Writing for the web: Improve scanability

January 19, 2012

Ever try reading a dense webpage word-for-word? It’s nearly impossible. According to stats from web writing expert Jakob Nielsen, users spend only 4.4 seconds “reading” each 100 words on a typical webpage. Rather than read a block of text word-for-word, users typically scan, searching for only the most critical pieces of information they need. A web writer can make scanning a page easier by following these tips:

  • Length: Stick to 300 words per page or less. If your topic requires more length, consider using anchor links (links at the top of the page that link to several sections) or break the text into several pages.
  • Add emphasis: Bold important words and phrases to call them out to the user. Avoid underlining, which will make your text look like a link.
  • Lists: Breaking large blocks of text into a bulleted or numbered list helps call out text so a user can scan quickly.
  • Key words: It sounds like a “no brainer,” but be sure to incorporate the most logical key words into your page’s text. Users scan for the key words they associate with your topic and will have more success if key words are included in your subheadings, are bolded or hyperlink out to other pages.
  • Subheadings: Divide long passages of text into logical sections and label each with a meaningful subheading that accurately reflects the content. Aim for one heading every two to four paragraphs. Use a heading style to differentiate the subheading text from the body text.
  • One idea per paragraph: Users typically assume that each paragraph only contains one idea, so if your paragraph contains two, the second is unlikely to stick.