On one level, it's pretty easy to write. Most people can do it to varying degrees of grammatical accuracy. But crafting sentences for your website that are engaging and provoke a response...well that's a different matter entirely. Here are five of the most common mistakes I see time and time again on websites—which I have certainly made myself over the years.
1. Not knowing who you are writing for
Have you any idea who reads your website? Nope? Then find out. I don't necessarily mean names and addresses. No, that would be creepy! But at least know the types of people who visit.
For example, take an obvious demographic factor like location. I know that on my rmlalchan.co.uk site 66% of my visitors are from the UK. This naturally affects how content is written. If my site had a majority US audience for example, the way content is written would need to be adjusted. 17% of my visitors are US based so I still need to bear that in mind.
A better example of this is Tom Ewer's website - Leaving Work Behind. I interviewed him on Insight Podcast. He is based in the UK, yet his content definitely has a US feel to it. Any figures on the site are in US dollars for a start. That is because his audience is primarily US based. Have a listen to him talking more about it here.
One tool that can help you keep your audience at the front of your mind when creating content for your website is personas. For some sites we use these to give a personality and face to users. Think of a persona like a brief LinkedIn profile for one of your users. You can have as little as a name, age, job, marital status, to a more in depth work/life history along with a photo.
For one of my sites, Creatives Hub, we have three personas which we use whenever we are writing copy for the website, producing a podcast or sending an email newsletter. If you want to find out more, we discuss the importance of target audiences and our use of personas for Creatives Hub on Hatch Podcast Episode #21.
2. WLJOCMLJ or We Love Jargon so Our Customers Must Love Jargon
If I had a penny for every company website that I've seen which is jam packed full of acronyms and jargon, with no explanation, I'd be rich. Think about it this way. Imagine turning up at an event to realise that you were the only one that spoke English. Everyone else spoke Spanish (or substitute for any other language you partially know). You could make out a few words, but you couldn't understand enough to make it worthwhile. If that were the case, you would understandably leave as quickly as possible.
Well that's what it can feel like if your website content is full of jargon. It's like you're purposely making it hard for people to learn about you, engage with you and even buy your products.
On the other hand, if you are not a victim of point number one above - that is, you know exactly who your target audience is and that they prefer jargon as it enables them to read quicker —and you're not at all worried about putting off newcomers, then go for it. I would still be tempted to reduce some of the jargon or at least have a 'New here?' or 'Start here' section that is specifically for new visitors.
3. Obsessed with SEO or Search Engine Optimisation
This has been a huge problem that thankfully, due to recent Google changes, should become less of an issue in years to come. Though no doubt there will then be other issues to deal with! The obsession people have with SEO essentially led to many 'black hat' techniques designed to fool search engines into believing your website was more popular than it actually was. An example of a black hat technique is that of writing hundreds of keywords into your site that a user can't see, but that would be picked up by search engines.
Another example which we have seen too often when clients come to us to assess their website, is that of back links. You've probably received emails from dubious senders asking to exchange links. I get several of these emails a month. Mostly from companies that have obviously not spent much time on my website and thus the links they want to exchange are at best irrelevant and at worst would be damaging to my audience if added them. Here's an example of an email I received this week:
"We are ready to offer your website 4 inbound links from any of the following websites/webpages of your choosing in exchange for placing one link to each of our websites on “/useful-links/” In this manner both of our websites can benefit from one way links and your website benefits by way of getting “four” links in exchange for placing only“two” outbound links."
The links they were 'kindly' offering included anti-virus software and flash website services. And these were the most relevant. I have had clients who have had even more irrelevant requests than this. In fact one client that came to us had 160 backlinks to their site and less than 10% of these links were even related to the client's industry. Many came from what's known as 'link farms'—sites that are specifically set up as directories, not to help users find information quickly but to 'help' in the process of selling these dodgy techniques with the promise of getting to number one in Google.
Another issue arising from the obsession with SEO is that of too much focus on keyword research and then loading your written content with the resulting outcomes. This article by Marc Ensign sums this up far better than I can so have a read.
DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT, write for robots. Unless of course you have an incredibly state of the art website or service where humanoids are your prime market. Though I'm pretty convinced that your website is meant for humans. Find out about those humans and treat them with due respect. Not like faceless robots.
4. I'm a good writer. I proofread by default.
Some people (possibly the same people that fill their emails with web speak, omg, lol!) just aren't as concerned about spelling. Now I'm the first one to say that I'm nt teh beast at speling (You don't know how difficult that last sentence was, due to autocorrect!). You can see it's off putting reading mistake after mistake.
You're human, I know that. So am I. We make mistakes and the odd typo creeps in. That's fine and there are plenty of worse mistakes. I would just suggest that if you are writing content for your website yourself, make sure you have someone proof read it. It doesn't take long and can make all the difference between an article that engages and one that infuriates.
5. It's ok to have a personality
This is an interesting one. When I read some copy on websites it's like I'm reading a textbook. Now that may be appropriate in certain circumstances - you need to go back to your target audience. Generally though, I find it's because that's how people are used to writing or they think it's the method provoking the least offence.
However, don't you find that you engage much more with written copy that has a personality? You sense that the author actually cares. It can feel like they are reading it aloud, just to you (regardless of whether you know them or not).
It's a whole other topic to get into understanding your own personality as a brand, and we work with some clients to help them find their voice. When you do find it, when you know who you are and what values you have, writing becomes much easier.
Putting it altogether
So you have now assessed who your audience is, you know they don't understand your business like you do so you avoid all the jargon. You respect your visitors and apply the regular SEO principles but don't go over the top. You get a couple of other people to proof read your text and it's written in a way that shows your brand has a personality visitors might like to engage with. Excellent! You're gonna go far.
Just as an added extra, here are several resources that have helped me to understand and appreciate web content more. You might like them too.
- Relly AB web content online course - currently not running, but worth checking out her blog for more content info.
- The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane - is full of practical tips for planning and understanding content.
- Designing for Emotion by Aarron Walter - although this is written from a design perspective it's really useful to help understand how visuals and copy combine to engage with users.
I hope that's been a useful guide to writing good content. Let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree with any of my points, or if you have any others to add.