These guidelines are well over a decade old at the moment, but unlike some other technology-related information, the age of these tips should not preclude you from using them. In other words, they still hold true.
Here are a few of the basics:
- Be brief (unless you write for ProfHacker, natch)
- Be specific (and get to the point)
- Update facts when necessary (and provide a “last updated” date if possible)
- Produce scannable text—are the keywords and phrases emphasized or hyperlinked such that they stand out and a reader can get the main idea of your text just from those keywords and links?
- Use bullet lists (of the proper type—ordered or unordered—and when the length of the content can support the list format)
- Use headings and appropriate tags for those headings when writing longer works
I’d recommend glancing through Nielsen’s complete guidelines; it won’t take very long and you’re bound to learn something new.
The original publication of Nielsen’s guidelines predated the Rise of the Blogs and user-generated content that has filled servers with data lo these last several years. A List Apart, a website that “explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices” and which should be on everyone’s reading list if you’re even remotely interested in such things, published an article in 2002 about writing for the “living web”. The “living web” is simply that part of the web that is always changing—blogs, wikis, community/group sites, and so on. Their tips for “Writing for the Web” are less technical and more content-oriented than Nielsen’s, but having good content is necessary for a usable site. Some gems from A List Apart:
- write for a reason
- write tight
- make good friends (“take special care to acknowledge the good work and good ideas of other writers”—something I hope I’m doing right now.)
You can read the rest of the A List Apart content-oriented tips and judge for yourself how they fit within your own concept of writing for the web. But I reckon if you combine the Nielsen and A List Apart tips you’ll end up producing an interesting, usable, enjoyable reading experience for anyone who happens by your site.
But. (You knew there was a “but,” right?) How do people happen by your site? Through your network of friends and links, sure, but if you continue looking at the search results for “writing for the web” you’ll soon find that search engines are mentioned. Perhaps you notice the “related searches” include phrases like “writing to be found” or “writing for search engines.”
Following the basic Nielsen usability tips—especially those related to emphasized text, lists, and the proper use of headings—plus having something specific to say will go a long way toward ensuring your content is properly indexed by search engines—this is commonly referred to as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.
Google provides a considerable amount of content in the Webmaster guidelines section of their web site, and this content is split into three sections depending on the type of reader (or content owner) you are:
- Design and content guidelines focus on the text itself, its organization, and basic HTML elements such as headings, title, meta, and image alt tags
- Technical guidelines focus on access to the site via spiders, but also by different browsers (how many browsers do you test with?), and including the usability of directory structures and file names.
- Quality guidelines focus on the dark underbelly of SEO, those who try to cheat the system. You aren’t likely to see a lot of SEO cheating in academia, because such actions typically come from SEO consultants, which cost money, which academics tend not to have. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of the tricks some people will play: keyword stuffing is a minor version of deceptive behavior while sneaky redirects are an example of malicious behavior.
If you’re interested in learning more about specific (good) SEO writing, check out Google’s Search Engine Optimization guide (it’s a PDF), or “Writing Effectively for Search Engines” provided by SUNY Plattsburgh.
Obviously, it’s important to understand the medium in which we write (online or otherwise), and to pass that information on to students who may be looking forward to careers in which their writing may appear online (here I’m thinking about everything from professional and technical writing students to marketing students, programmers, and engineers).
But understanding “worst practices” for writing for the web, or SEO “cheating,” is important as well, especially as students increasingly take to the web for research; just as Google will invalidate a web text for deceptive tactics, students should be able to identify those tactics and invalidate the text as a source. Teaching the positive web-writing tips will ensure the production of better content, and teaching the list of things to to avoid (and why) will serve double duty—hopefully students won’t do those things, and hopefully they will have a better understanding of rhetoric employed by the underlying structure of the hundreds of terabytes of online data we consume each year.
1 Being a usability expert doesn’t mean some young whipper-snapper (ahem) won’t take you to task for making a poor argument. Thanks, Wayback Machine, for reminding me of this Hotwired/Webmonkey gem by yours truly from 2001: “Tipping Jakob’s Ladder”. Those were the days.