Web Standards for Writers

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Remember the bad old days of all those “writing for the web” articles? Now, people writing for the web don’t just have other writers to rely on for advice—they have real, live standards to follow! Hooray!

Here, I’ve pulled together some of those standards, and explained why they’re useful, and for what kinds of web writing. If you have others to add, we’d love to hear about them too.

Web content accessibility guidelines

As we saw last week, increasing access to your content increases your content’s reach—its audience. So where most of the web starts is with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

These are pretty straightforward, even in their first reading. For writers of any sort—prose or interfaces, system emails or online competition entry forms, or anything in between—working to these guidelines is essential.

Obviously we should understand them in their entirety, but here I’ve listed the ones that, in my experience, are most pertinent to writers. While UX designers might focus on things like text contrast and focus order, these are the issues that writers need to own.

Principle 1: Perceivability

Principle 1 addresses the perceivability of content, so its guidelines focus on providing alternative forms of content, that suit the differing ways users perceive what we publish.

It’s particularly relevant to those publishing rich media content like audio and video.

  • 1.1 Text alternatives
  • 1.2 Time-based media alternatives
  • 1.3 Adaptable

Principle 2: Operability

Principle 2 deals with the operability of the interface—but that includes our content, of course.

These guidelines are particularly useful for those publishing prose, whether that’s marketing content, help and support documentation, or news and blog posts.

  • 2.4.2 Page titled
  • 2.4.4 Link purpose (in context)
  • 2.4.5 Multiple ways
  • 2.4.6 Headings and labels
  • 2.4.8 Location
  • 2.4.9 Link purpose (link only)
  • 2.4.10 Section headings

Principle 3: Understandability

Principle 3 is about making the content understandable, and it covers everything from labels and error messages to jargon. So it’s useful for writers of article or prose content and interface text alike.

  • 3.1 Readable
  • 3.3 Input assistance

BBC Future Media Standards

While the WCAG are all well and good—and they are—web writers often want to know how they play out in practice. The BBC Future Media Standards are a good model.


The Accessibility standards translate the WCAG into practical guidelines for BBC staff.

Note that these guidelines aren’t a direct translation of the WCAG, though. The WCAG Guideline 3.1.3 advises that “A mechanism [be] available for identifying specific definitions of words or phrases used in an unusual or restricted way, including idioms and jargon.” A glossary might be an example of such a mechanism. But the BBC accessibility guidelines simply state that “2.6 You SHOULD use plain language and avoid jargon” which, to me, doesn’t seem to go as far.

But the standards don’t stop there …


The BBC also provides standards for metadata, which is something all web writers need to consider as they prep text.

The information provided in the metadata guidelines gives writers a sound understanding of the basics of metadata (if they don’t know those basics already) as well as providing good examples and practical advice for their implementation.

These guidelines are great for answering writerly questions like:

  • Does the order of keywords matter?
  • Is there a word limit on my description?
  • How can I exclude this page from external search?

URLs and Links

With thousands of bits of content being created every week, the BBC has had a bit of time to sort out how it wants to create URLs for the site.

These URL guidelines provide solid naming conventions and pitfalls to avoid, which are good guides for any content creator charged with creating the URLs at which their content appears.

Finally, the BBC also includes the odd text link within its content, so it has a complete list of guidelines for creating usable, accessible link text, too.

This list provides excellent advice on everyday issues that writers face, like using generic link text (like “More”) and whether or not to use a link’s TITLE tag.

Other best-practice resources

These are some of the best practice standards I’ve found for web writing of all types. What about you? Do you have any standards for web writers you can share? Hit us in the comments.

Georgina LaidlawGeorgina Laidlaw
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Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and sitepoint.com cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.

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