Redesigning your website can be a lot like becoming a parent; everyone is eager to share their advice with you – whether it’s good or bad. And unless you’re extremely experienced in the online marketing industry, it can be hard to tell which is which.

One piece of advice frequently tossed around is that people won’t read a lot of copy on websites. Keep it short, they’ll say. Put everything into bullet points, because the less copy the better.

To this advice I say, “Hogwash.” People absolutely will read copy on websites, and lots of it, as long as you’re smart about what you say and how you say it.

What are your visitors looking for?

Visitors to your website are there for a reason; they’re not there just to browse around, they’re looking for specific information.  Maybe they’re trying to determine if you offer the particular service or product they need.  Maybe they want to know if you have the credentials to back up your claim.  Maybe they want to know where you’re located or your hours of operation. These are specific goals.

Your job is to help visitors easily accomplish those goals – with as much copy as it takes to get the job done, no more, no less.

The best websites are like newspapers

Consider the low-tech newspaper. Most people don’t read every single article. Instead, we pull out the sections that interest us (Sports? Business? World News?), and from there, we skim through the headlines until we find an article that interests us – and then we stop and read that article.

No one expects every reader to read every word on every page.  Instead, the newspaper is intentionally designed to make it easy for us to jump in, find specific information, and jump back out again.

Think for a minute about the sheer quantity of information contained in the average newspaper. And yet you know right where to go to find your favorite columnist, the funnies, or the score to yesterday’s game. You can stay and browse through the other sections if you have time, but because you understand how the newspaper is organized, you don’t have to.

Your website can work the same way. It’s absolutely possible – and effective – to maintain a large quantity of information on your site…so long as the navigation is clear and intuitive.

Poor formatting propels the myth

Of course, as with many myths, there’s a kernel of truth to this one about short web copy.  Long pages of densely packed paragraphs are hard to read and don’t work well on websites. Whether your web page has 500 words or 50, you always want to format the copy to be reader-friendly.

Again, think about how newspapers are set up.  Short, informative headlines.  Short articles, with the most important information located in first couple of paragraphs. East to scan. Easy to read.

Feel free to use bullet points and graphics in as many places as you can.  Just don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in your drive to keep everything short.

Let the answer determine the length

This is the heart of why the short-web-copy myth is so dangerous.  Different visitors to your website will have different questions.  Your challenge is to anticipate those questions and thoroughly answer each one with just enough copy.

This is important. If you’re too hung up on trying to cram a 500-word answer into 50 words, you’ll compromise your ability to provide the answers that your visitors are looking for.

And please, don’t fall into the “we want people to call us to find the answer” trap.  The truth is that visitors are not going to call you. They’re going to hit the back button on their browser and keep searching for their answers, until they find what they’re looking for – probably from your competitor’s website.

Example: Chamberlain Marketing Group

Chamberlain Marketing Group designs high-quality branded merchandise for some of the largest firms in the country. They recently conducted an audit of their website, and they found that their website was not sufficiently answering most of the questions their customers frequently ask. Important information was often either missing completely from their site or buried and difficult to find.

Case in point: a screen shot below of their page that explained their internal infrastructure system.

 

CMG "before" screen shot

"Before" screen shot

The page contained good information, perhaps, but it was dense and difficult to read – which meant that very few people bothered to read it.

Chamberlain knew that for their website to be effective, they would need to add content and improve the way in which they present the content to their readers.

So they started over. They revamped their navigation into a main horizontal navigation bar and a vertical sub-navigation menu that was visible on each category sub-page. They rewrote almost every page, and they added almost 20 pages of new core content. Each page leveraged short paragraphs, clear headers and subheads, and bullet points as needed.

The effect was remarkable.

Consider the screen shot below, of that same technology page, in its new format. Now look back at the old page again. Both pages contain essentially the same amount of information. But which one would you prefer to read?

 

CMG "After" Screen Shot

"After" screen shot

Stacey Austin, Marketing Manager at Chamberlain, said, “We’ve managed to put the right amount of information on each page, without overloading the reader. It’s inviting and friendly, but still professional. Everyone is thrilled.”

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Stop worrying about keeping web pages short, and start worrying about providing enough information and presenting it in the right way. It’s imperative to the success of your website.