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?
Well, firstly, you could argue that all writing is a kind of code! But I’ll leave that controversial point for now.
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. You need to roll up your sleeves and learn their terminology, voice and subject matter.
Each specialism has its own quirks, and 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, and how you, as a modern, up-to-date copywriter or content writer, might need them, on a scale of 1 (don’t need) to 10 (definitely need).
1. HTML or coding (1)
You don’t need to be able to code. Phew. Very occasionally, I’ve copied, pasted and played with bits of code, just for the sheer hell of it. A lot of coding is secretly done by copying other people’s code, and adapting it to your own needs. But you don’t need this skill. And you certainly don’t need to be able to code from scratch.
2. Search engine optimisation (SEO) (5)
This is a group of tools rather than a single one. They’re the techniques webbies use to improve search engine rankings. They divide into frontend SEO (the visible visuals of a site, including words) and backend SEO (what lies under the hood). So let’s divide it into…
3. Backend SEO (1)
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. Or at least, break it and then undo the damage. 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 (6)
This is useful. Frontend SEO consists of familiar elements such as headers, URLs, and search keywords, and less familiar, more hidden ones, such as tags, snippets, meta descriptions and hyperlinks.
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, as well as clients’. Content written with the web in mind will improve your search engine rankings. This isn’t just about style (shorter sentences, being aware of mobile users…) It’s also about word choice, and good flow through your site. So let’s break this down further into…
5. Word choice in your copywriting (8)
This means writing with the reader in mind – in other words, the person searching for what you’re offering. This means stepping empathetically into their shoes to consider how they might think, and what they might search for.
This is a tiny version of “writing a book readers want to read”, but it’s a mindset flip for many writers. And the thing about web writing is that you don’t need to guess. You can research and find out, because it’s all out there, plain to see, online. Note that thanks to the semantic web, search bots are becoming more intuitive and human-like in their thinking.
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6. Hyperlinks and site flow (8)
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 a single trunk. If you’ve ever seen a site map, you’ll be familiar with this branching structure. Those branch nodes are your built-in site navigation, and each one is a kind of hyperlink.
But that’s just the start. You can also add hyperlinks throughout the content in your site. Not just to other sites, but also within your own. These 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 (10)
URLs – website and page addresses – are a crucial currency on the web. So clearly, you’ve thought long and hard before choosing your website name. But what about each page you write? And each blog post? Every URL has ‘search juice’, and if you don’t realise this, you’re probably not making the best of it.
In the early days of websites, I used to edit my URLs all the time. Yikes! This is a very bad idea. If you do that, you may be setting up an excellent hyperlink, then destroying it. It’s like building a path for people to walk along, and then ripping it up. Think it through first, and leave it alone.
8. Meta descriptions, tags, and other hidden text (6)
These are bits of your website that under the bonnet, but not as hidden as backend SEO (see 3 above). You can find them inside posts in your website, usually down the bottom of each one. They are essentially helpful written signposts to your site. Or little labels (metatags) showing what’s what. And as a writer, why not write them?
It’s not difficult, it helps your rankings, and I’ve explained it in these blogs: SEO for Authors and SEO for Writers – How Title Tags Can Boost Your Site.
9. Tags and tag clouds (8)
I’ve only recently switched on to these, and haven’t used them much in copywriting for the web. I haven’t come across SEO specialists who mention them. But I think they’re really useful.
Tags and tag clouds (not the same as title tags, sorry!) are particularly helpful as a shortcut through your site, as they let people visit different themes, and check out all the content under that theme.
As an example, here’s a tag link to articles about audiobooks and here’s one to articles on copywriting (check out the URLs to see the tag in action). Tags are easy to set up in your blog posts, and you can usually add a tag cloud easily in WordPress.
If, after reading this, you realise you need to revamp your tags or URLs, it’s exceptionally useful to learn this extra web skill:
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10. 404 redirects (2)
Now this sounds exceptionally scary! And techie! But it isn’t really. It’s just the same as a forwarding address when you move house.
If you change a URL or tag, 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 plank is a 404 message. It’s the familiar ominous web page that says “this page doesn’t exist” or “sorry, our site has broken”. And believe me, you don’t want one of those on your beautiful website!
So you need a sign to steer the bots to the new URL. Ideally, seamlessly, so that they don’t even notice it has moved. That’s 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 play around with blog post URLs, ask your webmaster to add a 404 plugin such as Yoast to your site and show you how to use it.
And if you go there, you’ve actually done some coding. So you’re well on your way to being a web-savvy copywriter-content writer.