Bad news for good writing

Rules, even golden rules, are made to be broken. Jakob Nielsen’s latest Alertbox article puts forward a remarkably strong case for prioritising the first two or three words in any headline or paragraph. Usability studies show that the eye scans down the left edge of any text; so you need to get the most relevant keywords into the opening of your sentences. And if that means breaking the golden rule of web writing – active voice, rather than passive – then so be it. He advises:

Words are usually the main moneymakers on a website. Selecting the first 2 words for your page titles is probably the highest-impact ROI-boosting design decision you make in a Web project. Front-loading important keywords trumps most other design considerations.

Writing the first 2 words of summaries runs a close second. Here, too, you might want to succumb to passive voice if it lets you pull key terms into the lead.

I’m used to SEO advice clashing with good writing guidelines, but this is the first time I’ve seen it happen with actual usability.

One thought on “Bad news for good writing”

  1. My ninth grade grammar teacher would roll over in her grave to know how the “rules” she taught us are getting twisted and hammered in the battle for the attention of consumers. That doesn’t negate the need for knowing and using traditional writing structure when appropriate. It does mean we need to adapt as needed to connect with our audience.
    Much to his dismay, I wouldn’t let my child avoid the endless scales, circle of fifths, and fundamentals of piano. Now that he is working his way through improvisational books, he understands why.

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