Online reports must focus on the specific needs of online readers. However, there are many aspects of web specific writing that can hardly be implemented in online reports. Ideally, online texts should be short and simple, but due to increasing regulatory requirements, this is hard to realise in corporate reports. Therefore, in our opinion, online reporting is more a question of how contents can be edited, structured and slimmed down.
In this blog post I will present some of the most important DOs and DON’Ts when editing contents for the web.
Why writing for web is different than writing for print.
Print reports and online reports do not only differ in the ways their contents are edited, but also in the actual display of texts. The main differences are the following: while full text justification can appear neat and pleasant to the eye in printed reports, it would be senseless for the web because online texts do not use automatic or manual hyphenation, but allow users to freely change the size of the text. In web texts, ragged right alignment is used exclusively. Moreover, there are no text columns in the body text, no manual line breaks within paragraphs nor text indents at the beginning of a paragraph. Serif fonts are commonly used for e.g. newspapers and books, whereas sans-serif fonts are more suited for the web. In any case, web texts should use a standard font type (e.g. Arial) which is likely to be installed on most computers and consequently displayed in the same way everywhere. The usage of corporate fonts, however, should be avoided since such fonts need to be additionally embedded and do not comply with accessibility best practice. Also, the font size should be slightly larger than in print versions. Please make sure that there is sufficient contrast between the font colour and the background.
Content structure and typography.
In the internet, users do not read entire pages, but “scan” contents according to their individual interests. It is therefore recommended to highlight three times as many elements in online contents than in print documents. In order to enable a faster reception of online reports, we recommend the following options:
Headings and subheadings
In HTML headings and subheadings are marked up with special tags (<H1> to <H6>). There are no hard and fast rules for where subheadings should be set (since this depends on the content of course). As a rough rule, we would recommend to mark up text segments of approx. 1,000 to 1,500 characters. One should, however, keep in mind that headings may have counter-productive effects (also in regard to search engines) if used unreasonably. Therefore, you should always consider alternatives such as bold type for example. (see below).
Extendible contents (accordion)
In our reports we often define certain headings as “accordions”. Upon mouse-click users can extend or collapse the contents of a panel (see example). This allows you to slim down long text pages in order to simplify and improve the structure of the text. We strongly recommend keeping this option in mind during conception and content creation. In general, accordions should be used sparingly; best-practice is to only fold away specific content that is not likely to be of interest for every user.
Bold type instead of other styles
Bold type is especially suited for the highlighting of texts in the internet. Ideally, sections in bold type should contain no more than six words. Highlighting text segments by underlining or using colours is less effective, because such elements could be interpreted as links. Italics and upper case letters, in turn, may be hard to read on screen. Moreover, UPPER CASE LETTERS do not only look unpleasant, but may, in worst case, also be interpreted as aggressive yelling.
Lists can help to structure text pages more efficiently, allowing for a faster identification of contents (with a short and simple wording). Each text should use a consistent format for the lists (e.g. using only bullets or only numbers).
Images, tables and graphics
Images, tables and graphics can be used to supplement the texts. They can be added as eye catchers and make the text more comprehensible for users. Again, these elements should be directly related to the contents and used only if they add actual value.
Boxes and quotations
Main navigation pages of a chapter often contain boxes (information boxes, key figure boxes, service boxes, etc.): this allows for important contents to be placed on a prominent spot (see example). Moreover, quotations may in particular be perfectly suited for the Supervisory Board Report, interviews and case studies in order to lighten up long text passages a bit.
Optimising texts for search engines is a separate issue in itself, starting way before the actual content creation. Generally, we believe that optimisation should not be made at the expense
of clarity and stylistic elegance. If keywords are integrated by force and to an exaggerated extent, this will disturb the reading flow, and consequently the recipient. There are, however, several general recommendations that should be considered when writing texts for the internet:
The most important keywords (1-2 words) for search engines should be found in the headings at <H1> to <H6> level. Such headings are not only ranked higher than the body text by Google & co, but also provide information on the actual website structure. This is not necessarily an argument against a creative approach of formatting headlines which can be used as stylistic device (e.g. doing businesses in the Middle Kingdom). However, all relevant keywords should at least be taken up again (e.g. “Sales increase of XYZ-systems in China”) in the following headline level (<H2>, (<H3>, etc.).
All keywords that are relevant to search engines should be found at least once in the content. Search engines can increasingly identify texts that are unnecessarily overloaded with keywords, making this procedure, the so-called keyword stuffing, counterproductive.
Some sections of corporate reports are usually based on the contents of the previous year. In some cases, text contents can even be identical copies of previous reports, being simply republished every year. As to search engine optimisation, this is generally not the ideal case since original contents are ranked higher than copied ones. This should be kept in mind when reediting sections of the report.
Links (anchor text)
Links are generally considered useful for search engine optimisation (see above). It is assumed that links set in the body text are ranked higher than link collections (e.g. lists of links). A rough recommendation would be to set 2-5 links per text which is not realistic for online reports though. Besides, our reports often contain related links as page tool offering references within the report. When it comes to the links in the body text, make sure that they are set reasonably and not by force.
Whenever possible, headings of images used in our reports are not part of the image itself, but included in the HTML content. As a result they can be identified and read by search engines. The image title should therefore be as clear as possible, describing the content of the image in a short and simple way (e.g. “XYZ Group – sales by segment” instead of “Group sales”).
Linking contents is a core potential / performance of online reports. Whenever it is possible and reasonable, internal and external links should be placed in the text; they can already be set in the respective Word file. Linking contents is also an asset in terms of search engine optimisation (SEO). Generally, two things should be considered in this connection:
Ideally, links should be provided in a manner that can be read and recognised easily. Instead of “For more information click here” (only the word here is linked) the link title should give users an idea of what to expect: “Please find all key figures of waste recycling in our Performance Report under section Environment and Safety“. As a result, links are also optimised for screen readers and thus accessible for everyone.
External links are especially suited for providing further references and information on the reporting subjects. However, one should keep in mind that online reports are usually not edited after they have been published.