Review: Content Strategy for the Web

content_strategyTextual content is a red-headed stepchild when it comes to website design and development. It’s left to the last minute in site redesigns, viewed as a commodity by most site owners and as a simple item in a to-do list for UX designers. Website text is rarely approached correctly in web projects as a ‘complex, ever-evolving body of information which needs ongoing care and feeding’.

This is the striking viewpoint of Kristina Halvorson’s book on content strategy which lays bare the complexities of content production. She offers plenty of common-sense advice about how to build website text into a key business asset, keep control of it over the long term and set measurable objectives for success.

Key to this is developing an appreciation of the political nature of content, engaging with content providers and giving reviewers plenty of notice for their contributions. ‘Don’t leave content management to your CMS’ is the clear message. You need people for meaningful, actionable content and the key person required is someone in overall charge of content – an editor-in-chief empowered to say no to the business when necessary.

The content audit is thoroughly explored as a content management tool. There are useful practical tips here, such as using indented outline numbers in your audit documentation - 1.0, 1.1, 1.2 , etc – so you can easily link specific pieces of content to matching references in the site map and other documents later. There’s also an interesting discussion of the use of page tables for content planning and advice on how to include qualitative judgments in your audit as well as just conducting a quantitative analysis of content

There’s a whole chapter on content maintenance – a subject you rarely see people write much about. This advises developing a maintenance plan, having enforceable well-documented rules and using regularly-scheduled qualitative audits to question the ongoing purpose of each piece of content. The latter point draws on Gerry McGovern’s useful advice that all content ought to be regularly reviewed and removed if it’s not meeting a business objective or helping users achieve a task.

The book has a lively pugnacious style which makes it an easy read about a subject that could easily have come across as dull. The author makes a stack of suggestions which anybody working on websites could benefit from. However, reading it only confirmed my pre-existing assumption that content strategy can be a hard sell.

Improving the status of content creation in most organisations involves fighting against the general assumption of management that ‘anyone can write content’. Within the professional web world it’s up against the status of more exciting and saleable web disciplines in design and development and specialisms like SEO which contribute more transparently to improving the bottom line. In this context, long-term content maintenance is never going to be generally considered as important as implementing an exciting new content management system or launching a flashy new site design. Recognising the centrality of textual content to a successful web presence is therefore always going to be difficult to sell to a lot of organisations, but this book is one of the best pitches I’ve seen so far.

Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson is published by New Riders.

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Letting Go of the Words is another recommended book on writing for the web which I reviewed last year.

Review: Letting Go of the Words – Writing Web Content that Works

Letting Go of the WordsThere are plenty of resources available nowadays about writing for the web and how it differs from writing for print. However, no other work I’ve seen comes closer to being a ‘one-stop shop’ for advice on web writing than Janice Redish’s Letting Go of the Words. It’s a nicely-produced book with well-chosen screen-shots and an easy-to-read style. The focus is on practical advice with a sensible emphasis on simplicity and focusing on website users’ expectations. It reads like a companion volume to Steve Krug’s excellent usability volume Don’t Make Me Think!, and Krug provides a fun foreword to this book.

The first two chapters focus on web content and web audiences in a broad sense. They review what good web writing consists of and how to focus on the specific needs of your site’s users. This includes a useful introduction to the use of personas and scenarios for user-centred design.

The book then looks in detail at writing good home pages, pathway pages and information pages. The coverage of pathway pages is particularly interesting, as this is a part of websites which doesn’t tend to get a lot of attention.

Some of the best stuff in the book is in the middle chapters which are primarily about the writing process itself. This includes sections about focusing on essential messages and tuning up your sentences. This is the part of the book where the title “Letting Go of the Words” comes to make most sense. There’s an emphasis on cutting away unnecessary verbiage and addressing users directly with short simple sentences, using words they would use themselves. There’s also a section on designing your web pages for easy use, which has some sensible advice about how design can impact upon the readability of web text.

Later chapters look at using lists and tables, headings, effective use of illustrations and writing meaningful links. The section on links is particularly useful, providing guidelines and examples you can usefully hand on to any content authors who are addicted to using “Click here”.

Finally the concluding section has good advice on drafting, working with reviewers and creating a style guide. There are additional special sections on writing online press releases and legal information which will be useful for a lot of corporate sites where these ubiquitous sections are often badly realised.

In general, I’d recommend this as a guide to web writing to anyone involved with creating websites, but its non-technical nature could make it especially useful as a resource for authors contributing to an organisation’s website via a content management system. If you can’t afford to send your web authors on courses about writing for the web or haven’t got time to write extensive guidance for them yourselves, then buying a copy of this book and sharing it around would be a great way to help them start thinking appropriately about how to approach online content creation.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works is by Janice (Ginny) Redish and is published by Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.