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Skills a web publisher should have

by Neil williams (More about Neil)

Control-A, Control-C, Control-V. Anyone can do that, right?

So we can give our web publishing work to a few junior staff, train them on the software (a nice little development opportunity, bless) and get them to just bung whatever we send them up on the site.

If you work in website management for a large organisation where publishing has been devolved this will sound all too familiar. It’s the digital equivalent of giving everyone some blu-tack and poster paints and letting them stick what they like in the front window of the building – and yet, amazingly, it’s going on to some degree or other in every big place I’ve come across.

So – leaving the dark arts of digital engagement aside for a moment – here are the skills and knowledge I’d ideally want every staff member involved in good old-fashioned web 1.0 content work to have under their belt before they are let loose on the biggest shop window the organisation has. I’d love to know whether you agree.

Specialist skills and knowledge

  • Competence in using the web publishing tools. An acceptable, proven and sustained level of ability on the CMS (or equivalent suite of publishing software). Which requires a degree of technical aptitude in the first place, and regular use of the software to keep the skills fresh – in spite of anything CMS vendors may claim about their intuitive GUIs.
  • Writing and editing for web skills. So important and yet so underrated. Everything that goes on a website should be passed through the hands of someone who knows how to edit it appropriately or can advise on doing so. Not rocket science by any means and there’s no shortage of short, cheap and worthwhile courses in how to do it.
  • Proofreading skills. A separate skill from writing is quality checking, by someone with a sharp eye for detail and a deep knowledge of all the quality standards and common mistakes that apply to the web. But seldom is the same amount of importance placed on this for websites as it is for print.
  • Information architecture skills. I’d want them to be able to talk about such things as card sorting exercises, taxonomies and the importance of short, action-oriented page titles. I’d expect them to be able to explain convincingly to their colleagues why not everything on the website can appear on its homepage. I’d expect them to have read up on these principles and practicalities, given the wide availability of stuff online and on the bookshelves. Or even done a course.
  • Practical accessibility skills. They need to have read and understood the WCAG at least in summary form, and not only know why writing “click here“or uploading a scanned image of a text document is a bad idea but be able to tell others too. Some understanding of how to validate their own pages would also be useful.
  • Usability and user experience …er, experience. Demonstrable awareness, from training, hands-on experience or reading around the issues, of what it is makes a website a pleasant experience or not. This usually means having a feel for it, as well knowing some hard facts about techniques for checking your assumptions.
  • Web metrics and analytics skills. Because people still talk about “hits” like they’re relevant and these people need telling. I want anyone within a mile of my website to be able to do that telling, and mine the rich seam of user insight to make their content better.
  • Training in Acrobat software. If you can’t stop them publishing PDFs altogether at the very least you need your web publishers to know how to make them at optimal file sizes, bookmarked, tagged, and tested for accessibility.
  • Image editing and optimisation skills. Because what happens when you don’t train people in this and give them unfettered access to the publishing tools is squashed or stretched aspect ratios, huge file sizes and group shots where you can’t see anyone’s faces. And images can be as effective as good copy (or as damaging as bad).
  • Natural Search Engine Optimisation skills. OK, I could have bundled this with ‘writing for the web’ but SEO is an  industry (or two?) in itself and the people who load content onto your website need to know about it – to explain why pages aren’t 1st in Google and to make your content as findable as reasonably possible. (By ‘natural’ I don’t mean some kind of innate gift for keywords, I mean not paid SEO.)
  • Web search and research skills. Your web editor needs to be fast and thorough at finding relevant content to link to, and be able to find stuff on the site when answering enquiries from users.

Professional knowledge & memberships

  • Knowledge of internal standards. Brand guide, style guide, proposition, policy on image dimensions, etc. (Brand manuals are like assholes opinions; everyone’s got one).
  • Knowledge of external standards. Knowledge of WCAG and some awareness of W3C standards at the least. In my world there’s also the COI web guidelines. Oh, and just a few laws (DDA, Libel and Defamation, DPA, Copyright, FOI).
  • Knowledge of the subject matter. Because you can tell when a website is managed by people who don’t understand the content: it has no related links between pages.
  • Knowledge of wider web strategy. Your corporate comms strategy.  Industry best practice. In government, the rationalisation & convergence and engagement agendas.
  • Membership of relevant networks. For government webbies there’s Digital People and the UKGovWeb Bar/Teacamps which I’d hope all people who touch the website are linked into. Membership of other industry bodies probably too big an ask here.

Personal effectiveness

  • Negotiation, explanation and persuasion. See writing for the web, accessibility, information architecture above – all of these things need explaining to people who don’t see why they should care. And often it means persuading senior people (often in both senses) that they can’t have a PDF of a scanned letter on official headed paper on the homepage. Enthusiasm and advocacy helps too, for talking to those customers who don’t think they need to put information on the website at all.
  • Customer service and relationship management. Managing web content means managing (however indirectly) a load of busy and disinterested people, coordinating their work and maintaining productive relationships in order to get what you need from them. It also means giving something back, in the form of web analytics and other user feedback to help them realise the value and importance of their web content.

That is, I think, the minimum skillset for a properly professional web publisher. Do you agree?

In a central team which offers consultancy in digital media you would also want to mix in some communications skills and experience (I’m a fan of the GCN core skills, flawed though they may be) and a load of stuff around digital engagement.  I’ve recently advertised for a social media bod and, as you’d expect, the skills I’m after there have only slight crossover with the list above.

Incidentally, the stuff you probably don’t need any more if working with a CMS is hand-coding and detailed knowledge of (X)HTML and CSS. In fact, a little bit of this knowledge among a devolved group web publishers can be a pretty dangerous thing…