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Writing online

Writing online

The basic concepts of text journalism we’ve covered originate from print traditions. While these principals remain fundamental, you are likely be publishing, at least to some degree, online and will need to consider the digital environment. Online copy needs to be optimised to increase chances of people finding it. We’ll start with SEO, a core principle, but we’ll cover other factors such as linking and formatting too. This section is by no means comprehensive – it’s aimed at delivering some key starter tips to get you going and make your online writing more visible and efficient. As always we supply plenty of external links and resources for you to dig deeper.

What is SEO?

An important concept and practice for online journalists and editors is Search Engine Optimisation, (usually shortened to SEO). Don’t be put off by the complex sounding name. It’s true that for many people and purposes SEO is a fine science and news organisations take it seriously, but stripped down SEO is just about helping connect audiences to content. Every online content producer should understand the basic concepts and just a few tips and techniques can go a long way.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media all provide referrals to online news, but search engines are still a major entry point and essential for reaching readers, especially those outside a publication’s typical audience.

How SEO worksSearch engines feed on keywords so if you want your stories to be found and read, you need to make sure your article contains relevant keywords.Think about the words that someone might type into a search engine to find your article and use them.

SEO & Hard news

We’ve already discussed composing headlines that hook and inform readers of the relevance of a particular article to their interests. In terms of SEO most websites use the headline as the page’s title tag, which is one of the key ways that search engines assess the relevance of an article to someone’s search. This means that your headline is a primary spot to place keywords that you think people may search for. Vague, witty and pun headlines are generally out and direct explanatory headlines which use keywords are in.

The further up words appear in an article the more importance search engines give them. Leads or introduction paragraphs are often shown in search results along with headlines, so make sure they are filled with relevant terms, both for humans and search engines.

In terms of hard news, applying SEO is fairly simple because as we’ve already outlined, it’s good journalistic practice to clearly and directly summarise the main points of your story in your headline and lead. These techniques fit SEO principals of clear, concise writing, where key information and keywords are top-loaded. SEO also gives relevance to keywords and phrases that are repeatedly referred to. However, although SEO is important, ultimately you want to write for your reader not SEO. So if it makes sense to repeat a keyword, or give an alternative keyword or phrase go for it, if not, put your reader along with clear and concise writing first. The BBC is a great example of good use of SEO, take a look online and at the headlines and leads it typically uses.

SEO & Features

With features and opinion pieces, you’ll need to approach things mindfully. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that good SEO practice means cramming keywords into your reports at the expense of good writing. Delayed intros, often used in feature writing, are engaging for the reader, but don’t serve SEO. There’s a fine balance between writing well for readers and sprinkling in a few relevant keywords in the right places. SEO doesn’t mean you need to dumb down your writing, write for people but with a little SEO in mind.

Text Formatting

Many of the principles of writing online come from the fact that people tend to scan more than they do in print. Online writing should accommodate this but just like SEO, online formatting should not be a formula but used appropriately to make your writing online reader friendly. The best way to understand good formatting is by going to online news sources and scrutinising the layout.

Write short Many general news writing principals transfer directly into the discipline of online writing. Writing short is often harder than writing long. Finding the words to put complex information into clear simple terms that serve your reader and relay information in the most straightforward manner takes skill.

ChunkChunking means splitting text and delivering it into single topics or ideas, chunks of information make reading and comprehension easier and faster. Chunking is especially useful online because we tend to scan so much – though you’ll see chunking in print too.

Headings / subheadingsSubheadings can be used to head chunks, they are a speedy and useful way of helping the reader scan your article, finding out if it’s useful to them or find specific sections that are relevant. I’m sure you’ve been scanning this book and our subheadings and chunking will have helped you to find the information most relevant to you and skip sections that aren’t.

Lists / bullet pointsLists work well online and are another way to help readers scan and grasp information.

Linking

Links are a major asset of online writing; they imbue reporting with one of the internet’s most powerful dynamics, the ability to allow people to interact and delve deeper and broader into related content as they desire.

Relevant, rewarding hyperlinks are like giving your reader considerate gifts, they can provide context, explain detail or offer supporting source and attribution material to enrich and add depth to your articles. Journalism has always referred to other sources, but linking allows you to take your reader directly to those sources. There are a few good reasons to link:

  • ContextWhile news stories should contain enough context for the reader to understand the piece, an interested reader who’s new to the topic may want to dig deeper, while another who knows the topic well might be turned off by information they already know. Linking is a good solution allowing one reader to dig deeper and another to read without interruption. Link to related, background stories, earlier reports or supporting multimedia content – e.g. if you are reporting a flooding, perhaps there is user generated content online that you can link to.
  • Explain detailPerhaps there is a specific technical term, a complex concept or side issue that some readers want to understand more thoroughly – give it to them in a well selected link.
  • Sources / Attribution –  If you are summarising facts or information from somewhere else, link to the full source material  – reports, data sets or public records – to give readers the opportunity to check original sources. Not only does this serve dedicated readers, it drives up transparency and credibility.

See some links in action, check out this Economist article on China’s poverty line, which has two links. The first provides a link to an older article that gives background to the current issue. While the second attributes a local news agency report as the source of data used within the article. Note the first link also drives readers to Economist content and gives this existing content a longer life.

Bad links: Bear in mind however, there are good and bad gifts, make sure your hyperlinks are of high quality and carefully chosen. Bad links can divert and confuse readers. Some writers choose to add a list of related links at the end of the page, so as not to disturb the flow of the article. There’s a danger here though. People often ignore these links and because they are not directly in the content with context, readers don’t know which ones are relevant to their interests.

Link formatting: Links should give readers an idea what they are getting, for example don’t link with ‘click here’ and ensure your links are working – there’s nothing more frustrating than a broken link. Two to five words in a phrase are good. For tips on how link text should look on the page take a look at Jakob Neilsons’ Guidelines for Visualising Links

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