is important too.
Links You Should Not Use
Read More, Click Here, or Learn More. Try not to use these links! Or keep them for last resort. Paired with headers or other content, these short links will get the job done, and most of your VBVs will be well versed in how the web works and know that these words often are links.
But links as vague as Read More and Click Here are bad for SEO and usability. When Read More or Click Here is isolated from the rest of the context of the page, it’s impossible to know what you are going to Read More about. And no one likes to guess where they are going on the web: it’s a choose your own adventure, only your VBV want to know exactly where they are going before they click.
Better links would be: Our Policies, View Slideshow, or View Services. (Note: these would all be internal links.)
Punctuation is… well, surprisingly hard to describe? It’s the little marks in sentences that are not letters. How’s that?
You know what punctuation is, and your head might be full of all of the punctuation rules from 8th grade English. Some of those rules are good and some you need to chuck out the window. Let’s take a look at what’s what:
↣ Periods – Use these! Use them judiciously! Use them with sentences and with fragments.
↣ Exclamation Points – Use these too! It’s hard to convey emotion through words. And though some people might accuse Millenials of using too many exclamations, using too few makes you come across as very, very serious. So if that’s your goal, eliminate them! If not, use the exclamations.
↣ Commas – Use these only if you know how to use them! They are great for clauses. If used improperly, the grammar cops among your VBVs will walk away. Or send you a nasty email.
↣ Semi-Colons – Avoid these. They are really only used for compound sentences, which are clunky on the web. Plus: grammar cops!
↣ Colons – Use these only if you know how to use them!
↣ Parentheses – as an aside, parentheses work great. When you want to write something that feels like it should be said to the person next to you, but behind your hand so no one else can hear, that’s a great time to use parentheses.
The Sentence Rule − all sentences must have a subject and a verb − is great when you’re in first grade. Or when you’re a lawyer. Or anytime you need to be really proper! (These last two “sentences” are actually fragments, fyi.)
But when all you’ve got is a few images and the words on a page, you need every tool at your disposal to imbue your writing with personality. And fragments do just that – because we often use them in conversation. So, sprinkle’m around, where they make sense. Fragments are good at adding emphasis. Full stop. (See what I did there?!)
DON’T do the opposite: run-on sentences. Run on sentences have too many verbs and just. keep. going. forever. until you lose your train of thought and have to go back to the beginning of the sentence to reread it because you already forgot how it all started and if you were reading it aloud, you’d definitely have to stop to take a breath. (That last sentence was definitely a run on.) Unless you feel really skilled, and you’re actively trying to convey overwhelm and general run-amokness to your VBVs.
Keep in Mind While Writing…
Attention spans are SHORT.
Shorter is better. Short sentences are easier to read and take less time to comprehend. Researchers can’t agree on an exact number, but the estimates run from about 4 seconds on the short end to about 15 on the long end. If you can’t convince you VBV QUICKLY that they are interested, poof! They’re gone.
It’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for your VBV.
In those 10-60 seconds, your VBV doesn’t have time to care about who you are yet. They want to know what you can do for them. Which makes perfect sense – they are giving you their hard-earned cash in exchange for something. And they want to make sure the trade is a good one.
Your VBVs are human.
Even in the B2B sector, you’re not selling to a robot or computer. You’re selling to a marketing exec who needs a new service, a busy mom who needs help, a friend looking for the perfect gift… It’s essential to talk to these PEOPLE, and not get lost in terms you might use in your business plan or with your investors.
LET IT REST.
Come back tomorrow and do your edits.
And remember: none of these are “rules.” Or maybe they are, but you should feel free to break them whenever you have good reason to.
Are You Ready to Write?
In the next chapter, you’ll meet the SEO Page Framework and learn how to banish the blank page. Let’s go!