In online writing, little things mean a lot

(NOTE: I originally published this article in Spring 2000 in my former venture Content Exchange, which is now defunct. But it’s still useful information, so I’ve decided to republish it.)

Good writing is good writing no matter where you find it. However, each medium has its own unique considerations. One of the key points to consider about the text on your web site is microcontent.

Microcontent is all the short bits of text that help guide the user or provide an “at-a-glance” overview of what a given page is about. The basic categories of microcontent are…

  • page titles
  • headlines and subheads
  • “in-page” indexes
  • navigation bar links
  • other links
  • bold text
  • alt text
  • captions

Microcontent is especially important in online writing for three reasons:

  • Web users tend to scan pages, rather than read them.
  • A user can arrive at virtually any page in your site from just about anywhere on the web.
  • Web users tend to be impatient and fickle. If they can’t figure out a site or page in a few seconds, they’ll probably move on.

Therefore, every page in your site should provide near-instant orientation and context. You can accomplish some of this with design and branding, but ultimately text is your user’s most important guide.

There are a few general principles for writing any kind of microcontent:

  • Make it explanatory. Each element of your microcontent should quickly communicate the substance or significance of the associated content, ideally from the perspective of your target audience. Avoid cute, clever, or generic wording. A good test is to imagine that the microcontent is the only thing visible on your page – could your users guess with reasonable accuracy what kind of information your page would contain?
  • Make it work out of context. Online, some key pieces of your microcontent will get passed around, displayed, and linked to in all sorts of ways you can’t control, or even predict. Therefore, your should create page titles, headlines, and subheads that make a reasonable amount of sense if viewed totally on their own, beyond the context of your site. This principle also applies to your link text. Visually, links stand out from a page like roadsigns. If your page is full of links that say “click here” or other such vague terms, your users will feel stranded.
  • Keep it short. There’s a reason they call it microcontent. It has to work fast, so it has to be short. The trick is to make it as short as possible without obscuring its meaning or making it awkward. Headlines and subheads should be no more than 40-50 characters. Other links ideally should be 1-3 words long.
  • Don’t overdo it. Good microcontent clarifies and directs. Pages with too many microcontent elements are like a busy intersection with too many roadsigns. As much as possible, limit the number of links, subheads, etc. that you present on a single page. Organize your information so you can easily break it up easily. If you must present a long list of links or large piece of text content, break it up into sections with brief, intuitive subheads. However, avoid breaking sections into subsections – that works well in print, poorly on the web. In most cases, text content should be broken into sections of about 300-400 words each, with no more than about 5 or 6 sections per page, and no more than 2-3 emphasized items (links or highlighted keywords) per section.

In addition, each category of microcontent has unique considerations.

  • Page titles: The text you put between the ‹title› ‹/title› tags on your pages is what users see in their “bookmark” or “favorite” lists. It’s also what displays in some search engine results. Your page titles should summarize “the point” of the page and identify your company or site, in no more than 40-50 characters. It’s best not to have every page title start with the same text, so put your site or company name at the end.
  • Headlines and subheads: The headline is the main heading at the top of the page, and it should address the overall content of the page. It can be nearly the same as the page title. Subheads address specific sections within the page. Organize your content so that all the subheads on a given page are of roughly equal significance.
  • “In-page” indexes: If you have more than two sections of content on a single page, it’s a good idea to present an index to those sections at the top of the page (a simple list of links). This functions as an executive summary for the page, with no scrolling required. Each index item should link directly to the relevant section. If your subheads are all 2-3 words long, then your index can repeat them verbatim. If a particular subhead is longer, you might want to edit the corresponding index item down to a 2- to 3-word synopsis of that section’s key concept.
  • Navigation bar links: These point to the various sections of your site. Try to limit them to 1-2 words each. Organize and name your site sections so they make sense from the user’s perspective. Avoid clever, cryptic, or internally focused language.
  • Other links: Crafting your link text can take a lot of work. It must not only direct, but also inform. One useful trick is to first figure out the most obvious and concise way to word the link you wish to create, and then structure your sentences and other content to support that wording. The best link text indicates:
    • Where users will be taken if they click that link, as well as what kind of content they’ll find there. (For instance, “this recent Industry Standard article,” rather than just “article.”)
    • Why you chose to direct your readers to that page. (For instance, “It helps to understand what happened in 13th-century Kosovo.”)
  • Bold text (highlighted keywords): Often, online writers use bold text to emphasize an important word or phrase. Since this stands out visually about as much as a link, it can be effective – as long as you don’t overdo it, and as long as the bold text conveys meaning. Ideally, you should be able to get a rough idea of what a page covers just by scanning the links and bold text.
  • Alt text: Images often are a key part of online content. However, if a user cannot or does not view your images, or mouses over an image in most browsers, the “alt” text will display. For every image on your site that has a content purpose, specify corresponding alt text – ideally, no more than 40 characters. This text should convey the meaning or significance of the image, not describe what it looks like. Conversely, make sure that you do not specify alt text for images that are strictly design or decorative elements.
  • Captions: If an image is an important piece of your content, but simply looking at it may not convey its full meaning, write a caption. Web caption text usually is small or otherwise hard to read, so keep it very short – ideally 10 words or less. Answer the user’s natural questions: “What am I looking at?” and “Why are you showing me this?”

If you follow these guidelines, the chances are good that your users will be able to follow you – and your site – pretty easily.

2 thoughts on In online writing, little things mean a lot

  1. Your thought provoking post is much appreciated …

    I guess blogging has taught me that no matter how original, bright, revolutionary or new I think an idea is, that someone else has not only thought of it before me but has written about it too often in much better way than I can.

    CODA: Why we Blog …

  2. Pingback: Big Heart Design Blog » In Online Writing, Little Things Mean A Lot

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