Why you need to shorten your website copy

Spoiler: because no one is going to read it

Professional service firms have a bad reputation when it comes to corporate websites. Poorly designed, with far too much copy, these sites were seen internally as an unavoidable necessity, but not one you needed to worry too much about.

One of the biggest problems professional service firms have struggled to grapple with, as websites have increased in importance, is the need to create content optimised for the web.

The temptation to write paragraph after paragraph about each product and all the different markets you serve is apparently too much for many firms out there.

Here is why this is a bad thing.

Now, just to be clear, in the post we’re talking about non-blog pages. So everything from your about-us page to the pages talking about the services you offer.

What’s wrong with verbose copy?


The best way to think of content in this respect is: “how much effort would it take for a user to understand the essential points my content is trying to make?”

When asking this question, we need to bear in mind that users read things differently online. Not only can we expect users to only read only about 20% of the words on a page, they are likely to only scan material in the now famous ‘F’ pattern. The point here is that, without optimising your content for online readers, you’re making it nearly impossible for users to locate or take in information easily. You’re asking them to expend more effort.

The key to making sure your content is web friendly is to give readers cues that will help them decide what information to dive further into. In their simplest form, these cues may just be sub-headings, bold text or bullet points. Using these formats will allow users to easily pick out the information you want them to identify.

And should readers take one of these cues and decide to read more closely, you must ensure the following content is intuitively laid out, and does not obscure the purpose of the content. This requires clean language that avoids cliches, buzzwords and unnecessary qualifications.

What bad looks like

Here’s a fairly typical example of using too much content on a relatively simple page. Taken from the old website of Executive search firm Odgers Berndtson, the screen shot on the left demonstrates the old content for their Private Equity and Venture Capital practice.

This content has no headings or any styling that will make it easier for users to scan through the text.

Left: Old OdgersBerndtson.co.uk content; Right: modified content

On the right, we have a modified version that simply puts in place a couple of sub-headings, and deletes a few sentences.

The difference is obvious, and the amount of effort a user will have to expend in order to understand Odger’s offering in this market is clearly less.

And yet, this exercise took just a couple of minutes complete.

Beautiful is not always better

Now, the Odgers text is an isolated example. Literally, I’ve cropped out the rest of the terrible website. Unfortunately, however, even organisations with beautifully designed websites can find themselves using far too many words in their copy.

Take Egon Zehnder, another Executive Search firm. They have a vaguely-snazzy website, and they use sub-headings. What’s not to like? Here is their page on executive search — you know, their primary product:

Have you seen the size of this thing? Christ, it’s over 1,000 words long. Who is going to read that?

Yes, there are sub-headings, but they have far, far too much content on this page. This isn’t helped by the fact that the sub-headings are also vague as hell: “Discerning search”, “Crucial connections”, “Deeply productive conversations”.

But it’s not just ‘traditional’ firms that are making this mistake. Here are examples of industry pages from two of London’s biggest communications agencies: Finsbury, and Instinctif.

Right: Instinctif.com; Left: Finsbury.com

Just one scroll down these pages and this what you’re faced with. Remember, these are not blogs. These pages are meant, in the crudest sense, to be selling these organisations.

Don’t get me wrong, Finsbury’s page looks excellent (I’m a big fan of typography-driven websites) but fuck me I’m not going to read all that if I’m quickly throwing together a presentation on potential new communications partners.

The mobile revolution is coming for you

Bad news friends. Even if you think you can get away with large amounts of unstructured content on desktop, on mobile you’ll still look stupid. Here are mobile screen shots for the websites we’ve looked at so far:

Left: Finsbury.com; Center: EgonZhender.com; Right: Instinctif.com

How many mobile users do you think have scrolled all the way down, to the important supporting information at the bottom of the page (as in Instinctif and Finsbury’s cases)?

Shit, my website looks like these! What should I do?

Fortunately, modernising large blocks of text should be relatively easy.

Now, starting from scratch with your content will usually produce the best results. But for those of you short on time and resources, these tips will help you modernise your content without much effort.

That said, these tips will only improve the readability of your content. If your old content was off topic, non-sensical, vague, or just plain rubbish, then no amount of cutting back and adding sub-headings is going to help really.

1. Delete your first sentence

If you’re anything like me, your first sentence is probably not necessary. A lot of people have a tendency to write a context-setting first sentence that isn’t strictly necessary.

For example, you don’t need to write “The oil industry is going through a turbulent time” to justify to potential clients why engaging a management consultancy is a good move. If someone from the oil industry is reading your page, chances are they know that the industry is having a bad time.

The same applies to “Digital has changed [literally any sector].”

2. Sub-headings

Read through your content and add in sub-headings that indicate the content of each section. And make sure you’re sub-headings are explicit. If you struggle to think up a concise sub-heading for a particular section, chances are you content is not clear enough in the first place.

Now, ask yourself: “do I really need all of these sub-sections?”…

3. Move content elsewhere

A great way to cut content down on any given page is to move it elsewhere. This may sound like a short-cut, but it will actually require a bit of effort.

For example, if you feel the need to name drop your clients every other sentence, why not put together a page (or god forbid, a .pdf) of recent clients and case studies that you can link to throughout your content.

Providing users with a link to further, more detailed information will keep your word-count down and add substance to all those throwaway claims about how great your firm is that you’ve just deleted from your old copy.

4. If you’ve said it somewhere else, delete it

If you’ve already stated that “We have interconnected, dedicated teams in 15 sectors across 5 continents, offering a genuinely international perspective” somewhere else on your site, you don’t need to do it again. Why not go with: “Our team offers an international perspective” with a nice link off to your team or offices page.