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Writing for the web: the art of writing for search engines that like text — and people who don’t

Writing for the web and mobile

How to write for Google AND your readers

My book, Writing for mobile, is a comprehensive guide to writing content for reading on small screens. The article below includes some of the information in Chapter 3 of Writing for Mobile. Find out more.

The online writing dilemma:
more text is good for SEO, less text is good for people

SEO copywriting* is a key skill when writing for the web: it’s about writing texts that are long enough, with the right content presented in the right way, to capture the attention of search engines. The recommended optimal number of words ranges from 600 to 1,000 words (or more) per page, depending on a variety of factors, but 300 words is said to be the minimum.
*(search engine optimization) 

Yet we continually hear that people don’t want to read a lot of text, especially on-screen. And website owners often believe that the best way to capture attention and get their message across is in a few short headlines and a handful of short text blocks.

So what’s a writer to do?

The answer? You need to write texts that are both long AND short at the same time! Yes, it’s possible! It’s all about enabling readers to scan texts and grasp the messages quickly, while ensuring that there is still enough detail in the text for search engines (and avid readers).

Read on, it’s easier than it sounds…

People don’t read — they scan *

* “scan” = to glance at, survey or read quickly.

When writing for the web or mobile, it’s best to assume people WON’T READ what you write. When reading on a screen, people mostly scan the page rather than read every word.

A few kind souls (aka obsessive readers) will read every word. They’re the minority. The rest will read ONLY text that stands out and attracts their attention.

Most traditional guides on writing for the web (but not the ones on SEO copywriting) will tell you to reduce the amount of text. All well and good. But what if you want to reach 1,000 words? Or if you have a lot of useful content that you don’t want to dummy down? Reducing the text or breaking it up into several pages is not always the best option. Instead, make each page easier to read quickly.

Principles of writing text that’s quick to read

Easy to scan. Whatever the length.

The web writer’s #1 goal should be to make every page as easy to scan as possible regardless of length. Forget everything you ever learnt about ideal lengths for words, sentences, paragraphs or pages.

Sure, short sentences are nice to read. Short pages are quick to get through. But sometimes you just need more content. It doesn’t matter so long as it’s easy to scan. If it’s scannable, it’s quickly readable.

Your new best friends

  • subheadlines
  • short paragraphs
  • bold text
  • chunking
  • bullets.

And maybe also…

  • digits instead of spelling out numbers
  • tables
  • checklists.

Designers might not like it

Using – and yes, “overusing” – subheadlines, chunking and different font sizes and weights will make texts look messy. Layout designers may not like it.

They are trained to balance images, text blocks and white space harmoniously. If they are used to working with print, they like text blocks in tidy, even rectangles that fit neatly into grids.

Think of the user. ONLY the user. (And don’t forget the search engines.)

Forget tidy grids and traditional design rules. Users will thank you for helping them save time by reading faster. Yet you’ll still be feeding search engines enough text to work with.

How to write text that’s easy (for people) to scan  

Subheadlines

Write short, informative subheadlines.
Subheadlines should either:
 
  • summarise the text that follows, so the reader can skip the text but still get the general message
  • or signal what is in the text, so the reader can decide if they want to read it.

Top-load key messages

First state your key message clearly. Then go into detail.
Write in a journalistic rather than a storytelling style: write the punchline first, rather than leading up to it.

Then you can explain in detail in a more dense paragraph of text: readers who want to know the details will read it. Others will jump to the next subheadline.

Use this top-loading method both for the page as a whole, putting the key message in the headline and first paragraph, and for subsections within the page.

Short paragraphs

Break long paragraphs into several short ones.
Short paragraphs are easier to read. Forget old writing rules saying that a paragraph should contain at least 3 sentences or a ‘complete idea’ or whatever. Just keep it short.

Bold text

Put a few keywords or phrases in bold.
In a block of text, the eye is drawn to words in bold. Make your key messages stand out. Don’t overdo it or nothing will stand out.

I call these bold-text words “storywords”. On their own, they convey the highlights of the story or the key messages that you want to communicate on that page. To check if your text is easy to scan, read ONLY the headlines, the storywords and lists. If your story is broadly understandable, you’ve done it!

Chunking

Break information up.

Chunking is a method which splits concepts into small pieces or “chunks” of information to make reading and understanding faster and easier. Break information into:

  • short paragraphs, even 1-sentence paragraphs
  • short sentences*
  • lists
  • inline tables and graphics.

* Short sentences are great, but remember that long sentences are not necessarily hard to read and understand; it depends on the content &emdash; and on layout and punctuation.

Bullets and numbered lists

When listing more than 2 or 3 ideas, use bullets or numbered lists:
  • the mind immediately adapts, understanding that these are connected ideas
  • each item stands out and is easy to read
  • the white space helps the reader to scan
  • each key phrase in bold text stands out more.

Digits

Use digits instead of spelling out numbers, even for numbers 1 to 9.

Digits are easier to read and quicker for the brain to process. Almost every style guide tells you to spell out numbers in running text. Don’t. Here’s why.

Tables

Use tables for related facts and information, not just for numerical data.

Tables are a visual aid that help the brain get a quick overview of pieces of related information. They make it easy to scan information.

Checklists

Summarize the main takeaways from a long text.
Checklists are a good way to summarize the main takeaways from a long text. It gives the reader a chance to repeat and memorize the main messages, without having to rescan the text.
Exception: If you finish with a table, maybe you don’t need a checklist.

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