On July 6th, you’ll be able to purchase a printed book written by Yahoo called The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World. Putting aside for a moment the irony of providing an online style guide as a printed book, what’s this style guide all about?
The first style guide of its kind?
The press release says it’s the “first guide of its kind to focus on the specific issues associated with developing content for the online medium”. That’s not true, of course. I started using the Yale Web Style Guide when it was first published way back in 1999 when I was still developing web sites and writing online documentation (I still have a copy of the first edition on my bookshelf). I started using the Microsoft Manual of Style in the mid-90s, although it was aimed at both print and online documentation and wasn’t specifically for web sites. Amazon tells me that I purchased Standards for Online Communication, (originally published in 1997) in 1999 as well. A quick search for “online style guide” brings up a number of other publications as well, so I won’t belabor the point.
What does the guide contain?
Maybe the world does need an updated style guide with the latest about writing on the web. I’m not sure it needs another reference manual “covering the fine points of grammar, where to put a semicolon, and the use of the passive voice”, as quoted in a review in the press release. But what else does it contain?
You can find a lot of details at the companion web site. Yahoo has also launched a related Twitter account: @yahoostyle guide (the second tweet suggests web writing be concise and attempts to be humorous, but then links to 655 words on the subject, which just makes me nostalgic for Strunk and White’s “omit needless words”.)
A quick scan of the table of contents shows that the book contains the standard stuff in every style guide: grammar, punctuation, clarity of voice. It also contains the standard stuff found in web writing style guides and reference books: writing scannable copy, ensuring accessibility, writing for mobile devices and email. And it has a chapter on search engine optimization.
What does Yahoo recommend about search engine optimization?
The companion web site first explains how search engines work, explaining that sites at the top of the results list get more visitors. The bulk of the actual advice is solid, although rudimentary.
“Write information-rich copy that people will want to read and link to and … figure out which words people are likely to use in searches, and then embed those keywords throughout your copy.”
There are a few tactical details (links, title tags), but things go slightly off the rails fairly quickly. Do search engines really give more weight to words in bold, italics, and bulleted lists? The recommendation to use the same words people search with is a good one, but even though Yahoo warns against keyword stuffing, the advice still comes across as potentially spammy:
- “Strategically seed your copy with keywords”
- “Search engines, to understand what the subject of a page is, look for keywords throughout that page, including at the top (the introduction) and the bottom (the conclusion). But don’t just shove keywords into the top or the bottom of your page—distribute them evenly throughout.”
- “To a search engine, good writing means using variations of your keywords, including those with different endings.”
- “Like a muffin with the right amount of blueberries, it [the page] should have juicy keywords distributed evenly throughout, but not so many that they overwhelm the whole.”
Yahoo recommends doing keyword research for audience analysis and to determine the highest volume queries to target. (While one of their key SEO tips is to avoid broken links, the link to the keyword research section of the site attempts to access beta.styleguide.corp.yahoo.com.) These tools include Keyword Discovery, Wordtracker, Google AdWords, and SEOmoz. They also list a couple of rank checking tools. No mention of the risks of rank checking. And no mention of Yahoo’s own keyword tools, or Microsoft’s for that matter. All in all, the list seems woefully incomplete (no Google Insights for Search?). I have a more substantial keyword research and competitive analysis tools list compiled on my site.
They do list other tools on an “audience measurement” page, including Google Webmaster Tools and Yahoo Site Explorer (but no Bing Webmaster Center). But overall, the SEO section seems overly tactical, and doesn’t go as far as I’d like to tie together audience and business needs. (I call this building “searcher persona workflows“.)
Overall, what Yahoo did is not unlike what Microsoft did years ago with the Microsoft Manual of Style. It took its internal style guide, which most mature companies have, and published it. Will it be useful? Probably. But hopefully content owners who aren’t savvy about SEO won’t treat it as all they need to know about search simply because it’s published by a company that has historically maintained a search engine.