People read the Web differently from how they read magazines or books, so Web copy must take that into account if it’s to be effective. But the differences are mainly those of style — like the difference between driving a stick vs. an automatic: Once you’ve got the basic principles, that copy will take you anywhere you need to go.
The single most important quality site copy must have is clarity. (William Faulker and James Joyce would have sucked at it.) Visitors won’t be instructed, persuaded, or engaged if they have difficulty understanding a site’s copy. They won’t click on a link if they’re not sure where it leads. They won’t know to read an article if its headline is too cute or cryptic. Attention is a finite resource, and online readers are unwilling to spend it just to figure out what you mean.
More than that, psychological studies have shown that simplicity helps a writer be not only better understood but better trusted. Overly complicated copy, for example, makes readers doubt the writer’s intelligence and distrust a product’s safety. Copy that’s easily understood is more pleasurable and easier to accept.
It’s even truer today than it was in 1997 when Jakob Nielsen reported it: People scan Web pages, reading at most 28% of the copy there. They approach Web reading like a treasure hunt for valuable information. Your copy must help each visitor find that gem, whatever it is, wherever it’s located. To do that, your Web copy must be easy for them to scan by using.
This may be humbling for a writer, as its purpose is to help readers ignore most of what you write. Get used to it. On the Web, the user is king.
Formal writing strikes online readers as stuffy and unapproachable — two words that probably aren’t part of your brand. Informality is the rule. Web copy relaxes strict rules of style to let a little personality shine through, conveying an open, candid impression — like being on a first-name basis with a CEO.
If your experience runs more toward annual reports, here are four quick things you can do to relax your copy:
NOTE: There’s a difference between informality and sloppiness, though, and you want to be careful not to slip from one into the other. If you care about the impression you make on your readers, and sloppiness and ignorance aren’t part of your brand, make sure your copy observes correct spelling and basic rules of grammar and decency. Get someone else to read it over to catch anything you may have missed. (Don’t be proud; no one can proofread their own copy.)
The secondary purpose of Web copy is to help the search engines determine how to categorize your website and match it up to people’s searches.
Generally speaking, content that’s good for your readers will also be good for the search engines. If you use headline tags to identify your headlines and subheads, the search engines will be able to tell the important points of the article. If the same or similar keywords appear in several page elements, the page is considered an especially good match for searches of those keywords. All these page elements should be in agreement about what the site and your organization are about:
You can see how search engines view your site and the keywords on it with a free spider test tool.