Writing for Websites — A Style Guide

People search the web to find information, products and services. In today's world, there are many types of writing styles. Writing style for the evening news is distinctly different than writing for a book. Writing a script for a television soap opera is not the same as writing a textbook for school. Each has distinct styles and requirements. Otherwise excellent writers erroneously presume writing for the web is no different than writing for print or other media. They are, in fact, very different. By learning a few basic concepts, you will make simple adjustments to your writing to optimize content for the web.

Consider the title of an article:

"Why We Wear White — Management's Conformity Mandates"

Seeing this title in a nursing magazine may provoke interest for a reader to take a peek. On a website, how would most find the article? It would have to be by being already on a nursing website and seeing the title. It would never be found by a typical web search.

Why wouldn't it be found?

If your interest is the issue of nursing uniform requirements for work, what search query would you enter into your favorite search engine to find relevant information? Most likely, it would be something akin to "nursing uniform requirements." Consider how many terms in "nursing uniform requirements" match the title of the article none. Without a single match, the article would never appear in the search results!

So, adding a few words will fix it?

"Why Nurses Wear White — Management's Conformity Requirements"

A little better than before but it still needs work. From our original search query "nursing uniform requirements", only two words match our very basic search query, "nursing" and "requirements." Consider how many other pages with all three words would appear first. For example, "nursing uniforms" and "nursing requirements" both contain two of the three terms in our search. Consider the number of sites that sell uniforms and discuss nursing licensing requirements that are significantly larger than your website. Though better, it still is poorly phrased for the web, it effectively doesn't change that the article still wouldn't be found.

The simple key is to make the title explicit to the topic then, add writer's style to it.

"Management's Nursing Uniform Requirements — Why We Wear White"

This has both of an optimal title for the web and stylistic interest for the reader. All of the terms in our original query are in the title. Article titles should be written so explicitly that if seen even in an unrelated publication such as Popular Lawn Mowing, it would be clear what the article was about. Writing this way will insure people find it the article from a search.

I thought that search engine considers all the words on a page, not just the title.

This is true but, the title carries more than twice the weight of importance when calculating the order of search results. This is how little visited sites with an article whose title is carefully phrased can appear at the top of the results lists for a given search. The optimized title will trump lots of related words in the page text.

Write As If Your Reader Is Clueless
About Your Website, Organization, Acronyms And More!

All of us have tried to understand how to operate a new gadget, appliance or piece of equipment at home or work by reading the manual. How many owner's manuals have you read that were easy to understand? Well, it's a safe bet that you wouldn't need more than a couple of fingers to count all of them. Those who know the gizmo inside and out, such as one of the engineers who designed it, frequently writes those manuals. The area where most writers fail is in writing for the correct audience. Many will write never realizing they're writing for the wrong audience. Consider the audience many write towards:

  1. Themselves
  2. People that know them (family, friends, boss, etc.)
  3. People of the same workplace, school or club
  4. People of the same profession
  5. People of similar or related professions
  6. People with no knowledge of the profession (everyone else)

Easiest
+
++
+++
++++
Hardest

Most writers tend to stop at #3 when writing for the web. It should always be #6. Too often writers are trying to satisfy or impress a supervisor, colleague or teacher with their writing. They will know all the abbreviations and acronyms used but, the most frequent reader of web content will be from the category of #6. Failing to write to #6 as an audience will alienate them from the website. It yields the suggestion of their interest isn't important or wanted. This means one should always provide the meanings of abbreviations and acronyms in web documents. Of course, proper grammar must always be used.

There are, of course, exceptions to the above but, unless you can explicitly explain them, it's probably best follow them.

I'll fix it later.

The single largest lie in the universe is "I'll fix it later." If you knowingly publish a document with errors, it's a sure bet others will see them. They will see them as a reflection of unprofessionalism from your organization. The difference for the web is that less than 0.1 percent will ever tell you of the error(s). They will just not return, donate, purchase and more. The adage of "nobody will ever notice" is a fantasy concocted by the incompetent. The simple fact is that they do and, they notice even more than you ever will. Those who you are trying to get interested in your business will always see errors.

Writing for the web is different than writing for print. A magazine issue is published once and is essentially forgotten when the next issue is published. On the web, content is new to somebody everyday as if a single issue of a magazine was published everyday but, with the same content. Eventually, all the problems and errors will be found reflecting on the organization.

Get It Right The First Time!

Unless you are a professional writer, this isn't likely — ever. Even if you think you have it perfect and it gets posted, there will always be something not right. I'll do my best yet, come back after a few days to read what was posted and find a mistake or two that defies imagination in how they were missed. Other times I find that clarity or intent need revision or a subtle point will be missed by the reader. I strongly recommend reviewing what you wrote after a few days of ignoring it to make sure it isn't part of the documents that reflect poorly of your professionalism and the professionalism of your organization. This document has been edited several times since I first wrote it finding errors and areas needing clarification each time I read it.

Combine all of the techniques outlined in this document in your writing and it will ensure the greatest possibility to be found by those interested in your website's offerings and leave them with impression of your organization's professionalism and value.