Seven steps to great web copy

Lots of people can write for the web. But not everyone does it well and poor copy on your site can be off-putting to new customers. Here’s some easy ways to make your content clearer, more attractive and more easily found by your target audience.

size does matter | say what you mean | don’t forgo the SEO | think link bait | who's your target audience? | take a step back | get a professional in

Size does matter

Perhaps the last time you sat down to write something important was when you were at school, despairing over an essay with an impossibly large word count. Well, it’s good news! Because in web copy it’s best to keep things short.

We read content on the web differently to how we read a book or a newspaper; rather than settling down patiently to read it all line by line we scan the page quickly. looking for key words and phrases to jump out at us.

So if your copy is too long then some of the best bits might get pushed down ‘below the fold’. The reader will have to scroll down the page to see all your content, and if you haven’t grabbed them in the first paragraph then why will they bother?

So take a look at what you’ve written and be honest with yourself. Are you waffling? Repeating yourself? Offering too much information that could be included elsewhere on the site? Writing long-winded sentences that could be broken up into three short snappy ones? Or paragraphs so long that the reader’s eyeballs will ache by the time they reach the end?

Our rule of thumb: cut it in half and say twice as much.

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Say what you mean

If you’re not used to writing copy it’s easy to think that lots of jargon, buzzwords and complicated phrasing will impress people. It won’t. It’s always best to say what you mean.

One way of doing this is to think how you would get your point across to a friend in the pub. Why say:

Going forward we will be utilising the data put forward which suggests that the economic downturn has substantially impacted the market to effectively rework our pricing structure

When this does just fine?

We know everyone’s feeling the pinch - so we’ve lowered our prices

Most places will already have a website or marketing material already in place. Try not to look at this as it will influence the thought process; take a blank piece of paper and start from scratch. You can always take a peek at the marketing brochures afterwards and add in anything you’ve missed.

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Remember, remember, the search engine optimisation

It’s no good having this wonderful website if people can’t find it.

Good search engine optimisation (SEO) means your site is top of the list when people search the internet for your company or the products and services you offer. As well as ensuring the structure of your site complies with the latest sneaky SEO tricks, you can tailor your web copy to ensure that Google doesn’t ignore you (sniff! sniff!). Here’s how:

  • Know your keywords. What is the product you’re promoting - and are you mentioning it the title, image alt text and in the article? After that there’s no need to artificially stuff the page with the word or it’ll be off-putting to the reader.
  • Include plenty of internal links. Search engines have a notion of ‘quality’ which means if lots of people link to a site, then it’s probably of value. Which is why the BBC, CNN, the NHS or Wikipedia come top of the searches so frequently. So don’t just rely on the navigation bar to direct users around your site, include links within the text too. If you’re a retail site, why not include ‘recommended products’ to promote other items you have on offer for example. Or if there’s a particular keyword you want to push, make sure you always direct users to the relevant page.
  • Keep your page size down. Pages over 150k are usually not cached by search engines to reduce load on their servers. A common mistake on small business sites is uploading the original image without resizing it first, so the page includes a massive 5mb image when 15k would have done just fine. Keeping your page weight down makes it quicker for browsers to download, so more people will read it, more people might link to it, more search engines can find it – easy!
  • Make text search-friendly – this means not having it embedded in an image or letting the Head of Marketing blow the budget on a swish Flash intro that no one wants to sit through. Stick to the accessibility guidelines outlined by the WC3 and Webcredible and you won't go far wrong.
  • As for the technical side, this is a really useful resource: Web developer cheat sheet from

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Think link bait

You’ve got the content, but are you displaying it in the most compelling way? Be creative and find ways of making it more useful, more funny or more controversial. Users will forward it to friends, share it on forums and Twitter, talk about it on blogs...all driving traffic your way without you lifting a finger.

This is called link bait. Here’s how you can use it to reel those lovely punters in:

  • Turn a long-winded article into a top five or ten list – much more fun, easily digested and likely to trigger off a debate.
  • Write a blog – a way of talking up your product but in an entertaining and informal way.
  • Offer expert advice, for example a recruitment agency can add value to its website by offering tips on producing a standout CV or impressing at an interview.
  • Use a quiz or poll to hook people in, like a parenting site asking ‘Which celebrity Mum are you?’ or a film site getting you to vote on an actor’s best movie.
  • Tools or widgets can drive lots of traffic to your site. A good example of this is the BBC’s Budget calculator which lets people work out quickly whether they’ll be better or worse off after the annual changes are announced.

Don’t forget to update this content frequently too. If you entice people in with a blog, poll or competition section, then they will expect the content to change regularly. Letting it go stale will have a negative effect on your page rankings.

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Who's your target audience?

Think about who’s coming to your website and make sure you’re using the right tone. The sort of copy you would find on a nightclub website would be a long way from the polite and sensitive tone of, say, an undertaker. Sites in the field of medicine or law demand a high level of clarity and accuracy; indeed these are the sort of places where short snappy sentences suggested above may not be appropriate. Think about your audience and you’ll know what suits.

The nature of the web means that you can expect lots of page views from people with no prior knowledge of your company or the services you are providing. How clearly does your message come across to an accidental audience? Are you using lots of jargon or acronyms that may be unfamiliar? When you say ‘here’ do you expect people to know which location you mean?

Don’t forget you have no control over when people visit the site either. Once the content is live on the site, anyone can read it at any time. That copy you wrote some years ago about ‘the new range of products we’re introducing this summer’? It’ll make no sense to someone reading it on a dark, wet November afternoon three years later.

Make life easy for yourself by avoiding references to time where possible, as you’ll only have to go back and change them later. Or put a date clearly at the top or bottom so people know when it was published.

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Take a step back

Even the most experienced editors benefit from getting someone to proofread their words, and one of the most important things to do before launching your site is to get someone else to look over it.

The beauty of writing for the web is that you can cut and paste or delete whole sections with such ease, but this can lead to lots of human error. Perhaps you’ve accidentally duplicated a whole sentence, or you’ve tweaked a paragraph so many times that it’s no longer got anything to do with what you wanted to say in the first place!

And while your colleague is reading through, get them to click on your links and check they work as well.

Now you’re happy with the text, take a look at the page as a whole.

Does the text read easily on the page, or would it benefit from a few more line breaks, or paragraphs broken down into smaller chunks? How about the balance between pictures and text?

Don't forget to look for any awkward clashes with items you have no control over, like advertising or static content. One remembers how a certain broadcaster on the day of the London bombings had a story feeding through to their homepage promoting an ‘explosive storyline’ in one of their soaps, complete with a picture of a vehicle on fire. What was intended as a dramatic headline looked insensitive when it appeared next to the day’s news stories.

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Get a professional in

Well, we would say that, wouldn’t we!

But who’s writing your web copy?

Is it the web developer? In the same way that not all editors can build great websites, the nice chap putting yours together may not be so great at grammar.

The people in marketing? They may have a knack for producing glossy brochures but will their advertising-speak work on the web?

You? Perhaps you’re a sole trader too busy running your business to find time to sit down and think about the message you want to get across. Or you’re so close to the subject matter that it’s hard to take a step back and see how best to present yourselves.

A professional web copywriter will help you generate business by turning your thoughts and existing marketing material into something brighter, snappier and more attractive to customers.

As well as producing the content for the site they should be able to advise on how to organise it to give the customer the most satisfactory browsing experience. Like many areas of life, it may seem cost-effective to do it yourself but in the long run you’ll be pleased you got a professional in.

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