On the Oxford comma

When you write a list of three or more items, unless you display them as a bulleted or numbered list, you conventionally separate the items with either a comma or the word ‘and’ (or sometimes ‘or’). You may choose to separate the last two items in the list with just the word ‘and’, or with a comma followed by ‘and’:

  • Her shirt was red, green and blue.
  • Her shirt was red, green, and blue.

If you choose the second option, you’re using the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma. This little punctuation mark arouses surprisingly strong emotions: many people will be happy to tell you that omitting the Oxford comma is simply wrong. Others will assert it is both unnecessary and ugly.

Nancy White offers a list of ten articles on the topic, with five arguing for its use, and five against. A brief search will reveal many, many more.

One argument in favour of this comma points to ‘ambiguous’ sentences like the following, taken from Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style:

  • Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  • This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
  • Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

Another example triggered headlines around the world when a Texas schoolteacher turned it into a cartoon to illustrate the distinction between its meanings with and without the final comma.

I have two problems with all these examples:

  • They are carefully constructed to appear ambiguous.
  • While they are funny and clever, they don’t really demonstrate ‘why the Oxford comma is important’. Each sentence could be clarified in many other ways.

Thanks to the writer’s parents are frequently used as examples. But if I wanted to thank and name my parents, I could simply write:

I’d like to thank my parents: Max and Betty.

or

I’d like to thank Max and Betty, my parents.

If I wanted to thank my parents and two other people, I could write:

I’d like to thank Max, Betty and my parents.

Even if the Oxford comma is the best way to resolve ambiguity in a few, carefully constructed sentences, does that mean it should be used all the time? What’s more, in some cases the Oxford comma doesn’t remove ambiguity: Joe Kessler points out that if the Texas schoolteacher’s strippers are replaced by a single stripper, the sentence with the Oxford comma is the ambiguous one.

I prefer to avoid the Oxford comma. The trend in recent years has been towards reduced punctuation, so why use this comma anywhere it’s not really necessary? Since I write and edit primarily for the web, my lists are in any event more likely to be set off with bullets than run on within a paragraph, so the issue rarely arises for me.

In the end, your decision to use the Oxford comma, omit it, or use it only where required for clarity (as recommended by the Australian Style Manual) is a question of style, not substance.

So make your decision and record it on your editorial style sheet.

Then relax!

Ranting about web accessibility

In March 2013, the Wall Street Journal published an article on lawsuits then in progress to force businesses to ensure that their websites were accessible to people with disabilities: Disabled Sue Over Web Shopping.

The article contained a few errors of fact such as ‘That could mean websites will be required to include spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind, as well as captions and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf’, but these paled into insignificance beside the claims made in the comments. I’ve brought together a few of the comments and added  my responses.

Costs and benefits of addressing accessibility

It’s too expensive

‘A site like Amazon has over a billion (yes, with a B) catalog pages. Updating them all will take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, thus raising prices for everyone.’

Response

Many of the images on amazon.com (at least the sample I tested) already have text equivalents. Perhaps Amazon has integrated accessibility into at least some of its business processes.

Also, as the article noted, building in accessibility as you go adds very little to the cost of publishing a website. Retrofitting it is much more expensive.

Businesses should be free to choose

‘A business should be free to make the cost/benefit analysis for itself, not have it forced..’

Response

Governments impose all sorts of obligations on businesses – to protect workers, customers and the environment, and to achieve any number of other goals. Their right to do so comes (in democracies) from the voters.

Business will do it if the ROI is there

‘If there was a ROI, then there would be no point in governmental involvement:’

Response

Businesses, like individuals, tend to keep doing what they’ve always done even when change would be beneficial. Making websites accessible generally also makes them leaner, faster, and easier for Google and other search engines to index.

Alternatives for people with disabilities

Persuasion vs litigation

‘Why can’t these people simply ask, suggest, or otherwise persuade these web-based companies to have a more user friendly portal? Why the hell does everyone have to sue?’

Response

I’m not aware of any case where a person or organisation has sued without first asking the business nicely. If anyone can cite an example, please add a comment (with citation).

Accessibility software

‘…there is 3rd party software that does this job extremely effectively.’

Response

The tools used by people with disabilities vary as much as their disabilities do: someone who is both deaf and blind might use a refreshable Braille display; someone who is blind might use a screen reader which, as the name suggests, reads out the text on screen. However, all these tools rely on the text content of a website – they cannot (yet) analyse an image and work out whether it is a button labelled ‘Search’ or a decorative image of a dancing cat.

Red herrings

Languages other than english

‘What about non-English speakers? … [It] is the beginning of a slippery slope.’

Response

While the inability to speak English in a society like the US or Australia is certainly a disadvantage, it’s not a disability.

What about driving?

‘What I’m surprised about is that no blind person has sued a car company for not making a car they can drive.’

Response

Allowing a blind person to drive a car (using current technology) would put others at risk. Whose safety is compromised by using current technology to make it as easy as possible for a blind person to use your website?

General insults

Those demanding access are ‘takers’

‘It seems we’ve turned into a nation of takers, no matter the reason’

Response

Making websites accessible to people with disabilities makes it easier for them to contribute to society – learning, working, shopping, paying their taxes. People who want to be able to do things for themselves are hardly ‘takers’.

Structural editing, copy editing and proofreading

Editing is a process in which an author’s text or other material is corrected, reorganised, condensed, expanded or modified to create a product which meets the needs of both author and audience. An editor’s level of intervention may range from the very lightest touch – identifying spelling and grammatical mistakes – to completely rewriting and reorganising the whole work.

Levels of editing

The range of editing work is often divided into three stages or levels:

Structural editing

A structural edit involves the editor reviewing the work as a whole:

  • Does it flow naturally and logically from start to finish?
  • Is there too much (or enough) repetition?
  • Is anything missing?
  • Do headings provide clear signposts to the content which follows them?

A structural edit of website content should also consider how it fits into the site as a whole. Editing a suite of content for a site means thinking about its information architecture: how does it fit together and how will readers make their way through it?

Copy editing

Ideally, a copy edit is done on a piece of work which is structurally sound. It includes:

  • checking spelling, grammar and punctuation
  • applying consistent style choices, such as e-mail or email, website or web site
  • ensuring that all references are accurate and clear.

On the web, a copy editor may also be the appropriate person to check:

  • each page has appropriate metadata
  • content is attractive to search engines
  • the alt text for images is appropriate
  • the wording and placement of hyperlinks provides clear guidance to the reader.

If I’m carrying out both structural and copy editing tasks, I may switch from one to the other so that spelling errors don’t distract me when I’m focussed on the structure of the piece. Proofreading, however, must always be the final quality check.

Proofreading

The term ‘proofread’ is often misused to mean a light copyedit, but it is traditionally that stage in the publishing process when a proofreader checks the proof – copy which is in its final form, ready to print – to ensure that all corrections from the editor or author have been incorporated into the final work. Proofreading should always be the last step before a document is printed or published.

Ideally, web proofreading is done in a preview environment, before content is moved live. However, not all content management systems allow for this, so it is sometimes done immediately after publishing. In this case, it’s important that corrections can be made quickly.

Proofreading a website includes checking that:

  • previous changes have been incorporated
  • no new errors have been introduced
  • all hyperlinks work correctly.

Establish a shared understanding

There are other terms for different levels of editing – some people refer to developmental, style and verification edits – but what’s important is that both the client and editor have a shared understanding of what is needed, and what is to be done.

Video SEO: worth the effort?

A recent discussion with a client, and coincidentally an article from Agency Post (Why Video Is Online Marketing’s Best Kept Secret) led me to investigate the claim that adding videos to a website will result in improved search engine results, and increased sales.

My first response was scepticism: given that search engines such as Google can’t ‘see’ the content of a video (unless it’s captioned), why would they give extra credit to a page containing one? Any why would a video necessarily increase sales?

Video SEO

The Agency Post article quotes impressive figures: ‘If you have a video on your website, it’s 50 times more likely to be ranked on the first page of Google.’ Unfortunately, the research on which this claim is based is more than three years old (The Easiest Way to a First-Page Ranking on Google). It might still be true, but then again it might not.

Benjamin Wayne (in How To Use Video SEO To Jump To The Top Of Google Search Results) advises that since Google can’t see the content of your video, you can post it multiple times with different titles to attract different search queries. This sounds very much like the ‘black hat’ SEO technique of publishing multiple copies of text content to artificially boost search engine ranking: a technique which has become less successful as search engine algorithms have become ever more sophisticated. If enough people try to game the system, search engines will learn to ignore them.

Converting visitors into buyers

I’m not a patient person, and my internet connection isn’t always as fast as I would like it to be, so if I’m going to play a video it needs to provide a return on the investment of my time. It takes longer to watch someone talking than to read the same content, so I’ll watch a video of a talking head only if I have reason to believe there’s something pretty special about what they have to say.

If your video shows me something that’s hard to explain in words – how to cut a mortise joint, or judge when a custard is cooked – then it may well be worthwhile waiting for the video to load, and the video in turn might help to persuade me to buy the mortise saw or double boiler you’re selling. If it’s a video of someone telling me how wonderful your product is, I’m not going to waste my time. A testimonial that looks slick will be discounted as ‘marketing fluff’; one that looks amateur is just embarrassing.

Accessibility

If you care about accessibility (and you should: read Access all areas) any video on your site must be captioned or have a text equivalent. In addition to meeting accessibility guidelines, this ensures that search engines can understand your content. (Of course it also means that you can’t publish multiple copies with different titles and expect to fool them into treating each copy as a unique piece of content.)

Conclusion

If video is relevant to your visitors, by all means use it. Provide captioning or a text equivalent to ensure that it’s accessible. Follow Forester’s advice (The Easiest Way to a First-Page Ranking on Google) and Google’s (About video content in Sitemaps) to ensure that it has the best chance of appearing in search results.

But don’t add video for its own sake and expect instant improvements in your search engine rankings.

Instead, publish content that helps your visitors complete the tasks that matter to them: contact me to find out how.

 

SEO: Metadata and more

In my introduction to search engine optimisation, I addressed ways that a writer or editor can create content which can be found by search engines: this article will look at other influences on your search engine rankings.

Metadata

There is more to a web page than the words and images that appear in your browser window. Metadata is information about a page that doesn’t appear in the browser, but is read by the robots that build search engine results.

The metadata elements of most interest to editors are the title, description and keywords.

The title appears in the browser title bar and (by default) in lists of favourites or bookmarks; it is also the first line in the search engine result for a page. Therefore, it should clearly describe the content of the page and be easy to scan. Avoid the temptation to place the name of the site at the beginning of the title ‘My site – articles – A word about metadata’ is less scannable than ‘A word about metadata – My site’. Titles longer than about 70 characters will be truncated in search engine results.

The description provides an opportunity give readers more detail what the page is about – who should read it and why. Bing is the only one of the major search engines that routinely displays it in search engine results, but Google also displays it in certain circumstances. Avoid using the same description for multiple pages (for example using the same description for every issue of your newsletter).

Description for the Membership page reads 'Jessica new login page to add a customized login module.'

The description for Defence Health’s Membership page needs editing.

Meta keywords were very important a decade ago, but it was all too easy to load up the meta keywords with words and phrases that were popular but irrelevant to the content on the page. As a result, most search engines give them little if any weight in assigning a ranking. You may wish to include known alternative spellings in your keywords, but don’t bother waste too much time tweaking them.

Update your site regularly

Search engines prefer sites with fresh, original content. Recent updates to Google’s search algorithm penalise sites whose content is duplicated across the web – typically because it has been produced in ‘content mills’ which churn out repetitive, low-quality content.

Links

One of the indicators used by search engines to identify quality content is the number of links to it: these are in effect recommendations from the linking site. Unfortunately, it is possible for these recommendations to be manipulated: some ‘SEO’ services simply list your site on a number of huge link farms – sites which do nothing but link. Search engines now recognise these for what they are, and links from them will do your site’s ranking more harm than good.

On the other hand, genuine links are worth cultivating. Seek out sites with related services – where a link to your site offers value to the customers of that site – and suggest a link. Register your site with reputable directories – both general ones like Biztas, a database of Tasmanian businesses , and those specific to your business, like the freelance register of the Tasmanian Society of Editors.

You can also use social media, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, to increase the number of links to your pages.

Code

Search engines – Google in particular – have a preference for standards-compliant, fast-loading pages. As an editor you may not have much influence on a site’s code, but if you specialise in editing the web you need to understand at least the basics of the web’s underlying languages.

Final lessons

It seems inevitable that the arms race between search engines and those wanting to game the system will continue. Put your efforts into creating high-quality, audience-focussed content and publishing it with lean, standards-compliant code, and you are likely to be rewarded with high search engine rankings.