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Copy, copy, copy. Not a Labour Party election slogan but an ode to the all important words that help elevate your website above the masses and improve on-page engagement and conversion.

Website copy plays a crucial role in informing your visitors, presenting your values and directing people to take actions, not to mention giving a boost to your SEO efforts.

But what is good copy? Is it copy that raises your search engine visibility? Or words that extol your virtues as the next laureate? 

In my latest attempt to open myself to professional and personal slaughter, this blog explores the qualities of good web copy, linking to useful articles written by respected copywriters. I don't claim it to be definitive but the intention is to open a discussion about what good copy really is.

Copy isn’t built in a day

First, I want to set expectations. Writing copy is not a one-off exercise, for several reasons. Firstly, your business and customer base will evolve over time, so your copy needs to adapt to reflect this. Secondly, life is not static and news needs to be communicated, so you will need to build your content layers to cater for the demands of a heterogeneous audience. Thirdly, not every bit of copy you write will be read and loved instantly; you will need to use your analytics to find out which pages drive high bounce rates and test alternative versions to increase customer engagement.

Oh and fourthly, something called SEO, the much talked about, often maligned and source of heated debate.

The qualities of good copy (those I consider most important)

Purpose

Why are you writing this copy? Good copy has an end goal. Without a purpose, copy is not targeted and you have no way of measuring its impact. 

Before you write anything, decide what you want to write, why you want to write it, who it is for and how you will measure its impact. 

Consistency

Make sure all new copy supports the content strategy for the website because you need to ensure consistency of tone and language. Copy is a verbal signpost for your customers, so make sure that you have a clear tone and personality that is used to write content across the site. If one page is conversational, and the next formal, it can create uncertainty and put people off.

If you have multiple contributors, whilst allowing them to have their own voice, ensure the way they present your brand and company is aligned. You need to avoid giving customers conflicting messages. 

Accuracy

Copy that is strewn with spelling mstikes (see what I did...) and grammatical errors; looks clumsy, lazy and makes it harder for the customer to reed. It sends the wrong message about your brand.

if you can’t be bothered to write good quality content and check it before it's published, how effective is the rest of your customer service? Fingers crossed now that I've not made any schoolboy errors in this post.

You can find straight forward advice on minimising copywriting errors from Emily Cagle, an experienced communications specialist with years of copywriting experience.

Relevance

You’ve got a reason to write the copy but how does it appeal to your customers? Make sure you think through what your customers would want to read and how it can help them make decisions during the buying cycle. Poorly written pages drive customers away, which also adversely affects your SEO efforts for that page.

Running a quick customer poll or survey is a good way to identify opportunities for new content, as is reviewing analytics data and finding pages with high bounce rates.

Nick Usborne provides a neat summary of the importance of getting down to a personal level is his blog.

Informative / interesting

The more interesting the content, the more likely your customers will read it and absorb it. Use subtle techniques to keep people engaged with the content, such as using questions in the copy to increase engagement e.g. “Did you know that by using leather protector you extend the life of your leather furniture by at least 12 months?” and then following up with hard hitting copy and strong calls to action.

Break the copy up with images, break-out text, bullet points etc. The visual presentation of the page is as important as the content itself because the eye needs to be able to follow the page.

The aim of making copy informative and interesting is that it mimics (as much as is possible online) a face-to-face conversation where there is interaction and not just one person talking. There’s a useful summary article written by Tom Albrighton on the ABC Copywriting blog.

Directive

Make it easy for people to take relevant actions. Use strong visual signposts for key calls to action and ensure these are always visible above the fold; perhaps a floating content zone that is always in the customer’s eyeline.

Within the content, text link to appropriate action pages and deep link the customers to the most relevant follow-on page. For example, retailers should link to products where possible to encourage product viewing and adding to basket.

If the content is for information purposes only and has no relevant link to products and services, consider the value of offering social bookmarking and send-to-friend tools. The greater the reach of your content, the better.

Optimised

Let’s not forget the search engines; after all we want to get you relevant traffic. Whilst your customer facing content must be written to appeal to customers, it should also be optimised in line with the keyword strategy for that page. 

Keyword research (using tools like the Google Keyword Estimator) will help you identify the most relevant keywords for a particular page. Your goal is to inject these keywords without compromising the quality or context of the copy. Where relevant link to other pages on your website using optimised anchor text.

As a word of caution, don’t hijack beautiful copy by keyword spamming, just ensure that the most popular keywords are used to help you increase visibility in search engine results.

Social

Give customers the tools to share your content across their social networks; not only will these help drive incremental traffic and brand exposure, it will benefit your SEO program by increasing inbound traffic to your pages.

The value of fresh copy

SEOs will tell you that fresh, relevant copy plays an important role in driving website optimisation – search engines love indexing new content. New content, from static pages to blogs and campaign landing pages, can be keyword optimised to support your SEO strategy. 

However, equally important in my experience is the impact fresh copy has on customer experience and repeat visits/customer loyalty. There is a portion of any website audience that always wants more. This is your most engaged customer, the person who devours your content and has a high propensity to share it across their social networks if you give them the right tools. 

For this type of online shopper, relevant fresh content is highly valued. It gives them a reason to come back to the website. Once on the site, you can then use that content as part of the ongoing sales cycle, deep linking to product and service pages to encourage repeat sales. You can also use sharing tools like social bookmarking to increase advocacy. Content is one tool that you can use to engage with customer outside their buying cycle to keep your brand and website front of mind.

How to produce fresh copy continuously

Don’t over-commit. Don’t start something that you can’t maintain or the tumble weed will set-in. A deserted blog, like a passive social media profile, will damage your brand because readers will think you don’t take it and them seriously.

An email that repeats the same messages over and over again will increase your unsubscribe rate and harm the impact of future campaigns.

So focus resource on what you can contribute to regularly. A few ideas:

  • Write a blog every week or month, varying the content from product news to stories relevant to your brand  – put the blog on a folder on your main domain to support your SEO (e.g. www.mysite.com/blog).
  • Add content that supports your key products, such as care tips and buying guides - the likes of Argos and B&Q do this very well.

No matter what the copy is, always remember:

  • Make it easy to read and understand for the reader – it needs to be engaging and relevant.
  • Optimise the copy by using relevant keywords and phrases.
  • Maximise the internal links to relevant pages on your website using keyword rich anchor text.
  • Ensure the new pages are added to your sitemaps and refreshed so that search engines can see them.
  • Advertise the new content and where relevant across your communications channels e.g. tweet about the new page, include it as a “news snippet” is your customer newsletter.
  • Don’t be frightened to bin content pages that just don’t work, as long as you ensure you don’t leave behind nasty 404 error pages as a result of a dead-end.
So what do you think? Are there qualities of good copy that you think I have not covered? Please drop by and share your comments and experiences - I don't believe that there is such a thing as "perfect web copy" but I do believe there is a logical approach to planning and writing copy. Hopefully this blog has helped explain how you can do this.
James Gurd

Published 4 May, 2010 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

49 more posts from this author

Comments (15)

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Justin March

Justin March, Freelance SEO Consultant at Justin March

I agree with much of what you are saying but:

No one should bin pages without checking their analytics you can loose valuable link juice in this way.

Blogs are OK if they are appropriate sometimes they arent and they are not a ranking panacera as some would suggest.

over 6 years ago

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Charon Matthew, Web Manager at Stoneridge Electronics

I agree with this article and what Justin says, I never bin anything unless I'm CERTAIN it's of no use or contradicts what I've just added. Either way, anything can be rewritten to bring it up to date and carry on working for you in the background. You don't need to link to it from anywhere except the site map if you don't consider it useful enough for actual visitors.

over 6 years ago

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

Hi James

Another great piece of erm, copy!

I'd agree with everything you're saying. Although I'm sure somebody reading this blog won't ;)

All I'd add is that sometimes copy - as in written text - isn't necessarily the best way to communicate your ideas and concepts online. 

Blogs, and other Content Management Systems, have made it incredibly easy to upload reams and reams of words. Unfortunately, good copywriters - good writers indeed - are few and far between.

Put the two factors together and what you can end up with is well laid out (bullet points, subheadings, bold, italics etc) web pages full of dull, lifeless and 'unengaging' text. 

Of course, if everyone reads your suggestions (above) then this won't happen :)

What I think is often more useful is when site owners offer visitors a variety of digital content e.g. video (especially), photos, slidecasts, podcasts, cartoons and diagrams, explanatory flash movies, widgets, calculators and forms etc. 

Used in combination with just-enough-web-copy, a mix of multi-media material is far more powerful than words alone. 

Now, I realise that this isn't what you're saying. That's because I read what you wrote (which is unusual for a web visitor). 

But you see, what I'd really have preferred is for you to explain your thoughts in a short video, demonstrated them with a slideshow, recorded them in a podcast and then allowed me to read them too!!

over 6 years ago

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Radu Prisacaru

I really enjoyed this post. I have read over a few other posts you have up and I will say you do a great job of blogging. I will be looking for new post daily...Keep up the good work! I invite you to see my post, I hope you will find interesting too.

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Morning all and thanks for the comments.

Justin - yes I agree you should refer back to your analytics, perhaps I should have been clearer about how you define content that doesn't work. The point I wanted to raise was that it is not a good idea to leave copy that isn't contributing to the customer or the website cluttering up the site. The focus should be on copy that adds value. 

Charon - I agree that if you have a page that stands alone and does not affect the customer journey, then leaving it alone if there is link juice can be an option. However, if the page in question has an incredibly high bounce rate, then you are effectively cancelling out the benefit of the link juice because engagement factors are also important. 

I would welcome the input of more experienced SEOs on this, always happy to learn.

Andrew - I had a wry smile when I read your suggestions. I must display greater audience empathy next time:)

Your point about the mix of content formats is important, that could well give me inspiration for a follow-up blog. User engagement is important and the greater the variety and interaction, the better your chances of catering for a wider audience and not just the person who likes to read.

Thanks

james

over 6 years ago

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Laura Jennings

Great article. Working for a copywriting company myself, it can be frustrating when people do not realise the value of good copy. So many people believe that "a picture says a thousand words" and they leave it at that. Of course aesthetics are a key tool in creating a call to action and persuading the user, but copy is vital to any website. Interesting content will bring back visitors to a website time and time again.

over 6 years ago

Suzy Turnbull

Suzy Turnbull, Owner at Digital Marketing Partners Panama

Hi James, thanks for the article, lot of good points, especially for B2C/Commerce sites.  Couple of other points to add, some of which might be more B2B oriented: 1.  Short and succinct:  I see so many websites with reams and reams of long winded, excessively boring copy.  Jacob Nielsen suggests that web users only read about 20% of the content of a webpage and stay for only a few seconds.  2.  Type (font) size and style:  consider relevance to your target audience - many websites use font sizes that are difficult to read because they are too funky or too small.  3.   "We" factor - especially on B2B sites.  Try and turn around the "we" to "you" make the customer the hero.  

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Afternoon all and thanks for the latest comments.

Laura - couldn't agree more - interesting, relevant copy plays a vital role in customer engagement and repeat visits on a website. Analytics backs that statement up.

Suzy - yes agree that too much copy can kill a page and cure insomnia and fonts are important (including font consistency for headings, body copy and links). However, lengthy content in itself is not a bad thing, it's how you present the content to the reader that matters. Some products/services require detailed copy to cater for all type of customer - the challenge is to make the landing page light and directional, then use online techniques to progressively serve more detailed copy, such as overlays, accordion javascript, info tabs etc.

If I'm part of the 5% of your audience that wants to know everything and you don't give me any way of accessing the info, you might well lose me. Website content architecture and UX needs to understand diverse needs and not try to solve everything with one flat page of copy/images etc. The technology is there to open doors subtly without a long scrolling headache.

In my opinion, there is no one size fits all approach - you have to shape content to your unique audience and that happens over time via testing, learning and listening. 

Thanks

james

over 6 years ago

Simon Newsam

Simon Newsam, Account Director, New Media at Effective Communication

More consensus I'm afraid; I too, like all the other commentators so far, agree with the points you make James, which suggests (as I think we all know) it's not rocket science.

So how do so many people and so many websites get it wrong?

Here are the most common mistakes I come across:

* A lot of people think they can write when the can't.

* A lot of professional writers don't understand the medium they're writing in and how people behave online.

* Website owners don't always understand the power of the tool they are working with and still think just having an online presence is enough. Consequently, they don't attach enough vakue to the content.

* Copywriiters are often uncertain about SEO and make a pig's ear by trying to implement it.

* Website owners and misguided SEOs interfere with copy and lose the engagement of readers.

* Introspective marketing pros produce copy loaded with jargon and phoney phrases that isn't really fit for human consumption.

The challenge for us all, I suppose, is to ovecome these obstacles by educating our clients.

over 6 years ago

Rob Arkell

Rob Arkell, Sales Director at Koozai

Hi James, thank you for the article.

There’s certainly no mystery to producing good copy. First of all you need an understanding of your target audience. Next you need to have a reasonable vocabulary to communicate your message. Finally you need a way to instantly engage with the visiting public.

When it comes to online copy, use plain English and avoid the fluff.

Some basic points for people to remember:

-Keep Your Copy Simple

-Avoid Complacency and Negativity in Copy

-Balance Simplicity of Content with Volume

-Don’t Make it Harder Than it Needs to Be

Write for the visitor. Sometimes we forget our level of knowledge and expertise and overcomplicate our copy with industry jargon and language that confuses the audience.

From there as you have said its about shaping content with the benefit of feedback and data.

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Simon, Rob thanks for your comments.

Whilst I agree with what you say in that this is not rocket science, I still think that to many web owners writing good copy is a mystery. The reason is that whilst anyone can put a sentence together, few have all the required skills to produce relevant, coherent, consistent, interesting, useful and optimised copy. It's like cooking; you might have the ingredients but if you're not a skilled chef, your food is unlikely to be a culinary sensation.

I have always found talented copywriters to be worth every penny. Not trying to sell my services here, just know from working with some highly talented wordsmiths that only a few people produce excellent copy, in the same way that only a few people are talented designers even though everyone has a strong opinion about design.

However, I do believe that it is possible, as Simon alludes, to support our Clients to help them improve their in-house skills.

Thanks

james

over 6 years ago

Alice Morgan

Alice Morgan, Freelance digital marketing consultant at Freelance

I like your post, James. I already preach a lot of what you say to my clients. I'd like to answer the question asked by Simon Newsam, "So how do so many people and so many websites get it wrong?" In my experience, it's client ignorance. It doesn't matter that when a product manager surfs for information at home for a new camera, phone, TV, holiday or whatever he does in his private sphere, he or she looks for product benefit-driven content and rejects markeing bull****. The moment that same person gets his or her legs under the desk at work, they apply pressure on web management teams to include content that's mostly meaningless and even annoying to consumers. Copy that's written for consumers is often rejected and re-written with the perspective all wrong. This is particularly true in the pan-European sphere I work in. We have even further to go...

over 6 years ago

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Rogger

Hi,

I totally agree with you. But I want some suggesstions from you regarding blogs. I had started my blog few days back. And I keep on writing new entries on it. But its not showing any chage in the PR or in statics. What should I do to improve its PR. I have blog on bloggers.com. Thanks in advance

about 6 years ago

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SEO Essex

I very much enjoyed the article and think you picked up on some important points. 

Providing you have referred back to your analytics before binning pages why keep them if there aren't useful. 

Very helpful content, thanks for posting. 

about 6 years ago

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video seo essex

Social media is very important. I have noticed since installing a social button on my blog that the more popular a story is the more tweets it gets.

Sounds obvious, but that just shows that when someone reads something they like, their first thought is to spread the word on Twitter or Facebook

over 5 years ago

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