Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Left-side Rule

Why It's Critical to Let Your Web Visitors Know They've Come to the Right Place

People don't look at Web pages the same way they look at print pages. If I pick up People magazine, I look at the photos first and then the captions. That's not what happens on the Web. On the Web, people don't look at photos first unless it's a glamour-related site. On a regular site, they read the headline first. Why? Because they're driven by a purpose and they want to know if they've come to the right place. So they read the headline and they will either think, "Oh, okay, this isn't what I thought it was going to be," and they'll leave. Or the headline will say to them, "Yes, you're in the right place," and they'll keep reading.

That brings me to this …

Improve Your Copywriting Skills

Use the "Left-Side" Rule to Make Your Web Copy Easy to Scan

One of the biggest challenges for an online copywriter is to create a page of copy that can be scanned easily. More specifically, you need to write and design Web pages that enable people to find the information they want – and the information YOU want them to find – with a quick glance.

What's the big deal?

The big deal is that people don't view and read Web pages the same way that they scan printed materials.First of all, their attitude is different. Web users are goal-oriented. They know what they are looking for. They know what they want. And it's your job to let people know that they came to the right place.

Also, Web readers are a lot more impatient than print readers. They are in a hurry. They are unforgiving. Visualize yourself as a typical website visitor – someone interested in, say, kayaking. Picture yourself picking up a kayaking magazine. You kick back and start flipping through the pages. You are relaxed. You take your time. Some articles will really interest you. Others won't. That's okay. The magazine has your complete attention. There's no urgency. If you put the magazine down on a side table while you answer the door or walk the dog, it will be there waiting for you when you get back.

Now let's say you read an article about some cool kayak storage racks. Your kayak is taking up way too much room on the floor in the garage, so you want to hang it on the wall. Suddenly, you have a very specific interest. You want to find out where you can buy a "kayak storage rack." You also want to check out the different racks available and their prices. So you head over to your computer and open Google or some other search engine. You type in the phrase "kayak storage racks."

Now let's stop for a moment. You may wonder whether I'm painting an accurate picture here. The short answer is yes. While people don't always look for stuff online after reading a magazine, they very frequently use the major search engines to find and research things they are interested in buying. The fact that people use search engines changes everything. Because to use a search engine, you have to enter a search phrase. You have to think about what you are looking for and think of a phrase that will (you hope) take you to a relevant page on a website. As soon as someone types in the phrase "kayak storage racks," they have framed the boundaries of their interest and attention.

It is essential that you understand this.

As soon as someone types in a search phrase, that person becomes tightly focused in the way they scan the search results and then scan the pages on the sites they arrive at. Remember, when you were picking up that magazine about kayaks, your mind was open. You were a passive recipient of information about kayaking. You were in the hands of the magazine's editors. As a passive observer, you opened the magazine to find out what was inside. When you go to the Web, the experience is utterly different. As a site visitor, you are not passive, you are active. You are in control. You are the boss. You know exactly what you are looking for. You are task-oriented. And in this case, your self-assigned task is to find some kayak storage racks. You read through the titles to the listings on the Google search results page and click on a link that looks promising. In this case, that link will probably include the phrase "kayak storage racks."

You then arrive at a page within a website. Probably not the home page. Probably some internal page. And your brain is now programmed for one task only – to find kayak storage racks. You scan the page for text and images that will confirm you are in the right place. This will take you about 2 seconds. If you don't see an immediate match for "kayak storage racks," you will hit the back button. That may sound brutal. But this is what happens. Now that you understand that, let's say you've been hired to write a page about kayak storage racks.

But you're a print copywriter, and you have no experience writing for the Web. So you might write the first draft of the page headline something like: "Free up your floor space by hanging your kayak from the walls or ceiling." You're stating the benefit of the racks right at the beginning. Just they way I was taught – and the way you're learning now. But that isn't how I would write the headline for the Web.

I'd write it more like this: "Kayak Storage Racks – for wall or ceiling. Save 22% + free shipping." Why? Because I know that my reader's brain is tightly focused on a very specific task and phrase. In fact, I have probably written 20 different pages about storage racks, each of them with its headline optimized for a particular search term. Whatever the term, get it at the beginning of the headline. Because the first three or four words of your headline will get a lot more attention than the last three.

Don't believe me? Well, thousands of heatmap studies, which track a Web user's eye movements, have confirmed this time and time again. In fact, whatever your key message is, make sure you place the words and phrases you use to describe it as close to the left margin of the main column as possible. When people scan a Web page, their eye movement and the vast majority of their attention is very tightly tied to that left side. And the further people look down a page, the less they will look at anything that is not close to the left side.

What does this mean?

It means that my key phrases and benefits will be written at the beginning of every heading, subhead, and link. Don't assume people will read the whole subhead. They will probably just scan the first three or four words. Don't waste space with generic terms. That is to say, if you want to highlight your free shipping offer, don't write a subhead like this: "Order your space-saving kayak rack today and get free shipping." Write it more like this: "Free shipping with your kayak rack if you order today."
Everything that matters should come at the beginning of all your scannable textyou're your headline, subheads, links, and captions.

(BTW – why did I add the discount and free shipping offer to my headline? Because online shoppers are comparison shoppers. They'll find what they want on your site, and then see if they can find the same thing cheaper elsewhere. So you want to do all you can to keep them on your page … and get them to buy from your page.)

There is a lot more to say about creating scannable Web copy, but the "left-side" rule should be enough to get you started.

– Nick Usborne

This article appears courtesy of The Golden Thread, an e-letter form AWAI that delivers original, no-nonsense advice on how to build your freelance copywriting business. For a free subscription, visit http://www.awaionline.com/thegoldenthread