When writing for the web there are several things to keep in mind to make your content readable, scannable and accessible. The following are a few best practices to follow as you are writing content for your site.
Content are the words, images, audio, video or other components that convey information, be it facts, a message or a story.
Content should have a voice, a structure and a purpose.
Content should be relevant, useful and engaging.
Content is never “done.” It is a living thing that requires care and maintenance over time.
Why is content important?
Content is your front door and your handshake. It is how people find you and learn about you. It tells your story and builds connections to people.
Since content is the core of your web presence, give it the attention and focus it deserves. Don’t save it for last or make it the responsibility of someone who doesn’t understand what it requires.
For whom do we create content?
Content is not for you. It is for your audience, whomever you have determined your audience to be. Thus, you should keep your audience in mind when shaping and supporting your content. If you care about your audience, care about your content.
What is not covered here?
These guidelines are not about HTML or other web markup and programming languages. They are also not about content management systems (CMS). A CMS is a tool that helps support an individual’s efforts to organize and manage content. It does not create or maintain content on its own. A CMS is not a content strategy. Your content goals should come before your content tools.
What should I consider before publishing web content?
The golden rule: Think twice, publish once.
What are your goals? (What should the content help you accomplish? What are your priorities?)
Who is your audience? (Who is your content for? What problems does your target audience have that your content can help solve?)
How much time and resources do you have to create and manage content? Who else will be responsible for helping with this effort.
What are some examples of web content you like? Why do you like them? What don’t you like and why?
How do you define success? How will you measure your content to ensure it is successful?
According to Kristina Halvorson, author of “Content Strategy for the Web,” content strategy “plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.“ In short, it’s how we make sure our content is worth both our time and our users’ time.
Here are some tactics for helping ensure you have a content strategy in place:
It can be hard to keep track of our web content. By creating and maintaining a content inventory—typically in the form of a spreadsheet—we have a way of looking at our website all at once.
A content inventory should include:
An identifying numeral (for instance, your About page may be 2.0, and the subpage Our Staff may be 2.1)
Type (Is this a news story? Photo gallery? Directory? Program overview?)
Tags (What keywords do you associate with this page?)
Meta description (What description of this page should display when someone discovers it via Google? This should be fewer than 180 characters.)
Notes (Here, you might make observations about changes to be made to the page
Last update (Keep a log of when the page was last reviewed and changed, and by who)
Stakeholders (Who needs to review and approve changes to this page?)
An editorial calendar is a way to ensure your website—whether it is a publication like a blog or a more traditional website—stays up to date. Aside from providing a framework for scheduling updates, an editorial calendar can also help you prioritize topics and themes and organize resources (writers, editors, developers, photographers, stakeholders, etc.).
You can use a spreadsheet, a Google Calendar, a Word document—any format that makes sense for you and the others responsible for managing the site content.
Possible fields in an editorial calendar may include:
Milestones (holidays, events, deadlines)
Lisa Welchman, an authority on digital governance, defines it as a structure that “helps reduce web development risks by establishing clear web decision-making authority, extending web accountability to more senior levels of the organization, and improving web standards compliance.” In short, it’s the structure we create to ensure responsible management of our websites. With regard to web content, it prompts the following questions:
What is the plan for ensuring the content is up to date?
Who are the people charged with creating and maintaining the content?
Who needs to review and approve content before it goes live? Who are the stakeholders?
Do we have the resources we need to ensure our web content is timely and accurate?
Is the content consistent and standards-compliant?
Is the content aligned with the goals, messaging and brand for our school or program?
Writing for the Web Best Practices
Create unique page titles. Each page of your site should have a title tailored to the content on the page.
Anticipate terms that your visitors may use to search for content. Weave those words and phrases into the copy that you write.
Use the inverted pyramid to structure your page:
Start with the most important information in the opening sentence. That sentence should answer who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Fill in the rest of the story, with increasing detail, in the paragraphs that follow.
Place the least important information toward the bottom of the page.
Be succinct. If there’s a shorter, simpler way to say something, do it that way.
Keep paragraphs short. This — especially if paragraphs have topic sentences —speeds scanning and alleviates fatigue.
Consider your language:
Use the active voice
Speak in a plain, straightforward manner
Write for your audience, not yourself
Write like a person, not like an advertisement or a robot
How does your audience speak? Use the words that they use.
You can learn this from user testing, focus groups, or studying web analytics to see what search terms they use.
Use the facts or testimonials to tell your story.
Don’t be too effusive in praising yourself, and don’t try to be too clever or make claims you can’t supports. (e.g. “Our program is the best/the most innovative/the most unique”)
Don’t use seasonal language (e.g. “Professor Smith came to Tufts last year”) because you don’t know when that page will next be updated
Use subheads, section titles, bulleted lists, and anchors to make copy scannable.
When you have a good deal of information that belongs together on a single page (student organizations, for instance), use anchors so that the reader can scan the list quickly and jump directly to the section of the page that’s of interest.
Ensure that the name of a link matches the name of the page to which it links. For instance, if you click on a link entitled Financial Aid, you should get to a page named
Financial Aid, not Types of Aid or Financial Assistance. You have a little more latitude with hyperlinks, but the relevance between the name of the hyperlink and the page it links to should be readily apparent. (Otherwise, visitors get irritated.)
Use common terms that users will understand. A clever-but-somewhat-obscure link name can cause frustration and confusion.
Don’t use jargon, overused or overly technical words. Don’t clutter your content with flowery prose.
Write in plain English—people come to your website for information, not for poetry.
Hyperlink phrases rather than single words. The reason: It’s easier to spot a phrase than a single word.
Guard against irrelevant hyperlinking. Just because you use a word that is the name of another page on your site doesn’t mean that it’s relevant. Be sure to check the content of the linked page to ensure that it is relevant and will help the reader.
Avoid Web clichés. These include:
Welcome to our site.
On this Web page you will find…
Format your text appropriately:
Boldface words, not links, in order to make certain key terms (e.g. deadlines) pop off the page, but do so judiciously. The same goes for italics.
If formatting for emphasis, use bold or italics rather than caps
Don’t use underlining (except for how it naturally happens in hyperlinks). An underline will make the reader think the text is hyperlinked.
If you have vital info—statistics, deadlines, contact information—make it pop off the page in a bullet list, blockquote, or separate line/paragraph
Remember you’re in a nonlinear medium. Many readers may arrive on your pages directly from a Google search. Recognizing that those visitors will benefit from a little context, providing a little introductory copy will be helpful.
End each page with a call to action. Highlight next steps and provide links that encourage readers to explore and engage.
Your visitors don’t necessarily think like you do. They visit the site with a specific goal in mind, but may not know exactly what it’s called by those internal to the institution.
The average visit time for .edu visitors is 2m45s or ~500 words read. Use this as a rule for how long your pages should be.
Visitors will eventually use the search box if they cannot find what they need – usually within the first minute of browsing.
Write for Accessibility:
Page titles should match the links used to get to them.
Subheads describe the purpose of the page and help with scanning.
No abbreviations or acronyms allowed until they have been spelled out at least once.
Always include alt tags for images – these are brief captions describing what is happening in a particular photo, and need to be able to be read aloud by a screen reader. One tip is to picture yourself on the phone with a friend, trying to describe what’s happening outside your window.
Never assume that anything is ‘obvious’ or ‘self-evident’. As much as certain transactions and processes may seem routine to us, we need to treat even the most frequent and common content as if our visitor knows nothing about it.
Tables in JumboPress should only be used to show data. Tables can also be used for formatting and layouts purposes, however JumboPress has the Page Builder tool which is a much more user friendly and flexible layout tool. Please go to the JumboPress manual to learn more.
When creating tables follow these best practices:
Define columns and rows appropriately in the HTML code.
Make the structure as simple as possible and in a way that a screen reader can read it in a meaningful way.
No fixed widths. The system automatically makes your tables fit within the JumboPress body, fixed width can makes parts of the table extend beyond the text body area, and thus not appear on the page.
Develop and consistent apply a standard for how you link to an external page (open in a new window or same window)
Always indicate the document type you are linking to if something other than an HTML webpage (e.g. MP3, PDF, MOV, PNG, in brackets following the link)
File Hosting and Naming Conventions
Use consistent file and page naming conventions
This will help with both your own organizations and so site visitors get a sense of consistency and professionalism.
Don’t put dates in file names that will be updated every year—that will create old copies. Just replace one and keep the same link.
A website is not file storage.
Practice file hygiene—don’t keep multiple old copies of document on server, only the latest copy, and keep links to files up to date.
Old copies of files can confuse user if they are found via an old link or search engine.
Before publishing a PDF to your website, take the time to consider whether that content needs to be in PDF format. Typically, a PDF should be reserved for a document that a user may need to print out (e.g. a form to fill out, a schedule meant for hanging on the wall, a promotional flyer for distribution).
If the content does not meet this criteria, take the effort to place that content on a webpage instead of in PDF format.
Always follow a PDF link with [PDF] to designate it as such to the user.
PDFs have several disadvantages as a web publishing format that should be kept in mind before publishing important content (e.g. academic calendar, program requirements) in PDF format: poor accessibility, poor usability, poor navigation, less findable than a webpage, more difficult to access from a mobile device and, requires user to launch PDF reader program in browser.
If you publish a newsletter, avoid publishing it to the web solely in PDF format. This may discourage readership. PDF is a print format, not a web format. Encode your articles for the web or publish them in a blog.