How To Make Websites Easier To Read

Nielsen Norman Group has some fantastic guidelines for web writers. Let me see if I can put them to use here while I summarize their findings…

The majority of website visitors don't read much. But they will scan for select words and sentences. Here's how to make scanning easier for your visitors:

  • Amp up the info-value of your pages. The vast majority of web page visitors are only looking for information. Give it to them. 
  • Build your pages for scan-ability. Structure your content to make it easy for readers to focus on individual words or sentences. Make it easy for them to stop scanning and begin reading what's relevant to their interests.
That's it.

Now, you don't need to read this page any further… unless one of the above points piqued your interest. In that case you can jump into any of the sections below. But I'd bet, the majority of visitors to this page won't pass this point. (If you do, leave me a comment below!)

Amp Up the Information Value

Give people the information they're looking for. Your readers are sniffing for facts, so give your information "scent value". Here's how:
  • Make it easy by putting the best, most relevant ideas first. Use the inverted-pyramid guideline that newspapers use, which puts the summary first.
  • Make your links and category descriptions explicit. Let your readers know right-away that they're on the right trail in their information hunt.
  • Make the first two words of headlines and links carry the bulk of their information load.
  • Use real words, not made up words, to guide the way. As soon as readers need to pause and wonder, "What's that mean?" you're almost sure to lose them. Being clever is almost never worth the risk of losing a reader.
  • Provide a clear path for site navigation. Your page names need to be clear and prove that your website is relevant to the readers' information hunt. If they're looking for more info, point the way for them in an easy-to-understand structure of tabs. This makes your site more sticky… readers will stick around and read more pages and articles.
  • Use high-quality writing. This might seem obvious, but spend some time reading on the web and you'll know I need to state this. Always, always, run your content through a readability tool like the one at Aim for a readability grade score somewhere less than Grade 8. Even when your visitors do slow down to read, they're likely in a distracting environment, like on their cell phone in a coffee shop. If an eighth-grader can understand what you're saying, I think a distracted adult can too. 

Build for Scan-ability

Here are a few ways to make it easy for readers to scan your webpages:

  • Use the "F-pattern" eye-tracking theory to build a page. Readers typically scan the words at the top and down the left side of webpages. Exploit this fact and put the most information into the words in those places.
  • Highlight the keywords that might draw them further into a block of text.
  • Use subheads. Read only them and see if they tell an adequate overview of your article.
  • Use bullet lists filled with fascinating information — "fascinations" as some copywriters call them.
  • Stick to the Power of One: One idea per paragraph, one Big Idea per article. If you have more than one Big Idea to explore, split it into a series of articles. Think of a way to link them — create a scent trail — to make it easy for your readers to keep consuming if they find the info relevant.
  • Cut your word count to a minimum to get your meaning across. It helps to do this while you're writing if you've got the Power of One in the back of your mind. Again, a tool like can help you identify hard-to-read sentences and extra adverbs.  

Understand, it is the rare reader who reads everything on any webpage. Using these tips will help readers get the most out of your webpages.

So much success depends on the Know-Like-Trust equation. Making your websites easy to read will at least build your Like and Trust factors.

If you've got ideas to improve the structure of websites, please share them with us in the comments.

By Kevin Rokosh


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