Although it may seem straightforward, writing for the web can be incredibly complex. Learning about ways to optimize your writing for the web can drastically improve outcomes for your website and for your audience. A single word choice on a button can be the difference between hundreds of hits or zero hits.
Content writing principles
Here at Boise State, we take an approach that is based on user-centered principles, acknowledging the broad audience that university content is often addressing.
We address the user
Content on our sites often appeals directly to students and the public to get involved or take action.
Address the user as “you” whenever possible. For example:
You can email us at email@example.com, or call us at (208) ###-####.
Learn more about starting your myBoiseState account.
If you’re creating content for multiple audiences—such as students and the Boise State community—address the primary audience as you and refer to secondary audiences by their roles or titles.
We recommend against using the word “students” when your audience is students since that is often used in passive voice.
When addressing people, see the Inclusive Excellence Communication Guide for guidance.
We use websites instead of documents on the web
One of the simplest ways to present accessible, maintainable information online is to use the Boise State WordPress theme (boisestate.edu/).
It can be tempting to choose file formats that are more convenient for the author, such as a PDF or Word document; However, presenting content in those and similar formats can make content much harder to use and maintain for everyone.
Therefore, we strongly recommend using HTML for all online content.
Benefits of using websites for web content
- It’s much easier to link to specific pages or sections of WordPress pages.
- It’s much easier to update and maintain WordPress content. We have tools like Monsido that alert us of any misspellings, broken links, accessibility issues, and fixing those regularly greatly improves the quality of our content. If the content exists beyond our reach, we can’t use those tools.
- WordPress content avoids breaking the user out of their browsing flow and maintains the context of the site’s navigation and structure. Conversely, this often means that WordPress pages are easier to re-find and less likely to be “orphaned” or left online beyond their usefulness.
- All web content should be accessible to people of all abilities, and this is much easier to accomplish and enforce with WordPress content. It is possible to create accessible PDFs but requires significant specialized training and effort for each document. And even if it passes the baseline accessibility tests, it’s still a poor user experience compared to WordPress content.
- WordPress content is easier for search engines to index.
- WordPress content is more searchable and scannable for users seeking specific information within a page or post.
- WordPress content is much more responsive-friendly, and some systems don’t even display PDFs within the browser. This makes for a confusing user experience and may cause some users to be unable to view or find the PDF at all.
Common misconceptions about appropriate PDF content
- When the content includes images, tables, or other graphics that you aren’t sure how to display in existing page templates: Instead, work with a designer or your web publishing team to explore how you can translate the information you need into native web content.
- Formal or policy documents that are infrequently or never updated: Instead of using a PDF to convey permanence, use document structure, clear timestamps, and design cues to help users understand the context they need to interpret the document.
- Manuals, guides, or other long documents: These are especially crucial to make available as WordPress content, especially because they often need to be kept up-to-date as technology or processes change. If you expect users to need offline access, support PDF as an alternate format, but don’t spend too much time designing it.
PDF-first may be the appropriate choice for content that’s primarily and only intended for print use. This might include brochures, business cards, or forms that must be submitted as paper copies. Though a better long-term approach is to change forms and processes so people can submit soft copies or complete the form online.
If you do choose to present content in PDF format, remember to ensure the information is also available on your website in an accessible, linkable, and responsive HTML format (simply done using our WordPress theme).
Avoid using formats for which users need specific, proprietary software (for instance, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Pages, Flipbooks).
For more about documents, see the publishing electronic documents page on Webguide.
We avoid duplication
If something is written once and links to relevant information easily and well, people are more likely to trust the content. Duplicate content produces poor search results, confuses the user, and damages the credibility of our websites.
If users can find two similar pieces of content on a subject, they might end up calling the university or sending an email to the first address they find because they aren’t sure they have the right information.
There are thousands of university web pages. Collectively, we host millions of pieces of content. What are you writing about? What are other departments publishing? Are users navigating our website seeing a coherent view?
Before you publish something, check that the user needs you’re trying to address haven’t already been covered somewhere else.
Search for the content using a popular search engine. This is how most users will start, too. Also, use our Boise State internal search. If the content is already easy to find on a Boise State website, duplicating it can lead us to compete with ourselves for search results and it might be confusing for our users.
Often, Boise State staff and faculty write about departments, services, programs, and tools. Think authoritatively: What department controls the thing you’re writing about? What information have they produced already?
For example, there are guides already written at Boise State about writing for the web, accessibility, inclusive communication, and a style guide that we’re not including in this guide because we don’t want to duplicate content.
Start significant projects with a content audit. Identify how any existing information is used and whether it will be helpful to your users in its current state. If it isn’t, what must change for it to help you address your users’ needs? Focus your work on those changes. For example, for this content, we found a great copyright-free guide to use as a starting point so that we didn’t need to start from scratch.
We are clear and concise
To keep content understandable, concise, and relevant, it should be:
- Clear and concise
- Serious but not emotionless
Craft sentences at 25 words or fewer, whenever possible. If a sentence has fewer than 14 words, readers understand 90 percent of content. At 25 words, sentences are markedly more difficult to comprehend.
Vary the sentence length. Switching things up helps you keep readers interested. This tactic will also give you better control of your content’s voice— a text with only short sentences can unintentionally sound terse. The occasional longer sentence adds a bit of narrative interest (and can help a piece of writing sound friendlier, too).
Here’s an example of how you might transform a too-long sentence into something more manageable.
Due to privacy and logistical considerations, tickets cannot be replaced if lost or stolen; a new Paper Voucher must be accessed by going to the Boise State website and completing the same activities to obtain a new Paper Voucher.
We can’t replace lost or stolen tickets. Get a new ticket by visiting the ticket office website.
We use contractions
In all of the communication we produce, we want to create a strong connection with our users. We want to get them the information they need in a straightforward way and show that we know what’s important to them. As a university, we need to sound somewhat official; we also recognize that “official” doesn’t need to translate to stuffy, archaic, or elitist.
For this reason, we use contractions in the writing we create for our site. We recognize this may not be the right choice for all contexts, so always keep your audience at the forefront of everything you write.
Boise State is run by people for the benefit of people, and we never want users to forget that Boise State is a group of enthusiastic, dedicated, hardworking (and friendly) folks. This desire informs how we craft our voice.
We keep refining and testing
Content design is an ongoing process, and even published content isn’t really “done,” in a traditional sense — it’s not a static entity. To ensure that your content is helping users, you need to keep refining it over time.
When you’re creating content, it’s best to base your refinements on insights from users. This section addresses ways to test your content’s effectiveness and includes tips for archiving and deleting content without disrupting the user experience.
Set aside time regularly to make sure your content works for users. If you’re not sure where to start, check your web analytics to identify:
- Pages with high or low traffic
- Pages with high or low reading times
- Common search terms
- Common user flows within your site
- User feedback from surveys, call center logs and support emails
- Recurring themes from channels like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs
You should make a habit of listening to users, too. Conduct usability testing sessions regularly to understand how people access, use, and interpret key pieces of content on your site.
Additional resources for content writing
- Usability Testing, 18F Method Cards
- Testing Content, A List Apart
- What Does This Mean? Tips for Testing Your Words, GDS Blog
- Testing Web Content for Accessibility, WebAim
- Cloze Test for Reading Comprehension, Nielsen Norman Group
How do we know if our web writing is working?
If your audience is easily finding the information they are looking for, it’s working. But what kind of experiences are they having getting there? Is there anything that can be improved? How can you know for sure? It’s unfortunately not a simple answer and looking at page views isn’t always a measurement of success.
Luckily, we capture a lot of valuable insights from Google Analytics on our websites. How we interpret that data is crucial to discovering areas of weakness and areas that are working well. We can also discover things we didn’t know about our audience, or maybe we have a completely different secondary audience we weren’t even aware of.
Continually iterate on your website. There is always room for improvement. Do user research and user testing. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll discover.
As an example of not duplicating content when great content already exists, this was adapted from a free-to-use guide at usability.gov.
- S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. The Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines, Enlarged/Expanded edition. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006.
- Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld