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Writing Copy for the Web

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There are many web sites that can be described as ‘brochure sites’. Literally the corporate brochure transcribed into web format. So why is this wrong? Simply, because readers approach print and web communication in different ways. If I have your brochure in my hand it is because I want to read it and have allocated time to read it. Whereas on the web I am in information hunter mode; if I don’t find what I want quickly, then in two clicks I am away. The following notes may help you craft original copy to keep the reader interested and motivated to take action.

  1. Less is more. Condense your brochure copy to key points. People are put off by big blocks of text. They need quick confirmation that your web page is relevant to them so they will drill into the web site for more detail.
  2. People power. Focus on the user needs and interest, not those of your organisation. If your readers have different profiles, then consider how to customise content for each group.
  3. Structure. Page headings, sub-headings and bullet points help the reader find the information they want. Key word content needs to be relevant and consistent. Sentences should be short and punchy. Keep paragraphs to four or less sentences. Use links to pages where more detailed information can be given.
  4. Key words and phrases. It pays to research with customers and use online tools to find out what words and phrases users search for. Single word searches are rare so pay special attention to short phrases and build them into page headings, sub-headings and body copy in a natural way. Some experts suggest achieving particular ratios of key words per page. However, it is more important to remember that you are writing for people not machines. If you keep on topic and focus on your readers, you will write naturally key word rich copy.
  5. Keep it simple. Use language appropriate to the reader’s level of knowledge and expectations. Strip out unnecessary text and use a link to another page or pop-up that will give greater explanation that the reader can follow.
  6. Lead with the conclusion. People searching the web are usually looking for answers to specific questions. If you lead with the conclusion you confirm to them that they are in the right place. They will then be willing to examine the explanation and justification that follows.
  7. Test the copy. Test the copy with as many people as possible. Find out if the copy is easily understood and if the links between the sections and ideas are logical. Refine and test again.
  8. Who goes where? Ensure each web page has analytics code such as that provided free by Google. You can then see what page people land on, which pages they go to most. Find out how long they stay on each page. Importantly, know at what point they lose interest and leave. These kinds of tools are capable of serious analysis.
  9. White space. Not always white, but using spacing between page elements helps the reader scan the page more easily. We’ve all been to those web sites that bury themselves in masses of text, all crashed together and totally unreadable. We’ve been there – but we don’t stay long!
  10. Show me. High quality relevant images (pictures, illustrations, infographics or charts) can provide immediate visual confirmation that the reader has found the right place. Well chosen images should be appropriate to the text in addition to making page layouts more attractive. Adding relevant text captions and tags to pictures further reinforces the topic of the page to search engines.
  1. Don’t be coy, clever or a tease in headlines. Headlines and sub-heads need to be clear and explicit about the content. Clever headlines can be pretty dumb because readers may not have the time to work out what you want to say. They may just pass on to the next site. In addition, search engines don’t like them either, because they are looking for key terms that they can index and for some concurrence between the headline and the text that follows.
  2. Don’t repel your reader. There are still sites out there that use garish colours, small white text on black or dark backgrounds, rotating images, irritating animations and scrolling text. These all make it difficult for the reader to easily understand what the site is about and find the information that they want.
  3. Don’t believe inflated SEO promises. There are ‘SEO experts’ out there who promise, for a fee, to push you to the very top of the search rankings. Don’t entertain them. The chances are they may be using techniques deemed illegal by the search engines and that this dodgy manipulation will be found out and the site demoted. Better to follow the rules given by the search engines and ensure content is relevant, key word rich and provides the best possible experience for human readers.
  4. Don’t trawl for information. Part of the role of a web site is to capture reader attention and develop a dialogue. Having a simple response form is fine, but anything more than asking for name, phone, e-mail and the briefest details of what further information they want, will reduce the response rate.
  5. Don’t stand still. Human and robot readers hate to keep seeing the same thing. Web sites are organic and constantly growing and evolving. Add regular press releases, include case studies, consider a blog, think about adding user guides with how-to-do hints and tips. At a deeper level in the site, consider white papers, research reports and access to the heavy stuff that will give you credibility. This gives your readers a good reason to return and a reward for their interest and loyalty.

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