Blurbs: Writing Previews of Web Pages

Jerz > Writing > E-text

Blurbs are brief summaries of what a reader will find on the other end of a hyperlink. Good blurbs don’t harangue (“Click here!”) or tease (“Learn ten great tips.”); instead, they provide a useful sample of the target page, so that a user can make an informed decision about whether to click.

On the web, a blurb is a line or short paragraph (20-50 words) that evaluates (or at least summarizes) what the reader will find at the other end of a link.  A good blurb should inform, not tease.  Usability testing will help you determine the best way to lay out your blurbs, but this document will help you write the content. Good blurbs actually provide a sample (or at least suggest the tone) of what’s on the other end of the link.

  1. Introduction: Writing Blurbs
  2. Avoid Fluff and “Marketese”
  3. Evaluate or Summarize (Don’t Just Tease)
  4. Know Your Audience


1) Introduction: Writing Blurbs

The Internet would be a much friendlier place if it had more (and better) blurbs.  Blurbs may be short, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to write.

The blurb is a short summary of a web document.  It is not actually part of the document — the blurb goes on other pages, in the table of contents, or as part of a list of excerpts culled from the Internet by feed readers. (Advanced tip: If you put a blurb in the “description” metatag of your page, it will appear in the result pages generated by some search engines.)

The title (no longer than 8 or 10 words) typically jumps off the page and catches the reader’s attention; good titles emphasize the subject words for which a reader (or a search engine) might be hunting.  Good blurbs encapsulate the content and, if possible, the tone of the associated document, in about 20-50 words. A short quote from the introduction of the site often works well as part of a blurb.

Title Hypertext Essays: How to write them
People have spent hundreds of years figuring out how to write a good prose essay.  But literary experts have only been working with hypertext for a short time.
Blurb

Just as flipping through a magazine or book helps you determine whether you want to open up your wallet, a reader checks the blurb in order to decide whether to invest time in clicking on the associated link. Marketers consider a blurb to be a failure if it doesn’t entice the visitor to click, but technical writers should aim to help visitors to avoid links that won’t help them.

Why are blurbs important? For starters, good blurbs can help your readers navigate your site. In addition, creating an annotated list of links is a relatively painless way to provide value to your readers.  Use your specialized knowledge to help you identify external resources on your topic, and write a helpful, thoughtful blurb for each link that you found.  If your blurbs really do help your readers save time, and if your list is regularly updated, readers may bookmark it, and return to it later.  (Suddenly, you may find yourself with an audience, as well as a platform from which to sell your services, agitate for political change, opine about your favorite TV shows, etc.)

2) Avoid Fluff and “Marketese”

Fluff, like the lint that gathers in your pockets, is a nearly weightless, utterly useless material.  Link titles and blurbs that do not inform are fluff, because they add to the clutter of the Internet, without
delivering anything of value to anyone. (See Strunk: “Omit needless words.”  See also a critique of the marketese in a Jupiter Research press release.)

Jerz’s Essay
Here’s an amusing essay that my professor wrote; I hope you enjoy it.
The above blurb has done a miserable job of presenting the content and the tone of the article on the other end of the link.

  • The actual title of the article is “The Jerz Family Name: A Prickly Question.”  The blurb uses a different, far less informative, far less useful title.
  • The blurb calls the article “amusing,” but doesn’t provide any evidence to support that claim. (See: “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.“)
  • The blurb gives no sample of what’s to be found on the other side. Few people will jump at the chance to click the link — unless they happen to know me, and for some reason are curious about my writing. Your web site will likely attract the attention of strangers, who would appreciate enough information to make their own decisions.
Maybe The Jerz Family Name: A Prickly Question
Feeling grouchy and surly because the Polish sausage lady laughed at his name, Dennis Jerz learns that Jez is Polish for “porcupine,” and also a nickname for “a grouchy, surly person.”
The above version presents the content of the article adequately, but it’s not a good blurb, because it’s a spoiler — it gives away the joke about the name “Jerz” (which is really all the article has to offer). (In all honesty, I wasn’t really all that upset at the time; but I exaggerated my impatience for the stake of the story.)
The Jerz Family Name: A Prickly Question
Dennis Jerz asks a street vendor about the meaning of his name: “The sausage lady averted her eyes… her shoulders were shaking, and she was trying to keep a straight face. I rolled my eyes.  Oh no, not again…
This version repeats a few key passages from the original, adding a few lines and using boldface selectively. This version is a teaser (see below) — it promises, but does not actually deliver, the answer to a question. Since the document being teased is simply a short personal essay, that’s probably OK.

Marketese is the overblown, adjective-addicted, hyperventilating language that carnival barkers or amateur web authors employ when they are trying to attract a crowd.  Don’t mistake a wordier blurb for a more substantial one.

The Amazing Mystery of the Jerz Family Name
A timeless encounter between a starving author and the mysterious ethnic woman who holds the priceless key to the inscrutable mystery that has plagued him for years.
We have all been burned too many times by the extravagant claims of junk e-mailers or web advertisements. Use plain language, not wild hyperbole, if you want to earn your readers’ trust, not just grab their eyeballs.

3) Evaluate or Summarize (Don’t Tease)

A good web blurb should make a clear, simple statement about what you will find on the other end of a link. A teaser is just tantalizing promise that more information will follow.

The TV news anchor is “teasing” when he or she says, “Coming up after the break, we’ll have the latest weather forecast so that you can find out whether your weekend plans will be rained out.” Everyone knows that if the anchor tells you want you want to know right away, you won’t stick around to watch the commercial.

Because web visitors can choose what to click next (including the “Go Back” button), teasers don’t work very well online. A teaser that sets up a joke may be perfectly appropriate on an entertainment or personal website (“Two more weeks of hell and I will be free!”) ; but an informative blurb shouldn’t just tease.

Find out what Dale Dougherty thinks about usability guidelines.
The above blurb has the virtue of being short, but is hardly useful — a blurb shouldn’t order me to click; it should help me decide whether I want to.
Yes Dale Dougherty cringes whenever usability crushes creativity.
The revision uses no more space, but previews the content on the other end of the link — in this case, by presenting a controversial claim.  It’s still a teaser, but it uses emotionally charged words (“cringes,” “crushes”) to pique the reader’s interest; it does not merely bark an order (e.g. “click here!”).
Yes Invasion of the Usability Experts: Gurus annoy Dale Dougherty.
Yes Dale Dougherty resists the Invasion of the Usability Experts
These versions provide just a hint of content, but a few choice words put distinctly different spins on Dougherty’s article.  (Note that the link is simply the title of the article.)

Summary is a neutral encapsulation or description of the content of the linked page.

Yes Invasion of the Usability Experts
Dale Dougherty rejects sound advice from usability experts.
Yes Invasion of the Usability Experts
Dale Dougherty protects creative designers from misapplied statistics.
The two versions above offer conflicting summaries of the article on the other end of the link.  See how much meaning you can pack into even a short blurb?

Evaluation helps the reader determine the value of information on the other end of the link. Few people bother to post links to worthless pages; but different authors may post links for different reasons. Bloggers in particular enjoy giving their opinions on the value of the material on the other end of the link. Depending on the purpose of your site, you might want to go even further.

Yes Invasion of the Usability Experts
Dale Dougherty issues a welcome wake-up call to the minions who bow and scrape before the “usability-or-death” philosophy that crushes online creativity.
Yes Invasion of the Usability Experts
Dale Dougherty thinks his readers are simply too stupid to understand his brilliant website. Non-experts (that is, most of the human race) are beneath his contempt.
Once again, the above blurb examples make contradictory statements, but they are both examples of good blurbs.

Even short blurbs can evaluate.

Yes Invasion of the Usability Experts
Dale Dougherty strikes a welcome blow against Nielsen’s minions.
Yes Invasion of the Usability Experts
You are too stoopid to appreciate designers like Dale Dougherty.

4) Know Your Audience

Good web designers must think visually; good writers must think verbally. Plenty of boring websites are popular due to well-written content; but even the best design can’t save bad writing. Where does your document fall on that continuum?

Even if you use a design template right out of the box, your style of linking to other pages is an important component of your site’s design. If your reader is disappointed by a link that you recommended, then the credibility of your entire website will suffer.  (Bad dot-com… no browser bookmark for you!)

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two
This web site explains the origin of the “seven plus or minus two” rule — an important, but often misunderstood, rule of technical communication.
This blurb is not informative. In order to learn anything at all about the number seven, I will have to follow the link. In addition, the blurb is possibly misleading. The article on the other end of the link is a psychological study — someone attracted to the link because of the words “technical communication” in the blurb would likely be disappointed. (The first rule of writing is: “Know your audience.”)
The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two
Have you heard that the mind remembers only seven things at once? Is that why there are seven days of the week, seven deadly sins, and seven wonders of the world? The answer may surprise you.
Don’t Just Tease: This version is a “teaser” — it talks about content, but it doesn’t actually deliver any.  Use the teaser with caution. Busy people rarely enjoy being teased; but if the purpose of your site is to entertain, amuse, or shock, then it’s sometimes appropriate to surprise the reader with something unusual.
The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two
Miller’s classic 1956 memory study shows that most people can’t remember more than seven things at once. “Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.”
This version not only delivers the answer to the puzzle, but evaluates the article — it’s called a “classic,” and the blurb includes a quote that illustrates the rather quirky tone of this essay. The addition of the author’s name, the date of the article, and the bold passage all offer clues that help the reader decide whether to follow the link.

Layout Tip for Newbies

FrontPage automatically skips a blank line whenever you hit [Enter], creating a vertical gap that visually separates the link from the blurb. You can close that gap by
pressing [Shift + Enter] instead.

 

World Trade Center: Literary & Cultural Reflections on the Disaster [Enter]

“Skyscrapers in general, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in particular, symbolize, for many writers, either prideful arrogance, or a new technological beauty.”

There’s too much space between the linked text and the blurb.

 

 

World Trade Center: Literary & Cultural Reflections on the Disaster [Shift + Enter!]
“Skyscrapers in general, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in particular, symbolize, for many writers, either prideful arrogance, or a new technological beauty.”
Now the linked text is right on top of the blurb.

05 Feb 2001 — first posted

22 June 2001 — minor revisions

19 Apr 2003 — added new examples

09 Jul 2004 — minor tweaks


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