Page Content: The Long and the Short of It

by Lee Underwood

There is much discussion regarding the content and length of Web pages.
The answer seems like it should be obvious. Why not write the same for
the Web as for printed media? But then, the answer to that also seems to
be obvious -- it doesn't quite work.

Printed Media vs. the Web

Why doesn't it seem to work? There are many reasons for this. Some are
easy enough to understand, others are not. Staring at a computer screen
for hours trying to read a document can be tedious and difficult. Much
of that has to do with the size of the screen, the resolution, and the
colors and fonts used on the Web page. Different studies have shown that
people read 25% slower from computer screens than from printed media. In
fact, most people do not actually read on the Web; rather they tend to
scan pages looking for headings or trying to pick out words that draw
their attention. 79% of online readers usually always scan, while only
16% read each word.

Because of this tendency to scan, readers on the Web prefer writing that
is concise, direct, and to the point. Instead of saying "While
Austin-Martin has made some great automobiles in the past, we can only
recommend Rolls Royce at this time", say "We would currently recommend
Rolls Royce over Austin Martin." The online reader is scanning the page
to find what he needs and if he doesn't find it, he will go to the next
page or - dare I say it - to the next Web site.

A good basic rule to use when writing content for the Web is to use 50%
less than what would be used in printed media. In dissecting a printed
article, much of it is found to be just "fluff" anyway. Let's face it.
The initial "thrill" of the Internet and World Wide Web is just about
gone. We are now settling into the daily reality of using it as another
tool to make our lives "better." We use the Web instead of going to the
local library (although we may go there online) because it is faster and
we can usually find what we need. Instead of grabbing the Yellow Pages,
we just check the company's Web site. If they don't have one, we find a
company that does. Instead of playing computer games by myself, I can
play online with literally thousands of people at the same time. Read a
good book review online? Jump on over to your favorite bookseller's Web
site and you can order it and have it within 1-2 days, some you can even
download immediately. We have become used to having information relayed
to us quickly. We don't need the "fluff" ... "Just the facts, ma'am."

Keeping paragraphs short can help to facilitate the process of scanning.
The material is easier to read when it is broken up into small chunks.
Highlighting key words and phrases using bold and/or italics also adds
to the ease of reading the document. Highlighting should be done
sparingly, using it to bring out an important point within a paragraph.
Too much emphasizing just marks up the document and makes it hard to
read. The use of links can also be an aid to the reader. Providing links
from key words or phrases to relevant Web pages can help to broaden the
reader's experience and enhance the material. This too, however, should
be done sparingly.

Page Length

Another important topic of Web page content is page length. Should the
article be all on one page or should it be broken into several smaller
pages? What are the advantages and disadvantages of one over the other?

One of the criticisms of using several smaller pages is that it is an
excuse to get more page hits and banner impressions. While this may be
true in some cases, if the page presentation is not comfortable to the
online reader, he will just go to the next Web site. Online readers
don't have any incentive to stay on a site that is uncomfortable and
hard to read. Unlike having to leave a store, get into your car, and
drive to another store, on the Web it just takes a second to go to the
next site. While you may like to believe that you alone have the truth -
which may be the case - if the reader is annoyed while trying to read
it, he may go somewhere else before he is able to learn whether it is
actually the truth or not. While you may be paid for every page hit
and/or banner click, if you are not able to get and keep customers, you
won't be very successful no matter what the size of the pages.

The size of the page can be determined by several factors, some of which
are: the particular content of your documents; whether the reader is
expected to browse the content online, or to download the documents for
later reading; and the bandwidth available to your target audience (Yale
Style Manual). Let's look at these factors one at a time.

The Particular Content of Your Documents

Web page content covers the entire spectrum. Everything you can imagine
can be found on the World Wide Web - from basic cooking recipes to how
to build a world-class hotel; from information on how to remove a grass
stain to instructions on how to assemble an atomic bomb; from a personal
Web page to the complete works of the world's greatest composers and
authors; from the latest soap opera gossip to the most recent flying
saucer landings - it is all there for our perusal.

Should all of this be presented in the same manner? The answer, I think,
is obvious - no. The personal Web page can be as simple as one main page
and a couple other pages linked to it.

Information on the most recent flying saucer landings would best be
broken down into sub-categories, i.e. type of encounter (the first kind,
second kind, third kind, etc.), site of landing (listed by city and
country), time of sighting (day or night), type of craft (round, oval,
large, small), type of aliens (big, little, mean, nice, green, blue),
etc. I think you get the point. This is something that cannot be
categorized in general terms.

You should know your reader and what he expects from the information on
your site. Then make it easy for him to find it. In the personal Web
page example, a reader probably wouldn't be searching for all that much
information. Yet, the visitor to the UFO site would probably want to
know as much detail as possible. Just don't make him search through a
very long Web page to find it. Divide it up into smaller ones that are
easier to digest.