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Practical Website Improvement Face-Off

Magazine article Online

Practical Website Improvement Face-Off

Article excerpt

What are the top three things library webmasters can do to improve their websites? Panelists at Internet Librarian 2009 were charged with answering this question in session A203, "Library Website Improvement Face-Off" (, moderated by Darlene Fichter. The only rule was that the improvements had to be reasonably practical. Audience members acted as judges and voted for the best way to improve library websites.

Thinking bigger, panelists were also allowed to name one "fairy godmother" wish, free of any practical constraints whatsoever. Think "If I had unlimited time and an unlimited budget I'd ..." The panelists didn't know their colleagues' suggestions in advance. The suggestions were great, so we wanted to share them with you. We'd also like to thank the esteemed panelists, Jeff Wisniewski, Aaron Schmidt, Amanda Etches-Johnson, and David Lee King, for their permission to publish their improvement tips here.


Both David and Amanda discussed wording and language. Good accessible content is the foundation of every good website. We know this, yet all too often we're guilty of the sins of cut and paste and of speaking in library lingo.

Much of the material on our websites either has a real-world analog or is written specifically for the print world. That content is usually not web-ready. It's too wordy, too formal, too structured, too obtuse, and too reliant on vernacular. Writing for the web takes some practice. But of all the improvements suggested by the panelists, it's probably the most accessible and easiest to implement. The old rule of eliminating half the words and going from there is a good guideline. Commit to two things: Rewrite a page a day, and write all new content for the web.

Aaron went beyond rewriting for the web and directed library webmasters to cut at least one-fourth of the pages on their sites. Eliminate the nonessential and make the essential content shine. He offered some practical tips for writing for the web:

* Avoid long paragraphs and sentences.

* Break things up better into grab-and-go chunks.

* Make it easy to scan pages for nuggets of useful information.

To help our content shine through, Aaron recommended reading Letting Go of the Words by Janice (Ginny) Redish (Boston: Morgan Kaufmann, 2007).

Amanda's recommendation for improving your website touched on something a bit more pervasive: the personality of our sites--or lack thereof. Think about many of the nonlibrary sites you visit. There's a good chance they tend toward the informal, the funny, the whimsical, and/or the personal. Much blog content carries a personal and informal tone. Even banks are getting in on the act. One financial institution website uses, "Oops, sorry! We thought you left!" as the system timeout message. Another uses, "Your session has been ended due to system inactivity." Which one is friendlier, more personal, and actually a bit fun?

Too often, library sites do not have even a touch of whimsy and are formal and impersonal. One place where libraries have dipped their toes into the waters of informality are on 404 error pages, which is a great start. But why not adopt a more human tone on the rest of your site? Two changes that can go a long way in reducing or eliminating a sense of distance between you and your users are to replace all instances of "the library" with "we" and to replace all instances of "patrons," "users," "clients," and "customers" with "you." Amanda recommended checking out, a site for sharing travel plans with friends and associates you trust, as an example of a site that offers a great experience while being human and whimsical.


A unanimous recommendation involved user testing for improving library websites. All four panelists in one respect or another emphasized its importance. As information professionals, we can't help but bring a certain bias to our site layout, structure, design, and content, right? …

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