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Website Best Practices

Websites are high-value assets and need to be treated as such. They should be given priority and actively managed instead of updated in an ad hoc manner. Website management is and must be an ongoing process, not a one-time project. Projects may kick off a redesign, or reorganization of a website, but plans must be made for ongoing operations. You will never be "done" your website. There will always be things that need to be added to, removed from or updated on your website.

The following best practices can help you manage your website more effectively.

    1. Designate a dedicated individual who is given overall accountability for the site. Sections within the site will also need to have “owners” who are accountable for the information in those sections, but someone needs to be responsible for the entire website as an entity. People who are given the accountability for the information on the website must have authority over that information (or business process).
      • Content development and maintenance can be distributed, but a single individual must provide an ongoing and holistic perspective to the web presence.
      • Coordination with all web content contributors for the site(s) will be critical to ensure that design, navigation, and content are consistent.
      • Consider a web committee if there are a large number of people involved (e.g. representatives from the various units). It should be chaired by the above individual for ongoing operations of the website.
    2. Define the scope for the site—websites that try to be all things to all audiences, and to include every exception, will not be useful.
      • Develop and document a clear website management strategy that outlines principles, goals, policies and procedures for managing the site.
      • Clearly articulate the audience for the site.
      • Manage stagnant content by defining the life cycle for your content.
    3. Develop task-based information architecture for the website. Organization-based structures require visitors to understand the organization structure in order to find the services and support they need.
      • The task-based architecture needs to focus on the visitors’ top tasks.
      • Task navigation allows visitors to complete critical tasks with the least amount of effort.
      • Supplemental navigation elements can be used for information that needs to be targeted to specific groups.
    4. Write differently than you do for print.
      • People read differently online than they do in print. On the web people are impatient and scan the page to see if it has what they are looking for; if not, they click the back button and go to a different website.
      • The most important space on a webpage is the top left corner. The least important is the bottom right corner.
      • People scan for headings and links. People won’t read word for word until they’ve found what they need.
      • Use plain language (e.g. “use” not “usage”).
      • Keep short and to the point.
        • Do not say in 20 words what can be said in 10.
        • Avoid sentences that require complex punctuation.
        • Lines: approximately 10 words (50–70 characters).
        • Paragraphs: approximately 50 words
        • Pages: 600–700 words, rarely longer than 1,000
    1. Use words in headings, links and navigation elements that make sense to your visitors.
      • Headings should be 8 words or less in length; omit unnecessary words. They need to make sense on their own.
      • Focus on top tasks (e.g. “Check quota” or “Locate wireless hot spots”).
      • Get to the point (“Creating Folders and Filters” or “Guidelines for Strong Passwords”).
      • Be clear (e.g. “Links to Sponsoring Agencies” instead of “Links”).
      • Do not use "click here."
      • Write links like headings.
          • Links are a “Call to Action” – When a link is clicked it takes the visitor away.
              • Log in to PAWS (takes you to login page)
              • Request Service (opens an email client)
              • Contact Support (takes you to contact info or web form)
          • Navigation elements are like the aisle signs in a grocery store.
  1. Develop naming conventions.
    • Naming conventions help ensure that visitors to your site have a consistent experience in all sections of your site, even if there are multiple content contributors.
    • In the U of S’s web content management system (WCMS) there are particular elements for which you should have naming conventions. These are:
      • Menu Titles = Display Name in WCMS
        • Appears in menu.
      • Page Title = Title in WCMS
        • Must Be Unique for each page.
        • Appears in browser title bar and as default name of browser bookmarks.
        • Used as link in Google search results.
        • Needs to follow standard format for consistency.
      • File Names = System Name in WCMS
        • Used in the URL for the webpage.
        • Should use lowercase letters
        • Never use spaces. Hyphens or underscores should be used instead. This applies to webpages and files (e.g., .pdf, .doc, .jpg).
  2. Focus on the visitor’s end-user experience.
    • Every element added to a website increases its complexity and makes it more difficult for visitors to complete their tasks.
    • Develop rules and guidelines to ensure a visitors experience is consistent throughout the site.
      • Ensure links behave consistently (e.g. same site same window, new site new window or all in the same window). Use an icon to indicate if links open in new windows.
      • Ensure images provide value (e.g. screen shots in set-up guides). They should not negatively impact the visitor’s experience. They should not waste the visitor’s time forcing them to work harder to find the information they are seeking.
      • Ensure PDF use is limited. Information should be provided in HTML first and foremost for usability. If PDFs are used, ensure they are clearly identified (e.g. use an icon) and if they are very large, indicate file size as they will take longer to download. Examples of information that makes sense in PDF form include:
        • Structured forms that need to be printed.
        • Very long structured documents/formal reports.
      • Ensure web usability is a priority. Periodic reviews of the sites should be done to ensure they are meeting the needs of your audience.
  3. Develop a webpage style guide and a writing style guide.
    • A webpage style guide should outline acceptable use of styles, different types of media (PDFs, video files, etc.), standards for colours, fonts, headings, structural elements (masthead, footer), the classification system, and link management. An example can be found online at: http://www.webstyleguide.com/index.html?/contents.html .
    • A writing style guide should outline standard usage, naming conventions, etc. The U of S has an Editorial Style Guide that is a valuable resource. You may also have conventions specific to your needs that should be documented.
  4. Use the U of S’s institutional web content management system. The WCMS can provide benefits that other methods of web management may not be able to do. These include:
    • Content sharing rather than duplicating the same content to reduce effort ensures consistency. Sharing content throughout the site from a single source of content. This means different pages using the same content won’t become out of sync with each other.
    • Non-technical content contributors can more easily update their own content thus ensuring the published information is accurate and current. Easy-to-use wizards for creating content and a word-processing editor for entering and formatting content.
    • Auto-archiving of content after a certain date means the site will be kept up to date more easily (requires publish sets).
    • Structured forms can simplify content entry and can help keep it up to date.
    • Automated site map/index ensures the site map or index is always a true reflection of the content on the site. When pages are removed or added the list will be updated (requires publish sets).
    • Workflows can help manage the review and approval cycle for content.
    • Reminder notifications can be sent to review content.
    • Can format a single source of content in multiple output formats (e.g. RSS, PDF).
    • Sharing content with PAWS and other IT systems can happen more easily. This requires consultation with PAWS Team, or appropriate system manager, first.

Resources

Killer Web Content: Make the Sale, Deliver the Service, Build the Brand by Gerry McGovern, A & C Black Publishers, London 2006

The Web Content Style Guide: An Essential Reference for Online Writers, Editors and Managers by Gerry McGovern, Rob Norton and Catherine O’Dowd Copyright Pearson Education Limited 2002

Content Critical: Gaining Competitive Advantage through High-quality Web Content by Gerry McGovern and Rob Norton Copyright Pearson Education Limited 2002

New Thinking: Exploring best practice in customer-centric web content management since 1996, e-newsletter by Gerry McGovern

Usable Web: 786 links about web usability

Usability.gov: Your guide for developing usable & useful Web sites

Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability

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