The Differences Between Print & Websites as Media


This section is admittedly a bit tedious and lengthy.

My apologies in advance!

That being said, it needs to be.

Otherwise, you may not grasp the importance of certain concepts regarding writing for the Internet.

First, we’ll lay a foundation by contrasting print vs. websites as media platforms.

Printed output is consumed by physically picking up a printout and reading it. Easy, peasy!

We are also well-acquainted documents being physical objects limited to a specific location. They must be physically present to be read, classified, stored, or disposed of when they become obsolete. Such locations range in size from a stack of papers on your desk to a built-in file drawer with folders to entire libraries. The larger the storage venue, the more complex categorization method is required to find and retrieve them. In other words, we don’t need to use a library’s Dewey Decimal System for our personal file drawers, but tabs on the file folders work just fine.

Physically transferring a printed document from Point A to B requires one or more human delivery agents (all costing time and money). A a-now-almost-obsolete FAX machine is virtually instantaneous, but only at the expense of image degradation affecting visual quality and readability.

Titles, headings and subheads are used to break up the text on each page to make it more “readable” to readers by subdividing content into topically-related blocks. Visual emphasis is added through color, punctuation, formatting, boldfacing and/or italicizing text. Images, diagrams, and illustrations can be inserted to further emphasize or illustrate the message being conveyed. Tables display certain kinds of supporting data to make that more readable. Bullet lists emphasize individual points. Numbered lists portray processes or ingredients. And so on and so forth.

In the print industry, there are scientifically proven “best-practices” used by professionals ensure maximum readability under various conditions.

The technical evolution of print production since Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the 1400s is irrelevant to our discussion. The latest such tool at our disposal, a word processing app, absolutely is.

As you already know, word processors were originally invented to replace typewriters as the primary generator of printed documents. The original systems invented back in the 1970s cost thousands of dollars and could fill a room. As the technology has matured, prices fell and capabilities increased. Now, every macOS system comes with a quite nice one (Pages) entirely for free, for example. Though originally limited to print, such apps have other output options these days.

People who constantly use word processing apps leverage two universal features. Those features are called “templates” and “stylesheets.” These standardize the visual “look-and-feel” of a printed page regardless of the content which of course varies from document to document.

Case-in-point: when I open my Miscellaneous Ramblings letterhead template in Pages on my Mac, that template has predefined margins and locations for various standard visual/textual elements, such as my logo, motto, address block, phone number, website address, email address, and so on. Stylesheets within that template also define how text (typeface, font-size, line spacing, paragraph spacing, etc.) and other visual elements will appear on each page. All this ensures every business letter I send out adheres to the same visual and quality standards, regardless of any given letter’s contents or intended recipient.

II. A Website (specifically, a Blog)

Blog software does all this and more, but in different ways.

A. How Blog Articles are Consumed

The first major difference is rather than documents being output to a printer, the Internet works using a “client-server” architecture.

  • An article’s web address (URL) is selected by site visitors either by typing it into their web browser (the “client”) on their electronic devices (computers, tablets, phones, etc.) or clicking on a link in another page. Browsers include Safari, Brave, Chrome, Firefox, and Edge, to name a just few).
  • A dedicated computer called a “server” located somewhere else in the world receives that address over the Internet
  • The server verifies the request’s validity, then retrieves the information required to display the webpage, including its content and formatting.
  • It sends that information back to the requesting browsers.
  • Those browsers interpret the article’s content and formatting, then display it, hopefully in a sufficiently visually appealing manner designed to ensure people read it all.

Any webpage at any given URL is available to anyone in the world at any time of day 24/7/365 as frequently as they wish to view it.

Whenever we send out one of our articles to a visitor’s browser, our server takes not only what we have written, but through the use of WordPress templates and stylesheets, makes each article appear as part of a visually cohesive whole. Just like any well-designed magazine or newspaper has a consistent look-and-feel to it, both from issue to issue and page to page, so do well-crafted websites. Go to any page on Miscellaneous Ramblings and you will see exactly what I’m talking about.

B. How Blog Articles are Categorized, Stored, and Retrieved

As I just described, our articles are categorized and stored electronically on a publicly accessible server rather than in a private filing cabinet or computer, This is done using a database (a specialized set of electronic files designed for this purpose) as well as a bunch of other software required to create, update, store, retrieve, transmit, and delete items from it (in our case, WordPress) as well as all the other under-the-hood stuff required to make the server work.

C. How Blog Articles are Found by Readers

This leads us to the second major difference between print and web: how do you find stuff on the Internet? Rather than looking in a filing cabinet for a document, or a shelf on a library, we use a search engine like Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, or Yahoo to find what we want. These are dedicated websites serving the same function as the old-school card catalogs we used to find in libraries.

To obtain the information they need to do this, search engines send out robotic programs which read and index every word and every image on every website in the world. This takes place constantly 24/7/365 (it is entirely possible such a “bot” is indexing Miscellaneous Ramblings even as you read this).

1. What Search Engines Do & How They Work

Search engines use something called an “algorithm” (an extremely complicated mathematical formula) to evaluate the quality of every website on the Internet. Their algorithm has been programmed to know what a well-designed, properly written website should look like. Then they sort websites according to the grade awarded with the highest-ranking sites at the top of the list and descending from there.

It’s a lot like school cafeterias with the cool-kids’ tables and the outcasts’ tables. Well-designed, well-written, frequently-updated sites get to sit at the cool-kids tables, specifically the first few pages of search results for any given search term. Everyone else sits at the outcasts table, only being seen by folks so determined to find some kind of information, they will wade through page after page after page of listings to find what they want.

Page 1 of any search engine’s results is the coolest-of-the-cool-kids table; this is the place everyone wants to be seen. Think prom king and queen territory. This is also much like a printed newspaper which always displays the most important story for any given issue “above the fold” on Page 1. The search engine equivalent is being on Page 1 of Google’s search results.

2. Search Engine Optimization

As a result of all this, there is an entire discipline within the web development profession devoted to maximizing a website’s potential to be at the cool-kids table. That specialty is called Search Engine Optimization (aka SEO). SEO experts constantly analyze the grading formulas employed by the various search engines (most notably Google) and then help websites try to “game the system” so their sites will get closer and closer to the front page of that engine’s results. Search engine companies know they’re getting gamed this way, so they change their formulas every so often to shake things up a bit. SEO gurus analyze those changes, then adjust their gaming accordingly. Back and forth, cat and mouse ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

A significant portion of a search engine’s evaluation of a website is the site’s proper usage of HTML’s formatting tools and these factors have not changed much over time. Those items have evolved into the “best practices” for the World-wide Web.

Best practices cannot be ignored without penalty.

3. What is HTML & What Does it Do?

HTML is the page layout language of the Internet, the foundation of the WorldWideWeb from its very inception.

HTML not only controls which items appear on a page, but also how those items are visually organized (headings, subheads, paragraphs, tabular information, pictures, diagrams, illustrations, numbered and bulleted lists, and citations from external sources. It also defines how text is emphasized (boldface, italics, underline, strike-through, captions, superscript, and subscript, etc.)

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) control how those elements are visually formatted; Javascript controls how the page responds to our interactions with that page to perform various tasks, such as filling out a form or buying something.

All three of these languages define your user experience every time you visit a website.

Just like any given magazine or newspaper has a look-and-feel to it, so do websites. Whenever we load a web page, our browser takes all that HTML and through the use of templates and CSS, makes each page look like it is part of a visually cohesive whole, specifically the entire website. Go to any page on Miscellaneous Ramblings and you will find each page formatted with consistent (and hopefully intuitive) functionality.

III. Why All This Matters

I said all that to say this: how you format your articles has far deeper implications than merely how it looks to your eye and whether it scratches your creative itch or not.

It also affects SEO. Since we want the widest possible readership, SEO matters.

So will be times when I edit one of your articles where I might change the HTML elements you have chosen to emphasize something. In such cases, I’m both ensuring the article meets best practices of readability as well as ensuring we optimize our SEO.

Please trust me in this!

I’ve been at this Internet thing for 30 years or so — I’m not simply being arbitrary, eccentric, or proclaiming my aesthetics are somehow superior to yours. Applying that 30 years of experience here is designed to keep us from shooting ourselves in the foot SEO-wise.