How do people read on the Web? They don’t.

That’s the finding of a study conducted by former Sun Microsystems Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen presented at, a Web-design critique and suggestion site. Nielsen, currently a consultant with Nielsen Norman Group, noted that “people rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.” Seventy-nine percent of readers who participated in the study always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read every word.

Today’s IT consultants are creating Web sites to promote their businesses, and with that comes the task of writing about the services they offer. While many might choose to outsource this chore to a marketing or public relations professional, those who take on the responsibility themselves should follow the rules of writing for the Web. Here are several tips you can apply to improve both the usability and the readability of your site.

The aesthetics of text
Keep these conventions in mind when creating the overall look of the text portion of your Web site:

  • Less is more. According to Crawford Kilian, author of Writing for the Web (Self Counsel Press Inc., 1999), blocks of online text should be no more than about 75 words each. “Every sentence, every phrase, every word has to fight for its life,” Kilian explained.
  • Split long documents into multiple pages. Reading a computer monitor is about twenty-five percent slower than reading a paper document. That’s part of the reason “users do not like long, scrolling pages,” Nielsen noted, but he also cautioned that “hypertext should not be used to segment a long linear story into multiple pages: having to download several segments slows down reading and makes printing more difficult…instead, split the information into coherent chunks that each focus on a certain topic.”
  • Use bullets and subheads. They help break up a wall of text. Nielsen noted that you should use “meaningful subheadings (not ‘clever’ ones).” Multiple subheads representing different levels of an article also facilitate access for blind users with screen readers.
  • Don’t use all caps. People subconsciously look at the shapes of words in order to understand them. If you use capital letters, the shapes become simple rectangles that don’t enhance readability.
  • Highlight keywords.People who scan pages usually pick up bold text. Nielsen pointed out that “hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others,” but don’t overuse them. Colored text can cause eyestrain. Even white text on a black background lowers readability. And too many fonts make your page look like a ransom note.
  • Avoid techno-glitz. Glitzy graphics and animations distract from your message. Amy Gahran, editor of Contentious, a Web-zine for online writers, used Swatch as an example of a site that has opted for style over substance. “No commercial Web site should be this cryptic or complicated,” Gahran wrote. “In its rush to look ‘cool’ online, watchmaker Swatch has created a fluff-laden, puzzling Web monstrosity. In order to glean the smallest nuggets of information, visitors must wade through a full-on techno-hip assault. This is a classic example of a site designed to impress marketing brass, ad execs, and other Web designers, rather than to serve the target audience effectively.”

Keep the writing sharp and short
When it comes to the writing itself, follow these suggestions:

  • Use the inverted pyramid style. Start with your conclusion, then list the important details supporting it, and finally give general background information. Newspapers use this style because it lets you stop reading anywhere. Nielsen noted that “on the Web, the inverted pyramid becomes even more important since we know from several user studies that users don’t scroll, so they will very frequently…read only the top part of an article. [A] few motivated souls will reach the foundation of the pyramid and get the full story in all its gory detail.”
  • Remember, you’re writing for a global audience. Avoid idioms and other phrases that might confuse international readers. Crawford Kilian noted that U.S. readers know what you mean by a “fender bender,” but people in other countries might be confused.
  • Use one idea per paragraph. As Nielsen noted, “Users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph.”
  • Avoid marketing hype. Nielsen’s study also found that “users detested ‘marketese,’” which he described as “the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims (‘hottest ever’) that currently is prevalent on the Web. Web users are busy; they want to get the straight facts. Also, credibility suffers when users clearly see that the site exaggerates.”
  • Don’t forget to proofread. After you finish writing, run your spelling and grammar checkers, but then print out to proofread. You’re likely to catch more errors on paper than on screen.

Thomas Pack is a freelance technology reporter.

Have you created a dynamite Web site with great writing to promote your business? Send us a note with the link and tell us why you think it’s a knockout. We may feature it in an upcoming article.