Author: Elizabeth

On the Oxford comma

When you write a list of three or more items, unless you display them as a bulleted or numbered list, you conventionally separate the items with either a comma or the word ‘and’ (or sometimes ‘or’). You may choose to separate the last two items in the list with just the word ‘and’, or with a comma followed by ‘and’:

  • Her shirt was red, green and blue.
  • Her shirt was red, green, and blue.

If you choose the second option, you’re using the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma. This little punctuation mark arouses surprisingly strong emotions: many people will be happy to tell you that omitting the Oxford comma is simply wrong. Others will assert it is both unnecessary and ugly.

A brief search will reveal many, many articles both in favour of and against its use.

Reducing ambiguity

One argument in favour of this comma points to ‘ambiguous’ sentences like the following, taken from Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style:

  • Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  • This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
  • Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

Another example triggered headlines around the world when a Texas schoolteacher turned it into a cartoon to illustrate the distinction between its meanings with and without the final comma.

I have two problems with all these examples:

  • They are carefully constructed to appear ambiguous, while at the same time having only one reasonable interpretation.
  • While they are funny and clever, they don’t really demonstrate ‘why the Oxford comma is important’. Each sentence could be clarified in many other ways.

Thanks to the writer’s parents are frequently used as examples. But if I wanted to thank and name my parents, I could simply write:

I’d like to thank my parents: Max and Betty.

or

I’d like to thank Max and Betty, my parents.

If I wanted to thank my parents and two other people, I could write:

I’d like to thank John, Mary and my parents.

What’s more, in some cases the Oxford comma doesn’t remove ambiguity: Joe Kessler points out that if the Texas schoolteacher’s strippers are replaced by a single stripper, the sentence with the Oxford comma is the ambiguous one.

In February 2014, truck drivers in Maine sued for overtime pay. The argument centred on the question of whether ‘packing for shipping or distribution’ was one activity or two; the court held that it was only one, and the drivers were entitled to paid overtime.  If you’re writing legislation, it’s a good idea to make sure that the only reasonalbe interpretation is the one you intended: don’t make people go to court over a comma!

Complex lists

There is a case for using the Oxford comma where each item in the list is more than a single word.

John had an essay due that night, so he cleaned the bathroom, weeded the vegetable patch, and watched the first three episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The shirts are available in green and brown, pink and purple, and blue and white.

In most non-fiction, on or off the web, I would display this sort of information in a bulleted list, thereby dodging the issue altogether.

The shirts are available in:

  • green and brown
  • pink and purple
  • blue and white.

Make a decision

I prefer to avoid the Oxford comma. The trend in recent years has been towards reduced punctuation, so why use this comma anywhere it’s not really necessary?

In the end, your decision to use the Oxford comma, omit it, or use it only where required for clarity (as recommended by the Australian Style Manual) is a question of style, not substance.

So make your decision and record it on your editorial style sheet.

Then relax!

Ranting about web accessibility

It is nearly two decades since the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) were published. And yet major companies are still failing to take the steps required to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities, and are still being sued. Minh Vu and Susan Ryan’s January 2018 article lists a number of lawsuits on their way through the US courts. Few Australian cases get as far as the courts: Gesele Mesnages suit against Coles made it to the Federal court but was settled in 2014.

Back in March 2013, the Wall Street Journal published an article on lawsuits then in progress to force businesses to ensure that their websites were accessible to people with disabilities: Disabled Sue Over Web Shopping.

The article contained a few errors of fact such as the assertion ‘That could mean websites will be required to include spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind, as well as captions and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf’, but these paled into insignificance beside the claims made in the comments. I’ve brought together a few of the comments and added  my responses.

Costs and benefits of addressing accessibility

It’s too expensive

‘A site like Amazon has over a billion (yes, with a B) catalog pages. Updating them all will take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, thus raising prices for everyone.’

Response

Many of the images on amazon.com (at least the sample I tested) already have text equivalents. Perhaps Amazon has integrated accessibility into at least some of its business processes.

Also, as the article noted, building in accessibility as you go adds very little to the cost of publishing a website. Retrofitting it is much more expensive.

Businesses should be free to choose

‘A business should be free to make the cost/benefit analysis for itself, not have it forced..’

Response

Governments impose all sorts of obligations on businesses – to protect workers, customers and the environment, and to achieve any number of other goals. Their right to do so comes (in democracies) from the voters.

Business will do it if the ROI is there

‘If there was a ROI, then there would be no point in governmental involvement:’

Response

Businesses, like individuals, tend to keep doing what they’ve always done even when change would be beneficial. Making websites accessible generally also makes them leaner, faster, and easier for Google and other search engines to index. When Legal & General group rebuilt their website to be compliant with accessibility standards, they gained:

  • increased traffic
  • reduced maintenance costs
  • increased sales.

Alternatives for people with disabilities

Persuasion vs litigation

‘Why can’t these people simply ask, suggest, or otherwise persuade these web-based companies to have a more user friendly portal? Why the hell does everyone have to sue?’

Response

I’m not aware of any case where a person or organisation has sued without first asking the business nicely. If anyone can cite an example, please add a comment (with citation).

Accessibility software

‘…there is 3rd party software that does this job extremely effectively.’

Response

The tools used by people with disabilities vary as much as their disabilities do: someone who is both deaf and blind might use a refreshable Braille display; someone who is blind might use a screen reader which, as the name suggests, reads out the text on screen. However, all these tools rely on the text content of a website – they cannot (yet) analyse an image and work out whether it is a button labelled ‘Search’ or a decorative image of a dancing cat.

Red herrings

Languages other than english

‘What about non-English speakers? … [It] is the beginning of a slippery slope.’

Response

While the inability to speak English in a society like the US or Australia is certainly a disadvantage, it’s not a disability.

What about driving?

‘What I’m surprised about is that no blind person has sued a car company for not making a car they can drive.’

Response

Allowing a blind person to drive a car (using current technology) would put others at risk. Whose safety is compromised by using current technology to make it as easy as possible for a blind person to use your website?

General insults

Those demanding access are ‘takers’

‘It seems we’ve turned into a nation of takers, no matter the reason’

Response

Making websites accessible to people with disabilities makes it easier for them to contribute to society – learning, working, shopping, paying their taxes. People who want to be able to do things for themselves are hardly ‘takers’.

Where next?

If you aren’t sure whether your website is accessible to people with disabilities, contact me for a site review.

Structural editing, copy editing and proofreading

Editing is a process in which an author’s text or other material is corrected, reorganised, condensed, expanded or modified to create a product which meets the needs of both author and audience. An editor’s level of intervention may range from the very lightest touch – identifying spelling and grammatical mistakes – to completely rewriting and reorganising the whole work.

Levels of editing

The range of editing work is often divided into three stages or levels:

Structural editing

A structural edit involves the editor reviewing the work as a whole:

  • Does it flow naturally and logically from start to finish?
  • Is there too much (or enough) repetition?
  • Is anything missing?
  • Do headings provide clear signposts to the content which follows them?

A structural edit of website content should also consider how it fits into the site as a whole. Editing a suite of content for a site means thinking about its information architecture: how does it fit together and how will readers make their way through it?

Copy editing

Ideally, a copy edit is done on a piece of work which is structurally sound. It includes:

  • checking spelling, grammar and punctuation
  • applying consistent style choices, such as e-mail or email, website or web site
  • ensuring that all references are accurate and clear.

On the web, a copy editor may also be the appropriate person to check:

  • each page has appropriate metadata
  • content is attractive to search engines
  • the alt text for images is appropriate
  • the wording and placement of hyperlinks provides clear guidance to the reader.

If I’m carrying out both structural and copy editing tasks, I may switch from one to the other so that spelling errors don’t distract me when I’m focussed on the structure of the piece. Proofreading, however, must always be the final quality check.

Proofreading

The term ‘proofread’ is often misused to mean a light copyedit, but it is traditionally that stage in the publishing process when a proofreader checks the proof – copy which is in its final form, ready to print – to ensure that all corrections from the editor or author have been incorporated into the final work. Proofreading should always be the last step before a document is printed or published.

Ideally, web proofreading is done in a preview environment, before content is moved live. However, not all content management systems allow for this, so it is sometimes done immediately after publishing. In this case, it’s important that corrections can be made quickly.

Proofreading a website includes checking that:

  • previous changes have been incorporated
  • no new errors have been introduced
  • all hyperlinks work correctly.

Establish a shared understanding

There are other terms for different levels of editing – some people refer to developmental, style and verification edits – but what’s important is that both the client and editor have a shared understanding of what is needed, and what is to be done.

 

Video SEO: worth the effort?

A few years ago, an article from Agency Post (Why Video Is Online Marketing’s Best Kept Secret) led me to investigate the claim that adding videos to a website will result in improved search engine results, and increased sales.

My first response was scepticism: given that search engines such as Google can’t ‘see’ the content of a video (unless it’s captioned), why would they give extra credit to a page containing one? Any why would a video necessarily increase sales?

Video SEO

The Agency Post article quotes impressive figures: ‘If you have a video on your website, it’s 50 times more likely to be ranked on the first page of Google.’ Unfortunately, the research on which this claim is based was already more than three years old (The Easiest Way to a First-Page Ranking on Google). It might still be true, but then again it might not.

Benjamin Wayne (in How To Use Video SEO To Jump To The Top Of Google Search Results) advises that since Google can’t see the content of your video, you can post it multiple times with different titles to attract different search queries. This sounds very much like the ‘black hat’ SEO technique of publishing multiple copies of text content to artificially boost search engine ranking: a technique which has become less successful as search engine algorithms have become ever more sophisticated. If enough people try to game the system, search engines will learn to ignore them.

Converting visitors into buyers

I’m not a patient person, and my internet connection isn’t always as fast as I would like it to be, so if I’m going to play a video it needs to provide a return on the investment of my time. It takes longer to watch someone talking than to read the same content, so I’ll watch a video of a talking head only if I have reason to believe there’s something pretty special about what they have to say.

If your video shows me something that’s hard to explain in words – how to cut a mortise joint, or judge when a custard is cooked – then it may well be worthwhile waiting for the video to load, and the video in turn might help to persuade me to buy the mortise saw or double boiler you’re selling. If it’s a video of someone telling me how wonderful your product is, I’m not going to waste my time. A testimonial that looks slick will be discounted as ‘marketing fluff’; one that looks amateur is just embarrassing.

Accessibility

If you care about accessibility (and you should: read Access all areas) any video on your site must be captioned or have a text equivalent. In addition to meeting accessibility guidelines, this ensures that search engines can understand your content. (Of course it also means that you can’t publish multiple copies with different titles and expect to fool them into treating each copy as a unique piece of content.)

What next?

If video is relevant to your visitors, by all means use it. Provide captioning or a text equivalent to ensure that it’s accessible. Follow Forester’s advice (The Easiest Way to a First-Page Ranking on Google) and Google’s (About video content in Sitemaps) to ensure that it has the best chance of appearing in search results.

But don’t add video for its own sake and expect instant improvements in your search engine rankings.

Instead, publish content that helps your visitors complete the tasks that matter to them: contact me to find out how.

SEO: Metadata and more

In my introduction to search engine optimisation, I addressed ways that a writer or editor can create content which can be found by search engines: this article will look at other influences on your search engine rankings.

Metadata

There is more to a web page than the words and images that appear in your browser window. Metadata is information about a page that doesn’t appear in the browser, but is read by the robots that build search engine results.

The metadata elements of most interest to editors are the title, description and keywords.

The title appears in the browser title bar and (by default) in lists of favourites or bookmarks; it is also the first line in the search engine result for a page. Therefore, it should clearly describe the content of the page and be easy to scan. Avoid the temptation to place the name of the site at the beginning of the title ‘My site – articles – A word about metadata’ is less scannable than ‘A word about metadata – My site’. Titles longer than about 70 characters may be truncated in search engine results.

The description provides an opportunity give readers more detail what the page is about – who should read it and why. Bing is the only one of the major search engines that routinely displays it in search engine results, but Google also displays it in certain circumstances. Avoid using the same description for multiple pages (for example using the same description for every issue of your newsletter).

Description for the Membership page reading 'Jessica new login page to add a customized login module.'

This description for Defence Health’s Membership page has now, thankfully, been edited.

Meta keywords were very important a decade ago, but it was all too easy to load up the meta keywords with words and phrases that were popular but irrelevant to the content on the page. As a result, most search engines give them little if any weight in assigning a ranking.

Update your site regularly

Search engines prefer sites with fresh, original content. Recent updates to Google’s search algorithm penalise sites whose content is duplicated across the web – typically because it has been produced in ‘content mills’ which churn out repetitive, low-quality content.

Links

One of the indicators used by search engines to identify quality content is the number of links to it: these are in effect recommendations from the linking site. Unfortunately, it is possible for these recommendations to be manipulated: some ‘SEO’ services simply list your site on a number of huge link farms – sites which do nothing but link. Search engines now recognise these for what they are, and links from them will do your site’s ranking more harm than good.

On the other hand, genuine links are worth cultivating. Seek out sites with related services – where a link to your site offers value to the customers of that site – and suggest a link. Register your site with reputable directories – both general ones like Biztas, a database of Tasmanian businesses , and those specific to your business, like the Editors Directory hosted by the Institute of Professional Editors.

You can also use social media, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, to increase the number of links to your pages.

Speed

Search engines – Google in particular – have a preference for standards-compliant, fast-loading pages. An editor may not have much influence on a site’s code, but anyone working on websites should understand at least the basics of the web’s underlying languages.

There are many free tools available to test a website’s speed, including PageSpeed Insights from Google.

Final lessons

It seems inevitable that the arms race between search engines and those wanting to game the system will continue. Put your efforts into creating high-quality, audience-focused content and publishing it with lean, standards-compliant code, and you are likely to be rewarded with high search engine rankings.

Creating connections with hyperlinks

What are hyperlinks?

Hyperlinks connect one image or piece of text with another part of the same web page, a page somewhere else on the same site, or a file somewhere else on the web. If it isn’t clear where a link is supposed to go, there’s something wrong with the link: on most sites, a visitor should not be surprised by the result of clicking on a link.

Links to other sites can be risky, as you have no way of knowing when the other site is rebuilt: the domain name could be sold and the content completely replaced, so site maintenance must include a regular program of checking all external links. It is good practice to let people know if they’re going to leave your site, perhaps with a small icon.

Text hyperlinks should rarely be more than five or six words long – button text is generally only one or two words. Avoid ‘clever’ names for programs or products unless your audience is already familiar with them. In her book Letting go of the Words, Ginny Redish gives the example of a link ‘Children’s Compass’ on the British Museum’s site which led to online tours. (The site has been redesigned and this link no longer exists.)

Avoid ‘click here’ (and ‘more …’)! If it looks like a hyperlink, anyone who has been using the web for more than five minutes knows they will need to click to activate it. Ideally, every link should make sense out of context, and be unique on the page: this means that when someone using a screen reader chooses a list of the links on a page, each of them makes sense.

Linking to download files

When you link to something other than an HTML file, or a point within an HTML file, the file must be downloaded to the user’s computer. It may appear within the existing browser window, within a new browser window, or within its own application (PDF files may appear within the browser or within an Acrobat Reader window).

Before including a download file, consider what advantages it has over HTML. PDF is often used where a particular format needs to be preserved (a legal form, perhaps). If you provide content in an HTML page and also offer a second copy in another format, you need to ensure that both are updated together.

Within the link to a download file, include the file type and size, so that users can be confident that they have the right software to read it and that it isn’t likely to crash their system. You could, for example write ‘download A guide to writing hyperlinks [PDF, 3MB]’.

Where to place your link

A link is an invitation to go somewhere else. Each time you add a hyperlink, consider whether it would be better placed within the flow of text or at the end of a document: on the one hand in-text links are immediate and their context is clear; on the other they may break up a visitor’s ‘flow’.

The test is to put yourself in a reader’s shoes, thinking of the task they’ve come to your site to complete. Will the link move them forward or distract them? There is no one right answer.

 

Introducing SEO

If your content is on the web, but the people who need it can’t find it, it might as well not exist.

Search engines work by analysing pages, working out what they are about, and matching them to what the searcher asks for. Whether you’re a business owner, a writer or an editor, you want to make it as easy as possible for the search engine to do this accurately.

SEO is the art of helping potential readers find your content.

I will assume that your goal is to attract readers who actually want what your site has to offer – whether products, services or information. There are also techniques for drawing people to your site who aren’t looking for what you offer, but who might be persuaded to want it: these are sometimes described as ‘black hat’ SEO.

SEO advice from Google

Despite challenges from Bing and others, Google remains the dominant general search engine. At Google webmaster central  you can find links to a range of tools including Webmaster guidelines for content and design.

Bing and Yahoo also provide advice for webmasters, but it is more fragmented, and you have to dig for it.

Keywords

The first step in writing effective web content is to identify what you are writing about, and what your potential readers call it. Large organisations seem particularly prone to using ‘clever’ marketing or business terms to describe their products and services: but if your organisation’s word for a product doesn’t match the word that people who want it type into a search engine, you are making it unnecessarily hard for people to find you.

These are your keywords – the words that people use to describe what they want to know or do when they come to your site. There are a number of tools available to identify keywords – some paid, others free – or you can undertake market research. One important source of keywords is people who deal directly with the site’s customers: they are the ones who are most likely to know whether your widget is called a thingummy or a whatsit by the people who use it. Ask the people who answer customer complaints or queries, not the marketing department!

If you don’t have access to any of this, you can hire an editor, whose core business is understanding readers and the language they are likely to use.

Writing search engine–friendly content

Once you’ve identified your keywords, what should you do with them?

Your page title, headings and opening paragraph tell readers what the page is about, so this is where you include your most important keywords. Repeat them, and variations of them, throughout the text, but don’t stuff them into every second sentence: any visitors you do attract that way will quickly become bored and leave!

In the body of your content, start with the information that’s most valuable to most people, before moving on to more obscure, technical information, or details of interest to a small segment of your audience – you can even put these on separate, linked, pages. Don’t forget to include your keywords (where relevant) in the alt text for images.

Metadata

Some web writers swear by keyword metadata, but Google in particular gives relatively little weight to it. Consider that if a Wikipedia article matching your search term exists, it will usually appear in the first few search engine results, despite the fact that while Wikipedia articles have good titles, they have no keyword or description metadata.

The next article in this series will look at metadata in more detail.

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

Writing for the web: Introduction

What is writing for the web, and how does it differ from writing for other media?

Three of the key challenges for web writers and editors are:

  • impatient users
  • a lack of context
  • the need to manage your content.

Users are impatient

Website visitors are busy, impatient, multi-taskers. They may also be busy and impatient when they’re using other media, but the web seems to magnify these qualities.

They’ve come to your website to find out something or to do something: they want to do it quickly and get on to the next thing on their schedule. There is a good chance that if you don’t have what they want, someone else does: if you do have it, you need to make sure they can find it, understand it, and act on it, quickly.

They will scan a page for their key words: the words they associate with the task, not necessarily the ones you (or your organisation) use. If the words are there, they’ll read a bit more – if not, they’ll try somewhere else.

Context is missing

When you read a book, you are dealing with a physical object. You can see how large it is, and how the sections relate to each other. You can (usually) identify its author, editor, publisher, publication date – all of which help you to assess how trustworthy it is. Thanks to the skill of the designer and other members of the publishing team, you can see how each piece of information you’re looking at relates to the rest of the book.

On the web, your readers may have bypassed your home page and come directly from Google, from Facebook or via a Twitter feed. You (and the site designer) need to make sure that they can answer the following questions:

  • Where am I (what site am I on, and where am I within this site)?
  • What can I do here (on this page/on this site)?
  • Can I trust this page and this site (to tell me the truth and not steal information or infect my computer)?

Content needs management

Because a website is not a physical object, it can be difficult to appreciate its size. It is also easy for published content to languish, unloved and unrevised.

A well-managed site has a clear content management strategy and a content inventory: most sites don’t. To manage a site, you need to know:

  • what’s on the site
  • why it’s there
  • when it was last reviewed
  • when it should be removed.

Content which doesn’t actively contribute to your visitors’ goals makes it harder for them to find the content which does.

What can I do about it?

In my next article, I’ll explain how you can start to address these challenges.

Printing pains

What’s the problem with print?

Have you ever wanted to print a web page? How often do you find that what you have printed has a multi-coloured banner and navigation buttons or worse, text that disappears off the edge of your page?

Why does it occur to so few website designers and developers that you might want to print a page? After all, you might want to:

  • read an article away from the computer
  • show it to a friend
  • file it away for future reference.

What are the options?

There are a number of different ways to provide printer-friendly web pages:

  • style sheets
  • scripting
  • portable document format (PDF) files.

Style sheets

One option is style sheets. These take a little time and thought to set up, but almost no maintenance. The key is to build your site around valid HTML/XHTML and CSS: it’s then quite easy to have one style sheet which controls the appearance of files on screen and a second which controls the appearance of files sent to a printer. (You can also set up style sheets for mobile devices and screen readers, but that’s an article for another day.)

If you don’t want to print a page, find the Print Preview option on your browser and notice the difference between what you see in your browser and what will print. You can find examples at A list apart and456 Berea St.

The main downside of this approach is that (unless they always preview before printing) visitors won’t find out what the print version looks like until they’ve printed it. Oh, and if you don’t check carefully, you can end up with pages that don’t quite fit on your page: on some sites, the printed pages lose 4 or 5 characters from the right margin. I suspect they might have been checked on US letter paper, which is a little wider than A4.

Scripting

On many large sites, such as Wikipedia, content pages include a button or link labelled ‘Print’ or something similar. In general, these present the visitor with a new page (sometimes in a new window) with menus, ads and similar elements removed.

Like style sheets, these take some work to set up and test, but are relatively low-maintenance after that. They do require an extra click for the user, but also offer more control.

Wikipedia has the added feature of ‘books’: a reader can combine a number of articles into a single file, which can be downloaded as a PDF or ODF file.

PDF files

For many people who have been using the web for a while, PDF is the first format they think of when it comes to printable versions of web pages. PDFs have many advantages: most people have Adobe™ Acrobat® Reader, and if they don’t they can download it free of charge from Adobe.

This is the ideal format if it’s important that the document your visitors print looks exactly the same as the one you see on your computer. While Acrobat itself is not cheap, there is a range of free or inexpensive software available to create your own PDF files.

The downside is that every time you make a change to a document, you need to make it in two files (the HTML and the PDF) or end up with two different versions. Again, there is software available to create both HTML and PDF files from a single source, but this means extra work in the setup stages.

So what’s the answer?

There is no one ‘right’ answer: there are only options. Developers and site owners need to consider the possibility that some visitors will want to print their content, and provide an option. Fail to do so and you risk irritating – even alienating – a group of your site visitors: they may not return.

For advice on the best option for your site, contact me.