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Sunday, 27 September 2015 03:20

What's Right when Writing - How to Write Online Copy

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In school they teach us grammar and proper English as a lesson and you're penalized if you don't know the correct rules. Time was, where in the real world you needed to know these rules in order to write a business letter, for example. This was the way throughout society for many years.

In recent times though, advertising has seen narrative become much more conversational and informal. Younger companies with a hipper demographic try to capture their target audience with a more casual approach. But, as you're about to see, it's not just a stylistic change in the way we present our words to people -- there's more to it than that.

Whether you're writing a letter, writing a script for a commercial, or writing copy for a print ad, it's all the same since all of this is technically and ultimately writing for the eyes of a human being.

There's a big difference between writing specifically for a human being and writing for the internet, which will eventually (and hopefully) be consumed by humans. What you have to remember is that before your online content can reach anyone, it's most likely going to first be filtered through a search engine which is going to make certain decisions about who's going to see your content.

Writing copy for a website is an entirely different process than writing for traditional marketing materials. Yes -- ultimately your message should be read by a human, but you need to optimize your content so it can first be found by said human. In order to be found, you must appeal to machines or, specifically, "spiders".

When I say "spiders" I'm not talking about arachnids. Most people are actually aware of theses spiders even if you're not familiar with the term. The single most popular spider is Google. Another is Bing. These are search engines.

These sites are known as "spiders" because they use bots to crawl your website and catalog your content. By keeping records of all website content, spiders are able to quickly access their archives of online content for when a user performs a search. This is much quicker than trying to scan all of those sites at the exact moment a user is doing their search.

With all of that in mind, now consider what you're writing and who you're writing for (or should I say "for whom you are writing"). A human will only see your content after a spider catalogs it and decides that it's the correct content the human is looking for. So the spider is actually making the first decision and the goal of an online writer is to appeal to the spider while making sure that your message still makes sense to a human.

Spiders compare the human search terms to their archives and decide what to serve as the search results. Keep in mind that there are a myriad of algorithms involved in this process. These algorithms can affect your specific ranking, but that's a different article all together. For our purposes, we're keeping this simple and focusing on content.

Quite frankly, in its most basic sense, you could optimize content for spiders simply by listing keywords and then inserting random words at a ratio of about 2% (i.e. mention "content" and then use fifty other words like "the", "it", "you", etc.) Your sentances don't technically need to make sense for spiders. This formula would get you a 2% keyword ratio for the word "content", but those random words still don't make sense to a human. To do that, you'll need to create an actual message using sentences that makes sense for humans as well.

It's important to note that using keywords too often (known as keyword stuffing) can actually get you penalized by search engines, so there's a balance that needs to be struck in order to achieve the best results.

The real difference between writing for the web and writing for other mediums can best be shown by giving examples. The following sentence about "content" might be how you would write a statement intended solely for human consumption:

Since spiders crawl your website and catalog your content, be sure to include keywords when writing for the web, which will improve SEO.

This first example is direct, succinct, and conversational with no wasted words or time. This same message (in an extreme instance) written for the internet might look like this:

If you are writing content for the web, you should always include keywords in this online content in order to improve your SEO (short for Search Engine Optimization). Keywords are very important to your content because spiders will crawl your website and catalog this content for later use when a user is searching for terms related to this content.

While this second example might be bordering on keyword stuffing, you get the idea -- expand your content without losing the message and use keywords more often. Obviously this may not be the best writing style for human consumption. That's because we generally don't speak this way. Regardless, the second example still manages to deliver the message effectively while achieving a few SEO advantages.

Keeping in mind the 2% rule, the keyword "content" is repeated more often in the second example. Since the physical space constraints and time constraints we experience in print or traditional advertising won't apply online, we're able to do this.

In order to achieve the 2% rule, we also use more words than we might in content intended solely for humans (i.e. "you are" versus "you're" creates an extra word, spelling out "SEO", etc.) Basically we're intentionally more verbose when writing for the internet, which allows us to repeat keywords more often and adhere to the 2% rule.

In general, when you're writing for traditional purposes like a direct mail piece you have physical limitations which are dictated by the amount of real estate provided by your finished piece. With radio and TV advertising you have time constraints based on the allotted time of your spot. Besides all of that, why not be succinct when you're writing for humans -- it's makes good marketing sense.

So the next time you're tasked with writing new content, consider where that content will be used. If it's going to be distributed through both traditional and digital marketing tools, then you'll need two different versions. The best way to approach this would be to start with one single narrative. Once you've gotten the first version completed, you can simply modify your content for the second project keeping in mind the rules of that particular writing style.

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John Croce

With over twenty years of experience in traditional and digital marketing, John Croce has worked in a variety of industries including technology, finance & banking, medical devices, healthcare, broadcast, and beauty & fashion.

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