Visitors to your Web site won’t read much of your content word-for-word. They’ll scan the text, cherry picking what to read. They’re in a hurry, easily distracted and have limited attention spans. If they don’t see right away what they’re looking for, they’ll bail out.
Here’s why people read online the way they do:
1. Reading onscreen is hard on the eyes. Because screen resolution is far inferior to print resolution, reading online is fatiguing.
2. Literacy is declining. This generation does not read as well as previous generations. Tests prove it. My experience teaching writing and editing at two major universities confirms it for me.
3. Online readers have several competing distractions: Web sites other than yours, video games, cable TV, smartphones and other interests. If they’re not on your site, there’s a lot of other places they could be.
4. Online readers are in a hurry. When they don’t see immediately what they’re looking for on your site, they’ll go somewhere else. Studies show you have under 8 seconds to capture their attention.
5. To amplify point 4: It’s all about speed. Readers focus on getting the information they want in as little time as possible. They look at text far more than graphics. It’s the opposite in print.
6. Online readers are harried and pressed for time. Most online reading is done during the work day, which means having to juggle the stresses of work, finding and reacting to info online and hoping the boss doesn’t walk by.
Here’s what to do about it:
1. Because online reading is more fatiguing than print reading, figure on using one-third the number of words onscreen as you would for the same content in print. If you can do it with a smaller percentage, even better.
2. Keep blocks of copy short. About half your readers will not bother to scroll down a page.
3. You need to play into the way readers scan your pages. Readers love lists because lists are easy to read and pack a lot a info into fewer words. Use bullets and numbers to make your lists stand out.
4. KISS. One idea per sentence. Two or three sentences per paragraph. One idea per paragraph.
5. Use lots of subheads. Not only are subheads guideposts for your readers, but also resting places for fast-moving eyeballs.
6. Use links to add color to body copy and give readers a place to pause as they scan. For example:15 Things Writing for eBay Can Teach You about Writing for the Web. Make your links descriptive so readers know what they’re going to find when they click on them. Avoid “Go here” or “Click here.”
7. If you’re selling a product or service, get to the point. The fact your company is located in the beautiful hills of Lubbock, Texas is irrelevant to everyone except Mom.
8. Write in a natural, conversational style. No one other than my brother-in-law says stuff like: “We need to marginalize the real estate agent’s input so we can orchestrate options that will materialize in greater assets.” Why write that way?
Here are some resources to help you find your way:
If you want to know more about how writing for the Web and print differ, here’s a list of third-party sites that will tell you everything you need to know: