Every week or so, I get an email from someone seeking recommendations for a social media coordinator, an iPad or iPhone developer, or an online video expert. But rarely do I hear from someone looking for a good web copywriter. Which is a shame, because despite all of the advances in Web technologies, words are what people focus on when they visit a site – and most business sites still have awful writing.

Here’s a homepage example I saw 5 minutes ago: “[Company X] offers a guaranteed single source solution for your material handling needs. This is accomplished by bringing to bear our full resources and capabilities. […] We add the consultative value to the customer relationship … helping you find the right solution – that is truly cost effective.”


Sure, these companies might benefit from a new Facebook contest, YouTube video, or iPhone app, but what they need more than anything is better writing on their core site pages (Home, About Us, Services, etc.).

If your site is in this camp, and you can’t afford a better writer, here are 3 web writing principles – each with a set of practical tactics – that everyone can incorporate into their sites.

1. Make it scan-able

Eyetracking and usability research make it clear that people don’t read on the Web; they scan – much more so than when reading magazines, print brochures, or mail. If you just give readers big blocks of text, many will skip them entirely and miss the answer or product they’re looking for.

Here are good ways to break up your content for scanners.

  • Bullet your lists (like this one!).
  • Bold or highlight key phrases (but don’t underline unless it’s a hyperlink).
  • Limit paragraphs to 2-4 sentences.
  • Insert headings and subheadings every few paragraphs (see “Make it scan-able” above).
  • Use digits, not letters, for numbers, even 1-9 (e.g. “4 weeks” not “four weeks”).
  • Hyperlink keywords that are the focus of other important pages (e.g. if you mention your “team of experts” in a paragraph on your homepage, link that phrase to your Team or About Us page).


2. Sound like a real person

Writing web copy transforms many of us from humans to robots. Talking with a friend over a beer, we’d describe our product or service in plain English and with concrete examples. But on our websites we switch to a formal writing style full of jargon and clever phrases.

Part of the problem is that we’re the expert on our product or service, and no matter how hard we try we can’t unlearn what we know. The bigger issue is that we want to sound impressive or professional. But all we do is frustrate and confuse site visitors who are too rushed to figure out the subtle, the cute, or the conceptual. And we miss out on a chance to show our company’s authenticity and human voice.

Here are some ways to keep your content real:

  • Use Google’s keyword tool to research the phrases people use to describe your products and services when searching (this will also help your SEO).
  • Use simple, plain English words and phrases; cut phrases that your target readers won’t immediately understand.
  • Avoid the temptation to invent clever phrases (“marketologist”) and stick to convention (“marketing consultant”).
  • Include specific examples with numbers wherever possible.


3. Emphasize how you’re different

Part of the reason people write with marketing fluff is that they see other sites doing it. The related problem with looking a lot at your competitors when writing copy is you end up sounding like everyone else. Jason Fried of 37 Signals points out the absurdity of this approach: “Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody?”

This does not mean you should make up your own vocabulary (see Principle 2). It means you should use plain English to clearly articulate what makes you different. Here are some tricks to finding and describing your unique points:

  • Pretend you’re talking to a perfect potential customer who’s deciding between you and your top competitors. She asks, “why should I pick you?” What do you tell her?
  • Don’t focus solely on features (e.g. “polyurethane sole”); highlight the customer benefits of those features (“no more sore feet”).
  • When you have your list of differentiators, go through and write the opposite of each item (“fast customer support” becomes “slow customer support”). Then ask whether a competitor could say this with a straight face. If the answer is “no way!” to everything on your list, you’re using too many clichés and need to dig deeper to identify how you’re truly unique (“100% US-based customer support”).


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What other tips do you have for writing on the Web? Share them on our blog.

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