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Writing for the Web
The following text contains excerpts from my research paper on writing content for websites.
Conducting a search online for emerging trends in web development will yield that a content-first approach is near the top of everyone’s list. Since web development is getting easier to pick up, it is not uncommon for web developers to be entirely self-taught, with their portfolio taking the place of a four year degree. The team responsible for producing a finely tuned marketing machine may be as small as two people – the client and the developer. Both parties have their own interests and strengths, neither of which involves writing effective writing material for the web. This problem is common, and has sparked a change in the industry to put content first and foremost in the initial meet and greet. Now developers are delaying talk about the look and feel of the site until both the client and the designer know exactly what will be on each and every page of the site. This is the essence of the content-first approach. The web developers who write and license the content themselves are getting ahead, but few are giving up their secrets. Why is it important for every developer to facilitate unique content for the client’s website, how is writing for the web different, and what techniques should one apply?
A little about SEO
The inherent purposes of any business website are to bring public attention to that business and generate leads. Search engines are becoming more sophisticated in finding the intended results and presenting them to the user. They use a variety of methods to look through the sites submitted to that search engine, pointing the user in the direction of the most popular results with the search terms, or keywords, that the user entered. For a good overview of producing more efficient SEO, Jerri Ledford’s book entitled, Search Engine Optimization Bible, Second Edition provides useful information. She shows how content, especially user-generated content, not only helps SEO by frequent updating, but also adds the terminology of the user. Since the user is conducting the search, it only makes sense that the webmaster should use the terms the user is searching for throughout the text of the site. She also affirms thatBlack Hat techniques actually hurt one’s rankings more than helping them, mentioning that it can lead to being “permanently exclude[d]” (Ledford 41). Black Hat techniques actually hurt one’s rankings more than helping them, mentioning that it can lead to being “permanently exclude[d]” (Ledford 41). One of these Black Hat techniques is keyword stuffing, or filling the content of the page with the most popular keywords, especially when they do not make sense in the sentence, or lead to grammatical errors. Putting this into a content-first approach means one must write the subject material of that page first, and then define the keywords that will be associated with that page, not the other way around. In order for the user to get what he wants, the page must contain the information he needs. Rather than trying to trick search engines by adding text that has little or no relevance to the topic(s) of that page, one should want to use the terms that the user inputs, and use them only as frequently as is possible for easy reading.
The Meat & Potatoes
With SEO in the back of a writer’s mind, he must then cater to his audience. Writing for the web is fundamentally different than other forms of public writing. It is shorter. It gets to the point, sometimes in 140 characters or less. The average reader actually skims through content, only occasionally paying attention to the details. Most often, users will read a page for less than one minute. These facts were unanimous in every work cited in this paper. Rather than trying to force the reader to change his habits, we should cater to his expectations and make it easy for him to digest the points we deliver. Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, 2nd Edition by Janice Redish is a widely read book that shows effective writing and design techniques for the web developer. Redish bridges the gap between web developers and authors. She takes the approach that design, development, and content are interrelated, and easy to pick up.
The single chapter in this book focused on web design, quickly and easily explains how to turn content that is difficult to read and understand into a format that is current and best practice. The elements of design to consider are color, typography, and space (Redish). Too often designers sacrifice readability for originality of design, implementing light-colored text on dark backgrounds and selecting colors that clash. This makes the reader put more effort into reading the material, and the end result is unread content. Web developers should remember that not only will their sites be viewed on multiple screen sizes and platforms, but also by people of multiple ages and backgrounds. When it comes to building the site, Redish takes the approach that content and design should be drafted simultaneously, and not separate of each other. While some blank space in the content is good, making the site easier to adapt to a mobile environment and easier to read, building both the content and design at the same time will ensure there is not too much of it.
Jon Wueben's book, Content is Currency, also provides great tips. For instance, it is a good idea to use the search bar on your own site to collect the search terms the users enter. This not only informs you what words the users use, but how popular they are as well (Wueben 51). Also, one should not want to use the most popular keywords on the Internet. If a user enters the word “phones”, it will yield millions more results than if he had entered “popular trending smartphones”. These are called “Long Tail Keywords”, originally coined by Chris Anderson, editor for Wired magazine (Wueben 54).
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Jon Wuebben's book was the basis for my research. He has many great resources (a bunch can be found on this page) both in his book and online.
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What about writing for social media?
Facebook is different from Twitter, and both are different from LinkedIn. The audiences are different. How then, can one apply a consistent guideline to appeal to every crowd? The answer put forth by John Foster in his book Writing Skills for Public Relations, 5th Edition is writing with the appropriate tone. He writes:
The best tone is plain, unaffected, unblemished by superlatives. It neither talks down nor jazzes (nor sexes) up; it regards all readers as equal; it doesn’t excuse or apologize unnecessarily; nor does it try to belittle the reader by showing how clever or sophisticated the writer is; it’s not ‘one-up’ on the reader. It is warm and friendly if circumstances allow; it is enthusiastic about what you have to say. It is confident, yet courteous and sincere. And it demonstrates a helpful attitude coupled with an offer to overcome problems. The best tone can express disappointment but never anger (Foster 218).
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