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Lost on a Web Site

I just received an email response from an online company. I had visited their site, wanting to buy a gift certificate for my husband. But I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Was a gift certificate considered a product? If so, would it be in their online catalog? Because I couldn’t figure out how to buy a gift certificate (and because, like most shoppers, I did not want to work too hard for the information), I had clicked Contact and emailed them asking how to buy a gift certificate.

The polite response was classic:

Gift Certificates can be purchased online by visiting our web site at www. . . . They are available in $25, $50, $100, and $300 denominations.

I had said "Please send information on how I can purchase a gift certificate." The response was "on our web site." But "on our web site" is where I had come from. Where on the web site? How?

The writer did give me another option–to phone her–but I would have appreciated the "how" instead.

I returned to the web site. After a couple of minutes I realized I could type "gift certificate" in the product search box. Now I know how to order what I want.

The issue is "on our web site." As business writers, we must recognize that customers and clients do not know our site navigation the way we do. It is not obvious to them. Unless what they want is offered clearly and boldly on our home page–or is named in a link from the home page–they just get lost. We need to provide them with a direct link or specific instructions.

For example, if the email I received had said "Click this link and type gift certificate in the search box," I would have known what to do. But a link directly to the gift certificates would have been faster.

As business writers, let’s change "on our web site" to "on our web site right here." But let’s only do that if we want to stay in business.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

One comment on “Lost on a Web Site”

  • Not all web designers can afford usability testing. However, anticipating the customer’s needs and questions is similar to the writer’s task. Don’t assume they already know what you know, and put yourself in their shoes while you plan, design, and write. Thanks for another excellent tip, Lynn.

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