What happens to content after its publication seems to vary widely. Content maintenance is not considered exciting — and is often overlooked. Even the term content maintenance has no commonly accepted definition. Despite its lowly status and fuzzy profile, content maintenance is a many sided and fundamental activity. I want to explore what content maintenance can involve, and how to prioritize its different aspects.
An Inconspicuous Activity
Many diagrams showing the content lifecycle have a placeholder for content maintenance. After creating content and delivering content, content maintenance is required. But what that means in practice is often not well-defined. This shouldn’t be surprising: content maintenance somehow lacks the urgency that content creation and content delivery have. After the adrenaline rush of creating new content, and watching the initial audience response to it, the content is no longer top of mind.
In many organizations, content maintenance isn’t planned at all. Some content gets updated because it is rewritten periodically, while other content is never touched after publication. The organization may do a cleanup every few years in conjunction with a website redesign or IT upgrade, relying on a tedious content inventory and audit to evaluate how messed up the situation has become — content strategy’s equivalent to doing a root canal.
Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rich, in their popular book Content Strategy for the Web, offer one of the most detailed discussions of content maintenance. They call for a content maintenance plan that reflects content objectives such as assuring accuracy and consistency, archiving or reordering older content, confirming links are working and metadata is current, and removing redundant content. This is a good list, but in itself doesn’t suggest how to implement a repeatable process for maintenance. These authors further recommend establishing rules to govern content. Another sound idea.
But critical questions remain: On what basis does the organization prioritize its maintenance plan? What criteria govern maintenance decisions?
A pivotal issue with content maintenance is defining its scope. What activities are necessary, desirable but optional, or unnecessary? Does a maintenance task apply to all content, or are there any distinctions in types of content that effect how tasks are allocated? If there are differences in how various content is treated in maintenance, on what basis are priorities made? Are they arbitrary decisions made by a committee crafting a plan, or are decisions guided by a stable set of rules that are always dependable? How do we know we are doing content maintenance effectively, given finite resources?
Decisions about content maintenance can reflect deep convictions about the core value of different kinds of content. The content maintenance approach of an organization can express unconscious attitudes about content. One common approach is to make sure that popular content is kept up-to-date. An exclusive focus on popular content is not a comprehensive approach to content maintenance.
Many people consider content maintenance as a simple housekeeping task. But it can play a bigger role. The ultimate purpose of content maintenance is to help organizations use content to grow their engagement with audiences in a sustainable way. Content maintenance deserves to be reappraised as a foundation of sustainable growth, instead of a zero-sum exercise of pruning and fixing last year’s publications. When organizations understand how content maintenance is essential to making content reach and connect with audiences more effectively, they will place more emphasis on what to do after content’s been published.
Content maintenance serves two functions:
- Countering entropy, where published content starts to decay due to various factors
- Improving relevance through optimization
Keeping content up-to-date often seems like an impossible task because content managers don’t have a good understanding of why content gets out-of-date. Admittedly, the reasons are manifold. But a clearer understanding of why content becomes dated will help with the maintenance process.
Recently, some content managers have begun to speak about a concept called content debt. The concept refers to when there is no plan for the content once it has been published, so that a debt is incurred because the content’s creators have deferred decisions about what should happen to the content in the future. Many organizations practice bad habits when publishing content. With so many ways things can be done badly, establishing a robust process to keep content accurate is not an easy task.
We need to distinguish two related concepts: content relevance, and content validity. Content relevance refers to whether audiences care about the content. Content validity refers to whether the content is accurate, a subset of content relevance. When people speak of updating content, they often do not make clear whether they are concerned with fixing inaccuracies in the content, or whether they are assessing how to make it more relevant. A lack of precision when speaking of updating content can become confusing for those responsible for the task.
Generally, when people speak of updating content, they are presuming the content is intrinsically relevant, but that some aspect of it needs correction. Two types of updating are common:
- Content accuracy updating
- Technical updating
Content accuracy updating addresses what has changed factually in the content since it was published? Facts have a tendency to go out of date. In his book, The Half Life of Facts: Why Everything has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman notes that even scientific facts are not stable, and are subject to revision.
Web content often created around events, past and future. Some content refers to forthcoming events on specific dates, which may indicate a need to update the content after that date, depending on what the content says. Other content may have a hidden dependency on events. A change in executive leadership, product names, or business location may impact many items of content that make reference to these now-changed facts. To some extent, content referring to internally determined facts can be managed utilizing content structure and metadata.
When content refers to facts that change due to external factors, the maintenance process can be messier. Content may refer to whether products comply with certain regulations that may be subject to change but that could not have been fully anticipated when the content was created. Service providers such as airlines may need to update content to indicate changes in factual information reflecting service disruptions due to external factors such as strikes or volcanic eruptions. Organizations should map how content accuracy may be dependent on external events, and plan for how content will be updated in such scenarios.
Technical updating can be challenging for organizations that have a lot of legacy content. The web is over 20 years old, and has become our external memory of what’s happened in our world. Many people expect to find something they saw in the past, but how that content was constructed from a technical perspective may not be compatible with current web standards.
External developments are often responsible for technical decay. Broken links referring to third party content are the most obvious example. The more pervasive problem arises when technical standards shift, and the content is not renewed to conform to the new standards. Two examples of standards shifts are changes in markup standards, such as the growth of semantic search markup, and changes in media format standards, such as the recent demise of the Flash format for video.
Updating content requires content professionals to think about the content lifecycle more globally. The content lifecycle depends on the event lifecycles to which the content refers and relies on. The content is part of a larger story: the story of how a product is managed, how an organization evolves, or how an enabling technology is used. The specifics and timing of these events may not be known, but the broad patterns of their occurrences can be anticipated and planned for.
Popularity as a Factor When Updating Content
Deciding what content to update is an essential part of content maintenance. It often involves judgment calls, which take time and do not always result in consistency. In the search for rules that govern what content to update, some content professionals have been advocating content popularity as the criterion for deciding what content to keep, and hence keep current.
Paul Boag has suggested a traffic-based approach to managing legacy content. Gerry McGovern has written extensively about the value of using traffic to guide content decisions. McGovern’s writings on the importance of content popularity have become popular themselves, so I want to examine the reasoning behind this approach. He uses the “long tail” metaphor of content demand first popularized by former Wired columnist Chris Anderson, but draws different conclusions. McGovern differentiates the “long tail (low demand or no demand stuff) and the long neck (high demand stuff). The long tail has been seen as a major opportunity, but it can become a major threat.”
McGovern considers the popularity of content in terms of the distribution of page views. He contrasts the head of the distribution, where the top ranked pages get a high volume of views, with the many low ranking pages in the tail that get few views. McGovern says: “Much of the long tail is a dead zone. It’s a dead and useless tail full of dead and useless content.” In contrast, content in the head of the distribution (the top-ranked pages) get the lion’s share of views. How much of total demand is attributable to the head is not always clear. McGovern has cited the figure that the top 5% of content generates 20% of demand; the next 35% of content (what he calls the body, though this is not a standard term used in head/tail distributions) accounts for 55% of demand; the remaining 60% is basically useless, accounting for only 20% of demand. More recently, McGovern has featured the success stories of various organizations when they removed 90% of their content, implying that only the top 10% of content viewed is worth keeping and maintaining.
McGovern’s argument is that low traffic content gets in the way of people accomplishing their “top tasks,” which are represented by the highest volume content. Moreover, long tail content is difficult to maintain.
McGovern makes some excellent points about the costs of low usage content, and the importance of making sure that frequently accessed content is easily available. Unfortunately, his formulation is not a reliable guide to deciding what content to maintain because it doesn’t distinguish different content purposes. McGovern considers all content as task-oriented content. But content can have other roles, such as being news, or providing background information for educational and entertainment purposes.
Let’s assume, like McGovern, that all content follows a head/tail distribution. With task-based content, the rank ordering of popularity is stable over time. If all the content is task-focused, then the ranking of pages in terms of their popularity won’t change. We can argue how many pages deserve to be included —that is, how many tasks should be supported —but the customer’s prioritization of what’s important is not impacted by when the content was created.
In other cases, when the content was created can have an impact on how important consumers consider the content, even when the age of the content has no bearing on the accuracy of the content. In these cases, relevance is a function of time.
The most obvious case is when popularity of content decays over time because it becomes less topical. Any informative content that might be considered news, such as high profile product announcements or announcements of changes to membership services, might become less popular over time. News oriented content becomes less relevant over time, but old news content is not intrinsically irrelevant. The need to keep legacy content will depend on the organization’s mission, and the utility of the information in the future.
A different example of content is so-called evergreen content — content that will have a long shelf-life (even if it isn’t truly maintenance-free). Often such content is created to build awareness and interest in a topic, and isn’t tied to a specific event. The content may debut with a low ranking, but gain views as awareness builds. It may gain exposure through a promotional tie-in, a third party’s endorsement, or relevance to some event that wasn’t foreseen when the content was created. After gaining in popularity, its popularity may settle back down into the long tail. The popularity of such content can yo-yo over time.
Without considering the purpose of the content, it is difficult to know what content to maintain. Relying solely on content age or content popularity can result in a meat cleaver approach to content maintenance. While content that is jettisoned does not need to be maintained, the content that is kept does not all need to be treated the same way. Sometimes content is intentionally kept in an archive, with a minimum of maintenance promised or provided.
Content Maintenance as Quality Improvement
A very different view of content maintenance considers maintenance as continuous improvement. Instead of just keeping content up to date, content is actively managed to become better.
Gerry McGovern touches on this approach when discussing what he calls “top tasks”. He says: ”Continuously improve your top tasks. The Long Neck [top-ranked pages in the head of the distribution] is made up of a small set of top tasks and it’s important to manage them through a process of continuous improvement.“
Continuous improvement can be applied to any content, not just content supporting common tasks. The purpose of such activity is to make the content more relevant to audiences. It is a form of content optimization, a term most often used to refer to far narrower dimensions of content, such as search engine positioning or call-to-action behavior.
Optimizing content — in the broader sense of making it more relevant for audiences — involves two sets of decisions:
- Deciding what content to optimize as part of an ongoing evaluation program
- Making choices about evaluation methods, and assigning resources to support such activities
Optimizing content is often associated with A/B testing. But the range of approaches available to improve content relevance are diverse, and include:
- Analyzing content usage and actions
- Surveying attitudes and preferences relating to content
- Testing content comprehension and receptivity
Behavioral outcomes can certainly be tested, but content testing and analysis can probe more upstream factors such as how audiences evaluate the content prior to considering taking action, and suggest more fundamental changes that could improve content relevance to audiences.
Some techniques available to improve content relevance can be done prior to publication. The question arises of what content should continue to be evaluated after publication with the aim of improving its performance? If the content was well thought out before its publication, why does it need optimization after publication? Any evaluation and enhancement activities that are done multiple times will require additional commitments of resources. What content justifies the extra attention?
Business critical content will be the best candidates to optimize through continuous improvement. Business criticality will reflect the reach of the content (amount of views), its importance to audiences, and its influence on business outcomes. It may be content that comprises part of a funnel, but not necessarily. In some cases, it might be key content that provides the first impression of an organization, product or topic that will have long term impacts in terms of future behavior or social influence.
Strategic Content Maintenance
Content maintenance involves many aspects, and content with different characteristics and purposes must be prioritized differently. Maintenance-free content is a myth, but not all content requires the same level of maintenance.
Many times organizations jettison content for the wrong reasons. Content should be retired because it is no longer relevant, not simply because something about it, factually or technically, has become dated through neglect, and it is now too much effort to update it given the volume of content that’s in a similar state. Manage content based on current and potential relevance, and plan to maintain the relevant content. Jettison content that’s no longer relevant, and unlikely to be relevant again.
While having less content can be easier to maintain than having large volumes of content, one shouldn’t base one’s content strategy on operational convenience. Small, tightly focused websites can be the right choice for smaller, tightly focused organizations, who can devote their energies toward optimizing the entirety of their content. But for larger organizations with diverse missions, imposing a rigid content diet — say restricting the website to 50 pages — may help the web operations run smoothly, but at the cost of preventing the organization from fully serving their audiences, and allowing the organization to meet their wider digital objectives. If the breadth of content offered is insufficient to satisfy the needs of audiences, the content published will sustain neither the audience’s interests, nor the mission of the organization. The organization needs to understand what effort is required to maintain what it decides is relevant content, and then plan how to maintain that content appropriately.
No one-size strategy for content maintenance is right for all organizations. But organizations can use a framework to help them prioritize their content maintenance, in terms of identifying differences in content, and different approaches to maintaining such content. The end goal is to find the right balance. As alluded to earlier, content maintenance is about delivering sustainable growth. It is about fostering a pool of content that can establish, maintain, and even expand its relevance to audiences without being a drag on operations.
The matrix considers content according to two properties. First, it considers how popular the content is over a defined time period, say six months. Second, it considers two broad approaches to maintaining content: through continuous optimization, and basic updating. The goal of the matrix is to encourage content managers and owners to characterize the kinds of content that belong in each quadrant, and decide how they will manage such content.
The filled out framework is illustrative. This strawman framework is intended to spark discussion rather than dictate action.
It is important to note that what’s low traffic content today may not be so tomorrow. Organizations also need to consider the diversity of their mission or corporate strategy when making decisions about how to maintain content that gets less traffic.
What Happens After Publication?
Ideally, every item of content published should belong to a specific content maintenance category. At the time of publication, it could be slugged with the category that best represents how it will be maintained in the future. Doing so can help support of the operational processes associated with maintenance: for example, determining how long it had been since the last update for items associated with a certain category.
Content requires maintenance, and maintenance requires process, not just willpower. Rules, criteria and plans are helpful to ensuring that content maintenance happens. The challenge is connecting these rules and plans to the larger purpose of the organization’s content strategy. Content maintenance needs to be upgraded from its status as a boring chore, to being seen as a contributor to sustainable growth in audience engagement.
— Michael Andrews