Plain English to help SEO (Search Engine Optimisation)

By Matt Cornock

The highlight of the week just gone was the issuing of 200 banned words by the GLA: BBC News Story, List of Banned Words. This reminded me of the importance of plain english, the sort that the Plain English Campaign hark on about. These people write some very useful guides which help those writing for the web avoid inane jargon and write normally. The principle is straightforward when applying plain English to websites:

  • Fewer words results in better keyword to text ratios.
  • Words will be more likely to match those entered into search engines.
  • Natural language will match searches like “Where can I find a cheesemaker who sells Swiss cheese in Norfolk?” that people who miss Ask Jeeves type in.
  • The text will read easier for your human website users, increasing usability, accessibilty and linkage.
  • You won’t alienate your website users with spin words, as people like facts and want to use websites quickly, not trawl through verbal garbage.

There are of course different writing styles depending on what site you’re writing on. For a commercial site, you will probably add in some marketese (marketing spin), but keep it in moderation. Read what you’ve written and if you get annoyed with it, chances are your customers will and they’ll go elsewhere. Similarly, a fact-based website should stick to facts, keep a formal tone and be precise. Bloggers, personal sites and sites where personality is important can almost throw caution to the wind as it is the person that is the content, not necessarily the words that are written. However, still being succint is essential for attracting passing readers.

The onslaught of marketing jibberish

Keeping what is written on the web short, to the point and what the website visitor wants to read is tricky. When tempted to put in words like ‘the best’, ‘world leading’, or ‘highly rated’, consider what makes these statements true. These words fall upon deaf eyes to web visitors. Instead show them the proof and allow them to make their own judgment about how relevant you are to fulfilling their needs.

What would your reaction be if someone spoke to you in person saying ‘our paper product break all boundaries in the stationery world’? You’d probably look at them funny rather than buy fifty reams. If the same company approached you and showed you how their paper completely changed colour depending on the angle you held it, you may be more impressed.

Likewise, don’t add in the marketese or management speak, e.g. core competencies, value added, etc. What do these words mean? Keep it simple, straight to the point and get your facts out there. All good companies will make clear their unique selling points. If these points are filled with wishy-washy warbling on, then clearly the company doesn’t have a clear view of their own purpose. Highlighting three very specific selling points would be far better than five drawn out ones.

A final aside

One example, which comes from the PEC’s job titles page, is ‘Revenue Protection Officer’, which is a phrase often used by the main bus company in York (translated means ticket inspector). Needless to say, when they bought some expensive new vehicles, they decided to call them the ftr (according to some marketing type at the company this was text-speak for ‘future’). The rest of the world will know this vehicle as a big, purple, bendy-bus.

For a bit of fun, check out the Plain English Campaign Gobbledegook Generator, or the Buzzword Bingo.

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