Is your web copy confusing your audience – 3 ways to fix it

Is Your Web Copy Confusing Your Audience? We all use web and mobile sites to complete tasks online. Tasks range from figuring out what social security benefits you can claim, to buying movie tickets. But have you ever found yourself re-reading a web page, uncertain what to do?

Maybe you lost patience and tried a different search or went to a different site. You might even have given up, and phoned a call center for answers. Maybe then you were left on hold, you grew a little frustrated. Most people have been there, done that.

Now put your CMO hat on, or your brand manager hat or your copy editor hat or even your CFO hat. How do you think that experience makes a person feel about your brand, your organisation? Worse still, have you just lost a potential customer? Or maybe the cost of staffing a call center is dragging on your business.

I wanted to blog a little about 3 simple things you can do to fix confusing copy. While simple, they are extremely effective. As well as clarifying your message, you will improve brand/organisation trust. In many cases, you will save hard dollars.

Step 1: Long sentences. Put them on a diet.

Here is an extract from the United States SSA (social security administration) website www.ssa.gov

Not all of our overpayments are improper payments, as unavoidable overpayments are not considered improper payments if statutes (laws), regulations, or court orders require us to make the payment. For example, the Social Security Act allows individuals, in prescribed circumstances, to request a continuation of their benefits while they appeal an adverse action. If the appeal is not decided in their favor, the resulting overpayment is not considered an improper payment because it was statutorily required at the point it was made.

We scanned this yesterday (Dec 18, 2012). The page is here http://www.ssa.gov/improperpayments/ . Users of the SSA range from often poorly educated welfare recipients to OAPs (Old Age Pensioners). For this demographic and this audience, you must communicate clearly.

Blue – Long sentences in excess of 25 words. Maroon – Passive voice, subject precedes verb.

Here is an extract from another federal agency, this time the pension benefit guaranty corporation website at: www.pbgc.gov .

If you request that an overpayment be applied to the next year‘s premium, you should claim the amount of the overpayment as a credit on the next year‘s premium filing for the plan. If you want a refund by electronic funds transfer, provide the necessary information; we will make the transfer through the automated clearing house (ACH) system. A request for a refund must be made within the period specified in the applicable statute of limitations (generally six years after the overpayment was made).

The page explains how to correct filings for pension administrators. There is plenty more content just like this. Folks coming to this site will be looking for clear answers. Here is the specific page: http://www.pbgc.gov/prac/prem/correcting-filings-and-reconciling-estimates.html . We scanned it on 18th Dec.

Now, I’m a reasonably well educated person. I don’t know about you, but I had to do a “double take” on this content. It was somewhat confusing, in fact I’m still not quite sure I fully understand it. Next stop, a call center if I really need answers. More cost for the Feds!

Splitting sentences would definitely make the content easier to understand. It might allow me to self-serve. Of course, it doesn’t help that there’s a liberal sprinkling of passive voice too, but we’ll cover that next.

Step 2: Beware passive voice.

Let’s look at this snippit from the same page: http://www.pbgc.gov/prac/prem/correcting-filings-and-reconciling-estimates.html

If the appeal is not decided in their favor, the resulting overpayment is not considered an improper payment because it was statutorily required at the point it was made.

In this one sentence, 4 occurrences of passive voice (shown in maroon). To remind, passive is where subject precedes verb. In the first instance of passive, ‘the appeal’ is the subject.

How can we tune this? Well, break up the long sentence and use active voice. Try this:

“If we do not approve an appeal, we view the overpayment as still valid. The law requires this.”

Now this is me trying to simplify the copy. I’m no expert on overpayments, so I may still misinterpret the intent. That said, converting passive to active voice forces clarity.

Step 3: Remove complex words or phrases

If we determine that a requested refund is in order, we will send the plan administrator a letter confirming that the refund will be forthcoming.

Again this is copy from the same page. So here we see overly complex language, where simpler phrases would help. I highlight the three things to simplify in red. We can rephrase this by either replacing or getting rid of the complicated phrases. Here’s my first attempt:

“If we decide that you should get a refund, we will send the plan administrator a confirmation letter.”

You might be wondering if there is an easy way to quickly spot these complex phrases. Turns out the Plain Language folks over at www.plainlanguage.gov have a very nice dictionary of complex phrases here: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/wordsuggestions/simplewords.cfm

Worth checking out. VisibleThread Web happens to also ship with that list. It is one of our default ‘bad language’ dictionaries. So you can run very quick checks on pages and pages of web content really easily.

The challenges

Now to be fair to the SSA (Social Security Administration) and other sites, they are dealing with a ton of content. The sheer volume of online content is one of the biggest issues. Where do you even start to simplfy?

If you could automate the tedious job of scanning web content and pinpoint the worst pages, you would achieve a lot. This is exactly what VisibleThread Web does.

Here for example, are some stats for the SSA pages we scanned.

Clarity-Grader-Blog-Is-Your-Web-Language-Confusing-Your-Audience - SSA Pages Analysis

I scanned an arbitrary 100 pages. With this view, I can focus on the pages with the most serious clarity issues.

We could have gone way deeper or even applied site ‘filters’ to review specific areas of the site, for instance the benefits sections only.

Doing this stuff manually, well that’s a complete pain. Fortunately, VisibleThread Web handles the heavy lifting. It leaves us focus on the 3 issues that can kill clear communication and frustrate your audience. Now that’s always welcome!


1. In our work analysing websites, we continue to see difficult language.
2. You should review this and consider your audience. Outline your value proposition using succinct language.
3. Key takeaways; shorten your sentences, use active voice and kill the complex phrases.

I hope the post “Is Your Web Copy Confusing Your Audience” will help your communications. Hope you agree?

Let me know in the comments.

If you want to see how your website content scores for transparency, or even just to play around, sign up for a no-obligation free trial of VisibleThread Web.


If you want to see how your web site content scores for transparency, or even just to play around, sign up for a no-obligation free trial of VisibleThread Web.