Writing for the Web is fundamentally different than writing for other media, such as print. Sure, some good writing habits for print also apply to the Web. You should use an engaging tone and fresh word choices. You should organize your information clearly. And, most importantly, you should understand your audiences and write in ways that make it easy for them to understand your content. However, analysis shows that readers approach Web content far differently than print content. This book seeks to use this insight to provide a practical guide for Web writers and content strategists.
This book is about understanding the content needs of Web users to do a better job of presenting relevant content to them. It assumes a good working knowledge of how to write for print and therefore will not delve into the mechanics of quality writing. But it will focus on the distinction between how print and Web media differ, which requires some explanation of how the print medium works. From this foundation, we can understand how the Web as a medium differs from print. We can then develop practical guidance on how to do a better job of engaging Web readers.
You might be skeptical about this. Whether for Web or print, text is text, right? In this book, it is our job to counter this skepticism. In subsequent chapters we will cite numerous case studies and deep research into user behavior that clearly demonstrate how Web readers behave and why they do. For the time being, however, we ask that you suspend your skepticism so that we can introduce the content of this book. What follows is a brief sketch of the chapters in this book, which we hope will convince you to read on. We promise that by understanding what is covered in these chapters, you can truly master a field that is crying out for competent practitioners: Web content writing.
How the Web Medium Has Evolved from Its Print Origins
The basic difference between print and Web media is in the reader/writer relationship. In print contexts, you typically invite an audience to journey with you through your prescribed content path. The best print writers encourage their readers to surrender control and let the writer lead them by the hand through the material. Often, print readers will readily concede this control, trusting that the writer knows how best to organize and present information.
On the Web, readers (if we may call them readers for the present) will not cede control over the information path. They navigate through paths of their choosing, cutting corners and trying to get to the most relevant content as quickly as possible. On the Web, it is the writer's job to provide a multitude of clearly marked paths, letting readers find the relevant nuggets of information that they seek. How to write to let readers sift through your content and find those nuggets is a considerable challenge that deserves a book of its own.
A particularly salient example of how Web writing differs from print is the way Web readers use search engines. Web users are impatient with content providers, because they can be. If they can't find the information they're looking for by navigating to it, they will use search engines. This impatience with information retrieval shows up in their reading habits. As a study of Web users by Weinreich et al. (February 2008) has demonstrated, Web "readers" do much more skimming and scanning than print readers. The study shows that on average, people spend 82% less time actually reading Web pages than they do when they read print pages, assuming average print reading speeds of 250 words per minute.
As Jakob Nielsen (June 2008) shows, Web users usually don't read pages in the conventional way, line by line, serially. They scan for keywords in the heading and short descriptions and only read after deciding that some content is relevant. With this in mind, Google has designed its search crawler to mimic how Web users behave. The crawler scans pages for keywords and captures the pages with the strongest placement of those keywords to include in its index. When a user enters a keyword phrase into Google's search field, Google returns the results that its algorithm deems relevant to those search terms. The design of its crawler is one reason that Google has become the search engine market leader in the United States and elsewhere. It tends to return highly relevant results for users, and it displays those results in ways that users can easily digest, given their extreme impatience. Because Google and other search engines strongly cater to Web user behavior, learning to write for the Google algorithm is an essential aspect of writing for Web readers.
Though our book relies on much of the information provided in Mike Moran's and Bill Hunt's excellent book Search Engine Marketing, Inc., Second Edition (2009), this is one point where our approach diverges from theirs. Hunt and Moran claim (2005, 309) that "The best philosophy for writing for search is: Write for people first, not for search engines." Our claim is that writing for search engines approximates writing for people. Also, Web writers often lack audience knowledge—readers can come from anywhere using search. Because Web writers often lack audience knowledge, writing for search engines is often the best way to understand how to write for people. So we take a "write-for-search-engines-first" approach.