Are your meta tags costing you customers?

What are meta tags? You might not have heard of them, but I can guarantee you’ve seen them whenever you’ve performed an internet search.

Meta tags – or, more specifically, the title tags and meta descriptions I’m talking about in this blog – are snippets of code that lurk in the <head> section of your web pages. Why are they so important? Because when a search engine displays your website on the search results page, the title tag and meta description normally determines the text that your customers see. Here’s what comes up for Unmistakable if you Google “copywriting and editing nz”:

Example of Unmistakable's meta tags

Those are my title and meta description tags, and I’ve written them like that for a reason. Let’s break it down.

Title tags

The title tag is the bold text that comes up above the URL in a search engine result. It plays an important role in telling search engines what your page is about, and it’s likely to be the first thing your customers see. So, on both counts, you want your title tag to describe exactly who you are and what you do. Ideally, a title tag should be 50-60 characters long, and never more than 70. If it’s too long, the search engine will chop off the end, often replacing it with an ellipsis.

Title tags don’t just appear in search engine results. They also display in the tab at the top of your web page in certain browsers. And if you share your site’s URL on social media, the title tag is often pulled through into the preview image that pops up – Facebook is a good example of a social media platform that does this.

Meta description tags

The meta description is the paragraph of text that appears below the URL in a search engine result. It’s a short summary of the content of your site or page. A meta description should be shorter than 160 characters or, again, the end will be cut off and replaced with an ellipsis. While the text itself doesn’t contribute to search engine rankings, it’s vitally important in getting your customers to select your site from the list of search results. It’s a little bit of free advertising space, so you want to make the most of it and show the customer that you’re offering exactly what they’re looking for.

Here’s an example of why your title tags and meta descriptions are so important:

I want pizza for dinner, so I Google “pizza delivery Auckland”. Once the search results are in, I’m presented with several choices. One of them is Pizza Club.

Pizza Club meta tag example




What do their meta tags tell me? Nothing, really. I know they’re called Pizza Club, and they appear to have several locations. But do they deliver? Are they even a pizzeria, or are they some kind of pizza appreciation society?

Sitting right above Pizza Club in the search results is Domino’s.

Domino's meta tag example




It looks like their meta tags might have been a little long (see the ellipses?), but that doesn’t matter. The search result tells me everything I need to know: I can order online, they deliver, they have fresh, quality pizzas, and they’re in all the major cities.

So, while Domino’s has used their meta tag space to tell me that they have what I’m looking for, Pizza Club has completely wasted that precious advertising space with a) nothing and b) a list of suburbs. Assuming I have no prior knowledge of Auckland pizza joints and no pre-existing brand preference, it’s a safe bet I’ll be clicking the link for Domino’s first.

So, how do you get meta tags?

Rest assured, if you’ve not assigned any meta tags to your website pages, search engines like Google will do the job for you by pulling in text from the existing content on your site. This might do a reasonable job of getting your message across, but you have no control over which bits of text get used, or whether they say anything meaningful to your customers.

If you want to customise your title and meta description tags, it will involve editing the code in the <head> section of your web pages. If you know basic coding, you can do this yourself, or you may need to get some assistance from a web developer. If you’re using WordPress, plugins like Yoast SEO enable you to enter your tag text into boxes, and then the plugin does the rest of the work for you. Other site building services, like Wix, have comprehensive instructions that you can follow.

Try searching for your site in a few different browsers and search engines, and see what text is displayed when it comes up. If it’s not something that encourages people to click on your url, consider writing new meta tags, or hire a copywriter to do them for you. They’re the first pieces of copy your organic search customers will see, so getting them right is an investment that will pay for itself in increased traffic to your site.

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For the love of the Oxford comma

My love for the Oxford comma is second only to my love for the semicolon (see the previous blog post). But what is the Oxford Comma? Also known as the serial comma, or Harvard comma, it’s the comma that occurs before the ‘and’ at the end of a list of things. For example, I love pizza, wine, and chocolate. See the orange comma? That’s what all the fuss is about. It’s known as the Oxford comma because for the last century it’s been part of the Oxford University Press style guide.

People are enormously passionate about the Oxford comma. In 2011 it was erroneously reported that Oxford University Press had removed it from their style guide, which sparked social media outrage, a flurry of anguished blog posts, and the creation of a “Save the Oxford Comma” Facebook community. Few punctuation marks have generated such depth of feeling. Thankfully, it transpired that the Oxford comma was still very much a part of the OUP style guide, and everyone retreated back to their corners.

However, debate still rages about whether the Oxford comma is really necessary. There’s no concrete answer; it’s a style issue. Some style guides say to use it and some say to avoid it. Unless I am writing under a specific style guide in the ‘avoid’ camp, I tend to include it all the time because it’s never not correct. To omit it can cause the sentence to be incorrect, though, and I’ve decided it’s too exhausting to apply the rule on a sentence-by-sentence basis.

Here’s an example of a sentence where it makes no difference if you use it or not.

I bought socks, shoes, and gloves.

I bought socks, shoes and gloves.

It’s fairly obvious that, whichever way you write it, you’re listing three separate things. If your style guide forbids Oxford commas, you’d choose the second option.

There are some sentences, however, where leaving out the Oxford comma drastically changes the meaning. I’ll use a famous 2013 Sky News tweet as an example.

“World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…”

What Sky News intended was to list three separate news events, but the omission of the comma before the ‘and’ caused the sentence to read as if the two items after the first comma were related. It should have read:

“World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake, and same-sex marriage date set…”

This would have avoided the suggestion that Obama and Castro were about to get hitched, and the mirth of media commentators worldwide.

It’s worth noting that style guides who do not favour the use of the Oxford comma still prescribe it in instances such as this, where it is required to clarify the relationship between items in a list.

So, when you’re listing things, remember that it’s totally fine to use a comma before the ‘and’ – and it might just save you from making an embarrassing mistake.

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How to use a semicolon

Semicolons are my favourite kind of punctuation. Is that terribly nerdy? I like them because they add elegance, variety and clarity to a sentence. Semicolons have two basic uses.

To join related independent clauses in a sentence

If the different ideas in the sentence relate to each other, and they could be sentences all by themselves, then put a semicolon in the middle. Both clauses have equal weight in the sentence.

I went for a walk along the beach; it took a lot longer than expected.

You would also use a semicolon if your sentence contained a conjunctive adverb (e.g. however, therefore, nonetheless, accordingly) or a transitional phrase (e.g. in the first place, not to mention, as a result).

I went for a walk along the beach; however, it took a lot longer than expected.
I went for a walk along the beach; as a result, I was late back to work.

You would not use a semicolon if you had a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) between the two clauses. In that case, a comma would be required.

I went for a walk along the beach, but it took a lot longer than expected.

You would also not use a semicolon if you had two unrelated clauses.

I went for a walk along the beach; my lunch was really tasty. This incorrect example should be made into separate sentences.

You should never use a comma to separate independent clauses.

I went for a walk along the beach, it took a lot longer than expected. This error is known as a comma splice, and is corrected using a semicolon in place of the comma.

To separate the elements in complicated lists

If you are listing sets of items within a sentence, and those sets of items contain commas, you can use a semicolon to separate the sets.

We need a lot of things for the new kitchen: cups, mugs and glasses; plates, saucers and bowls; and knives, forks and spoons.

Do you have any questions about semicolons? If so, ask me over on my Facebook page.

If you’d like to know how to use a colon (:), I’ll be covering that in one of my upcoming blogs.

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One of these things is not like the other

There are times in life when an inbuilt spell checker might not save you, and one of them is when you use a correctly spelled wrong word. Some words seem more prone to confusion than others, and I’ve seen them popping up a lot lately. Let’s take a look at a few.


This word was my first choice because the misuse of it has been at epidemic levels lately, to the point where I’ve started to wonder if someone has changed the rules of English without letting me know. In every instance, everyday has been used in the place of every day. What’s the difference?

Everyday is used to describe a noun (something with a name, like dishes, situation, clothes).

The misuse of this word is becoming an everyday occurrence. In this instance occurrence is the noun, and everyday provides additional detail about the noun. If you’re describing a thing as common, usual, or daily, then you write everyday as one word.

Every day is used to describe a verb (a word that describes an action, like run, sit, laugh).

I jog every day. In this instance jog is the verb. If you can take the sentence and use each day instead, then you should be writing every day as separate words.


I’m a huge weather geek and I love a good thunderstorm. Whenever one erupts, I hop onto Twitter to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ about it with my fellow weather enthusiasts – and then try to resist the urge to correct them as they rave about how much lightening they’re seeing.

Lightening is a verb – it’s the action of making something lighter, either in weight or appearance.

I removed six lipsticks and a hairbrush, lightening my handbag considerably.
I put some white paint into the tin, lightening the shade from brown to beige.

Lightning is a noun – it’s an electrical discharge from a cloud, creating a sudden, bright flash, followed by thunder.

The lightning flashed brightly, momentarily lightening the room.
The tree was struck by lightning.


There’s a commercial on the radio in which a lady claims that since her company changed to a particular IT provider, they’ve had much less problems. At this point, I always yell ‘fewer!’ at the radio. Goodness only knows what my neighbours must think.

Less is used when you are talking about something that can’t be counted, that doesn’t normally have a plural, or refers to multiples that aren’t made plural with an s (like rain, time, weight, lightning, traffic, hair).

We’re seeing a lot less lightning than I expected.
Since they put a toll on the road, there’s less traffic.
My husband has much less hair now than when he married me.
I’ve lost less weight than I had hoped.

It’s also used for numbers on their own, or for when they are used as measurements of weight or time.

The bus is less than five minutes away.
We need less than 200g of flour for the cake.

Fewer is used for items that can be counted or made plural (like eggs, problems, houses, jobs).

Since we changed IT companies, we’re having fewer problems.
There are fewer jobs available this year.
Fewer people are using ‘everyday’ in the correct context.


Okay, spell-checker does flag this one, but not because it’s spelled incorrectly. It’s because it’s not a real word.

Asterix is the name of a cartoon character created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. He lives in Gaul, has a friend called Obelix, and spends most of his time fighting off the Roman invasion. Unfortunately, he has also become hopelessly confused with the name of a small typographical mark.

Asterisk is derived from the ancient Greek word for ‘little star’, and is a small star-shaped symbol that is used to indicate the presence of a footnote. It can also be used to censor naughty words by replacing some of the letters, and some people type it at either end of a word to indicate emphasis. This originates from word processing programmes using it as a hotkey method of changing the enclosed word to bold font.

I’ve actually seen websites that have asked me to “click the box next to the asterix”, which was confusing, as there were no Gaul warriors anywhere on the page. It’s just as common a spoken error as it is a written one – in fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say it correctly. Next time you need to use the word, just remember: it’s easier to draw an asterisk than an Asterix.

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How to avoid The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe

For such a small symbol, the apostrophe sure does cause people a lot of trouble. Social media, signs and websites everywhere are littered with apostrophes that have no right to be where they are – generally lurking before the s at the end of a plural word. Historically, the worst perpetrators of this particular offence were greengrocers. We’ve all seen it. Apple’s – $3.99 per kg. Yes, we have banana’s. And so it came to pass that this error became known as a greengrocer’s apostrophe.

To be fair, there are quite a lot of rules surrounding the use of the apostrophe, so it’s not surprising that people get confused. I’ll break down the most common here. These should cover the majority of your apostrophe needs, so you can avoid joining the ranks of fruit stall sign writers everywhere.

Contractions: The first main use of the apostrophe is when you join two words together and miss one or more letters out in the process. The apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters.

Did not = didn’t
I have = I’ve
We will = we’ll
It is = it’s

This is a nice rule because it’s unambiguous. Missing letters? Pop an apostrophe in. This works when writing colloquial speech, too.

Have = ‘ave
Nothing = nothin’

Possessives: The second main use of the apostrophe is to show ownership. To indication possession, you place ‘s after the noun.

This is Brian’s bike = Brian owns the bike so an apostrophe goes before the s.

Here’s where it gets slightly more confusing because there are exceptions to this rule.

Possessive pronouns: A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun, like he, they and it. The possessive version doesn’t have an apostrophe.

He = his
They = theirs
It = its

This is Brian’s bike. Its bell is very loud. It’s rather annoying.

Possessive plural nouns: Confusion seems to abound over where to put the apostrophe when a possessive noun is also plural. In this instance, the apostrophe goes after the s.

I’m going to my parents’ house = I have two parents and they own the house. If you were to put the apostrophe before the s, then it would mean you had one parent whose house you were visiting.

The bees’ hive was enormous = there are lots of bees who have a huge hive. If you put the apostrophe before the s, then the whole hive would belong to one bee.

Possessive non-plural nouns ending in s: There’s no definitive rule here, and there are a couple of different style choices that are technically correct. Being consistent in your application is more important than which one you choose. I follow this rule of thumb, which seems to be most widely accepted:

If you say the es sound at the end of the word, then ‘s is appropriate.

That is James’s new bike.
Go to the boss’s office.
The bus’s door closed quickly.

If you don’t say the es at the end of the word, then just stick an apostrophe after it to make it possessive.

There was a gnome in Mr. Hastings’ garden.
Achilles’ heel was killing him.
Get off the lawn, for goodness’ sake.

There are more uses for the apostrophe, but the ones described above are the most common.

Do you have any questions about how to apply an apostrophe? If so, head on over to my Facebook and post them there.

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7 Twitter accounts that will improve your writing

Twitter sometimes suffers from a bad reputation as the mouthpiece of vacuous celebrities and nasty trolls, but if you follow the right accounts it can be a valuable resource to improve your spelling and grammar. I’ve compiled a small list of the tweeters I find useful, thought-provoking and occasionally amusing.

Who are they? Mignon Fogerty, grammar podcaster and author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
Follow for: Easy ways to remember the huge array of perplexing grammar rules.

Who are they? The go-to online American English dictionary.
Follow for: Their Word of the Day and Words at Play features. Discover unusual words and what they mean, or marvel at the idiosyncrasies of the English language.

Who are they? The Oxford University Press, publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Follow for: Their blog on everything from word usage to the application of punctuation. A personal favourite is their quarterly announcement of which new words have been added to their online dictionary – words like ‘MacGyver’ and ‘awesomesauce’ recently became official!

Who are they? Makers of the writing software that helps correct spelling and grammar.
Follow for: Amusing grammar memes, helpful hints, tips, and news. A nice mixture of content.

Who are they? Grammar YUNiversity: they describe themselves as ‘the grammar bosses for generation TL;DR’ (which stands for Too Long; Didn’t Read).
Follow for: Comparisons of similar words, exploration of the meanings of common phrases, and helpful infographics on word usage.

Who are they? – they claim to be the world’s leading digital dictionary.
Follow for: Interesting word trivia, quotes and language trends.

Who are they? The Associated Press Stylebook is one of the world’s most widely-referenced style guides, originally created by American journalists.
Follow for: Style tips, notification of new guide entries, and #APStyleChat, where you can ask them all your burning grammar and style questions.

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Beware the Spam Alarm

I received an email recently, and it immediately set off my ‘spam alarm’. What’s a spam alarm? It lives in the part of my brain that goes on alert whenever I receive an email that’s not a gossip-filled letter from dear old Auntie Doris. I’m sure you have one too. A spam alarm, that is – not an Auntie Doris.

Anyway, here’s the email:
Example of PayPal phishing email












At first glance, it looked legitimate. It had the proper logo. It was short and well-laid out. So why didn’t I trust it? Apart from the fact that it was sent to an email address that I’ve never used for PayPal, the key issue was the horrible writing. There were random capital letters, weird font problems, bad spelling (what’s a boutton?) and dodgy punctuation. They didn’t even refer to me by name. There’s no way a big, reputable company like PayPal would let a communication go out to its customers in this sorry state.

There are many theories about why spam emails are so badly written. The most popular one seems to be that if someone is silly enough to be taken in by the awful writing, they’re exactly the sort of person the spammer is looking for.

Whatever the reason behind the poor spelling and grammar, the fact that it features heavily in spam mail has an unintentional flow-on effect to legitimate businesses. If a company sends out a direct marketing email and there are errors in it, it’s likely to set off customers’ spam alarms. The mistrustful part of their subconscious that fires up when they receive unsolicited email registers that all may not be well.

It happens with websites, too. A UK poll* found that 59% of those surveyed would not buy from a site that had poor spelling and grammar. It damages trust. It creates a perception that the company is sloppy or unprofessional. In the worst cases, it suggests the site is not legitimate at all. Have you seen the sites selling fake Ray-Bans? They look very authentic until you read the text.

So, the moral of this tale is: if you’re talking to current or potential customers, make sure your content is well-written and free of errors, and avoid setting off their spam alarms.

*Poor grammar on websites scares 59% away:

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