A study by Jakob Nielson Ph.D., a guru of web page usability, revealed that only 16 percent of his test users actually read the copy they found online and that 79 percent of them simply scanned it. Web readers are impatient and will want to find the information they are looking for quickly and easily.
The success of leading search engines is based on their ability to read a website in the way we do. Search Engines will not 'enjoy' reading reams of poorly written content and will give extended copy less emphasis. This guide is therefore equally applicable to creating effective search engine friendly content and engaging your readers.
Although it's not always possible to include all the elements below, if you stick to these pointers as a guide, you will have the basis of effective web content.
The header to your page of content be it a blog, news story or general copy about you should be effective and relevant. Make the title enticing and try to include relevant keywords, which your visitor or a search engine might be looking for.
The title should be set as a H11 and you should have only one H1 on any given page. This is the main title to the page, search engines will use it as a basis for content and relevancy, as will your visitors.
Our own Engine Content Management System2 will set the H1 automatically and base the URL on this heading when you create a blog or new page.
The intro paragraph, which follows the main header should summarise the content of the page. This will make it easy for your visitors to quickly determine if they want to read on. This will also aid with DDA compliance if applicable to your organisation because screen readers can define the content of the page much more quickly for visitors with impaired vision.
The intro paragraph should also ideally be no more than 250 words long. A search engine will place more emphasis on these 250 words and will look for something else to make it read on, for example a sub header, bulleted list or link.
Again, this mimics the way we read a page. We quickly move on if we can scan a page and don't see what we want or have to read too much copy.
Bullet points are an excellent way of communicating important elements of your message or information. They are quick and easy to read and a visitor or search engine will scan the page for easily digestible content.
If you're using a content management system you should define the bullet points as such. This will often style the text slightly differently, either by colouring the bullets or indenting this section.
Additionally it is believed that numbered lists carry slightly more weight with search engines than normal bullet points.
Aside from a few basic pointers you should not alter your standard approach to writing copy. Keep your copy concise by using less words and use shorter sentences and paragraphs. Remember we know visitors are unlikely to read lengthy unnecessary paragraphs of copy.
You should not try and write your copy with 'keyword density' or 'optimised keywords' in mind. It is useful to include some relevant keywords but this is likely to happen naturally. If you are writing a page about accountancy, it's very likely you will have to use the words accountant, accountancy, accounting etc to communicate your message. If your content is readable and relevant the search engines will rank it and trying to flatter search engines can result in a negative effect.
Add substance and emotion to your writing, it's a know fact emotions drive people to action. Practical, valuable information will hold the visitor's attention and your opinions, descriptions and summary of the content will help you connect with the reader.
Use a sub header to define the content of the next paragraph. This will enable the reader and search engine to scan the page and keep them reading. By setting these sub headers as H31 or Heading 3 in the CMS you will ensure search engines continue to read through the content.
The hierarchy of your typefaces is as important on the web as it is in printed materials. By setting sections of copy in different ways we are able to bring attention to certain sections and add interest to the page. Try setting a section of copy in bold, a different colour, perhaps a different size for a testimonial or quote. These elements will all help the reader scan the page and pick out key information.
Adding links to your content will help the visitor to find what they are looking for. Internal links3 will help link pages of your site together and drive the reader to relevant content on your website.
For example: "Our own Engine Content Management System will enable you to do this with ease."
This link is easily identifiable within the text, is clear what it links to and has a meaningful link title4. Internal links are usually set to open in the same tab or window using the CMS.
Avoid links like 'Click here for more' the link should contain keywords that are relevant to the page they are linking to. A recent report from Google confirmed they rate a link with link title as twice as influential in their search rankings!
Equally external links3 may help credibility and make the content more useful. Usability guidelines state that external links should be set to open in the same window. However, if you prefer to open these in a new window this can be a matter of your own judgement. It is clearly not preferable to help visitors leave your website. For this reason the effectiveness of your website and the quality of your content are key.
A picture speaks a thousand words. Engaging images will help ensure your content is appealing and videos and diagrams can transform the way you communicate.
Search engines are increasingly ranking video content more highly. After all most users would rather watch a short video than read a thousand words! Search Engine Optimisation5 can be further enhanced by using the captions on a streaming service such as YouTube.
When adding images to your content you should try and use a relevant file name, add a meaningful title and alternative text. All of these items will be visible to search engines and are an opportunity to apply more relevant content. A text only alternative will also improve the usability of your site for visitors with impaired vision using screen readers.
With only a few simple adjustments to your standard writing practices you can create effective web copy and content. Although not all content you publish will demand enough copy to apply some of these rules the basics still apply.
We have summarised these key points into a handy download.
Key to content:
1 H1 is a technical term for the tag you give the heading or subheading. Defining a H1 determines the header to be more important then H4 in the context of that particular web page.
2 A content Management System or CMS is a back end interface which enables you to publish and edit content on your website.
3 Internal links are text links which link to a page on your own website. External links open a page on another website.
4 A link title is the tool tip style text, which appears when you hove over the link. For example Click here for more on Website Design.
5 Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – the practice of enhancing the effectiveness and subsequently ranking of a website in search results.