Getting to grips with your website content
Writing website copy is often made to seem like a bit of dark art. Shrouded in mystery and only to be attempted by a select few. As a copywriter, I’d be happy to perpetuate that myth but the truth is, with some basic technical knowledge, proper planning and a decent amount of time, you are perfectly able to write your own website copy.
What comes first – web design or copy?
As a copywriter, I’ll always tell you that copy should lead design. That said, many designers will tell you it’s the other way round (they’re wrong – but let’s humour them). The truth is that for small businesses, reality is never that black and white.
Nine times out of ten, a small business owner will commission a website, and then at some point in the process (normally quite a long way into the process), somebody mentions copy. Often, it’s a very short time before the whole project is supposed to go live. And all hell breaks loose.
Try and avoid that situation if you can, please! A rush job on the copy is unlikely to be very good.
So here’s how it should pan out
In a perfect world: you will have sat down at some point before you commission your website and thought about what you want your website to achieve. If that last sentence leaves you saying to yourself, “I wouldn’t know where to start” or “I have no idea what I want it to do.” Then your best course of action is to choose an agency that:
- is happy to work with you at this early stage, advising you and helping you to refine your ideas and get a clear idea of what you want and need from your website,
- has a professional copywriter and web designer who can work together.
In a not so perfect world: you need to sit down and plan your website page by page. Start by deciding what pages you will need. The most common will be something along the lines of:
Services / Products
You may also have one or more Landing page.
This is not a definitive list and don’t worry if you think you may need to add pages in the future. That is perfectly possible.
Think about your objectives
Once you have an idea of what your pages will be, think about the role each individual page has to play within the website. What is the objective of each page and what do you want your website visitors to do both whilst they are on the page and when they finish reading it? Where do you want them to go next? A common mistake with website copy is just to write it in a brochure style. If you gently guide your reader towards what you would like them to do next, you have a much greater chance of them doing it!
Keyword research is a big area and we’ll be writing a post on this in the near future. But if you’re writing your own website content, this should be an important part of your planning and writing.
You will need some help to ensure you choose the right keywords. At Square One we use a number of tools. There are free and paid for keyword research methods and some of the best include:
- Google Search Console
- Ahrefs Keywords Explorer
- Google Keyword Planner
- Moz Keyword Explorer
You can also use Google’s search engine. If you tap in a phrase, it nearly always suggests alternative but similar phrases. Similarly, most keyword tools will suggest alternative ideas and this can be really helpful.
Ideally, you want to use a keyword that scores low for difficulty (which means it is not hard to rank for) but has high volume, which represents the number of people each month who search using that keyword. You should also make sure you check where most of the traffic is coming from: if 90% of people searching with that keyword are in South America, and you sell locally in Sussex, then you probably need to think again.
If you’d like more information about keyword research, please get in touch.
Refining your keywords
Ideally, you want one main focus keyword for each page. You don’t want it to be too specific or too vague. For example, the following words are too general: solicitor, family solicitor, hairdresser, accountant, estate agent etc.
You could refine these to: family solicitor Brighton or hairdresser Guildford but this creates two problems. Firstly, they are still quite generic and a lot of other people may be using them. Secondly, this can be really hard to use naturally when writing. I’ll explain about this a bit more below.
When using keywords you always have to bear in mind that you are writing both to help search engines and for humans. Search engines and humans like different things so it’s always a bit of a balancing act keeping them both happy.
On page optimisation
Once you know what focus keyword you are going to use for each page, you then have to incorporate them in your writing. If you have a WordPress website, you may also want to ask your web designer to install something called YOAST. YOAST helps you with your website writing and measures your use of keywords and the readability of your writing. We’ll come back to readability in a moment.
Yoast appears at the bottom of your WordPress page. It asks you what your focus keyword is and then gives you a score (red, orange or green) depending on how well you’ve used your keyword in your writing.
Ideally, you will need to use your main keyword in your page title and at the beginning of your copy, so in the first sentence or paragraph. You should also consider using it in a sub heading and towards the end of your copy.
However, there is one golden rule which you should ALWAYS comply with: make sure your copy reads naturally and doesn’t feel like you have deliberately crowbarred your keywords in. If you crowbar keywords into your copy or use them too frequently, two things will probably happen: your readers will stop reading and search engines will de-rank you for deliberately trying to cheat the system.
You have been warned.
I like to describe the way to write using keywords as “sprinkling your keywords naturally through your copy” and in fact, if you are writing intelligently and naturally, this should happen almost automatically. But you can see how if you’re using a very specific keyword like Horsham Hairdresser it can be quite hard to use it naturally throughout your writing without it looking a bit contrived. On the other hand, you don’t always have to use the exact keyword. Some close variants are OK too.
Which brings me to the second golden rule: Yoast is only a guide. It does give you hints on how to improve your use of keywords but don’t get too hung up on scoring green. I once spent a day making sure every page of a website scored green. But when I read it back, it was awful and sounded really contrived so I then had to re-write it all over again!
Something else that Yoast helps you with is what’s known as Meta Data. These (in part) are the little snippets you see when you search for something online. So for example, this is what I got when I googled Square One:
A digital agency based in Littlehampton, Sussex. We cover Sussex, London and the UK with results-driven branding, web design and digital marketing services.
The writing in bold is your Meta Title. The bit starting with “https://” underneath is your URL and the text in green is your Meta Description (they won’t necessarily be in these colours). Yoast allows you to write these yourself and it’s important that you get them right.
You need to include your chosen keyword in the Meta Title and ideally in your URL because this helps search engines. You don’t have to use your keyword in your description but some people say it is good practice to do so. However, you should think carefully about the wording of your description. This is what readers will read when deciding whether to click onto your page or someone else’s, so make it clear, relevant and enticing.
When you upload a photo or image to your page, you also get the option to write its “alt tag”. Make sure you include a keyword with at least one image.
How to write
We’ll look at what to write in a moment but first of all, a few words about how to write your website copy. I mentioned readability earlier on and Yoast also measures how readable your website content is. Once again it gives you a traffic light score of red, orange and green. And once again, use it as a guide, not as the be all and end all.
How to make your website content readable
The first thing to remember is that readers of websites are not like readers of novels! Website readers skim read, often only staying on a page for a few seconds before they click away. That means, you have to make sure that your website copy is:
- very easy to skim read
- super relevant to your reader
Let’s look at these in turn.
How do you make your copy easy to read?
Well, there’s lots you can and should do:
Keep your sentences and paragraphs short and your language straightforward
That means avoiding using complicated words where a simple one would do. For example: full instead of comprehensive, plan instead of strategy, use instead of usage.
There is a tendency when people write their website copy to either go terribly pompous and stuff it full of what the writer thinks of as big, grown-up words or to pack it full of marketing jargon: for example “We offer an innovative and holistic solution!” which I’ve seen more than once on a website. Really!? Apart from being a mouthful …it doesn’t actually tell me what you do! In fact, it’s meaningless to the skim reader.
I’ve also come across sentences that have up to 60 words in them! Argh. The easiest length sentence for people to read are sentences that have between 16 and 20 words. That doesn’t mean all your sentences have to be short. In fact, it’s important to mix the length of your sentences to give your writing rhythm and make them easy to read. But do keep your eye out for long, rambling sentences. Especially if they’re also packed full of jargon!
And that brings us to paragraph length. One to three sentences per paragraph is more than enough. Great big wodges of writing are heard on the eye. They are unconsciously intimidating and people won’t read them. You want to ensure there is plenty of white space around your words. Think of it as the air that allows your reader to read.
Use sub headings, lists and bullet points
I love sub headings! If written well, they enable your reader to skim read just the sub headings and still get the gist of what the writing is about. They also act as great signposts, signaling which section is relevant to a reader. So rather than reading the intro and thinking it’s not relevant to them (and click away), the reader can easily skip to the bit that interests them.
Avoiding over formatting
Underlining your writing can make it hard to read and writing large sections in capital letters is a bit like shouting at someone. There’s mixed evidence about what is harder to read, upper or lower case or a mixture of the two, but whatever you choose, avoid Over Use of Capitalisation Like This!
As you write, try to become aware of whether what you’re writing has been written a thousand times before. There are certain hackneyed phrases that pop up on websites again and again and they make it feel boring, impersonal and insincere. Allow your own brand personality to shine through by writing in a way that is original and how you would speak in the office.
Write like you talk and use first and second person
This comes back to avoiding being pompous! Try and write conversationally. That means you can start sentences with “and” because we do that when we speak.
And (did you see what I did there) it also means you can use “I” rather than “we”. This is a question that comes up a lot, especially for small businesses who want to look bigger than they are. Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice but bare in mind this: these days trust is everything. My personal view is that it doesn’t take much for someone to look you up and see how big you are and if they then feel even the tiniest bit like you’ve misled them, you have lost your trust! But that’s just my view!
Make it about them
Most of us our self-interested. We go on a website looking for what we are going to get out of it. That means you have to know your potential readers as well as you possibly can (and we’ve written a post about this here). Then you have to provide them with what they want to know…which is not necessarily the same as what you want to tell them. For example, I don’t necessarily care if you’ve been on the High Street for the last 50 years. I much more likely to be interested to know that you can solve my particular problem.
What to write
Before you start writing, you need to get clear on the essentials. Make a list of your company values, what matters to you, why you do what you do. Make sure you have a clear idea about your brand’s personality. Every page should be written in a way that reflects this. So the very least, make sure you have a rough style guide to hand (and you can find out more about creating your own style guide here).
Your Home Page
Your Home page has two main jobs and a challenging role to play! People landing on a website for the first time often only stick around for a few seconds. The words you use on your Home page will be one of the main reasons they decided to say longer (or leave).
So what are the two roles of your Home page content?
The first role is to sum up what your business is about and convey your value proposition – or in other words what makes you different or better than your competitors.
You will normally have a main headline and then a short paragraph of copy in which to do this. Your Home page doesn’t have to be lengthy. In fact, it shouldn’t be. It’s an overview of what your business is about so that people who arrive on it, instantly know they are in the right place.
Remember, that visitors to your Home page are primarily thinking, is this right for me, is this what I am looking for or what’s in it for me. So the thing to note is that they are thinking more about themselves than you, and so you have to try and write accordingly.
Think about the “benefits” of your product or service. If you’re not sure what “benefits are, try the “which means” test: I cut hair which means you look amazing. Or I do your accounts so that you have more time but are always compliant. Whatever comes after “which means” is your benefit.
Finally, don’t forget to keep your copy conversational and light (nothing too technical) and use your chosen keyword
The second role of your Home page is to signpost readers to where you want them to go next. You are rarely trying to get straight to a sale on your Home page. Instead, you might want them to go to your product page, your blog or your portfolio. If you’ve had a website before, analytics should help you work out where your readers tend to go next from your Home page and this helps inform your web designer and your signposting.
Your signposting is often a key part of your website design. You may have images of your products with links directly to your product page or a grid with images of your latest blogs (sometimes called tiles). And although that may mean very little copy is required, you will still have a Call to Action such as: look at my products, read my blog etc.
A Call to Action has to perform an important role in very few words. It’s the key to getting visitors to stay on your website and find out more about you. “Read our blog” is precise and OK but it’s not that compelling. So you need to give what you’re going to write some care and thought.
Use emotive words that tap into the reader’s senses and action words such as discover, explore. You could try phrases like “Dive into our world and explore…” “Feast on our latest recipes…” which are packed with energy.
When you’ve written your Call to Action, ask yourself whether it makes the next step for your website visitor irresistible.
Finally, although a better place of your expertise and experience is on your About page, you do want to start establishing a sense of trust with your reader as soon as possible. If you have some sort of accreditation and you can place the badge on your home page, great. Or perhaps just include a glowing testimonial.
Your About Page
This is one of the most visited pages of your website and it is also the one most overlooked by business owners. Some have no About page, others have a bland About pages that lists the company values but says very little else.
But actually, your About page is a great opportunity to let your reader get a real feel for what your company is all about and what it’s like to be involved with you.
So, what should you write?
Start by trying to be creative and think about the story behind your business and how you’re going to tell it. Why did you launch your business, what excites you about it, what’s your “why” and the reason you get up in the morning? What really matters more than anything else. Don’t tell them you’re passionate (yawn), show them you are.
Show not tell
Show not tell is a fairly standard principle of effective writing. Some simple examples are:
- “she was crying” versus “a tear rolled down her cheek and she stifled a sob”
- “she hated doing her accounts” versus “receipts and spreadsheets covered her desk, and she groaned”
- “it was a great new haircut” versus “she beamed as friends admired her new look”.
Next, consider your business personality. What sort of people are you and how are you going to convey that? You could write we are professional but fun but that’s pretty boring and lots of people write that. Instead, try writing in a way that reflects that. By which I don’t mean trying to be too “down with the kids” because that is awful, but think about what it is that makes you fun.
Your About page will usually be longer than your Home page copy and can also include graphics and images to liven it up. You may also want to include your experience and qualifications.
Finally, don’t forget your Call to Action. Where do you want your reader to go next on your website?
Your case studies
Case studies are great for a number of reasons. They can be good for SEO and they showcase your experience. But they can also be deathly boring.
As you write your case studies, start by thinking about your reader and asking yourself, what’s in this for them. What do they want to get out of reading this case study? They probably couldn’t care less that you were engaged on the project early and spent 7 months working on it. Well, they may care about that, but it won’t be their first thought. Their first thoughts are probably, is this project similar to mine? So start by highlighting the specific challenge that you faced. Then they may want to know how you dealt with it.
It sometimes also helps to think of case studies as case stories. Is there a story behind yours, that you can use to make them more engaging? For example: “The client woke up to find her kitchen under water” is a more interesting start than “Broken pipe”.
Products and services
Obviously, when you get to your products or services, you can afford to go into a bit more detail. Your readers have got this far, they clearly want to know more.
But don’t go crazy. Keep your writing clear and straightforward. Don’t go overly technical if there’s a chance some of your readers won’t understand. Don’t’ use jargon. Explain any acronyms before you use them. Don’t write an essay. Keep your writing succinct.
A blog is very different to your other pages. It will be made up of lots of different posts and these will be longer. Think 1,000 words plus. This is a blog and so far, it’s over 3,000 words long and I haven’t finished yet.
There was a time when very short blogs were popular but there are two problems with that approach: they aren’t great for SEO and they don’t allow you to cover any subject in any detail.
We’ve written a separate post on how to write a blog and what to write about, but it is your chance to engage, inform or entertain your readers. Think about what they need or want to know. What expertise or experience can you share? What knowledge do you have, that they don’t?
And don’t be afraid to give too much away. Look at this post, for example. I have provided you with lots of useful information (I hope). Some of you will use what you’ve learnt and write your own website copy, and that’s fine. But some of you may think, crikey, that involves a lot of work and skill, I think I might engage someone to do it for me.
The most important part of your blog is that it needs to have a strategy behind it. You need to plan what you are going to write and how you are going to promote and monitor it and you need to blog regularly and consistently.
I once heard website pages being compared to a field. The job of your Home page and About page etc. is to send readers to the next field (other pages of your site), so you have links, signposting and copy all trying to get the reader to go to the next field. But the job of the landing page is to keep readers in the field (on the landing page) and then channel them carefully to a particular spot in that field.
To keep readers in your field you must remove any signposts and links which might tempt the readers to leave. You don’t want any distractions. The sole point of your landing page is to encourage, persuade and cajole the reader into doing whatever it is that the landing page needs to achieve. That’s normally providing their data in return for something.
You often have a main headline and a line or two of text at the start of the landing page. After that, different landing pages allow for different designs. You’ll usually have some graphics and perhaps room for three short but compelling reasons why the reader should act.
How do you persuade?
Start by thinking about how the readers’ lives will be better for having whatever it is they can access on this page. Then see if you can use or include three things:
- Your credibility. If 100 readers have downloaded your document or bought this product and are happy, then say so. If you have a great testimonial, then use it. If you are the most qualified and experienced person in the world who is offering what it is…say so.
- Be specific. If you have statistics that prove a point, include them. If there is a strong logical, legal or scientific basis behind what you’re doing, explain it (in brief and clear language).
- Tap into their emotions. Think about how the reader should feel once they have taken the action you want them to take it. Say it’s a white paper on accounting that you want them to download. Perhaps they’ll feel relief or peace of mind with the knowledge they’ll gain. Or if it’s a free report on how to install a roof window, will your reader feel a sense of pride when he finally installs his window.
Landing pages are not necessarily easy to write. And they don’t necessarily have to take the above format. But they have to be concise but persuasive. There is no golden rule to getting it right. Instead and ideally, you should write two or more and then test how they perform, tweaking and refining your copy as you learn what works and what doesn’t.
A word about privacy and data
Your website needs a few technical documents which often get forgotten. These include:
- Terms and Conditions for use of your website
A link to these is normally found at the bottom of your website. Your website also must be compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This provides for how you capture, use and store people’s data.
Whilst some people adapt a pro forma for the above documents, you should really take professional advice about what they should include. Make sure your web designer understands GDPR and how to ensure you’re compliant.
I’ve tried to cover the most common aspects of writing your website content but if I’ve missed something or if you have any questions, please pop them in the comments box and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Meanwhile, try not to stress about your writing. Website content writing can be a cathartic and enjoyable experience. Just take your time and don’t be afraid to edit, proofread, and then edit, edit, edit and then edit some more. If it all gets to be a bit too much, you could always hire a reliable digital agency like us to do it for you!