Keeping a Style Guide Alive

Whether it’s 200 pages or two pages, most organizations have some kind of style guide. A style guide sets the standards for content—whether presented online or offline—and defines the rules and guidelines for ensuring consistency across all content. It usually includes preferred nomenclature, sample phrasing, best practices, and legal considerations.

In large organizations with a dedicated editing team, a style guide actually gets used.

Often, however, a style guide is created amidst much fanfare, referred to over and over again for one or two tricky scenarios (serial comma or not, anyone?), and then otherwise left to sit, unless a new team starts working on content, or a new team member jumps on board.

As a team that gets brought in to help organizations build out new sites and content, we get to see these style guides with a fresh eye. This allows us to really use them–and be held accountable to then follow them. In an ideal world, a content creator should be looking at a style guide on a daily basis, and adding to it (or recommending additions) on a regular (weekly or monthly) basis.

So what are some ways to keep a style guide up-to-date, and continually useful?

  • Create a small committee of style guide owners and interested parties. This should be a combination of people both using the guide (writers, editors), and management who have the power and influence to enforce the guide.
  • Make it easy for people to provide feedback. Whether it’s a dedicated email box, or just one person who funnels requests, make it easy and obvious for people to submit questions, requests for additions or changes, etc.
  • Set up quarterly review sessions with the committee. Once a quarter, keep a standing meeting where the committee meets to address those changes. Updates shouldn’t be made in a vacuum–having a group of people talk it through can help determine the best course of action.
  • Share the updated style guide widely. This sharing should be done with both internal team members, as well as any external consultants. If you’re finding that you’re not creating any updates in a given quarter, you may want to look harder. It’s rare that something won’t pop up that needs to be added or modified.

This final act of sharing is not just to pass along any changes to the style guide, but to underscore the importance that following the guidelines has—not only to content creation and management, but to the organization’s overall business needs and goals.

Recycle, Reuse — and Reduce Costs

How long has your site been around — 5, 10, 20 years? Odds are, you’ve experienced enough turnover on your team during that time that nobody really knows all the content you have. There may even be one-off sites that were created and forgotten about.

Next time you have a new content project, start by thoroughly searching for what already exists. Instead of starting from scratch, you can likely reuse or at least recycle some existing content. That will save time — and money.

For each page we’re asked to create, we follow these steps:

  • Search on site. This may not reveal much you don’t know about, but you could find some relevant facts or quotes you’ve forgotten about.
  • Search in CMS. A CMS search will help pick up unpublished pages.
  • Search Google for “[client name] + [page topic].” This is where the magic tends to happen. You’ll find all sorts of pages and sites that you’ve forgotten about — blog and social media posts, articles on other sites, and more.

We then take the best of what we find, add in new details, and produce a fresh piece of content with minimal effort.

The final step — and a key to keeping your content accurate and up-to-date — is making sure you remove the old content that’s no longer needed.

Need help figuring out what content you have? Learn about content inventories.

Who Should You Trust with Content Entry?

A website redesign can be a long, arduous process. When you finally make it to the point that your content management system is ready to be filled with the well-written, accurate, and up-to-date content you’ve spent months creating, you may feel like all the hard work is done.

Unfortunately, content entry can be as difficult and time consuming as content creation, especially with a modern CMS that makes use of widgets and reusable content. Depending on the format of your old content, you may need to break up the content into pieces to take advantage of the tools your new CMS offers. Often the content doesn’t fit quite like you expected.

Options for Content Entry

  • Some groups use an internal team to enter content. This is a great option if you have the time — your team will really get to know the ins-and-outs of a CMS during the content entry phase.
  • Finding an off-shore resource is another route many groups we work with take. It’s the least expensive choice (at least on paper — more on that in a bit).
  • There are tools such as GatherContent that automate the process.
  • My preference is to let the team that created the content enter it.

Why Use the Content Team That Created It?

It comes down to how to deliver the highest quality content. It’s rare that templates designed at the beginning of a redesign look or work exactly as planned. Content will likely need to be adapted to fit the final product. The team that created the content has the best understanding of how to change the approved content.

The content team can also assess if the page is accomplishing its goals once it is in the CMS. Is the main message high enough on the page? Are the paragraphs too long? Are there links to help visitors find additional content? Minor revisions are common during content entry.

Some clients think that it’s a waste of skill to use people who are capable of creating content to enter content; I encourage them to think of the benefits — both for them and for visitors to the site.


Best of Intentions

I’ve written before about keeping the content experience clean and lean, and after every redesign project I work on, my feelings about it get stronger. (If you’re one of my kids who’s around when I start sighing and throwing my hands up, you might even say I get a little bit heated.)

The truth is, we’re all continuing to create massive amounts of content. That’s not going to change.

But with so much content available, the intent of each piece of content needs to be clear.

What is that content intended to do?

If I can answer that question – and then make the content accomplish it, I feel like I’m part of the solution, as opposed to the problem.

When I’m writing content now – whether it be an educational article, an email, a customer support piece of content, a marketing piece, or even just a button that’s designed to move users to the next page – I’ve started adding a piece of data at the top of my working document.

It’s about intent. Before I start putting anything down, I type a simple:

 “Intent =         .”

And then I make myself answer that equation before I start writing.

Let’s say I’m writing a page about ice storms. (I’m writing this post in February from my house in Connecticut.)

Intent shouldn’t equal “Write about ice storms.”

Depending on the site, audience and targets, the intent could be:

  • Clearly describe how and why ice storms happen (Informational)
  • Give homeowners actionable information that will help them deal with the impact of ice storms on their homes (Educational)
  • Convince consumers to buy this product that can help prevent slips and falls in the event of an ice storm (Marketing)

There’s a hundred other ways to slice intent, but the point is, if I had used “Write about ice storms” as my driving intent, I’d end up with a generic piece of content that people could get anywhere.

Forcing myself to define intent helps me create content that’s targeted not just to the audience (or to the client), but to the desired action. And it helps me avoid creating content “just because.”

Now, I usually take that intent phrase off the document before I hand it in. But when I’m developing my content, I want that intent front and center. I want that intent to drive me. Otherwise, what’s the point? Focused content is content that’s actually meaningful.

If I work from a more targeted intent, I’ll stay on topic, and create a piece of content that’s relevant and on point.

We’re always going to be asked to create more content. Starting with intent can help make that content useful.

Consistency Across Content Creators

When you’re dealing with a large-scale web redesign, you’re talking about a lot of content. And when you’re talking about a lot of content, you’re going to need more than one writer to create it all.

Unfortunately, it’s never just as simple as throwing a caravan of writers at a project. In fact, the more writers you have, the more confusion you usually end up with, especially at the beginning of a content development project.

Unique personalities are great in the real world – but having unique writing personalities on the same web site is problematic. Even when working from a style guide, the best writers will still bring their own distinct flavor to their writing.

Here are some ideas to help make the writing clear, consistent and even across multiple content creators:

  • Start with a style guide. Even if you have to create one from scratch, don’t let writers start writing anything until you have one. It doesn’t have to be a book—even a simple outline that’s a few pages long will help—anything to start creating consistent terminology.
  • Share sample pages before writers start writing. Create a few pages that you love–choose one for each template, or topic area, for example. These sample pages should emulate the tone and quality you want. Make these sample pages the holy grail of your content examples, and make it clear that these are what you’re looking for.
  • Give your writers time to absorb and talk through background materials. It’s not enough to hand over the guide, examples and process documentation. Make sure writers have time allocated in their workload to integrate these background materials into their work—it’s a valuable exercise and will save you time down the road. After the writers have had time to review on their own, set up time to review it together as a group.
  • In the early weeks, have a calibration session. Review the initial work of all writers, and come to a consensus on the final approach. In this calibration workshop, share your edits with them. This can help everyone see where the sticking points are, and what they need to do more (and less) of.
  • Have completed, final edited work available to the writing team. Give team members a chance to review both their edited work, as well as other’s edited work. This can help them continue to integrate the right tone and approach in their work. (If there’s a way for internal editing to happen among writers, that can be a great way to level set too.)
  • Review content in sections, as much as you can. Instead of editing content as piecemeal pages, try to review sections holistically. Not only will this help with creating a consistent approach and tone, but it also helps you take advantage of potential cross-linking opportunities.

Stay focused on your approach—and both your content and your writers stay on track.

Keeping it Clean and Lean

We work with many of our clients on a long-term basis – and something that comes up often is the request to add new pages to a site. This isn’t inherently bad – there are a lot of solid reasons for creating new pages.

However, far too often a request for a new page could easily be handled with a few sentences carefully integrated into an existing page instead.

  • This is good for SEO: A page that’s been live longer will rank higher than a page that’s just been launched. The page also gets bonus SEO points for having content that’s had a recent update.
  • This is good for your audience: Instead of having to look in two different places for your content, your audience can get it in one spot. That’s a big win: A happy audience is one that’s more likely to take action with your content.
  • This is good for your sanity: Keeping your content ecosystem as clean and lean as possible saves you upkeep down the line.

No matter how good it might be to take the integration and adaption approach though, sometimes pushing back on a new content request is a challenge. Here’s how to just say no.

  • Ask the requestor to clearly define the unique elements of the content. If they can’t define what makes it unique, it shouldn’t get a new page. End of story. Too often we field requests that are just duplicates of what’s already out there.
  • Do a careful audit of your site, and figure out what you already have to work with. Find all the existing content that could be adapted to fit the needs instead.
  • Use analytics as a weapon. How are your existing page analytics? If they’re already pretty good, it’s a solid argument for integrating new content into the existing page. You have an established audience, and what’s better than that? On the flip side, if your page metrics could be better, see if you can use the new information to increase page views, using keywords, formatting and even updated page titles.
  • Think like a marketer. If it’s added “sparkle” the requestor is looking for, think of other options. In addition to integrating the new content to the site itself, consider social media marketing – include a timely Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn post. Not everything new needs a new page – sometimes it just needs a fresh callout.
  • Look at the content management system you’re using. In day-to-day content creation, we’re all guilty of ignoring the capabilities of even the most basic content templates. But one of the key benefits of a CMS is to be able to highlight new and targeted content in a flexible way. Consider the content elements you have to work with in your CMS, and figure out how to tailor them to your needs.

A final takeaway: One of the biggest requests we get when tackling site redesigns, is to figure out ways to consolidate content. If you can figure out how to keep the garden tended along the way, you’ll avoid the overhead of a site consolidation later.

Google Making Mobile First

Google Making Mobile First

On November 4, 2016 Google announced on their Webmaster Central Blog that they have begun experiments to make our index mobile-first and that:

Our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results.

This is big news, to put it mildly.

Read more

Lost in Translation: Quality Content Matters and Other Lessons Learned

I was recently browsing cheap Bluetooth speakers and discovered that while sales for these things are huge, quality content is not high on the agenda for these companies.

To wit, here’s the speakerphone and suction cup description for the LESHP Pocket Mini:

With the strong grade sucker, so speaker can play freely occasions adsorption. Built in high sensitive microphone, a key realization of all calls, neglect neither driving nor calling.

There’s so much to work with in that passage. Bad grammar. Lack of detail. General senselessness.

And there’s more, further down the page:

Good sound began moving 360 to your extraordinary experience from here.

Excellent Bluetooth module, powerful function and perfect sound quality, enjoy wireless music.

We’re probably dealing with a translation from Chinese, but that doesn’t excuse the complete lack of comprehension. However, it offers a case study for content. Let’s look more closely at the lessons the page offers.

  1. As a result of the poor content, I immediately doubted the quality of the product and the seller. Lesson: Quality content matters in a very tangible way. Poor content reflects poorly on you.
  2. Several details about the product are sprinkled throughout the text, but you have to hunt for them. That may be why there’s more than 70 reviews and 11 customer questions needed to round out the content. Lesson: Think about your audiences’ tasks and make sure it’s easy for them to accomplish them.
  3. The user-generated content saves the page. The reviews round out the product information. While I suspect that the reviewers may have gotten discounts or free products in exchange for their post, if you read enough you’ll get a general idea of the pros and cons of the speaker. Lesson: Tap into the expertise and enthusiasm of your audience.
  4. The page serves as the main web presence for this item. There’s no company page, and a search turns up three Amazon pages plus a few other sellers and linkbait sites. Lesson: Not everything needs a website. Sometimes a Facebook page or pages is enough. Be where your audience is.
  5. This product costs less than $10. Lesson: If you price something low enough, the rest may not matter. Sad but true.

And no, I didn’t buy this one. The editor in me wouldn’t allow it.



Secured webpages via HTTPS are commonplace for online stores or cases where you’re accessing private information—for instance, when purchasing a book on or logging into to Gmail. You know you’re on a secured page when you see “HTTPS” in the address bar instead of “HTTP.” Interactions with these sites have helped visitors understand that the little lock icon in their browser bar is important for their security.

In 2014 Google revealed that HTTPS is a ranking signal and that they are advocating for “HTTPS everywhere” on the web. Since then Google has announced concrete steps in that direction (more below). Naturally, many SEO experts have recommended everyone move their sites to HTTPS to garner an advantage in ranking. While it’s true it is a ranking signal, real-world results have not yet shown this to be significant, but that doesn’t matter—you should still move your site to HTTPS.

Read more

Asking the Right Questions

A key to a successful content project is being prepared before you begin creating anything. That means you need to ask the right questions well ahead of any content work. While the specific questions will change based on the project, here are some questions that are always relevant:

Who is your audience?

Understanding who you are creating content for is fundamental to successful content. Is it women ages 25-45? High school students? Nerds in Chicago? That’s the basis for your voice and tone, and sets up the rest of the work to be done.

What do they want to do on the site?

Ideally we’d talk to the prospective users to get this information, but if that’s out of scope we can get at the answers in other ways: analyzing current site analytics, keyword research, and interviewing people in your group who interact with your audience offline.

What do you need the site to do for you?

We believe successful content first meets the needs of users, but it also has to serve your purposes—and it can do both. Having clear goals for your content allows you to measure success in concrete terms. Common goals are things like increasing appointments or reducing calls. Once you’ve defined the goals, gather data as a baseline to compare before and after the new content goes live.

Additional questions

Those are the big three questions to start, but these are worth considering, too:

  • Who will update the content and how often?
  • Does the content meet a larger organizational goal?
  • What do you want the visitor to do next?
  • What are opportunities for images and video?

Thinking about questions like these helps focus content creation and prepares you for a successful project.

Want to know more about how we work? Contact us.