Writing good copy for your web pages is extremely important not only for users but also for search engines. Fortunately for us there is no conflict in writing for users or search engines and if your copy provides the information needed by users then it will also provide the information needed by the search engines.
The practical aspects of good copy are well known thanks to many usability studies and if you pay attention to the following for all your pages you will be doing better than 99% of websites.
Length – There is no fixed requirement for the amount of text on a page. Some pages may require only 150 words others may require 800 or more. Be succinct and use as few words as possible, at least half of what you would use for conventional writing.
Keywords – Include your keywords of course but do not worry about the number of times they appear on the page (see Keyword Density). Just write naturally and your keywords will occur in the right places and at the right frequency.
Grammar – Good grammar is important. Write in the active voice not the passive. If you are not sure of the difference between the active and passive voice there is a good explanation here at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab.
Spelling – Users who are poor spellers may not notice bad spelling but users who are good spellers will. Search engines are good spellers.
Headings – All usability studies show that users scan web pages, they do not read them word for word. You should make liberal use of headings and sub-headings (h1, h2, and h3) so that the users’ attention can be drawn towards those elements of the text that is of interest to them. Also make sure that they are meaningful and not ‘clever’ like some newspaper headlines.
Highlighting - Use text highlighting such as bold, italic or color to assist the user in scanning the page.
Bulleted lists – An excellent method for capturing the users’ attention and getting across information in a concise manner.
Paragraphs – One idea, one paragraph. Usability studies show that if users are not ‘captured’ by the first few words of a paragraph they will move to the next (or hit the back button of course). One idea per paragraph ensures that users will not miss an idea by skipping paragraphs as they scan the page.
Sentences – Keep your sentences short.
Links – Embed outbound text links in your copy to improve your credibility.
Market Speak – All usability studies show that users hate the promotional writing style with boastful claims often used by the marketing profession. Web users want to read the straight facts and credibility goes out the window when they see marketing hype.
Vocabulary – Familiar words and not jargon.
Acronyms - If you have to use an acronym or abbreviation make sure it is understood by every user and define it on the page.
If you are not an English major (like most of us!) then the Guide to Grammar and Style or the Economist Style Guide can be extremely useful.
August 30, 2006
Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has some useful advice on writing for the web and using ‘old’ words.