Help for New Web Page Authors

Here's a list of the main things to consider when writing pages for a small business web site.

Don't have time to read it all? Read point 2, "Message Above the Fold".

It's easy to rush into building a website, with little planning, because it's a must-have item for any business. Often, a business is left with a website that does little but cost money. Understanding these issues will help you write web pages that work.

January 2016. We updated this page to emphasise items 1, 2 and 9: Focus, Priority and Act.

Writing Web Pages Isn't Like Writing Business Proposals

On the Internet, readers expect immediate answers. If you don’t grab their attention quickly, they’ll look elswhere.

Luckily, business people are used to giving presentations. Approach it like a presentation, rather than a business proposal or an audit report.

Here are nine tips for new website authors:

  1. Single focus per page
  2. Message above the fold
  3. Write for your readers, not for yourself
  4. Write for scanning
  5. Write to readers, not at them
  6. Halve your word count
  7. Take care with hyperlinks
  8. Watch your grammar
  9. Call to action

Before You Start Writing

Golden ruledon't copy anybody else's web pages, not even part of one.

NB: Google used to penalise duplicate content; now it's not so harsh. However, duplicating other web pages is still best avoided. There's a bit more information in the Changes section: see October 2016, later on this page.

Search engines will always use what they think is the best version for the user, and this may not be your page. If you do duplicate content, add value in the form of comment, conclusions, or more original material. Ask us to add meta-tags that credit the original author - this is covered by your monthly support fee.

You might write duplicate copy inadvertently. After you've finished writing your web page, check it using a plagiarism checker like Copyscape.

Think about keywords and phrases:
What would people type into Google to find your page?

Consider the words or phrases people might use if they wanted to find your business on the Internet. Ask your customers, too. Make sure you use your keywords in your web page content. Use them more towards the top of the page, and in the title, headings and highlighted text.

Be careful not to overdo it, and don't make your writing hard to understand because of it.

Tips for New Web Page Authors

1. Focus Each Page on a Single Subject

You're writing your web page for a reason. Be clear about that reason and stick to your theme. Don't cloud your meaning with side-issues and distractions. Internet attention spans are very short and an interesting diversion can easily lose a prospective customer.

2. Message Above the Fold

Your readers quickly lose interest if they don’t extract what they want from your web page - AND FAST.

“Above the fold,” refers to the way newspapers are stacked, folded in half. If you spot something interesting, you'll buy the paper. Our “fold” is the bottom of your reader’s screen, and that’s not very far away on a mobile phone. If you fill the space with a huge picture, make sure it delivers your message.

This is particularly important on your home page, where most of your visitors will start. 80% of your visitors will decide whether to stay on your site before scrolling down. Make sure your message is clear and concise.

If your page has a multi-column format, consider how its appearance will change when viewed on a mobile phone. If the columns appear one under the other, your reader will only see the left-most column.

So, be sure to put something really tempting right at the top of the page, so people will want to read on.

If you skipped down to this bit, better read the Golden Rule as well.

3. Write for Your Readers, not for Yourself

It’s easy to write about subjects you know well. Words flow easily, so you can write a small book in no time. Whilst this might be very satisfying, it doesn't work for web pages.

On the Internet, your readers are looking for something specific. They won’t have much patience. Think about what readers search for when you’d like them to see your web page. What key phrases would they type? Better still, ask your customers what they would type.

Then, focus on benefits for the reader, not how clever you are:

  • Write simple, clear English
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms and long words that make readers pause to think
  • Include your key words and phrases “above the fold” (explained earler)
  • Write short sentences and short paragraphs
  • One topic per page, one idea per paragraph
  • Consider abbreviations: screen reading software sometimes gets them wrong (e.g. "egg" for "eg" :o) so best write "for example" in full and think before using others, like ie and etc.

Help people take in your message as quickly as they can. One good way to do this is to tell a story. If you can engage readers early on the page, weaving their benefits into a short story will help them understand your message quickly.

4. Write Pages for Scanning

80% of readers scan web pages. They don’t read word by word. To grab their interest, you must make scanning easy. These simple ideas might work:

  • Summarise your message in the first paragraph or two: this helps readers decide quickly whether they want to read more on your page
  • Use lists: they're easy to scan
  • Emphasise your key words and phrases: make them noticeable, use bold and italics
  • Hyperlinks, like the one above, also draw the eye to important information
  • Use meaningful headings, with proper paragraph formatting, like Heading 1, Heading 2; make sure headings use title case (capitalise the first letter of each significant word); you should have a single H1, and H2, H3 etc. should be arranged sensibly, in a hierarchy
  • Headings should contain your keywords, to help search engines understand your content
  • Use a picture or diagram, with a caption
  • Employ examples, humour and metaphors to get a point across, as in the next topic

5. Write to Readers, Not at Them

Don't write as if someone else is telling your story.

"Jane Doe has (meaning I have) been training continuously since 2005 at the University of Life ..."

This can lead to a dry web page that readers have to work at. It can also make you write more words. It may force you to use longer words and to build hard-to-read sentences.

Imagine yourself reading the page. Would you find it useful? You need to describe your services, but your readers will want to know what's in it for themFocus on benefits for your reader.

Use the "We, we" test. Count the number of times the word "we" (or "I") appears. Now rewrite those sentences using the word "you" instead.

Try it!

6. Halve Your Word Count

Consider how little time your readers have to read your page. When you've finished, re-read it and delete words that add nothing to the message. You’ll be surprised how much you can cut out.

The Fog Index is a simple way to measure how easy text is to read. The lower your score, the more readable your writing. The Fog Index of this section, “Halve Your Word Count”, is under seven. That’s quite low, so it should be easy to understand. A score below 10 is good for web pages.

The Fog Index is just one of several readability scores. Here is a nifty readability calculator that works out several of them. Copy 100 words or more and paste into the web page. Then read your score in the panel on the right.

You could check everything you write this way, of course, or just bear in mind how they work. These formulae reward,

  • low word count
  • short sentences
  • limited use of long words (three syllables or more), jargon and uncommon words

Microsoft Word will check your readability, too. Read how to work it here.

TIP: Without thinking about it, we often write in the passive voice. For example, “We were invited by our new neighbours to their house-warming party.” This leads to longer sentences that are harder to understand. Instead, try to use the active voice, “Our new neighbours invited us to their house-warming party.”

7. Take Care With Hyperlinks

Don't get carried away with hyperlinks: links to other web pages, on your own or other sites. It's good to support what you say with evidence, easy to distract readers - and lose them to other sites.

Three simple rules:

  1. Make sure links support your point, don't veer off the point, and won't distract the reader for long
  2. Links to another website should open in another tab, to ensure your reader doesn't lose his or her place on your page
  3. Check regularly that your target pages are still there: jumping to a page that doesn't exist upsets readers and reduces your credibility

8. Is Grammar Important?

There’s plenty of opinion on the World Wide Web about the importance of good grammar. Whilst there were only 321 respondents, this survey sums it up pretty well. A quote from one of them suggests that poor use of grammar creates the impression that a business may not be trustworthy, or that they don’t care what impression they create.

Grammar does matter, but don’t get too fixated on it. And there's an easy way to avoid real howlers.

Use software like Open Office Write to write web pages, with the “After the deadline” grammar checkerMicrosoft Word will check grammar, too. Neither is perfect. See what they say about your page and take a view. If you agree, take the advice.

Proofread your page several times. Remember to delete every word that adds no value. Then try to get at least one other person to do the same.

Here's a clue as to whether Google rewards good grammar by, ironically, telling you it doesn't matter in other people's comments on your blog! Matt Cutts, once Google's "face of SEO, says in this movie, "I wouldn’t worry about the grammar in your comments. As long as the grammar on your own page is fine..."

9. someone thinking what next?Call to Action

So, you have interested a reader. What should they do now?

Well, you could rely on them having the patience to think,"Pick up the phone" or "Go to the Contact Us page". Or you could make life easier for them: provide an immediate clue.

Here at BlueTree we make websites you update yourself, so it's dead easy to fix an error when you spot one. If you like that, call us on 0117 339 0095 or click here to leave an enquiry.

Did We Do Well?

We wrote this web page because someone asked us to proof read their website. We didn’t want to re-write their pages, so we wrote down how we think they should go about it.

On this page we’ve tried to:

  1. Single topic: how to write web pages
  2. Summarise above the fold; how long did it take you to decide whether to read on?
  3. Write to inform, not to impress
  4. Use lists and emphasis to help readers scan
  5. Write in the first person, to engage with you, the reader
  6. Reduce our word-count
  7. Take care with hyperlinks, a mixed blessing
  8. Watch my grammar
  9. Include a call to action

Whoops! Should have written this a long time ago. Now we need to review all our other web pages!

Further Reading

We think this is good. Seductive Copywriting, by Henneke Duistermaat.

Updates to this Page

January 2016: Edited to emphasise the three most important issues: Focus, Priority and Call to Action.

October 2016: Updated the comments on duplicate content in view of Google's changes earlier in the year. It no longer penalises duplicate content, usually, because differing crawl rates mean it may not always identify the original. Sites with lots of duplicate content will still be penalised.

Instead, the major search engines recognise the HTML "rel=canonical" tag, which is used to credit the original author. This is too complex for busy, non-tech authors, so duplication is still best avoided. Back to Golden Rule.