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Defra’s approach to digital content

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The Defra content team come from all corners of the publishing world.

Our content designers include a former museum web editor, a content marketer, a newspaper sub-editor and 3 journalists. That’s an unusually high number of former journalists.

There are similarities between journalism and content design, but there are crucial differences.


In content design, the ‘2i’ (second pair of eyes) process involves colleagues peer reviewing your content before publication. This is different to journalism’s hierarchical editing structure where articles are edited without consultation or discussion.

Content designers work to publishing deadlines, but our content is never finished. If user research shows that we can improve content after publication, then we iterate it and explain why we’ve changed the content.

Newspapers, on the other hand, only review and update their online content if it’s incorrect.

Legal content

As part of the Smarter Guidance project we have to take legally sensitive content that’s traditionally in print, and move it online. This effort parallels what newspapers and other media organisations are doing as they focus more on digital platforms.

The content we publish on GOV.UK must be:

  • legally accurate - we work with subject-matter experts and lawyers to make sure this happens
  • easy to find - by including users’ search terms in the content
  • written in plain English - so users can immediately understand it

Context is king

Bill Gates said “content is king” in 1996. He was right that good content attracts readers, but equally the context is king.

Our context is meeting the needs users have of government. Our content is successful when it attracts only the users who can then act on the content. We’re not looking for more readers (we have no advertisers to impress) - we’re specifically targeting the users who need the content.

Writing content for the web

More people read news on the web than in print. For example, The Guardian has 8.15 million daily unique browsers but sells just 166,965 newspapers a day. This means newspapers’ online content has to be found easily on search engines.

Newspaper consultant Peter Sands explains: “The headline is competing with others on the same topic so there is a need to spell things out for readers and search engines. Headlines that work in print often fail the stand-alone test that online headlines need.”

Similarly, the guidance we publish at Defra has to be found by users on search engines. Most users find Defra content using Google  so we use tools like Google AdWords Keyword Planner and Google Trends to find out what ‘keywords’ they use to find content. We then use these terms in titles and headings so users can find the content easily.

Funny isn’t clever

If I’d titled this blog post ‘How to make content content’ I might have thought I was clever using a funny play on words. But I would have been wrong.

Google wouldn’t understand the difference between the homographs. A screenreader would pronounce the words identically, missing the ‘joke’. Anyone in a rush would think it was a mistake. No one would have searched for it.

The GOV.UK style guide advises editors to avoid puns or wordplay because they make content difficult to find. Guardian sub-editor Simon Ricketts agrees: “I work with many bright young things who are digitally alert and they find puns an almost antiquated curiosity."

You can, of course, have a sense of humour as a content designer. Just don’t reveal it in any of your content because Google will never know and no one will find it.

Creative Commons Don't Panic by Emily Mills is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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