If you think big-budget websites have a natural advantage over small business, think again. Web copy is often the great equalizer. While many online businesses don’t hesitate to spend a large chunk of change on hiring a real copywriter for the homepage, ‘About Us’ page, and so on, so-called “details” — like bits of copy in ‘Contact’ forms or shopping carts — get sacrificed. It’s in these moments, web developers are forced to wave a magic wand and transform themselves into copywriters. And good luck to anyone who thinks their visitors don’t notice this trade-off. They do.
At risk of shooting fish in a barrel, I’d like to warm up this series with a screenshot from the social networking site every web developer and/or designer (who isn’t in a band) loves to hate: MySpace
2.) Are you sure there’s a sub-topic? I haven’t selected anything. (Submit may not be the best choice, either.) Regardless, this drop-down menu tells MySpace visitors that they will be funneled to a stock answer on MySpace’s own terms. It’s the “Contact Us” page equivalent of getting a robotic customer service operator (“Hi! My name’s Lucy. I’m here to waste your time and frustrate you by pretending there’s a real human on the other side of this call.”)
3.) This could be nitpicking, but if that’s their fifth most popular question, it’s no wonder the developers are spending more time on fixing bugs than writing copy. They could have just said, “Has my Profile page been hacked?” The way this is phrased makes the website and its members look bad (e.g., “It has music, sound or strange graphics on it?” isn’t a question).
In a recent blog post, The New York Times‘ David Pogue gives us a great example of sin and syntax:
My friend Rich Koster noticed a funny new feature in the latest iPhone software. In Settings, under Safari, there’s a button called Developer. It offers you a button called Debug Console, and there’s a little description there to help you:
“Debug Console will automatically appear to help resolve web page errors.”
Rich read this message the same way I did: “It will APPEAR to help resolve web errors, but won’t REALLY resolve them.”
The copy editor in me thinks that what they really meant was, “Debug Console will appear automatically to help resolve web page errors.”
Now for my #4.) If you look closely, MySpace’s red “NOTE” text can be distorted in similar ways:
Please choose “Cancel” from the Account Settings to delete your account. If you do not receive the confirmation e-mail for account deletion, please email us from the email address you use on myspace.
We will not honor delete requests sent via this form.
Hmm… So, I just got to this page and, before I’ve even selected anything, you want to tell me how I can cancel my account? What if I haven’t even created an account yet? Is canceling that common? Are you saying that I should email you from the MySpace account I just deleted, or the email address I used to create the MySpace account? Oh, and if you “won’t honor delete requests sent via this form,” why are you offering them? Are you not honoring them, or are you not offering them? What’s the deal, MySpace?
We’ve got a stockpile of similar screenshots from other sites, but it would be great to hear from you. Care to link us to places where the company would’ve been better off paying copywriters to follow through at each step?
UPDATE: If you liked this post, “click click here” for Part 2.
[Author's Note to web developers and designers: I come not to bury you, but to praise you. There's enough on your plate already, and I've seen this happen too many times. You're expected to "make it happen," regardless of what should or shouldn't be your job. Few writers can do what you do, and there are limits to your talent as well. Besides, if it makes you feel better, consider the fact that you tend to get paid more than copywriters.]