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Digital Content Guidelines

Version 1.1

www.localgovdigital.info

“Golden Rules"

In a sentence:

Is the information you’re presenting to the public necessary, readable, original, easy to find and well-presented?

In a checklist:

  1. Is the content answering a question that our customers are asking?
  2. Is your content easy-to-read and understandable to a layperson?
  3. Is the content original?
  4. Can the content be found using search words that make sense to the customer?
  5. Are graphics and pictures appropriate and do they add something to the page?

Is the content answering a question that our customers are asking?

Council websites can be cluttered with pages there is no demand for.

This wastes officer time spent writing and maintaining them, and customer time spent wading through them to get to what they need.

Irrelevant content makes relevant information harder to find by making it difficult to navigate to and search for.

Could you justify the publication of your page if you were asked?

Consider…

Who’s going to read it?

Pages should relate to questions or queries asked repeatedly by customers. Your audience should be clear to you as you write.

  • Does your page relate to a specific council service?
  • Does it meet the needs of the customer, as well as the council?
  • Is the potential audience large enough to justify publishing the information?
  • Is the potential audience able or likely to access the information via the internet?
  • Is there a statutory requirement to publish this information?

Why does your audience need to know?

Information gained from a website should enable, equip or inform a customer to take an action. It’s rare to find anyone that will browse council web content for fun! Think laterally about their reasons for visiting your page, and gear your content toward those reasons.

Is your content easy-to-read and understandable to a layperson?

Web content is often scanned rather than read line-by-line. Jargon, acronyms and technical terminology can make this difficult, and give the impression that a page is written for experts rather than for everybody.

This leads to a perception that the council is not accessible. It also inevitably leads to people seeking information elsewhere, or through other means.

Poorly written content online often leads to an increase in telephone calls and emails to the council to clear up confusion. The average cost of a interacting with a customer via a phone call is usually estimated to be around £2, whereas online is estimated at 20p.

Could you understand your page with no prior knowledge?

Consider…

Is it written in an accessible tone, in plain English, without being over-familiar?

Your page should:

  • Be interesting but serve a purpose
  • Be approachable but not too chummy
  • Feel modern but not try to be ‘down with the kids’
  • Focus on your council’s customers not internal services

Does it get to the point?

Your page should set out its purpose within the first sentence.

Does it avoid jargon?

Is it presented in an interesting and intuitive way?

Information should be in a common-sense order. Don’t assume the customer already knows what you’re talking about in your introductory sentence.

Big blocks of text are difficult to read. Consider presenting ‘sets’ of related information in tables or introducing bulleted lists.

Use bold text, but sparingly. Avoid different coloured or differently sized text wherever possible, and never use italics or underlining. Is the content original?

Content writers have to be careful when copying information from other places, especially private sector sources.

Not only are there potential issues with copyright ownership and intellectual property, changes to the information at the source may not be reflected in our web pages.

In addition, sometimes the data is simply not needed – if information already exists, a smarter way to refer to it is by directing customers straight to it.

Care also needs to be taken with images and graphics.

Are you sure that the information or images you’re including are owned by your organisation and won’t change outside of our control?

Are headings used appropriately to break content up into identifiable sections?

Headings provide a means for customers to quickly scan a page and identify the content they want to read. However, having too many headings can make a page look cluttered, making it harder to scan, so finding a good balance is key.

The important thing to keep in mind is to use the correct HTML headings rather than bold text. The styling used will visually imply sections and sub-sections of text, and will do the same for screen readers, aiding accessibility.

If a content page is long and contains a lot of headings, it can help to break down the text over a number of separate pages. Not only will this aid readabilty, but it will also improve your SEO as keywords will be more relevant on shorter pages.

Consider…

Are you copying information stored or owned by an external agency, body or company?

If so, you may need to gain direct permission to do so. Guide customers to external resources rather than reproducing information already available somewhere else.

Is the information advertising a company or private sector service?

The council should not promote or imply promotion of specific businesses or companies.

Are the images, graphics or photographs you’re using copyright-free, public domain, or owned or created by your organisation?

Make sure you are using images that don’t have a copyright on them – don’t save images from search engines for use in council pages.

Can the content be found using search words that make sense to the customer?

Customers may use search words that don’t match the exact terms used by your organisation.

The website should be designed for customer use – we need to be aware of the kinds of ways customers will search for our information. It’s likely that someone in your organisation will have access to analytics information, telling you about the search terms used.

However interesting and important our content might be to us, the key things to keep in mind as we create a page are how, why and when a customer will want to read or use it.

If we make our content too hard to find, or too complicated for customers to understand, the council will appear out-of-touch, aloof and not working for the people it serves.

What will customers use as search words when they look for your content?

Consider…

Is there a more common way of phrasing something?

For instance, the council might refer to “waste management”, but customers will overwhelmingly refer to “rubbish” or “bins”.

Does your page title reflect what people will search for?

The title forms the key data used by search engines when indexing and directing customer queries. ‘Front-load’ titles where possible – put keywords first. Keep them short and snappy. Avoid “etc” – be precise – no-one ever searches for “etc”!.

Have you neglected the “Introduction” or “Summary” sections?

An introduction or summary section provides a short explanation of what the page is about and is often used for the Description metadata tag, to describe the page for Google and other search engines.

Are the graphics and pictures appropriate, and do they add something to the page?

Images and graphics are useful tools for making a page look interesting, to illustrate points, and for design reasons such as breaking up large amounts of text.

However, you need to be sure that images you do use are of sufficient quality to add something to the page. You also need to be sure that their use is thought about carefully to make sure customers with accessibility issues aren’t disadvantaged if they can’t see them.

If we’re not careful about our use of images and pictures, pages can look amateurish or vary too much from one service to the next. This doesn’t present a professional, consistent, joined-up website to customers. If the page looks amateurish or poorly laid-out, no matter how good the content is, the information will not be credible or trustworthy to customers.

Do your images add anything to the page?

Consider…

Is the picture strictly necessary?

It might seem desirable to illustrate a page about farming and agriculture with a picture of a tractor, but how does this help the understanding of the customer?

Does the image clash?

Images might clash with the scheme of the site as a whole, or even with other pictures on the same page. Don’t, for instance, mix representative clip-art with high resolution photographs.

Is it the right size?

Pictures that are much bigger than the amount of text on the page make the content difficult to read. Too many pictures also draw the eye away from important information, reduce the visual effect of including them at all, and makes pages crowded and messy.

Less is frequently more!

General advice for writing digital content

Make your purpose clear

When writing your content, put the most important information first and the detail later. A reader may decide they’ve arrived at the wrong page if you don’t get to the point quickly.

It may be useful to state who the page is for, right at the start. For example:

“This page is for people looking for information about getting help for an elderly relative at home.”

Try to include more detailed information as you move down the page rather than overload the reader at the beginning.

Think carefully about presentation.

Customers will usually be looking for one or two pieces of information; it needs to be made easy and intuitive to find.

Some information might be better presented and more readable in a table or in a bulleted list rather than in a paragraph or block of text.

If you need to include a great deal of information, think about how it might be best broken up into sub-headings.

Try to strike a balance between text and white space.

Including “background information” (for instance about the background to council decisions, or regarding internal council procedures) needs to be carefully considered. It is rarely useful to a customer. Provide ways to find this information if desired, such as contact names or email addresses rather than include it as standard.

Make your content understandable

One of the most difficult tasks in writing digital content is to make it so it can be understood by as many people as possible without losing meaning or sounding patronising.

Does the title tell the customer what this page is about, and does it make sense when viewed on its own?

Remember that your page might be arrived at from a related page within the council, or directly from a search engine (see 1.13 for Search Engine Optimisation tips).

Sometimes web content makes assumptions at the reader’s expense. This can be because the writer assumes that the customer already understands something, for instance that they have read another page or resource.

If you need to do this, then the information might be better collected in one single location so that it makes sense in a stand-alone way.

Where possible, pages should be thought of as “stand-alone” items for information; relying too much on customers navigating between pages so that information makes sense can cause confusion.

Avoid using jargon and acronyms - ask yourself what you think the page means and try to put it into spoken language to see if it makes sense.

Ask someone else to review it for you, ideally someone without any previous knowledge of the information you’re writing. They will be able to pick up on things that don’t make sense that you may have missed.

Where you absolutely need to use technical terms, explain them for the customer by the use of Popovers, or include a glossary section if appropriate.

Guidance on grammar and presentation when writing digital content

You and us

Unless you need to do so formally, refer to your service, organisation, or the council in general, as ‘we’ and ‘us’. Refer to the readers as ‘you’ where appropriate so they feel we’re talking to them personally, but avoid using ’our’ and ’your’ which can create confusion.

Remember the council is referred to as a singular term. For example:

“council x is launching a new service”,

and not

“council x are launching a new service”.

Abbreviations and Jargon

Unless legally required to do so, avoid using council or professional jargon.

If you must use an abbreviation or acronym, then follow these principles:

Well-known abbreviations and acronyms (e.g. BBC, UK) are acceptable If possible, include a Popover to explain what an acronym, abbreviation or piece of jargon means - always spell out acronyms or abbreviations in full the first time you use them Don’t use an abbreviation or acronym if you’re only referring to something once Use a shorter form of the phrase instead of an acronym or abbreviation if possible Don’t use full stops in abbreviations – BBC not B.B.C. Avoid referring to forms or documents by numbers (e.g. ‘Form 21B’) – give them a ‘friendly name’ based on their title and what they are used for; only include a reference number if it’s widely understood as shorthand by both customers and the council.

Bullet points

Bullet points make text easier to read. Here’s how to use them:

  • Always use a ‘lead-in’ sentence before starting the list off – as we’ve done above
  • Bullets should always make sense running on from the lead-in sentence
  • Don’t use full stops within bullet points – where possible start another bullet point or use commas, dashes or semicolons to expand on something
  • Don’t put ‘or’, ‘and’ after the bullets
  • Don’t end bullets with a full-stop

Contact information

Frequently published physical addresses, members, senior officers, services and teams should have their own page on your site.

This is:

  • So that the customer can find out more information, such as opening hours or a location map where applicable
  • To avoid having to keep many instances of the same information up to date

You can find more about this in Section 2.8.

People and teams

Unless talking about a member or senior officer, avoid using individual names or other personal contact details. Refer instead to the contact details of their team or service. This is to make sure that any correspondence is answered as quickly as possible.

An exception to this is in promotional material such as news items, when a quote from a named officer may be used. When you do refer to an individual, use their post title. For example:

“Chief Executive Officer Jane Smith”.

After that, refer to them by name only. For example:

“Jane Smith”

Links and email addresses

Links to other pages should always be in the text, though you can include them in a collection of related links somewhere else on the page too.

Never use phrases like ’click here‘ on their own, as a screen reader would just miss this text out. Always make the link text flow within the sentence on the page but describe what you’re linking to, for example:

Our human resources policy was first introduced in 2008 and is periodically reviewed to ensure that it’s up-to-date.

Write email addresses in full, in lowercase and as active links. Don’t include any other words as part of the link.

Once you’ve linked a document, page or resource once using a phrase in the text, don’t repeat this each time the same phrase is used afterwards.

Telephone numbers

Use ‘Telephone:’ or ‘Mobile:’ not ‘Mob:’ or ‘Tel:’. Use spaces in the number between the city dialling code and local exchange.

Ampersands

For accessibility reasons, avoid using the ampersand (&). Avoid using any special characters in titles.

Capital letters

Don’t use block capitals - it’s hard to read and customers interpret this as shouting!

Keep everything in lower case unless it’s a proper noun. For instance:

“[add council name here] Council”

is capitalised as it refers to the formal name of the organisation.

When referring to ’the council’ in a general way, don’t capitalise the ‘C’. It is not a proper noun, and also implies the council is a stuffy and formal organisation rather than simply the collective term for accessible, friendly people providing services to our customers!

Dates and times

Use the following formatting:

Tax year 2012 to 2013

5:30pm (not 1730hrs)

Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm

10 November to 21 December

10am to 11am (not 10–11am)

When referring to ‘today’ (for instance in a news article) make sure you include the date as well. For example:

“The minister announced today (14 June, 2012) that…”

Only use the endings st, nd, rd and th when referring to centuries, anniversaries, or positions. For example:

He lived in the 19th century

For financial years, sports seasons and school years write 2012/13 not 2012-13, 2012-3, 2012/3 or 2012-2013. For example:

Funding is available for 2012/13

‘e’ as a prefix

Where the prefix ‘e’ refers to electronic, it should always be lower case with a hyphen. For example:

  • e-business
  • e-government
  • e-learning
  • e-procurement

The only exception to this is Email.

At the beginning of a sentence, capitalise the first letter of the word that follows the e, rather than the e itself. For example:

  • e-Business
  • e-Government
  • e-Learning
  • e-Procurement

Again, there is only one exception - ‘Email’ at the start of a sentence must be capitalised.

Eg and ie

Don’t use full stops after or between these notations. This was once necessary when print-setting, but now makes text less user-friendly to read with modern documents and digital screens.

Geography and regions

Compass directions are all in lowercase: the north, the south of England, the south-west, north-east Scotland, south Wales. The only exception is where these are part of a particular name, such as North Yorkshire, East Croydon, the West Midlands.

Numbers

Numbers up to and including ten are written in full (three, five, nine). 11 and over are given in figures unless they start a sentence, eg:

“Thirty-two people visited the…” Numbers over 1,000 have comma separators, eg: 1,962 not 1962. Percent should be written in full in the text: in graphs and tables use %. Use ‘200 to 400’ and not ‘200–400’.

Millions and billions

Always use the relevant word when referring to money, eg £138 million. Use the word millions in phrases, eg: “millions of people”.

Money

Use the £ symbol – £75 Don’t use decimals unless pence are included, eg: £75.50 but not £75.00. Write numbers less than £1million, in full rather than as a fraction, eg: £700,000 rather than £0.7million. Write out ‘pence’ in full, eg: ‘calls will cost 4 pence per minute from a landline’.

Images

Use images only when they add useful additional meaning or information.

A generic picture of a computer keyboard when talking about online services is unlikely to add anything to the page, or to the message you’re trying to get across.

However, using an attractive, high-definition picture of a new state-of-the-art school in your area which provides online services is useful – this gives a strong impression of the council’s commitment to online services, and to providing high-quality facilities, and will probably support the content on the page.

Think about the appearance of the page as a whole, and the context you’re placing an image into. Pictures and images should be consistent, useful and clear, and not clash with the overall look-and-feel of the your organisation’s website.

Don’t simply use images sourced from search engines or taken from other websites– there are intellectual property and copyright considerations. Make sure that you own the image, or you have explicit permission to use it.

Alt Text

Alt text is the term for descriptive text used as an alternative to an image, for people who use screen readers. It is different to any caption you display alongside the image on the web page as it is not displayed for most customers automatically. Think of alt text as text which sits ‘behind’ the image. If the image isn’t shown, the alt text needs to describe usefully what is there.

Alt text isn’t necessary for all images.

For example, you don’t need to apply alt text for a logo on the page – this usually adds nothing to the understanding of the content. However, if there is a picture of a new school building, put in an appropriate description, for instance:

“Photograph of Councillor Jane Smith in front of the new Willink School computer facility in Burghfield Common”.

Google will also rank lower any pages with images that don't have good alt text; another reason to make sure it’s included.

Search engine optimisation

Page titles

Keep it short: eight words will appear in search, so think about which eight words are going to best convey your information.

Make it snappy: Where possible avoid stop words like ‘of’, ‘in’, ‘at’, ‘for’, ‘and’ – search engines simply ignore these terms. If you use them, make sure they’re not taking up the space of a keyword (but equally don’t remove at the expense of helping the title making sense!).

Front-load keywords: You can use ‘if’ if really necessary but be very careful, front-loaded statements are faster to read. For example: “Licences for Firearms” or “Firearms Licences” Is better than “Applying for and Obtaining a Licence for a Firearm”

Does it stand up on its own? Your page may be seen out of context from related pages. Make sure the title makes sense on its own. Don’t rely on ‘implied context’.

Meta-description points

Some content management systems allow authors to edit metadata associated with the page. If this is the case:

Don’t just repeat the title, meta-descriptions should cover the scope of the content item and sell it to the intended audience Include popular keywords found with keyword tools Think laterally – customers may use search terms or keywords that don’t correspond to internal jargon or references Optimal length for meta-descriptions is around 150 characters Use dashes and commas but don’t use full stops.

Guidance specific to your particular type of content

A digital form

Example: Report a broken streetlight

Content guidance

A digital form means an online form, or similar function that provides quick and easy access to council services online. The customer should not have to read through guidance before they use the form, though guidance or terms and conditions should be made easily available, and the customer may have to indicate they have read them before submitting a request online.

Content to include

  • A digital form
  • Links to guidance about the service
  • Links to related information and digital forms
  • Links to contact information for help completing the form

Information relating to a no-cost council service

Example: Information about reporting a broken streetlight

Content guidance

Most information on council websites relates to a service the customer does not have to pay for at the point of delivery. The most important thing to remember when writing content relating to this is that you are not selling or promoting the service.

In many cases the customer has no choice but to use this service and because of this, the page should be kept as simple as possible, sticking to what the customer needs to know.

What should be included?

  • Introduction and Body Text
  • Links to related information and digital services
  • Links to contact information about this service

Information promoting an additional, paid-for service

Example: Information about bulky waste collections

Content guidance

Some councils offer services on top of those provided for free. Where this is the case the benefits of purchasing this service can be explained.

As with 2.1 however, the customer should not have to read through guidance before they use the service, but guidance or terms and conditions should be made easily available, and the customer may have to indicate they have read them before submitting a request online.

Content to include

Introduction and Body Text Links to related information and digital services Links to contact information about this service

Promotional content

Example: A press release

Content guidance

Promotional content will often relate to specific services or information offered by the council. It will sometimes contain quotes from officers or elected members. The content should always link to that specific service or contact details for officers or members.

Content to include

  • Introduction and Body Text
  • Links to related information and digital services
  • Links to contact information about this service

Blog content

Example: The Chief Executive’s Blog

Content guidance

Similar to promotional content, individual content is written to highlight the work or activities of one individual. Whilst this content should conform to guidance on plain English, links, etc it is possible for it to form a corporate style.

It should always be stated that the views expressed are those of the individual, and not necessarily those of the organisation that has published them.

Content to include

  • Introduction and Body Text
  • Links to related information and digital services
  • Links to contact information about this service

Statutory content

Example: The Local Plan

2.6.1 Content guidance

For statutory reasons, sometimes councils need to publish pages written in legal or technical language. Where this is the case jargon and acronyms should be explained by the use of Tooltips and Popovers, where possible.

There should also be a companion page explaining the content in terms the public will understand, or a page with a glossary of terms, which can be linked to from the Popovers.

Content to include

Introduction and Body Text Links to related information and digital services Links to contact information about this service

Emergency content

Example: Updates from an Emergency Operations Centre

Content guidance

Similar to promotional articles, but more functional in style this content should promptly describe the facts of the situation, linking to any relevant information.

It should describe the problem, how it might affect the reader, what the council is doing to resolve or mitigate against it, what the reader can do to resolve or mitigate against it and how the situation might change in the near future.

Unlike promotional content like news or press releases, this content should be removed as soon as the situation changes, which may be a matter of hours, as it may be viewed out of context and give readers a false representation of the situation.

Content to include

Introduction and Body Text Links to related information and digital services Links to contact information about this service

Content details for a physical location or service open to the public

Example: Information about a library

Content guidance

This is a page that will be linked to from other pages, and will display details of a physical location.

Content to include

  • The opening hours of the service
  • The physical address of this service
  • Contact details for this service
  • A map of the location, ideally an embedded interactive map.
  • Facilities and access to this service
  • Transport links to this service
  • A link to the social media presences for this service
  • Where appropriate, information about the availability or status of this service (Description and Indicator), for example, is the office closed due to exceptional circumstances.

Content about a person or team

Example: A page for the Special Educational Needs team

Content guidance

This page will be a resource that can be linked to from other pages, and will display details of a person or team.

Content to include

  • The team name
  • A very brief description of the team or person, to explain what they do
  • An email address
  • A link to a contact form
  • A link to the social media presences for this contact
  • A phone number for the team, if all services and information related to this team cannot be represented online

Data

Example: Council spending over £500

What content should be included

  • A brief description of the data
  • Links to the data, in all available formats with a link to an explanation of each format
  • Links to related information about the data

Content that supports the local democratic process

Example: Advertising for a committee meeting open to the public, invitation to contribute to a scrutiny inquiry

Content guidance

This content should seek to engage with people as citizens rather than as customers. Specifically it will arise from the democratic process rather than from customer demand or service departments.

Care should be taken to provide a neutral and factual commentary of questions, proposals and decisions that come from council meetings such as cabinet and scrutiny meetings. The intention should be to provide content that will stimulate debate without entering that debate. Content should never explicitly, implicitly or by omission favour one politician or political party over another.

Each post should be about a single thing so that it can be easily shared through social media. Content should lead with something that people actually care about, in other words NOT with the details of a meeting but about the topic for that meeting. It should be written with a particular audience in mind (e.g. all residents, social workers, parents, carers). There should be a clear sense of why this group will want to engage with the content.

Content should be placed where councillors can easily see and share it and steps should be taken to encourage councillors to share this content for example by email or face to face.

What content should be included

  • A title to encourage social media sharing
  • A short paragraph below the title that summarises the post
  • Relevant dates and locations of meetings
  • Links to relevant councillors or council services

References

Sources

Government Digital Service, UK: Content Principles

Lambeth Council: Style Guide: lambeth.coop

Hampshire County Council: Style Guide

Monmouthshire County Council, UK: Staff writing guide: ‘Welcome to Compose’

School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, Canada: Writing in the Public Sector - Student Resources

Contributors to the original document

  • James Gore – West Berkshire Council;
  • Sarah Lay - Nottinghamshire County Council;
  • Paul Mackay - Nesta;
  • Phil Rumens - West Berkshire Council;
  • Marc Snaith – Surrey County Council;
  • Jason Williams – Cornwall Council;

Contributors to amendments

  • Project WIP - Shropshire Council;
  • Dave McKenna - City and County of Swansea