Online Marketing Lesson 24: 8 Principles for Writing Great Web Content


Writing for the web is very different from the kind of writing you learned in school. The key difference is that web content has the potential to be multi-layered. You can hyperlink words, phrases or sentences to other sources of information, adding an additional layer to your writing that print doesn’t (really) support. Instead of explaining words and concepts in your text, you might do all that in a single word by linking it to a Wikipedia page on the topic, for example. The reader can then research as much or as little as they like.

Web content is also multi-layered in the way it can be integrated with supporting media, like streaming audio and video, or photo slideshows.

The writing is also consumed very differently online. Readers can bookmark your content in their browser and return to it later with a single click. They can re-post quotes and excerpts on their blog with the click of a button. They can vote for it on social bookmarking sites like Digg and help expose it to an extremely wide audience. They can often write a comment about the content that appears on the same page, with many authors interfacing directly with their readers through these comments.

Finally, humans aren’t the only ones consuming web content. Search engines are also working around the clock to add new content to their systems as it’s created. Crafting web content so that it appears in the search results for specific keywords has become a sought-after skill in current times.

Short Attention Span

We have already discussed the ways web writing is different from print writing, but it’s also worth mentioning one key difference of online readers: their short attention span.

When a user is online, he has access to a virtually unlimited amount of entertainment and information. These diversions are often just a mouse click or search term away. Because of this, regular web users are skillful at quickly navigating through vast amounts of information.

They may make a decision on whether or not to read an article based solely on whether the headline captures their attention. Even after they continue into the article, they may only scan the first few paragraphs to decide whether they want to keep reading. If the article begins to bore them, they’re unlikely to be patient with it, since there are plenty of alternatives around.

All this means that, when writing for online readers, you simply can’t waste any of the attention you are given. This doesn’t mean online readers are fickle – just that they’re clever with how they divvy up their attention and time. If your writing is good enough, you’ll find they are unique in the ways they can support you by linking, quoting, tweeting, voting for and commenting on your work. The question then becomes, how can you write good content for this audience?

8 Principles for Writing Great Web Content

1. Focus on writing a strong, catchy headline

An article’s headline is the first thing anyone will read. In many cases, it’s the only thing a user will read before moving on. With dozens of links and articles competing for attention at any given time, this is understandable. The headline gives the user a very quick overview of what the article might be about and whether they should care.

Think about the way you might flip through a magazine. You’re likely to scan headlines looking for keywords and phrases that interest you. This represents the first thing to remember when creating a headline for your web writing: use keywords and phrases. If you want to attract Apple fans to your article about the iPhone, don’t title it: “Wired Magazine Reviews 2009 Smart Phones”. Instead, title it: “Wired Magazine Reviews 2009 Smart Phones, iPhone Still on Top.” While both headlines could work, the second tells the target audience that the article has good news about the iPhone.

Another strategy for compelling headlines is to arouse curiosity. Here are some great examples utilizing formulas that writers often use:

  • Are You Making These … Mistakes?
  • What You Must Know About …
  • What Do … and … Have in Common?
  • The Secrets About …
  • Easy/Quick/Simple Ways to …

Of course, many more combinations are possible.

Finally, headlines based on numbered lists are very popular with online readers. They promise a good return on time investment. A person would be much more eager to read “20 Killer Tips on How to Tweak A Computer” than “Tips on Tweaking a Computer,” though both headlines could technically be attached to the same article. The former promises a lot more value.

If you take the time to read popular websites and blogs and study their headlines, you’ll notice certain formulas being used regularly. That is because they work, so make sure to learn and adapt them to your own content.

2. Trim the fat from your first few paragraphs

Once your headline hooks a reader, they are not guaranteed to continue much longer with your article. If your first few paragraphs are too slow to get into the good stuff, or worse, don’t seem relevant to the headline, you may lose the reader your headline worked so hard to capture.

The biggest mistake you can make here is taking the reader’s attention for granted. I’ve seen many writers follow up a great headline with a meandering story or over-long anecdote. These might eventually lead back into the article’s topic, but by that time the reader is usually clicking away to somewhere else.

To solve this problem remember these two things:

  • The ideal first paragraph expands on your headline.
  • The ideal first paragraph gives readers incentive to stick with your article.

Sometimes the best thing to do is tell your readers what you’re going to tell them. In other words, explain what you will cover in the article, and why they should care.

If it’s a news piece, summarize the key details in your first paragraph. The reader will be curious to know more details, which you can then fill out as the article progresses.

Don’t take too long to get to the good stuff. Your introduction shouldn’t be longer than one, two or three short paragraphs, or you’ll find readers will skip over it. The exception to this rule is when you are writing a “feature” style article with no clear introduction.

3. Make your content scannable

As we explained in the introduction, one key characteristic of Internet users is their short attention span. It is very likely that your readers will be exchanging emails, chatting with IM clients and visiting other websites while they read your content. If that is the case, you need to make sure that they will be able to scan through that content easily, finding the bits of information that they need or are looking for.

Practically speaking, you can achieve this using:

  • headers
  • sub-headers
  • bullet points
  • ordered lists
  • bold and italics
  • illustrative images
  • informative graphs

4. Use Content Hooks

Apart from making your content scannable, you should also encourage scanners to become readers by hooking them into your content.

Your goal is to present your article in such a way that there are visible “hooks” to grip the attention of someone who is scanning your writing. For this purpose, it is essential to signpost your ideas with headings and formatting. If you write a sentence that is key to your article but buried inside a paragraph, for example, make it bold so that it stands out from the text around it.

If you begin to explore a really cool idea halfway through your article, write a sub-heading for that idea. Treat it like you would any other headline and use keywords and curiosity to persuade a scanner to begin reading.

Though it’s nice as a writer to have people reading your stuff word by word, getting people to read rather than scan has other benefits. They’re more likely to share your article with others because they’ve been shown more of its value, and because they’re more likely to understand it. If you’re only motivated to scan something, it’s unlikely to strongly affect you. If you’re gripped by every word, the content is much more likely to leave a deep impression.

5. Write more original words than you excerpt

When writing web content, you may often find yourself sharing or responding to something someone else has written, whether it’s news or an opinion. If you’re just sharing a link, it might feel like there’s not much value you can add. If this is the case, maybe you should not publish the content at all.

Whenever you re-post a link or an excerpt of content without adding much value, you build someone else’s writing more than your own. You are not showcasing the unique value that you bring. For that reason, people are much more likely to link to the source of the content than to your take on it.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t write about news and other types of content, only that you need to be careful to add more value than you take. As a general rule, always write more additional, original content than the number of words you’re excerpting – preferably twice as much. This could be thoughts, analysis, or extra research.

6. Stick to one topic per article

Often new web writers will cover a variety of different topics in one piece of content. They might talk about the new phone they just bought, their thoughts on the latest YouTube phenomenon, and link to a great article they read on U.S. politics. While each of these things could make a good individual item of content if done well, lumping them together makes the post less attractive for readers to stick with, and to share.

Let’s say you write about the new phone, YouTube and U.S. politics in that order. A reader who is a politics buff but uninterested in the cool YouTube video and your new phone would be unlikely ever to make it that far. If you split the one article into three articles, one on each topic, the reader could quickly filter the articles by headline and focus in on the U.S. politics content. YouTube aficionados would focus on the YouTube article, and phone geeks would head for that article. Staying on topic in each piece of content you create treats reader attention with much more respect and efficiency.

As a side benefit, articles that focus on a single topic perform much better on search engines, too.

7. Define your target audience and provide value to them

Most web writers devote much more time thinking about the “topics” they’ll write about, rather than who they are writing for. While it’s a good idea to think about topics, your target audience is in many ways more important. For example, it would be extremely difficult to write consistently great web content on personal finance if you had little idea of who you were writing for. What is “good” content on personal finance will vary greatly depending on who is reading. A young person looking to buy their first home will be interested in a very different kind of content than a senior citizen looking for advice on how to invest their life savings.

By having a concept of the audience you are writing for you’ll be able to cover the topics you write about in a way that provides the most value for that audience.

You might decide that you are going to write about “Long-term travel” as a topic, but your target audience will shape the best kind of content you could write. Your writing will be very different depending on whether your intended readers are:

  • Young or old
  • From Europe, Asia or North America
  • Wealthy or tight with money
  • Experienced or inexperienced travelers
  • Outdoor explorers or pub-crawlers

While you don’t have to define your reader down to a perfect portrait, a loose definition will mean you are more likely to keep writing content that your readers always find valuable and relevant.

8. Sign the content with your “signature”

While some web writers do end their articles with a scanned image of their signature, our meaning here isn’t quite so literal. We are referring instead to putting yourself and your experiences into everything you write.

Writing for the web is much more interpersonal than writing for print. Your readers are often bumping into you in other places online – on social media, at other websites and blogs, on forums or when they write guest articles elsewhere. They will often have chatted with you via email or instant messenger. As such, online writing is often more like communicating with friends and acquaintances than it is like writing for strangers. People want to get to know you. Often, they will read your writing because they like you personally as much as they like the things you say.

Don’t be afraid to talk about your thoughts, feelings, experiences, successes and failures in your online writing. These are all things readers can relate to and it will deepen their engagement to you. If readers like you enough they will speak highly of you to others and recommend your writing to their own social networks. Being honest and authentic will also go towards producing some of your best and most passionate writing.

Action Points

  1. Visit some popular blogs in your niche, or some social bookmarking sites, and analyze the headlines that seem to draw a lot of attention.
  2. If you have time, create a document where you will store all the interesting headlines that will cross your way on the Internet. This document will become a source of inspiration for the times when you will need to write headlines.
  3. Write as much as possible. In order to incorporate the strategies and tips described in this lesson, you will inevitably need to practice them.

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