Why Knowing Web Design Makes You a Better Web Writer

I recently touched off a nerve in an article on web writing by suggesting that web designers have a “leg up” on freelance writers when writing web content because of their familiarity with search engines.  Unfortunately I said this in one statement and didn’t really back it up with anything, since the article was tailored to web designers rather than writers.  Here, for the writers, is an explanation of what that meant.

Why Code Knowledge Matters

Web designers and programmers deal with the “back end” of the internet.  As such they are keenly aware of the red lights and green lights of the search engines.  There are some turns of phrase that can be used innocently in web copy that the search engines simply won’t like.  While most writers know to avoid repetition, they may use it in examples or in other ways that the search engines will still pick up on.  A web designer would know inherently to put such an example in an image file rather than using it in the site text.

I would recommend that every writer who is getting into writing for the web design a site from the ground up with proper code and everything, forgoing Dreamweaver and other WYSIWYG editors.  Once you understand code implementation and have read current literature and websites about search engine optimization, you’ll be well on your way to being an exceptional web writer.

Getting Started

There are about a million sites out there that offer tutorials on web design.  Start simply with HTML and work your way up from there.  Keep in mind that most designers use CSS, or cascading style sheets, for fonts now instead of HTML attributes, so you’ll want to pick up CSS along the way as well.  Don’t bother with programming languages like Javascript and PHP for the time being, that will take up too much of your time.

If you learned some HTML back in the day don’t rest on your laurels and think that is enough.  Code a site from the ground up with HTML and CSS and update your skills to current levels.

Get the Right Stuff on SEO

As a general rule, ignore any site or article on search engine optimization that has been written by someone who doesn’t have an extensive work history in search engine optimization, web design or programming.  If they call themselves “internet marketers” and couldn’t code to save their lives, chances are good that they just read up on current trends and spit them back out on their blog posts without any actual understanding of what is going on in order to sell some advertising on their sites.  If you see something that looks suspiciously like one of these posts, click on the link back to the source material and read that.  It will probably be cohesive and contain some good tips.

Beware of anyone who self-styles as an “SEO expert”.  Most of the people who actually are will let their experience and portfolio speak for them rather than loudly announcing their expert status to anyone who will listen in a vain attempt to attract more clicks to their sites.  It is so easy to start following the wrong advice when you are new to this game and the wrong advice can land you further down in the search engine results pages (SERPs) rather than higher up.  What worked in 1999 does not work now.  Unfortunately a lot of “SEO experts” don’t know this and just merrily keep on using tactics like hidden text that can land you in a heap of hot water.

Here are a few good sites to start with:

seo-chicks.com
The chicks are all actual professionals in the field of SEO and their combined expertise is staggering.  Generally any sites they suggest are good resources as well.

webproworld.com
If you are having an SEO or website problem you want to post your question in the forum here.  Professionals will answer you or point you to one of the many “stickies”.  I also recommend subscribing to their e-newsletter, its the only one that I haven’t unsubbed.  Lurk on their SEO forum to learn some current lessons on SEO.

Keyword Research

Most of you already know how to research keywords and technically this is another article in and of itself.  Google Analytics offers a free keyword research tool that is probably going to be the best for what you are looking for.  My personal preference is Trellian’s Keyword Research tool, but this is merely a habit I’ve gotten myself into and I will use both for proper research.  I feel just a little more comfortable with the Yahoo & MSN/Live coverage that Trellian gives me in addition to Google.  Both services are free although Trellian’s does only allow you limited use per day before they want you to upgrade to the professional version.  When you are done researching them, use them.  Start with your own site which you should have by now and see just how high up in the SERPs you can rank.  Warning:  this practice is highly addictive.

Attitude

The biggest thing I learned writing an article on web writing was that some writers out there have deeply entrenched attitudes about what they do and get very angry when those attitudes are challenged.  Personally, I’m willing to change a deeply held belief about anything if presented with ample evidence that I should.  Some people, including maybe your clients, may not be that flexible.  Web writing is a completely different animal than offline writing and you will run into people who just don’t believe this no matter how much evidence to the contrary you show them.  I’m sure some of you reading this right now are getting steamed about the fact that I am recommending that you learn the basics of site design and SEO.  In the end, the only advice that works for you is what actually works for you.  While there are things that definitely don’t work, no one person or site is going to give you a definitive list of what those things are, except maybe Google and their handy blog for webmasters.  You may want to pay attention to those guys.

A stick-in-the-mud attitude simply won’t work for you in this business.  You have to be willing to change with the tides of the internet and current trends.  If you don’t, you’ll be road pizza.  Plain and simple.  Your writing background is simply the basis that you have to work from, not a dogma that should govern everything that you do.

Good luck, happy hunting and happier writing!

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