What is Microcopy?
At the cornerstone of any user experience, is a very subtle form of copy: microcopy. Microcopy is found on every website, from the smallest of business to the largest enterprise websites in the world. Microcopy can increase sales, keep visitors on your website longer, and even drive more visitors to your website.
The easiest way for us to describe microcopy is through example, examples of microcopy include:
- the “submit” label on an email form
- the word “start” on your Windows computer
- the word “refresh” or “back” on your web browser
- the word “update” in WordPress
- the labels on your website navigation
First and foremost, let’s talk about what microcopy actually is, because continuing on without doing that would just be rude. So, microcopy – it’s not some complex process that involves a decade of experience, it just involves some creativity (necessary) and a little wit (if that’s your thing). You actually spend about half your work day looking at microcopy when you are sitting on Facebook looking at the status bar that reads “What’s on your mind?” That is all microcopy is! It’s the little phrases or even just words that make a website easier to use.
A few examples of microcopy:
Microcopy can be found everywhere, even on your Facebook login page:
Facebook has taken great care in their microcopy. From grammar, to spelling, to the actual copy writing of the microcopy, each piece of microcopy has been tested, split-tested, and tested again for the best conversion rate.
Microcopy is found everywhere, even on the most innocent of “down for maintenance pages.”
I once saw a freelance WordPress blog and the footer read, “Powered by WordPress, sarcasm, and lots of coffee.” The whole idea is being able to occupy the short attention span of your website’s visitors and any copywriter will explain to you that the postscript is the most read part of any advertisement, letter, or web page. The words of microcopy are meant to be short and concise.
Microcopy and SEO
We couldn’t get through an entire article on any subject without mentioning SEO. This is after all an SEO blog, right? As SEO’s, we find microcopy everywhere, in particular:
- title tags
- meta descriptions
- image alt and description tags
- email form labels
- much more
As SEO’s many of us are concerned with keywords and synonyms. While this is a great focus, we also need to make sure that our primary focus is being helpful. What good is it getting top ranking if when a user encounters our website and says “this doesn’t make sense” or “this seems spammy.” Resist the temptation to stuff keywords into every place you can.
Most seasoned SEO’s already know this. Don’t over-optimize your SEO in general. Content (including microcopy) should never be written for search engines, it should always be written for people.
Microcopy Should Be Helpful
Don’t try and get witty, especially when it comes to forms and buttons. Not all users understand or appreciate wit. Save that for your regular copy. Let’s look at Twitter’s login page:
The login page is simple, compact and to the point, all thanks to the precision of microcopy. They don’t try and get cute, and have combined a few different labels in one. Take the first input label, normally the label is something simple like “username.” Twitter however made it super simple allowing users to use their phone, email or Twitter handle. So if you are a new user and forgot your username, you can still login with your email.
If you somehow landed on the “login page” by accident, there is a link to sign up. If you’ve already signed up and forgot to activate, there is a link to that too. All of these labels are considered microcopy, and are labeled very intentionally.
Another example we like is on Indochino.com, a custom mens suit website. On their checkout page they answer the most common questions that users have asked. This not only puts their users at ease, but helps answers the most common questions thereby reducing the amount of tickets they receive.
Lastly, even the most subtle labels can be helpful. Newegg.com (as well as lots of other retailers) displays how many items are in your cart on their website.
This might not be the difference between millions of dollars, but it helps users do what they need to do.
Put your users at ease
Using microcopy can be a great way to put your users at ease, especially times when they are giving their personal or financial information. On Moz’s sign-up page for instance, they have “cancel anytime” right under the credit card number.
SaaS companies in particular face this dilemma all the time. Users are worried their credit cards will be re-billed, or that they will receive SPAM in their email inbox. By placing a friendly “we will never SPAM you” label within the signup form, it can help alleviate some of your users fears.
Another subtle example of this is on lead capture forms. Indochino.com uses “you can unsubscribe at any time” on their email capture form.
Microcopy can lighten the mood
There are times when your server or website “chokes” and might spit out an error message. When that happens, it helps to lighten the mood. A subtle way of saying “oops” can show that you are sorry, and guide the user in the right direction. Basecamp does a great job of this on their 404 error page. By saying “you didn’t do anything wrong, we might have moved the page” lets them know what happened. Below the message, they serve up a few links to guide the user back in the right direction.
It is never a pleasant thing getting an error message, but you can at least help turn a harsh “SERVER IS DOWN” message into a more gentle “we’re experiencing a high volume of orders, please check back in a few minutes.”
Standards in Microcopy
There are times when you can be fun and upbeat in your microcopy, and there are times when you should never deviate from the norm. The top navigation of your website is a prime example. A standard example of a top navigation label system might be:
Home | About Us | Services | Blog | Contact Us
We’ve seen countless websites change “about us” to something like “who we are.” This might seem cute to some people, but not everyone picks up on these cues.
The same goes for a standard login page. You should never substitute “username and password” with something like “login ID and pass phrase.” Most people probably get it, but for large companies that get 100’s or 1000’s of log-in’s per day, that could mean 100’s of help tickets asking “where do I put my username.”
Another recent standard in microcopy, and one that should have been standardized a long time ago is password requirements. At the very least, your passwords should require letters, numbers, symbols and a capital letter. It should also be at least 8 characters or more, and ideally not contain any dictionary words. It is helpful if your app or web app helps you through this process by giving you a visual indicator of when you’ve achieved this, such as this:
As you type your password, this system will give you a visual indicator of when you’ve fulfilled the standard.
Keep it simple, keep it standard.
The words “click here” have almost become a joke amongst copywriters throughout the world. It is a huge “no-no” to ever use the words “click here” in labels or hypertext links. Don’t ever use the words “click here” no matter how tempting. There is always a better way.
Know your users language. This may seem obvious, but if most of your users are Spanish, speak in Spanish. Don’t use English or Portugese.
Don’t use too much microcopy. Microcopy is supposed to be a cue, not a full blown paragraph.
Don’t contradict yourself, and be consistent. Don’t say “8 characters or less” in one label and in the help text state “about 8 characters.”
Don’t be too creative. Stick to industry standards. What might be cute and new to you, is confusing to your users.
Don’t forget error messages – error messages might seem annoying and something you don’t want to deal with, but you can turn a crummy situation into an opportunity with the right copy.
Avoid industry jargon. We as SEO’s deal with this all the time. Our customers want more people to visit their websites, they don’t know what “disavowing low authority do-follow backlinks means.”
Don’t make it an afterthought. Start thinking about microcopy when you design your website, not afterwards.
Keep it in the same voice. If your website speaks in a very professional voice, use the same voice in your microcopy. On the other hand if your website is friendly and conversational, be consistent in your microcopy as well.
Since most companies don’t have a “microcopy writer” like some large corporations, this job usually falls upon the web designer. If your web designer is like some and has not-so-great grammar, consider having your content writers do a once over on your microcopy before you make a website live.