Writing Usable Web Content

25 ,October, 2009 From Alex Chernorudsky

In my wanderings through the web, for shopping, information or even when getting acquainted with a new client, I’m often amazed with how difficult those websites make my task of finding what I need.

What companies often do not realize when going on-line is that writing content for the web is different in many aspects than writing content for the off-line media.

The wrong way of writing content for the web is characterized by:

  1. Content rich articles, sometimes monstrosities with more than 1,000 words
  2. Content rich paragraphs, having multiple sentences
  3. Overly creative headlines, sometimes trying to get clever with the readers

These companies are losing quite a bit of potential customers, hence revenue, by not realizing that writing for the web is a lot different than writing for the off-line media.

How much do users see on the web?

Dr. Jakob Nielsen shows a result of analyzing 45,000 pageviews containing between 30 and 1,250 words.


The following table shows the maximum percentage of text users could read during an average visit to pages with different word counts:

How much do users read on the web?

As you may notice the curve approaches 20% very rapidly as the word-count increases.

In a case of a very modest page, containing 250 words, the average user will read less than 40% of content. This fact alone should raise a red flag for anyone planning to upload an existing magazine article to his website.

The best practice would be to have short and precise pieces of content, having 250-500 words. And, to concentrate your main ideas towards the top of the content.

But wait, it gets better…

What do users see on the web?

In a different study, Dr. Nielsen examines user behavior on a page since first arriving to a site.

After recording users’ eye movements with an infra-red camera, Dr. Nielsen discovered a common pattern in the page reading behavior:

  1. Users first read (scan) across the top two paragraphs of content
  2. Users proceed to quickly scan the first few words of the content

These two parts of the reading pattern create a resemblance to the letter F, which sometime can be the letter E if the user scans the third paragraph as well, as demonstrated in the following image:

What do users see on the web?

Before Writing Any Web Content

Keeping the above findings in mind, one should always think about the following guidelines when writing content for the web:

  1. Keeping the content short and precise, having 250-500 words
  2. Revealing the main idea in the beginning of the content, preferably in the first two paragraphs
  3. Informative, rather than creative, headlines
  4. Main keywords in the beginning of the headline
  5. Using bullets and numbered lists, that are easier to scan, instead of long multi-sentence paragraphs
  6. Keeping the content short, between 250 and 400 words

Further Reading

I would recommend reading through this informative resource to understand how to achieve better results on-line: Writing for the Web

A little about Dr. Jakob Nielsen:

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., is a User Advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group which he co-founded with Dr. Donald A. Norman (former VP of research at Apple Computer). Before starting NNG in 1998 he was a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer.


Dr. Nielsen founded the “discount usability engineering” movement for fast and cheap improvements of user interfaces and has invented several usability methods, including heuristic evaluation. He holds 79 United States patents, mainly on ways of making the Internet easier to use.

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