Writing for the Web

User expectations, interactivity, search engines, varying screen sizes and devices – these and other factors require that we write differently when developing content for the web. Read on to learn to write like a web pro.

Related information:

Writing tips

Are people viewing your site on a mobile phone or a desktop monitor? Are they familiar with your group, or are they newcomers to your work? Are they in a rush or settling in for a close read? Since you can’t answer these questions and adjust your site for each visitor, it’s important to invest time into making your site easy to read and navigate for everyone who is likely to visit it.

These best practices will help you write effective and accessible web content:

  • Write using the words your audience uses, not the words your office or group uses internally (read about SEO below to learn how this also improves your rankings in Google and other search engines)
  • Break up long paragraphs; it’s common (and perfectly acceptable) for paragraphs on the web to include just one sentence
  • Use bullet points or numbered lists to present parallel types of information, but avoid creating long lists (like this one!); seven bullets maximum is a good rule of thumb
  • Use subheadings to divide content into scannable sections (see our tips for creating subheadings)
  • Find the right balance when separating content onto different pages – long pages can be overwhelming, but many separate pages can require unnecessary clicking or cause visitors to miss important information
  • Use accordions or anchor links (links within a page) to help visitors preview the information on longer pages
  • Include relevant links that lead interested users to more information (just be mindful of links to third-party sites, which may violate the university’s conflict of interest policy)
  • Don’t duplicate information from other pages or websites; instead, summarize and link to the original
  • Make link text descriptive and informative; avoid creating links that say “click here” (see our tips for naming link text)
  • Avoid hiding your content in PDFs and other files; include the information directly on a webpage when possible
  • Increase visual appeal by including quality photos and graphics, especially images that inform, clarify or add an emotional dimension to your content (remember to caption and credit images!)
  • Treat similar kinds of information in the same way throughout your site
  • Proofread! Ask your colleagues to proofread! Proofread again!
  • Read and revise your site regularly; set an editorial schedule at launch, assign responsibilities, and add them to everyone’s work calendars as recurring events
  • Prioritize your users’ needs, even if it means extra work for you

Advice from usability experts:
Presenting scientific findings online »

To appeal to experts, provide concise titles and summaries, use clear headings and figures, and don’t overdo visual design. (Nielsen Norman Group, Aug. 6, 2017)

Search engine optimization (SEO)

Groups that want to increase visitor traffic to their site can step up their web game by optimizing their content for search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Bing.

These optimization practices, called search engine optimization (SEO), can increase your site’s visibility by helping it rank higher in search engine results for certain keywords.

SEO is a huge and dynamic field, but the basic principles are common sense: Search engines aim to list the most relevant results for a user’s query. To determine relevance, they look for sites that are rich in keywords that match a user’s search, built following best practices, and linked to often by other credible sites.

By using the WUSM Web Theme, you’re already ensuring your site follows many of the best practices search engines consider. But programming can only take your site so far. It needs quality content to make up the rest.

Here are a few ways to help improve your site’s rankings in search engines:

  • Make a list of the keywords your audience might use to search for a site like yours; when possible and practical, include those keywords on the pages of your site, especially in page names and subheadings
  • Use target keywords in your subdomain / web address and site name if possible
  • Include images on your site; caption images that appear in the body, and use the alt tags for the featured images that appear at the top of priority pages
  • Before uploading images to your site, save them with filenames that include a relevant target keyword
  • Follow the best practices for web writing described in the section above
  • Ask writers and managers of other websites to link to pages on your site; it’s even better if their link text includes a relevant keyword or phrase (e.g., The Washington University Sleep Medicine Center describes treatment options for many sleep disorders.)
  • Link to pages within your own site when appropriate
  • Avoid black-hat tactics; search engines penalize sites that appear to be trying to cheat the system

It can take a few weeks or even months for search engines to fully index and start ranking a new website, so be patient.

If your website exists in a competitive niche and organic SEO isn’t getting the results you need, you might also consider targeted ads on sites such as Google or Facebook. Consult with WashU Medicine Marketing & Communications if you would like to explore paid advertising options.