SAN MATEO (07/03/2000) - How often do you land on a site, do very little, gain very little, and leave? The practice is quite common. The very nature of the Web reinforces such behavior. Most Web users are extremely impatient.
While gazing at our monitors, our fingers rest on the trigger. In the blink of an eye and the click of the mouse, we're gone. Watch me read a book or magazine, and then watch me on the Web. It's hard to believe that I'm the same person. On the Web, I'm in control of the interaction.
There's a lot you can do to keep customers on your site. The visual can be inviting. The navigation can be intuitive. The information can be well-structured, and overall usability and experience can be impressive.
Despite delivering these qualities, there's one component of a site that will deeply satisfy and retain your customers: your content.
Ultimately, the Web is about content. Over the years, we've heard so much about commerce, community, and more. These aspects play second fiddle to content. The site's design and all related tools exist to perform one thing: help your customers access your content.
In the early years, we churned out HTML using simple editors and moved it over to a Web server using FTP. Today, content is dynamically built from complex back-end databases and applications. The content system requirements on the Web have grown astronomically, yet what makes content effective for the Web remains relatively simple and unchanged.
First, content on your site must be tailored to the audience. When it's not, visitors won't stay. Search engines and outbound links on sites send many visitors throughout the Web, often to destinations of questionable interest.
Once visitors determine that the content is not aligned with their needs, they're gone.
When visitors come to a page, they scan the content for relevance. At this moment you have the opportunity to capture their interest and turn prospects into customers. If the content of the main section doesn't interest your visitors, it's unlikely they will be drawn deeper into your site, so be sure to place your most attractive content on Main Street.
Writing for the Web is very different from writing for print. Print today remains superior to the Web when it comes to visible space, image and type quality, and speed. Print can pack a big punch. Open an InfoWorld print page, and feel the power of a large canvas. This spread lets the content creator form spatial relationships among all the elements on the page. In contrast, the Web cannot provide that same kind of wallop. As a result we've turned to Web animation, streaming audio and video, and other technologies.
On the Web, it's important to be 4foot 8 inches -- short. Studies show that we read more slowly online than we read print. Given today's fast-paced lifestyle, folks won't take the additional time required to read online. The message should not be hidden nor at the end. Journalism schools refer to this method or style as the inverted pyramid. There's nothing more painful than having to read lots of continuous text online. Most users won't scroll unless they're thoroughly engaged. A common method, called page chunking, is popular for Web content. Essentially, the depth of the content remains, although content is separated into nodes and connected via links.
On the Web, write for "scanability," not serious reading. Articles either should be short or have several headings throughout to break up the text.
Bulleted lists are a great way to break up continuous text.
Many visitors are very goal-driven. They are looking for something specific; so keep things clear and concise. Remember that your Web audience spans the borders. Personality and style are important, especially given our short attention spans, but watch out for wit, charm, and humor that international visitors may not understand.
Headlines often serve as page titles in the HTML. These titles are used as the main reference to the page. For example, bookmark a story page on InfoWorld.com, and that headline will be what's stored in your file. Unlike print headlines, online headlines must be able to stand outside their origin, such as results on a search page. Unlike print, online headlines are not always directly associated with the content. Headlines should be short (six words).
Most likely, the first word will be indexed; so avoid A, The, and so on.
Laura Wonnacott is vice president of InfoWorld.com.