Websites need style

Having a style guide is essential for a professional-looking website or publication. I’ve contributed to bespoke style guides, mostly for big clients, but having one specially written is probably beyond the means of small and medium-sized businesses. For the rest of us, the best thing to do is to borrow someone else’s.

I recently came across the government’s digital style guide and thought it really good. After several months, it’s still in draft – alpha not even beta – which reinforces my view that compiling one’s own tends to be a never-ending task.

As well as the familiar advice about addressing the user as “you”, using simple language and avoiding awful phrases such as “delivering improvements”, it has helpful tips specific to websites, including search engine optimisation. For example, “Frontload keywords” in page titles: that’s web-speak for “put important words at the beginning”. The style guide gives the optimal length of a description meta tag, tells you how to code subheadings and so on.

Best of all I’ve seen so far is “This isn’t a dumping ground for information that doesn’t fit the other headings.” The phrase “dumping ground” is used more than once, recognising that too many websites are full of information that gets in the way of what users actually want. So “if you can’t find a place for it, don’t use it.” That’s good advice.

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