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Chapter 4. Why Good Copy Counts > Free and Inexpensive Real Estate

Free and Inexpensive Real Estate

Now that you have a handle on what makes good web copy, let's think about where copy goes. There is so much more to writing for the web than the copy that goes into your site navigation and body.

Title Tag

The <title> tag is the element that usually displays in the top chrome of the browser window and declares, obviously, the title of your page (see Figure 4.9). (I'll talk about where this element fits structurally in an HTML document in Chapter 7, “Save Time and Money with Web Standards.”) The title element is among the first several lines of markup in the HTML, and it looks like this:

<title>The Rogue Librarian -- Shooshin' and stampin' </title>

4.9. The text that you write for the <title> tag appears in search engine results (www.google.com). This is true for many web search engines and also for internal site search engines. This screen shot illustrates what happens if you do not take the time to write a <title> element for each page; you give the user little opportunity to distinguish your site's sections from one another.

The content of your <title> element displays in some very valuable places: in search engine results (see Figure 4.10), in the browser's title bar (see Figure 4.11), and in the browser's bookmarks. The title element might also be used in web applications such as newsfeeds and “email to a friend” applications. Thus, making good use of this element is vital when it is presented outside the context of your own site. The small pieces of screen real estate have a value that is surprisingly high, like the rent on a shoebox apartment in Manhattan. Use it, by gum, and use it well.

4.10. The contents of the <title> element display in the title bar of most browsers, letting your users see where they are (www.roguelibrarian.com). Think about the value of this information to users who like to multitask and have several browser windows open at one time. Be descriptive when you write this copy. Some browser windows cut the title short. Try to keep the character count to less than 45. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, it is best to be concise. Use words economically.

4.11. Another place where the <title> tag appears is in bookmarks. If you hope that users will bookmark more than one page from your site, make sure that each page has its own descriptive <title>. You can include your company name, but augment that information with descriptive copy.

The <title> element is neglected in several ways. Occasionally, it is left unused altogether. Sometimes the title of the site is the <title> element that appears on every page within that site. When this happens, it is difficult for users to tell the difference between parts of your site when they come upon them in their bookmarks and in search engine results. If you have invested time and money in an internal search engine for your site, and you have failed to write meaningful title elements for each page or section of your site, you are selling that search engine investment short. If you run a small online retail store and your users are looking for shoes, Company Name: Shoes makes a better title element for the shoes page than unadorned Company Name.

Look again at Figure 4.9, where you see a Google search result for my personal site, Rogue Librarian. The first two search results are for different parts of my site, and the title tag for each is different. The home page has my title and theme line, and the subsection called “Library Stories” has a title appropriate to that section. Be sure to use title tags that are as descriptive as possible for each section of your site.


The most important characteristic of the web is that it is a system of hyperlinks. A hyperlink is an element in a web page or site that links or points to another place in that same page or to a different page or site. Although you can create hyperlinks around and within images, the most effective hyperlinks are built around text.

Good web writers are careful about the words they use to create a hyperlink. Consider these three examples:

My mother told me that chocolate is essential for women's health.

My mother told me that chocolate is essential for women's health.

My mother told that chocolate is essential for women's health.

The placement of each link raises different expectations about what the user is going to find—not only the subject, but how users might be predisposed to understand what they find. The link in the first example probably leads to a page on which my mother is the subject. The audience might be predisposed to taking what my mother says with a grain of salt. Obviously, in the second example, chocolate is the subject, and we are predisposed to think that this link will take us to enjoyable information, such as a recipe for a killer chocolate cake. The third example raises the expectation that The New England Journal of Medicine has just published an article that declares that chocolate is good for women, thus vindicating my mother's long-held but suspect belief that I should eat chocolate every day.

Paying careful attention to where you place links will not cost much money—and if you are smart about it, you can let language do much of the heavy lifting for the navigational issues on your site.

The title Attribute

Selecting a good piece of text is not the only way you can exploit the power of words. You can do one other quick and easy thing to add tremendous value to your site: Write a title attribute. The title attribute can be used in the hyperlink to provide more information about the link.

The title attribute in this example lets the user know that the link points to a study about chocolate and information on how it is good for women's health. The text in the title attribute displays as a ToolTip in most browsers (see Figure 4.12):

<p>My mother told me that chocolate is essential for
<a href="http://www.somesciencejournal.com"
title="New study finds chocolate is high in iron.">women's health</a>.</p>

4.12. The text “New study finds chocolate is high in iron.” is a title attribute in the anchor link tag that displays as the user mouses over the link (www.somesciencejournal.com). Use the title attribute to provide extra information. Note that not all browsers support the title attribute. Those of us who still have to worry about Netscape 4 should know that that ancient browser does not support the title attribute; Netscape 4 users will never see this text.

Taking the time to write well-crafted title attributes can add more information to your site. This can be a place to add copy that is too long to include on the page but that might be valuable to your readers, or that can supply more guidance to other pages on your site. At the cost of a minute's additional work, title attributes enhance user experience and increase the perceived value of the information your site provides.

Email Signatures

If you are not using a signature file in your email, start now (see Figure 4.13). Most email clients enable you to create this bit of text that is automatically appended to every message you send. This is free marketing and an opportunity to have fun. If your company has a theme line, use it. Include your URL. If you have something new to promote on your site, write a short blurb that goes out with every message you send. Do it—it is free! Be careful that you do not overdo it, though.

4.13. Email signatures are free marketing. In my own email, I use a signature file that contains the name of my site, its theme line, and my URL. This is automatically attached to the body of every message that I send.

Remember that people reading your mail will not tolerate verbose signatures. A good rule of thumb is to keep your signature at less than four lines; just make those four lines count. The shorter you write, the more power you grant each word—and the likelier your message is to be read by busy Internet users, who have no time for long texts.

“404 Not Found” and Other Error Messages

Almost all web sites produce error messages. Whether they are an application bug generated by your middleware, the result of a bad search, or a “Page Not Found” error, these messages are all customizable. Make sure you take the time to craft human messages that will guide users back to where they belong. The “Page Not Found” error is a free marketing opportunity that some web developers miss out on or misuse. Few savvy sites now leave the “404 Not Found” error alone; see Figure 4.14 for the default 404 messages that you'll see on some servers.

4.14. Customize all error messages. Rarely do sites these days have a virgin “File Not Found” page. The customized 404 message is a free marketing tool available to even the barest budgets, and you will pay a penalty if you don't take advantage. When users come across broken URLs, whether you are responsible for them or not, you run the risk of losing their attention. If you have not customized your “Page Not Found” and other error messages, spend a little time doing it now.

Most web developers take the time to customize this message in some way. But a surprising few really take advantage of this free marketing opportunity (see Figures 4.15 and 4.16). When you write these messages, try not to be cute or to overwhelm the user with too many options. Avoid the temptation to pontificate—just give the user what he needs: an obvious link to the home page, a way to contact you, links to frequently requested pages, and a short and easy-to-understand blurb on how the user might have gotten to the 404 page in the first place. The goal of all error messages should include keeping users on your site.

4.15. Make sure all error messages are meaningful. This “Page Not Found” error is entertaining, but who is the page talking to? Not the customer. The entire first paragraph reads like the site developer is showing off or, worse, talking to herself. In the second paragraph, we begin to see some content that might be important to the reader. The best chance that users have for finding what they are looking for is in the last two paragraphs, but that information is not quite rich enough. Are the Back button and the email link all the help we can provide to the user? I think not. The goal of any copy, especially of the “Page Not Found” variety, should be to give users what they need. If you can do that and entertain the reader, that is even better: a dose of entertainment helps take the sting out of outdated links and other site-management errors. Just make sure you have the horse before the cart.

4.16. This is a “Page Not Found” message that my colleague Catherine Jones and I wrote when we worked together for The Branch Libraries of The New York Public Library. Most of the language is based on frustrating experiences that we knew our users were having and on the site resources that we felt were of the best value to our users.

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