Back to the Mar-Apr 2020 issue

Make Your City Website Easy to Read

By Claudia Hoffacker

It seems that people get most of their information these days from the internet. That’s good news for your website, right? Well, maybe. But did you know that people read only 20% of words on the web?

That’s because reading on a computer screen is no easy task, says Ann Wylie, writing coach and president of Wylie Communications.

And it gets even more difficult when you’re reading on a mobile device.

Why is it so difficult?

Photo of a person looking at a phone

Reading on screens and mobile devices is difficult for a variety of reasons, including:

  • It strains the eyes.
  • The screen is too small, especially on most mobile devices. If readers can’t see the full paragraph on the screen, it’s harder for them to understand it.
  • Distractions. When people are on their computers and mobile devices, they are usually multi-tasking. They aren’t giving your message their full attention.

In fact, Wylie and other web experts say that people don’t read the web at all — they scan.

Don’t despair, though! There are ways to overcome these difficulties and reach your readers online.

Keep it short and simple

The first step is to strive for simplicity.

“Say less and say it better,” Wylie recommends.

This means your sentences, paragraphs, and words should be short and easy to understand. Keep your language at about a 7th-grade level.

It’s not that your readers aren’t smart. But they are busy. They want to go to your website, get the information they need, and move on with their lives. It’s up to you to make that as easy as possible.

Put your text into Microsoft Word, and you can find out how long your sentences, paragraphs, and words are. You can also set up Word to provide readability statistics to get a Flesch Reading Ease score (of 1-100, with 100 being the best), Flesch-Kincaid grade level (again, shoot for no higher than 7th grade), and percentage of passive sentences (0% is best).

Make it scannable

In addition to keeping text short and simple, you’ll want to make your web copy “scannable.” Since that’s what people are doing on the web — scanning — it’s important for you to play along. Make your copy as easy to scan as possible.

How do you do that? By understanding that when people scan, they are reading your “display copy,” Wylie says. That is:

  • Headlines
  • Decks (a one-sentence summary under the headline)
  • Subheads
  • Bulleted lists
  • Links
  • Bold text

People tend to read your display copy because it gives them visual cues, breaks up the copy, and avoids confronting them with a wall of words. All this makes it easier for them to scan.

Make sure your key messages are embedded in the display copy. If a web visitor reads only the display copy, he or she should come away with the basic information of the page.

Write headlines that draw them in

Headlines are important because they are usually the first thing search engines and web visitors see. The headline will either draw them in or lose them.

The headline should be compelling, but it should also be clear. Writers can be tempted to get clever with headlines, and that’s OK. But if you have to choose between clever and clear, choose clear.

The headline should clearly tell the reader what information is on the page.

Wylie says studies show that the most popular headlines:

  • Include a number. Make it a number that’s not overwhelming. Example: “5 Ways to Get Involved in City Government”
  • Address the reader. Example: “Your City Government Needs You: Get Involved”
  • Use “how-to” language. Example: “How to Get Involved in City Government” Use the word “ways.” Example: “Ways to Get Involved in City Government”
  • Ask a question. Example: “Want to Get Involved in City Government?”

‘Frontload’ headlines

Wylie also recommends “frontloading” web headlines, meaning to put the topic words at the front of the headline. Why?

Because this approach:

  • Signals to Google what your page is about, improving your place on search engine results pages (SERPs).
  • Helps readers decide to click your link on SERPS, indexes, and other lists.

Use these techniques, and your web visitors will easily get your message.

For more writing tips and information, visit Ann Wylie’s website at www.wyliecomm.com.

Claudia Hoffacker is publications and web editor with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: choffacker@lmc.org or (651) 215-4032.