Time To Revaluate Your Website

Denny Hatch had a great article on actionable steps I can immediately and easily implement. This is a huge gift for anyone who don’t know what they need to  know about creating a rewarding user web experience of your online presence.

I am finally putting to bed a new book, “WRITE EVERYTHING RIGHT!” It has taught me one key lesson:

If text is not easy to read, people won’t read it.

This is especially true on the Internet, where we are all one mouse-click away from oblivion.

P.R.: An Industry Creating Truly Poor Web Communications
This column was triggered when I started putting together a plan for the public relations, promotion and publicity of “WRITE EVERYTHING RIGHT!”

Which of the four major press release distribution servicesOpens in a new window would give me the biggest bang for my buck?

BusinessWire
Annual revenue: $5MM+
No. of employees: 100+
Distribution points: 1,200+
No. of clients: 20,000+

MarketWire
Annual revenue: $5MM+
No. of employees: 100+
Distribution points: ±4,700
No. of clients: 8,000

PRNewswire
Annual revenue: $5MM+
No. of employees: 26-50
Distribution points: ±1,0000
No. of clients: 1,000+

PRWeb
Annual revenue: $5MM+
No. of employees: 100+
Distribution points: ±1,0000
No. of clients: 30,000+

My conclusion: No matter how compelling and relevant your press release, it will be unreadable when handled by any of these services.

Online Readability: The Optimal Line Length
I had an exchange with Christian Holst of the Baymard InstituteOpens in a new window in Copenhagen. Here are the nuts-‘n’-bolts of making it easiest for the online reader:

“Having the right amount of characters on each line is key to the
readability of your text. It shouldn’t merely be your design that dictates
the width of your text, it should also be a matter of legibility.

“The optimal line length for your body text is considered to be 50-60
characters per line, including spaces (“Typographie”, E. Ruder). Other
sources
Opens in a new window suggest that up to 75 characters is acceptable. So what’s the
downside of violating this range?

“Too long — if a line of text is too long the visitor’s eye will have a hard
time focusing on the text. This is because the length makes it difficult to
get an idea of where the line starts and ends. Furthermore it can be
difficult to continue from the correct line in large blocks of text.

“Too short — if a line is too short the eye will have to travel back too
often, breaking the reader’s rhythm. Too short lines also tend to stress
people, making them begin on the next line before finishing the current
one (hence skipping potentially important words).

“It turns out that the subconscious mind is energized when jumping to the
next line (as long as it doesn’t happen too frequently). At the beginning
of every new line the reader is focused, but this focus gradually wears off
over the duration of the line (“Typographie”, E. Ruder).

“In order to avoid the drawbacks of too long and too short lines,
but still energize your readers and keep them engaged, we
suggest keeping it within the range of 50-75 characters per line.
—Christian Holst, Baymard InstituteOpens in a new window 

N.B. The six paragraphs above by Christian Holst follow his rules about line widths. All are a comfortable 75 characters including spaces.

The text you are reading now has a width in the range of 105 characters.

Compare how easy it is to read Christian Holst above vs. the difficulty in reading Denny Hatch here.
Vertical vs. Horizontal
The problem: A sheet of stationary, a book or a magazine is a vertical format. As readers, we are used to vertical documents. Our eyes are comfortable with text up to 75 characters wide.

The computer screen you are looking at is horizontal. When lines of type sprawl all the way across this horizontal screen they can be double—and more—the maximum comfort-level width of 75 characters.

Thus the text is beyond easy comprehension. It is unreadable.

Sadly, the industry totally dependent on easy reading—public relations and publicity—is a total failure.

Examples are shown in the media player at upper right, or click on the hyperlinks below to see the actual documents:

BusinessWire press releaseOpens in a new window: 184 characters wide.

MarketWire press release:Opens in a new window 140 characters wide.

PRWeb press release:Opens in a new window 128 characters wide.

PRNewswire press release:Opens in a new window 128 characters wide.

PRNewswire press release above as redistributed by The Wall Street JournalOpens in a new window:Opens in a new window 133 characters wide.

The Purpose of a Press Release
Bill Stoller, proprietor of publiscityinsider.com defines a press release as:Opens in a new window

… a pseudo-news story, written in third person that seeks to demonstrate to an editor or reporter the newsworthiness of a particular person, event, service or product.

To put it bluntly, a press release is a paid pitch just like an advertisement. Only it is designed to look like a news item rather than an ad.

To guarantee readership, the output of P.R. practitioners (flaks) must slavishly follow the dictum of the great 20th century newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane:

“Good writing has to be easier to read than to skip.”

If good writing is junked up with know-nothing design, it is easier to skip than to read.

The Background of Unreadable Websites
The dot-com boom of the mid-1990s was huge. Many thousands of young, inexperienced designers with no training and no experience were hired by a legion of young, inexperienced entrepreneurs.

In terms of reading, I suggest few of these hotshots ever got beyond “Peter Rabbit” and “Johnny Crow’s Garden.”

They are not readers. In their skewed minds they were hired to make things look pretty.

Website design is about them, not about the reader.

“The Internet is a new medium, a new paradigm,” we geezers were told. “Your old rules no longer apply. This is a world of new rules, and we make ’em.”

Those who did the hiring were too young to have been mentored by knowledgeable professionals. So the kids they hired were allowed to run wild.

After the crash of 2000—where trillions of dollars evaporated—many of these smug, full-of-themselves amateur designers lost their jobs and returned home to live with their parents.

Unfortunately, their deeply flawed ideas became the norm. Ask a Web designer why a site looks the way it does, the answer will be: “This is how it’s done.”

Ask a Web designer why type is in unreadable pastel hues or faint gray and the response is the same: “That’s the fashion today.”

A Simple Way to Make Press Releases Readable
Take a moment to look at the five examples cited above. Two of them—BusinessWire and Marketwire—are designed with lines of type splayed out across the full screen.

PRWeb and PRNewswire start off with the top parts being readable widths because of sidebars and illustrations in the right hand columns.

In the newspaper world, the top area is described as “above the fold.”  Traditionally, this is where newspaper make-up people work hard to catch the reader’s eye.

Once the Web designer runs out of this extraneous stuff at the top of a press release, all that remains below is a lot of white space. Designers abhor white space.

So they fill it with type.

Ergo, a nasty reading experience has been created.

The solution: use wide margins. Set the copy at the preferred maximum width of 75 characters for ease of reading.

Don’t worry about a lot of white space.

After all, we’re not talking about the cost of paper. This is the digital world. White space is free.

The reader needs care and feeding—not the white space.

Size Matters
I back up my desktop computer once a week onto an external drive. I then transfer all the week’s updates to my laptop.

If I have to travel somewhere, my laptop instantly becomes the main computer.

“Type smaller than 9-point is difficult for most people to read,” David Ogivly wrote.

On my laptop, these sprawling press releases are turned into mouse-type—the equivalent of 7-point type.

I don’t have time for this idiocy.

Takeaways to Consider

  • If text is not easy to read, people won’t read it.
  • “In order to avoid the drawbacks of too long and too short lines, but still energize your readers and keep them engaged, we suggest keeping it within the range of 50-75 characters per line.” —Christian Holst, Baymard Institute
  •  “Good writing has to be easier to read than to skip.” —Arthur Brisbane
  • If good writing is junked up with know-nothing design, it is easier to skip than to read.
  • In the digital world, we are all a mouse-click from oblivion.
  • Take a moment to look at your website. Is the text readable? Did your designer follow the rules?
  • If not, maybe you should fix it.
  • And hire a designer who understands word is king, while design and art are supportive elements.
  •  “God protect us from amateurs!” —Henry Castor

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