Misconceptions about writing for the web

Jennifer Hamrick
Friday 4 March 2016

There are a lot of differences between web and print writing. Nevertheless, there are still misconceptions floating around about web content that have caused concerns about the new postgraduate taught and subject pages the digital communications team has been creating for the digital prospectus.

In this post I will address some of these common misconceptions and hopefully alleviate any concerns about digital content.

Web content is bare bones

One concern a lot of people have when content is moved from print to digital, or updated from one website to our new pages, is that it suddenly appears very “bare bones”. Long, flowing paragraphs from other versions are stripped down to the bare essentials online.

Rather than getting rid of vital content, what we’ve done is eliminate the fluff. “Fluff” is my term for anything which adds no valuable information: it is language used to add lots of padding around a topic, but which conveys no meaning.

Why do we need to cut this out? First of all, it takes users 25% longer to read text online than it does in print. This means users will get more fatigued reading longer pieces of text. In fact, readers on average will only read the first 20% of a webpage containing more than 600 words, so we need to create concise content that will ensure users receive the vital information before they lose interest.

In addition, 28% of University web users are accessing our pages through mobile. Long blocks of text are extremely difficult to read on a mobile device, and require the user to scroll many times.

Therefore, eliminating repeating, useless or self-promotional content from webpages is the first step to making content that is easily readable and directs readers to the most vital information.

Two description of basket weaving, one is much shorter.
When we eliminate fluff, we get a much shorter and easier-to-read paragraph.

Web content doesn’t match wording used elsewhere

Some people are also offput by the fact that certain terms and phrases appear differently on the new web pages.

Here are some examples of changes we made and why we’ve made them:

  • Historic pastimes & occupations → Historic pastimes and occupations
    • We have changed all instances of ampersands into ‘and’ for accessibility reasons. Screen readers and other accessibility devices have a difficult time recognising the ampersand.
  • Entrance requirements → Entry requirements
    • We have changed ‘Entrance’ to ‘Entry’ because of SEO (search engine optimisation). Usability testing shows that more users search for ‘entry’ than ‘entrance’.
  • Digital Communications → digital communications
    • We write team names and job titles using the lowercase on the web for two reasons: 1) capitals should only be used for proper nouns and 2) web usability studies show that capital letters (used unnecessarily) are more difficult to read online.

If we have changed the wording, capitalisation or other grammatical features of content, it will usually have to do with improving accessibility, usability or SEO.

Web content is fixed

Another common misconception is that once published (i.e. has gone live), web content can’t be changed. Many people panic that the content isn’t absolutely perfect and try to cram in lots of revisions last minute. Don’t worry, we can update and change content at any time!

Before signing off the postgraduate taught pages, we double-check with Publications and the School that no information is factually incorrect. This means when the pages go live, they have correct information to start with, and content contributors can then decide later whether certain sections need to be reworded or have additional information.

Web content has rearranged everything

Other people are worried that the new PGT page structure is different to what they’re used to. Rather than general course information at the top of the page, we have started with ‘Key information’ which includes course type, course duration, entry requirements, tuition fees, application deadline and application requirements.

An example of a PGT web page.

In October 2015, our team conducted an online user feedback survey. The results told us that the top five most important pieces of information for prospective postgraduate students when deciding where to study were:

  1. Tuition fees
  2. Classes you can take in your subject
  3. Career opportunities
  4. Entry requirements
  5. How you will be taught

Over 50% of responses listed tuition fees as the number one deciding factor for choosing a course.

By putting key information at the top of the page, which includes tuition fees, we are allowing users to easily see the most vital information first. This is the information which will help them decide whether or not to come to St Andrews. Once they have established that the tuition fees meet their requirements, they are more likely to continue reading to find out more about the course.

What you need to know

To sum up, the new web content:

  • is concise to keep readers engaged.
  • uses accessible spelling and grammar which meets house style.
  • can be updated and revised almost instantly.
  • is structured to meet usability.


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