My Top 7 favorite Nielsen articles on writing for web

"In the old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody" ... In the digital context, Wilde's text sounds to me even more real now than at the time he wrote it.

The whole context of reading and writing has changed and most probably will continue to do so thanks to Internet and all these empowering devices.

I've grown up as a professional with Jakob Nielsen's articles, books and must-attend Usability Week, so it's no wonder I've been telling everybody interested in exploring digital that is one great starting point. This time, I thought I should concentrate of recommending you some of the best advices Nielsen has given across the years on writing for the web.  Putting them in practice might increase the chances of your texts of being read by online users.  


Everybody writes something. Today more than ever. It may well be a Twitter or Facebook post, a blog post, an online article etc. Whether we call ourselves writers, content creators or generators, authors or simply amateurs, we all want the message to reach our audience.

The reality is that the audience is very volatile, always on the move, facing so many temptations every second. On top of this, those potential readers are reaching these messages from all sorts of devices used in a way that even surprise even their own creators.  This raises new challenges not only for those looking for a good story, but especially for those of us writing for digital.   


Users don't read, they scan


Well, that's a totally different new game. Faster, more challenging and which forces writers to understand and learn a new set of skills, rethink the way they write.

One cannot think of writing for the web unless first understands how users read online. In one of Nielsen's research on how people read websites they found that 79% of the test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word. And if you are skeptical about such findings, just look at the eye-tracking proofs Nielsen uses. 


Write for the readers 

In User-centric vs. Maker-centric Language: 3 Essential Guidelines, Nielsen offers three tips you should have in mind to create user-centric copy:

  • Focus on the benefits of the product or service
  • Avoid industry and business jargon
  • Have a conversation with readers.

If your want your readers to stay on your page, avoid using industry words, business jargon, too many buzzwords or features although for you it's easier, familiar and comfortable. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine you are them... what would you like to understand?    


Start with the conclusion 

"(...) start the article by telling the reader the conclusion ('After long debate, the Assembly voted to increase state taxes by 10 percent'), follow by the most important supporting information, and end by giving the background."

Inverted pyramids in cyberspace is one of the first article my good friend George Pogorelschi gave me to read back in 1999 when I joined OgilvyInteractive.  Although it was first published in 1996 and years later Jakob Nielsen added some updates, the article's main recommendation still applies today for anyone writing for the web.     


Get attention with a headline

Writers or readers of online or offline texts, we all love good headlines, smart titles... when they do their job, they get our attention, they make us tick or click; when poorly crafted, we just ignore them and move on.  

The reality is online headlines are very different from printed headlines because they are used differently. The context varies, the moment or the device these links are accessed, does make a difference.


Headlines, titles, subjects also known as microcontent need to be, according to Nielsen calls it, "pearls of clarity: you get 40-60 characters to explain your macrocontent. Unless the title or subject make it absolutely clear what the page or email is about, users will never open it". 

BBC loves good headlines and their team masters the art of creating engaging and powerful news titles and this articles shows you how they do it.   


Lead with a link

Hoa Loranger, one of Norman Nielsen Group's digital experts made a good point when claiming that as content creators we often miss opportunities to engage with our users. To be more specific, we fail to use "links that follow up on the user’s current interest encourage site exploration and reduce bounce rates. With the proper invitation, people will stay longer on your site." Here's Loranger's advices of how to write appropriate link texts

Good links help the users discover more relevant content... and good links titles do not just happen. As Jacob Nielsen says, to help users quickly find what they need, anchor texts aka links should stand out from the body content and accurately describe the page that they refer to.


Content stories on this blog: 

As I've often said, online copywriting and anything that has to do with content creation and management are topics I'm very found of, so from time to time I write about them.

Here are some of the content stories I've heard and shared on my blog with a little bit of help from some really good Romanian professionals: