Good SEO doesn’t excuse bad writing

In the About Us section of the Speed Limit Studios website, someone wrote that the company is “a full-service web design firm.” But then someone wrote this in one of its case studios:

woman unmaskedWebPromote is an ongoing SEO service that involves continuous daily actions on and off your website, to constantly prove to Google, Yahoo!, and Bing that your website is the most relevant source of information for the keywords we are targeting. This isn’t easy. Google, Yahoo!, and Bing go to great lengths to keep their algorithms secret. Their algorithms determine which sites get placed above others. In fact, they constantly change their algorithms to control over-optimization and spam. At Ciplex, we constantly monitor search engines to adapt to the latest changes.

Did you get that?

  • The first sentence has 40 words.
  • “Algorithms” appears three times, as does “constantly.”
  • “Continual” would be more accurate than “continuous,” but I could give them that one; it’s a common error.

And worst of all, nothing about this copy makes me interested in this company.

SEO (search engine optimization) does not negate the need for good writing. In fact, good SEO may make good writing even more important. If you’re going to be effective at luring people to a site, then you owe it to them to make the visit pleasant.

Rate this writing

The following is a fairly typical online description of an organization. See what you think of it.

About Our Company

“Broaden Your Printing Horizons”

peacockPerched on the cutting edge of publishing instrument technology, ABC responds to the speed of change. We are very proud to offer a catalog of sleek, award-winning printers designed to satisfy your every printing desire. To best serve our clients, we have assembled an accomplished team of synergetic sales associates and customer service agents to assist you in every step of your ABC Experience, beginning the moment you decide to order one of our printers. With employees spread across three continents and a long tradition of building state-of-the-art office machinery, you will find ABC is a company of innovation, always thinking outside the printer box.

I’ve worked for a CEO or two who would have absolutely loved this (especially if I could have worked in the word “transformational”). Have you? It sounds great at first pass—all those buzzwords: synergetic, state of the art, innovation, outside the box, cutting edge. But what does it say?

  • There’s a catalog. And they’re proud to offer it.
  • Salespeople will help you, but after you decide to order.
  • “Publishing instrument technology” might mean anything; it’s quite the jargon.

Here’s the source. Be sure to look in the upper right corner of the page. Then let me know: Could this be a parody of your organization’s writing style?

P.S. Here is the perfect how- to-make-a-corporate-video-without-saying-anything example.

What made me want to visit Alabama

Martin Luther King Jr. / AP file photo

I’ve never wanted to go to Alabama. Until now.

I started reading “A march into history” by Scott Vogel of The Washington Post because of the subhead, believe it or not:

“Alabama women who lived it help give a 21st-century spirit to the civil rights struggle.”

The black-and-white photo showed only males, so I was intrigued by the idea of a story about strong women previously unrecognized by history.

It’s an article about why you should visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute museum and research center. But in several strokes of pure genius, Vogel treats it like a feature story.

Instead of, “The museum features the desk at which Martin Luther King wrote his plans for the bus boycott,” you read, “She shows King’s office in the basement, then allows me a peek – not part of the public tour – at the blond wood desk on which he planned the Montgomery bus boycott.”

You’re there, taking “a gut-wrenching trip” through history that the writer makes personal.

Think about Vogel’s approach the next time you write a press release or newsletter article.

Here are three links to the same story, in case one doesn’t work:

Indianapolis Star

Seattle Times

Miami Herald

Ruthless slashing makes for better writing

delete key

One of the most painful but effective ways for me to improve my writing is to finish a piece, sit back and glow with a sense of accomplishment, and then force myself to identify and eliminate every unnecessary word.

Four easy fixes are (1) don’t use the word ‘impact,’ (2) don’t use ‘located at’ with your address, (3) say what you will do, not what you ‘will be doing,’ and (4) don’t use the word ‘very.’

Some examples:

Original:
Your contributions make a significant impact on our ability to serve families.
(12 words, and what do they say, really? An impact can be a negative thing. I always see a car crash in my mind when I read the word.)

Better:
Your contributions significantly improve our ability to serve families.
We can serve families so much better, thanks to your gift.
Your contributions help us significantly improve people’s lives.

Original:
Our office is located at 722 Northview Ave.

Better:
We’re at 722 Northview Ave.
Our office is at 722 Northview Ave.
Visit us at 722 Northview Ave.

Originals:
We will be implementing a four-day work week.
We will be serving ham and eggs.
We will be offering six classes this fall.

Better:
We will implement a four-day work week.
We will serve ham and eggs.
We’ll offer six classes this fall.

Original:
This material is very environmentally friendly and easy to maintain.

Better:
This material is environmentally friendly and easy to maintain.
(Overuse of superlatives such as ‘very’ damage your credibility.)

If you can reduce your word count by at least a fourth, if not a third, I promise your writing will be tighter and more interesting. Be ruthless! It’s kind of fun.

What unnecessary words can you cut out of your own writing?

Add a spelling poster to your office décor

When you’re hanging new calendars in the office, add a poster from The Oatmeal: 10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.

My favorite: The way to remember how to correctly spell “weird” has to do with keeping dolphins from being run over by jet skis.

As a bonus, check out How to Use an Apostrophe and find out why Charles’ cat is always afraid of liftoff.

Jane Austen’s love affair with the comma

Jane Austen
Did Jane Austen love commas?

This is not a criticism of Jane Austen as a writer; I’m a fan. But it’s a good thing “Persuasion” wasn’t my first Austen book.

“Persuasion” is complicated by commas (and too many characters named Charles).

I realize Austen wrote “Persuasion” in the early 1800s, and so comma use today would naturally vary from comma use then.

I bring this up in late 2009 because some copywriters at organizations seem to want to emulate Austen by overusing commas as she (or her printers) did.

Merriam-Webster defines a comma as a pause, an interval. It helps readers grasp an idea before moving on to another. In the following example, the comma allows the reader to understand that although Michael is a Native American, his family did not stress the heritage:

“Michael is a Cherokee, but it was never part of his family’s identity.”

When a writer overuses commas, as Austen does in “Persuasion,” the reader can get lost. Try these examples:

“Though Charles and Mary had remained at Lyme much longer after Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove’s going, than Anne conceived they could have been at all wanted, they were yet the first of the family to be at home again, and as soon as possible after their return to Uppercross, they drove over to the lodge.”

Better: Eliminate the first comma; consider replacing the second comma with a semicolon or a period.

“Though Charles and Mary had remained at Lyme much longer after Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove’s going than Anne conceived they could have been at all wanted, they were yet the first of the family to be at home again. As soon as possible after their return to Uppercross, they drove over to the lodge.”

“The younger boy, a remarkable stout, forward child, of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, and went straight to the sofa to see what was going on, and put in his claim to any thing good that might be giving away.”

Better: Eliminate the comma before “of two years old,” the “and” after “among them” and (if you hate serial commas like I do) the comma after “going on.”

“The younger boy, a remarkable, stout, forward child of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, went straight to the sofa to see what was going on and put in his claim to any thing good that might be giving away.”

Comma use isn’t an exact science. Just keep in mind that you want your message to be easily understood and remembered, so don’t throw small curvy roadblocks in your reader’s way unnecessarily.

Get familiar with “Persuasion”

Discussion of the commas in “Mansfield Park”

Dare we criticize commas in the opening sentence of “Pride and Prejudice”?

Commas save lives!