When writing copy for websites, digital marketers have to consider the user experience first, which means the readability of the web content, as well as optimising the content for search engines. Google’s search engine is a robot and optimising a website for a robot is very different to making a website engaging for a human being. Digital marketers need to find the balance between maximum keyword density for SEO and the right tone and personality of the content to correctly represent their brand.
Before I go any further, there are a few elements to readability that I want to make sure you understand first. Website readability standards are in place to ensure that website content is easy to read and understand, as well as taking into consideration the users who may have impaired vision.
1. Flesch-Kincaid reading score. This readability score is designed to indicate comprehension difficulty for content, looking at factors such as word length and sentence length as well as the presence of 3+ syllable words etc. There are two types of Flesch-Kincaid reading score, but the most commonly used in website copywriting and readability is the Grade Level test. The grade level test indicates what level of comprehension your audience must have to understand your website content.
When you create a website you must have a target audience in mind and one can assume that you would use language that is relevant to this target audience. If you are speaking to an audience of engineers, you would use more technical language and assumed industry knowledge. In this example, the Flesch-Kincade grade level might be higher than if your website was targeting an audience of 13 year old skateboarders.
Having said that, it is still recommended to have website content with a medium Flesch-Kincard grade level score to ensure that your website is readable to a wider range of visitors – perhaps students researching for an exam.
2. Font styles and size are also important for website readability. You might be surprised to learn that not all fonts are compatible with html internet browsers (like Internet Explorer, Firefox and Google Chrome). So you need to choose a universal online or web-safe font, that has been designed for reading on screen and maximum legibility. You will be familiar with some of these, such as Arial, Century Gothic and Verdana. Every Windows PC and Mac will have these web-safe fonts included by default.
Font size is a little more controversial. There are varying opinions on what is the ideal font size for website body copy – the arguement ranges from a minimum of 12 point up to 16 – here is a website that effectively argues that 16 pixel font size is the best for website readability. Often it comes down to web design and the debate between whether people like or dislike long scrolling pages (my personal opinion is that users are not opposed to scrolling) – because the larger the font, the longer the page. I would recommend 13 point font.
3. Contrasting colours make it easier for everyone to read the words on the page – vision impaired or not. A website designed with good readability principles in mind will always ensure that the html background is not busy and that the text is in high contrast to the background. For instance, black text on a white background are the classic example of contrasting colours, that have been a readability standard long before we were reading on screens. As you might have experienced personally, reading on screen can cause eye fatigue. When building a website we want to make sure that we are making it as easy and safe as possible for our users to spend as much time as they want reading our content.
Ok, so now that we’ve got the fundamentals of website readability out of the way, I’ll try to explain how that relates to copywriting for websites and search engines.
Effective copywriting for websites is about understanding the medium you’re writing in and structuring your content specifically for an audience reading online. Excellent web content is no different to excellent written content in a magazine, it still requires an interesting story, well composed sentences and paragraphs and an attractive turn of phrase. However, what works in print cannot just be copy and pasted online.
When users are reading online, they’re in a different frame of mind than when they’re researching in a library or reading a book. To be most effective, whether the content already exists in print form or not, when its being used as website content it must be (re)created for the web to take into considerations the following principles.
- Break your content into smaller chunks and use sub-headings
- Use bullet points to make it easy for your readers to scan and consume the content quickly
- Use strong call to actions, as bold, colour contrasting text links or buttons, throughout your page copy to guide your users’ actions towards the business goal
- Make sure your links are easily identified – they should be a different colour and underlined
- Use bold sparingly – only bold important keywords that you want to draw the eye
- Spread your content out over the page – use different size fonts for headings & allow plenty of white space.
Copywriting for SEO
Copywriting for websites can be very challenging for a traditional copywriter because they have to consider many scientific factors. When copywriting is commissioned and briefed to be friendly to search engines, web copywriters have to consider many things:
- Keywords are your primary concern when writing web copy for search engines. Not only do you need to make sure that you’re using the using the correct keyword to get your intended audience to visit your website, but you also need to use that keyword at a high density throughout the page (see below information on keyword density). To correctly identify your keywords, for your website and for each page, you will need to invest in some keyword analysis and competitive analysis to build a list of one, two and three word phrase keywords. Ideally, each page on your website should be focused around only one of your primary keywords.
You may also find that, depending on your keyword or product, you may need to use clarifying words around your keyword to create context and ensure that the search engines can understand what your keyword is referring to. For instance Apple can be a fruit or a computer brand.
- Limited use of slang, abbreviations or acronyms – because only those within an industry or individual business may be familiar with the acronym (for instance, within the digital media industry, while there are many common digital media acronyms, there are also many varieties. For instance UB means unique browser but can also be known as UV, meaning unique visitor. They are the same thing, but depending on where you work and what web analytics tools you use to measure, your terminology may be different – and hence, your search behaviour would be different
- Anchor text – not only do website copywriters need to write in plain english that is easy to understand and will have a medium Flesch-Kincaid reading score, but they also need to make sure that when they choose to add a hyperlink into their text, to link to another page, that the anchor text they use (which is the actual hyperlinked words) are keyword rich, that the page that they’re linking through to is relevant to the words used in the hyperlinked anchor text
- Page titles, headings and sub-headings need to be keyword rich. When optimising a web page for search engines, there are many variables that Google looks for on the page to identify what the page is about. The page title is the first, the headings are the second and the body copy of the page is the third. Google also pays attention to the external websites that link to your website and what anchor text they have used to reference your site. The more often your keywords are used in the page title, headings, sub-headings and any anchor text linking into your website, the more relevant your web page will appear to Google’s search engines and will help your rank higher in their search results
- Minimum number of words on the page should be around 450 according to Bruce Clay, a leading search engine optimisation (SEO) company. Similar to the below description of keyword density and the need to match the standard or natural behaviour within your industry and online competitors, the minimum number of words that you should use on each webpage is dependant on what is the average amongst your competitors. If your competitors are writing pages with 900 words, then you need to be within this word count as well.
Google separates websites into two categories – research websites and transactional websites. Research websites are expected to have many more words on the page than transactional websites (such as an eCommerce site that may only have a product description and specifications). Therefore a transactional website might struggle to get 200 words on each page whereas a research website that is providing detailed and authoritative information to its audience should be able to use more words
- Blended search or universal search is becoming a far more important contributor to search engine optimisation SEO. Google’s universal search is the incorporation of video and images and audio content in Google’s search results. How you use these engagement objectives (video, audio, images, infographics) within your web content and the titles, captions and alt text (the text that you use to describe and assign to an image, that search engines can read and you can see when you put your mouse cursor over an image) all contribute to your website optimisation for search engines and the words your copywriter may use to describe an image or the title, description and transcript that they give to a video are important as these need to be keyword rich also.
A note on keyword density
When optimising your website content for search engines, your copywriting will need to take into account the primary keyword for each page and ensure that your keyword and its synonyms are used regularly throughout the page. Web copywriters must be careful not to keyword stuff – which is considered spam by Google – where keywords are used onerously through the copy in an effort to ensure a preferable page 1 search engine ranking.
Even though Google’s search engine is a spider, it can still detect unnatural use of keywords within website copy. To establish what is natural for your industry or each keyword, you’ll need to analyse your competitors websites and see how the keywords are used – if your top 5 competitors seem to have a keyword density of 6%, then this will be what is natural for your industry and keywords and you should match it. Were you to have a 9% keyword density, Google might penalise your website for spamming. Using synonyms is a natural way of writing, using several words to explain the same thing (because users get tired of reading the same words over and over again), and it protects you against spamming. Google is also able to recognise which synonyms are related to your keywords and your search engine results can be improved by the positive use of synonyms.