How to hook today’s Internet users

Fish may travel in “schools,” but they’re not very bright, having extremely short short-term memories. So when a hook with bait appears, they all gather round . . .

“Mmmm. It’s the delivery man!”

But when one of their one is skewered and pulled writhing to it’s death: “It’s a trap! They’ve killed Gil!”

But nine seconds later, when another hook of death appears, they all gather round . . .

“Mmmm. It’s the delivery man!”

An article on the BBC’s Web site warns we’re all “turning into digital goldfish.” Internet users now have the attention span of only nine seconds. The article quotes an American Web surfer admitting, “When I’m on the Internet, my attention span is shorter for each thing because there are so many things to choose from.” Another has labeled this syndrome as “Internet ADD” (Attention Deficit Disorder).

So, how do we write for online “goldfish” with ADD?

Recognize the challenges

Visual challenges Studies show that reading on the screen is tiring on our eyes and decreases reading rate by 25 percent. So, write online articles that are at least one-quarter shorter than what you would write for print. (This article is way too long, but it’s not for the general public. It’s for you who want to write for the general public.)

Also, studies have shown that serif type (“with feet” such as Times New Roman, Georgia) are easier to read in print. However, the rule seems to be opposite online. Sans-serif (“without feet” such as Arial, Helvetica, Verdana) are easier to read online. Text in italics is also harder to read than regular fonts. And keep in mind the millions of “Baby Boomers” turning 50 and 60, so keep the font size at least 12 point for that audience.

Behavioral challenges Early on, Web users would visit sites for information or entertainment; now they search sites for information or entertainment. Today people are searching for one particular bit of information (“Elvis Sightings in Bermuda Triangle”), so they scan for information, keywords, or links they need and bypass the rest. And they lose patience and aim their mouse at the BACK icon if they don’t immediately find it. Make the content easy to find with relevant headlines, subheads, and boxed information (we’ll talk more about this later).

Navigational challenges Because the Web is interactive with hyperlink rabbit trails all along the information superhighway, users tend to wander from site to site rather than completely experiencing one site. So, provide links from each page to your own related sites. (If they’re going to be hopping down the bunny, provide the route.)

Write for goldfish

Don’t simply take a print article and click “save as website” in your word processing program. The techie term for this is “re-purposing.”

Think of online articles and books as interactive presentations with headlines, subheads, graphics, and photos.

Great bait Beware of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) offers that promise high rankings on or other search engines and directories. It’s a scam because no one can guarantee you’ll be in the first ten or so results on a search engine.

Google ranks sites by the number of “important” sites that link to your site, important being defined as heavily trafficked sites. Google is unimpressed with clever “metatags” (the hidden information describing keywords and content) or simply the number of links to your site (it penalizes sites for hosting “link farms”). It’s not even the “weighted” key phrases in the text. Quality content is vital to appease the google gods!

Keep in mind that google will eventually go the way of AltaVista, Excite, Ask, Bing and Yahoo as search engine du jour, with another formula to getting on the first page of results!

So with that caveat in mind . . .

Use key word in the content., but only key phrases that accurately describe your product or service. Use them naturally and sparingly. You don’t want it to sound like this:

      Do you suffer from male-pattern baldness? Male-pattern baldness can be cured with our patented “Miracle Male-pattern Baldness Ointment. Yes, you can say goodbye to male-pattern baldness by simply applying our anti-male-pattern-baldness formula each night.

Some SEO experts suggest not more than one key phrase per one hundred words.

Use key phrases outside of body text such as in the title of the page (very important!), headlines, subheads, and even ALT photo tags (the hidden description of the graphic that appears when you place your mouse over the object).

Write “above the fold.” Newspapers put the most important (and attention grabbing) news above the fold since, in newsstands, that’s all that’s visible. The same is true for Web sites. Make sure your most important (and attention grabbing) elements are “above the scroll” so it can be seen without having to scroll down the page.

Create copy based on levels of interest. I’ve dubbed them surfers who just skim the surface of your page, swimmers that actually swim through the little castle on your site, and bottom-feeders who spend a good deal of time on your page (okay, bottom-feeders is not the most complimentary choice of words, but you get the idea. They eat up everything on your site!).

With surfers, swimmers, and bottom-feeders in mind, think “inverted pyramid.” This is an age-old tactic from newspapers that puts all the important information?who, what, where, when, why and how?in the first paragraph. Everything you need to know is in that one paragraph.

This allows “users” rather than “readers” to find the most important information easily.
Then each subsequent paragraph has increasingly less important information that can be easily skipped without
losing any vital information. For instance . . .

      An all-natural cure for male-pattern baldness has just been discovered by researchers at Bayou University in Swamp Gas, Louisiana.

      Four out of five subjects treated with Bolivian bat droppings reported a complete reversal of baldness.

      “It’s just a miracle,” Billy Bob Carter reported. “I went to sleep hairless as a newborn ?possum and woke up with a full head of hair.”

      Researchers attribute the high concentration of testosterone in bat droppings that stimulate dormant hair follicles.

Well, you get the idea.

Use a table of contents at the top of the page with anchor links (links within a page) to the key points. I use a boxed “Fast Facts” at the top of some pages that lists the main points. (Again, don’t think of visitors as “readers.” They are “users,” so the more user-friendly, the better.)

• Use informative headlines and subheads written with parallel construction. “Surfers” should be able to skim the heads and subheads to get the gist of your message.

Jakob Nielson’s research has found that “scannable, concise and objective language improves usability by 159 percent.” He also found that by “removing exaggerations and marketese” from headlines and making them more information rather than “teasing,” increased reader response as well.

Bite-sized bits. Notice that goldfish food is tiny particles, so again, think 25 percent shorter online writing than in print.

Don’t take your copy to the edges of the browser. This makes reading even more difficult. Five hundred pixels is about the width of a printed book page, so I’d suggest that as a limit for the width of text.

Write in chunks Web writers refer to breaking text into bite-sized bits as “chunking.” A chunk is a unique thought with a head or subhead. For instance, this actual text is not chunky.

      It is our earnest prayer that against the backdrop of our troubled times, the Fifth General Conference of the Wesleyan Church, with the warm inspiration of nightly rallies, the fresh uplift of renewed friendships, the rewarding richness of Christian fellowship, the sober intensity of serious business sessions and the open-hearted renewing of the Church’s commitment to a redemptive ministry will be a life-changing experience for each delegate and for the many other ministers and laypeople, members and friends who gather there.

That’s one 81-word sentence with a reading level of 36th grade! Use that key between the , and / ?:
the . !

      More than business sessions

      The Fifth General Conference of the Wesleyan Church will be a time of serious business sessions. But we are praying for much more. We want each delegate and visitor to be inspired by the nightly rallies and uplifted by rich fellowship.

      Much, much more

      We want all to renew their desire to share the gospel in our troubled times.

Nothing is lost, and the reading level drops from 36th grade to 7th grade!

Use short, tight paragraphs with a subhead for every two or three paragraphs. Some suggest a one-hundred-word limit.

Don’t put up a “gray” page. If you can lay a dollar bill anywhere on a print page without touching a headline, subhead, photo/illustration, or white space (white space is a graphic element that provides a break for tired eyes), it’s too “gray.” The same applies to online design.

A comfortable environment. If you’ve ever raised tropical fish, you know that it’s essential that the right temperature and pH balance is maintained, or you don’t have surfers, swimmers or bottom-feeders—you have “floaters.” Online writing has its own expectations for a lively environment.

• Write conversationally. As I mentioned in chapter four, I won a Campus Life “Book of the Year” contest in which the judges were teens. One wrote, “Jim Watkins is not an author. No, it’s more like he’s sitting across from you at McDonalds sharing Diet Cokes.” Online readers are “guests” who don’t want to be lectured. They want a comfortable conversation.

• Use contractions. “One should not use contractions” sounds stuffy and academic. “You shouldn’t use contractions” sounds more conversational.

• Use exclamation marks sparingly! More than one gives the impression you’re shouting. The same applies to TEXT IN ALL CAPS!!!

• Show, don’t tell. Again, as I mentioned in the book, all great writing includes a strong theme: an insight, viewpoint, or concept. But don’t blurt it out. Let the story show the theme rather you telling it. Telling comes across as preachy?which is death for Internet writers. Engage all five senses in your writing.

• Misspellings and poor grammar distract from your message. Don’t, however, rely on spell check as it won’t catch homonyms or transposed letters or bad line breaks (“therapist” and “the rapist”).

Oui knead too ewes hour now tow ayes!

Write with plenty of attitude

Rather than the more formal print writing, online communication tends to be edgy, in your face, and?unfortunately?sometimes with little regard for fact or tact.
As Christian writers, I think it is incredibly important that what we write is credible and gracious. The apostle Paul writes:

      Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Col. 4:5).

Nothing will undercut our witness like spreading urban legends (the Madalyn Murray O’Hair FCC petitions), false quotations (Al Gore quoting John 16:3 rather than 3:16), or ungracious attacks (a TV evangelist calling singer Madonna a “despicable whore”).

Yes, our online writing should be creative, convicting, energetic, and witty (the word translated “salt” in Colossians can also be translated wit). But it should always be truthful and gracious. The question I ask myself is, “Will what I write about those with whom I disagree draw them closer to Jesus or push them further away?”

Keep the water fresh

Webmasters refer to sites with fresh, ever-changing content as “sticky.” Is there a reason for visitors to return to your site? I get a fair amount of traffic on I think the reasons are:

Current issues. As I type this appendix on September 15, 2006, talk show host Rosie O’Donnell is creating a stir among Christians for her comment, “Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America where we have separation of church and state.” By the time you read this book, this is be old news. That’s the joy of writing online is that within minutes, you can respond to the latest news.

I’ve found that keeping my site current keep the traffic flowing.

Creative approach. While the American Family Association is demanding an apology and a reprimand from ABC TV, I took a very different tact:

      I’m not sure that’s the right attitude. Didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11).

      So like Baalam’s curse of the Israelites turning into a blessing (Numbers 24), isn’t O’Donnell blessing followers of Jesus and providing a great reward in heaven? The truly “radical Christian” thing to do, might just be to email her a “thank you” note!

Humorous approach

In chapter eight, I share how humor effectively connects, comforts, and confronts our readers. (I’ve dubbed my site, “Hope & Humor.”)

Finally, count to nine. “One thousand one, one thousand two . . .” That’s the time you have to turn goldfish from “surfers” to “swimmers” to “bottom-feeders.” (I really need a better metaphor for my third point!)

Go where the fish are biting

Email Newsletters

If you have email, you have the potential for your very own newsletter. For instance, my monthly email goes out to a few thousand subscribers each month. (I use MailChimp which is a free service.)

Collect email addresses from family, friends, co-workers, people you meet at conferences. Many of my subscribers have signed up on my web page.


According to there are a lot of blogs. Click the link for the latest number. (If I posted the number, it would be out of date in five minutes!)

Your blog is whatever you want it to be. Unfortunately, the vast majority tend to be ego-centric and esoteric. The one’s worth following provide helpful, informative content. A few of my favorites are:

The Christian Post (News and views)

Mary DeMuth: Your Life Uncaged (Encouragement)

Seth Godin (Social networking advice)

Relevant Magazine (Christian commentary)

I’ve found the best platform for me is It’s free, very user friendly and has hundreds of tools for designing, marketing and publishing your work. requires you to have your own host and a bit of CMS savvy, but has more features.

Writing for Ezines

Ezines are electronic magazines. There are literally hundreds of Christian e-zines.

Most are strictly home-made and, thus, don’t have any budget to pay authors. But more and more are very professional and actually pay their writers. Most print magazines and newspapers now have online versions such as those published by Christianity Today.

Those e-zines that buy articles list their submission procedures and payment schedules right on their site.

Job Link For Journalists and Craig’s list provides up to the minute online freelance writing jobs.

Writing for Electronic “Book” Publishers

Publishing ebooks seems an easy way to inexpensively get your book out there, but there are serious challenges, such as the concern, “Do online books ever go ‘out of print’?” If not, the publisher owns the rights to the book forever!

Creating Your Own Web Site

I talk about creating your own website Taking the Word to the worldwide Web

Get a fishing licence

The World Wide Web tends to be the "wild west" of publishing with no accountability to editors, fact checkers, and company lawyers. The same rules of print apply (or should apply) to online communications.

As Christians, I believe it’s important to be completely credible, contrary to what Nick Denton wrote on his blog:

      I think it’s implicit in the way that a website is produced that our standards of accuracy are lower. Besides, immediacy is more important than accuracy, and humor is more important than accuracy.

A good print and online journalist should be an “OAF” (adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics).

      • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.

      • Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

      • Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

      • Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

      • Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.

      • Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.

      • Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.

      • Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story

      • Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.

      • Never plagiarize provides some good principles concerning online ethics. I’ve also adapted the new Bloggers’ Code of Conduct for my site.

Here’s my bottom line on writing about my political or theological opponents: Will my reporting draw a person closer to Christ, or drive them farther away?

The same copyright laws that apply to print apply to online writing. (It’s simply easier to download a file and pass it off as one’s own than to photocopy or retype a pirated manuscript.)

Sources of quotations should be credited as in print. Here’s a helpful link from

Online libel is still libel (sort of). It is illegal to spread lies about a person with malicious intent. The CyBarrister provides guidelines for avoiding online libel.

      There are four elements essential to a cause of action for defamation:

      (1) a false and defamatory statement concerning another;

      (2) an unprivileged publication of the statement to a third party;

      (3) if the defamatory matter is of public concern, fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher; and

      (4) damage to the reputation of the plaintiff, whether actual or presumed by law.

      It is especially significant in the cyberspace context that under traditional principles of libel law, a “republisher” who repeats a libelous statement that was first made by someone else may itself be liable for the defamation.

Verify! Verify! Verify! If your mother says she loves you, check it out! Christians should be the most
diligent about maintaining credibility—but are not as evidences by all the emailed urban legends. Click here for verification tools

Numerous Internet sites provide online email etiquette.

Also, DON’T USE CAPS, IT’S CONSIDERED SHOUTING. Remember to verify any information before forwarding it on. And, be sure to use the bcc: for mass emailings. (Besides avoiding that annoying list of addresses, bcc: also protects your mailing list from pirates who can use your mailing list for their perverse purposes.)

Copyright © James N. Watkins

2 thoughts on “How to hook today’s Internet users

  • May 30, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    I enjoy your articles and FaceBook posts. My husband frequently asks what I’m laughing about when I look at Fb, so I read your comments to him. You may remember him. He picked you up at the Kansas City airport several years ago for the HACWN conference, but couldn’t find the church. I think he drove you around–and around–longer than either of you wanted. He didn’t have the exact address and wasn’t able to reach me. Hopefully you don’t hold it against us.

    I edit the Heart of America Christian Writers’ Network newsletter and would like to use some excerpts from this article if I may. Thank you.

    • June 1, 2019 at 4:21 pm

      Yes, I remember that. He was driving a Mini Cooper, right? Yes, you are more than welcome to use any of my articles. Just be sure to attribute and include a link back to Thanks. (I’d love to come back to the conference!)


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