Online copywriting for SEO | Breaking the rules

If you Google ‘writing for the web’ you will find a plethora of advice articles on how to write successful copy for internet users. They’ll tell you to make it brief, but not too brief; make it succinct, but don’t dumb down your message; limit your page length, although long pages get more clicks.

Yes, it’s a minefield of conflicting information for any novice online copywriter. Or, you’ll find the same information repeated, copy and paste style, from website to website to website – which isn’t very useful and is definitely a no-no for effective SEO (search engine optimisation).

So, what’s the answer? Here are BORN’s tips, and there’s a caveat here – you won’t have read these anywhere else.

Forget the rules taught in your degree/writing course

Academic writing does not generally go down well on the internet. While creativity is still sought after in online copywriting; long, complicated sentence structure is not. Make it snappy, active and keep your paragraphs short – I mean really short!

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© Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr, under CC licence

Listen to your client, not your inner academic

Most online copywriters will be producing content for various clients or about an assortment of products and services, so, whatever you do as you put fingers to the keyboard, listen to what the client asks for or what the brand proposition tells you about the users of the product.

If your client wants you to refer to four-wheeled, motorised vehicles only as ‘cars’, you’re soon going to be writing a paragraph featuring five instances of car. And, although you’ll envisage your creative writing tutors turning purple with steam coming out of their ears, you will be risking the wrath of your client if you start using other naming conventions. There are numerous ways around issues such as this and good writers will always find a way.

Remember, your client knows their market (at least the good ones will) better than you, so if they tell you that your writing contains too much jargon, or that the users of their products are predominantly women over the age of 50 and you’ve pitched it at teenagers, you must adapt your writing style. It sounds obvious, but think how many times you have been reading online copy and thought to yourself that the writer is presuming too much about you (and yes, I have presumed that you studied your craft) or that the technical speak is too much for you to understand – click – you’ve gone from the page, or ‘bounced’ as it’s known in the industry.

(bounce – when a person leaves a website from the landing page without browsing any further)

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© Mitch Barrie via Flickr, under CC licence

Don’t patronise your audience

It’s your first day on the job and you are asked to write a piece about climbing Mount Everest for a company which makes high-end climbing equipment. Great, you think, I don’t know anything about rock climbing, so I’ll Google Mount Everest… and you start your article with the immortal and oft-used words – Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world and it lies on the border of Nepal and Tibet.

Now, chances are that the people coming to the website to buy 12 point step-in crampons or a crevasse rescue kit will probably already be aware of where Everest is situated on the planet, so telling them the basic facts may just be the ultimate turn-off.

Try opening with something that will grab their attention – a startling statistic perhaps, or a fact about how much human waste is being left on the mountain and the associated detriment – with a nice link to ‘pee-bottles’ so that the reader can start shopping for equipment if they so wish.

The main issue to remember is that although you, as an online copywriter, might not know a lot about your subject matter, your reader is likely to be landing on your page because they have made a specific search and so you need to either know the facts (lots of research required) or be skilled enough to give your knowledgeable reader something they can engage with.

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© Katl Kuchs via Flickr, under CC licence

Stay fresh – use C&P at your peril

It goes without saying, well I hope it does, that duplicate copy on the internet is a burden to users and not good for web rankings.

If a user wants a fresh take on how to keep kids entertained during school holidays and the three search returns they click on are the same hints and tips regurgitated almost word for word on three different websites, then they’ll be pretty quick to bounce each time.

Also, search engine spiders can tell if you are ripping off another website’s content – yes, even if you substitute the odd word and move the sentences around a bit – and while your site might not necessarily be penalised for duplicate content, it certainly won’t gain any ranking benefit for the cost and effort put into producing the page.

Ultimately, when writing for the web and especially in terms of SEO, ‘copy and paste’ is a very dirty concept. C&P is plain old plagiarism dressed in an internet jacket.

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© life fanclub via Flickr, under CC licence

Don’t follow the rules…necessarily

My advice, as a seasoned writer for websites, is to have the nature of what you are writing about, who you are writing it for, and sound business reasoning for the article or blog post at the forefront of your mind as you head for the keyboard…and then take all the web-writing advice articles out there (but not this one, obviously) with a pinch of salt.

BORN’s lead SEO told the copywriting team recently that empirical evidence has proved articles and blogs of around 3,000 to 10,000 words perform best in Google and gain more views, likes and shares than shorter content. But there’s not a reader (or writer) in the world who would tell you 3,000 words is a succinct treatment of any subject matter and most online writing guides say keep it short, keep it simple. Who’s right then?

I would argue that 3,000 plus words on making things out of egg boxes might keep the parents happy, but they’ll possibly waste the best part of the day reading your fabulous article and, meanwhile, the kids have buried the dog in a pile of playsand and progressed to using kitchen utensils and a small section of fence to recreate the Leaning Tower of Pisa out of mud and a few of your neighbour’s prize cucumbers. Yet, 10,000 words on surviving an Everest blizzard doesn’t sound like an overegging of the pudding.

So, go ahead, break the rules – but remember; keep it appropriate, keep it engaging and you’ll get the results you want.

Whilst Google will have its own ideas about the right length of an article (it’s all in the algorithm), only you can decide (and perhaps your client) the raisin d’etre for your content and the level at which you pitch it.

Last words

You need to be creative, well-researched and mindful of your audience. Give your reader something that they’re searching for and Google will reward you (well, your website anyway). And finally, enjoy your work, love your vocabulary, and realise that writing for the web is a singular technique with its own challenges and rewards.

You can do it – you are a writer, after all.

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