Do you need tech-savvy skills to write for online markets? I got this question from an aspiring copywriter, and it’s a great one. Do you need to write code, or be a web whiz, in order to be a copywriter or content writer for the web? What if you just want to write?
The answer is: no, you don’t need to be a web guru, and you don’t need to write code or html.
However, with one or two extra web tricks up your sleeve, you can be a great help to online clients. You don’t need to become a full-on geek. But since so much writing work is for the online space these days, those techniques are well worth learning.
It’s no different from learning new skills if, say, you’re working for a deep sea diving company. As well as using your writing and marketing skills, you need to roll up your sleeves and learn their terminology, voice and subject matter.
Each writing specialism inevitably needs a bit of study. The good news is that web writing techniques are transferable to just about every website project. So it’s well worth adding them to your repertoire.
Here’s an overview of some of the tech skills you might come across. I’ve given a quick overview of whether you as a modern, up-to-date copywriter or content writer, might need them, and why.
1. HTML and other coding skills
Not needed. Phew! You don’t need to be able to code. Certainly not from scratch. So don’t go and sign up for that Python or CSS course unless you’re really, really keen. Coding is an entirely different and demanding skillset. What is useful, though, is a few website updating skills. For example, inserting hyperlinks in a website by grabbing a URL. It’s useful to know that a lot of coding is done by copying other people’s code, or adapting what’s already there. So coding from scratch isn’t required. Leave it up to the experts!
2. Search engine optimisation (SEO)
Basic concepts are useful. This is a group of tools rather than a single one. They’re the techniques marketing and web specialists use to improve search engine rankings. So it’s useful to at least know what it is, and how it affects writing and content. SEO is divided into frontend SEO (the user-facing visuals of a site, including the words) and backend SEO (the technical stuff that lies under the hood). So let’s divide it into…
3. Backend SEO
Not needed. You don’t need to know this stuff. It’s technical, and usually done by specialists who can wrangle the guts of websites with their IT spanners and not break anything. Backend SEO is really its own field of study, and web technology is constantly changing, so SEOs need to keep up to date. Leave it to the experts.
4. Frontend SEO
Basics are useful. Frontend SEO has two areas: the actual content you write, and the extra ‘signpost’ elements in blog posts and pages. The content is of course crucial, and the signpost elements are useful to know about. Both are elements of the writing. Writers can often help clients by taking on the signpost elements, which otherwise have to be done by the web developer.
For SEO website content, see 5. By ‘signposts’, I mean meta elements such as hyperlinks, tags, snippets and meta descriptions. These aren’t the main point of your writing, but they help search engines to find and link your site, so that people searching can more easily find what they want. If you’re used to updating blogs, you’ll manage this easily. These meta elements can be edited in each individual blog and page. For more information, see: SEO for authors : 10 tips to boost your website rankings.
Why should a copywriter or content writer need to know about this? Well, strictly speaking, you don’t. However, I highly recommend it.
Firstly, it’s useful for your own site. Content written with the web in mind will improve your search engine rankings. Secondly, if you’re writing web content in your job or for clients, this is an extra service they might expect. They’ll certainly appreciate it, as it helps their rankings. So, it’s well worth getting to grips with this.
5. SEO and web content writing
Useful. Firstly, this means writing with the reader in mind – in other words, for the person searching for what you’re offering. If you already write with a specific audience in mind, this isn’t an issue for you. However, it can be a mindset shift for authors who haven’t considered it.
In the public sector, this is sometimes called ‘digital first’ or ‘user-first’ writing, and if you write for this kind of organisation, you’ll need to know about it.
Writing user-first means stepping empathetically into the reader’s shoes to consider what they’re searching for, and what they might want to know, then presenting it in a web-friendly way. This is subjective, but mostly it’s about plain English and short paragraphs, to make the writing as accessible and visually straightforward as possible.
If you want your writing to be found on the web, you’ll also need to write headers, URLs, and search keywords that correspond to what readers are likely to be searching for. So, for SEO content, the way to go is literal language, rather than oblique and metaphorical. This, too, can be a challenge to writers.
However, things are changing. Now, we have the semantic web (prioritising meaning, rather than specific keywords). This has halted the dodgy practice of keyword stuffing, in favour of relevant content. Search bots powered by AI are also becoming more intuitive and human-like in their thinking (though note: it’s only an illusion of thinking!), so who knows what the future holds?
6. Hyperlinks and site flow
Useful. The ‘net’ isn’t just a word. It really is a vast network. How people (and bots) travel around it is through the knots or nodes of the net, also know as hyperlinks. This creates traffic flow.
Now imagine your site as a branching tree starting from the home page. If you’ve ever seen a site map, you’ll be familiar with this branching structure. Where the branches sprout are your site navigation, and each one is link or node.
But your site isn’t linked up by navigation alone. You can also add hyperlinks throughout the content in your site. Not just to other sites (external links), but also within your own (in-site links). Hyperlinks act a bit like mini portals or wormholes which readers and bots can zoom through. This allows superfast travel in your website, and confirms the connected nature of the writing. If the link is relevant, it will repeatedly be ‘fired’ by visitors, a bit like a neuron. And this tells search engines that your website is working well.
In a way, by creating hyperlinks in your text, you’re helping to create the vast synthetic brain of the internet. And a site that is well-linked internally will be recognised and rewarded by search engines.
7. URLs and headers
Very useful. URLs – website and page addresses – are crucial on the web. Clearly, you’ve thought long and hard before choosing your website name. But what about the name of each page and blog post you write? Every URL has ‘search juice’. If you don’t realise this, you’re probably not making the best of it.
In the early days of websites, I discovered how to edit my URLs, and use to go in and change them all the time. Yikes! This is a very bad idea. If you do that, you may set up an excellent link, then destroy it. It’s like building a path for people to walk along, and then ripping it up. Do this, and your site visitors will see errors like ‘sorry, this page doesn’t exist’ (404 errors). Decide your URLs and blog post names mindfully from the start. If you do need to change a URL, add a 404 redirect (see below).
8. Meta descriptions, tags, and other hidden text
Useful. These are bits of your website that are hidden under the bonnet, but not as hidden as backend SEO (see 4 above). You can find them inside posts in your website content manager, usually down at the bottom of each post. They are essentially written signposts or labels that categorise bits of your site. And as you’re a writer, why not write them?
It’s not difficult, and it helps your rankings. I’ve explained it in these blogs: SEO for Authors and SEO for Writers – How Title Tags Can Boost Your Site.
9. Categories and tags
Useful. Categories and tags are essentially labels for content on your site. They’re a shorthand for flagging up specific themes, eg ‘writing audio’ or ‘SEO’. You can see categories at work on this site on the blog page. They’re useful for navigation, and also for search bots, who can read the labels and direct visitors accordingly. So, adding tags and categories is a useful skill for you as a writer. It allows you to label your posts, and help both site visitors and search engines.
Category thinking is also useful if you’re writing client websites, and need to design their navigation structure. It will help you to communicate with web developers more effectively.
Categories and tags are found inside your website editor, by opening a post or page. They’re usually on the right of the editing space.
10. 404 redirects
Not needed. Now this sounds exceptionally scary! And techie! Normally, this is handled by your web developer. But it is possible to do it yourself.
What’s a 404 redirect? It’s similar to a forwarding address when you move house.
If you change a URL, search engines will get confused. They know about the old address, but suddenly, it’s been cut off and there’s a huge “GONE AWAY” plank nailed across the door. This GONE AWAY is a 404 message – usually a web page with the message “this page doesn’t exist”. And you don’t want one of those on your beautiful site!
So you need to steer the bots seamlessly to the new URL. This involves a 404 redirect, and it’s fairly easy to do. You just need to copy the old URL into a box, and say where it needs to point.
If you’re confident with URLs and happy to learn this, ask your webmaster to show you how to do a 404 redirect.
And then you’ve actually done some coding! So you’re well on your way to being a web-savvy copywriter-content writer.