Why your content is never up to date

Audiences need to feel confident that content they are viewing is active — current, accurate and relevant to the moment — and not dead.  They expect to view the newest information. A robust process for keeping content up-to-date has never been more important, but existing approaches fall short of that ideal.  In part one of this two part series, I will examine why common approaches for updating content can create problems.  In part two, “Making content updates an intelligent process,”  I will suggest alternatives.  First, let’s look at why the current situation is a problem.

Audiences can punish brands on social media when content’s dated and inaccurate.  Even content with minor blimishes, such as copy that simply looks outdated, can influence the perceived credibility of the content.  People don’t want to think they are getting something that’s old and stale, something that makes them feel they aren’t a priority.  Numerous studies have shown that audiences evaluate information for being up-to-date ahead of any other factor.   Current content is also essential for SEO.  SEO experts believe Google gives priority to most recent content, and content that appears more recent will probably have higher click through rates (CTRs).

Brands still face major challenges fighting the problem of dead content, even though everyone agrees on the value of keeping content up-to-date.  Why is this?  The old model of “publish and forget” is no longer acceptable.  Previously, brands might publish something, then mentally throw it away after it was no longer desirable or needed, without actually taking steps to retire the content.   Now, content will often have at least a notional expiry date associated with it.  Deadlines sound serious, as long as people believe in them.  But many times the content updating process is built on wishful thinking.

Common approaches to updating

The current approach to preventing dead content is what I will call “publish and be vigilant.”  This approach involves several tactics that rest on two core values: discipline, and accountability.  The vigilant approach depends on the heroism and foibles of people.  It can work well in some situations, especially when there is a small group of content creators who regularly revise content.  But a process based on vigilance is not effective or sustainable for large scale content management.  To understand some the elements of the vigilant approach, we will look at the content governance advice of the U.S. Government (as of this writing in early 2014).  I’m using this example not because it is notably good or bad, but because it is representative, and provides a rare glimpse into an internal organizational policy.

screenshot of content updating advice
Advice from the U.S. Government’s How To website (screenshot)

The above screenshot shows the basic process.  The key recommendation is to set up a review process: content owners follow a list of criteria to check that the content is readable and functional, and conduct reviews on a quarterly basis, with all content reviewed once a year.  This advice is consistent with recommendations commonly offered by content strategists, and is sound as far as it goes.  These things do need to happen, even if they may need to be done differently than the basic guidance would suggest.  But the larger problem is to assume doing these things alone will be sufficient to keep your content up-to-date.    The real world of content is far too messy to be managed by simple rules.

Hope #1: Content ownership

All content needs an owner — that’s the standard advice.  Here’s what noted content consultant Garry McGovern says: “Anything that does get published must have an identifiable owner. That owner must commit to regularly (every six months at least) checking their published content. It is absolutely no excuse for them to say they don’t have time. Don’t let them publish if they don’t have time to review and remove.”  But McGovern also notes “It’s very hard to review and remove. Not alone does it take time, it also takes skill and authority.”

While having an owner is essential, it’s not a panacea.  McGovern highlights the skill and time issues associated with ownership.  The problems get even bigger when looked at across the entire organization.  The reality is that content ownership is almost never distributed on the basis of resources available to support the content.  People are content owners because they want political ownership, or are the subject matter expert, or else they were the unlucky inheritor of content no one else wants to own.  Some people are owners of a few items that aren’t burdensome but are largely irrelevant to their main job functions, and hence a low priority.  Other people “own” piles of content they can’t hope to manually review on a regular basis.  Simply devolving responsibility for managing the dead content problem is not a viable solution.

Hope #2: Content reviews

Another tactic that often fails in practice is setting up a content review schedule.  The content owner, who has moral responsibility for keeping his content up-to-date, even if he has no staff hours budgeted to do so, is expected to review all his content on some arbitrary schedule: quarterly, semiannually or annually.  During this review period, all other of their work obligations will presumably pause.  Of course, few modern organizations have fallow periods available for spring cleaning.  But even if an organization did prioritize content review, doing it on an arbitrary timeframe makes no sense.  Such arbitrary schedules are not based on the underlying characteristics of the content, and do not reflect any solid business requirements.

Content varies in its shelf life.  Some content has a short shelf life: it needs to get updated more frequently than once a quarter, and probably does get updated, because it is front of mind.  Other content has a long shelf life.  It may need updating at any time, but when that will be is unpredictable.  If change is infrequent, then reviews will either result in wasted time checking ok content, or allowing a long time to lapse before something that has become outdated is revised.

Content management systems promise to manage the problem by including an expiration date on the content that sends a alert to the content owner.  While tying an expiration date to an item of content does have the advantage of distributing when different content is reviewed, it doesn’t change the the fundamental problem of date-based reviews: they are predicated on an arbitrary timeframe, a guess of when to look at something again.  In the case of a CMS expiration, there may even be a tendency to overestimate how long a piece of content will stay current, since we all like to believe in the lasting value of our efforts.

Scheduled reviews aren’t efficient or effective.  There needs to be better methods tied to actual business requirements.  Use scheduled reviews only as a fall back until you’ve implemented more robust solutions.

Hope #3: Kill unused content

A third tactic, borrowed from the realm of content auditing, is to get rid of content once it’s not being used.  This is essentially a Darwinian approach: if content isn’t being viewed, it isn’t of value to audiences or the organization, so it doesn’t deserve a home any longer.  And, unsurprisingly, much content that isn’t viewed is in fact out of date.  So utilization can be a proxy for out-of-datedness.

Paul Boag suggests this approach as being both labor efficient and skirts some of political squabbles  surrounding content retirement: “An alternative to time based review points would be traffic based. This is designed to remove content that is not really used by users rather than out-of-date content. This review point would be triggered if the traffic to a page falls below a certain threshold over a given period. This would indicate that the page is of little interest and is simply making it more difficult for the majority of people to find what they are after.”

Boag recognizes the human resource bottleneck of manual reviews, and his proposal is elegant.  But killing unused content is both reactive and unstrategic, and could result in some bad outcomes.  The goal should be to keep content up-to-date, not simply to get rid of old or underused content.  Those two goals are not equivalent.

Unfortunately, web traffic is an imprecise measure of the topical value of content.  It merely records what content has been viewed, not the actual interest of audiences in the topic itself.  One can imagine several scenarios where content that should be of interest to audiences and is strategically important, is not getting expected traffic:

  1. Content on important topics may be poorly written; such content should be improved, not eliminated.
  2. The lead subject matter expert for a hot, fast moving topic may have left the organization and could not be replaced right away: the content got old and stale, and traffic fell.  Again, eliminating such content will only weaken public perception of the organization’s expertise about the topic.
  3. There was a SEO problem for the content due to JavaScript technicalities on those pages.  The webpages need fixing here, not the content.

Perhaps more unsettlingly, web traffic analysis may not catch out-of-date content when traffic is high.  Content may be out of date and contain errors, but still gets lots of traffic due to its keywords or placement.  Instead of flagging the problem, the analytics team is blissfully unaware that they have a large scale issue until customer service complaints start coming in.

Analytics should be part of the tool set, but remember that they are looking backward, and can miss some blind spots.  Analytics don’t answer what content the organization should be emphasizing in the future from a business perspective, it only addresses what content audiences have found popular in the past.

Why the status quo needs disruption

The approaches I’ve critiqued do have merits: all are conceptually simple, all are necessary, and in many cases they are the only options organizations currently have to address content that’s gone out-of-date.  Organizations are not wrong for using these approaches.  But relying on these approaches alone will never solve the problem that content goes out-of-date, and organizations only discover this fact after it has happened, sometimes a long time after.  These approaches are about how to resuscitate content that has died, about applying CPR to content that’s stopped breathing.

Every year organizations publish more and more new content, and every year they have more and more legacy content they need to look at to make sure its not out-of-date and in conflict with all the new stuff.  Every year, customer toleration of old content lessens, as people expect faster updates, and get more frustrated encountering legacy content that hasn’t been updated.  A process based on discipline and threats can’t cope with these trends.

To review some of the problems with the status quo:

  • content owners are often not aware their content is out-of-date for long periods
  • other members of the organization may not know of the problem either
  • web analytics won’t necessarily flag the problem

What’s been missing in the content strategy toolkit are ways to anticipate when content will go out-of-date, and make revisions to the content before the content becomes overtaken by new events.  In the second part of this article, I will explore ideas for improving an organization’s anticipatory capability to make content changes when they need to happen.

— Michael Andrews