When you’re responsible for website content, it’s easy to go off-track. And when you’re heading for the heights, it’s easy to fall a long way in a hurry by posting content that isn’t on topics relevant to the products or services you offer, or the brand values your website is meant to represent.
That’s where website content guidelines come in. Content guidelines help you and your team of content writers stay on track, and they provide a standard against which all your website content can be measured to ensure that it is consistent with your site’s content strategy.
Here are some tips on how to create a set of website content guidelines that works for your business. These should be used in conjunction with, or integrated with, guidelines for writing SEO friendly content.
1. Create a set of website content guidelines
Web content guidelines 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 is a short (one page) set of generic web content guidelines Webstruxure created a few years ago – extracted and simplified from various sets of guidelines we created for actual clients. We’ve brought one or two points up to date, but surprisingly few changes were needed.
• 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, unless technical accuracy is vital
• Avoid technical language. If you must use it, provide a non-technical explanation first
• Always spell out acronyms the first time you use them on a page
• Use short paragraphs, and limit them to one idea
• Use bullet points
• Use meaningful headings – be predictable
• Be friendly, but don’t be smarmy or insincere
• Use FAQ pages with care – avoid using them wherever possible, and if you do use them, make sure that they are based on actual questions asked by actual users
• Make long pages more legible with well-organised, clear sub-headings
• If in doubt, cut it out – no unnecessary pages, no unnecessary words
• Name links clearly and distinctively
• Keep the name of a link and the name of the page it links to consistent
• Clearly identify links to documents
• Wherever possible, keep information in HTML format rather than linking to that information in other formats, e.g. PDF.
Guidelines may contain general points about the “voice” of your website. You probably want to sound helpful and friendly rather than cold and distant, but the purpose of the site and the nature of your business will dictate what language and tone to use.
Public sector organisations’ website content guidelines are often much longer and more complex than this. They may 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 to be written, formatted, approved, and published.
2. Make sure that the website content guidelines are actually put into practice
Writing web content guidelines is one thing. Getting the web content writers and editors to use those guidelines can be quite another – especially if no-one has responsibility for ensuring or at least encouraging their use.
In my experience, there are four main reasons why web content guidelines don’t get used. Here are the problems I’ve found, plus some suggested remedies:
- The guidelines are over-complicated, or try to specify everything instead of focusing on the issues that really matter. Suggested remedy: listen harder to your client, simplify the guidelines as much as possible, and (if you can) look over the web writers’ shoulders 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. Suggested remedy: Improve the training and hold regular refreshers. (Note: This issue often arises when the website writer/maintainer only updates the site occasionally.)
- The guidelines are fine, the training goes well, but then the people who’ve been trained leave and other, untrained people take their place. Suggested remedy: Make the training a standard part of the induction process for new web writers.
- The ‘officially approved’ web content writers are trained, keen, and not leaving in droves or even dribbles. But much of 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 are only interested in writing for their peers – not for an external audience that will be confused by all the insiders’ jargon. Suggested remedy: Build enough time and capacity into your project for a web editor to go through all the site content and bring it into line.
Website content guidelines help you steer clear of the rocks and eddies that can hole your website development below the waterline or get it spinning in unproductive circles. But they only work if they meet the needs of your website editors as well as your organisation. That means that your guidelines need to be simple, clear, and developed in conjunction with the person or people who administer your organisation’s website.
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.