Tuesday, 1st August 2006
When Imperial College London Library migrated its website to a content management system, I found myself in a new position: Web content manager. In this role, I represent many librarians who must acquire skills for writing for the Web.
Among those skills are creating clear, concise, readable information and establishing procedures that ensure that the site is kept up to date and remains high in search engine rankings. It must also be copyright-compliant and data protection-compliant. Some of these issues are taken care of inside the CMS; however every editor should know the basics for optimising written content for the Web.
Writing for the web
Most importantly, content must be written in a suitable style. There are a number of elements that can be used to enhance your writing and ensure that a user remains at your website. In the academic library environment we may be inclined to think that we have a captive audience of students, academics and staff. However, we must remember that the library spends a huge amount of money on resources, and if a user has difficulty accessing them and as a result does not use them, the money has been wasted. We also run the risk that someone may leave our site to use an outside service that's easier, and may miss out on the quality information that we provide.
The main points to consider when writing a web page are:
Think about your audience
Write at a level that is suitable for them, using language with which they are familiar. At the library we use jargon and acronyms, but we know it is important that this does not carry through to our end users. In academic libraries we are dealing with various types of users, from undergraduate and postgraduate students to academic and administrative staff, as well as visiting members of the public. Our content should be written with all of them in mind.
We also try to remember that different people use different words for the same thing. At Imperial our library system 'holds' books for readers to collect at a later date. However many users are familiar with the term 'reservations', so we have tried to include both terms on our web pages so that a search for either will bring back a result.
Write in plain English
Plain English is a style of writing that uses clear and simple language with short sentences, simple punctuation and no jargon. The Plain English Campaign <http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/> in the UK describes it as 'language that the intended audience can understand and act upon from a single reading'.
Write objectively and with authority
It will enhance your professional image. Do not express your own opinions. Try not to write in a too-familiar, overly friendly style, although in some circumstances a less formal style may be appropriate. For example, a piece of text specifically aimed at students may call for an informal, chatty style.
Get to the point
Usability studies have shown that web users scan a page for information. If they cannot find what they want quickly, they will leave. Remember to write concisely and strip out any non-essential information. It is important to have a good, clear opening paragraph. Details can follow further down the page. For example a news item might begin:
'The library has been refurbished and is now open. During the vacation the staff worked hard on a two-month project to relocate the engineering section ...'
You can help users scan web pages by using the techniques below to make important information stand out. All of these techniques work, but before you use them all at once, consider what the complete page will look like. For example, too many hypertext links around a page can confuse the eye. If you have many links put them together at the bottom of the page or in a 'Quick Links' box.
Try not to use the following:
Use correct grammar, punctuation and spelling
A professional website should not have grammatical and spelling errors. Check any usage queries with grammar dictionaries such as the "Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar".
Use style guides to maintain consistency of spelling and terminology. At Imperial, we use a college style guide and a library style guide. If you do not have a style guide then you will find a number of useful ones on the web. Two that we have used are the Guardian stylebook <http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/> and the BBC News Style Guide <http://www.bbctraining.com/styleguide.asp>.
Use clear hypertext links
A hypertext link should give a clear indication of where it is linking. This can be an accessibility issue, because some screen readers read the links out of context. 'Click here' links are unhelpful. The link should also open in a new window and should be indicated on the screen either by the phrase 'Opens in a new window' or by an image.
Keeping the website up to date
A website that is obviously out of date loses its credibility. Users will return only if they know that it is updated regularly. The following methods demonstrate that the website is up to date:
Note the date that a web page was last updated on the page. If you do this, remember to edit the date when you review the page even if no updates are made to it. This will let visitors know you're maintaining the page even if you're not making any changes.
Run a link checker regularly and amend any dead ones. At Imperial, we check the library links monthly using the Xenu's Link Sleuth <http://home.snafu.de/tilman/xenulink.html>, and the College ICT department also checks all the websites periodically using the LIFT link checker <http://www.usablenet.com/>. This is an important exercise as it forms part of the service agreement that we have with our users.
News headlines on the homepage are particularly useful to indicate that your pages are constantly changing and revised regularly. If there is no obvious news, highlight a service or particular section of the website to keep your homepage fresh.
Remember to remove temporary information such as vacation closures, training course dates and news alerts when the relevant date has passed. Use a diary as a reminder. Also keep staff lists up to date, liaising with the human resources department if necessary.
Know who is responsible for each section of the website and ensure that they review their pages regularly. If your website is large, and if your CMS does not manage all the links, create a site map on a spreadsheet. This is a list of all the site's pages and sections.
When writing for the web, you're not just writing for visitors; you're also writing for search engines. In addition to the best practices of word-craft, train yourself to see from a search engine's perspective in order to maximise your visibility on the web.
Most content management systems have built-in measures to make your website appear high in a list of search engine results. A domain name that is easy to remember, the name of the organisation at the top of the homepage and the ability to 'tag' using indexing words are examples.
Content editors can also assist with search engine rankings by following some of the tips below. Remember, however, that search engines rank in different ways and their ranking systems can be difficult to interpret.
Use headings wisely. The first heading on a page should be clear and tell the user exactly what they will find on that page. We use simple headings such as 'Contacts', 'Photocopiers & Printers' and 'Imperial Libraries'. These may not be very exciting but they do ensure that the user knows immediately what that page of text is about.
The number of times words appear on a page can have some significance in ranking. Search engines are wise to attempts to cheat the system, so there is no value in entering 'library library library ... ' as a phrase. Create natural sentences that use your key terms one or two times.
A search engine may consider that words that are often in close proximity are significant. 'Imperial' and 'library' are two terms that often appear together on our website, so we would expect a search for these terms to bring us close to the top of a list of search results.
Some search engines look for how many times other sites link to yours. Having a reciprocal-link agreement with other organisations can be valuable. You may also register your site in a search engine's index, although there may be a charge for this and it can take months for your website to be indexed.
The short, descriptive text that appears in a list of results from a search engine is generally taken from the first text of the homepage. It should be concise and informative.
Copyright and data protection
The content editor should be fully aware of any copyright legislation that applies to their activities. One potential pitfall is called 'deep linking', linking to a specific page far inside a website, which allows your users to avoid home pages, category pages, ads, etc. It is often wiser to link to the homepage of another site and direct the user to a section. If you require a deep link, ask the website owner for written permission to do so. The same applies should you wish to use some text or an image from another website.
Another pitfall is data protection. Content editors should obtain permission from those whose names, contact details or photographs appear on the website. If necessary, create a policy.
When editing your website, it is important to bear in mind a number of techniques that can be used to make your site attractive to those who visit it. A clear writing style will help them to read your pages and quickly assess whether they contain relevant information. If the site is updated regularly, existing users will be aware of this and return, and if the pages are written with high search engine rankings in mind, new users will be made aware of your site. A content management system makes it easier for library staff with little technical expertise to edit web pages, but we need to learn these new techniques in order to take the best advantage of the technology that we now have.
Plain English Campaign <http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/>
Useit.com: Jakob Nielsen's website <http://www.useit.com/>
Phil Bradley's website <http://www.philb.com>
Web Accessibility Initiative <http://www.w3.org/WAI/>
The Guardian stylebook <http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide>
BBC News Style Guide <http://www.bbctraining.com/onlineCourse.asp?tID=5487&cat=3>
Xenu's Link Sleuth <http://home.snafu.de/tilman/xenulink.html>
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