Write for Robots. Write for People.

By Andy Crestodina

Without good web copy, the best team of designers and programmers in the world can’t help you. The goal is good writing and a clear, concise message that speaks to the target audience.

But let’s assume that you already have that: Maybe you’re repurposing some amazing copy that you’ve used for another medium – a print piece, perhaps. How can you adapt it to work well online?

If you want people to find you, you have to speak to search engines. But if you want them to stay, you have to speak to people. Writing for search and writing for visitors are often competing endeavors.

Write for people

Think of how you look at a newspaper: skim headlines, take in the first few sentences of interesting articles, and if an opening captures you, read on to get to the meat of the piece.

Feature journalists and copywriters often strive to evoke emotion and pique your curiosity early on. Once they’ve captured your attention, they develop the central themes of the story.

Web writers, on the other hand, structure content in a sort of inverted triangle: meat first, details later. Why the stark contrast?

Well, think of how you look at web sites: Click, glance, click, scan, read a little, click, next page, click, click. Your eyes quickly gather an idea of what the page is about, your brain decides if you’re interested, and then you read a bit or move on. The entire process takes only a few seconds.

To support this quick-to-click behavior, web copy should be easy to scan and understand at a glance. It should include plenty of

  • Bulleted lists (like this one)
  • Captions
  • Headings and sub-headings
  • Bolding
  • Short paragraphs
  • Links

Write for robots

If you’re concerned with your rank in search engines, this next part’s for you.

Targeted web content is one of the keys to successful search engine optimization (SEO). There are 3 basic steps for creating web copy that will boost your search position:

  1. Research the optimal phrases for your business
  2. Select your keywords through careful analysis
  3. Show your relevance with optimized copy

Let’s look at an example:

Say you’re creating a site for your Chicago-based knitting store. To show search engines that you’re relevant, you’ll have to boost your keyword frequency – which means that you might have to bend the rules of writing for people.

Ideally, your key phrase will appear 5 – 7 times in the body text of the page (links and headers don’t count here – although your keyword should definitely appear there as well).

So you start with this:

“Learning to knit is easy. Just sign up for our convenient classes.”

But, since “knitting classes” is the target phrase, you change it to this:

“Knitting is easy to learn when you sign up for our convenient knitting classes.”

In the first case, “knitting classes” never appeared as a complete phrase. In fact, the word “knitting” didn’t show up at all. As a bonus, “knitting” appears twice in the revised sentence.

True, the first example sounds better. But if you’re competing for search-engine ranking, you’re better off with the second version.

Ready for a real challenge? Work the word “Chicago” into the page 5-7 times – and keep it next to “knitting classes” if you can. This is where it gets tricky. After all, you might lose visitors if your copy is too clunky and repetitive, like this:

“It’s easy to learn knitting in Chicago if you sign up for Chicago knitting classes.”

Or even worse:

“A new class of Chicago knitting classes is now available in Chicago for those interested in a knitting class.”

This is called keyword stuffing, and I don’t recommend it. It goes too far.

Instead, spread out your phrases so the text makes sense for humans. This is easier to achieve if you have a few hundred words on the page. (After all, search engines love text-heavy sites.)

It’s all about striking a balance. Don’t sacrifice your message for your rank. Instead, focus on getting people to your page and keeping them there with targeted, concise content.

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