When writing for the web, using plain language allows users to find what they need, understand what they have found, and then use it to meet their needs. It should also be actionable, find-able, and shareable.

It’s important to understand how what you are writing fits into the overall content strategy, what the content life cycle entails, and who is involved in the process.

Why it Matters

People read differently online than they do when they read print materials — web users typically scan for  information.  In a study of online reading behavior , Jakob Nielsen found that “on the average webpage, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely”.

Identify Your Users’ Top Tasks

People come to your website with a specific task in mind. When developing your site’s content, keep your users’ tasks in mind and write to ensure you are helping them accomplish those tasks.  If your website doesn’t help them complete that task, they’ll leave. Conduct market research, perform a task analysis and other types of user research, and analyze metrics to better understand what users are looking to accomplish.

Knowing your users’ top tasks can help you identify:

Content to feature on your homepage or landing pages
Page headers and sub headers
A logical structure to each page’s content
How to Write User-Friendly Content

It’s important to target your audience when writing for the web. By knowing who you are writing for, you can write at a level that will be meaningful for them. Use the personas you created while designing the site to help you visualize who you are writing for.

Use the words your users use.  By using keywords that your users use, you will help them understand the copy and will help optimize it for search engines.
Chunk your content.  Chunking makes your content more scannable by breaking it into manageable sections.
Front-load the important information. Use the journalism model of the “inverted pyramid.” Start with the content that is most important to your audience, and then provide additional details.
Use pronouns. The user is “you.” The organization or government agency is “we.” This creates cleaner sentence structure and more approachable content.
Use active voice. “The board proposed the legislation” not “The regulation was proposed by the board.”
Use short sentences and paragraphs. The ideal standard is no more than 20 words per sentence, five sentences per paragraph. Use dashes instead of semi-colons or, better yet, break the sentence into two. It is ok to start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “or” if it makes things clear and brief.
Use bullets and numbered lists. Don’t limit yourself to using this for long lists—one sentence and two bullets is easier to read than three sentences.
Use clear headlines and subheads. Questions, especially those with pronouns, are particularly effective.
Use images, diagrams, or multimedia to visually represent ideas in the content. Videos and images should reinforce the text on your page.
Use white space.  Using white space allows you to reduce noise by visually separate information.
It’s also important to create an editorial calendar. You can encourage visitors to return to your site by keeping your content fresh and up-to-date, especially when working with blogs, social media, or dynamic content websites.

Remember that developing web copy in plain language in the federal government is the law. Learn more about the government’s plain language standard and find a checklist  to help you in your projects.

Testing Your Document’s Readability

Use Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics feature—part of the Spelling & Grammar check—to measure your progress as you write and edit copy. Try to make your reading ease number go up and your grade level go down. You can improve your readability by using active voice and short words, sentences, and paragraphs.

1.Use your principal home page headline to communicate your site’s underlying value proposition.

This is job one. When first-time visitors arrive at your site, they have a purpose in mind. They are looking for something.

The job of your principal headline is to communicate quickly and clearly the primary value proposition of your site.

That is to say, you need to let people know what your site is about, and why it is better than all the competing sites that offer similar products or services.

This is a tough job at the best of times. But it gets harder when you burden your headline with extra duties.

So stay focused. Understand what your visitor is looking for. Communicate your promise and value quickly and clearly.

2. Use some short introductory text to clarify and expand on your headline.

Not every value proposition can be communicated completely in ten words or less.

You may be able to get close. But if you have a business that offers a number of different product or service categories, you are better off keeping your headline simple, and then using some short introductory text to expand on your message and clarify.

Place this text directly beneath your headline, so there is a natural flow from one to the other. Don’t make your readers have to search for this clarifying copy.

In other words, be aware of the eye-path of your readers. If you want someone to read a block of text immediately after reading your headline, place it within the same column, with the same margins, one following directly after the other.

3. Help visitors find what they are looking for.

Unless you have a single product or single service, you are going to have to help people find the second-level page that best matches their immediate interest.

If 80% of your visitors end up going to just three or four of your second level pages first, make links to these pages easy to find on your home page.

This sounds obvious, but home pages are often cluttered with too many featured links.

Use your navigation links to provide access to all areas of your site. But make a feature of the links that best serve the needs of the majority of your visitors.

4. Make your first-time visitors feel comfortable and confident.

When visitors come to your site for the first time, they will feel unsure about you – unless you are a nationally recognized brand.

They will need reassurance. They need to know they can trust you. And they want to know that you really can give them what they are looking for.

There are numerous ways to build trust, including the use of third-party seals from organizations like the Better Business Bureau Online.

But a major factor in building trust will be the tone of your headline and other text on the page.

Your home page is rarely a sales page. The selling will take place on the second or third levels.

So on your homepage, avoid hype. Write simply, clearly and honestly. Make your page and your text useful and helpful.

Concluding thoughts…

Clearly, there is a great deal more than can be said about writing home pages. But these four points cover what we consider to be the most important issues.

Whenever we write a home page, I aim for clarity and simplicity. In my mind I stay focused on helping each visitor.

we want people to quickly understand what the site is about. we want them to be able to find what they want without having to work too hard to find it.

And I want them to feel comfortable and confident that they have come to the right place.