So, you have a good understanding of your participants, have worked out a structure and site design that meets their needs, and now you’re ready to write the content of your site – the copy.
While many of the principles of good copywriting apply in the offline and online world, there are a few tips for copywriting that are specific to on-screen reading and search engines.
Over the jump I’ll review some of the things I’ve learnt about writing effective copy for the web.
In the previous post in this series I mentioned “trigger words” – the kind of words your participants are looking for when browsing your site to lead them to the information they are looking for.
Once you’ve identified your trigger words, you should think about how you can include them, when appropriate, in the copy of your site. Special consideration should be given to page titles, headings and links, as all of these elements in a site are important for “information scent” when someone is scanning a page.
If you are linking to a page, consider using consistent language (incorporating trigger words) when linking to specific pages – i.e. use the same text in the link to improve search engine recognition of those keywords.
Also review your search term referrer statistics (in Google Analytics this is found under “Traffic Sources” – the “Keywords” box in the “Top Traffic Sources” section of the page.) Using these search terms appropriately in your content will help your users find what they’re looking for more efficiently.
And as highlighted in the previous post – consider including common synonyms in your copy and evaluate which ones you favour based on analysis using tools like Google Trends.
What’s in a title?
The page title and headings within a page are critical for SEO, but also for usability. And, as we’ve seen time and again in this series, best practice for usability is also best practice for SEO.
We’ve already mentioned keyword targeting, but there are a couple of additional tips for writing great headings that are worth pointing out.
Avoid clever titles and puns
Avoid clever titles and puns when writing your titles for online content. While such puns are enticing to try, and can certainly work well in print medium (like newspaper headlines), they can be confusing for visitors, especially international visitors who may not get the “in joke”.
More importantly, however, search engines don’t get the jokes – so your clever titles could impact your search engine ranking. For this reason, it’s important to use explanatory titles for articles, and you should try and include one or two of your primary keywords in your title. See point 6 of Jacob Nielson’s Alertbox article Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design for some further tips.
Front-load your titles
In Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines Jakob Nielsen advises “Make the first word an important, information-carrying one” and “Do not make all page titles start with the same word[s]”. (The article has further tips worth exploring.)
This comes back to the way people read or, more to the point, scan web pages (more on that in a minute). People will scan the first few words of a headline or a link and if the words don’t capture their attention they will continue scanning the page.
Write for scanning
Jacob Nielson undertook a study in 1997 that evaluated the impact of different ways of writing for the web. While the research was carried out some time ago, the key points still largely hold true:
- Your content should be scanable. Elements that can help a reader scan a page are:
- Information rich/clear headings and sub-headings
- Bulleted lists
- Properly captioned and relevant pictures
- Highlighted text (through bold or emphasis effects)
- In-text links (readers will notice links as though they were “bold”)
- Pull out quotes quotes that are highlighted visually within the text help people identify key points while scanning page
- Simple and conversational writing is preferred – as opposed to sales/marketing-style writing or over complex scientific writing
- Text should be concise and to the point (no waffling)
- Each page on a site should revolve around a natural focus point/subject – don’t try to put everything on one page
- Humour, puns and plays-on-words need to be used with caution, especially in headings. This is particularly important given the international nature of the audience.
And make sure that the first paragraph on your page provides a strong summary of the key points on the page – it may be the only thing they read!
People use links to scan read a page, so always link using words that describe well what you are linking to. Importantly, search engines also use the text of links in their ranking algorithms.
Wherever possible (read: always) avoid linking on “click here” or “read more” or words that mean nothing if taken on their own, for example:
- GOOD “The resulting visualisation can be quite complex.”
- BAD “The resulting visualisation can be quite complex.”
- BAD “To see the resulting visualisation, click here.”
- BAD “To see the resulting visualisation, visit zum.io“
Remember that people see links as emphasised in the text – fill the page with links and you lose the “highlighting” effect. So only link when there is a clear benefit to the user in doing so.
How does all this benefit SEO?
This is another case of “what helps humans also helps search engines”.
Search engines like Google will use the “semantic structure” of the HTML in your page to determine the importance of information. So it will treat a major heading (a <h1 /> in HTML) as more important than a secondary heading (<h2 /> or <h3 /> in HTML).
They also consider the surrounding content of a page in it’s ranking. For example – a page that is short and to the point containing a specific keywords is likely to rank higher than a verbose page covering a range of topics, as the keywords appears more relevant in the context of the page – i.e. they have more importance.
These are just two of the technical reasons of how search engines benefit, though there are probably more…
In the next installment I’ll start looking at some of the technical measures that can be taken to assist in SEO.
Here are a few links I’ve found along the way that you may find useful: