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Five tips for writing effective website copy

Writing for the web is different from any other form of copywriting and needs special attention.

It’s not just a matter of taking your printed promotional material, grafting it onto your website and hoping it will do the job – because it won’t.

And going on at length about what you have to offer and expecting people will read every word will not work either.

Writing for the web

Follow some basic rules and writing for the web gets a lot easier.

Content marketers like to bang on about web copy that is ‘engaging’ and ‘grabs the reader’s attention’, but this is wishful thinking at best.

After all if your customers are on your website you already have their attention: The hard part is keeping it!

How to write website copy that works

So here are five tips to help you make the best of your business website. We’re not intending to cover everything here – just the basics of how to structure and lay out your website content.

1. Make your text easy to understand

Generally, people will arrive at your business website with a task in mind and want to know if you are the people to do it for them.

Also, most people do not sit and read web pages from top to bottom, savouring every word: They scan pages, eyes darting over the words looking for something that matches what they are looking for.

So your writing needs to be clear and concise, without complicated sentences with ambiguous meanings.

You also need to put the most important points at the top: If you keep people waiting to get to the point the chances are they won’t hang around long enough to find out.

Don’t try to be clever and throw in some puns or other ‘witty’ writing. That sort of thing can get old very quickly, but mainly doesn’t help get your message across.

Make it easy for people and they are more likely to stay around long enough to find out if you can help them.

2. Break up your text

Great big blocks of text are hard to scan and therefore hard to read on a website.

Everyone is time poor these days with a thousand different things competing for our attention. This makes us impatient and blocky text will be skipped over rather than read.

So you need to use short, succinct sentences and lots of paragraphs – ideally one sentence – and one idea – to a paragraph.

You’ll be amazed at how much easier a page is to read if it’s been split up properly.

You can also use headings (heading 1, 2, etc, not just bold text and bigger font size) to break things up, and if you use the right, relevant, words these actually help your page get found on search engines.

3. Go easy on the formatting

Another trap that people fall into is to try to emphasise different aspects in their text, but tests have shown the more you try and make something on a web page stand out, the more you end up hiding it!

Bold text, entire words in capital letters and random big text sizes can all be used to add emphasis, but once you start using them it’s difficult to stop.

If you find yourself doing this, then the chances are there is too much irrelevant stuff in your web page and you need to edit the copy down.

Formatting needs to be consistent and sparse. Don’t use italics (hard to read), underlining (easy to confuse with links), stick to a body text size and font and set heading sizes and use bold very, very sparingly.

4. Keep it short and stick to the point

Information overload normally goes hand in hand with trying to squeeze too much into a web page – it’s a very common problem on small business websites.

We often see business owners go into all kinds of detail their potential customers do not need to know. The end result is visitors are bombarded with too much information and end up taking in nothing.

If you want to take your car in to be fixed by a mechanic you don’t want to know what make of spanners he uses, or for that matter anything about his methods. You just need to know that he is competent to do the job and how much it’s likely to cost.

Yet many business websites are marred by the business going on at length about how they do things when potential customers do not need this information.

If you want to make it easy for your website visitors (and that’s the only way they will stay), keep it short, simple and stick to your essential information.

5. Read it – Then cut it! (Then read it again)

If you are expecting others to read your carefully crafted web copy the least you can do is read through it properly before you press the Publish button. Sadly this doesn’t happen.

Everything that goes on your business website should be read by at least two people first, to make sure it makes sense and doesn’t contain grammatical errors. A spell checker is also a must.

If you can’t get someone else to read your copy, then take a break – overnight at least is good – and come back to it with fresh eyes. Sometimes it’s easier to read through copy that has been printed out.

At this point you should be reading with a view to cutting it down by up to a half. And once you’ve cut it you’ll need to read it again.

If this sounds extreme it isn’t – once you get into practice it’s amazing at how much you can lose and every word you remove will be helping to make your copy more concise – and above all more effective.

More information

Concise, SCANNABLE and objective: How to Write for the Web – Neilsen Norman Group

How to write for the web: BBC News School Report

If you want to hide it, emphasize it: Gerry McGovern – New Thinking

photo credit: RLHyde via photopin cc

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