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Best Practices for Web Writing
Are you writing content for a University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) website? Use the following guidelines, tips, and (not-so-subtle) suggestions to create effective content, engage and inform your audiences, and meet your goals.
Write clear, simple, and effective content
- Content should be written in an easy-to-read, conversational style
- Always keep your audience, messages, personality, and goals in mind
Put the most important content in the first paragraph
- Readers scan pages, you don’t want them to miss your main idea
Chunk your content
- Cover only one topic per paragraph
- Write short paragraphs and minimize unnecessary words
- Sentence structure should be simple and varied
Use active voice instead of passive voice
- Yes: Tim taught the class.
- No: The class was taught by Tim.
Choose lists over long paragraphs
- Use lists to make your content easier to scan
Write Meaningful Headers
Headers allow readers to navigate content. Use the header to clearly describe the content in each paragraph.
- Be short and direct
- Be able to stand on their own and understood out of context
- Avoid jargon, abbreviations, cleverness, and technical terms
- Be search engine friendly – see “SEO Writing” below
Use Common Language
For SEO (Search Engine Optimization) use the same words and phrases your readers do. When creating page titles, headers, list items, and links, choose keywords carefully and use them consistently. This practice reinforces keywords relevancy for search engines.
Readers expect a personal, upbeat tone in web writing. They find bureaucratic writing offensive and out-of-place and ignore the message it's trying to convey.
To avoid bureaucratic language, turn the tone down a notch. Search out and destroy jargon. Use active voice. Always try to write in first or second person.
Keep it Short
Web writing needs to be much shorter than other kinds of writing. Research shows that people scan web text, rather than read every word. Make it easy for your users to scan for information quickly. A paragraph should consist of 70 words or less.
Writing for the web is NOT the same as writing for a print publication. A page on the web should be half the length of a similar print document.
300-700 words is a reasonable average length for any web content.
What if you have more than 700 words? Break your content into sections, leading readers to specific portions of the text as much as possible. It’s your job as a web author to guide your audience to the content you want them to consume.
Don’t waste space welcoming people to your page. There is no need – most users ignore welcome text as filler. Get to the meat – that’s what they came for.
Subheadlines, Lists, and Scanning
On average, users read about 20 percent of your content per page.
What should you do? Be concise. Be relevant. Use short sentences and action verbs, and cut inessential text without sacrificing your identity.
Along with short, easy-to-read blocks of text, you also should make good use of font size, lists, and subheadlines. These elements help guide readers' eyes toward the most important content, and make it easier to absorb large content.
Use a bulleted list to break up content. Write a short sentence and support it with bullet points. Do not end sentences in a bulleted list with a period – periods stop the eye from scanning.
Use Links Effectively
Link, link, and link to relevant information.
If you mention the UM shuttle, link to it. If you want to include someone’s email address, link their name. If you mention a faculty member, link to their bio page.
Don’t make people go and search for something you mention if it already has a page somewhere.
The average time new visitors spend on any one page is around 30 seconds. Take advantage of that short attention span by providing lots of relevant links to explore.
Web usability experts discourage the use of the phrase "click here" for links. Make your links contextual. Use part of your sentence or phrase as the link. Research shows that users like them to be 4-8 words in length.
- Yes: For more information, view the Print Policy at UMB.
- No: To find out more about the Print Policy at UMB, click here.
Keep it simple. Don't underline or use bold, italics, headings, and indentations unnecessarily. They may be difficult to read from the users' view.
Structure Your Content Like an "Inverted Pyramid" on Top-Level Pages
What’s an inverted pyramid? It’s a writing style where you put your most important information first.
Load the most important information at the top of the page and at the top level of your site. Often this is a few sentences or bullet points. Please refer to the type hierarchy for formatting guidance, a number of type styles have been provided to enhance your inverted pyramid.
Content that requires users to scroll vertically loses up to 80 percent of its readership.
Your introductory sentences or paragraphs for any key landing pages are prime real estate for your messages.
The goal is to capture the interest of site visitors. Save the more specialized and lengthy pages for deeper levels of the site.
Search Engine Optimized (SEO) Writing
Most users visit a web page for 10-15 seconds. In that brief time, 80 percent will skim the page for keywords they already have in mind. Therefore, before you create content, it’s important to understand your audience and anticipate what content and keywords they’re trying to find.
When a user conducts a search on a search engine, the database is queried to identify all the pages that include those words on the page and/or in the links pointing to that page. If your page does not include the words the user was searching for, it is unlikely that your page will rank well, if at all.
The same is true when none of the links to that page include the words that the user used in their search.
Once pages have been identified, search engines order the results according to relevance. Relevance can be determined based on dozens and dozens of criteria, such as keyword prominence (how often your keywords appear on a page, and where they appear).
Keep Your Content Fresh
Outdated web content will confuse your users and make you look lazy. It also degrades the user's trust in your information.
Add fresh content (text, images, video) as often as possible. Make sure your staff and contact information is up-to-date and remove past events from your site.
Whenever possible, work with a designer when artwork is required.
Use a header image relevant to your subject matter.