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Writing for the Web - Chapter One

Catering to Web surfer types.

Scanners and Researchers
There are two basic types of human visitors, or "Web surfers", to your web site: Scanners and Researchers. These terms do not necessarily describe types of people but rather the "mode" or "attitude" of any one Web surfer during any one Web-surfing session. Although the needs of these two types of surfers may appear to be diametrically opposed, there is no need to sacrifice one for the other. Both types of surfers can result in new business if you know how to write your Web site to appeal to them.

A scanner is in a hurry, has a specific task to perform on the Web, a goal to be reached, and once this is accomplished, will likely end the session. Scanners need to have information kept brief, to the point, well organized, and accurately labelled. They are not interested in background information, unnecessary detail and will not read verbose text. If they cannot find what they are looking for within a few minutes of scanning through your web site, they will leave.

Researchers, on the other hand, want detail, context, and background information. They may even appreciate text with a personality and they love a good read. They are not as time-pressured, their goals are less specific, and the session is open-ended, possibly being continued at a later date. These people may take their time deciding on a purchase, but when they do, they have done their research and are confident in their ultimate choice. However, if you do not offer these people sufficient information on your Web site they may pass your company over for one that does.

Serve the scanner first
Give the scanners what they need right at the top of your first-level pages, especially your home page. Summarise your pages in the first paragraph. Offer well-labelled targeted links to content farther down the page for long pages. In the body of the page, offer neat, short blocks of text with informative headings so that scanners can quickly see what each block of text is about. Let them decide what to read and what to skip over. Use lists liberally to cram in more information in a digestible format. Lists are an excellent way to concisely present to a scanner what would otherwise be tedious information to read. Organize your information into discrete, self-contained sections and use columns or boxes to define them. Embellish the text with meaningful images that can be used like headings to announce or describe the accompanying text. All these techniques will help to prevent a scanner's eyes from glazing over at a sea of text.

It is imperative that you use specific rather than generalized or vague text. For example: "We provide business solutions" is, although brief, so general as to be meaningless. Specific text such as: "We provide accounting and payroll services to small business in North York and the greater Toronto area" is, although much longer, by far the more effective and efficient. The researcher will probably forgive generalized text if there is more detailed and specific text later on, but the scanner will just leave in frustration.

A scanner is more likely than a researcher to read only part of your Web site, and then contact you for answers to their specific questions or to make a purchase. Make sure that the parts they are most likely to read contain the most important pieces of information.

Then dish up a satisfying meal for the researcher
All of the above is fine for researchers as well, as long as there is more information available later in the text or deeper in the Web site. Researchers are out to educate themselves so they can make smart choices. They want to know what the criteria are for the particular product or service so they can make a good decision. They are also interested in things like company history (to judge stability or credibility) and they want to get a sense of who they are going to be dealing with (who to trust, or what the working relationship might be like). The bigger the Web site and the more information they find on the site the more comfortable they feel. This is where organisation becomes crucial.

Use information chunking
It is a well-known human interface rule that humans are able to process and hold, in short term memory, seven - plus or minus two - items of information at one time. This is the reason that most of us are confused and intimidated by Web sites that are too busy and have too much "going on" on the page. Group your information into roughly seven items, these will be your top seven pages and will form your Web site navigation bar. For small Web sites this may be all that is necessary. For larger Web sites, each of these seven sections may have one or more sub-pages which include more detailed information.

Just let the researcher read
In these secondary pages you can begin to abandon most of the styles and techniques used for the scanners because they probably are not going to come here anyway. Here is where you need to communicate in the style that researchers prefer. You should define your terms, provide context, and write in a style that reflects your company's personality. You do not need to break up the text with pictures that are not strictly informative, or use as many headings. Columns are still useful because it is difficult for the eye to track across very wide pages and your researcher will appreciate text that is easy to read. Along that same vein, here is where you go with plain black text on a white background or its near equivalent. This is no place for style to interfere will legibility.

Make the researcher comfortable
Make sure that you say enough about your product or service that a researcher will feel comfortable making a decision to buy just from what they have been able to read on your Web site. Of course, most of your clients will contact you if they have questions. But the researcher is less likely to do so if they have not found sufficient information on your site to lead them to believe that you are the correct company to contact. Researchers often are concerned about seeming stupid or unprepared - make sure they don't, and you are more likely to get their business!

Knowing how to present your business on the Web is critical to your online success. Knowing how to appeal to both main types of human Web site visitors is an important first step. Keeping unnecessary details out of the way of the scanner while still providing the necessary in-depth information to the researcher is a key concept to grasp.

In the next chapter, writing for the third type of web site visitor - the Search Engine Robot - will be discussed.

By Candace Carter, Back2Front - The Web Site People, 2007