How to Spot and Avoid Web Copy that Kills Websites

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March 31, 2011
Web designers and developers sacrifice countless hours and sleep sorting out clients’ objectives, audiences’ needs, brand continuity, page layouts, information architecture, navigation, functionality, cross-browser compatibility, accessibility — the list goes on. And then the web copy finally arrives. If the content is good, it conveys the right messages, and helps boost online presence, traffic and conversion rates. The client gets an attractive ROI, the designer is labeled a hero, and referrals flow. If the content misses the mark, it can damage or even destroy the website, and all that time and effort (not to mention credibility) goes down the toilet. So here’s an outline of common web copy culprits that kill websites, and how to spot and avoid them.

Offender #1: Self-Centered Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Possibly the most common culprit, often because the client is too cheap to hire a copywriter. After all, he knows how to write. Or better yet, his wife is a budding poet, and this is her chance to shine. Symptoms: Company-centric, we-driven copywriting, which turns the business owner on, but potential clients off. Business owners think marketing and sales copy is all about their business, but it’s not. When a visitor gets to a website, they don’t care about the company — they want to know what the company can do for them. Treatment: Tell clients they’d be better off temporarily redirecting their PPC campaign and social media blitz budgets toward professional copywriting services, to establish a sound website that will serve as the foundation for all their online and offline marketing efforts. Prevention: Explain how lack of content can delay projects for months, and how weak copy can harm their brand and bottom line. Have a list of possible copywriters you can refer them to, based on needs and budgets.

Offender #2: Feature-Driven Web Copy

What it Looks Like: While feature-driven sales copy has its place, e.g. electronics or software, it generally doesn’t connect with people on an emotional level. Meanwhile, any scientist, shrink or sales guru will tell you people make decisions emotionally, and only then rationalize them logically. Cause: Inexperienced writers, or copywriters too lazy to learn how the products or services benefit the target audience. Symptoms: Web copy filled with uninspiring lists of facts and figures, resulting in poor conversions. Treatment: Find out what benefits the products or services provide the intended audience. Does it make their lives easier? Make them healthier? Wealthier? Sexier? How? Turn features into benefits whenever possible. Prevention: When you come across feature-driven web copy, tell the business owner or copywriter: “Facts tell, benefits sell.” You’ll sound just like a seasoned copywriting pro.

Offender #3: Long-Winded Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Business owners or copywriters without a clear understanding of what the market really wants or needs to know. They’re not sure, so they mention everything remotely related to the industry. Also responsible are copywriters who simply don’t have the ability to write tight (kind of like a blabbermouth, but in text form). Symptoms: Endless blocks of useless filler, which force website visitors to jump into and wade through oceans of verbal diarrhea. Most visitors cringe and hit the back button. Treatment: The solution is KISS — Keep It Short and Simple. If your client or the copywriter takes the time to define, craft and refine key messages, the website will be able to communicate a lot more with fewer words. Prevention: Tell your clients and copywriters that 80% of Internet users scan web content — they don’t read word for word. So it’s best to avoid filler content, unless they want their bounce rates to go through the roof.

Offender #4: Vague Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Businesses without clearly defined USPs, and uninformed or lazy writers. Symptoms: Fluffy messages that don’t differentiate the company. Often this content is so indistinguishable, it can be applied to any competitor with few or no changes. Treatment: Explore and research how the company’s offerings are unique. For instance, if a company is small, perhaps they’re quick to deliver, care more, or provide unmatched personalized service. If a company is large, they might offer all services under one roof, a national support network, or vast resources. Prevention: Advise clients that if they’re not making an effort to tell prospects why they are the best choice, they’ll be deemed a commodity, which results in small profit margins and attracts cheap, non-loyal customers.

Offender #5: Hyped-Up Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Companies or writers with little or no substance. “We don’t have anything interesting to say, so let’s CRANK UP THE VOLUME!!!” Symptoms: Exclamation mark-filled, empty hype that instantly kills credibility and makes people scurry to the competition. Treatment: Tone down the volume, and convey meaningful reasons why customers should be interested. “We offer 24-hour support, 7 days a week” will resonate more than “We deliver the best service!!!!” Make appealing claims, and back them up. Prevention: Make it clear to clients that artificial enthusiasm and loud messages won’t get customers clapping their hands excitedly, bouncing in their chairs, and clicking the order button. Visitors crave informative, helpful and relevant content.

Offender #6: Error-Laden Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Amateur writers, like the boss’ nephew, or the ‘economical copywriter’ you found on Craigslist. Symptoms: Misspelled words, poor punctuation and dreadful grammar. Nothing spells “novice” like this copy. Fittingly, website visitors respond: “Why should I invest in your company and take you seriously, if you don’t.” Treatment: If a rewrite isn’t in the budget, a professional copywriter can at least edit and clean up the content. Prevention: When you see typical errors, including the incorrect use of their, there, they’re, it’s, its, then, than, etc., sound the alarm.

Offender #7: Boring Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Lack of passion, creativity, ability or care. Symptoms: Dry, mind-numbing verbiage that reads like a manual. Consumers don’t read manuals for kicks, nor do they want to drag themselves through lame content. Treatment: Some passion and personality can go a long way to make a brand interesting and enticing. I recall a marketer commenting on a web copywriting project we were completing for a financial firm: “What a boring subject!” One of our copywriters replied: “Exciting for the clients who can save or make more money!” Prevention: Use a keen writer who has a proven track record developing compelling voices and styles.

Offender #8: Formal Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: The client or writer who’s living in the 1950s (might smoke a pipe or refer to flight attendants as air hostesses). Symptoms: Stiff, highly formal language to suggest maturity and superiority, in a bid to demand respect. Treatment: Ease up. Just because a website is promoting luxury products or services, or catering to a mature or professional crowd, doesn’t mean the web copy should be stuffy. You can actually be respectable, professional and charming at the same time! Prevention: Remind Mr. or Mrs. [insert surname here] that 1950s Home Economics textbooks are no longer the standard, nor is overly formal language. It’s wise to get with the times and make web content approachable.

Offender #9: Jargon-Heavy Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Veteran business owners who know their business so well, they have a hard time communicating to less familiar audiences. Our copywriters call this ‘expert paralysis’. Symptoms: Overloaded, lingo-laden copy that ‘sings’ to the business’ executives, but confuses and alienates a segment of potential prospects. Treatment: Get a copywriter or other communications specialist to review and clean up the material. While copywriters often lean on businesses to gather industry insight, they bring a fresh, objective perspective that can help a company better connect with desired audiences. Prevention: Remind clients that to connect with visitors, their web content must be easily processed and understood.

Offender #10: Cliché-Riddled Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Copywriters with big egos, or business owners who believe they’re lyricists, and can’t sense the cheese. Symptoms: Web copy crammed with cute and clever clichés, which add little or no value and can create barriers when communicating to global audiences. Treatment: Kill the clichés. Just kill them. Prevention: Advise clients that web content riddled with clichés comes across as tacky and won’t help generate credibility and sales.

Offender #11: Inconsistent Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Inconsistent content is most common on older websites, where different people have contributed different content at different times. Symptoms: A grab bag of spellings and styles, and disjointed and conflicting messages. It can create confusion and frustration for the visitor, and reduce trust in your brand. Treatment: Hire one copywriter or a copywriting team to establish a consistent voice, style and approach, to conceive a stable and appealing personality. Prevention: Warn the client that their existing web content appears to be suffering from a multiple personality disorder.

Offender #12: Non-Optimized Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: The untrained content writer, or the business owner who doesn’t know about SEO or insists people don’t look for their products on the Web. Symptoms: Hidden websites and lost opportunities in a day and age where the majority of consumers research the Web before making an online or offline purchase. Treatment: Get an SEO firm or SEO-savvy web copywriter onboard, to help conduct keyword research, and craft search engine optimized meta data and web content. Prevention: Ensure clients recognize search engine optimized content can significantly increase the return on their online marketing investment. Organic SEO is an effective way to capture larger market share and penetrate new regions.

Offender #13: Keyword-Stuffed Web Copy

What it Looks Like: Cause: Copywriters and business owners who are greedy, naïve, or both. Symptoms: Web copy aggressively stuffed with keywords, with little or no regard for the visitor. This is a great tactic is you’re striving for a 100% bounce rate, or trying to get knocked off Google’s index. Treatment: Optimized content is a powerful marketing tool, but don’t allow your copywriter (a.k.a. SEO copywriter) to get overly forceful and spammy. Make sure the web copy caters to both search engines and people. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting everyone’s time. Prevention: Run when a programmer tells you or your client: “No prob — I’ll squeeze a bunch of keywords in there for ya!”


Websites can be incredibly powerful marketing and sales tools when they get the right information to the right people at the right time. Combining good web design with good web copy fosters positive online experiences, and results in happy customers, healthy bottom lines and stellar portfolios.

Rick Sloboda

Rick is a Senior Web Copywriter and Content Strategist at Webcopy+, which helps designers and businesses boost online traffic, leads and sales with optimized web content. His clients range from independent retailers to some of the world’s largest service providers, including AT&T, Bell Mobile, Tim Hortons and Scotia Bank. He advocates clear, concise and objective website content that promotes readability and usability, and conducts web content studies with organizations in Europe and the U.S., including Yale University. Rick speaks frequently at Web-related forums and seminars, and serves as a Web program committee advisor with various organizations, including Langara College and Vancouver Career College. He’s also the PR Chair for Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC).

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