How to write for the web

Write better, sell more. Or what are the golden rules of readability, how an F rules the roost and why only 20% of a page generally ever gets read.

Reading off a PC screen is physically difficult, off a tablet or smart phone even harder. But there are ways to make the experience easier for your readers. 

And if you make it easier to comprehend, then the chances are increased that they will go on to buy your product, understand your message or connect enough to share with friends or colleagues.

This article is for those that have either started publishing on the web, or are thinking about it. It is also for those that want to make their customers experience as effective as possible.

In web terms, it's all about optimising the experience.

So how much can users read?

The ideal line length for text layout is based on the physiology of the human eye. A normal reading distance is generally held to be around 35cm. However at this distance the average field of view is only 6 degrees of arc or 3.67cm*.

As the recommended OHS viewing distance for most PC users is between 40-70cm this equates to about five words of mid-sized text. 

In practice the brain also unconsciously expands this visual span so we generally have a little more width to play with. An optimal sized column of text has found to be about 12 words per line or around 60 characters per line (CPL).

An example of 12 words (59 characters):

A well designed column of text, or about 12 words per line.

Research** shows that reading and retention rates fall as line length begins to exceed this ideal width. This occurs as the user increasingly needs to use the muscles of the eye and neck to track from the end of one line to the beginning of the next.

If the eye must traverse great distances on the page, the reader is easily lost and must hunt for the beginning of the next line.

There have been several studies, on the topic of line lengths and one of the better was done by the department of psychology at Wichita State University, entitled "The Effects of Line Length on Children and Adults' Online Reading Performance".

This study concluded that for adults optimum comprehension a medium line length (65 to 74 CPL) should be presented. Children, on the other hand, indicated their preference for the narrowest line length at 45 CPL.

While on article pages we do not strictly follow our own guidelines regarding column width it is something we are aware of and seek to conform to where possible. This is particularly the case in our primary section pages, where displaying a large range of content efficiently is very important.

Scanning rules

People rarely read web pages word by word. Instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.

Research by Jakob Nielsen's useit.com suggests users will only ever read about 20% of the text on an average page.

Similar studies suggest that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.

F-Shaped patterns

When tracked the dominant reading pattern of most websites looks like an F. Most users first read along the upper content areas of a page and progressively move downwards but with shorter horizontal views.

Finally they scan the page contents left side in a vertical movement, which creates the F’s stem. Interestingly, human faces are also generally more intentlyscanned independent of their placement within a page.

Web-F-shape.jpg

Eyetracking heatmap of a users reading of a webpage. 

In the eyetracking image above notice the emphasis on reading the first two words of the headlines. The areas where users looked the most are coloured red, the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed in white.

Some golden rules for good readability

Web pages should employ scannable text, using:

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and colour are others
  • meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing

Credibility is critically important for web users, as it is often unclear who is behind information on the web and whether a page can be trusted.

Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links. Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.

Users also detest copy that is marketing heavy or distracting. Users are busy, they are scanning quickly for results and want the information they are after, in easily consumable chunks. Distractions such as flashing text, loud claims and multi coloured text should be avoided.

Summary

Following these simple guidelines will help make your content more readable and your online business presence more effective.

Related links:

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Telstra BigPond. * Thanks to John for help with trigonometry. ** Web Style Guide - Basic Design Principles for Creating Websites Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton 2nd edition, page 97.