What does proofreading or editing a website involve?

I have recently been working on a website for an online shop selling maintenance products and I thought it would be good to blog about the different approaches that can be taken when editing or proofreading a website.

I'll start with a confession: I'm not a marketing expert, nor a web developer. Having said that, I have made several websites, am comfortable with HTML, and am up to date on what Google looks for when deciding on search ranking. All of this helps and should be considered when working on a website.

Some key questions to ask yourself when creating a website:

  1. Can your ideal customer easily get what they want from your site?
  2. Is your site optimised for search engines?
  3. Does your site commit any known Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) malpractices?

Much of this is best managed by a professional web developer/internet marketer, but SEO affects the way in which content is written, and so it is worth bearing in mind when editing website text – you certainly wouldn't want to undo all of the hard work of an SEO team with over-fussy proofreading. For example, if someone searches Google for "proof reader", then I still want my website to be findable, even if it should be "proofreader".

When working on a website, it is usually best to forget about terms like proofreading and editing; the important thing is what is best for the website. In some cases, a client will have a team of people that manage the web development, marketing and user experience of their website. In these cases, a proofreader may just need to check for obvious errors rather than looking at the wider text. However, in many cases, especially for smaller businesses, these resources aren't available and external help might be sought.

Aside from correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation issues, you might well wonder what editing involves for each page of a website:

  1. Does the title of each page, as it appears in search engine listings, read well?
  2. Does the description of each page, as it appears in search engine listings, read well?
  3. Does the text on each page read well?
  4. Is the text laid out in a way that is easy to read?
  5. If working on the online version, do the links work and link to the correct pages?

Most of the time, working on the content of a webpage means more than simply working on the text. For example, the HTML meta tags for title and description will help to determine whether the page can be found in a search engine's results pages when a customer searches for something. They also determine how the result will appear, which can be crucial in helping a customer to choose to click on a client's site instead of a competitor's.

Then, of course, the text has to be checked. In my recent example, the task was to Anglicise and to improve/rewrite the text with readability, user experience and SEO in mind. Certainly more of an edit than a proofread but as I said, we need to forget about definitions of proofreading/proof-editing/editing and focus instead on what the client wants.

Something that needs to be considered is how to extract the text; this depends on how the content is managed by the client. For example, if the client uses a database to create the content for the webpages, then the client may prefer to extract the text from the database and provide it in an MS Word document. In the recent case, an intern working for the online retailer had the unenviable task of extracting all of the product information and putting it into Word format! I did not ask how long this took.

If the intern hadn't been available, then I could have extracted the text from the raw HTML code or from a browser. This is a difficult task to perform as formatting is often lost and errors such as multiple spaces can creep in to the document during this process. This means that it takes longer to work on the website and needless to say will therefore increase the cost.

A third approach is to take PDF screenshots of each webpage and then to annotate these with comments and corrections.

In all of the above cases, the amended text needs to be reviewed by the client, and then manually inserted in place of the original either through the client's content management system or directly into HTML webpages. The updated version should then be checked again, ideally in the development environment mimicking the live website before going live.

To summarise, user experience is an industry of its own, as is SEO, but with an understanding of the basic principles, a website can be edited or proofread in such a way that it will improve the look and feel of a website for its users, and also make it more findable in Google. Adding this value into the editing or proofreading service means that it takes a bit longer than a simple proofread or edit of the text on each page, but is of considerable value to the client.