Get Your Content Read - A Guide to Good Layout & Formatting
When you're creating content online, it's vital to grab someone's attention in the first few seconds and to keep it until they have finished reading your content. Most people will make a judgement about your website within around half a second of landing on your webpage; 80% of that judgement will be based on how your page looks, rather than what the content itself is actually about.
The difference between a piece of writing being successful, shared and well regarded, and a piece that falls into the depths of obscurity, can often be down to how well formatted your content is. It's about putting yourself in your audience's position and seeing what works for them.
Because creating high-quality, relevant, shareable content is about more than just the words, making sure that your content is properly laid out and formatted will make it easier for people to read. This improves their experience with your writing and builds trust in your website. This in-depth article describes the key areas that you can use when formatting so that you can excel with your content and get your message across in the most effective way.
What this guide covers
In this article, we'll cover:
- Understanding what formatting is
- Understanding why it's important
- Having a clean, well-designed website
- Staying within certain conventions
- Breaking your content up
- Using headings properly
- Using white space
- Bullet points and numbered lists
- Using bold or italics
- Images, video and other media
- Avoiding ad stuffing
- Using good English
- Providing authority links
- A checklist of key points
Benefits of formatting your content
Paying attention to your formatting and layout:
- Makes your content easier to read
- Creates trust in your content, making it more likely to be shared
- Improves its chance of appearing in search results
Step 1 - Understand what formatting is
Formatting is, at its most basic level, how your content looks. This means that all of the visual elements of your website and content: font style and size, visual elements, colors, white space, navigation and much more all have an impact on how easy your content is to use.
Step 2 - Understand why formatting is important
Great formatting is crucial because people will make near-instant judgments about your site based almost exclusively on how it looks. You have to entice them to keep reading with good formatting if you want to get the point of your content across.
After getting your content found and getting people to your site, formatting is the next area that you have to get right. This is because:
- People have short attention spans
- They want information quickly
- Information needs to be presented in small, digestible chunks
Step 3 - Have a clean, well designed website
The website where your content is published will drive several of your formatting decisions. The site itself should have:
- A clean and simple design
- An obvious way to navigate around it (e.g. with a standard drop down menu system or similar)
- Not be overly cluttered
- Not have too many 'widgets' and 'add-ons' competing for people's attention
Is your site designed to put good content and information front and center and improve things for your audience? If it's not, and you have an influence over the site design, it might be time to tweak that design and see what happens.
Step 4 - Stay within certain conventions
There are website and content 'conventions' that have built up over the years, and these are so deeply ingrained, it's not wise to go against them. This means that your content should generally:
- Use standard online fonts at a reasonable size to make the content easy to read (e.g. Verdana, Tahoma, Arial, Helvetica, Times New Roman etc)
- Use standard, dark font colors such as black, dark gray and dark blue
- Present the content on a pale, plain background (white, cream, pale blue or green etc.)
- Read from left to right as standard English
- Not require massive amounts of scrolling (white space is fine, but you don't want five blank lines between paragraphs!)
Step 5 - Break your content up logically
Because we can only absorb certain amounts of information at once, it's often very helpful to break your content up in a logical way, this means:
- Use short paragraphs to make each point; generally speaking, a paragraph should run between around two and six sentences, depending on how many words are needed to make a point clearly
- Use carriage returns at the end of each paragraph
- Ensure that your content flows logically from point to point
- Lead the reader on a journey through your text
- Use enough words (and just enough words) to get your point across clearly; adding 'filler' content for the sake of it adds no value for your reader and slows down their experience
- Avoid large 'Walls of Text' - These are hard to read and will put your reader off very quickly
Step 6 - Use headings to highlight important content
One very overlooked part of content creation is the proper use of headings. In HTML (the language used to create webpages), there are typically four levels of heading that can be used in a page, Heading 1 (for the top heading) down to Heading 4.
As well as making your content easier to read, search engines love people to put headings in their content as it's a clear way to tell them what the content is about. This means:
- Heading 1 - Should generally only be used at the very top of a page for the main page title
- Heading 2 - These should be used for key pieces of information in the text; there could be anything between two and around seven or eight Heading 2's in a longer piece of content
- Heading 3 - These are used to break up information under Heading 2's into sub-content
- Heading 4 - And these break up content even further under Heading 3's
If you don't want to use headings in as detailed a way as this, please do try to at least use Heading 2's to break up and properly guide people through your content.
Step 7 - Use white space to allow the reader's eyes to rest
White space is an often overlooked part of formatting and web design, but using it well can be the difference between a good piece of content and a great one. Careful use of white space lets a person's eyes rest between each point that you're making, and 'cleanses the palate of their brain' in preparation for the next point.
Using white space is easy, just put one or two carriage returns (i.e. press the 'Enter' key once or twice) between paragraphs or headings.
Step 8 - Use bullet points and numbered lists
Bullet points and numbered lists are a great way to break up more complex pieces of information that then allow people to act on them.
- Numbered lists - These should be used for an 'Ordered List' - In other words a series of pieces of information or instructions that need to be followed in a particular order (e.g. following a recipe)
- Bullet lists - These should be used for an 'Unordered List' - These are individual, important pieces of information that don't need to be read or followed in a specific order
Step 9 - Use bold or italics to highlight important information
If you have a 1,000 word piece of content, it can sometimes be difficult for your reader to pick out the most important parts. In addition to breaking it up logically, using good headings, creating bulleted and numbered lists and the like, another good technique is to use bold or italic to highlight key words or points.
This draws the reader's eye to those essential terms and makes them stick in the memory more. It's generally not a good idea to combine bold and italics as that can look like you're trying too hard and can appear a bit 'messy'. You should never use an underline to highlight content, as people normally expect underlined text to be links.
Step 10 - Use images, photographs and other media to add visual appeal and break up your content
Good use of graphics, photos, images, video and other media can help to make your content more striking. You can find many pieces of content online that can add to the value of your webpage. Please make sure that if you're using content that others have created, that you have the rights to do so (e.g. via a Creative Commons license) and attribute the content properly.
Good photos and media can really add some nice context to your work and will help the significant number of people that absorb information more easily from pictures than words.
Step 11 - Don't stuff your content with ads
Monetizing websites, often through advertising, is a well-established way for sites to make money, and people expect it. However, you should make sure that your ads do not detract from your content.
This means not putting too many of them 'above the fold' and not letting them interrupt the flow of text or your article itself. This is good practice, and shows respect for your readers. It may also improve your search engine rankings slightly.
Step 12 - Use good English
The formatting of your content is crucial, but so is the English that you use when writing it. Poorly written English is one of the fastest ways of putting a reader off and damaging trust in your content. To avoid this:
- Edit your article once it is written to strengthen the key points and remove the weak ones
- Make sure that you run a spell check on your article before publishing
- Proofread your article line by line to ensure it makes sense
- Use good grammar to make your points
- Use punctuation appropriately
- Proofread your article again!
Step 13 - Provide clear links to your other content and external authority sites
Providing good links to your own, and other's content adds value for your visitors.
- Always make it easy to see what text is linked (different color, underlined etc.)
- Create clear context on your links so people know where they will be going
- Interlink to your own, relevant, related content
- Link to external authority sites if people want to find out more
Because there's a lot of information in this article, here's a quick checklist of the main things you can do to improve your content formatting:
- The overall website should have a clean, uncluttered and simple design with obvious navigation
- Use standard, normal sized fonts, in dark colors on a plain, pale background
- Use the right number of words in your content, broken up into logical paragraphs that move the reader through the content, step by step
- Use short paragraphs with carriage returns at the end of each paragraph
- Use headings of various different levels to break text up
- Use white space to allow people's eyes to rest
- Use bulleted and numbered lists to break up information
- Use bold or italics to highlight key points
- Use properly attributed images, photos and other media
- Don't stuff your content with ads
- Use a good standard of written English (spelling, grammar, punctuation)
- Proofread, proofread, proofread!
- Provide links to your related content and other authority sites
- Always put yourself in your audience's shoes
A ticklist for you to optimize your content
My website has a clean and simple design
My website has clear and obvious navigation
I use normal, regular fonts
My fonts are dark and placed on a light background
My content contains the appropriate amount of words to give readers the information that they need
My content is broken up into logical paragraphs
My content guides the reader through each point, step-by-step
I use short paragraphs, separated by whitespace
I use headings of different kinds to break the text up, indicate important areas and add organization to the content
I use bulleted or numbered lists to break up information
I use bold or italics to highlight key points
I use images, photos or other media to illustrate key points
My images, photos and other media are properly attributed and do not breach copyright
My content is not stuffed with ads
I use a good standard of written English (punctuation, grammar & spelling)
I have edited & proofread my content
I have provided links to other pages on my site that are relevant to the reader
I have provided external links to other authority sites
I have looked at the content from a reader's perspective
I have published my content
Ways to improve the formatting of your website
What's the most important thing to you when you're reading content?
Putting even half of the above into practice will significantly improve a lot of content. This is a 'virtuous circle' and is good for everyone, as follows:
- People find your content easy to read
- They link to it and share it with their friends
- This is a signal to search engines that your content is good
- They send more people to your content
- This results in more page views, and a better result for you
Remember, always put yourself in the shoes of your audience. When you visit your content, what could you do to improve it? Make those changes, and see how things improve as a result.