In my day job, I manage the content for a large charity website. I spend lots of time training my colleagues on writing for the web.
When I visit authors’ websites, I’m sometimes struck by the simple ways they could make their sites easier to use. Last week Roni Loren wrote about the ten components to a rocking author website. Her number one tip was to make sure a drunken monkey could navigate it. Excellent tip.
My post today will show you how the content you write can make your site easier to use. I won’t focus on how you use your voice or how to market your books. Instead I’ll show you easy ways to ensure your message is clear and easy to act on – whether it’s “Buy my book!” or “Get to know who I am!”
Though I’m writing this mostly for my fellow novelists, the principles here can apply to all websites.
1. Understand that web writing needs to be different than print writing because we read differently online.
In fact, people don’t tend to read online. And when we do, we read more slowly on a computer screen than we do a printed document. Plus, when we’re online, we often have other things competing for our attention, unlike when we settle down with a good book.
Instead, we scan for information online. This means you need to…
2. Make your web pages easy to scan.
You might love long, lush paragraphs in your novels, but your web audience will bash their heads against their keyboards if you present them with information that way. Unless they love you with stalkerish devotion, they’ll probably give up on your site and try to find their information elsewhere.
So how do you make your pages easy to scan? Simple. Don’t use a single word more than you have to.
There are several other ways to draw our eyes to your most important information:
- Write descriptive links.
- Limit paragraphs to three short sentences at most.
- Use descriptive subheadings to break up paragraphs.
- Use bullet points for lists instead of long sentences with lots of commas.
Because they’re crucial in helping our website visitors scan, let’s look more closely at links and subheadings.
3. Make your links descriptive.
It’s so easy to overlook link text, but it’s crucial in helping people find the information they want. Good link text also helps make your site more accessible to visually impaired people (more about that in a second).
Here’s a quick exercise. Sit back for a second and scroll down this page. Which of these two links jumps out at you?
a. Click here to follow me on Twitter.
Most people will say b. Your link text should tell me immediately where you’re taking me. If I see a page full of ‘Click here’ links, then I’m forced to read all the surrounding words, which slows me down even more.
‘Click here’ links also make pages very difficult for visually impaired people, who can use something called a screen reader to read out web pages to them. If you’ve ever seen someone use a screen reader, you’ll know how remarkable it is. (I searched for videos of people using screen readers, but most of them had such terrible sound quality that they weren’t very helpful.)
Visually impaired people scan with their ears the way sighted people use their eyes. They can have their screen reader read out all the links on a page. Imagine how frustrating it would be to hear ‘Click here’ ten times when you really want to find a link taking you to an author’s bio page, or information about whether a book is available in large print.
Link text should:
- closely match the title of the page you’re taking people to (see my link to Roni’s post above for an example)
- preferably be 3-5 words long, unless the page you’re linking to has a longer title.
Even if the only thing you change about your site is to make your link text more descriptive, your site will be immediately easier to use.
4. Write descriptive subheadings.
If I’m looking at a long page all about a single novel, I want the page to be broken up with subheadings that immediately tell me what information comes below.
Let’s say you have a page about your latest novel. Here’s some of the information you might want on it:
- Links to reviews
- Places to buy the book
- Extra fun stuff
If I see all that information without any subheadings, I’ll go nuts. It’s so simple to write ‘Excerpt’ in big bold letters before pasting your excerpt onto the page, but it makes a huge difference and helps readers find what they’re looking for.
5. Put your most important information at the top.
In English we read left to right, top to bottom, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the top left of the screen is where our eyes start out. That’s your prime real estate. That’s where you should put your most important information – whatever you decide that is on a particular page. (Check out this cool eye-tracking heat map showing where web users look.)
Photos are rarely the most important thing, which is why you’ll always see my blog photos justified right. They’re just eye candy. Words rule. Give me the blurb on the left of the page, and the book cover on the right.
What are other ways writers can make their websites easier to use? Which authors’ websites do you think are fantastic? And what kind of information would you include on your author website?