Ten tips for building a better website

By Susannah Ross, marketingprofs.com, 10/4/07

Making websites involves three very different kinds of skill — technical, visual, and editorial — and the three must work together, which is why it is so difficult.

I would argue that making websites is primarily an editorial job: at least I should like never again to be presented with a pilot site where all the important decisions about content, layout, organization, and navigation have already been taken, and then to be asked to “write the copy” — in effect, to fill in boxes.

So, to help make the case for writers and editors, here are my ten tips:

1. Start at the bottom

When we’re planning a new website, we tend to start by thinking what will go on the home page, then decide what goes into the next level, and so on down. I suggest you do it the other way round. Start at the bottom and work up. If your home page introduces everything that is in the site, how can you decide what to put on it before you have decided what should be in your site?

Plan your pages and the sections or categories you are going to put them in, then write the pages and finally write the home page with all the contents in mind.

2. Break up your information

A website that my company worked on recently had a lot of information on very few pages. The information was there; it just wasn’t very easy to find. When we broke the pages into smaller chunks and put them on different pages with more specific headings, the site appeared to be richer. The information was much the same as before, but it was easier to find the particular bit you wanted.

I think users prefer clicking to scrolling, in other words moving laterally rather than vertically, and they want the task made easy. Breaking up information makes more work for the writer or editor, but there is not much point having lots of useful information “somewhere” in your site if the user can’t find it.

3. Lead users to what they want

If users are to find what they are looking for, and not waste time reading information they are not interested in, they need to be led step by step to what they want. For the writer, this means offering choices — and not too many — that make sense to the user, narrowing the range at each step, so that the user does not have to read pages that do not interest him. It means giving the specific information — an article, for example — a heading on the page, summarizing it on the page above, headlining it on the page above that and putting it in one of the sections or categories that appear in the main navigation.

Again, the writer needs to think from the bottom up, so that the user can find his way from the top down. Writing summaries, headlines, and links are essential Web writing skills.

4. Keep the navigation simple

Users are easily confused, so make the navigation as easy as you can. This means using terms that the user will immediately understand. One of the problems that commercial websites have is that promoting the brand names of their products conflicts with making their websites easy to navigate. Users should not need to know the brand names of, for example, a range of suitcases before they can look for one that is the size or type that they want.

The words used for top-level links should be generic terms. They should also in many cases be the same as the terms used in other websites. “About us” might not be your first choice for a phrase to label the section describing your organization, but it is understood by everyone, which is a big advantage. If you try to be clever and use something different, you simply add to the potential confusion.

5. Anticipate users’ questions

A website exists, or should exist, to answer users’ questions. In the perfect website, as soon as a question arises in the user’s mind there will be a link to provide the answer. We may never achieve perfection, but if our starting point is always the user’s needs, we can get some way toward it.

Links in the text, also known as contextual links, are helpful to users and they should be carefully written to match the main navigation. As far as possible, they should use the same words as the links in the menus. Even small variations can raise a doubt in the user’s mind and that doubt may mean the end of the visit. For example, if the link in the menu is “Register”, does the link in the text that says “fill in our registration form” lead to the same page? Using the same words for both links gives users confidence that they know where they are going.

6. Make it look easy

Your text should look easy to read. However well you write, if you present your readers with a slab of continuous text, you will put them off. Text should be divided into paragraphs of two or three sentences with white space around them. Informative subheadings should be written above your paragraphs to enable a user who is scanning the page to see a list of contents. Columns should be wide enough for the shape of phrases and sentences to be clear, but not so wide as to force the eyes to travel more than half way across the screen to find the beginning of the next line.

Text should be in a readable font and in a color that contrasts strongly with the background. Users should be able to alter the size of the font on their computers to suit their own needs.

7. Put your best bits first

On the Web, writers need to be more like journalists than academics or novelists. Given that users are impatient, and have many other options if your website doesn’t give them what they want, it pays to put your most important information at the top, where users are likely to look first. This is often referred to as the “inverted pyramid” style of writing, in contrast to academic writing, which conventionally put the conclusion at the end and was described as a pyramid.

Journalists put the latest and most important information first and then go on to give detail, background information, and explanation. If Web writers do the same, users can decide straight away whether a page is what they are interested in and not waste time reading to the end to find out.

8. Use more verbs

The Web requires concise writing because users don’t want to waste time. As a general rule, choosing a verb rather than a noun to convey your idea produces a more concise sentence. Rather than using the noun “investigation”, as in “carry out an investigation”, why not just “investigate”? Nouns often require linking phrases, such as “in terms of” or “with regard to” that make your sentences verbose. Rather than talking about “the date of inheritance with regard to the property”, say “the date you inherited the property”.

The Web requires dynamic writing because users are active. Much of what you write on a website is aimed at offering the user choices of action, so your words need to embody that dynamism, as in “Find out”, “Read about”, “Buy online”, and so on.

9. Check your style

If users of websites are easily confused, writers can help them by using words as consistently as possible. There are many reasons for having a style guide — identity, ethics, professionalism — but nearly all involve consistency. Consistency is perhaps even more important on a website than in print, because users move quickly from one page to another in no particular order. They are easily thrown by inconsistencies in terminology, spelling, and presentation.

It’s probably not a good idea to draw up a style guide from scratch: you may never finish the job. Several respected media organizations publish their style guides. Choose one of them and adapt it to your needs, adding style points of your own as questions arise or inconsistencies are spotted.

10. Write with search engines in mind

Writing for the Web is about writing both for users and for searchers. I start from the assumption that it is in the interest of search engines to produce accurate and informative results, which should mean that technical sleight of hand that brings no benefit to users will not work in the long run. So writing for searchers means using words and phrases they are likely to enter into a search engine to find your site.

This is more likely to work if each page has distinctive content that is reflected in the title of the page (“title” in HTML), the “description” in the meta data, and to a lesser extent the key words and phrases, “keywords”, in the meta data. Your links, which tend to attract the attention of seach engines, should be informative rather than mechanical — avoid “click here” – and if possible contain important words and phrases.

These are some of the conclusions I have come to after nearly ten years of studying and working on websites and training people to write for the Web. The important question is what works. The Web is still evolving and so are our ideas as to how to make it work best.