Frequently Asked Questions About the Best Website Design and Marketing for Attorneys, Doctors, and Other Professionals
Below are some questions many clients have when they first contact Foster Web Marketing about the online marketing world.
The questions below may address many initial concerns you may have. If you don't find your answers here, you should contact us for answers to any questions specific to your firm.
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How can I create better website content to attract the patients I want?
Most medical professionals who develop websites want content that attracts the perfect patient and presents their practices in a positive light. They want content that sounds professional, yet personable, and they want their staff to appear knowledgeable and skilled. Writing in a way that accomplishes those goals can be challenging and requires language that “hooks” a potential patient and keeps him reading about your professional intelligence and expertise.
Because people come to your website seeking information, you want to provide content that offers that information in a clear and understandable way. If potential patients are confused by your content, they may be less inclined to contact you for an appointment. Writing in a way that builds trust and showcases your experience can help attract the patients you want most.
Content That Attracts Potential Patients to Your Website and Keeps Them Reading
Here are some important points to help you provide content that attracts potential patients to your website and keeps them on the page long enough to read your material:
- Remember that the attention span of the average person is eight seconds. Like most people, web users want to find information quickly, so you want your content to get to the point. Put the most critical information up front, and leave the details for later.
- Make it personal. Tailor your message to your perfect patients. For example, if you’re targeting people with diabetes, be sure your headline and subheads pose a question or address an issue that diabetics may be dealing with.
- Use the ‘less is more’ rule. When people search for information about a medical condition, they don’t need a lot of content—they just want the ‘right’ content. Avoid presenting an overload of generic medical content or a ‘wall of text’ that makes it a challenge to read through. Use short, focused pieces of text that present your information in small, readable chunks.
- Use bullet lists. Help your website visitor stay on your page by giving information in quick, brief statements that capture a specific point in a clear, succinct way.
- Use headlines to your advantage. Speak to your desired patient. Pose a hypothetical question or address common issues. Use your headlines and subheadings to capture the readers’ attention by letting them quickly know, “What’s In It For Me?”
What Not to Do
You can also keep a potential patient on your website and interested in your content by avoiding certain techniques, including:
- Being clever or anecdotal. Telling long stories, being cute or clever, or providing unrelated information are sure ways to lose your website visitor.
- Using jargon and complicated medical terms. You want to educate your website visitors, but be sure you’re not talking over their heads. Write to potential patients the way you would speak to them in your office if they were your patient.
- Using too much background information. Stay away from text that gives broad background information or long narratives that bury the point or never get to it.
Writing for Your Perfect Patient
Some medical professionals want to attract a generic set of patients; but most want to attract their perfect patient. Ideally, your website should speak to those people directly. The words you choose and the approach you take in presenting yourself and your practice are critical in keeping potential patients at your website and turning them into actual patients.
If you’d like more information on how we’ve helped many medical professionals provide effective website content, feel free to browse our testimonials page.
I found a company that is offering to send followers to my social media pages. They say that the extra interaction will improve my Google ranking. Is this a good investment?
Not really. This tactic was adopted in the early days of social media as a fast way to make a new enterprise look more established. Unfortunately, many firms are still buying into this ineffective advertising trick, suffering the loss of their marketing capital and no real gain.
Before you pay to add followers to your Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or YouTube pages, you should be aware that these followers are:
- Not real people. There are companies that exist solely to create false online identities—complete with email addresses, social media accounts, and even phone numbers—that are then sold to digital middlemen, which are commonly called “click farms.” These identities are then sold by the bundle to unsuspecting companies looking to pad their online audiences. Put simply, your 1,000 new followers are no different than the spambots that plague an unprotected comments section.
- Unable to engage. Although your new followers are not real people, some can be used to go beyond a one-time interaction—liking a new post or even commenting on a thread. However, these robots can only talk, not listen, making any engagement they do with your website generic and irrelevant. You have paid to perform to an audience of imaginary friends (who will never hire you) instead of finding a local, interested audience.
- Throwing off your marketing numbers. Buying social media followers can turn your marketing data upside-down. From location (many “click farms” are based overseas) to age and income, you will no longer be able to trust any of the demographics collected by your social media accounts, making your real customers lost in the crowd.
These “click farms” stay in business for much the same reason people who sell fraudulent diet pills do—because desperate people can be conned into taking the easy way out. A few thousand “likes” on your Facebook may boost your self-esteem, but if nobody knows who these people are, they’re not likely to trust your business any more than if you had three followers who are actual human beings.
What Else Can I Do to Get People Interested in My Business?
There are nearly limitless ways to interact with your flesh-and-blood followers on social media—and best of all, most of them won’t cost anything. Simple actions such as “liking” other neighborhood business pages, responding to inquiries and comments on your posts in a timely manner, and posting information to entertain and inform your audience are great ways to engage with your target audience: actual people.
When it comes to social media, quality will always trump quantity. To find out how to interact with your audience in an effective and organic way, download a free copy of our our social media guide or contact us today at 866-460-3724 to discuss ideas for a robust social media strategy.
What is Universal Analytics and how do I make sure that I have it?
Some people love to hate Google because of all its updates, changes, and rules. We acknowledge that this can be frustrating, but we also know how valuable the search tool is! And, every now and then, Google gives us a gift that doesn’t require a mad dash to fix our backlink profiles or clean up our over-stuffed content.
This time, we’re excited to receive Google’s gift called “Universal Analytics!” You should be excited, too.
Whether you have your own personal Google Analytics account set up for your website, or you use the information that Foster Web Marketing supplies (or both—bravo!), you should know that Google Analytics is upgrading to “Universal Analytics.”
Universal Analytics will give websites:
- Better mobile tracking
- The ability to track user IDs across all devices
- Demographic information
- “Lighter weight” for your website (performs in a less resource-intensive way so as to not slow down user experience)
- Better marketing integration
- Better forward compatibility
It’s important to note that if you’re a client of Foster Web Marketing, you automatically have a Google Analytics account set up for your website, and therefore your account has been already upgraded to Universal Analytics.
And even if you're not a client, Google has automatically upgraded most accounts, so chances are you don’t need to worry about doing it yourself. However, we operate by the philosophy “trust but verify,” so if you want to verify that your account is good to go, just follow these steps:
- Login to your personal Google Analytics account.
- Go to your Admin page.
- If you see “Tracking Info” under the “Property” column (the middle column), that means your account is already upgraded. You’re done!
- If you don’t see “Tracking Info” and instead see “Tracking Code,” then your account has not been upgraded. There should be an option in that same middle “Property” column that says “Universal Analytics Upgrade.” Click this and follow the steps.
As always if you need any help at all, or would like us to walk you through the new features, call 888-886-0939 or shoot us an email.
How do I prevent reviews for my business from being removed from Google, Yelp, and other review sites?
Reviews have become increasingly important for all businesses. If you want to do well, you have to have a good review reputation online. Unfortunately for attorneys, podiatrists, and other physicians, these reviews are hard to get. That’s why so many of our clients ask us questions about how to make sure that the reviews they get stick—that they aren’t filtered out by the big review sites (Google, Yelp, FindLaw, HealthGrades, etc.).
To answer your question, and to help you ensure that you’re following best practice review-gathering strategies, we’ve compiled a list of the questions clients ask most often along with our best, most ethical advice:
Can I have people leave reviews from my office?
Yes and no. The one big no-no here is setting up a computer in your office for reviews. Review sites are onto this and can tell if reviews are all coming from the same IP address. If they see it happening they will yank all these reviews.
However, it is acceptable to have them leave a review from their phone, so don’t be afraid to encourage pleased patients, clients, or customers to submit a review before they leave your office. For more on how to ask for reviews, read our article on exactly how to ask for reviews.
Can I offer a discount or gift for a review?
No. Never offer an incentive for people who leave a positive review. This is strictly forbidden. Some people have tried to get around it by giving the gift and saying it’s for any review, positive or negative, but we don’t recommend doing so. Just get reviews the old fashioned way: earn their praise and then ask them to share the love.
Can I send people to review sites from my website?
You can send people directly to most review websites and not have any issues. Here is an example of our “Rate Us!” page:
Keep the content on these pages short and sweet. Don’t distract visitors with a ton of modules or other info; you want to point their eyes directly to the review site buttons, leading them down a clearly marked path to review success!
It is important to note that while we normally don’t see reviews cleared out when a review site is accessed from a website, there is one notable exception: Yelp. To avoid this, only send users to Yelp thorough a button on your website that uses a Google search link. This way Yelp won’t see you send people to their site, but the link will still offer direct access to your page on the review site.
To do this, type in “Your Business Name site:www.Yelp.com,” using your actual business or practice name at the start. Here is an example:
To get this link for your site, right click on your business name for Yelp, select, “Copy link address,” and then embed this link into the Yelp button on your website. This link will be long, and should look something like this:
One word of caution: Make sure you choose the right link, the right business, when you look at your search results. That may seem like a no-brainer but it can be tricky, especially given how many similar brand names there are, particularly in the podiatry field.
Should I pay someone to get reviews for me?
If someone offers to dramatically increase the number of good reviews you get, run away! The only people who offer instant positive reviews are cheating cheaters who cheat, and any reviews you get will be fictitious and almost guaranteed to get your reviews, both real and fake, yanked from review sites. Goodbye hard-earned, legitimate reviews!
Now, if you have a law firm marketing company helping you run an ethical review acquisition campaign, that’s a different story. There is a lot of leg work involved in getting good reviews and managing your online reputation, so there is no problem if you hire this work out. Just never hire someone who promises are too good to be true.
Can I transfer testimonials or written reviews to review sites?
No. If you’re sent a kind, glowing email, or someone responds positively on a comment card in your office you absolutely cannot transfer these kind words to reviews sites.
What you can do is use this opportunity to ask for a review. When you get a positive email response or comment, either verbally or in writing, ask for a review. Thank them for their kind words and ask if they wouldn’t mind sharing them with other looking for excellent legal or medical care, pointing them to your “Rate Us” page.
Should I ask friends, family, and my employees to write reviews?
No. While it can be tempting to send out an office-wide memo to ask employees to write a positive review, or to broach the subject with your family over Thanksgiving dinner, don’t. Not only could this get reviews yanked (if they all come from your office, for example), it’s just bad business. It’s disingenuous, it’s cheating, and it can create a bad feeling among your staff; nobody wants to feel forced into this kind of thing. So save your relationships, and your reviews, and work on getting legitimate reviews using advice from our Reviews Matter webinar.
I hope that I’ve answered all of your questions on the right and wrong ways to get reviews. If you have any other questions about reviews please do not hesitate to call 888-886-0939 or fill out a contact form on this page. We’d love to hear from you!
You keep nattering on about how bad grammar and spelling in website content hurt my business. Where’s your proof?
The road to success is littered with the broken remains of companies that couldn’t finish the trip. When you pick through the rubble of their websites, you’ll see horrible misspellings, tortured word choices, and grammar that doesn’t belong in any English sentence. It’s obvious that most of this wretched website wreckage wasn’t made in the United States, and that the webmasters tried nefarious SEO techniques to attract customers.
So much effort wasted to so little effect. Makes you sad, doesn’t it?
Even if we gave you names of some of the companies, medical practices, and law firms that failed, that’s not the sort of evidence you want, is it? Anecdotes are fine for stories told around the campfire, but proof comes in the form of scientific results that anyone can reproduce. The question is, do we have the evidence you want, or not?
Yeah, we’ve got it. Pull up a campstool, Bucky. This will take a little bit of time.
A Proof by Counterexample
Bad grammar and incomprehensible spelling usually don’t draw a big fan club. Frankly, it’s not believable that website readers have been sending feedback to complain, “Oh, man, this site is far too informative, helpful, and clearly written! We demand more incomprehensible bilge, like we get from your competitors!” Our experience has been that when a business owner starts complaining about the burdens of good word usage, that’s a sign that some other game is being played.
You can bet that “other game” is about money.
Now, we know that good grammar and interesting, informative content really doesn’t cost any more than weak and incoherent gibberish. Your staff members can learn to write fantastic content as part of their regular job duties. But money can become part of the equation when an unethical web marketer tries to sell a bargain package to a naive business owner. The long-term result is always unfortunate for the business.
So if you’re really asking for our permission to neglect all ethical considerations and try to fool Google into giving you a leading placement in search engine results, we have one answer: it’s your business. We don’t get a vote, and you don’t need our permission. If you manage to prosper over the next year or two, please come back and tell us about it; you definitely will have beaten the odds.
Do you really feel like wagering the future of your business on one roll of the dice? If so, we wish you good luck.
Globo Lingo Captures Evidence From the Field
But we promised you hard data, and we haven’t forgotten that promise.
Hard data’s not so easy to come by, as you’ve probably realized. We can’t do double-blind testing because we can’t set up two identical law firms or podiatry clinics or some other company, create two complementary websites, and test whether good grammar attracts and retains more business. We can’t even create two websites—one grammatical, one not—for one company, because the existence of the “bad” site will potentially skew search engine results and contaminate the data.
But about a year ago, one company, Globo Lingo, figured out a way to extract some valid statistics in a real-world social experiment. Although news links change over time, you still may be able to find contemporary news reports of the experiment. Globo Lingo’s researchers found that 59 percent of its participants would be less likely to use a service or product if there were obvious grammatical or spelling mistakes on its website or marketing materials.
Fifty-nine percent. Much more than half. If this were an election, they’d be calling it a landslide.
Now, the study wasn’t perfect. The sample size was fairly small (just over a thousand people). Globo Lingo is a translation service based in the United Kingdom, so perhaps its results don’t translate perfectly to U.S.-based business websites. But we probably can trust the overall direction of the results—the qualitative data—because they align so well with what we’d expect based on reasoning and the real-world anecdotes in case after case.
Don’t Buy Pandora’s Box
If someone is trying to sell you on a marketing system based on promises that grammar, spelling, and even content itself doesn’t matter, think again. Remind him that anecdotes don’t count. Demand to see his hard evidence and statistics before you pick up that black hat.
High-quality content writing is easier than it looks, and a bargain at almost any price. Why? Because your website content is at the heart of your marketing strategy. You’ve heard us say it time and again: Content is king, and there are no signs of an abdication any time in the near future.
Don’t just take my word for it: read what the best minds in the marketing business have to say. Take the time to download our FREE book, The Foster Web Marketing Clients’ Guide to Great Content. It may change your life; it certainly will open your eyes to possibilities you haven’t considered before.
I am a doctor who recently got divorced and have legally changed my name. Do you think I should keep my former name on my website and online, to assist in patient recognition or for SEO purposes?
This excellent question was posed by one of our clients. The physician had legally changed her name, but didn’t know the best way to proceed when it came to changing it online. On one hand, she was ready to be done with her old name, but she didn’t want this change to affect her visibility online.
She was right to be concerned! There is a very good chance that patients who haven’t seen her in a while, or prospective patients who have been referred from a friend, will search using the old name.
Three Steps to Name Change Success
Whether it was a divorce, marriage, or entrance into the witness protection program, it’s important that you change your name not only on your website but also on external directories and profiles like healthgrades.com or avvo.com. I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this is going to be a tall task, but it’s a necessary step. To help you through this process I will outline exactly how to go about finding where your name is listed on the Internet, and then give advice on how best to make the changes needed.
Please note: As the client who asked the question was a doctor I am going to use a physician in the examples below. However, any professional or business owner who relies on her name for brand recognition needs to attend to each of the steps listed.
Your Website Makes the Transition
This will be the simplest step in the process. We recommend that you find all mentions of your old name on your website and change them to your new name. The only exception to this rule will be on your bio page and perhaps your homepage. Mentioning your former name on these pages will prevent prospective clients from thinking, “Oh, I’ve got the wrong person!” On these pages, your new name should be prominently displayed, but under that you should add something to the effect of, “Dr. New Name, formerly known as Dr. Former Name.” You can even wield a bit of wit here, saying something like, “New name, same excellent medical care.”
Audit Your Local Listings
Ideally, you’ve already performed a local listings audit and have an extensive, well-organized list of everywhere your business is listed. If so, please move on to step three. If not, it’s a good idea to do this now. Start by searching for your name and your profession on Google. You will use the search string equivalent to “former name doctor”; for instance, “Rachel Elkins podiatrist.” You may wish to make repeated searches using synonyms: “Doctor Rachel Elkins,” “Rachel Elkins foot doctor,” and so forth. Make a list of every website that pops up in your search results.
Add to this list every website you know you’re listed on. This should include Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and any listings or social media sites that you’ve already claimed (Healthgrades, Avvo, etc.). Another good idea is to use the free services at Yext. Yext will show you exactly where you’re listed, Internet-wide. Add any sites that Yext finds to your list. You should now have a very thorough list (we suggest using a spreadsheet to organize this list) of the places your name is listed online. With this list in hand, move on to step three.
Change Your Information
It’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of this process. Starting with the results that popped up in the search of your name, begin visiting the websites and editing your name. This will be a tedious task, as it’s possible you’ve never claimed the majority of your listings and will therefore have to register on with website before being able to make changes. But don’t let this deter you! It’s a crucial step that you simply cannot skip! Go down the list, one by one, making notes in your spreadsheet when you successfully make changes. As you do so, feel free to add your new name disclaimer in the description box that most of these websites provide. “Dr. New Name, formerly known as Dr. Former Name; new name, same excellent medical care.”
Pro tip: Make the most of your time by ensuring that your name, address and phone number are identical on each site. Even a “&” on one site an “and” on another, a listing of “Stephanie” on one website and “Steph” on another will wreak havoc on the success of your local listings. So scrutinize each of your listings, correcting these mistakes as you go.
Successfully Establishing a New Web Identity
Has this answer helped you better understand how to change your name online? If so, please feel free to share this article using one of the buttons on this page. And for timely, expert information be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Good luck out there, and if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to call us at 888-886-0939.
Who gets to decide what proper usage and grammar is? You? Why should I believe YOU?
In America, we have a proud and defiant tradition of resisting authority. It’s not at all obvious that you should obey the instructions of some “cranky grammarian” just because he has a regular forum for his views.
In fact, this question—“Who gets to decide about grammar?”—has been the center of the target in a long-standing dispute about language: the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism. This struggle is mostly waged in academic halls, but now and then, it engages public attention, often when dictionaries issue new editions.
- Descriptivists argue that dictionaries and grammar guides should collect the way the people actually use words, without making judgments about correctness. In their view, it’s perfectly okay—valuable, even—for a dictionary to include the word ain’t, or to add the latest popular Internet slang, or to say that one meaning of the word literally is “figuratively or metaphorically,” because those are all examples of how English is truly used. In summary: English is a living language that constantly changes, and we must adapt to today’s words, meanings, and grammar.
- Prescriptivists believe that dictionaries and other reference works have an obligation to mark the acknowledged boundaries of English by pointing out when usage isn’t considered standard. Sure, prescriptivists say, languages change over time, but if something is not yet fully accepted as conventional English, it’s important to tell potential users that a word may be obsolete; limited to a region, dialect, or subculture; slang; or roundly rejected by a panel of usage experts.
Steps Beyond the Dictionary
Every dictionary will express its editor’s viewpoint on the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate. But English is more than the static word lists trapped in dictionaries. For grammar and usage, the equivalent references are the stylebooks maintained by various publishing organizations. Many newspapers, for instance, follow the rules of the Associated Press Stylebook. The University of Chicago publishes the Chicago Manual of Style, which is widely used in the book publishing industry. Many academic papers follow the rules established by the Modern Language Association (MLA). I’ve always been partial to the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.
You know what? Each of these sets of rules flatly contradicts all the others at one point or another. And yet the editors of each stylebook can cite a long list of historical examples to show that esteemed authors preferred the usage rules this book favors. We have a case of many emperors issuing contradictory laws: the result is anarchy.
Does the English Language Exist?
So, what does it mean when the very best experts we can find can’t agree on how words should be defined and used? I think that we can draw three important conclusions:
- There’s no such thing as definitive English. No one individual—nope, not even a grumpy content editor for the best U.S. web marketing company—has the exclusive right to determine what is or is not good grammar and usage.
- Nevertheless, chaos does not rule. Most people who have made a serious study of English will agree on the rules of grammar most of the time. You can make an analogy with a map of a partially explored land. Some of the borderlands may be fuzzy, but there really is a discrete English language that is our common heritage.
- In the end, English belongs to its users. If you’re a writer with a special fondness for run-on sentences, then you’re free to use them and to garner support from other writers. Perhaps you’ll be so persuasive that run-ons will become conventional English usage a generation from now. Perhaps you’ll be dismissed as a crackpot. But it’s your language, your freedom of expression, and your opportunity to try to rewrite the rules.
Ultimately, then, those are my credentials too. I’m a writer, a lover of English, and someone who has taken the time to study grammar and usage enough to be able to teach others. I will necessarily be taking stands on issues that do not have universal agreement. Readers who disagree are welcome to respond by adding comments to blog postings, clicking on my contact information, or by reaching out to the Foster Web Marketing content team by phone or email. We always welcome the vigorous and lively exchange of viewpoints.
I believe that many of the people visiting my business website have weak reading skills. What’s the most important thing I can do TODAY to make them feel at home?
We’ll get to the answer to that question in just a moment, but first: a test. Grab a piece of scrap paper and a pen or pencil. I’m serious. Do it now, before you read any farther.
There will be some mathematics involved, but you are not allowed to use a calculator.
This is a high-stakes test, too. If you don’t pass it, you’re probably not going to get any value out of this essay. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re learning the wrong lessons from every page you’ve been reading on this site.
You have only thirty seconds. Time starts…now.
- Write down the number 12. This is the first number in the series.
- The rule for writing down the next number is as follows: double the current number, then add one.
- As quickly as you can, write down the next three numbers in the series. Hurry up! Your time is running out.
- Finally: circle all the even numbers you wrote down. How many numbers did you circle?
What This Test Reveals
As you will already have deduced, the purpose of the test is not to grade your ability with arithmetic. Although, come to mention it, if you circled more than one number—the starting number, 12—then you made a mistake somewhere; all the subsequent numbers must be odd, not even. No, the purpose of the test is to push you a little off-balance and then make you complete a task under stressful circumstances.
So, to ratchet up the stress, we told you that the test would be about mathematics—probably not your strongest skill area—and then hinted that the level of math might be challenging (“you are not allowed to use a calculator”). We said you only get half a minute to finish, and then reinforced this with commands to work even faster. And we told you directly that successful completion would have profound implications for your future success (and I don’t think that was too much exaggeration, as we shall see).
Did you feel anxious? A little sweat on your palms? Good. That was the purpose of your test.
This Is What Your Clients Experience When They Visit Your Website
Let’s be honest here: many people hate to read. A widely quoted figure is that about 15 percent of the adult U.S. population is fully literate, roughly equal to a college undergraduate level. Another 20 percent or so are functionally illiterate. That leaves a huge majority, on the order of 65 percent of all adults, who can read at a lower level if they must, but who prefer to avoid reading when possible.
These are your potential clients and customers.
Only desperation could drive such a person to your website for information. Only a driving need to know something in your area of expertise could make a non-reader force himself through the agony of puzzling out the text on your site. These people crucially need answers to potentially life-changing questions, such as:
- Do I have to lose my life savings to pay for my medical care after the accident?
- Will I be going to prison?
- Is it cancer?
- Will I ever walk again?
- Can my husband walk out and leave me and the kids penniless?
- Will my husband be okay in the nursing home?
- Will my deadbeat brother-in-law take over my business after I’m gone?
The analogy between the stress suffered by readers looking for answers to life’s gravest problems and the stress that you felt when suddenly hijacked into a math test isn’t perfect; it’s only suggestive. But if, right now, you do not feel compassion for your website users who are attempting the hardest thing they know—reading—in order to find the help they thirst for, then you’re numb to the purpose of your website and your marketing plan. If you don’t have empathy for these forlorn and despairing people, they will soon scatter off to your competitors.
Step One: Leave No Acronym Unexplained
The first step when dealing with lower-skilled readers is to give them every bit of help they may need. That means you must offer them help with reading, along with offering to help them with their problems. If they can’t understand your website, how will they decide to hire you?
We have written elsewhere about how a great marketing writer will take pains to explain professional jargon in context in order to strengthen communication. Now take that one step further, and look at the common abbreviations and acronyms that are used in your line of work. Every page on your website on which that term appears must explain what it stands for: not only by giving a word-by-word description, but also by telling the reader why this term is so important and so often used that it has a short form.
For example, if you are an attorney who frequently deals with disability cases, you probably explain on your home page or practice area landing page that SSDI stands for the Social Security Disability Insurance program. That’s good, but not good enough. You cannot guarantee that a new reader will land on one of those pages the first time he visits your site; indeed, those pages may not be among the first dozen he encounters. If you leave him bewildered, he will seek out another lawyer, one more helpful. So don’t let that happen: explain every abbreviation and every acronym in context the first time you use it on every webpage.
I would actually go one step farther and suggest you don’t use routine abbreviations at all. Write Avenue instead of Ave., November instead of Nov., and Tuesday instead of Tue. Show your readers that you are willing to take pains and want to meet them more than halfway to make sure your message gets through. That’s never a bad marketing strategy.
If you found this article thought-provoking, please take the time to read more of our collected pieces on writing professional web content. You may wish to begin with our related articles referenced on this page.
Is it okay to start a sentence with a conjunction?
For years and years, English teachers at elementary and middle schools across the United States would have been astonished by that question. Mrs. Beedle, my fourth grade teacher, would have turned from the blackboard to glare at any student who asked such an absurd thing. (Yeah, blackboards were still being used when I went to school.)
“Of course you may not begin a sentence with a conjunction,” she would have snapped. “Why, the very idea!”
We believed her. Back then, we trusted Mrs. Beedle. We loved how she could explain the rules of English so there were always definite answers, in crisp black and white, with no ambiguity whatsoever. Grammar was rational, comforting, and precise, while the real world was messy and complicated. And Mrs. Beedle was our guide to that land of certainty.
I’m sure some of my classmates went on to become English teachers themselves, and they taught their students the lessons Mrs. Beedle gave us, and their students’ students passed on the same message to later generations. Chief among those lessons was the prohibition against starting a sentence with a conjunction.
But Mrs. Beedle was wrong.
English Contains More Myths Than the Land of Oz Does
In plain fact, most of us have been taught from a very early age certain “rules” of English usage—syntax rules, as they are called by grammar experts—that aren’t legitimate rules at all. We’re talking about rules such as these:
- Never end a sentence with a preposition.
- Never split an infinitive.
- Sentences in the passive voice should always be revised to include active verbs.
- A conjunction may never begin a sentence.
- A paragraph must be at least three sentences long.
No widely respected modern guide to syntax endorses these principles. Even though most publishers and media outlets still discourage using the passive voice, nobody bars it completely from their publications. These rules-that-aren’t-really-rules linger on, however, because they are still passed down between generations in schools and in popular (mis)understanding of what constitutes fine writing and speaking.
Let’s take a close look at what are called the seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet. These are the words that join or connect two or more items.
Thanks to the popularity of the Schoolhouse Rock animated educational videos, millions of Americans know that the purpose of conjunctions is “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” That tune never mentions that the coordinating conjunctions can also link up independent sentences. Of course, we know that you can always take two sentences, change the final period of the first to a comma, add “and,” and attach the second sentence to form a compound sentence. But is it really, truly okay for two separate sentences to exist where the second one begins with a coordinating conjunction?
It sure is. People have been doing it since at least the tenth century. Classical and contemporary authors with impeccable credentials have begun sentences with and, but, and or, and nobody has complained. It’s not clear from the historical record when the notion arose that beginning sentences with a conjunction is not to be tolerated. The majority of top usage authorities for each generation has accepted conjunctions at the start of sentences.
There is another class of conjunctions, called subordinating conjunctions, which are clearly designed to show connections and relationships between clauses. Among the subordinating conjunctions are the words although, because, if, since, unless, until, when, whether, and while. Your own familiarity with English should make it easy for you to recognize that these words can be used at the start of sentences. Nobody objects to them there.
However, there is one special rule that applies whenever a conjunction (of either sort) starts a sentence: the conjunction shouldn’t be followed immediately by a comma. Consider these examples:
- A car accident can cause terrible injuries to your bones, joints, and soft tissues. And, unless you act quickly, you may end up paying for the hospital bill even if someone else was responsible for the wreck.
- Diabetic nerve pain is a difficult problem to manage. But, with the care and attention of our team at the Coeur d’Alene Clinic, you can be assured prompt attention to your changing medical condition.
- Are you content to save for your retirement by adding a dollar or two to your savings account whenever you think about it? Or, do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?
In each case, that comma after the conjunction disrupts the connective function that and, but, and or so ably provide. This is one of those places where you need to take special care not to let extra commas creep into your writing. The exception, of course, is when the phrase right after the conjunction is not essential to the main meaning of the sentence. Consider the final sentence in our examples above, which would normally be correctly written without commas: “Or do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?” Add an additional clause that isn’t vital to the main thought, though, and you will need commas to set it off: “Or, like so many other people your age, do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?”
One last issue before we close. I notice some of you grumbling already that when sentences begin with “However,” the word is invariably followed by a comma. “How are you gonna explain that, Mr. Smarty-Pants?” you ask.
Here’s how: many people assume that however is a conjunction because it seems to be an exact synonym for but. But Mrs. Beedle, my fourth grade teacher, taught that however is an adverb—specifically, a conjunctive adverb—and, like other sentence adverbs, it must be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence.
The byways of English can be awfully tricky, even for experienced writers. To hold the attention of visitors to your professional, legal, or medical website, you need to write informative and interesting text that is expressed clearly, grammatically… and sometimes, artfully.
Like it or not, content is king for Internet marketing, as we have told you time and again. Reach out to Foster Web Marketing if you need help generating excellent content or if you’re interested in our content writing service for business professionals. We can educate your team or provide work written to your specifications. Even Mrs. Beedle would approve.
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