Thursday 11 September 2008

Write every web page with a view to its connections to other pages.

Unless you are writing a single page web site, the pages you write will always be connected to other pages on the site.

Here are my questions...and be honest in your answers:

When you write a web page, how much attention do you pay to its relationship with other pages on the site?

Do you think about the pages people may have read immediately BEFORE arriving on the page you are writing?

Do you think about the pages that people will visit immediately AFTER reading that page?

Understand this difference about the web...

Unlike with other media, the connections between the different pages on a web site can be very complicated.

With a catalog or magazine, one page follows the other in a linear, predictable fashion. The relationship between one page and the next is always the same. The next page follows the one before.

But it's different online, and a lot harder for people to figure out where they are and where they should go next.

Imagine not being able to hold a print catalog in your hand in its entirety. Instead, you are given just one page to look at a time. Once you have read that one page, you then have to ask for the next page you'd like to see.

How do you know which is the "best" next page to see? How do you know which page to ask for?

It would drive you crazy. You'd scream, "Hey, just give me the entire catalog so I can see where I am and see where I want to go next!"

Online, visitors to web site are served up just one page at a time.

And we can't help them by giving them the whole web site at once. We are constricted by the medium and by the monitor.

In other words, our visitors have a really hard time figuring out where they are and where they should go next.

Here's how you need to help them...

First, understand that visitors to an internal web page won't always arrive from "the page before". Some will come from the home page, if there's a link, some will come there direct from a search engine, and some will arrive via some other internal page on your site.

In other words, if you have links to a page from ten other pages on your site, people can arrive there from any of those addition to those arriving from links outside your site.

This means that each page has to open with a headline and introductory copy that will make sense to people REGARDLESS of which page they arrived from.

This can be tough to do.

All too often writers will assume that visitors to a second level page have all arrived from a link on the home page. And they write that second level page as if it is a continuation of the information on the home page.

That works fine for visitors who DO arrive from the home page, but not so well for those who don't.

Just be aware that the web is not a linear reader experience, like a catalog, and write accordingly.

Here's another way to help your readers...

If you study your server logs and track the behavior of your visitors, over time you will see some clear patterns emerge.

For instance, you will usually find that after reading a particular page about 80% of people will find their way to one of three or four other pages.

For instance, if a financial services web site has a page on insurance, 80% of the readers of that page may want to then go to 1) the page on auto insurance, 2) the page on home insurance or 3) the page on farm insurance.

When this proves to be the case, make it easy for everyone by providing direct, descriptive links to those three or four pages at the end of the current page.

As with a catalog being served up one page at a time, it helps people if you can tell at least 80% of your readers, "Here are the pages you probably want to look at next."

Nick Usbourne
home of the Excess Voice newsletter for online copywriters

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