In case you missed it, Google quietly released their developer-documentation style guide for open source documentation projects in September 2017, revealing the company’s internal-only editorial style guide for developer documentation for the first time.
This reference, now made public, offers practical guidance about Google’s own policies when it comes to voice, tone, word choice, and other style considerations like when to use second person, present tense, active voice—not to mention the infamous serial (or Oxford) comma dilemma.
For recommendations regarding specific terms and phrases, you can even look at Google’s word list.
While your company’s specific style guide may differ somewhat depending on your industry and target audience, using Google’s new reference to “bootstrap” your own internal policies can be a helpful start to better manage your business’s content marketing strategies.
In this article, I’ll show you how to create a style guide for your brand and explain why you should take the time to finally do it this year.
What’s the Purpose of a Style Guide?
Google frequently emphasizes the importance of “high quality content.” Yet, aside from its meager Webmaster quality guidelines, the search engine has provided few details about what it actually considers “high quality”—much to the chagrin of SEOs and content marketers everywhere.
One thing we do know, however, is that search engine algorithms generally reward consistency.
Implementing a company-wide style guide for your brand helps ensure that all content produced across your organization is consistent no matter who the creators are—copywriters, designers, developers, freelancers, contractors, vendors—or which department is running the project—marketing, sales, HR, etc.
“It doesn’t matter if your business is a Fortune 500 company or a seed-stage startup, providing clear direction about your company’s self-presentation in one easily accessible document helps communicate the brand to your audience in a consistent manner.”
Why Having a Style Guide is Important: A Case Study Example
Not convinced yet that having a style guide for your brand is really necessary?
Here’s a quick story:
A while back, we began work for a client who sold products for people with disabilities. In doing research, we learned that there was a long list of terms that should be avoided when writing about disability.
To our dismay, the client had unwittingly used many of these frowned-upon terms throughout their website in blogs, articles, landing pages, you name it. We quickly replaced these instances with approved language, lest the company accidentally offend the very consumers they were intendending to attract.
This was a clear scenario where having a brand style guide from the beginning could have prevented this issue.
Google’s Developer Documentation Style Guide: The Highlights
If you’re still reading, I’ll assume you agree that having a style guide is important and you’re ready to get started creating one, or maybe optimizing the one you already have.
So let’s return to Google’s recently released documentation style guide. When you have time, you should definitely take a look at the full style guide here—but in the meantime, here are some of the general best practices that stuck out to us for content creators:
Make your tone friendly, conversational and have a clear purpose. Google recommends somewhere between the casual tone you would use when talking to friends and robot speak. Try to sound like a knowledgeable friend who understands what the reader wants.
Of course, how casual you can be depends on your industry, target audience and which medium you’re using. For example, blogs and social media posts should be more conversational, while whitepapers and landing pages are generally more formal and informational.
Likewise, a lawyer will typically need to produce more professional, serious and informational content for prospective clients in legal trouble than, say, a car dealership who can launch a lighthearted, fun blog series to build brand recognition and draw people to their car lot.
Also, be sure to use active voice (when the subject of the sentence is the person or thing performing the action) in most cases rather than passive voice (when the subject of the sentence is the person or thing being acted upon), though there are exceptions.
Most of the time, you’ll want to use second person rather than first person—say “you” instead of “we.”
It all boils down to knowing your audience and creating the right content for them. Start by creating buyer personas if you haven’t already.
Grammar & punctuation
Use standard American spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization rules. In cases where American rules differ from British English spelling, use the former. See the table below for a few common examples of how American and British spelling differ:
Check out this infographic to learn more distinctions between American vs. British English.
In the same token, Google recommends using standard American capitalization rules, including not using all uppercase to emphasize a word. You should, however, capitalize the first letter when referring to names of brands, companies, software, products, services, etc.
Be sure to carefully edit all content prior to posting in order to remove misspellings, unnecessary filler words, adverbs, etc.
Also, since an informal tone is encouraged, feel free to use contractions like “it’s,” “you’re,” “isn’t,” “don’t,” and “can’t.”
Lastly, you may use abbreviations (acronyms, initialisms, shortened words, contractions, etc.) so long as you spell out the first mention of the term in the text so that your readers know what it stands for.
Keep sentences clear, concise, and short. Use simple words that readers will easily understand. Accessible words and short sentences translate better into other languages, which is especially important if you have a global audience.
If you’re writing about a sequence of event or list of items, consider organizing the content into numbered or bulleted lists. Lists are easier for both humans and search spiders to scan quickly.
Finally, leave only one space between sentences. Two spaces are no longer necessary and actually make it harder for readers to follow along.
Be sure your content has a clear intro, body (with sub-headers) and conclusion. Break up paragraphs into easily-readable chunks of content, three sentences max. This helps create more white space on the page and is less intimidating for readers.
Make sure any outbound links are to sites that are “high-quality, reliable and respectable.” Also, implement effective and descriptive link text. When cross-referencing to another article, do not put the link in quotation marks.
What NOT to do
Some things to avoid:
- Buzzword or technical jargon
- Being overly “cutesy”
- Placeholder phrases (i.e. “Please note,” “At this time,” etc.)
- Choppy or long-winded sentences
- Starting multiple sentences with the same phrase (i.e. “You can,” “To do,” etc.)
- Inappropriate jokes made at the expense of others
Your Turn: How to Create Your Company’s Own Style Guide
Google isn’t the only notable company to make their internal style guides public in recent months. Others including Atlassian, WordPress and Salesforce have also become transparent in their editorial guidelines. The Yahoo! Style Guide and The Chicago Manual of Style Online are popular among digital marketers as well. There’s even a copyeditor’s style guide for writing about transgender people.
In short, you’ve got options.
Thoroughly reviewing these examples can help your own business make important decisions that improve the consistency and professionalism of your website’s content.
Feel free to lift any one of these style guides for your own purposes. (Don’t worry, it’s not cheating and it’ll save you ton of time than starting from scratch.)
How long should your style guide be?
It depends on how much content you have and how specific you want to be. Larger companies may need to be more detailed. Just be sure it remains accessible to your team and easy to use.
One final important point to keep in mind:
Like Google’s developer documentation style guide, your own style guide should be a flexible and easily updated. Never fall into the mindset that your style guide is concrete. Even Google says that their guide is “a living document; it changes over time.”
For this reason, I don’t recommend turning your style guide into a PDF. I’ve found that Google Docs seems to work best for this purpose due to its robust sharing settings.
For more advice on how to create a solid style guide for your brand, I’ll point you to this helpful HuffPost blog—and leave you with this…
What does your company style guide include? Do you regularly use and update it?
I’d love to hear your comments and feedback in the comment section below or via Facebook. Thanks for reading!