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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.

Web writing

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

User experience

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.


Published 14 December, 2011 by Erin Everhart

Erin Everhart is Director of Web & Social Media Marketing at 352 and a contributor to Econsultancy.

1 more post from this author

Comments (8)

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Nic Price

Are you suggesting web writing should not follow the inverted pyramid?

If so, I have to disagree.

Or have I misunderstood?

almost 5 years ago


Erin Everhart, Director of Digital Marketing at 352

Nic, No, I think Web writing should still follow the inverted pyramid style, but there's also a whole slew of factors that need to be addressed, too. With print writing, the only main rule was following the inverted pyramid. With web writing, inverted pyramid is just the surface. Sorry if that wasn't clear. I could write whole articles on the how to write for the Web, and tried to keep it short and simple for this.

almost 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

I think the inverted pyramid is still very important, though we all know that there needs to be plenty of meat in a post 'after the jump' to encourage clicks, stickiness and sharing.

almost 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Erin,
Thanks for the post.
What I love about the web is you have an interactive medium with which to surface large volumes of content in user-friendly ways. Unlike offline which is largely constrained physically, online you can address the needs of multiple audiences in one place using technology.
For example, using lightboxes to overlay content contextually based on what people are reading, keeping them on the key page but enabling them to dig deeper. You can focus the landing page on the most important messages and then use design and copy techniques to get those interested in more info to click and learn.
I agree that good content on its own won't necessarily get the love it deserves - if it's a nightmare to read and digest, then you'll lose people as online we've got a bit of an attention deficit issue.
However, if your website makes it enjoyable, and dare i say fun, to access content (not just the written word but all content formats that help tell the story), then it's more likely the content will be noticed and digested.
Who in your opinion does content brilliantly? I really like the B&Q advice centre - it contains a huge variety of useful content and the navigation structure is logical and easy to follow. May not be the most beautiful but I think it reflects the brand well.

almost 5 years ago


Ken Munn

Inverted pyramids or not, SEO or not, for the majority of websites the primary objective is to convert visits into sales. That's the copywriter's main responsibility, and if we forget that while endeavouring to optimise the site, we've failed. Communicate the proposition effectively using language the audience understands and expects, add a defined call-to-action and that's 9/10ths of the job done.

almost 5 years ago


streamline online

It is a really great collection. All these resources are actually really handy. Many thanks designed for sharing.

almost 5 years ago

Albie Attias

Albie Attias, Ecommerce Director at King of Servers Ltd

"And this puts a bigger strain on web editors: Do you edit for the sake of humans or machines?"

Write great, sticky content for people not machines & the rankings will take care of themselves. Google now uses a democratic, humanistic appraisal system to rank web pages. The implication is that social signals like tweets, likes and +1s influence search rankings.

almost 5 years ago


jessica john

In my opinion "inverted pyramid style" is still effective and important and it can attract a lot of people however it depends on individual choice as well.

about 4 years ago

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