#MagNet11: The Yahoo guide to effective web writing (plus my two cents)

June 13, 2011

On Wednesday at MagNet Chris Barr, senior editorial director at Yahoo, gave a presentation on web writing. I wasn’t able to make it but my friend Jaclyn Law, a freelance writer and editor, was there and shared her notes with me. Looks like it was a good talk but I do disagree with some of the points so I’ve added comments in square brackets – please add your own in the comments, and Chris, I apologize if I misunderstood any of your points. Thanks, Jaclyn!

______

– Web is not the same as paper. 79% scan rather than read
– Reading on screen is 25% slower than reading paper
– Computer screens have about 10% the resolution of paper [Note that this is changing fast – the iPhone 4 screen is very high resolution. And not all paper is high resolution – eg documents printed on home printers.]

The medium is the message – write accordingly. [I would take this further than Barr did. The way you write sends a message, too. His tips below will make for effective web service but certainly don’t suit every register of writing. Your job as a writer and editor is to keep in mind your audience, your brand and your product – and why readers are reading on your site – and tailor Barr’s tips for those considerations.]

– Shape your text for online reading – modify writing to get message across
– Get to the point – put important info up front where readers can find quickly
– Make text scannable – arrange content so easy to scan for keywords and phrases
– Write for the world

How people read online
– Eyetracking studies show readers skim pages, browing for relevant words, info
– Scanning generally follows an F pattern
– Yahoo Usability Lab calls pattern a triangle

What is “voice”?
– Expression of your company/site through images, graphics, typeface, colours, content selection, words
– Effective voice makes people feel at home through words and pictures
e.g., globe vs sun; bank – UI, word choice, images to identify with; see redneckbank.com

Writing and editing for online reading means:
– Organizing your story and writing headlines to make story more readable (and skimmable)

– Front-load most important info in first paragraph/above the fold. you have 3-7 seconds to hook readers. Don’t bury the lead. [This is important. In print, you have other ways to draw in the reader and you know they’ll flip past pull quotes, images, etc. With web they’ll just click away if you don’t attract them.]

– Write brief, keyword-loaded headings [I would add intriguing. See Glamour’s blogs for good examples of web-friendly headings that aren’t boring. Headlines need to be both keyword-rich/SEO-friendly and clickable. Always ask yourself: would I click on this?]

– Limit stories to about 300 words per page… unless you have a sound reason for going longer. That length keeps copy concise, focuses story on one main topic, and helps SEO. [Obviously this advice depends very much on your content and audience.]

– Organize info into compact (2- to 3-sentence) paragraphs or bulleted lists, one idea per chunk. [When repurposing print stories, consider breaking up longer paragraphs for ease of online reading.]

– Give visitors a next step and actionable takeaways (what can they do about this topic?). Never leave readers at a dead end, with no links or to-dos. [The end of a story is a fantastic place to put related links, even if you have to do them manually as part of your main body.]

Your headline is one of the most important pieces of copy on the page, especially on the web.

– Present accurate, complete and concise info about the story
– Help users filter stories to reach what they want, because of how people read now – motivates people to click
– Reflect voice and standards of your publication

Headline can also guide writing rest of story. You should be able to summarize your story in 5 or 6 words; if you can’t, your piece may lack focus.

Another test: if you can read nothing but headlines and subheadlines, do you understand the story? If you can understand narrative, you’ve done a good job of editing it. [Again, depends on the type of story.]

Print headlines don’t always work online. [Print headlines almost never work online. It’s a different art. Again, always ask yourself if you would click on your headline *in isolation*. Pretend you’re a reader who doesn’t know what the story is about.]

Headlines appear in many places – story title, titles of page (top browser bar), bookmark, name of the tab, related links, subject of comments, search engine results page.

Writing headlines
Headlines (and other headings) are some of the most-read words on the page. So use the most relevant words in headings, and make sure those words are correct in spelling and in fact.

Think clarity first, cleverness second.

Try subject-verb-object structure to put actor and action right up front.

Use concrete keywords, like proper nouns. What would readers search for? Try typing headline into a search box. Has someone used it?

Favour strong, interesting verbs; simple present tense and active voice. [I think Barr is – not unlike many, many people – misusing the term “active voice” here. What he really means is clear and concise – simple verb forms rather than compound. Passive voice, in fact, is especially appropriate if it’s what people are searching for in a keyword phrase. For more on the passive voice fallacy see Language Log’s excellent explanation of the passive in English and multiple posts discussing passive voice.]

– Call out what’s important in the story. Why should people read?
– Make sure headline can stand alone.
– Stay under 65 characters [Not always necessary but Google SERPs show 65 characters in a title. Some fancier CMSs will let you choose multiple titles for multiple situations – eg one for Google, one for social, different ones for different areas of your site.]
– Remember headline may show up in newsfeeds, mobile browsers, etc.
– Make sure voice is appropriate for the story and the site.

SEO and linking
– SEO is a set of strategies for making your page easier to find.
– When you seed your page with words people are searching for, you’re more likely to make a connection.
– High search rank (ideally top 10) means more people likely to find.

Search engines crawl the whole page, but give particular weight to:
– page title
– headline
– other bold headings + subheadings
– links
– bulleted and numbered lists
– introduction and conclusion

Seed keywords in those spots, and search engines will like your page. [This is a simplification. I prefer to think of it as explaining to Google what your story is about. “Seeding keywords” is an apt description but keep in mind these keywords need to be relevant to and descriptive of the topic of the story.]

How to select keywords
– Make list of possible keywords. If you were looking, what words would you enter?
Test a few keywords:
http://keyworddiscovery.com/search.html
http://tools.seobook.com/keyword-tools/

Repeat keywords.

To add keywords, select 3 to 5 of longer keywords and seed exact phrases into headline, subheadline, first and last graph.

Try to repeat each keyword two to four times in 300-word story.

But you don’t want your text to sound artificial or so repetitive it’s ridiculous.

[Also note that Barr is using the word “keyword” but that you’re highly unlikely to rank a story on a single word. Better to think of “keyword phrases” and seed those.]

Links are like votes – when you link to a site, you endorse it in the eyes of search engines. [Note that this is a concept that Google invented and what made them top of the search engines.]

But they need to be good links. If you link to a less relevant site, the search engine may ding your page. You don’t get extra credit for linking to lots of pages.

Aim for 3 relevant links to relevant pages (to your site or others), on the same or a similar topic.  Use keywords in link text.

[Also: do your best to get links back to your page and site using relevant keywords. If you use a source with a website, ask them to link to your story. If you’re a freelance writer with a site, link to the story. Etc.]

More tips: word choice
If you have a broad, international audience, avoid unnecessary jargon and buzzwords, clichés, slang, references specific to one group, region or culture.

Make your pieces sociable

Add FB “like” or “share” button to every article.
Have a FB fan page, and “curate” it
Age of identity – people willingly put lots of personal info online. Mass personalization is going to continue.
Said not to worry about Twitter for now – says it’s too techy for most people, teens not interested in it, users tend to be older (compared to FB).

[As you might guess I disagree with the Twitter comment. Twitter has a much lower penetration than Facebook but it’s the power web users that are on it – and those are the ones who are more likely to have blogs, sites etc. and link to you, and to share stories with others. Also, now that half of Canadians are on Facebook, I don’t think users are “younger”. Besides, why do we care about the ages of social media users except where it’s relevant to our publications and works?]

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