If you’ve ever surfed a website where links are broken, outdated information leads you up the garden path, and conflicting fonts and text formatting give it a ‘split personality’, you’ll realise that content maintenance matters.
Content admins (administrators) are the people who do content maintenance. Great content admins are like the skilled mechanics who look after high performance cars. They know every nut and bolt and they refine the machine while they work – as opposed to when download links aren’t set to open in a new window so your potential customers gets kicked off your site when they click. Or non-standard formatting is applied for emphasis but it’s a jarring conflict with your visual brand.
Great content admin work is careful, consistent, detailed and sometimes painstaking. And it’s the difference between scruffy and ordinary or shiny and brilliant, so let’s get started.
Do web admins think beyond the immediate task?
It’s not enough for web admins to just make whatever changes they’re asked to make. There are always other things to consider at the same time:
- Does the change I’ve been asked to do make sense? (Sometimes it won’t.)
- Are there other places on the website that need to be updated with this information? (Ideally information shouldn’t ever be duplicated, but sometimes this is a necessary evil.)
- Does this information conflict with information on another part of the website?
- While I’m here, can I correct any funny looking text formatting, broken links, or pictures that don’t display properly?
- Is anything on this page obsolete?
- Am I deleting a link to a file or an image? If so, should that file or image also be deleted from the website’s files?
That sort of stuff. It’s really about using every website update request as an excuse to give the content on the same page a once-over and a sanity check.
Is the visible content on your site factually correct and up-to-date?
The only way to be sure content is correct is to have somebody check it for factual changes and obsolete content. This a Content Review and it needs to happen at least annually.
Your best approach to a Content Review is ‘divide and conquer’. Assign each page to a reviewer – somebody who knows enough about what’s on it to say if it’s right or wrong. Reviewers have a period of time to check the content on the page and submit updates to the review coordinator.
Choose someone to coordinate the review. The coordinator liaises with the reviewers to make sure the reviewing gets done. They also ensure changes are signed off if necessary, sanity checked, proofed, and put onto the website.
Rinse and repeat yearly. Or six monthly if necessary.
If your website is small you can easily manage your Content Review process from a spreadsheet. For larger sites there are systems which can automate the process for you. Get more detail about how to do a Content Review.
Regular and expected changes
Many website changes are predictable or repetitive. Things like annual reports, meeting minutes, election information, news, dated items etc.
It’s worth developing a standard process for each recurring task because once it’s in place you enjoy several benefits:
- Consistent appearance of similar kinds of content
- Faster turnover time because there’s a process to follow
- Easier skill transfer to new staff.
If something unexpected happens which could impact website content, does your organisation have a process to quickly and effectively identify any impacts and make changes as required?
Think about what could happen and how your organisation might respond.
Are your site’s words easy to read, comprehend and navigate?
It’s all very well to say website users like clear and simple communication, but what if your content is complex? What if your writer delivers long paragraphs full of unintelligible words? Here are some handy tips:
Short sentences, careful punctuation
- Keep sentences short. 20 words or less is ideal. You can get away with an occasional longer sentence, but if the web page reads like a doctoral thesis many users will leave.
- Use commas sparingly. Their best use is to separate distinct concepts which need to be in the same sentence, like the sentence above which mentions a web page reading like a doctoral thesis (and this sentence where the comma is essential). By changing one word above it could just as easily read “You can get away with an occasional longer sentence. However if the web page reads like a doctoral thesis many users will leave.” Better.
- If you want to use a second comma, look again. 99 percent likely you need a full stop somewhere and a new sentence.
Bite sized chunks of information
- Keep paragraphs short. New concept? New paragraph.
- Long lists? Make them into bullets.
- Instructions? Make them a numbered list. If there’s too much detail for that, use a numbered subheading for each action and follow with explanation.
Simple clear language
- Using big words? Stick to short and simpler words as much as you can. Big words may impress academics and highly technical minds but most of your audience will only be impressed by an easy experience on your website.
- Research has shown that the average reading comprehension of a website user is that of a 12 year old. Your readers aren’t stupid but they are busy and potentially distracted. Simple, clear and easy is what they’re after.
For more details see our blog post Writing For The Web.
Easy in-page and in-site navigation
- Got more than three paragraphs in a row? Break big chunks of text up with sub-headings at each change in topic so users can easily find their way around.
- On long pages add in-page links (text anchors) to headings and subheadings to help users navigate to relevant topics more easily.
- Add links to other relevant pages to help users find the information they want.
Are text styles and formatting consistent site-wide?
Web content experts see websites through a particular sort of lens. They notice inconsistencies.
Why didn’t the person who linked to that document up put the file size and type data up in the same format as for all the other document links on the page? Why is the formatting on that new content out of line with the organisational visual brand? Why is that phone number written three different ways across the website? Why, oh why?
Right now you may be shaking your head. However this kind of detail is the difference between mediocre and professional. Between visual irritation and easy-on-the-eye. Between “I’m leaving this unprofessional looking website” and “I like how easy it is to be here”.
On every page:
- Do headings and subheadings have heading styles applied consistently?
- Are text fonts, sizes, colours and formats consistent?
- Is space between paragraphs and between lines within paragraphs consistent? This one is subtle but makes a big difference when you find it and fix it.
- Do titles have Title Case applied – or not applied – consistently? This Is An Example Of Title Case.
- Do phone numbers and addresses look the same right across your site? Here are examples of inconsistent phone and address formats:
04 123-4567 versus +64-4-123 4567
10 Anywhere St, Wgtn 6011 versus 10 Anywhere Street, Wellington 6011.
Does each page have good content structure?
While the purpose for each web page is different, some basic principles about how to structure content within a web page always apply.
Words and page ‘story’
- Does the first paragraph on the page contain the most important information? This is important. If readers don’t see what they’re looking for quick, they’ll leave your site.
- Does the page name clearly identify what the page is about? Does it work as a standalone title, and also in the context of surrounding pages?
- Are the headings and subheadings on the page meaningful and useful? If you read them on their own, do they summarise the content on the page?
- Is each page ‘story’ clear, logical and easy to follow? Look for gaps. ‘Sanity check’ the page to make sure visitors get the information they need and know how to use it.
- Do banners and/or images support the words on a page without taking up too much space on screen?
- Are images a consistent size and shape (at least within a single page, preferably across the site) and never stretched to fit?
- When images are loaded is Alternative Text included? Mobile devices often don’t display images but they do display the Alternative Text. This allows mobile users to see what they’re missing and choose to open images if they want to.
- Are all links created as action statements? A decade or more ago it was standard practice to say ‘Click here to do X’ because people were new to the internet and it couldn’t be assumed they knew what to do.
This kind of instruction is redundant now. All links should be action links, which means they say what will happen when you click – e.g. Download the Meeting Minutes.
- Are links to documents and external websites set to open in a new tab so as not to kick the user off your site? Be sure to avoid having links open in a popup window, because this can be blocked by a popup blocker.
Is new content ‘sanity-checked’ to ensure it meets the needs of the intended audience?
Even great authors make embarrassing mistakes. So before you publish always get a fresh pair of eyes to go through new content with a fine toothed comb.
- If the content is written for a specialised audience find a sanity-checker who has the required level of knowledge of the subject, but isn’t familiar with the topic the new content explains.
- Otherwise your best sanity-checker is somebody who knows little to nothing about both the subject and the topic in question.
Sanity-checkers who don’t know the topic quickly notice when the writer has assumed they know something they don’t. For example:
Open the hood of the car.
And the sanity-checker thinks “Well hang on a minute. This is my first car. I’ve never opened the hood of my car before. How do I do it? Where do I start?” In which case they might want something like this:
- Go to the front of car and slide your fingers along under the edge of the hood, moving your hand in from the outside towards the centre. Your fingers will find the hood release lever.
- Push it to the left and the hood will release, but you won’t be able to open it yet.
- Push the lever further and now you can lift the hood up.
- Find the hood stand in the channel on the right side of the engine bay, lift it out, and insert it into the oval shaped hole on the right under-side edge of the hood to prop it up.
Yes it’s a bit obvious but the key point is this: writers can make enormous assumptions about what website users know and they won’t know they’re doing it. A sanity-checker will.
Is new content proofread before publication?
The internet is littered with examples of great content made less credible by spelling mistakes and bad grammar. Don’t go there!
Get a detail minded proof reader to go through every piece of new content to clean out spelling mistakes and unravel any bad grammar.
You’ve gone to the trouble of creating content for your site, so make sure it’s squeaky clean and shiny before you load it up and publish.