Think of writing for the web as if you were writing scripts for a long-running TV series like, say…”Lost.” The series itself has an overarching message and direction, but so does each episode. Some viewers tune in from beginning to end. Others enter in the middle and go backward and then forward. Others tune in for one episode and never return. Some viewers know a lot about the story line, others know nothing. It’s up to the writers to ensure that every viewer gets the gist of what the series is about in each and every episode, regardless of when they come and go.
Your website is like that. Each page should give readers some idea of who you are and what you offer. Each page should capture interest. It should move visitors either backward or forward through the site and should strive to drive them into a transaction with your institution — inquiry, application, visit, donation, partnership, or just the next page.
More likely than not, many of your site visitors will not enter through the home page. In fact, you should expect that half, if not more, of your site visitors will land on a page other than your home page as the result of a search. And that leads us to our first writing tip:
- Treat every page in the top two to three levels as a landing page, a front door to your site. From a writer’s standpoint, consider each page an opportunity to feature the differentiating aspects of your institution, engage readers, and invite them to delve deeper into your site. There are a few pitfalls to avoid at all costs:
- Pages that are simply long lists of links are irritating. Search engines ignore them, too! They see long lists of links as irrelevant content, so they go on to the next page.
- Don’t lead audiences into dead ends — pages that have no navigation forward or backward. If visitors land on such pages as a result of a search, the only option is to go back to the search engine…and away for your site!
- Don’t create copy-dense pages. Lots of copy means you’re trying to cover too many ideas on one page. It is overwhelming. Online readers, especially impatient young readers, are content grazers who consume ideas in bite-sized chunks. Believe it or not, search engines don’t like these pages either. Search algorithms are built to look for and make decisions based on a limited number of keywords and ideas (3-5 max). To keep pages audience and search engine friendly:
- Keep copy length at 200-500 words. With less, the information may not have enough meat to it; with more it becomes intimidating.
- Use titles and subtitles to give your reader hints to the page content. Readers appreciate the ability to quickly scan the page and understand what they’ll find there. Search engines use titles and subtitles too as cues of the page content. When your copy is a bit longer than 500 words, a blog or newsletter, for instance, they make the page easier to read.
- Use progressive disclosure. Progressive disclosure lets readers themselves control how deep they want to delve into the information. For the writer, it means starting with the most important idea or take-away and letting interested readers click on links if they want more. This way, you can unveil your brand story in manageable chunks. It also helps you prioritize your most important information. Search engines like this because the narrative stays focused on a core set of messages on each page, making it easier for them to discern the page content.
- Don’t forget the search engine! Search engines start by looking at the words used in the page URL, the page title, description, and page keywords. These elements are all coded into the back-end of your website. Usually, content management systems offer a place for this information. If not, you’ll have to ask your webmaster to manually add it. The page title and description appear in the search engine listing, followed by the page description. Site-relevant, well-crafted titles and descriptions improve rankings and entice searchers to visit. Keywords, usually three and no more than five per page, are what search engines use to evaluate your site against the terms the searcher enters.You may have heard that littering your pages with every possible permutation of a keyword makes a page more search-engine attractive. Not so any more. The latest search algorithms are smart enough to make those connections without you doing it for them. In fact, search engines consider keyword-heavy pages suspicious.
Don’t overlook the page’s URL. While Google doesn’t look at the words in the URL, Bing does. So taking the time to provide a descriptive name for the page rather than letting the CMS generate a random code is worth your while. As the writer and communicator of your brand’s message, you are responsible for creating these elements. You know best the words and phrases your brand wants to own. Weave them into your page titles, descriptions, keywords, and URLs. That brings us to our last, and perhaps most important tip…
- Don’t get generic with your copy. Make sure the personality and differentiating factors of your institution are infused in website copy. Visitors are looking for more than mere information. They want to get a feel for what makes your institution different and special. Returning stakeholders want to experience the personality of the school they attend or attended. Unique language and a distinctive personality are what help convey that brand experience. If you’re worried that using unique language will make you invisible on search engines, fear not. In fact, search engines like distinctiveness as much as people do. And one of the main things in the search algorithms is site popularity. Well written, relevant, and engaging content brings visitors back to your site, which drives up your visibility on search. On your pages and in your keywords, include language and attitudinal words your institution wants to own as part of its brand as well as more commonly understood educational terms.
If you’d like further insight on how to optimize site searchabilty through copy, take a look at Google’s excellent Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide