Writing for the web

Advice on some simple rules for clear, effective writing

7 key rules

When writing content for the web, stick to these simple rules for clear, effective writing.

You should:

  1. Make content brief and to the point, with one idea per paragraph.
  2. Break up text into sub-headed sections to answer users’ questions.
  3. Use bullet lists to break up flat text.
  4. ‘Front-load’ titles, headers, sub-headers and bullet points with the most important information.
  5. Include links to external sites and relevant pages.
  6. Use words that are easy to understand.
  7. Use active, not passive, tense.

Body of text

Keep the of body text as focused as possible. You can do this by writing in plain English. This will inform users in a direct and clear way.

You should include search keywords where possible to help SEO. You can add other terms via a meta keywords function.

If you want their attention, don’t waste users’ time. Users don’t necessarily read top to bottom or even from word to word. They want clearly defined headed sections which answer their questions concisely.

Further information on how users read on the web

Headers and sub-headers

Do

  • keep all titles to 65 characters (including spaces)
  • use sentence case
  • be as concise as possible
  • think about how the title will look in a search on site and on search engine results
  • front-load keywords
  • use colons to break up long titles as it helps users to scan a page
  • explain any unusual terms
  • keep a friendly, informative tone
  • use ‘further information’, not ‘more information’

Don’t

  • do not use questions too often
  • do not use a sub-header (h2) directly following a header (h1) – always use a lead in sentence or paragraph

Length of a page

A study showed that users only read 20% to 28% of text on a web page. This means that the quicker you can get to the point, the faster the user will get the information they need.

Links

Do

  • front-load link text with the relevant term
  • make link text active, descriptive and specific

Don’t

  • do not write anchor text like ‘page’, ‘article’, or ‘click here’
  • do not use text that is off-topic or has no relation to the content of the page linked to
  • do not make link text long
  • do not use the page’s URL as the anchor text (although you could do this when referencing a new website address)
  • do not set links to open in a new window unless it’s to a document or external site
  • do not use any links to external sites which are not government, NHS, or are already on the QA master list
  • do not use a full-stop at the end of a linked call to action

Links to organisations

In links to organisations where you give an abbreviation or acronym in brackets, include the material in the brackets as part of the link phrase.

For example, ‘The British Psychological Society (BPS)’ not ‘The British Psychological Society (BPS)’.

Related links and stand alone links should be setup as ‘Organisation: Page’. For example, ‘British Lung Foundation: Lung cancer’.

This only applies to external links. Internal links should be anchored to words in the body text. For example, ‘Further information on lung cancer’.

Metadata

Most users start looking for information through a search engine. Your audience may not find your page if the page title doesn’t use the same language as their search.

Adding metadata can improve both Google and on-site search success.

Meta fields that need to be completed include:

  • page title
  • description

The meta description and title are often what users will see in search results. It lets them see if the page will have the information they need.

Page title

Page titles should:

  • be descriptive
  • contain keywords or phrases
  • be less than 69 characters
  • be separated with hyphens

All page titles will carry site branding using a trailing pipe ( | ) and NHS inform. For example, ‘Cancer – Illnesses and conditions | NHS inform’.

Description

A meta description should:

  • be descriptive
  • contain keywords or phrases
  • be less than 155 characters
  • be used to sell a benefit or provide a solution
  • use action-orientated words
  • end with a full stop

Meta descriptions may be automatically filled from the first line of content. This will be the default but custom descriptions can be added as well.

Search engine optimisation (SEO)

When designing content, it’s important to create that will help SEO.

You should find out words and terms that people are using in search engines. You can do this by using Google Trends or by doing user testing.

Once you know the most popular keywords, prioritise them in the:

  • title (keep it brief but descriptive)
  • headers
  • introductions and summaries
  • sub-headers
  • body copy
  • metadata descriptions

Further information about SEO