Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Out of Town

I'll be out of town for two weeks. The next post will be on Tuesday, September 4th.

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

How to Spot Web Clutter

The web is—let’s face it—a mess lately.

SEO’s and web marketers have been going around saying “content is king” ever since Google started giving more weight to inbound links. Good content is supposed to be the magic bullet: it brings in web traffic, it generates buzz, and it encourages people to link to you. Google is trying to select based on good content, but it’s giving rise to something else: web clutter.

Web clutter is badly written content that offers nothing of any real value to readers. It’s there to benefit the business alone. And most of the time, it doesn’t even do that. It just clutters up the web, jams up search results, and generally makes a mess.

So how do you know whether your content is valuable or clutter? I was looking around for mortgage information the other day and found a prime example of web clutter. It was written by an article-writing service that typically sells its articles for around $8 or so apiece. Great deal, right? Well, yeah…until you read the piece.

There were several clues that made this article look like web clutter:

Typos. Oh, where to start, where to start…how about “hme” instead of “home” on the first line? Or “dind” instead of “find” in the fifth? It looks like somebody forgot to run the spell-checker before taking this one live.

One of the first signs of web clutter is bad spelling and grammar. If the author couldn’t be bothered to catch basic typos, he definitely didn’t fact check. It’s unlikely any trustworthy information is to be found here.

Obvious keywords. The title was something like “California Home Mortgage Refinance Loan Tips.” It looks like the writer’s client simply gave him a certain keyword phrase and told him not to separate it, under any circumstances. Not only is this bad SEO practice; it also makes this article very obvious clutter.

This title is ungainly and a little nonsensical. Why are California home mortgages different than mortgages in, say, Arkansas? Is there a reason the California mortgage industry needs its own general article?

And is “home mortgage refinance loan” really the best way to state this idea? A better title would be something like “Refinancing Your Mortgage in Five Easy Steps: Tips From a California Mortgage Broker.” But then you wouldn’t be able to get the entire search phrase in there, unbroken.

That phrase, “California home mortgage refinance loan,” pops up a couple more times in the copy, each time sounding more awkward. My favorite part is when the article states that the featured broker could help you “with your California home mortgage refinance loan needs.”

Wouldn’t it be more clear and understandable if the writer had said “help you refinance your mortgage”? The author chose not to state it this way because he wanted to use the whole key phrase. If keywords and phrases make your title and copy more complicated than it needs to be, you’re clearly not writing with people in mind. Ergo: web clutter.

Shallow coverage. The last two problems are definitely symptoms of web clutter—they indicate nobody took much time in writing the article, and don’t care about the reader’s experience. But if you offer valuable information, most readers will forgive you. Shallow coverage is the worst part about this article in particular and web clutter in general.

This article is supposed to offer mortgage refinancing tips from a professional broker. You’d think that such a person would have in-depth knowledge to share, right? Well, maybe…but he wasn’t sharing it. His tips included: 1. Talk to a mortgage professional before picking a loan; 2. Research loans on the Internet; and 3. Get quotes from several different banks. No expert insight here.

Most people looking for info on mortgages probably knows this basic stuff already. They’re looking for more helpful advice. If the author clearly didn’t take time to think about what his readers might want to know before writing the article, it’s web clutter.

An obvious shill. It’s okay to put in a plug for your business when you write an article. But you have to earn the right to do that by offering something people need first: valuable information.

The article wasn’t very long, and nearly half was taken up by an appeal to go to a certain mortgage broker’s website and fill out a questionnaire. The piece is obviously not about helping people navigate the treacherous waters of home finance. It’s about getting a particular broker some search engine traffic off that one awkward key phrase. Valuable copy? No. Web clutter.

So why is this article web clutter and not good content? Because it isn’t helpful. Imagine a person in California doing a search online for tips on how to refinance a mortgage loan. They’re not looking for an opportunity to fill out a thirty-second survey. They’re looking for information. They want to know how they can negotiate the best interest rates, how to tell when to refinance, or who the best mortgage brokers are.

People who advocate this kind of article marketing will say that even though the article is bad, it generates traffic and gets the broker’s name out there. But will people want to hire him after the search engines direct them to this article? Probably not. He doesn’t come across as knowledgeable. His coverage of the topic is shallow, and even worse, his article is full of spelling mistakes. He doesn’t look competent, and it's doing him more harm than good.

The bottom line? Your article is web clutter if:

• It’s got careless grammar and spelling mistakes.
• The reader experience is sacrificed to accommodate awkward keywords or phrases.
• It doesn’t offer much useful information beyond the common-sense.
• It’s more concerned with promoting a business than with helping a reader.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The $5 Article vs. the $50 Article

I’ll occasionally get a note from a potential client asking for a cost estimate on a large number of web articles. I’ll send over a realistic price, and I’ll get a reply to the effect of “Why are you charging so much, when I can get this type of content for $5 a page (or free) elsewhere?”

It’s easy to see where this comes from. Articles that cost as low as $1 each can be found plenty of places online. Bidding sites like Elance and Guru offer low-cost writing services from all over the world. Some sites offer free content, while others feature content generators that reword pre-existing text automatically.

It can take minutes to read a page, but hours to write one. If you’ve had any experience with article writing, you know that it can take some time to do the job right. When you factor in research, organization, proofreading and editing, it can take hours to write a single page.

From a business-writer's perspective, these low prices don’t make much sense. At $5 an article or less, they'd have to write pretty fast to earn a decent wage. How can these writers afford to charge so little? I’ve come across a number of plausible reasons:

They live in an area with a low cost of living. To the horror of professional freelancers everywhere, some businesses are going Wal-Mart and outsourcing their content to places like China, India, and the Philippines. A dollar stretches a lot farther there than it does in the states. But even so, you get what you pay for—and writing isn’t a service that lends itself well to foreign outsourcing.

No matter how fluent, a non-native speaker will not sound completely natural when writing content in English. Most readers can tell at a glance when the writer is non-native. At best, the writing may sound stilted or slightly “off." At worst, clients get spelling and grammatical errors that reflect badly on their business. And if prospects catch on that a business is outsourcing their copy, they could wonder what else it outsources to pinch pennies.

They’re selling only first-time use rights. Some people buy reams of articles at low prices, then get a nasty surprise when their articles pop up later on other websites. This is because low-cost writers can make more money by selling articles multiple times. There’s nothing wrong with this if you agreed to it beforehand, but it can blindside you if you aren’t expecting it. And it won’t help your search engine rankings any to have duplicate copies of your content all over the web.

They’re playing the cut-and-paste game. Writers can crank out articles quickly by harvesting content from other areas on the web and pasting it into a new article with a minimum of rewriting. This kind of thing can harm the rankings of the original site, and it puts the client at risk for legal trouble.

Occasionally I’ll talk to copywriters who are worried about the low-cost competition. To be honest, however, I don’t think free content generators, outsourcing, and cut-and-pasters are anything to worry about.

In my experience, those who choose this option are far more concerned with cost than quality—they usually aren’t the type of prospects that professionals target. And the low-cost option can’t compete with a well-written article campaign designed to appeal to both search engines and readers.

Monday, August 13, 2007

How People Read Online

Common wisdom on web copywriting holds that people tend to skim web articles. Good web writing keeps things concise, breaks up paragraphs into small, easily-digestible bites, makes good use of lists and bullet points, and relies on bold-text headings to help readers skip to the most relevant info as quickly as possible.

There are plenty of studies backing this up. Jakob Nielson's 2006 eyetracking study states that in-depth reading of online text is rare. They've been finding the same results since 1997.

Here's where it gets interesting: a new Poynter eyetrack study has found that people actually read more online than they do in print. Overall, 63% of online news stories viewed during the study were actually read to the end. That's significantly higher than the number of stories read to completion in print: 40% for broadsheet and 36% for tabloid.

These results make intuitive sense to me when I think about how I read on the web. If I'm looking for specific information, I'll skip and scan. I'm definitely more likely to pay attention when paragraphs are small, and bold subheadings help. But when I'm interested in something, I read the whole thing--and it doesn't matter what the paragraphs look like.

I think these results are significant, too, because they might mean that people are getting more accustomed to reading online. So far online news sites and books haven't replaced print publications, mainly because most people still prefer reading in print. But it looks like that's changing. Will this mean the extinction of the print newspaper? The death of the book? World domination by Reuters Online?

Maybe it just means we have a little more freedom in our web writing than we realize. Maybe long articles with big blocks of text are okay, as long as the writing is compelling, the topic is interesting, and things are well organized. But I've been following common wisdom since my first stint as a web copywriter, and I'll probably continue to for the time being--the study results are still preliminary.

What do you think?

My first post!

Here it is, the semi-historic first post. Welcome to CatalystBlogger. I'm Jennifer, and I'm a 20-something freelance web copywriter living in Pennsylvania and writing for people all over the world. My goal here is to write about freelancing issues, web copywriting, maybe a little SEO as I learn it--anything that interests me and might interest my audience. So...here goes!