How to Write Website Copy

June 13, 2011
KISS - Keep it Simple Stupid

When it comes to writing great website copy, there’s a lot to cover, but in lieu of the main lesson here, I’ll keep it short and sweet.

KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid

The well-known KISS adage holds true more than ever on the Web. Let’s face it. Web users are impatient, and grow increasingly so as the years pass. If you’re lucky (and I mean really lucky), you’ll get 3-8 seconds to grab their attention. That’s because users don’t read Web pages word-by-word. They scan.

If you perform a simple usability test, watch over someone’s shoulder as they browse the Web or pay attention to your own personal habits, it’s pretty obvious we’ve evolved into scanners. We’re impatient, and ready to move on. We want the meat, and want it as soon as humanly possible. As a result, important website copy needs to hit hard and hit fast. It needs to be scannable, and there are a few good ways to accomplish this:

  • Highlight keywords (examples would be links, typeface variations and different colors)
  • Headings need to be meaningful, not “clever.”
  • Employ bulleted lists when possible
  • Try to keep paragraphs limited to one idea as users tend skip over additional ones if they’re not hooked by the first few words.
  • Use the inverted pyramid style and start with the conclusion
  • Condense where appropriate. Good website copy is about half as long as what you may normally write.

F PatternIf you look at Jakob Nielsen’s article on how we read Web copy, you’ll see eyetracking visualizations show users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern – two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical one.

F – for fast. That’s how users consume your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website’s words in a pattern that’s very different from what you learned in school. Need proof? Check out some eyetracking study heat maps.

New Web Words

As the Internet has become more a part of our everyday life, some new words have made their way into our vernacular that we don’t quite know what to do with in our copy. How should we spell them? What’s commonplace knowledge and what isn’t?

A great reference book every copywriter should have is the “Associated Press Stylebook.” Stylebooks are generally released on an annual basis, and the AP’s now has a dedicated section for style rules to use for Web terminology. Have you noticed how I capitalize “Web” and “Internet,” but not “website?” I can thank my stylebook for that.

Writing for Search Engines

Regardless of what role we play in the Web design process, one thing we all need to be aware of is search engine optimization. For copywriters, it’s very important to keep in mind that search engines are sifting through a website’s content and looking for keywords and phrases relevant to that business. So, before you commit a keystroke to your site, make sure you start with a keyword strategy.

Work with your online marketing team (or study your site’s analytics if you don’t have one) to determine what keywords are important to for search listing rankings, then try to integrate these as best as possible into the content of your site. The copy should still be relevant and make sense to a human, but tossing in relevant keywords when it makes sense will help with your search engine placement.