Writing for the web: Managing content

Why does content need managing?

In my introduction to writing for the web, I identified three challenges for web writers and editors:

  • impatient users
  • missing context
  • content management.

In this article, I’ll address the third of these: content management. If you Google ‘content management’ you will find plenty of advice about selecting content management software. A large site may indeed need this; most can get away with a spreadsheet or small database.

Even if a site doesn’t need content management software, it does need a content manager (whatever their title). Someone needs to take responsibility for ensuring that content standards, policies and procedures exist and are enforced. In an ideal world, every site would have a managing editor with the skills, knowledge and –perhaps most important – the clout to undertake this role.

We don’t live in that ideal world, but if you are editing content for a new or redeveloped site, you have an opportunity to establish the standards, policies and procedures that person will need. (Of course, a site owner who has hired an editor can already be counted among the enlightened few who value their content!)

Getting started

Before you can start writing or editing anything, you need to know what the site is for. Many websites exist because someone told the owner they needed one. Every piece of content on a website should help a visitor complete a task, or support a key business objective. So you need to know what the objectives of the business are, and what tasks a visitor is likely to want to complete.

Once you have documented that, you can start on the content inventory. This means identifying every piece of content on the site and recording information about it. At the very least, you need to know:

  • what’s on the site (or what should be)
  • why it’s there (what visitor task or business objective it supports)
  • when it was last reviewed
  • when it should be removed.

You can record additional details if you wish – file type, word count, location, file name, language, an assessment of quality, metadata and more – but these first four are essential.

Establishing style

Most editors would create a style sheet for virtually every editing job. Mention style sheets in the context of a website, and many people will assume that you’re referring to the visual design of the site, not the language.

Nevertheless, an editorial style sheet is an important tool for maintaining the quality of a website’s content. It is arguably more important in web writing than in other forms of publishing because content is likely to be developed and updated over time by a variety of writers and editors. Without a comprehensive style sheet, each person will make the decisions that seem best at the time, and they won’t all be the same.

It is also worthwhile including guidelines about the voice and tone to be used, the approach you will take to writing hyperlinks, and tips on web writing.

Finding content

When you write or edit content for a website, it’s important to know how visitors are going to find it. Menu structures and labels should be flexible enough to allow for the addition of new content.

Don’t be too concerned with optimal Google page ranks, but do think about the search terms your readers are likely to use. If your potential customers want to know about shoes, don’t refer to your products as footwear.

Establishing workflows

Every site needs a well-documented process by which content is developed, approved, published, reviewed, updated and eventually removed from the site.

This document must specify who’s responsible for making sure that the process is followed – ideally, this is part of the site’s managing editor’s role.

Maintaining content

On most websites, visitors are looking for current information: what’s the price of that fridge today? If a site has information about past events, that information must be separated from current and future events, and clearly labelled. That means that content management requires a review plan – every piece of content must be reviewed and updated regularly (how regularly depends on the site and the individual piece of content).

Where next?

For more on managing content, read:

  • Halvorsen, K (2010) Content strategy for the web
  • Sheffield, R (2008) The web content strategist’s bible: A complete guide to a new and lucrative career for writers of all kinds