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How to write for the Internet

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Assumptions are dangerous on the Internet, especially the assumption that visitors are going to be captivated by the brilliance of your website! It is much wiser to assume:

Every visitor knows nothing about your organization.

Visitors will merely want a low involvement with your website (it is just one of millions of websites).

Visitors will have a low level of concentration and commitment.

A primer on the fundamentals of design and writing for print and Web

Print design is based on letting the eyes walk over the information, selectively looking at objects on the page and noting the difference between various elements on the page that stand out to the eye. In contrast, Web design functions by allowing the information to be scrolled or clicked in a manual motion. Interactivity of the site and physical user movement are integral to the Web-page experience.

Print currently offers several advantages over Web pages, but within the next ten years the differences will be minimal, and some experts predict that various media such as newspapers, video and magazines will be integrated. At present, the time to download a Web page is slower than the time it takes to turn the page of a newspaper, the screen resolution is not as good as a newspaper page, and the screen is smaller than a newspaper page.

For the next ten years or so, the differences will remain and will dictate restrictions on Web design:

  • fewer graphics (graphics slow the downloading time);

  • smaller graphics (ditto); 

  • shorter text (since it is not as easy to read online);

  • a smaller font range (since the host doesn’t know what fonts the user has installed on their computer);

  • simpler layouts.

Looking even further ahead, it will continue to be necessary to limit the word count since users will continue to be more impatient online and will be motivated to move on. It will also be necessary to design Web information for small layouts because laptop computers, mobile telephones (cell phones) and BlackBerries will retain small screens even if larger screens are used at home and in the office.

Greater user engagement on Web pages will be possible by using non-static design elements such as moving images under user control. Pointing to objects will generate explanations or expansions of information to be made using pop-ups, overlays and voiceovers.

Slow response times are the worst problem against Web usability. Bloated graphic design is the main offender, especially using Flash graphics. (Readers equate animated pages with useless pages, so don’t get led astray by irresponsible graphic designers.)

Typical download time should be reviewed and graphics should either be removed or made smaller if download times are slow. About 10 seconds is the approximate limit for keeping the user’s attention focused on the screen view. For longer delays, users will want to perform other tasks while waiting for the computer to finish, so the screen should provide feedback in the form of a ‘percent-done’ progress indicator showing when the computer expects to finish that task.

Many design problems are so simple, yet they persist. For instance, one of the main user complaints in 2005 is the use of too-small font sizes. This may allow more words to fit into the available space, but it riles readers, especially baby boomers whose days of 20:20 eyesight are long gone. The other main complaint is about the low contrast between text and background, which makes reading more difficult. 1

Poorly designed corporate websites cost millions

At present, far too many design obstacles prevent users from easily navigating within websites. Recent studies confirming this give cause for concern about the extent of lost sales and information for users.

In one US study of large commercial sites, users could only find information 42% of the time, even though they were taken to the correct home page before they were given the test tasks. A further study found that half the 20 major sites examined violated simple design principles. You may say: “So what?”

Well, research shows that bad Web design can lose about 50% of the potential sales from a site, and it causes lost repeat visits from 40% of the users who don’t return when their first visit resulted in a negative experience. This can cost millions of dollars on a large website with an e-commerce function and can cause the reputation to suffer on sites designed mainly to provide stakeholder information. 2

What about government departments? They wouldn’t have to worry much about things like losing sales, and therefore the website design wouldn’t matter much…or would it? An example: poor design means that people trying to pay license fees online would leave the website frustrated and would have to telephone or pay over the counter instead. This means that more staff would be needed to handle these disgruntled customers – creating a budget drain. So, apart from any reputation effects, a poorly designed government website would cost more staffing dollars.

Why Web users scan instead of read

Almost 80% of Web users scan Web pages instead of reading them. There are four main reasons that account for this behavior:

Reading from computer screens is tiring on the eye and about 25% slower than reading from paper due to the nature of the medium.

The Web is a user-driven medium where users feel they have to move on and click onto things rather than wade through a whole article. Observation shows that people want to feel active when they are on the Web.

Each page has to compete for the user’s attention against millions of other pages. Users don’t know whether this page is the one they need or whether another page would be better, so the user moves on.

Modern life is hectic and people simply don’t want to work too hard for their information. At work they already receive too many emails and voicemail messages. They won’t want to spend unnecessary time on the Web page.

Writing for the Web

Since 80% of users always scan pages rather than read in detail, and reading from computer screens is 25% slower than reading from paper, therefore Web content should have half the word count of its paper equivalent.

In print, the document forms a whole and the user is focused on the entire set of information. On the Web, each page needs to be almost stand-alone in structure. Since users aren’t willing to read long pages, most documents need to be split into multiple hyperlinked pages.

Users can enter a site at any page and move between pages as they choose, so every page needs to be independent and its topic explained without assuming the previous page has been seen by the reader. Links should be provided to background or explanatory information to help users.

Navigating documents – when writing a document for the Web, use links to guide the reader through the document to access the most relevant information. Whenever possible, state conclusions first and link to supporting details; show categories and link to lists; summarize information and link to obtain the rest of the information. This allows the user to scan the contents of a page and select relevant and useful information.

Since readers use links as guideposts in scanning, only the most relevant should be part of the document – they shouldn’t be a distraction. Position less relevant, but meaningful links of additional information in the Web page’s margin or at the end of a document under a ‘See also’ label.

Credibility is important on the Web, where users often know nothing about the organization. The user’s trust needs to be earned. It is quickly lost if hype and ‘puffery’ is used. A low-key, objective style is required.

Hyperlinks to other sites that carry supporting information increase the credibility of your pages. If possible, quotes from other sources should be linked to the page.

Web users are impatient and critical. They have accessed the site because they need to. Writing should be in a concise, informal style to allow users to quickly find the information they want.

Similar to a journalistic style, start the page with the conclusion and a short summary of the remaining contents (‘inverted pyramid’ style). Users don’t like to scroll through masses of text, so the most important information should be put first.

Each paragraph should only contain one main idea; use a second paragraph for a second idea, since users tend to skip any second point as they scan over the paragraph.

Use simple sentences; anything complicated is even harder to understand online.

Pages should be updated over time to reflect all changes. Statistics, numbers and examples all need to be recent or credibility suffers, especially when ‘forthcoming events’ have already happened.


  1. Nielsen, Jakob at

  2. Nielsen, Jakob at

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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