Blog: Copywriting for the web

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010
Posted in Posted in Copywriting for the web, General


I’ve been chuckling to myself ever since seeing this billboard outside Barclays Bank in Ladbroke Grove. Now, I know that with a bit of patience, you can understand it, but my, what a mishmash at first sight. “Were”, it begins, putting your mind on totally the wrong track, and then, dispensing with punctuation altogether, it crams in a few further thoughts.

The funny thing is, you’d expect Barclays, that most renowned of banks, to be more careful about its professional image. Well, clearly, somewhere between the copywriter and the builders, the message got lost. Builders aren’t renowned for their grammatical pedantry – well, why should they be? They concentrate on the building.

To those who care about such things as apostrophes and grammar, however, it will affect a small erosion of the brand’s image. It’s worth a thought. As a small business owner, you yourself might be quite comfortable with the thought that your signage – and indeed your website – contains a few prime examples of the so-called “grocer’s apostrophe”.

Your customers may well care, though. And if they do, they may go to your more professional-seeming competitor who happens to have all his commas in the right place. If you care about your brand image, you need to care about grammar. And if being, perhaps, a builder, or a grocer, or from some other trade where you certainly know what you’re doing, but copywriting isn’t part of the required skillset, that means you need to employ a professional copywriter.

Our copywriters wouldn’t necessarily know how to erect a billboard or choose a prime cabbage, but they certainly know how to polish your prose for you.


Now, we’re not going to name names here, but we recently came across a Help page on a website that began “Is funding available?”. The answer was no. “Are there any grants?” Again, no. We couldn’t help feeling that we’d stumbled across a curmudgeonly corner of the web.

The rest of the page was a kind of brain-dump of several links and pieces of information which, while unarguably useful to those who need it, was rather hard to wade through.

I can understand the approach. If the fact that this body does not provide funding or grants is the number one question they answer most often, and which wastes most of their time, of course, they want to make that information prominent. Equally, it allows those who do need funding to spend only two seconds on the page before looking elsewhere for what they need.

But there are better ways to organize a Help page – ways that will enhance your business’ image as well as being genuinely useful to your users.

The first thing to do is to step outside the mindset of your own office. You already know everything about your product or business: of course, you do. Unfortunately, the human brain is often ill-equipped to view things outside its own experience: if you know what all those acronyms stand for, it’s all too easy to assume that everyone does.

So, how best to find out what your users need to know? There are a few ways. You could check your site’s Search log for queries such as “meaning of xxx”, or even to find if folk continually search for a product you do not provide, or which is hard to find on your site. Search gives valuable clues to what your website does not make clear.

Then, speak to your response staff. Whether they are replying to emails or answering the phone, they are in daily contact with your customer and know best what they need.

Finally, it’s always worth conducting user testing. There are companies that will do this for you, and provide a report on what users found most perplexing. If that is too expensive, observing just a small sample of users attempting to conduct simple tasks on your website will teach you a lot.

Once you know what needs to be answered on your Help page, group your replies by topic and give them clear headings. If there is a lot of information, break it up and provide sub-navigation. Make sure the titles you give each section are genuinely helpful – and if you are not sure, user-test again. Finally, make sure that the pertinent Help results come up in a site search.

Help pages can be crucial to a website’s success: they can calm frustrated users, and act as an index for lazy surfers. They are worth putting a lot of time and effort into. On the other hand, they can also be seen as an admission of failure: a perfect site would not need one. The question is, how many of us can say we have the perfect site?!

Friday, August 21st, 2009
Posted in Posted in Copywriting for the web, Managed SEO, Meta Tags

The devil's advocate
The devil’s advocate

As a copywriter and online editor, I’ve always considered it my duty to ensure that the text I publish online is absolutely correct. I double check for grammar errors and misspellings, and I’d be mortified if one slipped through. After all, I am representing my brand, and a professional image can be badly dented by sloppy writing.

Imagine my shock, then, when an SEO professional suggested to me that I might want to introduce a few common errors into my web copy. Admittedly, he was playing devil’s advocate, but there was a logic behind his stance, which was as follows:

People use their most lax English when they’re online, unobserved. Almost always, folk are in a rush to get off the search engine and onto their destination, so typos are commonplace. Add into the mix the fact that the greater population may not aspire to the high standards of spelling and grammar that we editors may impose upon ourselves. Indeed, spend any time with the log files of your website, and you’ll see many highly, erm, creative spellings of your keywords.

Consider, if you will, the famous film It’s A Wonderful Life. A quick glance at Amazon’s auto-suggest search box reveals that it’s as likely to be searched for with that crucial apostrophe in ‘It’s’ as it is without, no matter how much that might make us grammar-pedants cringe. So the question is, should you optimize both for those who would never dream of missing out an apostrophe, and those who drop it like a hot potato?

Personally, I do not have any problem with putting both variants into my metadata, where it need never be seen by anyone other than a search engine’s crawl-bot. The thought of deliberately including such an error on my web page’s copy, though, is quite a different matter. And yet, to optimize properly for those who miss it out, that is the suggestion.

It’s A Wonderful Life is just one example, and perhaps not a terribly important one. The issue becomes more complex when you consider foreign languages with their accents and umlauts and so forth: hasty typists will leave them off, but does that mean that they would be comfortable to see webpage copy reflecting their own lazy typing habits?

To take this concept to its extreme, would you deliberately introduce misspellings of your own brand name on your site? I’m guessing that the answer is certainly not. Ultimately, I suspect that introducing misspellings is the strategy of someone who prizes SEO above all else – because it is his job to do so – while it’s equally a strategy that a careful editor would never accept. Where would you stand?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009
Posted in Posted in Copywriting for the web, Managed SEO

Are you one of those people who uses twenty words when two will do?

Verbosity can be a great asset on the shop floor. However, if you are the one responsible for writing the copy for your business’ website, you may find that you’re not getting as many leads as you’d like. Chatting away to your customers in real life can give them a warm, cared-for feeling, but when it comes to websites, less is more.

It’s a peculiar fact that the majority of people read websites at a cracking pace. Something about the infinite number of possible links to click on, perhaps, gives us a sense of urgency. In the early days, marketers simply took the copy from their print brochures and put it online, but they soon discovered that what works on paper simply isn’t as effective on-screen.

Website users want you to cut the waffle. They’d like to be told what to do, and in as few words as possible. In theory, that’s simple, but just you try it: it’s a real art. Go through your text and cut out any repetitions you find. Labyrinthine figures of speech should go. Sentences with multiple clauses should be shown the door. Often, it pays to cut out the first paragraph or two altogether.

The trouble is, folk get attached to their own prose. It’s hard to see it dispassionately. The answer, then, maybe to hire a professional copywriter – and not just any copywriter: an online specialist. They are adept at saying exactly what needs to be said, in as few words as possible.

And now, I’m off to edit this post to half its length.

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