Google Docs turns off ability to edit document HTML and CSS

July 21, 2010

UPDATE1: 8/26  It appears that the HTML/CSS edit function has been restored to Google docs.  At least I was able to access those functions today in a new doc. The restoration may have occurred earlier– I hadn’t been checking in each document, and Google doesn’t do much to announce such changes. In any case,  if  CSS/HTML editing is back now,  Google appears to have listened to user concerns on this subject.

UPDATE2: 8/26  One reader says he still doesn’t have HTML/CSS editing. See the comments.

UPDATE3: 8/27  After further digging around, I realize that the Google Docs setting in my Apps suite  to “Use New Version of Google Docs” is turned OFF. I was under the impression that Google had turned the new version on by default in all accounts, and I’m unable to turn the new version off in my regular Google account, and thereby restore HTML and CSS editing in those accounts. So it appears that my original posting generally still applies. My bad.

While using Google docs yesterday, I was disturbed  to realize that it’s no longer possible to directly edit a  document’s HTML and CSS– the code that controls document style and formatting.  Even if  those initials give you hives and you can’t imagine touching document code yourself, the lack of a  HTML/CSS editor in Gdocs could turn out to be a big problem. Google says the change is temporary, but if you or your organization is considering a move to Google docs as your primary word processing program  I suggest you wait and see.  Many people are unhappy about the change; there’s already a Facebook group calling on Google to  “Bring Back Edit CSS & HTML”   Here’s why:

Google docs are, behind the scenes, basically web pages.  Like any web page, they are put together using what’s called HTML to structure the document — figure out where sections begin and end and etc.– and CSS to control  the document’s “look” or formatting.   The most reliable and direct way to make sure that your document’s structure and formatting is exactly the way you want it is by making sure that the HTML/CSS is right. And it’s often the only way to fix stubborn  formatting problems.   You may not want to do this yourself– but if you work in an organization that uses Google docs,  your  resident document expert probably did when you called on him or her to set up a long or complicated document or troubleshoot one that has “gone bad”– when, for example, you just couldn’t turn off  that red text or italics, or you couldn’t make  all your subheads and section headers the same size .

Instead of allowing direct access to a document’s code, many word processing systems offer “style editors.”
This, of course, includes Microsoft Word. These are often less than satisfactory– once some bad formatting code gets into a doc, it’s often impossible to get it out without editing the code.   For me –and many other people– one of the problems with Microsoft Word has always been that it doesn’t allow you (or at least not easily) to see and fix what’s going on in your doc behind the scenes.

I should note  that the code used to create Word docs isn’t the same as in Gdocs– but for me, and many others, the ability to see and directly edit Google docs code, and the fact that this code is the standard and  fairly-easy-to learn HTML and CSS,  was a major factor in persuading us to abandon Word in our businesses and switch over to Google docs.

I don’t use this feature all the time– that’s why I didn’t notice right away that Google had turned it off in the new version of  the Google docs editor, which was automatically installed in the online editing screen of every Google docs user. For awhile, it was possible to switch back to the old version, but apparently no more. On June 13 “Google employee Jeff Harris” commented in a Google help forum: “We need to move people off the old editor, so we can focus our full attention on improving the new one. I know that’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s the truth.”

I’m far from the only one unhappy about this change.   That Google help forum and another on the subject are  filled with complaints like these:

<<After two decades of personal computer use, I am sick of proprietary formats. I am sick of plain text seeming to be the only alternative. When I create a text document, I want simple, clean HTML. . .>>

<<If I do not have the CSS feature (and perhaps also the HTML editing feature .. dependent on the quality on the editor) I simply cannot use google docs any more..>>

Google has suggested, via  posts on these answer boards, that it plans to  “implement Styles”  in the new version of Google Docs– eventually.

Even if that’s so, if it simply means that a Word-type “Styles” feature shows up in the Gdocs editor,  that’s not going to be good enough for me or, I’m willling to bet, many other dedicated Gdocs users.

We want  AT LEAST the same the ability to SEE and CHANGE the code that controls document formatting  that you find in any decent blog editor, like the one I’m using right now to write this post in WordPress .  Such editors often aren’t very convenient to use, the screen is tiny and it’s hard to find the relevant part of the code to fix it;  but using the same kind of editor  it was previously possible to find the problem section in a Gdoc, put that code into a better code editor, fix it, and dump it back into Gdocs.  That’s no longer possible– and it still won’t be if Google merely adds a “Styles editor” feature to the new Gdocs.

As the commenter quoted above suggests, this change is inconsistent with Google’s professed dedication to “open-ness.”  I’m not naive enough to expect that a giant company like Google will always put this precept into practice. But I would like my own documents to be open and accessible to me in all ways.  And while I understand that there are many technical challenges –including security challenges– involved,  this shouldn’t be beyond Google.

Until it happens, though, I’m a far less happy Google docs user, and far less enthusiastic about recommending it to others.

Filed under: Google docs

6 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Avi Rappoport  |  July 22, 2010 at 10:21 am

    Google Docs 2010 Not Ready for Prime Time
    (The Dark Side of Cloud Services)

    I also have a long list of the issues in Google Docs 2010, that I couldn’t fit into the article

    In the short run, they should go back to the old and call the new one Beta.

    Then, once they get the word processing features working, make the old one a NotePad or HTML Editor, and the new one can be the Word Processor.

  • 2. Avi Rappoport  |  July 22, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Ack, URLs

    Google Docs 2010 Not Ready for Prime Time: (The Dark Side of Cloud Services)

    Google Docs 2010 Issues

  • 3. Michael Uschold  |  August 26, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I am using Google Documents today and do not have access to the Edit CSS feature. Yet, you seem to see it. How can this be?


  • 4. ozmos  |  August 26, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Good question– the doc I referred to is in my Google Apps suite, where I almost always work, but I just checked the docs edit panel connected to my regular gmail account and you are correct– no HTML/CSS edit there. Let’s keep an eye on this.

  • 5. teff  |  July 6, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Excuse my bad english (I am French).
    I just discovered this problem these days. But I found a turn-over: I have “old” docs, and I duplicated one of them (by opening it and: Files / Create a copy) in a document that I renamed “old with CSS”.
    And now, if I want access to CSS (all the time?), I create docs by copy of this “old with CSS”.

    It’s not satisfying, but it works.

  • 6. ozmos  |  July 6, 2011 at 10:16 am

    @teff thanks for the tip– have to try it. I think eventually Google will turn off the “old” editing capability completely, but for the moment this could work.

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