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Writing for the Internet: Six Rules to Live By

Writing for the internet is a lot different than knowing how to write in general. There are different rules because it’s a different audience, even if they wear the same type of clothes.

Online readers are used to reading in bursts. With so much material available online – around seven million new blog posts are published every day – you’re writing from a position of weakness.

If your material isn’t entertaining enough, informative enough, or even quick enough, they’ll find something else that is. 

It’s a cruel reality. Some of the best material I’ve ever read on certain subjects are buried deep down on page 12 of Google’s results. Contrarily, a re-spun article that rattles off the same six talking points occupies slot one.

And trust me, you want that first slot. Almost a third of all internet traffic related to that search term lands on the first result.

THIRD.

The good news is that there are some quick tweaks you can make to your articles that should make them appear higher in search results. If you’re a good writer already, it’ll make you a visible writer.

And if you’re an average plodder like yours truly, well…at least people will give you a few paragraphs of their attention before they find something more compelling.

Rule #1: Write shorter

Write short anything, for that matter.

In a world filled with tweets and statuses and Insta-captions, online readers are conditioned to get whatever info they’re searching for in seconds, not minutes. They want their answers now, not later. NOW.

That means shorter sentences (20 words or less), shorter paragraphs (2-3 sentences max), and shorter sections (300 words per heading).

The idea here is that you want people to be able to skim. The more they’re able to skim, the more they’ll most likely read. Avoid the “wall of text,” and you’ll have a higher retention rate.

I recognize that this is hard for some people to do. Those who are used to writing big sweeping paragraphs that include dozens of beautiful run-on sentences, 5+ syllable words, and a full character arc that begins in the subject and ends in the predicate will have to retool their thinking.

It’s not easy. I get it.

But it’s necessary to write an article in the digital age that gets read. And, some would argue, it’s just good writing in general. 

Rule #2: Prioritize the keyword

Every article needs a keyword. Every. Single. One. 

(If you don’t know how to do keyword research, here’s a great article that gets you started. And if you need a free keyword research tool, I recommend Ubersuggest. It’s free for three searches a day.)

Your keyword should be sprinkled throughout your article in very natural and regular ways. Don’t jam the keyword where it doesn’t belong – or “keyword stuff” as it’s usually called. Make sure it’s not too noticeable.

But there are a few other places you should insert it as well. Ideally, your keyword would appear in the very first and last paragraphs of your article.

That’s what I did for this one. The keyword for this article is “how to write for the internet,” and it’s literally the second through seventh words of the first paragraph. Hopefully, you didn’t even notice it.

It should also be in the last paragraph. If you notice at the end, it appears once more. 

A lot of experts believe the first 200 words of an article are more closely scrutinized by search engines than the rest of the article. Whether that’s actually true is up for debate, but the anecdotal evidence is strong enough that it’s still sound advice.

One more reason why you should put the keyword near the beginning: It appears in Google’s instant answers.

Even if you don’t know what an “instant answer” is, I guarantee you you’ve seen them. They are the answers that Google gives to questions right on the search page. Though the answer is right on the page, the instant answer still gets a whopping 32% click-through rate. That’s valuable traffic.

Rule #3: Use images

Part of the “scannability” of articles includes images to naturally break up the text. You want to insert these because they provide added context to what you’re already saying.

The first image that I popped up on this page was a chart, for instance. Instead of having a whole paragraph to outline those stats, a simple image does the trick. Same for the picture of the “instant answer” a few paragraphs previously.

What you’re ultimately trying to do with an image is “stop the scroll.” You want people that are skimming your article to stop flicking their thumbs and get a long look at whatever it is you’re showing them. That way, they’ll consume the info without having to actually read the material.

 Counter-intuitive, I know.

 But think about this. If a picture can describe what you’re saying more quickly than you can say it, it can also be shared more easily.

A great infographic that describes all the names of Jesus not only creates a great backlink for your own website, but it can also be shown on Google images. That’s a whole other search engine that may provide a wealth of traffic for your blog.

In a perfect world, you’d want to insert an image every 250-400 words. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it does give you a rough guide to go on. That’s roughly the amount of time a reader’s attention span starts to wane, so interjecting an image gives the brain a little boost to keep reading.

That rule can be broken, though. If you’re writing a very technical article about the breakdown of the temple in New Testament times, slip as many as you want in there. Please. For real. As many as you want. Brains like mine need it.

And hey, gifs always work well too.

Rule #4: Don’t forget to link!

Internal links, external links – it doesn’t matter. You need them.

What is a link? According to the internet (which is always, always trustworthy), a hyperlink is a “digital reference to data that the user can follow or be guided by clicking or tapping.”

Or, in regular human-speak, a link is just something you click on that takes you to another spot on the web. An internal link takes you to another page on your own website, whereas an external link takes you to another page on a different website.

You need both because this is fundamentally the way the internet is designed to work. Google based its original PageRank algorithm on an interlinking scheme that transfers authority from page to page. 

You want backlinks to your own website, but you also want to link out to others as well. 

Where should you insert these links? In short, anywhere they make sense.

If you’re referencing a stat about something specific, link out to it. If you’re referencing something that you go into more detail about elsewhere on your site, link to it also. 

 By doing this, you’ll avoid having “orphan pages” on your site – or pages that aren’t linked anywhere else. You don’t want these because the reader experience essentially stops at one. 

What you really want are people following your content from page to page to page. It increases “dwell time” on your site, which may or may not be a ranking signal for Google’s algorithm. 

Regardless, it’s always good practice to make the internet a little bit better place by linking to different areas of the web that explains more fully what you’re talking about.

Rule #5: Write to a sixth-grade audience

I’m looking at you, preachers. I know you. I know how you think. I know how you write.

And I know that you’re in love with writing long treatises on complex subjects that really drill into the nuts and bolts of a specific theological subject.

I get it. I’m the same way.

But the reality is that many online readers don’t have the time or interest in reading about 15 different definitions of the word eis. They want to know – and need to know – why it’s important, but too much can be overwhelming.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when a super-academic article is absolutely necessary. If you’re trying to debunk a popular false doctrine, then, by all means, write a 10,000-word post on it. The world needs it.

As a general rule though, your articles should be geared toward a sixth-grade audience. That’s not because people are dumb, but because roughly half the U.S. has a literacy rate that is classified as “lower literacy.” Writing more complex material than that loses half your audience before you even get out of the gate.

What does this mean for you? It means substituting shorter words for longer words (i.e. “big” instead of “enormous”). It means reducing the number of sentences and syllables you use.

Jesus understood this concept. Most of His audience were “common people” (Mark 12:37) who needed parables to understand His points (Matthew 13:10-13). 

People today are exactly like they were in Jesus’ time. They have jobs, families, hobbies, dreams, and fears. As such, they need the Word distilled in a way they can understand it. If it’s too complex, there’s a huge incentive to just walk away completely (John 6:60-66).

If you’re unsure about where your internet writing level is at, use the Flesch Reading Test to check. Bookmark it and keep it close so you know that your writing is reaching as many people as possible.

Rule #6: Quality over quantity

There are a lot of ongoing debates about how frequently someone needs to be writing and optimizing a blog post. There are so many, some would argue, that to keep up, you need to be writing 2-4 times per week.

Or, in some cases, once every 58 seconds.

Let’s be real here, though. There is no way most humans can write 2-4 articles a week and still maintain the level of quality that is demanded. 

If you’re a professional writer, sure. You most likely have systems set up and the time to devote to it. If you’re a preacher who is more focused on personal studies with others and developing content for a local church though, most likely not.

To skirt around this, some aspiring writers lean heavily on artificial intelligence to write their articles for them. These are highly advanced machine-learning systems that scour the internet for top articles on a chosen keyword, then spit out an article for you in a matter of seconds.

The goal is simple: to rank high on search engines.

I may be an outlier here, but I don’t believe that the distribution of God’s Word should be relegated to an AI-based robot. When we’re talking about something as important as salvation, we should spend a little bit of time going over it to make sure it’s (a) truthful, and (b) applicable.

Writing for the internet should be like anything else. You research a subject, write it according to the rules outlined in this (and other) articles, and post it. If it takes off, great. If not, that’s fine. Never sacrifice quality for a higher search position.

Even though this article is largely about writing for the internet, remember that ultimately you’re writing for humans. They’re the ones who will read it, after all.

The main thing is to be consistent. If you’re going to write one article a week, write one article a week. If you’re going to write once a month, write once a month.

A pace that I’ve found works well for most preachers is to write once or twice a week. Usually, they’ll take the sermon (that they’ve already spent time working on), and turn it into a blog article. Then they’ll publish it as a blog.

You might argue that that’s “over-saturating the market,” when in reality, it’s two different audiences. Someone who hears the audio sermon may not read the blog, or vice-versa. Plus, you can always change the title to include your target keyword and nobody will be the wiser.

Writing for the internet isn’t hard

At first, it can be intimidating to think about changing your entire writing style just to suit an online audience. Looking at it a little closer though, there’s not much difference between this and informal writing in general. With a few minor tweaks, you should notice a huge difference in your online reach.

At the end of the day, writing for the internet is all about knowing your audience. What do they need to hear and how do they want to hear it? Figure that out, and you’re good to go.

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