I have been writing web content for the better part of… well, forever.
And in all that time, the trends and best practices for effective writing have certainly gone through a lot of changes.
I still recall the good old days of “a web page must be 250 – 300 words and have a keyword density of roughly 10 – 15%.”
It was simple. It was practically mechanical. And it didn’t even have to be particularly good or useful because it was just going to be tagged at the very bottom of a page where no one was actually going to see it.
Hmm. Then again, sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. At this very moment, you could go over to one of your favorite online retailers and scroll to the bottom of one of their category pages and what will you find?
Well, at Amazon.com you might see:
And at Walmart.com you could read something like:
Look at that. 200 – 400 words of keyword-inclusive content featuring a title with a keyword and a link with a keyword (on Walmart’s content). Classic SEO content in these modern times on some massive websites.
This format is fairly common around the web, and there’s a simple reason for it. Most websites were not created for the content. They were created to move product. So where are the words going to fit into that kind of design?
Well, generally speaking, they fit in down at the bottom.
Which is unfortunate, but don’t let that stop you from writing better content and finding better ways to get it in front of your customers’ eyes.
The Standard Reminders
Before we delve a little deeper into how to write better content, let’s just mention some things you’ve probably heard before, but need to be stated for the sake of completeness.
- Write for a human being, not for a search engine.
- Always be relevant to the page.
- Overoptimization will cancel out all your hard work.
Your Goal for Web Content Writing
So now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s start by listing your goals for web content.
- Increase the perceived value of the product or service.
- Reduce the perceived friction between a customer arriving on the site and making a purchase.
- Answer the customers’ questions.
- Make the next action clear and simple.
- Help the search engines understand the topic relevance of the page.
It should be noted, perhaps, that a few paragraphs hidden away at the bottom of the page are unlikely to accomplish any of those goals (with the possible exception of #5). Just something to point out if you have any input on the design of the page.
Get The Voice Right
A lot of us creative writer types will talk about “the voice” like it is some mystical entity that will whisper sweet words of encouragement to even the most jaded of consumers.
While that’s just a bit of a romanticized way to look at it, your brand does need to have a recognizable voice.
Your brand voice is how you write and speak about your company. It’s the language you use to send a message about your company and build stronger connections with your customers.
How do you do this?
By writing content that balances emotional and functional appeal. In other words, if you’re only speaking to the emotional side of your customers, then you’re only delivering empty content.
On the other hand, if you’re just talking about features alone, you might as well email them a spreadsheet.
This can be a pretty difficult balance to strike, but it’s possible if you keep your content focused on the customer, rather than the company.
You can appeal to their emotional side by showing that you understand their needs, and proving that you want their trust. Then, you can show off the features of the products or services and help them understand how it will solve their current problems.
The most important thing about the brand voice, though, is that it should speak to the customer. It should focus on what they get, not what you have.
You can move away from saying:
Our custom software is the solution. At [Great Company X], all of our apps are built to order, and we will make sure that they are made to your exact specifications.
Your new, custom software solution has everything you need to deliver a smooth and intuitive user experience. Start building a new app that meets your exact specifications.
Writing for SEO: What is Necessary and What Isn’t
So, now we’ve established your voice is all about writing to and for your actual, living, breathing customers. However, that doesn’t mean we want to leave the search engines out in the cold. So, let’s address some important SEO writing elements.
Keywords – You can’t treat these the way we used to. Writing for SEO is no longer about fitting a keyword into the content “as naturally as possible.” There’s a much more effective way to go about it.
You can do a lot more with content that was created to support a topic than content created strictly to include a keyword. We’ve talked about why it can be detrimental to fixate on single keywords to judge the success of your campaign, and the same applies to your content. The online environment and your customers’ behavior can’t be boiled down to single keywords.
The usual prescription for using keywords is once in the title, the header, and the body, and that’s more or less a safe guideline. But if you start thinking in terms of topics rather than keywords, you’ll start to see new ways to connect other pages and get more benefit from your content.
Links – Links should help support this topic relevance. Don’t force them into the content, and don’t link to irrelevant pages just because you’re hoping to see a boost in rankings. You can link to important information on your site or blog or downloadable assets if they really help people understand your products or services.
The best rule to adopt in this instance is simple. Ask yourself if you’d be okay with someone leaving that page at that moment. If not, don’t put a link there.
Titles/Headlines – All marketing messages, including web page titles, should be centered on the interests of the customers. Craft your headlines to highlight what the visitors get rather than what you have or what they must do.
The goal of a headline is to 1) grab attention, and 2) give the reader a reason to move to the body content. You can do this by using a “point-first” structure, meaning that you put the value at the front of the headline.
The Elements of Style
Writing – even SEO writing – isn’t a mechanical process. There’s always going to be some art and style to it. This, I find, is why a lot of people believe they aren’t ready to write your own content.
If you fall into this category, I recommend “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White. If you master the grammatical and stylistic guidelines in this book, your content will at least look professional.
For now, though, I’d just like to pull out a few of the guidelines in the book and highlight them here, since they address some of the problems I continue to see in web content. (They’re numbered as they are in the book so you can follow along if you like.)
- Use the active voice.
The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:
I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.
This is much better than
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind.
You can avoid using the passive voice by never starting sentences with “because of,” “with,” “to,” “when it comes to,” or using words like “have been,” or “being.”
- Put statements in positive form.
Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.
He was not very often on time. vs. He usually came late.
In the web content writing world, it’s tempting to begin the phrase with: “not only does it do this, but it also does that.” Instead, just say: “it does this AND it does that.”
Stay grammatically positive. This way you never have to say what your products and services are not.
- Use definite, specific, concrete language.
Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.
I’m a fan of marketingexperiments.com, and they sum this rule up thusly: “Clarity trumps persuasion.”
- Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts
When SEO writing focuses too much on getting in all the right keywords, a ton of needless words may come with them. This isn’t an absolutely terrible thing, but you can use it as a gauge for when you’re trying too hard to fit in a keyword.
A Couple Nitpicky Suggestions
These are just a few small things, and we’ve previously discussed whether or not grammar even matters in content marketing. But, over the years, I’ve decided these are some guidelines that absolutely deserve to be mentioned.
- The only people who use semicolons are English majors trying to prove they know how to use semicolons. For the rest of us, there are better ways to structure sentences.
- Do not use exclamation marks!!!!!!! Exclamation marks are for infomercials and car dealerships. I will allow you to use an exclamation mark the day you see apple.com or other major international brands using them.
- Never start your web content with a question. You’re not here to ask them a question. They’re here because they want an answer.
Stay Focused on Goals, Not Just Keywords
Web content writing is something of a balancing act. You have to create quality content that highlights the functional and emotional benefits of a product or service. It has to appeal to both search engines and real people. It has to immediately grab attention yet be more than clickbait.
It is possible to walk this line. The key is to focus on what you really want.
Do you want to rank for certain keywords, or do you want more sales (or signups, or visitors)?
When you can answer that question correctly, you’ll be on your way to developing better web content.
Content is just one part of a complete online marketing campaign. Download this eBook to see how it fits into the bigger picture.