Writing Right for the Web… 11 Q&A from March 30 Academic Impressions Web Conference

For about 3 years now I’ve been doing “Writing Right for the Web” web conferences with Academic Impressions in Denver. This time we’re sharing answers to 11 questions sent in during the March 30 event with readers of this blog. 

The next conference presentation of “Writing Right for the Web” is June 4-5 in Chicago at Carol Aslanian’s next event. (If you register, enter “Bob100” in the discount box and save $100.) 

For an on-campus Writing Right for the Web workshop, contact me at bob@bobjohnsonconsulting.com or call at 248.766.6425.

11 Writing Right for the Web Q&A

Winona State University: Please address the use of white space on a web site – also reflect on spacing between lines (leading).

  • White space is a good thing. Hard to say in writing just how much is how good, but the best policy is “when in doubt, lean toward too much.” Several of the examples in the presentation are good: the Kenan-Flagler executive MBA page, the Penn State Online page, and the Regis MBA page are all good examples of adequate white space… and good spacing between lines.
  • A primary goal: making sure that a person is not confronted by a dense block of text when first opening a web page. That increases quick bounces off the page.

Harper College: Please send the Library link you referred to re: connecting to academic programs

Winona State University: Are PDFs acceptable as a vehicle to provide in-depth background material?

  • Not quite sure what’s meant by “in-depth background material” but if that means long documents that people are expected to reference for normal business activities, I’d be very careful. This question brings up images of large academic catalogs and student handbooks. It isn’t likely, especially with academic catalogs, that any single person will ever be interested in everything that’s in one of these documents (each academic program at a university, for instance). It is a far better thing to do to break out this information into HTML content that is easily accessible from a related area of the website.
  • If a PDF is used, at least use an up-to-date version that people can search and that can link to other places on the website as needed. The worst problems happen when people just “save as PDF” from a file created for print use, load that to the website, and expect people to use it as they would the printed document.

College of the Holy Cross: How do you give the end user the capability of changing the font size?

  • Sorry, but the technical step to that end isn’t for me to say. Steve LaBadie at East Stroudsburg University should be able to tell you as he’s the fellow who created the page used in the presentation. I’ll let Steve know I’m passing out his email…

Pacific Lutheran University: Who do you find is writing website copy at most universities?  Offices for their own pages?  Or PR offices?

  • Not sure about “most universities” but the trend along with the spread of CMS software is for individual offices on various campuses to take on that responsibility. Jump starting that process is often why I get to a campus and do “Writing Right for the Web” in person.
  • How rapidly that’s happening is hard to say, but it is happening. Keeping web content up-to-date simply won’t happen unless the responsibility for updating spreads around campus. And that is taking place.
  • Often that process is helped by someone in a “web content editor” or similar position who is available to provide guidance/help as people take on this new responsibility. Job descriptions for several positions like this at various colleges and universities are on my blog at http://www.bobjohnsonblog.com/web-content-editors/

Keystone College:  Can a web page have too many images or ”calls to action”?

  • Images: Certainly can. Or in some cases, a single large image might occupy too much space on a page. The key question is whether or not the images are integral to the purpose of the page or are getting in the way of prime content. Thus the Smith College and Penn State examples in the presentation… small images that bring relief to a “text only” page but don’t block quick scan access to the most important elements on the page. Note that neither of these pages uses an image at the top. Neither did the Kenan-Flagler example. Imagine Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the world. Not many images on those pages except photographs used to illustrate history or another element of an article. And of course, those “shield” or “crest” images.
  • Calls to action: Haven’t seen any objective research on this, but I’d say not more than three in the right hand column space. Depends a bit on how related they are. The calls to action on the Regis MBA pages, for instance, all recognize that people visiting these pages may be at different points in a recruitment cycle and therefore give them different options. The three are easy to scan. They don’t fight with one another. Ditto for the two calls to action on the Carleton alumni magazine page.

University of Georgia: Google has a free keyword search tool

  • Yes. The Google tool is a worthy alternate to Wordtracker. Wordtracker claims to pull the information from about every search engine on the planet as an argument for using it. On the other hand, if Google indeed only works with Google searches (have to double check that), that itself might be a strong reason for using the Google tool since Google is by far the most popular search engine.
  • Haven’t done this yet, but one obvious way to compare is to enter terms in the two keyword tools at the same time and see what comes back. Try the Google tool and then try the Wordtracker tool.

Shelly:  How many links are too many?

  • Depends a bit on how much content we are talking about, but as a “starting place” rule of thumb, let’s say not more than one per paragraph or bullet point or FAQ.
  • There’s an element of the “common sense” or “normal human being” rule here as well… if you look at a page and the links seem to be fighting with one another for attention, then you probably have too many. Of course, in the case of a list of bullet points, you’d want to also make sure that you had decent white space between the lines.

University of Pittsburgh: What’s a good use of Facebook for student recruitment?

  • We’re dipping a bit outside the webinar, but here are some thoughts in an area where people are still learning what works and what does not re increasing enrollment conversion.
  • Have recently seen an article suggesting that Facebook (and other social media) are for some people replacing Google as the first “search” source. To the extent that’s true and grows, Facebook will become more important as a “first impression” location for people just beginning to explore for colleges and universities. In that event, I’d make sure that it links to basic information sought by early searchers was obvious, either on the Facebook page or by a link: academic programs available, profile of enrolled students, location.
  • A more common goal is the use of Facebook to build “community” among potential students who are interested enough to want to join the community. That means the “first dinner date” test is over and people are open to continuing a relationship and learning more about you. That’s Facebook as a cultivation tool.
  • A third social media phase for some, on Facebook or elsewhere, is to build a community space for students after their admission to strengthen final enrollment yield. This might best be done by creating an “internal” social media location, using ning.com software or something similar.

Ithaca College: Are links better presented on a separate line vs. in running copy, or does it depend on the circumstance?

  • You’ll get different opinions on this. Yes, the easiest answer is indeed to say “it depends.” Notice that in this article on writing links at http://webdesign.about.com/od/writing/a/aa110104.htm there’s nothing at all about where they should appear. One key point is to make them obvious and they can be obvious either way you describe. (By the way, as a direct marketer, I don’t agree with the point in this article about never using “Click here” as a link. Direct marketers know that when you directly tell people to do something they might be inclined to do, more people will do it. That’s not to recommend using it everywhere, but don’t dismiss it out of hand.)

Rochester Institute of Technology: Do you see custom content per user?

  • Not 100 percent sure that I’m understand this one, so feel free to do an email follow-up. Custom-content per individual user is a worthy goal but not something that most websites I review should be spending priority time on. Many visitors to your site (I’m always first thinking potential students here, then alumni) have very common goals and the first priority should be to make sure people can easily find the most desired content, and that the content is presented as clearly as possible.
  • For instance, everyone is interested in at least one academic program area. Best to devote time to improving the quality of basic academic program pages and creating navigation that links for the academic program pages to related content such as professional school and employment outcomes and student stories about their experience in the program. And that in effect, is a form of “custom content” in that each person will find what meets their interests.
  • Similarly, net cost estimators will serve the same purpose. The estimator itself is the same for everyone, but the information returned is “custom” for each person using it.

That’s all for now.


  1. In regard to your comments about facebook pages, do you think Admissions offices should have their own page (i.e. John Smith University Admissions) or have a more general page that could overlap with the marketing efforts of athletics, alumni affairs, etc (i.e. John Smith University)?

  2. Matt… Good question. For now, I’d stay with an FB for “admissions” to make sure that first time visitors can quickly find things that are likely of most interest to them… academic programs offered, profile and experiences of students who attend, location/campus environment, cost and aid opportunities.
    We need more data on it, but I’d expect that more people will begin their search for the right college on sites like Facebook… so keeping primary content of interest to particular audiences prominent will be important.
    I think of a website (including Facebook) as on online publication with different “magazines” for different audiences… and you’ve named 3 important ones.. admissions, alumni, athletics. Nothing wrong on any one of those entry points in using obvious links to the other publications since there indeed is likely to be overlap in audience interest.

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