Usability-first Search Engine Optimization

The Seven Deadly Sins of Copywriting

Copywriting SinsSelling online is a bit of an art.

Before your visitors reach your shopping cart, call your 800 number, or click on that submit button—in fact, from the second most visitors land on your site—they’re probably in a relatively receptive mood. They’ve landed on your site for a reason, but it’s up to you to persuade them to act.

But this isn’t the 1950s. Today, consumers are less gullible. They’re exposed to a daily barrage of the Internet’s “amazing offers”, catchy slogans, and empty promises.

There’s no one “right” way to engage readers in your effort to promote or market online, but there are several wrong ways. Here are some of the more commonly seen ones:

  1. Fluff
  2. Negativity
  3. The passive voice
  4. Feature-oriented content
  5. Marketese
  6. Me-oriented content
  7. Keyword abuse

1. Fluff

There’s loads of this on too many small, medium and even corporate business sites:

  • “Welcome to our website, here you will find…” (Help them find it, don’t tell them they’ll find it)
  • “SuperWidgets are one of those things that most people (and businesses!) have, but aren’t thought about a lot – until they break, that is!”
  • “Once again, thanks for checking out our website. We hope that you enjoy looking around!”
  • “SuperWidgets aren’t on the forefront of everyone’s mind, but making sure that your SuperWidget is in top shape is important.”

Visitors know why they’re on your site; they want the info and value without the fluff.
Solution: If it doesn’t add value, remove it. If you can say it in fewer words, do it.

2. Negativity

Even when writing copy for a repair company, accentuate your solutions instead of potential problems.

Try “Our patented widget lubrication system will keep your widget in perfect running order in every weather condition“, instead of “Our patented widget lube will prevent your widget from malfunctioning in nasty weather“. The difference is subtle, but the first example creates less stress, and focuses on feel good solutions instead of stressful problems.

Other examples of focusing on problems instead of solutions are:

Copywriting negativity

  • “These SuperWidgets are loaded with doodads and gizmos that can easily snap or break, which is why it’s best to let one of our professionals install them”.
  • “Since many SuperWidgets are now electronic, shorts and breaks in electricity are often a problem. But we can do so and so to achieve…”
  • “As you can see, there are many reasons why a commercial SuperWidget would stop working. We can be there when it does”
  • “Make sure to inspect your SuperWidget regularly (once per year), so that you do not wind up with a major problem…”


Wow, SuperWidget problems are numerous and overwhelming. How depressing, maybe I’ll go lie down on the couch and stare at the ceiling instead of taking action!

Solution: Highlight benefits and solutions, not problems. Do not write statements in the negative form. Write statements in the positive form.

3. The Passive voice

Copywriting should subtly–and at times explicitly–persuade. Persuasion works best with the active voice. Think “Content drives traffic“, not “Traffic is driven by  content”. Calls to action can be appropriately understated:

  • “Let us help you with your xyz” instead of “We can help you with xyz“.
  • “Have us repair your SuperWidget so that you don’t have to xyz” instead of “We can repair your SuperWidget so that you don’t have to xyz“.
  • Targeting local consumers can be easy” is less powerful than the direct, active voice of “Target local consumers with ease”.

Notice how the active voice is a great way to shift attention from you to your visitor? This is where the attention should be.’Target’, inspires more action than ‘targeting’ in the example above.

Solution: Use verbs, that instruct, instead of weak adjectives that describe. The passive voice is to be avoided. Avoid the passive voice.

4. Feature-oriented copy

A common copywriting mistake is a focus on features instead of benefits. Copywriting isn’t technical writing, it’s promotional, and the best way to promote is by discussing benefits. “Features tell, but benefits sell”. Corny catchphrase, but accurate.

Benefit-oriented content resonates with readers, and ideally produces a desirable emotional response. Technical writing informs, whereas copywriting persuades. As the famous Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt used to say: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”..

Instead of “Our boots have rubber shell and outsole protection with traction ribbing, and sealed seams that render them waterproof”, go with “Your feet will stay dry in these boots”. Back up your claims with features at the bottom of the page if you have to.

Solution: Emphasize benefits over features.

5. Marketese

Copywriting marketese
Just as content shouldn’t lack persuasiveness, it can easily be over the top as well. Cheesy stock imagery (handshakes, jigsaw puzzle pieces lightbulbs, etc) aren’t the only marketing clichés that can suck the life out of your message; copywriting itself has its own share of notoriously overused fallbacks:

  • Best in the West: ‘Best’, ‘greatest’, ‘incredible’, ‘unbeatable’. (Usually preceded with the 6th copywriting sin; ‘We‘. Don’t tell people you’re the best. Give them your pitch and let them make up their own minds.
  • Buzzwords: Don’t leverage if you can use. Don’t synergize if you can combine. Keep it simple instead of using wordy abstractions that only double copy length and detract from readability.

Solution: There’s a fine line between avoiding hype and being boring. Find that line.

6. Me-oriented copy

Don’t focus on the  ‘I’, ‘we’, or ‘us’. Instead, construct sentences using ‘you’ and ‘your’. You-oriented copy attracts readers, keeps them interested, and cues them for action. It’s not about you, it’s about them, so focus on what your readers want, rather than what services you offer.

Solution: Put the emphasis on your readers instead of on you.

7. Keyword abuse

Copywriters sometimes take it into their own hands to please you with “keyword rich” content, or “SEO copywriting”. Search visibility isn’t about repeating keywords. If keywords aren’t naturally appearing where you’d like them to, rethink your content strategy and/or information architecture, and move on to more technical and social aspects of SEO.

Solution: Think content strategy before last minute tactics.

These are the usual suspects of sub-par copywriting. Remember them to keep you on the road to writing content that’s both useful to visitors and persuasive, and you should achieve better results.

If you enjoyed this post, check out my popular 10 steps to writing better web content.

About matt

Matthew Edward is the founder of Springboard SEO, a usability-first search engine optimization company in Montreal.