If you don’t know how to write for ‘scanning’, you don’t know how to write for the web

If you don’t know how to write for ‘scanning’, you don’t know how to write for the web

Scanning instead of reading is an undisputed reality of web user behaviour. If a quick scan doesn’t give people what they want, they won’t spend time searching for it.

I regularly train people on how to write for the web. And I’m often asked by delegates: “How can I make my audience read the entire web page?”

The answer? DON’T TRY.

Not even the most talented online copywriters can force people to read every carefully crafted word they write.

Which is why they don’t bother trying.

Instead, they invest time organising and structuring content so people can find what they’re looking for. Quickly.

And because not every section, webpage, paragraph or sentence on a website is relevant to everyone, successful online writers also know how to help people avoid or ‘skim over’ information they couldn’t care less about.

So as a web author, your job is to help your audience scan. More precisely, you must make scanning effortless for your customers.

Here are five must-do scanning strategies every web writer must practise.

1. Lead with the most important information first

If your audience bothers reading anything, it will most likely be those first couple of sentences on your webpage. So why do so many websites start with rubbish like this:

“Welcome to our new website. We hope you find our new and improved design helpful.

These kinds of introductions don’t interest people. Instead, put what’s most important to your audience front and centre. Aim to deliver the main message for each webpage within the first 25 words.

2. Keep paragraphs short. Very short.

Even on paper, large, dense blocks of text scream ‘hard work.’ And because reading on screen is more tiring on the eyes (and takes us 25% longer), long paragraphs online are simply disregarded. In an instant.

Short paragraphs create white space on your screen – and white space helps people scan.

Aim for one to three sentences per paragraph. At most.

3.  Include (lots of) headings and subheadings

When scanning, eyes are searching for something to grab onto. Headings act like goal posts on your webpage. They guide and direct. And the more headings you have, the happier your audience will be.

To integrate headings, simply break up your existing web content into small chunks of information – and then label those chunks with meaningful and descriptive headings.

Ask yourself: if my audience were reading just the heading, would they know precisely what the content to follow was about? (That’s why short  headings on websites are not always better.)

  • Vague heading: “Demographic data
  • Useful heading: “How to source demographic data for the City of Melbourne”

Here are some more tips for writing useful headings and subheadings.

  • Avoid general and vague terms in your headings. Be specific.
  • Ditch jargon terms in your headings. (Better still, aim for a jargon-free website.)
  • Integrate key words in your headings wherever possible.
  • Avoid clever or humorous headings.

4. Use lists

Lists are easier to scan than paragraphs. So wherever possible, try to turn paragraphs into bulleted lists.

But keep your lists short – ideally, three to five items. And definitely no more than seven.

5. Make your links matter

As well as headings, scanning eyes are also drawn to links on your webpage. So ensure your link text is helpful and meaningful to your customer.

  • Never use ‘click here’ or similar as link text.
  • Write clear, descriptive links – preferably with key words.
  • Avoid too many links in the body of your text. It’s too distracting.
  • Link text should be in English. Don’t write out web addresses or email addresses unless absolutely necessary.

Also, link text should always make sense when read out of context.

  • Useless link text: “The City of Melbourne website has been updated.”
  • Meaningful link text’:  “The City of Melbourne website has been updated.”