Writing for the Web – Learning from Jakob Nielsen

web usability pioneer - jakob nielsenWeb usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s studies offer valuable insight into the nature of successful writing for the web.  Here I’ll summarise areas of Dr Nielsens research most relevant to website copywriting and examine what we can learn from it.

“Words are usually the main money-makers on a website.” – Nielsen

Web content writers should cater for scanners not readers.  79% of test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16% read word-for-word.  Email newsletters are read even more abruptly than websites.

There are several ways to make your text easier to scan use sub headings, bulleted lists, one idea per paragraph, break up text and use inverted pyramid style writing (start with the conclusion).

You have to make it as easy and fast as possible for people to get the information they need.  The web user has no patience and wants to get in and out quickly.  Think about the language you use, keep it straight-forward and to the point.

The F Pattern
Eye tracking visualisations show that users often read web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.  Your user will read 2 horizontal lines first.  Therefore, the first two paragraphs or so must state the most important information.

Next the reader will scan down the left side of the oage. That means the first few words of your subheadings, paragraphs and bullet points are the most important.  Nielsen suggests copywriters ought to start with information-carrying words that users will notice.

Active voice copy
Active voice is best for usually when writing for the web but using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, titles and lead sentences.  This enhances scannability and thus SEO effectiveness.  Eye tracking findings have emphasised the tremendous importance of getting the first 2 words right.

Users fixate on headlines, sub headings, summaries, captions, links and lists when scanning.  Selecting the first 2 words for your headers is probably the most important decision you’ll make.  This is also relevant when you’re writing meta titles and descriptions.  A passive voice allows you to pull keywords to the front left, into the lead and therefore most likely to be read.  For example:

Active – “You can mow your lawns in half the time with this new mower”

Passive – “New lawn mower is able to cut grass in half the time.”  

“Sometimes passive voice can increase ROI. Use it. Carefully.” – Nielsen

Web users spend 80% of their time looking at information above the page fold.  Although users do scroll, they allocate only 20% of their attention below the fold.  Successful web content engages visitors and gives them a reason to want to read on.  Studies have found that people will only look very far down a page if the copy encourages scanning and the initial information makes them believe that it will be worth their time to scroll.  A website copywriter must speak directly to the audience and tell them why you are worth their time.

Promotional writing
Web users detest “marketese” – the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims that currently is prevalent on the Web.  Objective language using neutral rather than subjective, boastful, or exaggerated language improved usability and effectiveness by 27%.

Never overdo the use of adjectives.  Your customer doesn’t want to know that you think your product is the hottest, best, finest, ultimate or greatest.  That is for them to decide.  Stick to the facts, making these claims is subjective.  Boasting and exaggerating is a turn off whether it’s occurs in real life or in your web copywriting.

Credibility is important for internet users, since it is unclear who is behind information and whether a page can be trusted.  Nielsen suggests that you can exude credibility through good web writing.  Professional, well written website copywriting shows the customer they are dealing with a credible, authoritative company they can trust.  Spelling mistakes, sloppy grammar and a poor choice of language when writing for the web is not a good representation of your company.

When writing web content, humour should be used with caution.  Given people’s different preferences for humour, it is important for a website copywriter to know the audience, before including humour in a site.

Even then, the use of humour is risky because you cannot take into account your visitors background, age, gender etc.  It may be safer to avoid using humour altogether.

 Writing for social media
Users like the simplicity of messages that pass into oblivion over time, but were frequently frustrated by unscannable writing, overly frequent postings, and their inability to locate companies on social networks.

Nielsens social media content study measured the usability of corporate content distributed through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace — streams, walls and feeds.  The messages that received the highest scores shared the following 3 traits:

  •  Substance
  • Timeliness
  • Relevance to the company or organisation

He concluded – “Users do want these messages. In moderation. If they’re good.”

In an interview, Nielsen stated that most Web 2.0 trends are not that important for business sites.

“They still need to focus on getting Web 1.0 right: helping customers find the products, describing them in ways that make sense and making transactions more seamless.”

Over two studies Nielsen was able to improve measured usability improved by 124% and 159%.  Don’t underestimate the power of great website copywriting.  If you could improve your writing for the web by 159%, your conversion rates would soar.

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