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Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service

By Joseph Oni | Small Business

Creating Terms of Service for your website can be an intimidating process. Since the Terms of Service (“TOS”) are your main form of legal protection, they need to be complete and legitimate. But how do you know what to include? What’s more, how can you be sure your readers are picking up what you’re putting down?

The legal content of TOS’s varies from website to website. However, there are a few essential tips any webmaster can use when drawing up terms. I’ve included five of these tips below:

Use similar websites as reference points.

What type of website are you running? Is it a networking forum like Facebook or LinkedIn? Is it an e-commerce site like Amazon.com? A photo-sharing site like Flickr.com? Surf the web for sites whose offerings resemble yours, and review each site’s TOS for content.

Make your TOS legible.

I don’t just mean “Don’t use Zapf Dingbats for your font.” The sad fact is that most people skip through a website’s TOS without reading a word. This is because traditionally, the TOS is a long, impenetrable block of legalese. Any visitor who attempts to read it is more likely to fall asleep than take in information.

There are two big ways to avoid this problem:

Organize.

“Bullet point” and “list” formats are easy on the eyes and help you avoid repetition. Once you’ve settled on your official Terms of Service, go through them and break them into logical points. These will vary depending on the nature of your website; for this reason, it’s a good idea to do a little research on successful sites similar in content to yours. I’ve included some common TOS topics below in a logical progression.

  • Introduction – Outlines the purpose of the TOS and requests users to read each term carefully.
  • About – Provides summary of website services, statement of purpose, and official company name and contact information.
  • Site Access Details – Lays out when and how users may access the website. Includes information about user ID’s and passwords. Excludes you from liability for technical difficulties (site timing out, etc.) and states your rights to restrict access at your discretion.
  • Rules of Use – Includes any rules you have about linking to your website, as well as any behaviors you prohibit. The latter usually include things such as virus release, hacking, profanity, pornography, and unproductive commentary.
  • Content Ownership – Details who (company or user) holds the copyright of what content.
  • Age restrictions, if any.
  • Payment policy, if applicable.
  • Privacy Policy – Discloses the accessibility (or lack thereof) of users’ information by third parties. Most websites have their full privacy policy on a separate webpage, so this section can be short. Be sure to include a link to the full policy.
  • Disclaimer – Waives your responsibility for misinformation or mishap caused by site content.
  • User acceptance – A statement verifying that the reader has read and accepted the TOS. It can include a checkbox, an E-signature, or an “I Agree” button, or simply stipulate that use of the site implies acceptance.

Remember that you need to state your website or company’s official name for legal purposes. You can use it throughout the document, or use it once and ascribe it a shorthand name for future mentions. (“formswift.com, hereby referred to as “The Website,” for example.)

Place your statement of acceptance at the end of your TOS; this requires the reader to scroll through the whole thing. I recommend requiring the reader to actively agree, via button, box or e-signature.

Provide “plain speech” translations.

This is a fairly new tactic, but a good one.  As mentioned before, most TOS’s scare away readers with their blocks of dense legalese. They make the most conscientious reader think, “Why can’t this just be SIMPLE?!”

The thing is using simple language is risky. The legalese touches upon the fine points basic language won’t cover, and these points need to be detailed in order for the TOS to be, well, legal. So what can you do?

My advice: compromise. Write out your full TOS and then add comprehensible translations next to each point. This sends the message that you want your readers to understand the text, rather than overlook some sneaky legal point. Plus, it makes your website look cutting edge.

Here’s a good example of a “translated” TOS segment, taken from Heello.com. The legalese is on the left and the translation is on the right:

Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service image 1 heello screenshot 600x379Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service

Another option is to provide a simplified TOS and include a link to the full document. Below is Wikimedia‘s version of a “layman’s” TOS:

Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service image 2 wikimedia screenshot 600x360Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service

Note the line at the top: “This is a summary of the Terms of Use. To read the full terms, scroll down or click here.”

Format your TOS so it is easy to read.

Your TOS is not the point of your website. It is in fact the one thing standing between users and the thing they want. Anyone in a hurry (i.e: anyone raised on the internet) is inclined to check that box and agree to any terms necessary to get to Point B. This is compounded when your TOS is as indigestible as TOS’s typically are.

Think of it this way. The website itself is a gourmet meal, beloved by users for top-notch content and presentation. Your TOS is a granola bar – neat, compact, and packed with essential nutrients.

Below is an example of a bad TOS, from Cprr.org:

Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service image 3 cprr screenshot 600x357Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service

Catch any of that? Better take notes – it goes on for almost ten pages!

See how the print trails off the right side of the page? The reader needs to zoom out or scroll over to even see it all. It does look as if the designer tried to “spiff things up,” using different typefaces, hyperlinks and quotes. All this does, however, is make a big intimidating block of text look even more intimidating.

Now, here’s a sample of a good TOS. This one is taken from formswift.com.

Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service image 4 formswift screenshot 600x372Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service

The typeface is consistent and simple, which sets a calm tone. The “list” approach breaks the text into little bites, making it easy to digest. Plus, the abundant negative space makes the whole document look less intimidating.

Don’t make things too easy.

This might seem like contradictory advice. The thing is, while readability and accessibility are important in a TOS, you don’t want to make it too easy for your readers. An overly brief or “fun” TOS will leave no impression. Fortunately, there are a few tricks you can use to achieve a happy medium:

Use a webpage, not a pop-up window.

A pop-up window might seem like a space-saver, but it has its downsides. Know what most people associate with pop-up windows? Ads. Devoting a whole webpage to your TOS gives it the legal gravity it deserves.

Make it interactive.

A TOS should be succinct, but not incomplete. Don’t gloss over key points for the sake of pleasing readers. Sections should be paragraphs, not sentences. Ideally, your full TOS will be long enough that users need to scroll down a couple of frames. If it’s on the short side, or the excessively long side, you can organize it into drop-down tabs or a hyperlinked table of contents. Below is a good example from condenast.com:

Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service image 5 conde nast screenshot 600x369Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service

The most important part of your TOS is, of course, the agreement. Some TOS’s include a clause stating that site use constitutes agreement. However, this makes a TOS even easier to ignore. Try making your users click a check box or an “I Agree” button. You can even ask that they initial the form via e-signature.

Make crucial sections stand out.

You don’t need wacky fonts or graphics, but you do want users to notice certain parts. These include headers, disclaimers and the “agreement” section. A good approach is to use bold print or italics, and make the headers several sizes larger than the regular print. If you use an “I Agree” button, make it big and colorful. Make the accompanying statement of agreement stand apart from the text using negative space, bold print, and even a different color of font.

Get the tone right.

Your TOS should be serious in tone. After all, it is a legally binding agreement.  However, you don’t want to alienate users. Make sure the tone of the TOS is consistent with the tone of the rest of your website. There are ways to make text engaging while still getting your message across. Take a look at Google’s TOS introduction:

Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service image 6 google screenshotFive Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service

This introduction engages with the user, using down-to-earth language and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Here’s a funny example from Heello.com:

Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service image 7 heello screenshot 600x357Five Essential Tips for Creating Your Website’s Terms of Service

All the legal information is there, but the puppy-kicking detail lightens things up. Both of these examples illustrate ways to make your TOS bearable without disrupting its purpose.

These five suggestions will help you get started in crafting your TOS. What are your next steps? Start researching. Check out websites similar to your own, as well as websites that are enduringly popular. Additionally, you can put together TOS online using document creation websites at little to no cost. These websites can be real boons to internet entrepreneurs. Their templates are designed by experts and based upon years of market research. Using one gives you the advantage of “insider” information, while saving you a lot of time. Just be sure that any TOS you create from a template incorporates the tips above and fits the tone of your website. You can check out the sample terms of service agreement at FormSwift to see what I mean.

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