Effective web site copy

Paul Boag

One of the visitors to boagworld.com recently wrote to me asking for some feedback on his organisations web site. One of the things I commented on was the copy found on the site. Not only was it too long but much of it was hard to read. I therefore thought it would be a good idea to post an article on the subject.

Writing the copy for a website can be a big challenge and it is one that often falls to the website manager in preference to the web design company. In some ways this is understandable as the web professional can’t possibly know the ins and outs of how your organisation operates. However this does put an enormous burden on the site owner to write for a medium unlike any other. That is why below I have outlined ten things worth taking into account when writing for the web.

Don’t patronise

I am shocked at quite how many sites treat me like the village idiot. I want to be informed but I don’t want to be patronised. Be careful when writing copy for your site not to treat people like fools.

Make it personal

The web is a very impersonal environment and computers are never really perceived as friendly. It is therefore important to compensate for this in your writing style. This can be a difficult balance to strike. You should appear friendly but not over familiar. Try to keep your writing style approachable in order to encourage users to trust you and therefore purchase from you.

Remember the medium

Never forget that your users are reading your copy on screen. Computer monitors have a crippling effect on the eyes and cannot often be viewed for extended times. Therefore keep your writing brief and to the point. Also ensure line lengths aren’t too long and that a print version is available for longer documents.

Make sure you can scan it

Because on screen reading is difficult and the web can overload us with information users rarely stay on a website for long. You will not often find a user reading an entire page of text. It is therefore important to make your content easy to scan. You can do this in the following ways:

  • Put important information or even a summary at the top of the page
  • Make use of headings and subheadings
  • Use bold, italics and colour to highlight important content
  • Use bullet points where possible

Say what you mean

Most people mainly use the internet as an information source. Their primary objective is information gathering. They therefore need copy that is direct and to the point.

Avoid marketing talk

Internet users have become acutely aware of marketing spin. Try and avoid the heavy sell. Users respond much better when you simply present the facts and allow them to make their own decisions.

Avoid jargon

Remember that not all your users will use the same terminology as you. They won’t necessarily know all the acronyms and industry terms which are so familiar to you. It is often worth passing copy via a family member or somebody unconnected with your industry to see if they understand it all.

Keep it short

Krug’s third law of usability states "Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left". Steve Krug is a usability expert that I admire greatly and although he was exaggerating for effect I do believe he has a point. Because users just don’t read large amounts of text on screen there is little point of it being there. Wherever possible keep text to a minimum and be sure to omit needless words.

Remove instructional text

Users don’t generally read instructions. Normally they just muddle through. When you do need to have instructions be sure to keep them to an absolute minimum.

Remove happy talk

Again this is Krugs choice of words and not mine but he makes a fine point. Krug refers to happy talk as anything that fails to convey useful information. It usually consists of sentences that begin with the phrase "welcome to…"