Canadian Plastics

Words for the Wise: Tips for Website Design

By Reid Goldsborough   

In cyberspace, "you are what you write," says Charles Rubin, author of thirty books about technology including Guerrilla Marketing Online. Whether you've created a Web site to promote your organizatio...

In cyberspace, “you are what you write,” says Charles Rubin, author of thirty books about technology including Guerrilla Marketing Online. Whether you’ve created a Web site to promote your organization or to share your enthusiasm for Miles Davis’ music, you should pay close attention to the words you use.

“People’s opinion of you online is determined to a large extent by your command of the written word,” Rubin says.

But don’t think you can simply apply the lessons you learned in English class. “Writing for the Web is different,” says Ed Trayes, a professor of communications at Temple University in Philadelphia who spearheaded the school’s electronic information-gathering coursework. “People go to the Web because they want to get information efficiently.”

To meet this need, think in terms of individual screens. “Ninety percent of people reading a Web page don’t scroll down,” says Jack Powers, director of the International Informatics Institute, a think tank on interactive media in New York City. “You need to grab the reader’s attention and make your main points in the first screen.”


People on the Web have short attention spans. “You need to hook them on the first sentence,” says Matt Friedman, author of the book Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches from the Information Revolution, and an instructor of online journalism at Concordia University in Montreal.

Otherwise, they’ll be off to any of the millions of other sites just a few clicks away. “Readers typically don’t make investments to view a Web site — unlike with a magazine or newspaper — so they have less incentive to stick around,” says Friedman.

After you present the big picture, unfold the rest of your story through links to interior pages. Make it clear up front how many links are involved so readers know what they’re getting into.

But don’t straightjacket readers into following only one path. If you don’t let them take control, they’ll do so anyway by clicking to another site. Providing a search engine is another way to let readers control their own surfing experience.

Links are fundamental to the Web, but subdividing pages too much and forcing readers to tunnel down through too many links will only frustrate them. With each page, provide a link back to the top.

For most people, reading on the Web is more difficult than reading from the printed page. Studies have shown that reading speeds are around 25 percent slower on a monitor than on paper. That’s why, says Marcia Yudkin, author of Six Steps to Free Publicity and eight other books about writing and marketing, “you have to coddle the reader on the Web.”

Keep words, sentences, and paragraphs short. Use meaningful, not clever, subheads to break up and summarize text. Many readers will just scan your pages, reading only the subheads. Use lists whenever possible. Make the width of columns shorter than the width of the screen. Cut excess verbiage.

One of worst mistakes you can make is repackaging stuffy bureaucratic-sounding text from printed sources, says Powers. Similarly, to prevent turning off Web surfers, avoid “marketese” — exaggerated, self-congratulatory puffery.

Build in a way for readers to react to what you write, such as e-mail feedback, discussion boards, and chat rooms. More than anything else, the Web differentiates itself from other media by its interactivity.

Finally, keep in mind that the Web is a young medium, like TV was in the 1950s, says Friedman. “Not all of the rules have been ironed out yet.”

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book

Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.

He can be reached at or http:\


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