What advice would you give to new freelance copywriters about getting to grips with search engine optimisation? I wrote the following to someone recently who is starting out as a copywriter, and who wondered how techy one needs to be.
I don’t think you need to be techy.
Position yourself as a copywriter, not an SEO expert. Show that you are SEO savvy in your writing – but let others take the blame if the client isn’t #1 in Google.
There is almost as much writing about SEO on the Internet as there is porn and pictures of kittens. Quite overwhelming. On the other hand, good advice is freely available if you know what you’re looking for.
These are the basics of what a web copywriter should do when it comes to SEO:
1. Write self-descriptive headlines and copy – in other words the copy is clearly about its subject.
2. Mention search keywords in everything you write. (Ask your clients for their keywords).
3. Add a healthy dose of hyperlinks to other content on the same site.
Where it falls within your remit, you should also know how to do the following:
4. Hand craft metadata for each page, making the following readable and full of keywords:
These are quite straightforward – a quick Google search will tell you what they are.
5. Suggest URLs (unique webpage address) with keywords in – although these may be auto generated.
The first 20 pages of Google’s Search Engine Optimisation Starter Guide cover most of those elements.
And the guiding principle is never, never, never do any of these things to the detriment of readability. I like Adam Tinworth’s summary of the tension between SEO and content.
After that, the rest of SEO is either out of your hands (structural stuff) or most likely snake oil. Google constantly updates its search algorithm, trying to reward the best content – not the best optimised content. In other words, content that is well written, well structured and clearly about its subject will eventually win out. People who attempt to game the system may get wiped out the next time Google releases an update. That sort of SEO is a mug’s game.
Hence our approach at Fluent.
And that’s it. Including SEO in your copywriting is way easier than SEO salespeople would make out. The key thing is simply to write clearly, briefly and full of meaning.
You may have trouble reading this if semen makes you giggle.
Webinar comes from seminar plus web. The word seminar means ideas (semen) plus a context in which to share those ideas (–ar). Webinar is supposed to mean a place to share ideas on the web. Surely if you wanted to coin a new word to communicate this, you would change the suffix –ar which relates to the place, and not chop semin – the spunky ideas bit – in half.
Admittedly, nothing comes to mind for how you would do this. But what’s wrong with web seminar? Even, at a push, e-seminar?
Webinar is a portmanteau word – a new word made by blending together two existing words. You already know lots of portmanteau words:
blog = web + log
brunch = breakfast + lunch
email = electronic + mail
camcorder = camera + recorder
moobs = man + boobs
mockumentary = mock + documentary
Brangelina = Brad + Angelina
The Wikipedia (wiki + encyclopaedia) list of common portmanteau words shows that the Internet and computing sector has contributed its fair share. So it is no surprise that we have ended up with:
webinar = web + seminar
The English word seminar comes, via German, from the Latin seminarium, meaning ‘seed plot’. Literally, a place for seeds:
seminarium = semen (seed) + arium (a place for)
Words that derive from seminarium often follow this pattern. They have the semin– bit at the start to mean the seeds or ideas, followed by a suffix that indicates the environment in which these ideas are being planted:
seminary = semen (ideas) + –ary (a place containing)
seminar = semen (ideas) + –ar (pertaining to)
The first part that tells you we’re talking about ideas, and the second part indicates a location or context for those ideas.
Webinar was coined because the web presented a new location for people to share their ideas. But it has broken up the word seminar in the wrong way. In its construction, semin-ar already had ideas plus location coded into it. When the location changed, the ending of the word was up for grabs. But the trunk – the part that means ‘ideas’ – is significant for the meaning of the word.
Here are some strange examples of what would happen if we followed this pattern when joining other words together.
It’s like Miss Jones getting married and becoming Miss Mrs-nes (excuse the dated nature of that example).
It’s like the festival of apples in Appletown being named ‘Festivaltown’.
It’s like calling my Italian version of a Spanish tortilla a ‘Spanish Italianilla’.
Keeping the –inar part of seminar makes little sense. It is not a clean break. It destroys the significant meaning of the word, and retains the less relevant part.
web + –in (half of semen/idea) + –ar (pertaining to)
A webinar literally pertains to half an idea on the web. Insert your own joke about lack of spunk, or ideas being half-cocked, or webinar not having the balls.
As it turns out, many webinars do seem half-cocked, being less about interactive learning and more about listening to some chump banging on about marketing.
Of course, language is fluid (no pun intended) and constantly changing. The words that are accepted into common usage are simply the words that get used. I am entirely open to the criticism that my judgement on how crude a formation is doesn’t matter one bit. If people use it, as they are, then it’s a word.
And so it is. Webinar is already in some dictionaries. But it is exactly because language is a river that flows from the usage of everyday people that I, as one everyday person myself, occasionally want to stick my twig into the water and say: “what an ugly word. I’m definitely not going to use that.”
Most likely my twig will get swept away to be dashed on the falls of corporate jargon. There is a small chance that it will cause a little eddy, or join some other debris to cause a blockage. At the least it may show other webinar-hating tiny twig bearers that they do not suffer alone.
At Fluent we’re making more and more mobile sites. Writing for mobile – whether apps, mobile only sites or websites optimised for the small screen – is a challenge. Space is limited. The user interface is different. Most of the time, users don’t want to read.
This is how we’ve been facing the challenge so far.
The main rule about writing for mobile is that you shouldn’t. Mobile users are task-focused and short on patience, and their screens small. They don’t want words getting in the way of what they are trying to achieve. Reading is harder on a mobile phone.
George Orwell’s dictum, ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out,’ has rarely been more appropriate. Look for as many ways as possible to avoid using words altogether.
The key with mobile design is to deliver what the user is trying to do, and nothing else. The temptation, especially if you already have a full desktop website, is to add other content to the page: internal adverts, disclaimers, company information. But on a mobile screen, this doesn’t work. It distracts and confuses.
Present only the core service, supported by only the core words.
Jakob Nielsen calls this deferring secondary content (he makes it sound like a military procedure – yes sir!). If further content is necessary, put it on other pages. But keep each page about one thing.
For example, on the Checkatrade front page you can check out a tradesperson that you have heard of, or search for a tradesperson in your area. For their mobile site, we reduced it to only the second task. The first task is on its own page, linked to from further down the front page.
Notice how for mobile the section has no subheading, the microcopy is reduced and watermarked in the text box, and the location geocoded to reduce user typing.
Of course, people still read on their phones. I couldn’t survive my kids’ swimming lessons without a stack of articles to read via Readability. When people want to read, they will. But when they’re looking for a restaurant contact number, film times or an emergency electrician, that’s when words can get in the way.
Nielsen identifies a paradox of mobile users: they want to kill time but not waste it. They are in a rush to get to what they want, even if they will spend time on it when they get there. For reading, there is a distinction between reading to accomplish a task versus reading as the task itself.
When we write copy for mobile sites, we need to know the difference. We need to shut up until people want us to talk.
Some people say that mobile copy should be less formal in tone. Not necessarily. An informal tone may take up less space by using ‘you’ll’ instead of ‘you will’, but a more formal tone can omit the ‘howdy’s and ‘awesome’s.
It’s up to the client how they want to come across. The big change from their desktop site is not in register but in utility – people just want to get the job done. Trying to appear super-friendly-cool might be just as annoying as formally explaining what the company believes.
On one mobile site that we made recently we added a little copy back to the front page, linking to the main site, so that users would realise it was not an isolated app but the tip of a large iceberg. The page was still task focused, but encouraged visiting the full site later for additional services.
On a small screen we need to be extra sensitive about the layout of words, working closely with the designer to keep it tidy. The difference between two lines or three on a mobile screen is significant.
So mop up the widows and orphans, choose small words for buttons and distil strap lines and marketing copy into their shortest possible form. Where copy is going to be truncated, for example in a list of headlines, make sure that you know how many characters will be displayed, and front load with meaningful words accordingly.
Text links are hard to select on a smartphone, even more so if they are close together. Copy should not be peppered with links, nor crucial to the navigation.
Navigational links need not necessarily be text anyway, as whole areas can be made into touch targets. This is an example of the differences between desktop and mobile user interfaces.
As a writer, you will not necessarily be creating the UI. But you should be working with those who are. You are less likely to use a contact page than a phone now button. Location can be geocoded. Principle navigation needs to be obvious – a few, consistent large targets at the top of the page.
When writing for a mobile site collaboration with developers and designers is more important than ever. Reading back though what I’m learning about writing for mobile, I can’t help thinking that most desktop websites would benefit from this advice too.
I made the mistake of booking a car recently and then googling the hire company. The second organic link, after the hire company’s own website, was from TripAdvisor. The page title was ‘AVOID Via Kiwi car rentals’ (name changed).
My heart sank.
Clicking through to the whole post, though, the picture became clearer. A couple that had no complaints about the actual service had lost a pair of sunglasses. They thought that they left them in the car, but the car company couldn’t locate them. So they went on to TripAdvisor and wrote a bitchy review.
Really? You lose one of the two uninsurable travel items somewhere and assume it’s the car hire company’s fault and slag them off on the Internet?
It is no wonder that TripAdvisor has recently been pulled up for claiming that you can trust their reviews. Which is a pretty damning indictment of a company whose value is in providing … trustworthy reviews.
The Advertising Standards Authority looked into complaints about TripAdvisor’s use of phrases that included, ‘real reviews’ and ‘trusted advice’ from ‘real travellers’, as well as ‘honest travel reviews’ and ‘reviews you can trust’.
The review-monger responded that the ASA’s view was ‘highly technical’, which it doesn’t seem to be at all. If the reviews aren’t trustworthy, then you can’t claim that they are. I wish more companies would be technically honest about what their products and services actually do.
I imagine most of the reviews on TripAdvisor are real and honest. But the problem is that whatever they claim about their monitoring of suspicious activity, it seems reviews are still unverified. I could go on the website right now and write a cruel story about a hotel I have never even heard of, never mind stayed at. And it would be published. This gaping hole allows disgruntled, blackmailing customers, malicious competitors and any number of the Internet’s trolls to have a pop at anyone they choose.
Reviews count. They are important social proof. So is there a way to make them fairer than an open, lightly moderated forum, and yet still scalable?
Checkatrade are one of our clients (they don’t know that I’m writing this). They host a directory of tradespeople, about whom they publish customer feedback, or reviews. But their model is different.
When it comes to the reviewers and the reviewed, TripAdvisor are impartial. They make their money from third parties: advertisers and affiliates. As long as the traffic keeps coming to the website – and a negative headline on the first page of Google is going to help – then there is fuel for advertising dollars.
Checkatrade, on the other hand, make their money from the reviewed party. Tradespeople pay to be first vetted by the company (and not every business makes the grade), and then monitored by customer feedback. So the reviewed party are the paying members.
One thing that the members certainly cannot buy is good feedback. Their customers go onto the Checkatrade website and submit reviews of their work, good or bad. Each review is linked to a job that the member has completed – submitted (though not published) with real names – to rule out fictional reviews.
Still, what happens if a customer is in a vindictive mood? Because Checkatrade want happy members, they do everything that they can to ensure that the feedback is fair. This involves many measures, including moderation, speaking to the customer, opportunity for negotiation between the parties over issues raised, and a right to reply from the tradesperson.
Does this stack the odds against the consumer, the reviewer? Actually, no. Members are valuable to Checkatrade but what is valuable to the members is consumers trusting and using the directory. If the review system is not kept fair, then people will stop using the service. The three parties need each other – and that keeps the system in balance.
TripAdvisor, on the other hand, needs traffic. It is not in bed with either the reviewer or the reviewed. If hotel owners feel that TripAdvisor doesn’t care about them, it’s because it doesn’t.
There are other differences, but this seems to be the obvious point of departure. If the review site, the reviewer and the reviewed all depend on each other more closely, then I suspect that a natural balance is achieved more easily.
As for those critical reviews on TripAdvisor, I do think that genuine bad service should be exposed. But I’m more in favour of rewarding the good stuff. The next time you are delighted by a service or enjoy reading an article, make sure you shout about it one way or another, even if you’re an introvert.
When I was a kid we had a wonderful and slightly disturbing book called Would You Rather? by the brilliant illustrator John Burningham. It was fun choosing between supper in a castle and breakfast in a balloon, but there were also more alarming choices, such as: which wild animal would you rather be killed by? (Everybody knows that good kids’ books need a dark undertone…).
The would-you-rather that Fluent encounters repeatedly with clients is: would you rather have some sales or more enquiries? Usually the question relates to the hiding of key information. Tell prospects everything and they might not buy. Conceal something vital and they’ll have to get in touch.
For example, in the hunt for more bookings, one hospitality client is being tempted to remove the availability calendar. The reasoning is twofold: first, that an empty calendar might scare people away; and second, that forcing an enquiry form request gives the company an opportunity to sell alternative dates or holidays if the original dates are not going to work out.
The first point is pretty compelling. An empty calendar is negative social proof. It drains confidence from the consumer. What do other people know about this place that I don’t?
However, if you’ve got no bookings, it’s probably not your calendar to blame. Make people want your product enough, through rich descriptions, compelling marketing and social proof, like positive reviews – and the empty calendar won’t matter. It might even be seen as a stroke of good luck – we found this gem before anyone else did.
The second point is more convincing. It is similar to the argument for concealing price. It gives prospects a reason to get in touch with you. Instead of a few sales, you can get many enquiries. Some of our clients feel that this puts them in control of the sales funnel – instead of people just bouncing off their website, they get to talk to potential sales. They can explain the benefits that justify the price in person. Or offer alternative dates. They can put on their sales hat, roll up their sleeves, and do everything within their power to convert each lead.
Which is my idea of hell.
I hate being sold to. I just turned down a better phone contract from a company because of their hideous sales technique. I would rather pay to keep my dignity and be afforded, calmly, the space to make my own decision.
It’s no surprise then that I also hate having to sell. But there are plenty of other people who are good at it. Who love it. Perhaps for them, creating some intrigue and drumming up enquiries is the way to go.
I do wonder, though, if some of the businesses keen on getting direct enquiries don’t trust their own websites. If they suspect that prospects are slipping through the net, and that the only way they can know for sure is to talk to the leads in person.
Obviously that doesn’t scale so well. But also – you’ve got to create a website for your company that you trust. Take time to craft a compelling sales message with all the information that users need to make a decision up front. Create an easy, useful, delightful user experience. That is, after all, what our hospitality client said himself:
When I look for places to stay I find it really frustrating when they don’t show when they are full because I have to complete so many enquiry forms and then try to keep track of who have replied.
Exactly. Doesn’t helpfulness and clarity make people’s lives easier and make them more likely to buy from you? You may not get all those enquiries, but you’ll get some bookings, and, crucially, you’re playing a longer-term game of building trust with your users.
It’s do unto others – with UX. Create the experience for users that you would like to have yourself.
Surrendering to a helpful user experience doesn’t have to mean being in the dark about what is happening on your website. You can measure specific behaviours in analytics to see how people are using your site –what they look at before buying, or at what point they turn away.
And there is a middle way with sales versus enquiries. Why not be as useful and informative as possible up front but provide an opportunity for enquiry as well? Under the calendar put ‘get in touch if you’d like to know about cancellations’. Under the price put ‘call us to find out what discounts we are running this month’.
At Fluent we lean towards fashioning the most useful user experience: to create a strong, trustworthy image online for our clients. Having said that, if they are salespeople, and like nothing more than a hot lead on the end of the phone … we don’t stand in their way.
Of course, there are much more significant questions for us all to consider anyway. How can we worry about our websites when there are such vital decisions to be made as: crushed to oblivion by a rhinoceros or tickled to death by monkeys?
You’re not going mad – there was a ‘free sample’ offer on SmyWord. But I canned it.
I wanted people to be able to try before they buy – to sample the difference strategic thinking about content can make up front. Give me something to work on for an hour, and I’ll do it for free.
And we had some fun. I met Pitchup, champions of the staycation, who are merrily tearing up the camping and caravanning industry. SweetBar won an award for having a ‘clear, easy to read website’ after I had made (a small part of it) clear and easy to read. Picture Mix also got in touch – an exciting startup with potential to change the way that we think in a profoundly helpful way.
When I think about it, all three of these connections also involved mutual friends.
Most other enquirers just wanted a freebie. Many of their projects were interesting (only two were slightly unethical) but they were never going to buy. Like eating the free cheese sample in the supermarket, not because there’s a remote chance you’ll purchase Cornish yarg, but because you forgot to have breakfast. Really, I can haz another cube?
And that’s fair enough. I was glad to be able to help even in a small way. But one hour’s work is not going to help a project succeed in the longer term – for that, businesses need to grasp the nettle and invest some time and money and their best thinking into content strategy.
It’s not that the free hour offer didn’t lead to more work. 47% of free samples led to, or were part of, further projects. But these were mostly one-offs, ranging in size from tiny to small. I suspect most of these clients would have approached me anyway –the free hour was a handy way to discount the job.
So I’ve learned, unsurprisingly, that ‘free’ appeals to people with little money to spend, and that the best new work often comes via mutual connections.
That’s why the offer has gone. But let me make a new one: if you are serious about getting your web project to succeed and want to find out more about how improving your content over time will make that happen, let’s talk about it. Completely free.
Everything about the latest content strategy meetup in London was squished. There were 100 of us sardined into a pub basement. The chairs were closer together than a double booked EasyJet flight and the guy next to me at the urinals kept setting the hand drier off while he was peeing.
What’s more, the talks were condensed into 5 minutes each – slavishly tied to 20-second slides so that there was no room at all for expansion. That meant we cut straight to the chase of the good stuff, and the less interesting ones were over quickly. Actually, it was a gratifying way to hear the content about content.
It also meant that we heard about 11 varied subjects in an hour, from Open Source CMS to specific copy production models and from case studies to the importance of context. I did the student thing and took notes (I have a lot to learn).
Mags Hanley talked about content strategy for very small business, with an example from a client who runs a website business on her own. The crucial question is what content will make her money, and bring people into using the site? She had to be aware of the three main audiences using the website: the consumers, advertisers, and the owner herself – as she is the editor and publisher. It’s important to think tactically as well as strategically.
Tom Bamford gave a little walkthrough of semantic content. We’ve all seen the mess that is a copy from Word into a rich text editor. Content creators need a distraction-free basic toolbar and a decent grasp of semantic markup so they don’t make it even worse. Always customise your rich text editor. Then they’ll make content that reads well, to humans as well as Google, and which is more accessible.
David Farbey pointed out that 90% of corporate company content is offline. Some of that will inevitably inform what ends up on the website. A strategy is needed not just for the website content but for all the content. The problem is that people work in silos and they don’t read style guides. Get people working together, sharing content, get the tech writers involved. Oh, and you’ll need a sponsor within the company to make this happen.
Steve Parks’s subject was Open Source CMS and its use in enterprise. Open source’s popularity has grown. For it to work, it’s got to be about collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. He gave a great example of Sony using a Drupal system for an artists’ website. When Warner copied the code Sony was at first hacked off. But when Warner improved it, and shared it back with Sony, they got married and had beautiful babies. All this does mean that open source developers need to approach what they do as a professional service.
Rick Yagodich emphasised the importance of context to meaning – it is the third musketeer along with content and presentation (structure). Marketers know this. They talk about segmentation. But digital takes things out of context again. Deal with your customers, contextualize for them, and for your message at the word level.
Francois Jordaan played Eeyore. His final slide was a car half submerged in a flood. Content strategy is a great idea he said, but still mostly doomed to fail. Most companies are not ready to become publishers when it comes to the web. And training them is hard. Content is going wrong for human reasons, which we have the least power and remit to solve. We could get better at spotting lost causes at least. Has anyone seen my tail?
Joanna Pieters lifted the mood again by sharing her model for ensuring the best copy makes it to a website in the prominent position it deserves. Fraudulent copy is the copy that look good but take attention away from the best stuff. Her ‘benefits checker’ model creates practical statements for a user persona – first factual and then emotional. All copy is checked for its ability to make these statements true.
Jonny Rose charted the shift to talking about ‘experiences’ when it comes to content. This is about people as much as content. And we’re lucky to have lots of data to measure. Put this together and your CMS can start to read people. For example, drawing from peoples’ social media output to give them what they want, and pushing relevant stuff to people. Next thing you know your CMS goes bad and won’t let you back through the pod bay doors. No, wait, he didn’t say that last bit.
Michael Alves said never be content with your content. It should inform and entertain. Make it interesting fer Chrissakes! Do this, in this order: analyse, strategise, categorise, structure, create, review, approve, publish, update, archive. People don’t read advertising – they read what’s interesting to them.
Peter Springett reminded us with a twinkle in his eye that CEOs know content is important, but want to know how much it costs. It boils down to value. How are we going to deliver value? One way is to make the publishing process repeatable and reuse content. Top tip for making the most of original content is to capture and store source materials whenever you research and create content. Archive everything. That way you can get loads of articles from one piece of research. Another way to deliver value is to seek out the talent. Audit your intelligence in the business. And remember, metrics are everything. Speak the language of a CEO.
There you have it. An compact evening reduced further to a blog post. If you were there – what struck you out of the lightning talks?