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Web writing, while basically an extension of its offline counterpart, will always be driven by visits, which will always be driven by SEO.
And as SEO becomes more about a user’s overall experience on a website than the number of keywords in the content, it’s clear that a well-ranked website can’t survive without a happy mix of the two.
In journalism school, you’re taught one thing that dictates all of your writing: the inverted pyramid. Your lede (or “lead”) should be catchy, and the most important information should be first: The who, what, where, when and why.
Everything else is just a side dish to support the meat. Web writing is an entirely different beast.
While search engines can claim they want to see what users want to see, the fact of the matter is that they’re largely made up of bots who want to see a set data and structure before they can deem a page to be relevant.
And this puts a bigger strain on web editors: Do you edit for the sake of humans or machines?
Still, when you're sitting down to write for a website, there are a couple of key differences than when you're writing for print:
- The web is an active medium: If you provide supplemental information, point users where to go.
- Bullet points are your best friend: People don't read online, they scan.
- Allow readers to find you by including known searched terms in headlines
- Keep it casual: Web readers are far less formal than traditional newspaper readers
You want real-time feedback on users’ behavior, but many websites’ sole purposes seem to be getting users to click on things.
The Flickr set Noise To Noise Ratio demonstrates some of the more extreme examples of this trend. Photo galleries are particularly popular on these sites, presumably because each click of the “next” button loads a new page and generates an additional set of ad impressions.
Such designs emphasize page views over user experience and reader loyalty.
Developers have responded to this trend by producing content scraping tools such as Safari Reader and Readability. These tools reformat web pages to show only the article that the user wants to read, stripping out ads, sidebars, comments and just about everything else.
These aren’t niche tools; Safari Reader is built into every new iPhone, iPad, and Mac. If news organizations don’t provide well-designed websites, readers can simply choose to ignore the design (and ads) altogether.
If these tools are the stick prodding news organizations to put users first, online subscriptions provide the carrot portion of the equation. The Boston Globe’s new website is subscriber-only with a clean, content-centered layout. The site uses responsive design to fit screens ranging from mobile phones to desktops.
Responsive web design
The New York Times has done something similar with its Times Skimmer web app. As with the main NYT website, the Times Skimmer offers top stories for free and limits other content to subscribers.
These sites don’t have extensive photo galleries, hastily written blog entries or ads that take over half the site. What they do have is journalism.
They have lots and lots of thoroughly researched, painstakingly reported, carefully edited, high-quality journalism, for which subscribers pay between $15 and $35 per month.
When New York Times announced it was charging for online content, it was met with some backlash. Still, 18% of Internet users have paid for “newspaper, magazine or journal articles or reports,” according to a 2010 Pew Internet study.
By creating high-quality content and compelling user experiences, we can push that number higher.