Use the “Left-Side” Rule to Make Your Web Copy Easy to Scan

One of the biggest challenges for an Internet marketer is to create a page of copy that can be scanned easily.

More specifically, you need to create Web pages that enable people to find the information they want – and the information you want them to find – with a quick glance.

What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that people don’t view and read Web pages the same way as they scan printed materials.

First of all, their attitude is different. Web users are goal-oriented. They know what they are looking for. They know what they want. And it’s your job to let people know that they came to the right place.

Also, Web readers are a lot more impatient than print readers. They are in a hurry. They are unforgiving.

Visualize yourself as a typical website visitor – someone interested in, say, kayaking.

Picture yourself picking up a kayaking magazine. You kick back and start flipping through the pages. You are relaxed. You take your time. Some articles will really interest you. Others won’t. That’s okay. The magazine has your complete attention. There’s no urgency. If you put the magazine down while you answer the door or walk the dog, it will be there waiting for you when you get back.

Now, let’s say you read an article about some cool kayak storage racks. Your kayak is taking up way too much room on the floor of the garage, so you want to hang it on the wall.

Suddenly, you have a very specific interest. You want to find out where you can buy a “kayak storage rack.” You also want to check out the different racks available and their prices.

So you head over to your computer and open Google or some other search engine.

You type in the phrase “kayak storage racks.”

Let’s stop for a moment. You may wonder whether I’m painting an accurate picture here. The short answer is yes. While people don’t always look for stuff online after reading a magazine, they very frequently use the major search engines to find and research things they are interested in buying.

The fact that people use search engines changes everything. Because to use a search engine, you have to enter a search phrase. You have to think about what you are looking for and think of a phrase that will (you hope) take you to a relevant page on a website.

As soon as you type in the phrase “kayak storage racks,” you have framed the boundaries of your interest and attention. And you have become tightly focused on the way you scan the search results and then scan the pages on the sites you arrive at.

It is essential that you understand this.

Remember when you were picking up that magazine about kayaks? Your mind was open. You were a passive recipient of information about kayaking. You were in the hands of the magazine’s editors. As a passive observer, you opened the magazine to find out what was inside.

When you go to the Web, the experience is utterly different. As a site visitor, you are not passive, you are active. You are in control. You are the boss. You know exactly what you are looking for. You are task-oriented.

And in this case, your self-assigned task is to find some kayak storage racks.

You read through the titles to the listings on the Google search results page and click on a link that looks promising. In this case, that link will probably include the phrase “kayak storage racks.”

You then arrive at a page within a website. Probably not the home page. Probably some internal page.

And your brain is now programmed for one task only – to find kayak storage racks.

You scan the page for text and images that will confirm you are in the right place. This will take about two seconds. If you don’t see an immediate match for “kayak storage racks,” you will hit the back button.

This may sound brutal. But it is what happens.

Now that you understand this, let’s say you’ve been hired to write copy for a page about kayak storage racks. If you have no experience writing for the Web, you might write your headline something like:

“Free up your floor space by hanging your kayak from the walls or ceiling.”

You’re stating the benefit of your client’s racks right at the beginning – which is what you should do when you’re writing copy for a sales letter that’s going to be mailed or an ad that’s going to appear in a newspaper or magazine. But that isn’t how I would write the headline for the Web.

I’d write it more like this:

“Kayak Storage Racks – for wall or ceiling. Save 22% + free shipping.”

Why? Because I know my reader’s brain is tightly focused on a very specific task and phrase. In fact, I would probably write several different headlines about storage racks, each of them optimized for a particular search term.

And I would put that term at the beginning of the headline. Because the first three or four words of your headline will get a lot more attention than the last three.

Don’t believe me? Well, thousands of heat-map studies, which track a Web user’s eye movements, have confirmed this time and time again.

In fact, whatever your key message is, make sure you place the words and phrases you use to describe it as close to the left margin of the main column as possible.

When people scan a Web page, their eye movement, and the vast majority of their attention, is very tightly tied to that left side. And the further people look down the page, the less they will look at anything that is not close to the left side.

What does this mean? It means that my key phrases and benefits will be written at the beginning of every heading, subhead, and link.

Don’t assume people will read your whole subhead. They will probably just scan the first three or four words.

And don’t waste space with generic terms. That is to say, if you want to highlight your free shipping offer, don’t write a subhead like this:

“Order your space-saving kayak rack today and get free shipping.”

Write it more like this:

“Free shipping with your kayak rack if you order today.”

Everything that matters should come at the beginning of all your scannable text: your headline, subheads, links, and captions.

(BTW – why did I add the discount and free shipping offer to my headline? Because online shoppers are comparison shoppers. They’ll find what they want on your site, and then see if they can find the same thing cheaper elsewhere. So you want to do all you can to keep them on your page… and get them to buy from your page.)

There is a lot more to say about creating scannable Web copy, but the “left-side” rule will get you started.

[Ed. Note: Nick Usborne – who’s worked with such high-profile companies as Yahoo, MSN, and AOL – began copywriting exclusively for the Web in 1998. He is the author of AWAI’s newest program, Nick Usborne’s Million Dollar Secrets for Online Copywriting. Learn more about writing sales copy for the Web here.]