In your company or organisation, it’s unlikely everyone thinks they’re a top-end visual designer – unless, in fact, you run a visual design company.
But when it comes to creating web content, suddenly everyone’s an expert – because surely everyone knows how to stick some words on a page, right?
In fact, lots of people are capable of writing good web content, if they are given a meaningful brief, a set of content guidelines, and know the audience they’re writing for and the wider context of what they’re writing. But all too often, none of those things are provided – and the outcome is a website that’s a mess of contradictory information and conflicting voices.
Here are 6 ways you can produce better web content – content that works for your business and works for your users.
1. Make sure every page on your website has a reason to exist
“We need a new website”, says the boss, and it’s your job to make it happen. But what’s that website actually for? How does it help your organisation achieve its business goals? How does it help your users meet their needs? Does it encourage users to come back, or does it drive them away?
Users like relevant, useful content – and Google likes it, too. Does every page on your site have relevant, useful content? Is that content current – or are you still advertising last year’s annual conference or the “new” spring colours from two years ago?
Can informational pages be clearly read and understood by your site’s intended audience? Is there a clear, unambiguous, easily visible Call to Action on pages that are intended to encourage your users to take an action? And if your site needs certain pages for legal reasons, are those pages present, current, and correct?
If every page on your website has a reason to exist, that will help your users, your search rankings, and your business.
2. Have a plan for your web content
What is a web content plan? You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a plan of your web content, usually with one line or row per website page. You can make it yourself as a spreadsheet, or use a proprietary website content planning tool.
Why do you need one? Well, there are two main reasons:
- When you’ve got an existing website, a content plan is a vital tool to help ensure it’s kept up to date.
- When you’re in the process of creating a new website, a content plan lets you specify what will be on every page of the site, and where the content of each page will come from – including who will write new content, and who will review existing web content that will be re-used on this page.
A content plan links the big-picture aspects of your website, like site structure (also known as information architecture) and content strategy, with the page-by-page detail of how content is written, edited and maintained.
When you’re planning a new website, we recommend creating the content plan at the same time as, or directly after, you plan the overall site structure. You can create your site structure in a spreadsheet, and then turn that spreadsheet into a content plan by adding details of where the content on each page comes from and who will write it and/or maintain it.
3. Create web content guidelines for your site
Web content guidelines (also known as a web content style guide) are a set of instructions to your web content writers and editors about how content should be written for your website. They are useful even if only one person ever writes content for the site, but they become vital as soon as multiple content editors and writers get involved.
Here are the first eight bullet points from a set of web content guidelines Webstruxure created a few years ago:
- Put the information that’s most important to your users at the top of the page
- If a page allows people to do a task, put that task at the top of the page
- Use active language – “you can”, “we will”
- Use simple language. Write for an audience of 11-year-olds
- Use consistent spelling and grammar throughout the site
- Use the language that your readers use, even if it isn’t technically correct – but provide background information explaining the correct technical terms where possible.
- Avoid technical language, or if you must use it, provide a non-technical explanation first
- Always spell out acronyms the first time you use them on a page.
The paragraphs that followed each bullet point in this set of guidelines included explanations and examples.
Of course, that’s only eight points. Guidelines may contain general points about the “voice” you want your website to have – usually, you want helpful and friendly rather than cold and distant, but the right voice and tone depends on the purpose of the site and the nature of your business. Guidelines, especially for public sector organisations, may also get into precise detail about spelling conventions, punctuation, abbreviations, how Te Reo is used on the site, and many other aspects of how content is made clear and consistent across the site.
4. Check that the web content guidelines are actually being used by your web writers
In my experience, here are the four main reasons web content guidelines don’t get used, and what to do about them:
- The guidelines are too ambitious and too hard to use. Solution: listen harder to your client, simplify the guidelines as much as possible, and (if you can) look over the web writer’s shoulder as they try to put your guidelines into practice.
- The guidelines themselves are fine, but the training in how to use them doesn’t sink in – a particular issue when the website writer/maintainer only updates the site occasionally. Solution: improve the training and hold regular refreshers.
- The guidelines are fine, the training goes well, but then the people who’ve had the training leave and other, untrained people take their place. Solution: Include the training as part of the induction for new web writers.
- The web content is written by subject matter experts who use abbreviations, acronyms and technical language in a way that’s common among experts in their field, and who don’t pay much attention to what anyone outside their field says or recommends. Solution: Build enough time into your project for a web editor to go through all the site content and bring it into line.
5. Make sure your content helps your search rankings as well as your users and your business
As Point 1 says, every page on your website needs a reason to exist, and it needs to meet user needs and business goals. But your content also needs to help keep your site well up in Google’s search rankings.
A few years ago, that used to be all about arcane Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) techniques that only shadowy figures wearing black hats could help you with. But Google’s aim in recent years has been to reward content that works for human users. Google wants to see content that is clearly about a particular topic, is readable, is well structured, and contains an appropriate number of relevant links.
Keyword research can help you choose what the best words are to use in the title, heading and first paragraph of your page – but there is a lot more you can legitimately do with modern SEO techniques, too.
To learn more about Search Engine Optimisation, visit our “SEO Audit” series of blog posts:
6. Write content that works with your Content Management System (CMS)
In theory, the content you write should be independent of the platform you publish on. But that’s not quite true in practice, even when you’re writing for the web. Different website CMSs structure content in different ways, and have differing abilities to import content from other platforms. It’s possible for you and your content writers to create a whole set of beautifully written, coherent, fit-for-purpose web pages, and get them approved by management, only to find that when they’re loaded into the CMS they don’t work as you intended.
Ideally, the content writers would all be able to draft and polish their content in the CMS itself. But that often isn’t possible, and also increases the risk that draft content will be accidentally make public. We suggest that, rather than drafting the content in Word or even Google Docs, you look at using one of the excellent tools now available to help you draft content, share it, and collaborate on reviewing and revising it. Three examples of such tools are GatherContent, Beegit and Content Snare.
Webstruxure is here to make the web work smarter. Let us know how we can help you for user friendly, mobile friendly and search engine friendly websites. Our services include:
Tim works as a content strategist and project manager for Webstruxure, helping clients make sure their websites meet user needs and business goals. He is also a published author of fiction and poetry, with seven books published, and has co-edited two poetry anthologies. You can find out more about Tim’s writing on the New Zealand Book Council website.
Also published on Medium.