When I first heard that writing for the web was different from other types of writing, I was skeptical. I assumed it meant dumbing down text and making it shorter.

Since then, I have discovered the work of Jakob Nielsen and have become a believer in thinking about writing with a new set of reading glasses.

Nielsen, with a doctorate in human-computer interaction, is the godfather of Web usability. He makes a science of studying how real people use websites, resulting in boatloads of recommendations that turn conventional wisdom on its head.

His Alertbox column, which has a new, thought-provoking article twice a month, should be required reading for anyone who writes for the Web. It may not be much to look at, but it is well worth spending some time with.

Reading Nielsen’s work, you will probably find out that many things you thought were right are wrong. He is always thinking of the user, and his words are a splash of cold water, reminding us how easy it is to think of everything but the user.

Here are some of my favorite pieces of advice from Nielsen.

Web readers scan, rather than read thoroughly.

Copy must be interesting and well written, but it also must be scannable. That requires the use of typographic elements to break it up and add access points into the text. Nielsen urges Web writers to keep these elements in mind:

  • Stick to one idea per paragraph;
  • Highlight keywords (short phrases only, not whole sentences);
  • Use meaningful subheads;
  • Create bulleted lists whenever a list would naturally occur (no more than nine items; don’t use dependent lists); and
  • Show numbers as numerals rather than words (as in 9, not nine) in most cases

Write headlines and “leads” that pack in meaning.

I have to admit, I am a fan of clever headlines in newspapers and magazines. Word play, double entendre, the occasional bad pun—all are fair game in print publications, where there is ample context from images and words to ground the headline.

But headlines on websites don’t usually have context to ground them. Often, they are excerpted and pulled up onto a higher level page (called aggregation) to tease readers, in hope that they will follow the link to the full story. Nielsen calls headlines and other excerpted copy microcontent. Its job is to lead users to your macrocontent. Because of this, headlines and leads:

  • Should be catchy but accurate and concise, so users can figure out if they’re interested or not.
  • Are often seen out of context—they are part of a list, or are found as a search result. Unlike print readers, microcontent readers may not have help from photos or captions to give them clues about the content.
  • Make the writer’s job similar to producing a newspaper on a series of 3 × 5 notecards. 

Write to be found by search engines.

Search engines can’t see your graphics. They don’t necessarily know which words are synonyms or which terms are now outmoded in your organization’s field of work (and the general public doesn’t know either).

This means:

  • If there are varying or outmoded terms for your topic, use all of them or at least refer to them as alternates. If you’re a neighborhood health clinic, remember that even though sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are now called sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the potential clients of your neighborhood clinic probably don’t know that and are likely to search for STD, not STI. Or they may even still be searching for information on VD!
  • Put your key terms in the headlines, subheads and links because these are valued more highly by search engines than regular body text.

Don’t use “marketese“—and edit for length.

Don’t exaggerate or use puffery. It slows down readers as they try to filter out the exaggeration.

Nielsen’s research shows that readers find shorter, neutrally written copy much more usable (in terms of speed of reading, accuracy of understanding, memory of the content, and satisfaction with the site):

  • Copy that was half the length was 58 percent more usable.
  • Copy that was objective but the same length was 27 percent more usable.
  • Copy that was identical for content but set up to be scannable was 47 percent more usable.
  • Copy that combined all three improvements (short, objective, and scannable) was 124 percent more usable.

If you’d like to read the sample texts refer to Nielsen’s original Alertbox column.


Credibility on the Web comes from high-quality content.

New users of your site know nothing about your organization. They know that the Web is full of sites that are fly-by-night or even dummy organizations and fake charities. How can you reassure them that you are real, competent and worthy of their trust?

  • Emphasize high-quality graphics and good writing. These are markers of a quality site and therefore are where credibility comes from.
  • Create clear navigation (no “mystery meat” or “mine sweeping“—see our Glossary of Web Terminology). Users are not on your site to play a game; they want information.
  • Proofread: typos tell the user, “We don’t care what you think of us.”
  • Link within the text to other resources on your site or other sites. These links are like footnotes, only more useful and fun to follow. They increase credibility with users.
  • Use photos, animation and video only if they add to the user experience—not just slow it down.
  • You can allow feedback in the same place as the original article through comments—throwing the “letters to the editor” model right out the window, but showing you are in touch with your users.

Always think of the users.

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of speaking to insiders, rather than the “outsider” users of your site. Remember to ask yourself:

  • What is helpful to my audiences? To know this, you need to focus on who your audiences are, what they already know when they come to your site and what they are likely to be looking for.
  • What terms and acronyms do I use without thinking, but which are unfamiliar to my audiences?
  • When I visit other organizations’ sites where I am the outsider, which sites make me feel welcome and make the information I’m looking for easy to find and readable, and which don’t? What are the two types of sites doing differently?

Nielsen’s treasure trove of articles about writing for the web can be found at www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/ 

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