How to develop and maintain a website - ESRC

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Writing effective web content

Writing for the web is different to writing materials that are intended to be printed. You need to understand how users behave online to write effective web content. Typically:

  • users scan pages rather than reading them
  • users are impatient – they will give up easily if they cannot find what they want quickly
  • conventional academic writing styles do not transfer well to websites and can be unappealing to non-academic users.

The content on your website must be well written and genuinely useful for your users. You need to make it easy for users to find, read and understand. As a general rule:

  • design content for your users, not for your organisation
  • ensure that all content has a logical place in the website structure.

Headings

Headings help make content easier to find and read. You should:

  • make page titles and subheadings clear, meaningful and descriptive – they must represent the content that comes under them
  • use search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques
  • use subheadings to divide your content logically into short chunks, ideally every two to three paragraphs
  • do not use vague, non-specific headings, such as ‘information’ or ‘introduction’
  • make sure your headings make sense outside of the wider context of your website for users who land on a page from search engines and external links – remember that many users will not be navigating their way through the site from top to bottom
  • avoid using too many heading levels – three or four heading levels at most.

Structure

Web users like to be presented with small chunks of information. You should:

  • aim for paragraph lengths of no more than two or three sentences
  • vary the length of paragraphs to make the content more interesting – uniform content is hard to scan and looks boring
  • aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words
  • break up long sentences into two or more separate sentences
  • use bullet points for lists, rather than long sentences.

Writing best practice

You should:

  • use plain English and avoid jargon and technical language
  • avoid duplication – do not repeat content that exists elsewhere on your website or other websites – link to it instead
  • use descriptive words for links – not ‘click here’
  • only give useful information – not ‘check back regularly’, if users need to know or an update, tell them when they can expect it
  • use consistent style and formatting
  • avoid bold, italics and underline as they’re hard to read online
  • write in the active rather than the passive voice
  • use appropriate images to enhance your content, where required
  • if using downloadable files, ensure they are well-written, consistent and accessible.

Designing accessible content

It is vital that your website is accessible to everyone, including users with disabilities.

The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for a website provider to discriminate against people with disabilities by not providing access to services that it provides to other members of the public.

In addition to the writing guidance already given, to ensure your website is accessible you should:

  • include alternative text for any images that you use
  • use the correct heading styles and a hierarchy of headings, for example, always use H1 before you use H2
  • use clear, short and descriptive titles for page titles, headings, and link titles
  • include file types and sizes in download links. Documents should be in an accessible and open format where possible – such as ODT, ODS, PDF-A
  • avoid justified alignment, which can make text difficult for people with dyslexia to read – left alignment is best
  • offer flexibility and choice about features such as font size and colour schemes
  • ensure that any tables and downloadable files are accessible – where this is not possible, tell users how they can get accessible versions
  • avoid using animation and complex graphics to give information
  • avoid placing barriers in the way of non-academic users, for example by requiring academic user registration or restricting access.

Proofreading

You should have sufficient processes to ensure that your content is proofread before it is published. This should include checks for:

  • spelling, punctuation and grammar
  • the accuracy of names, phone numbers and links
  • links that are not working
  • SEO, so that content ranks highly in search engine results.

Last updated: 23 September 2021

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