The first rule of website content is simply this: Publish something a human being would want to read. Otherwise, you’re just a cynic taking up virtual space.
Before setting up shop at Online Image® as a web content creator, I spent nearly a decade desking it at eight different newspapers. My stock-in-trade started as copy editing, then branched out into feature writing, page design, and headline writing. I even dipped my toes into graphic design and photography. It turns out that all these skills come in awfully handy when making a website shine. The diverse tool belt that got me hired has been used extensively – and expanded dramatically – in my tenure at Online Image®.
It might be a no-brainer that it takes a decent writer to write web copy. Yet the web is full of garbage that no one wants to read. Why is this?
What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
The first reason is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. That’s the name of a cognitive bias that causes people to fail to recognize the extent of their own lack of skill. If you know you don’t know something, you seek independent advice. But if you don’t know that you don’t know it, you type on where angels fear to read.
The effect is named after two Cornell researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who conducted a series of experiments in 1999 measuring the accuracy of subjects’ self-perceived competence. The study was inspired by news of two 1996 bank robberies committed by one McArthur Wheeler. To commit the crimes, Wheeler covered his face with – I’m not making this up – lemon juice. His reasoning: Because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, it would keep surveillance cameras from recording his face. His post-arrest lament: “But I wore the juice.” In this case, it wasn’t the camera that had a blind spot.
Articulate, compelling copy is often an unknown unknown. Most everybody believes he or she can write effectively – which might be why we writers are paid a skosh less than, say, engineers. When you can’t engineer, you (generally) know it and hire out for the help you need.
In fact, the more trained you are at what you do, the more cautious you typically are. Skilled tailors and carpenters know to measure twice, cut once. That’s because they know the answers to the fate-tempting rhetorical question: What could possibly go wrong?
It isn’t enough to dot your I’s and use spell check. Compelling copy convinces people to consider their situation, and to assess whether it would be better if they purchased your product or service. It has a natural flow down the page, symbiotic with friendly images and accessible infographics. It’s informative but not intimidating. It isn’t easy – and that’s assuming you really do have something that will improve people’s lives. Showcasing your value and brilliance is its own challenging endeavor, separate from the value and brilliance itself.
‘Fill the Page’ Is Not a Content Strategy
Here’s a further point I can’t hammer home hard enough: If you do hire a writer or marketing firm to boost the quality and appeal of your website, be sure to give them all the information, tools, and resources necessary to do the job well. If you are smart enough to know that you can’t do the best possible job on your own, you should also be smart enough to know that any content a third party pulls out of thin air is going to have a hard time offering substance or value. Again, this may sound like a no-brainer, and yet there is no shortage of business owners who hire writers and search-engine specialists to make their site attractive, approachable, and informative – but offer no direction, no target demographic, no specific goals, and no information that isn’t already on the site. At best, content creators are then left to shuffle already existing information into more digestible packages for a spread of prospective customers, and do their best to steer the right traffic to the right pages.
That’s better than nothing. But it’s less than what you could and should be able to accomplish with a combination of search engine and content optimization. It’s less than what it takes to be the top search result. And it’s way worse than what it takes to be the top converter among your Internet competition.
Your Business Is a Unique Snowflake
I don’t care if your company is Generic Plumbing Inc.: You do things differently. It’s possible that even you don’t know how, but it’s true. The ways may be modest and ultraspecific, but those, too, can be spun into selling points. Maybe it’s just that you can get to rural residents near you faster than the Big Guys who have to come in from the city. Maybe it’s that you offer every customer a follow-up courtesy call to ensure your repairs are holding up a few days later. Heck, maybe it’s just that you’re having a sale next week. Why isn’t that on the web? Your site is a living document. It can update every time you have something to share that the world should be excited about. Stop treating your site like the Myspace page you haven’t looked at since 2007.
Your writers and designers should have access to every business detail you are proud of. Why would you go to you instead of your competitors? Is it the comfy waiting room? Take pictures! Do you deliver? Say so! Do you have Tuesday lunch specials? Referral bonuses? Continuing education classes? Awesome elevator music? I don’t care what it is; stand out and say so! Right now, make a list of the ways a transaction with you saves time, money, work, or peace of mind. Now email it to your writer. Hey, if you’re reading this, that might be us!
While you’re at it, include every piece of marketing material still out there, and any applicable ones that used to be. Brochures, billboards (a photograph will do, thanks), radio campaigns, newspaper ads, door-to-door leaflets, junk mail, whatever. Let us know how you portray yourself so we can stay on message.
Think about it. Which would you rather have us do:
- Convincingly echo your brand recognition
- Parrot general Internet information all over your website
I’ll give you a hint: One of these will multiply your existing customer base. The other will not.
You’re Off to a Good Middle
By the way: Did you notice I said “multiply”? If before factoring in your organic and local web traffic, your total exposure is zero, we can multiply that many times over and it will still be zero. Your website has powerful potential to drive customers your way – but it can’t do all the work on its own. You need referrals from websites more visible and prestigious than yours. Customer recommendations on review sites. People other than Google who consider you the trusted authority on something. Only then will search engines start pointing your way.
And let’s not forget the real world. You do have brochures, door-to-door leaflets, et cetera, right? Surely this business endeavor wasn’t hatched in an “If you build it, they will come” fantasy, right? Your own get-the-word-out efforts are the other multiplier. And again, if it’s zero, the math ain’t pretty.
Humanize Your Visitors – Even the Robotic Ones
But I digress. Let’s get back to why the web is full of words that fail to capture anyone’s attention.
Here’s the final reason: cynicism.
It’s easy for businesses to think of Internet marketing as an afterthought – a magic funnel to trap customer eyeballs, after which they’ll be so enchanted by what’s on offer that they will click “Buy” or “Call Now” without a second thought.
That isn’t just a poor predictor of outcomes. It’s also dehumanizing. When you search the web, do you always click on the top search result and pull out your credit card? Or do you check whether the business looks trustworthy, has what you need, seems to care about your concerns, answers frequently asked questions, and makes it easy to learn more about the topic?
User experience has always been important to an effective web presence. Now that search engines are smarter than ever and surf the web prioritizing the same user-friendly features that humans look for, a seamless user experience is beyond important; it’s indispensible. Many competitive companies are rising to that challenge. In a world where search engine results are losing real estate to paid ads and local maps, if you don’t have informative, articulate, approachable information on your website, you almost might as well not have a website at all.
Search engines are becoming barely short of human when it comes to sniffing out unique value. Catering to readers and catering to search engines are becoming more synonymous every day. So don’t insult your readers or the bots; give them both the tools to choose you in good conscience. Google is about three circuits short of Skynet. You want to be on its side when the revolution comes. Luckily for you, we’re here to help.
What Are You Waiting For?
Reach out to your account manager today and give him or her the lowdown on any information you can think of that belongs on your website. If signing on with us is an unchecked task on your languishing to-do list, now’s the time. Help us help you dial in your web presence just right.