Join Chris Nodder for an in-depth discussion in this video Create information-rich signposts, part of Learning to Write for the Web.
- Online, just like in real life, your visitors use sign posts to point them in the right direction. Obviously, we don't often find actual sign posts online, but certain types of texts can easily serve the same purpose. Often, the best sign posts are headings, subheadings, article summaries, and link text. People read online content in an F-shaped pattern. They start by reading across the top of the page content. Then, they scan down the left hand side of the page, moving in across the page from time to time to read things that catch their eye.
The things that catch their attention are the sign post text. The information that stands out. Obviously, because of the way they're formatted, headings, summaries, and link text all have the ability to be good sign posts. Of course, it's up to you to use good text in these locations in order to make the sign post text truly useful. Page headings. That is, headline text, should describe what type of content people will find on the page.
Good headlines should sum up the content in just a couple of words. Remember, too, that headlines text may well be seen by users on its own, separated from the content. For instance, in lists of similar articles. Righting informative headlines doesn't stop people from clicking through to read more. Instead, it lets people know that they're in the right place and encourages them to learn more details. Teaser headlines do just the opposite. Hiding the content and expecting people to click through to read.
Obviously, people do click on teaser headlines. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so popular online. However, there's a growing frustration with teaser click-bait, as its called. These headlines might be great for bored, entertainment driven web surfers, but if you have a commercial, or charitable online presence, your job is to connect your visitors with the information they want as quickly as possible. Facebook has even started detecting and deleting click-bait headlines in users timelines. The rationale for writing click-bait headlines is that the sites want the additional advertising revenue that clicks on these pages generate.
I'd suggest the longer term, you're more likely to benefit from growing an audience of individuals who respect your writing than you are from annoying people with a game of guess-the-content. Article summaries. The first paragraph of content below the headline are the next location to provide a sign post of what's available on the page. It really is okay to give away the plot of the article in the summary. Again, if you're providing useful information, the summary lets people know that they're in the right place, and encourages them to read more.
If they got all the information that they needed from the summary that's just fine. They'll be happy that you wrote in a way that led them directly to the answer they were looking for. So they'll be more likely to use your site to help them answer other questions. If they didn't get the answer they were looking for, at least they now know whether they're in the right place, and whether they're likely to get the answer by reading more. Subheadings act as a sign post to describe the content in the paragraph directly beneath them. Good subheadings help readers to understand whether the information they're looking for is likely to be in the following chunks of text.
Or, whether they can simply skip to the next section, sign posted by the next subheading. This is one reason why it's important to consider the visual impact of the different types of text on the screen. Headings should obviously look more important: bolder, darker, larger than subheadings, which in turn should still appear more distinctive than regular text. Link text is also formatted to stand out from the surrounding text. If yours doesn't stand out, you're doing your readers a disservice.
Well formatted links can act as one of the best types of sign post, and if readers can't find the sign posts, they can't use them. Probably the worst words you could use as a link are 'Click here' or 'More'. That's because they have almost no information value. All those words really do is tell people they can click, but then the formatting tells them that anyway. Don't waste this valuable sign post space with information poor text.
Instead, place your links on the most descriptive words in the sentence. The easiest way to create good links is to write your text first, and then work out which words in that text are the most descriptive of the destination page you want to link to. Just turn those descriptive words into a link and you're done. Depending on your site, other elements might also act as sign posts. Your navigation structure is a major source of sign posts. Thumb nail images can be very helpful to show people the type of content they should expect when they click.
Bread crumb bars can help people work out where they are. However, from a writing perspective, you're much more likely to have control over page headings, subheadings, article summaries, and link text. Optimizing each of these elements will make it much easier for your readers to find the information they need from your site.