Up until a few months ago, when I started working on content for our new social care and health beta web pages, I thought that writing for the web was easy. Surely the techniques for writing good print copy would be the same for digital content?
The existing Devon County Council social care site has evolved over several years, with a confusing navigation and lots of unnecessary content aimed at staff rather than the public. Many pages are lacking in Plain English, with overly long sentences, too much jargon and excessive use of third-person narrative.
As I began writing for the beta site, I soon realised that my understanding of what makes good online copy was quite basic. With a limited knowledge of keywords and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right things to attract users to our pages and then keep them there.
‘Bridge the gap’
I thought it might benefit the team overall if I could improve my knowledge in this area and somehow ‘bridge the gap’ between our web and publishing teams. Luckily, my manager agreed and, after doing some research into courses, I booked a place on The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s (CIM) How to Write for the Web course.
I travelled to London for the course in early September. Any anxiety I had soon faded when I met the other people on the course. They were a friendly group and included communications and marketing officers and managers from Intercontinental Hotels, Orange, Dogs for the Disabled, Triumph motorbikes and Leeds University. I sat next to the copy manager for Morrisons, who it turned out had graduated from the same degree course the year before I did. (Cue extreme job envy – she gets to taste food products and write the packaging descriptions!)
We’d been asked in advance to prepare a brief presentation on two similar websites – one that we liked and another we disliked. When the trainer, Tracy, asked someone to kick things off, there was the usual tumbleweed moment and then for some reason I volunteered.
For the ‘bad example’ I’d picked our current children and families web pages as this is the next area of DCC content that we are looking to overhaul. For the ‘good example’ I chose Cambridgeshire County Council’s children and families information, which I suppose was really the best of a bad bunch. It’s far from perfect but their clear age-group navigation provides a simple yet effective route into the site for parents and carers. Although we only had time for a brief look at the home pages I found it quite useful to get feedback from people who know nothing about DCC or the services we provide.
Everyone was asked to chip in with their thoughts on ‘what makes a good website’. Much of this was common sense (clear navigation, avoiding jargon, consistency and so on) but there were things I hadn’t given much thought to before, such as how effective an online question or command can be in getting a user to do something, otherwise known as a ‘call to action’.
We were then asked to think of a typical user of our company or organisation’s website and complete a ‘pen portrait’ by answering a number of questions about them:
- Who are they?
- How old are they?
- Where do they live?
- What do they read?
- Where do they go on holiday?
- What hobbies do they have?
- What car do they drive?
- What is their name?
Although this felt a bit silly at first (especially coming up with a name), it is a technique used in advertising to focus on the needs of the user rather than the organisation or company. Using the DCC children and families site as an example, I imagined my user as a young mum whose child had recently been diagnosed with autism. Once I started to build a picture of the person, I realised how much this would help me to aim the copy directly towards her, affecting the tone and language used. I actually think this is a worthwhile starting point for any communications project – whether the aim is to create a website, printed publication or other media. It really makes you think about your audience.
SEO and keywords
The part of the day that I found most useful covered SEO and keywords, including what they are and how to improve a website’s ranking in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) such as Google. Tracy showed us how to do a ‘finger in the air’ free check using Google Keyword Planner and explained the importance of page titles and descriptions. It definitely gave me a better understanding of this area and I will keep in mind her five guidelines to improve search engine ratings:
- Know exactly what your web visitors/users are searching for
Remember your intended audience and have a clear idea of what keywords they might use to find the site. Use tools such as Keyword Planner but also look at similar sites which rank highly in Google and try to identify what keywords they use.
- Make your HTML page titles work for you
The page title, around 65-70 characters, defines what is written in the browser toolbar and the description for ‘favourites’. But perhaps most importantly, it provides the title that is displayed in Google search results and informs the user what the main topic of the site is. It is good practice to include some of your identified keywords in your page title – but don’t cram them in for the sake of it, aim for around two to three main keywords.
- Write meta/description tags within the code
The page description is a short paragraph, otherwise known as a ‘snippet’, of around 150 characters that shows underneath a title/heading in Google. Although Google say they don’t use this to rank sites directly, as it’s a short summary of your website’s content it will influence whether users click through to the site. If you ignore it altogether, Google will automatically grab content from the page which might not make much sense to the reader.
- Write page copy so it’s attractive to search engines
Again, don’t overdo it by cramming in as many keywords as possible, this could have an adverse effect and make copy awkward to read. Aim for around three to four keywords per 150 words. Keep paragraphs fairly short – it’s better to have more pages with smaller chunks of text, than fewer pages with long paragraphs and so much text that users have to keep scrolling down.
- Boost external links
Google wants users to find what they are looking for, so if they can’t find it on your site but you provide relevant external links, Google acknowledges this and it helps with ranking.
Other things to consider
Throughout the rest of the day we worked through a number of exercises, individually and in small groups, looking at other aspects to consider when writing web copy, such as:
- How users ‘scan’ copy
Users usually ‘scan’ or ‘skim’ read copy rather than reading word-for-word. There are techniques to help make sure the most important information is read, such as bringing information-carrying words (such as verbs, nouns and adjectives) forward in your copy.
Eyetracking tests show that people usually read website content in an F-shaped pattern – two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe. This proves how important the first two paragraphs are and that a writer should start subheadings, paragraphs and bullets with information-carrying words.
Short paragraphs or ‘chunks’ of text will hold your reader’s attention for longer. Vary the length – aim for one to three lines, with a maximum of six. Use headings and subheadings to break up content and include bulleted lists where appropriate.
- Usability studies
Organising a usability study doesn’t have to be complicated – all you need is a room with a computer and some willing volunteers to test your pages. Even testing a website with people from your own organisation is better than no testing at all.
Certain aspects of the course could be applied across communications, not just specifically when writing web copy or even copy in general. For example, the pen portrait is an excellent way to identify users and tailor whatever project you are working on – be it web content, a magazine, advert or video – to that group.
Some of the key methods around writing good web copy reiterated things I already know and practise regularly, along with other members of the team, such as Plain English techniques.
However, I came away with a better understanding of the subtle differences between writing web and print copy. I’ve got a clearer idea of how things like keywords, page titles and page descriptions affect Google rankings, but understand it is just as important not to rely solely on these areas and still focus on creating good copy.
On the whole, the course gave me a much better understanding of how I can improve my online writing. I feel really positive about applying some of these techniques to any DCC sites I’m involved with in the future. I also hope I can pass some of the things I’ve learned to any colleagues who are interested, by hosting some ‘writing for the web’ surgeries in the near future!