Writing web-ready documents means thinking hard about linking. Long copy is not forbidden on the web; it's just likely not what you want to present to a reader first. Thanks to links, that's not a tall order to fill.
I've spent the last few weeks talking to colleagues and clients about web content strategy and web writing, and I've realized there's something fundamental that I've been eliding: you can still have thoughtful, in-depth content on your site. You just shouldn't put all your thoughtful content on one page.
It's tempting, when thinking about content, to think about the very familiar article and book models. In an article or book, people generally read from beginning to end. There's not a lot of skipping around. In a magazine, I might look up a specific article in the table of contents, but then I'm likely not going to begin somewhere in the middle of that article with my reading. It's not that I can't — I just likely won't. In print, the writer and editor has a great deal of control over the reading process.
The Web is Not a Book
Although users are less free on the web (you can't exactly flip randomly though a site the way you can a book), they have surprisingly a lot more control about access to specific content. So, instead of thinking in terms of a single, thorough and complete document, it's useful to think of landing pages and content chunks.
Guide Visitors with Navigation Pages
Navigation pages are where you hope most users enter your site. Your home page is a navigation page, and it's one people like to think about a lot, but many of your visitors aren't going there. Instead, they're searching for something specific that you have and landing farther in. Or, if they are entering through your home page, it's likely just to navigate deeper into the site — again, to find a navigation page to help them get to the content chunk they need.
Navigation pages perform a few tasks on a content rich site:
- give an overview of what content is available related to the page, and give that content context
- offer cursory information about a topic for visitors with a superficial interest/need
- help visitors locate the more specific content chunk they actually want
- highlight the content that you feel is important (e.g., new content, a sale item, etc)
- give context to how content chunks under the landing page relate to one another and to your site
People get to the navigation page either from your navigation, through a search that lands them on it, or after landing on a content chunk from search and the navigating up a level to survey what other useful information you have. They help support the foraging for content, and they give you a chance to highlight your best stuff. They have been part of the web's architecture since the very, very beginning. When you optimize them for people to find via search, they're called Landing Pages, and a quick search yields a legion of resources on making good use of them.
You Can Also Have Longer Content
We web people get excited about navigation pages — we study them, we design them specially, and we show them off. The part I feel like we neglect, unfortunately, is the content beyond the landing page — that rich, nutritious copy that teaches your visitor something useful.
This longer content is what you expect people are actually looking for, and it makes your site worth visiting. The hard part is realizing that, instead of thinking of atomic, complete documents that are self supporting, you instead have to think of linked content chunks. Content chunks are different from articles in that they
- focus on something specific, and they focus tightly on that one thing
- get the the point quickly, relying on the landing pages and information architecture to give them context
- link to other content chunks on related subjects
As Jakob Nielsen conveniently wrote about today, it's important to keep each unit of web copy focused on as few topics as possible so that it works in many contexts. You really cannot control how people are going to approach your content, but if you focus each chunk on a single issue, people will likely get that single point; you can then link to other related content in context to offer readers additional useful information. You can also structure your site so that content chunks have a place in the site — so that if I'm article about web writing, it's easy for me to get an overview of all your content on web content.
Focus and linking do not force you to keep your copy short or cursory though. You need to make sure your content is scannable and engaging, so be sure to follow the suggestions in my last post, but there's no limit on actual length or thoughtfulness.
Thinking About Linking in Practice
To help make this more concrete, pretend you're working on the content about your organization's history; let's pretend you work somewhere really interesting that has a history that people may actually want to know about. It's tempting to try to write an essay about your organization, starting with your founders' life histories, then moving to the early phases of your organization, your expansions through the '70s, new focus in the 80s, and triumphant navigation of the current era. You'd likely cover various products and events from the past and present in line.
Instead, though, imagine creating a navigation page that gives the broad outlines of your company's history, linking to articles on the eras and featuring some of the high points separately. In these time-period specific content chunks, you could link to biographies of important people from your organization's past, histories about specific products, and other material in more depth than would necessarily even make sense in an essay.
By structuring the navigation well, it would be easy to jump in at any point in the web and figure out where you are in the organization's history, zoom out to the era overview or the whole history overview, or learn about the person who invented the neat product you're learning about. In structuring in this way, you accomplish several goals
- you cover your topic in greater depth than would make sense in a single essay, because you can treat each important facet of the history individually
- you support a variety of visitors, from those really interested in the whole history to those interested in some specific product or person, to those who want to know more about what your organization has been up to recently
- visitors who are foraging for specific information can quickly assess any given page for usefulness and more easily find exactly what they're looking for by following links and then reading just the tightly focused pages they need
This type of writing takes some getting used to, and I'm hoping to have some advice for how to practice that in the near future.