Writing for people, not machines
Ash Billinghay Senior Copywriter
8 min read
Monday, 14th February 2022
Remember when you were a kid? The books you read at the time would have been very simple, repeating key words to help your mind understand the story. Take The Very Hungry Caterpillar, for example. We’re reminded each day - as it eats one apple, two pears, three plums and more - that no matter what gets devoured, the caterpillar is still hungry.
The book is written this way because of who its audience is - children, with a reading age of 1-2 years (and adults, who just read it for research, obviously).
As we get older our reading age grows with us, and the books we absorb become more complex. When you compare The Very Hungry Caterpillar with Lord of The Rings, the difference is clear. Neither book is alike, but both have one thing in common: they’ve been written to appeal to the people who’d read them.
The same should be true of any copy, anywhere.
This blog will explain the benefits of understanding who your audience is and writing copy specifically for them. There will be pictures, but I can’t promise it’ll be as good as watching that 6 minute Hungry Caterpillar video.
Your audience are humans, not computers
Writing for SEO can make it easy to fall into the trap of using words that please the Google overlord. However, therein lies the problem: you should never write for SEO. Why? Well, there are a few reasons:
- Google will know you’ve done it.Keyword stuffing gets picked up by search engines straight away, and will actually make your ranking worse instead of better.
- People don’t want to read SEO heavy copy.SEO copy is hard to read, which makes writing SEO copy a pointless exercise as no-one will want to read your SEO copy. See how hard that was to read?
- It creates a bad user experience.People will engage better with copy that’s written just for them. Think about birthday cards - a generic ‘happy birthday’ does the job, but a personalised message all about how much you love them is always nicer.
- It isn't accessible.A bunch of keyword-heavy sales text won't meet the required level of readability for most of your customers, making it harder for them to find what they're looking for. Accessible content is vital - we've written a blog all about it.
If you want your audience to engage with what you write, you need to write it just for them. SEO should come naturally after that.
A human’s user journey is different to a machine’s
When a search engine explores your site, it looks at all the pages you’ve got listed and scans them for information. It’s programmed to pull out keywords and important content, and as long as it’s all there (and well structured) it’ll find it.
Sadly, people aren’t programmed the same way. We read with our eyes, and if content looks complicated or spammy, we’ll skip right past it. Unfortunately for you - and me, given it’s my career - people don’t want to read the copy you’ve written. They want to get to the point and complete their order as soon as possible. To them, your website is merely a tool to help them achieve a greater goal.
That’s why we need to create content that is as simple, and as user-friendly, as possible. Our words should be designed to aid our customers’ purpose, not battle against it.
A good example of this - not to brag - would be a website I wrote for a popular Yorkshire broadband company. The old version of the site was full of information about all the different broadband speeds, the things you could use each package for, the add-ons that came with every order and the customer service promise that came as standard. You had to read all of that before you could actually buy broadband, which meant drop-off rates mid-purchase were high.
By rewriting it, I didn’t take all of that information away. Instead I made it easier for people to bypass it if they already knew what they wanted, and made the content more digestible to speed up the process.
I wrote content in the way people wanted to read it - short, snappy, and totally ignorable if that’s what you wanted to do.
Write what people are looking for
Now we get to the bit all you SEO fans are looking for. I know you’re out there. If you write what people are searching for, you please both humans and machines. Humans are happy because you’re answering their questions, and machines are pleased because they can crawl your site and find relevant information.
We use a few different tools to find the things people are looking for, but the easiest one is probably Google itself. The ‘people also ask’ section is a gift for writing online content, and if your site can answer those questions, it’s sure to do well. It’s also worth looking at the bottom of the first page of results, where you’ll find the related searches.
These are all things people are actively looking for. Write content that makes them find you.
Write content that sounds like you
Tone of voice is one of the most important tools in any brand’s armoury. It’s what makes you sound like you and not anyone else, and helps set you apart from all your competitors. That might not sound like too big of a deal - it doesn’t exactly say ‘money maker’ or ‘conversion driver’ on it, but it really matters. Stick with me.
Imagine if Nike hadn’t said ‘Just do it’. The line has earned the brand approximately $8.3 billion since being written in 1988, and has been the basis of their tone ever since. Their get-up-and-go attitude means when you see any piece of Nike marketing, you can tell who it’s for a mile off. It’s a tone that follows them wherever they go, leading to makes of trainers called ‘Reborn’ and ‘Culture to Infinity’.
What if instead Nike had said, ‘Fancy a jog?’ or gone all Innocent with lines about runs at polling stations?
It just wouldn’t have been them, and it wouldn’t have appealed to their audience.
Your tone can’t just be something you use on big-budget advertising - it has to follow you everywhere. If you write your website to please search engines, it won’t sound like something you’d say. This could confuse your customers and potentially even turn them away.
Our clients either have a tone of voice for us to work with, or we’ll create some guidelines for them. Both options help us speak like them, sound like them, and engage with their customers like them at every opportunity.
What if your audience speaks like machines?
Different audiences speak in different ways, so it’s important to know what kind of language yours is using. Research your customers before you write anything for them and get to know the kind of words they use.
A good example of this would be The Guardian v The Sun.
The Guardian aims for a reading age of 14 - the oldest a reading age can be. (Yep, sorry, you stop developing new linguistic skills when you’re a teenager.) It writes using longer sentences and more complex words, leading to headlines like this:
It does this because it knows its audience will understand and engage with it.
The Sun, on the other hand, speaks a little differently. Their target market has a reading age of 8, meaning they use shorter sentences and easier language. They know their audience likely works in different environments and has different interests, leading to headlines a little more like this:
This isn’t The Sun ‘dumbing down’ their writing, it’s just them engaging with their readers in an appropriate way.
The same should happen no matter who your readers are. If they speak like machines, write like machines. Get to know who they are and serve them the kind of content they’ll enjoy.
This also applies to search engines. They look for readability on content, and if it sounds too complicated (or too simplified) it won’t perform well. Take an insurance site for example. It’s not a simple subject, so you’d expect the content to be a little more in-depth. If Google thinks it sounds too dumb, it won’t trust the authority of the site and won’t rank it highly.
Write for the level your readers will understand, and write for the level the subject matter deserves.
Use this tool to help you out.
To f*ck or not to f*ck?
Some of your audience might use the odd bit of bad language, and if they speak a little more liberally you shouldn’t be afraid to do the same. However, it’s worth bearing in mind how Google views that. According to this graph on Twitter, search engines don’t really like swearing.
If your site triggers an adult filter, it will be ranked differently to those that don’t. Be careful what kind of language you use - as much as you want to appeal to your users, you don’t want to not appeal to Google at the same time.
Need a helping hand?
It’s not always easy to write for specific audiences. If it was, everyone would be doing it.
Our content team are experts at making words work harder, and would love to do just that for you.
Drop a message to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get started