11 Rules for Writing Website Copy in 2023Lauren Kaye
Want to learn how to write website copy that doesn’t suck? You’ve come to the right place.
If you’ve ever written copy for a website, you know how exciting and nerve-wracking it can be.
As a copywriter, it’s a dream to showcase all your great ideas front and center. At the same time, writing web copy for the homepage, product pages, and calls-to-action (CTAs) carries a lot of pressure.
Feeling this pressure is natural because there’s a lot riding on your website.
It’s your storefront, business brochure, pricing list, and company billboard all at the same time. Because it serves so many purposes and feels more permanent than other types of content, you run into a lot of opinions about how to approach web copy.
Should the copy be sales focused? Are you writing for your primary customer persona or everyone in your target audience? Should it be edgy or should you play it safe? Are you using enough keywords to support your SEO goals?
Ultimately, the answers to those questions depend on your brand and what’s right for your business. There’s no singularly “right approach” to writing website copy. However, there are some general rules that can help you set opinions aside and create content that provides a good reading experience.
What is website copy?
Website copy is the words you use on your home page, about page, product pages, and other top-level pages across your website.
It’s the headlines, subheaders, body copy, and CTAs—website copy is pretty much any words you use on your site that aren’t a part of your blogs or content marketing.
How to write website copy
1. Assume that visitors won’t read everything
Visitors won’t read everything on your website. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you pour over every word and finesse each sentence to perfection, but it’s the truth. Once you start writing for an audience of skimmers, you can be so much more effective.
To make sure your audience is exposed to the most important information on your page, use the inverted pyramid method of writing.
This is a system for organizing ideas in order of importance, from top to bottom. The most critical details should be the first things people read, followed by important information and context or supplementary points.
If you write in this manner, a visitor would gain enough information to understand what you do even if they don’t make it through all the details, without reading every word of your web content.
2. Be clear and concise
Your most important job with website copy is to deliver information quickly. Unlike blog posts or reports in which you have varying amounts of space to flesh out an idea, web pages afford limited word count to capture your brand voice, deliver information, and drive conversions.
To pack a punch, prioritize clarity and be efficient with your words.
Being clear is the most direct path to being interesting.
If you create something clear and concise, you don’t have to worry about losing a reader’s attention. A visitor can easily follow the narrative and draw a conclusion.
Use short sentences and simple grammatical structures. It’s so much easier to follow than long and winding sentences.
Do: Transactional emails typically have a high open rate.
Don’t: Because transactional emails are triggered by recipients when they request information or take a particular action, such as creating an account or resetting a password, they have a much higher open rate and much lower unsubscribe rates.
After you’re sure you’ve achieved clarity in your writing, you can always layer on personality and nuance.
But the idea here is not to do the reverse—writing copy with a ton of complexity at first, and then going back to try to smooth it out after realizing it’s not easy to understand.
3. Ruthlessly edit yourself
Be your own toughest critic and try multiple approaches before settling on a final version of website copy.
It’s advisable to write a first draft where you get all of your ideas on paper. Then, go back and question the need for every section, every word, etc. If there’s not a clear justification to keep something, don’t be afraid to remove it. You can always add more back down the line.
You should be suspicious of the clever phrases and 10-cent words you like most. They might be fun and interesting to you, but could be completely lost on your audience. And your audience is the only reason you’re writing content in the first place.
The rule of thumb is that if it’s not absolutely necessary, or you just added it for flair, you should probably cut it.
I know that’s not sexy advice, but your audience will thank you with their time and attention.
4. Be consistent across formats
The goal of creating a clear and compelling message for your audience doesn’t stop with your website. Think about all the touchpoints a customer has with your brand. Email, blog posts, and social media content should all feel like they’re coming from the same voice.
That’s easy enough if you have one person writing all the content for your brand, but that’s not always the case.
The way to get all contributors on the same page is to create a style guideline that spells everything out. It describes in great detail what you sound like, what you don’t sound like, what your preferences for punctuation are, and how you format everything. If you need a little inspiration, we love Shopify’s.
With a style guide, anyone who writes for your website, social channels, email content, etc. will all be following the same rules. When you get really good at this, it will sound like one consistent message to your audience!
5. Remember that everything is editable
It can feel like every change to your website is part of its permanent record, but the wonderful thing is that it’s actually editable.
Imagine the old days of marketing where you sent something off to press and prayed you didn’t miss a typo because you had just spent all of your budget on that print.
As long as you’re working with a content management system like WordPress, it should be easy to update copy or make changes.
That means you can experiment and make changes without fear. If it doesn’t work, you can always change it back with little cost or effort.
6. Ask for a second set of eyes…and a third
Although everything is editable, you can avoid embarrassing typos with enough editing help.
This isn’t a time to be prideful or shy. If you have the resources on your team, set up a review process that includes one or more critical colleagues to check for errors and get feedback on your copy.
When you’ve been working on something closely for an extended period of time, it’s easy to become blind to the words on the page. Develop a system where you ask tough questions and check for logical errors or silly mistakes can save you a ton of stress when working on the most important web pages for your brand.
7. Test your assumptions
You might be completely convinced that your audience will love something only to roll it out with little fanfare and zero change in results. That’s why it’s always a good idea to test your assumptions.
There’s nothing wrong with being incorrect about something. It’s just testing a new idea.
However, you can improve your odds of working on ideas that will pull the right lever for your business by:
- Conducting A/B tests
- Interviewing your customers to gather feedback about new approaches
- Asking people who talk to customers (sales, customer service) what questions they often get so you can try to answer them better
You can also test ideas on other channels using A/B tests with your email button copy and colors to find out what your audience prefers. Then bring those “proven” ideas to your website pages to see if you can replicate the same results.
8. Use competitive research
Before drafting new copy for your website, take an opportunity to do a Google search to see what your competitors are doing. This isn’t an invitation to borrow their ideas. That’s plagiarism and it certainly won’t help your company differentiate itself from the pack. However, it is a great source of context and inspiration.
Try to identify their tone and voice. Take note of how they talk about their products. Make a list of what you like and don’t like for your brand.
Perhaps you realize that you love humor and feel confident that it’s the right move for your brand. Or maybe you start to see repetitive terminology and create a word bank of phrases to avoid on your web pages.
Over time, you’ll start to create a list of themes that could work for you as well as ideas that probably won’t. It can provide useful direction the next time you sit down to write something fresh because you’ve already done a lot of the thinking and research in advance.
9. Be honest
A side effect of the internet is that it can be difficult to tell what’s truly good from the bad.
When companies can publish anything about themselves, terms like “best in class,” “industry-leading,” “innovative,”and “revolutionary” are everywhere.
Yes, it’s your job is to make your company sound great. But when you pull adjectives from a bag of superlatives to show that you’re head and shoulders above the rest, it can backfire.
Most readers have become numb to terms like this because they see them all the time. When everyone says they’re the best of the best, it doesn’t mean much. It seems hyperbolic and can feel like an overpromise.
The advice here is to avoid jargon and buzzwords in favor of tangible things that you do.
Don’t: Best-in-class payroll processing platform
Do: Process your payroll in minutes
You don’t have to sound like the fanciest product on the market. If you’re solving a real problem your customers have, it’s more powerful to say what you do and how you do it. This is the way to earn your customers’ trust and make you seem like a valuable company.
10. Find the right balance of copy and visuals
In this chicken and egg scenario, it shouldn’t really matter which comes first. Your written content should support your visuals and your visual content should support your copy.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of examples where this isn’t the case. Some websites have pages where it appears that the copy was created to sell the concept presented in the images, like it’s describing what you already see. This doesn’t add a lot of value.
Or, you might also run into pages where it appears that the visuals were shoehorned to fit existing content. The telltale sign of this is an image that’s very literally depicting what the copy already states.
Neither is a great experience. Instead, the words and images on the page should feel like a natural partnership that people understand at a glance. They should work together to tell a story that’s greater than either part.
11. Don’t go overboard with themes
Themes and metaphors are fun literary devices that bring a new and interesting angle to writing. It’s tempting to use them to freshen up stale website copy, but they should be applied with caution.
The reason you want to use them sparingly is that it’s easy to take a “fun” theme or metaphor and slip into the “cheesy” zone. That’s not a good look unless your product is benefited by lighthearted humor (think: Shinesty, Squatty Potty, etc).
That aside, you also run the risk that your audience doesn’t understand the metaphor or theme as clearly as you’d like. International readers, in particular, could be confused by an HR software company that has images of airplanes on its website and content that says you can “take flight” when you use them.
Most important rule about web copy: stay inspired
When you’re writing website copy, you need to get your audience excited about your business.
However, your audience can easily tell a bored writer from an excited one. There’s a vibrancy that comes across when a copywriter is excited about an idea. It’s how dry, technical topics come to life.
Conversely, writers can kill exciting ideas with boring content when they lose a sense of purpose.
If you get bored, overwhelmed by feedback from all directions, or you just find yourself burning out, it’s time to take a break. Revisit these web copy rules and remember why you wanted to make a change, what you wanted to capture, and how you wanted to sound. Make sure that’s coming across in every word and you’ll be well on your way to creating great website copy.
If you’re also looking for writing tips to help with other formats like email, we have a couple more resources that will keep you inspired: