The Importance of Formatting Your Content for the Web

Image via Flickr

Image via Flickr

One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make when writing an article for the web is to treat that article like it belongs in a magazine, a newspaper or a book. Have you ever fallen into this trap?

Whether you realize it or not, the difference between online content and offline content is actually pretty huge. Fretting over the quality of the writing is one thing you might be worried about, but the overall “look” of your content can make it or break it for a reader who may be trying decide whether or not it’s worth reading.

5 Seconds or Less to Make Your First Impression

We’re all in a hurry these days. We want our information instantly delivered to us and we want it to be straight to the point. The average Internet user takes 2 to 5 seconds to decide whether it’s worth sticking around on a particular web page, and that timeframe keeps decreasing.

Be honest with yourself. How long does it take you to decide whether or not you want to read a particular piece of content on the web? Not very long, I’m sure. One or two seconds, maybe. Five seconds, tops.

The Truth About “Reading” Web Content

I hate to break it to you, but there are very few people who read web content, word for word. Instead, they scan through it as quickly as their eyes will let them.

Most people don’t want to waste their time scanning through a large paragraph. They want the key points laid out right there for them. And even if your article has all the information that your readers are searching for, they won’t really know it if they can’t easily pick out the relevant pieces of information that are hiding within that gigantic block text.

The Power of Subheadings

Headlines and subheadings are more than just a name badge. They help break up that huge block of text and organize them into separate subjects, sections or ideas. Not to mention, they help deliver information, stimulate interest, and can even positively influence your search engine rankings when you include relevant keywords in them.

Those subheadings should be written in a way that creates curiosity and begs the reader to read more. Don’t rush the process. Get creative, do some research, and use a thesaurus to come up with descriptive keywords.

Keep It Simple

It’s no surprise that people are naturally attracted to shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, lists, and compelling images worked nicely into an article or a blog post on the web. It keeps things looking organized, with every component in its rightful place.

  • Keep paragraphs 2 to 5 sentences long: Steer clear of combining too many ideas into one very large paragraph. Ideally, paragraphs should be kept short, with a length no more than five sentences.
  • Use ordered lists for sequence of priority: People love lists. Numbered lists are great for organizing key ideas from least important to most important.
  • Use bullets where order or preference is irrelevant: Like numbered lists, bulleted lists also tend to catch our eye. They’re easy to read and great for summing up lists of qualities, features, or key points.
  • Use callouts and bold them: Bold the first short sentence or word in a paragraph or in a list. Readers are naturally drawn to the bold text at the beginning of a new line and can choose to read on if they like or skip to the next bolded callout.

Don’t Over Do It!

Once you get the hang of formatting for the web, be careful not to go overboard—especially when it comes to bolding lots of words.

Avoid bolding whole sentences that are very lengthy and wrap around to another line in the browser. Try not to pick out random words or sentences in the middle of a paragraph and make them bold. If you think everything deserves emphasis, then nothing is really important and the reader essentially ends up with no visual cues.

Link, But Don’t Over Link

Image via Flickr

Image via Flickr

Hyperlinked text is another component of web content that books or magazines don’t have. Unfortunately, some people can get a little too link happy. Too many links can really overwhelm readers and can also make your content seem difficult to scan properly.

If you have a hyperlink on almost every line of text in your article, this is a bad sign. Try to space your links out as much as possible. As an alternative, you can create a bulleted list of suggested links at the end of your article to keep the formatting clean and organized.

Stand Back and Take a Look

Don’t be afraid to experiment and move some things around. Create a new paragraph if it helps break up two ideas. Optimize your subheadings. Take out an unnecessary link. Make sure bolded text is kept short and preferably at the beginning of your paragraphs.

Before you know it, you’ll understand exactly what catches the reader’s eye. If you can help people save time and find the main, key points throughout the whole document, you’ll be doing them a big favor.

About the author

Elise Moreau