Despite what you may have heard, you don’t need to know a special language to write effectively for a website. It’s only texting teenagers that need to understand emoticons and abbreviations like LOL and PMSL. Coding language like html and CSS are also best left to your web team or IT department.
What you do need to be able to do is write clear, concise, grammatically-correct copy that tells your customers exactly what they need to know and nothing more.
I’ve seen it all in my nine years of writing web content: from illegible copy to long paragraphs that never get to the point, and everything in between. And I’m no saint myself: some of my early website writing attempts were perfect examples of how not to write for the web.
Learn from my mistakes: here are my five dos and don’ts of writing for websites.
DON’T try to baffle people with your writing prowess
If you want to use flowery language and long words, stick to fiction writing.
DO keep your website copy simple and accessible
Did you know that most public-facing websites are written for an average reading age of 12?
If your website is aimed at members of the public (as opposed to businesses or other organisations) then you will need to make your website copy as accessible as possible, even if your ideal customers are educated adults.
People are impatient when browsing the internet, and studies have shown that most people will skim-read a web page until they find what they are looking for. If you’ve written your web page like a Shakespearean play, no one will stick around for long enough to find out what you’re trying to tell them.
A good way to measure the complexity of your web copy is to use the Gunning Fog Index. There’s even a website that will calculate it for you: gunning-fog-index.com. A good score is 12 or below, although bear in mind that not all long words are complicated so a higher score doesn’t necessarily mean your text isn’t accessible.
DON’T write about everything you can think of on the topic
It’s tempting to tell your customers every last detail about your company on your website – after all, if you have a platform you might as well use it. But your customers are there to find out something specific, such as product information or testimonials, and don’t want to scroll through 2,000 words of waffle to get to it.
DO keep it concise and reach your point quickly
Some of the best websites – in my opinion – are also some of the most concise. By removing the excess information and keeping to the point, these websites save people a lot of time and tell them exactly what they need to know.
One example of a website done well is gov.uk. The key points sit at the top of every page and you can scroll down if you want more detail.
This doesn’t mean you should remove all traces of your personality from your website. Far from it. You can still tell your quirky founding story (concisely) on its own page, and why not start a blog and let your personality shine through that?
DON’T stuff your website with keywords to improve its search-engine rankings
Google and other search engines used to place huge emphasis on keywords when ranking pages, irrespective of the quality of the content. This led to some businesses filling their websites with keywords and not a lot else.
Google now penalises this practice, and many of the websites that were once on page one of their search rankings are now several pages in.
Nowadays, the best way to make your content stand out is to make it interesting and useful to your target audience. After all, you’re aiming it at people, not computers.
DO research what other people are searching for and tailor your copy accordingly
Having said all that, people still have to find your website in order to read its content so there should still be an element of search engine optimisation (SEO).
Instead of filling your copy with keywords that don’t even make sense in a sentence, use keywords that would occur naturally in your copy and run them through an online tool such as kwfinder.com to find out what other people are searching for.
For example, if you were writing about marketing plans, you would naturally include the words ‘marketing plan’ a few times on your page. But by running this through a keyword checker, you might find that it’s easier to rank well for ‘marketing strategy’ than ‘marketing plan’ so you would then tweak your text accordingly.
Even if you don’t use keywords anywhere else on your page, make sure that there’s at least one in your page title. Search engines focus on page titles when ranking the page so it’s important that the title relates to the rest of the content on the page.
DON’T leave your customers guessing
While, as I mentioned above, many website owners have trouble keeping their copy concise, I’ve lost count of the number of websites I’ve visited that were missing vital information.
In fact, I’ve just had a look at my local leisure centre’s website and the swimming and fitness class timetables are nowhere to be found.
If you’re going to leave vital information off your website then you might as well not have a website. Either way, you’re going to put customers off.
DO give them ways to find out more information
One of the ways to make sure that your website contains everything that your customers are looking for is to look at your analytics. You can see which pages people look at most and even how long they stay on each page. You can also see what they searched for when they found your website.
If your customers are looking for things that aren’t on your website or aren’t prominent on there, consider making some changes.
You may also want to include relevant information that already exists on another site. Instead of writing it out in full, you can use a link (as I have just done).
Try not to use too many links on a page because this looks messy and takes customers away from the page they’re reading. You may want to consider creating a useful links page where you can store links to all the relevant websites that your customers would find helpful.
DON’T write long paragraphs
As we’ve already seen, holding people’s attention is a huge challenge when it comes to web copy, and I can guarantee that most of your would-be customers will be turned off if you use long paragraphs on your website.
And it’s even worse when your font is so small they have to lean into the screen to read it.
Your favourite novel may contain page-long paragraphs but unfortunately that just won’t cut it when writing for the web.
DO format your page to make it easy to read
You should make it as easy as possible for your customers to skim through the content on your website to find what they’re looking for.
I know, in an ideal world they would spend hours on your site and read every carefully-selected word. Unfortunately that’s not going to happen, but that’s ok. As long as they leave with the information they were looking for, and hopefully a useful nugget or two that they weren’t, then your web copy has done its job.
As well as shortening your paragraphs, you will need to make some adjustments to the formatting and layout of your web page In order to cater to your customers’ skim-reading needs.
Look at ways to break up your text even more. Use subheadings to arrange your copy into sections and bullet points or numbered lists to organise your points on the page. Larger fonts work well on websites – try arial 14 or 16px.