Writing for the web: What belongs in the online style guide?

The usually obscure issue of newspapers’ usage preferences drew some comment recently when the Times finally relented and began referring to the Indian city as “Mumbai” rather than “Bombay”, and the Telegraph used both names in web headlines, despite its stylebook’s preference for “Bombay”.

There was some speculation that search engine optimisation considerations played a key role in these toponymic decisions.

Any why not? While UK Google users searched for the two names with similar frequency until the terror attacks, “Mumbai” is now clearly the preferred search term.

I’ve been thinking about this issue as well lately.

The sub-editors here at Retail Week are busy preparing a new edition of the magazine’s style guide, and have asked me to contribute a new section about writing for the web.

It’s meant to document some of the stylistic things I prattle on about endlessly, like:

  • Writing Search- and RSS-friendly headlines and intros
  • SEO-informed usage conventions
  • The importance of correct tagging and taxonomy conventions
  • Linking and constructing sentences to include ideal linktext
  • Avoiding relative dates in a permanently-archived medium
  • Writing for scannability
  • How blogging is different from conventional column-writing

I’ll be posting a public Google Docs file of my attempt to boil all these broad themes down to a few practical paragraphs for reporters and subs on a B2B magazine.

Any comments, suggestions of issues that should be included, or other contributions would be very welcome.

While there plenty of good guides to writing for the web, there are few specifically written as reference documents for reporters and subeditors in news organisations.

The BBC, Economist, Guardian, Observer, Telegraph and Times all have their style guides online. Somewhat remarkably, though, none of these documents seem to have a section on writing for the web and how its conventions sometimes has to be differ from the conventions of print journalism.

The Telegraph comes closest to dealing with this. The latest version of its style guide includes a few paragraphs about the web, specifically SEO in headline-writing:

REMEMBER THE WEBSITE. We want the maximum number of readers to enjoy what we publish. It is already a fact that more people read Telegraph content online than in our newspapers. And it is also the case that more visitors arrive at our website via search engines and aggregators than any other route.

It is therefore important, and likely to grow even more so, that when writing for the internet we “optimise” our copy so that the likes of Google can find articles and display them prominently. The easiest way to do this is to write headlines (and intros) that are “keyword-rich”.

The sort of punning wordplay and vivid quotes that help make for an excellent, arresting headline on the printed page do not work online. On the internet the priority for any headline is to inform search engines (and therefore readers) what the article is about. Its language should therefore be concrete, not abstract, and contain full names.

Thus “Brown will let Darling swing in the wind” is fine for the newspaper; online it would be better rendered as “Gordon Brown shuns Alistair Darling after Budget row”.

Beyond that, there’s Shane Richmond’s guide for Telegraph bloggers, Mindy McAdam’s writing for the web reference page, and a classic text from Jakob Nielsen et al.

6 thoughts on “Writing for the web: What belongs in the online style guide?

  1. Pingback: Let’s create a universal style guide for web subs « Subs’ Standards

  2. I've done some similar work at our daily local newspaper in Peterborough, part of a guide for journos using our web CMS.

    I added writing for web tips along the way, nothing ground-breaking, but essential web-friendly elements: Short, sharp, factual headlines, include keywords in the first few pars, add dates for today/tomorrow etc.

    Would be very interested in tapping into your guide if that's ok.

  3. This is a great idea – and could save a lot of individual effort, especially if enough sub types contribute. Everyone I know who works in an online environment seems to be up to the eyeballs though!

  4. Great initiative Martin. Funnily enough, Journalism.co.uk (@journalismnews) posted on Twitter last night that they've just “set up a wiki style guide for online sub-editors – http://is.gd/bphv . We will add content soon but feel free to contribute now.” And they assured me they can tighten the controls if spammers discover their wiki (sadly, you can't rule these event out IMO).

    Spooky synchronicity, must be a meme emerging… but wherever it happens, it's definitely got legs :-)

    On a slightly more commercial tip (possibly distasteful to some) there's a few useful tips in this tutorial for SEO-informed copywriting: http://www.copyblogger.com/seo-copywriting/

  5. One topic I would like to see addressed is proper accreditation. In most cases, this probably falls under your topic of “linking and constructing sentences to include ideal linktext.” Are there different standards when crediting print sources? What about photos and graphics?

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