A key difference between web writing and writing for print is that on the Web you need to avoid context and instead focus on instructional, how-to, task-based content. 

When we observe people using websites, one factor that continues to frustrate them is vague, general, contextual or marketing-heavy content. Let’s have some examples.

You need to find someone to clean your house. Does it help when you arrive at a website and it says: “Looking for a cleaner? We clean your house so you don’t have to. And that saves you lots of time, which we know you are wasting reading this, because why would you be at this website if you weren’t looking for a cleaner. Sorry, we can’t give you our prices. You’ll have to email us for that.”

You need to find the nearest government children’s center. “Welcome to our page which we are no longer updating. The government is committed to the welfare and education of children. Our team has been established based on certain legislation, which we are about to tell you about in great detail. We are a high quality, well trained workforce and we would also like to tell you about how we work.”

You’ve searched for symptoms for a specific disease. You reach a page that tells you that your health is important and that the website is committed to helping you live a healthier and happier life. Then, it gives you a description of the disease and what research is being done, and many paragraphs down, you finally find the symptoms.

You’re on an intranet and you want to do some purchasing. You find the Purchasing Department and read lots about the department, the team and the policies and procedures.

Alice Newton, writing for Inside GOV.UK, makes the point that topic pages that “give an overview of government activity in a particular area” have a “relatively high bounce rate.” In other words, many people are coming to these pages and leaving almost immediately.

One result of analysis performed by Inside GOV.UK “was that some users who ended up on topics were actually looking for mainstream content of a similar name. To address this, we have made it possible to add top tasks on topics.”

This is a classic problem and is difficult to solve. Often, general information that describes an area such as planning gets found in searches when people are actually trying to make a planning application. General marketing material about the launch of a product can be found years later when someone is actually trying to get a price for that product, or find a technical description of it.

Governments want to engage citizens and explain how government works, how laws are made, and what a particular law means in a larger context. Organizations want to talk about their latest products or initiatives, or how they have a vision, or to show how they are different from competitors.

But on the Web, people just want to do stuff as quickly and easily as possible. Engaging with most organizational websites is only slightly more interesting than interacting with your dentist.

The words people search with set the context. Once they’re at your website, the context has already been established as far as they’re concerned.

Too often, the general is the enemy of the specific.