Web copywriting: setting the record straight

As it turns out, web copywriting is a contentious issue – peppered with strongly differing views and hotly defended opinions. At this kitchen of contention, it can be hard to distinguish between the myths and the truths. Also, Google regularly changes the rules. So here are a couple of the latest prevailing myths about web or online copywriting…
Web copywriting: setting the record straight
Myth 1:

Web copywriting and SEO copywriting are the same thing.

Busted:

SEO copywriting, or to give it its full name, ‘search engine optimisation copywriting’, is the technique of writing the text on a webpage in such a way that it a) reads well for the web user and, b) targets specific search terms.

Its purpose is to rank highly in the search engines for the targeted search terms.

The idea behind SEO copywriting is that search engines want genuine content pages and not additional pages (often called ‘doorway pages’) that are created for the sole purpose of achieving high rankings.

Practitioners of the search engine copywriting method recommend around 250 viewable words per page, with one, or at most two, targeted search terms strategically placed within the text and other on-page elements.

Web copywriting, though, is more about conciseness, coherence, style and power than it is about strategy and the placement of search terms. In web copywriting, every paragraph, subhead, sentence and word must have its role and purpose.

It’s about detail, about sequence, about pace and flow. And when you do it right, the ‘construction’ becomes invisible and you have a great piece of web copywriting that compels the reader to do what you want them to do.

In short, web copywriting may include SEO copywriting – but the two are not the same thing. Indeed, the practitioners of each are often not the same people.

Myth 2:

Text is text, so it’s fine to use existing print copy on the web.

Busted:

Text isn’t text, simply because the experience of print and web readers is so different.

On the one hand, print writers don’t need to concern themselves with the reader’s reading experience. Even after the document becomes galleys and pages, it looks a lot like it did initially: horizontal lines of type. And it looks much the same for everyone.

On the other hand, different web users have different computers, browsers, settings and line speeds. This means that each user experiences a unique and different web reading. With graphics. Without graphics. With sound. Without. In one second. In 100 seconds.

In print, text is everything. Pages are mainly composed of text and the writer’s challenge is creating a narrative that holds the reader’s interest. On the web, text is not everything. Images and other elements, such as audio, video, links, time and money, can play a role.

Finally, print readers usually read most of the text, if not every word, from front to back. But web users don’t: they speed-read or ‘scan’. This is because reading off a computer screen can be uncomfortable and scrolling endlessly downwards can be frustrating.

Bottom line?

Developing website copy usually means writing new materials – and if you want your readers to spend less precious time reading, you must spend more precious time writing.

Myth 3:

Web copywriting requires ‘keyword stuffing’ to work well.

Busted:

Have a quick look at this:

“This website provides free cooking tips, so be sure to check out this free cooking tips website if you are interested in free cooking tips.”

Anyone who is loosely familiar with SEO will tell you that an article with this kind of ‘introduction’ has been (desperately) optimised for the search term “free cooking tips.” But is this writing approach one that actually works? Nope.

Once readers realise that a website doesn’t provide quality content but relies on useless keyword-filled articles, they won’t stick around. As a result, only a handful of the site’s initial readers will continue to follow the website, if that many.

Let’s also look at things from the viewpoint of a visitor who finds a keyword-stuffed website through a search engine. Yes, that person drops by, but once he sees that the content is over-optimised junk, he leaves and never returns.

However, and this is a biggie, there’s no reason to assume that SEO copywriting and good web copywriting should be mutually exclusive. The answer is to generate copy that helps to improve search engine rankings while still ensuring that those all-powerful human visitors are compelled to stick around.

Yes, search engine positioning is important. But what’s also important is creating compelling, high-value text that resonates with the target market – because the search engines don’t pay the bills nearly as well as the human customers do.

Now what?

So these three myths have been busted – but now what?

It’s clear that what’s needed is specially written, smooth-moving, subtly optimised web copy that speaks to the reader’s tendency to scan. And one of the best ways to create this elusive copy is by producing what we call ‘flagship content’, based on a relevant, compelling and useful cornerstone around which all of the copy can be built.

A cornerstone is something that is basic, essential, indispensable; it’s what people need to know in order to make use of a website and do business with a particular company. And flagship content with a clear and powerful cornerstone requires:

Keyword phrases

Choose the most appropriate keyword phrase. Ask yourself, ‘What is the relevant question asked by searchers, that my content and the business will answer?’ For example, a divorce lawyer in Sandton, Johannesburg will benefit very little from ranking highly for the word “lawyer” (and good luck to him!), but a specific keyword phrase based on geography and specialty will draw the right traffic (“Sandton divorce lawyer”).

Synonyms

Good web copy should include words that are related to, as well as synonyms for, the keyword phrases that best represent you or your organisation. Rather than endlessly repeating the same words (and scaring your readers away), assume that different web users will use different, contextually-related words to find what they’re looking for. If we go back to the lawyer example, you could weave phrases such as ‘Northern suburbs’, ‘Johannesburg’, ‘attorney’, ‘advocate’, and ‘ante-nuptial contract’ into your content.

Specificity

One of the characteristics of flagship web copy is the use of specific, descriptive words instead of vague generalities: ‘Has your marriage dissolved due to infidelity or an extra-marital affair?’ rather than ‘Having third-party problems?’ Specificity helps readers because it clearly demonstrates relevancy and makes the copy more dynamic. But be sure to use your specific keywords only when feasible within the broader context of the copy, otherwise you’ll be faced with the hideous keyword stuffing dilemma.