Short is Sweet for Web Copy Writing

You can’t write the same way for the web as you would for a print publication. Site visitors focus differently on the web; they skim rather than read. You can’t change their behavior, so if you want to get your point across, you need to change the way you write.

Survey after survey proves it: it’s more difficult to read online, and even good readers tend to read 25 percent slower from a computer screen than from paper. Add to that the shortened attention spans most people bring to the Internet, and you can kiss the style you brought to writing college research papers good-by. Oh sure, you need to keep the rules of proper grammar and spelling in mind, but you may need to rethink everything else.

For example, look at the paragraph you just read. It’s almost too long for the web. You need to keep your paragraphs somewhat short and punchy. And if you ever learned, like me, that a paragraph should comprise four to six sentences, you need to do some unlearning – and be prepared to break some rules to get your point across.

Ideas about writing for the web go back at least a decade, maybe more. Jacob Nielsen, a former Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer and now a “user advocate” with 79 US patents, has written a number of articles about usability going back at least that far (with many that are more recent). His web site is worth a look, because he frequently talks about how people use the web, which has a direct bearing on how you should write. I draw some of the ideas I’ll be explaining here from some of his work. Many others on the web have expressed similar ideas.

For instance, have you ever heard of the pyramid and inverted pyramid styles of writing? The pyramid style of writing is more academic; most research papers and textbooks are written in this way. Think of it as starting with a basic explanation that may draw in other resources to establish a firm foundation, then building up to more specialized areas and concluding with a short summary of the work.

That’s great for scientists and students, but it’s not the kind of writing you need to do for the Internet. Just as the Internet has turned the world upside down, you need to turn that pyramid upside down to write sensibly for the web. Start with the short summary; think of it as an executive summary if that helps. Then fill things in. Journalists often write this way, putting “who, what, where, when, how and why” in the first paragraph of their articles. Find your inner Clark Kent and get to work.

You play into your online audience’s tendency to skim by making sure they don’t lose too much when they do so. That means cutting out excess words. Don’t put too many words into a paragraph or too many paragraphs on a page. You still need to have good, solid content; strive for between 250 and 500 words per page.

Writing for SEO Chat, I usually try to fit an even tighter margin: 350 to 450 words per page. It takes practice, but it can be done; eventually you get to the point where you barely have to think about it. If you use Word, try using the Verdana font and setting it to 12 point (yes, I’m an old fogie with old eyes); fill one page and you’re about right.

Even with a word count that short, you’ll need to direct your readers’ attention. You can use bullet points and bolded text to help draw their eyes to the most important parts of your article. Headings also help; they’ll give your readers a preview of what will be covered in that section, so they can decide whether they want to skip it or spend some quality time on the subject.

I want to address headings for a moment, because Nielsen made some interesting discoveries about them. If you took any substantive English classes, starting in high school, your teachers hammered you with the idea that you must not use the passive voice. It must be one of the biggest sins of writing. You must not use the passive voice in writing for the web, either – except in section headings.

Why the exception? It goes back to the way people read on the web. In a summary to an entire article devoted to explaining this concept, Nielsen says that “using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and thus SEO effectiveness.”

Nielsen goes on to give a great example of this when he talks about the first draft of a summary he wrote of another column. The summary originally read “Yahoo Finance follows all 13 design guidelines for tab controls, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.” He noted that the summary was well-written, in the active voice, and a complete sentence as opposed to a fragment, but there way no way it would “perform its main job – to attract users who scan SERP listings.” Why? Because such users often only read the first two words – and these first two words would be meaningless to the folks Nielsen wanted to attract.

Nielsen didn’t want to attract people who are interested in Yahoo; he wanted to attract visitors who care about site and application design, who might, for instance, build GUI widgets. The rewritten summary, “13 design guidelines for tab controls are all followed by Yahoo Finance, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization,” may be passive voice, but it puts the main topic of the article at the front – where a potentially interested searcher is most likely to see it.

There are other ways you can and should play to your target audience’s needs. All the way back in 1999, Nathan Wallace published an article about writing for many interest levels. He defined the levels of interest as follows:

• No interest
• Title only
• One sentence summary
• One paragraph summary
• Major points
• Minor points
• Detailed interest
• Thirst for more information

You serve the needs of readers at every level by making sure your writing is clear, concise, and on topic. At the very least, you let them not waste their time and yours when they can quickly determine they don’t have a deeper interest in your subject.

You start getting people who have some interest in reading what you have to say once they hit the one-paragraph summary. You should use this summary to “give people an insight into your information in a few short sentences…you are selling your information, not your article.” If your first paragraph is nothing more than a tease, many readers may not bother to go further. Let them know they’ll sink their teeth into something real if they read further, by giving them something real to start with.

It’s hard to believe I’ve gone this far in an article for SEO Chat and only mentioned keywords once. Your web copy needs to conform to your keyword strategy, of course. Jennifer Norene advocates that you use “your top organic and paid keyword terms in your headers and key paragraphs. Use 2-3 words per page as an emphasis, see how the page does, change and test again.”

When you choose your keywords, you have to consider what the target audience for your web site will call your products and services. If you’re a business serving other businesses in a similar industry, you may be able to get away with jargon. But if you’re selling to consumers, you need to call a spade a spade and not a digging implement. For example, a hotel’s “rack rate” is the price it charges before any discounts are applied. But your typical traveler attempting to reserve a room may never have heard of that term. He’s more likely to use “room rate” or some variant. (For frequent travelers, the mileage may vary).

You know that using the right keywords means that you’re more likely to show up in a good position when searchers are looking for what you have to offer. You should also write compelling copy – not overblown copy, but don’t neglect your calls to action. Norene notes that you should make sure they are “consistent, visually appealing and in easy to click areas so that the visitor can respond quickly and easily.”

And what should you do once you’ve written or rewritten something for the web and posted it on your site? Be patient. You should give the search engines at least a month to index your site’s new content. Then start watching your visitor activity stats. Create more of what seems to be attracting visitors and less of what isn’t. Remember that building a web site is an ongoing process; write your content concisely, for its intended purpose, and you’ll see a good return on your investment. Good luck!

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