Web copywriting

Various attempts to explain why Web copywriting is a unique, challenging skill.

Yet another handy Google app

I’ve been using Google Voice for a while now to record phone interviews for Web copywriting. Usually I’m capturing accurate quotations or how someone talks so I can ghost-write a blog post or first-person bio.  You have to have a Google account and get a unique Google Voice number so people can call you (not vice-versa) and Google can alert them when you start recording. The result is a no-frills list of your recordings on your Voicemail page that you can annotate to make an easily readable index. Fast forward and reverse in playback are kinda klunky, but you get used to it.

Google Voice interface - recorded call.

Google Voice interface – recorded call.

And Google Voice does a lot more than just record calls.

What’s Your Style?

Every organization that publishes on the Web should use an editorial style guide approved by whoever is ultimately responsible for the quality of the organization’s content. No matter what size your business is or what business you’re in, an editorial style guide will:

  • save you time and money by avoiding internal disputes about grammar, punctuation and spelling;
  • help you make sure all your content (not just Web content) is consistent;
  • improve the quality of your Web content—help you communicate more clearly and powerfully with site visitors.

Most organizations use either The Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style (for more scholarly content). Many more editorial style guides are available for different industries, countries, professions, and media (check out this extensive list on Wikipedia). Savvy, mature organizations usually supplement a published guide such as the AP Stylebook with an “in-house” guide that covers spellings, punctuation and usage unique to their business or industry. Those internal guides should be regularly updated and approved as new editorial issues arise.

And please note that I’m talking about editorial style guides here, not graphic design style guides (fonts, color specifications, ‘look and feel’) etc. Editorial style guides should also avoid wading into ‘voice and tone’ requirements, branding issues, editorial workflows, personas, competitive analyses and other content development policies that are much more useful in higher-level content or marketing strategies developed for specific Web projects.

Beware jargon

Consulting recently on a talent agency’s “skillmap” for copywriters, I said that good copy should be “jargon-free.” A colleague disagreed, said jargon “can often help establish rapport with a niche target audience,” especially in a situation where non-specialists are trying to show specialists they can ‘talk the talk’.

If you take most dictionary definitions of “jargon” literally, she’s right – jargon is useful and efficient for communication within exclusive groups, neither good nor bad in itself. And sometimes an outsider, if they’re really good, can get away with ‘talking the talk’. But far more often jargon is used to impress outsiders (“we’re in the know; you aren’t”) or feign insider status or expertise that the writer or speaker doesn’t have, so it narrows the audience and degrades into lingo that even the insiders don’t understand. Scott Berkun (one of my favorite thinkers about the digital realm) makes that point nicely in this blog post, “Why Jargon Feeds on Lazy Minds”: http://scottberkun.com/2012/why-jargon-feeds-on-lazy-minds/.



Now available! Content Pain Relief (CPR)™

Does the writing on your website make you feel drowsy, confused? Do you get headaches when you even think about improving it? Do you experience shortness of breath when you realize that the writing on your competitors’ sites is much more engaging, clear, concise, informative?


You need CONTENT PAIN RELIEF (CPR)™–now, before you lose more site visitors! Use this chart to get started…

CPR Diagnostic Chart

Content Pain


Your copy reads like an impersonal, predictable advertisement, not one side of a friendly, personal conversation… and you haven’t updated it in months (years?)! Read through your entire site—identify copy you need to update or trash, and think of anything new you need to add– then methodically work on editing it all as needed.
Typos, missing words, confusing punctuation, misspellings Again – proof-read the whole site. Then make sure you’re using a common editorial style guide (The Associated Press Stylebook, for example)
Big blocks of text and long sentences that are hard to read, confusing punctuation Edit those sections to allow quick scans of headlines and text; add sub-heads; break text up into tables, bullet lists, shorter paragraphs; use punctuation that’s easier to see on a computer display (e.g. dashes, not colons).
Monotonous, self-absorbed voice weakened by marketing jargon and clichés Think again about who your best customers are and the basic, most valuable things your company is offering them—then write as if you’re having a friendly, open conversation with them about your products and/or services.
Content ‘flow’ (site navigation) doesn’t match site visitors’ actual (sequential) use of the site, doesn’t guide them through the site, help them find the information they need or do what they want to do on your site. Think again about who your most important users are, try to imagine how they use our site – or (much better!) actually watch a few of them use your site and/or review your site’s analytics (Google Analytics, for example) – then adjust your site architecture (structure, navigation) and content organization as needed.
Copy not optimized for search engines (SEO) Identify most popular, least competitive search terms, insert in title tags (most important!), URLs, meta descriptions, headers, anchor link labels, alt tags (images – clickable only). Add links to external sites where appropriate; engage in social media and other online outreach to build legitimate inbound links.
Limited budget for developing and maintaining high-quality Web copy Maximize your bang-for-buck: hire an experienced, reasonably priced Web writer and content strategist.
Don’t know where to begin Call me (305-432-1720) or email me (john@wyriwyg.com) to get started!


Web copywriting like motocross riding

I used to see most writing, including Web copywriting, as a stack of cargo nets I fell through one after the other until I reached a level where I said what I really meant. Now I see it more like a slippery hill with a mud puddle at the bottom and I’m on a motocross bike trying to get up it, revving and spinning and charging and falling back, charging again, losing my balance, falling over, finally getting up and over. In other words, any writer worth his/her salt will tell you that writing is hard work that almost always gets better with each rewrite–always with a deadline firmly in mind. Here’s evidence of one acclaimed novelist’s muddy uphill struggle:

"Crash" (J.G. Ballard) manuscript page

J. G. Ballard (British writer) manuscript page for “Crash” (1973)

Dances with machines

Optimizing this site for search engines (SEO) yesterday, I was more aware than ever that I was changing my writing, often for the worse, so it would be easier for machines (i.e. Google) to understand. The application I used as my SEO adviser wanted me to:

  • Repeat my main keyword for each page as much as possible on that page (good Web copywriting doesn’t repeat the same words too much—to avoid the semantic carry-over ‘baggage’ of each occurrence and keep readers nourished with fresh words).
  • Use the main keyword in my page title and sub-heads  so search “bots” (robots) can more easily understand what the page or post is about  (good copywriting uses page titles and headlines or chapter titles to grab attention, intrigue readers, lead them into the writing that follows, not just matter-of-factly announce the main subject matter–boring!)
  • Keep my sentences short, no matter what (good writing varies sentence length to keep readers singing along with the sounds and rhythms of easygoing human language)
  • Avoid words with too many syllables, no matter what (good writing is precise, and sometimes a longer word packs a lot more, richer meaning per character and resonates more in your mind than a shorter, fuzzier one)
  • Include as many outbound links as possible (good writing, and Web copywriting in particular, doesn’t distract you by frequently suggesting that you read something else)
  • Avoid so-called “stop words”  in key words and page titles–words that make The Machine return too many results and/or too many irrelevant results.

“Stop words”

That last bit of advice about “stop words” really got me. “Consider removing them,” said the plug-in, sounding like Hal 9000, the rogue computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”). Here’s a snippet from just one of countless “stop word” lists:

stop words

And that’s just A through F… The list goes on. And many stop word lists are much longer. It’s hard to imagine any Web copywriter worth his/her salt willingly doing without ANY words!

Web copywriting SEO in a nutshell

Between the lines and looming large over even the geekiest professional SEO blogs and online forums, there’s a chronic ambivalence, a mixed message, between “Ignore the search engines, just create great, fresh content and you’ll rank high in search engine results”… and “You absolutely have to do [this] or [that] with your content and metadata and social networks” to get the best return on your SEO investment.The bottom line is that effective web copywriting SEO depends on:

  • Creating interesting, useful content for a well defined audience–and update it regularly;
  • Making sure your site is built on a platform that makes it easy for you to offer The Machines the right bait (URLs, page titles, headlines, keywords in copy, outbound links);
  • Engaging with social media–going out to mingle and talk usefully with your people, making sure you’re not just babbling like SNL’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” and handing out links back to your site like unwanted business cards (word is out that The Machines really couldn’t care less about those lately…).

the long view

My take on the future of Web copywriting SEO?  I’m thinking that if and when we get to the point where computers can understand Web content without our having to dumb down and interpret our “natural” language for them (and we sure seem to be headed hell-bent-for-leather in that direction!) we’d better be way more prepared to tango with them than Dave is in Kubrick’s film.


I don’t do buckets

bucketYears ago, I blared on a blog that I didn’t write Web copy to fill enclosed spaces carved out by designers. “I don’t do buckets,” I insisted. “I work with designers to create smooth, easy experiences for users. I try to be constantly aware of the user’s needs and perceptions. Where did she come from? Where is she going? How can my words–body text, link labels, headlines–improve her experience ? The space I work in isn’t closed; it’s not a ‘bucket’; it’s an open, fluid space where I’m engaged in one side of a warm conversation with site visitors, trying to help them find what they’re looking for and do what they want to do on the site.”

These days I still frequent that space in most of my Web work, although now, because I’m still trying to get involved as early as possible with editorial strategy and messaging, before page lay-out is finalized and a site’s ‘look and feel ’is codified, I call myself a “content strategist.” Or rather that’s what my clients starting calling me a few years back, when “content strategy” finally emerged as a new, recognized, useful discipline in the constantly evolving, free-wheeling world of Web development. I’m still a tad self conscious about it—it sounds like a pompous way of saying “editor”—but it basically works; to me it says that, after all these years, I still don’t do buckets.

Read it out loud!


I’d bet if you weren’t familiar with the Keys and you read the first sentence of that paragraph on a Key Largo business site, you’d think Key Largo was home to BOTH the world’s largest artificial reef AND the 510 foot USS Spiegel Grove – which would make you wonder what the “world’s largest artificial reef” actually is. And that’s all because of misleading commas the writer probably would have noticed if he or she had read that sentence out loud. Chances are they would have stumbled over it and edited it to something like… “Key Largo is home to the world’s largest artificial reef (the 510-foot Spiegel Grove), the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park…” etc. Reading your writing out loud (or at least loudly in your mind) is the ONLY way to make it sound as stumble-free and easy as one side of a friendly conversation! 



Oh really?

Okay, so used car dealers aren’t known for truth in advertising, but this one goes a bit too far, no?  “We finance everyone”? Really?  You see that kind of hype everywhere in Web writing (and all other advertising, for that matter) – companies claiming to give you the stars with little regard for whether they can actually rope and wrestle them down to earth.


Who’s your audience?

This map from Wikipedia purportedly showing the range of walruses is visual nonsense to anyone unfamiliar with that part of the Arctic. Reminds me both of a visual puzzle by Escher and  a lot of Web writing by folks who forget that they’re not talking to themselves in their own small mental corner of the world.