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The content monster ate my site!

Rob Van Tol Strategy Consultant

Once upon a time an organisation could be reasonably clear what they were: if you provided pensions or raised money for kids or offered higher education courses, you could be reasonably certain you were a financial services company, charity or university.

You certainly didn’t think you were a publisher as well.

You could steal yourself for that one big important paper document you published each year: the brochure, the annual report, or prospectus. Perhaps with a clutch of flimsier short leaflets too and maybe a newsletter, run off the photocopier.

And then the web came along. Now any significant organisation will have thousands, if not tens of thousands of web pages. Add to that hundreds or thousands of images and scores of podcasts and videos. Not to mention social media adding a further few thousand tweets and Facebook messages.

The maths rack up pretty quickly. Assume you have 10,000 with a modest 250 words per page, that’s 2.5 million words.

Few organisations have the resources to contain or control this deluge. In our experience, most organisations only have one, two, or at most a handful of people to look after their site. Most of these don’t come from either an editing or writing background. But these aren’t the people generating the bulk of the content.

The vast bulk of contributors are diligent office workers who only write for the web on an occasional, best endeavours basis, often as an aside from their day job. Naturally, they tackle the task in much the same way that they tackle their other writing tasks: by writing information as clearly as they can, just as they would in any other word processed document.

Now, there are worse content sins than writing information clearly (e.g. vanity content, internally-focused content, duplicated content, confused content, dead-end content, out-of-date content etc.).

As monsters go, a mass of clearly written information doesn’t sound that scary. Quantity, however, has a quality all of its own. As the number of web pages climbs past the few thousand, the ability of the web team to control it evaporates.

One morning you wake up and realise that the content has grown monstrous. Too big to audit; it would take too long, be too expensive. Too big to cut back down to size; it would take too many painful internal stakeholder battles resisting cuts to “their content” (it’s not theirs, it’s the users, but that’s another topic).

Your organisation doesn’t think of itself as a publisher, even though it has published 2.5 million words (equivalent to 25 novels), not to mention pictures, video, blogs and microblogs. So it is not going to give you the resources or budget to tackle it.

This is all a great shame. You come to us to design and build a beautiful new website, with elegant interactions, lovely designs, and clear and focused information architectures. Then you realise you don’t have the time or budget or political will to audit the old content. So the raging content monster duplicates into your new site because, however horrible it might be to migrate it all, it is a less horrible job than cutting it down to size.

Of course, it’s important not to despair. Just because you can’t easily slay the monster, doesn’t mean you can’t imprison it to the lower dungeons of the information architecture, or work hard at your content marketing to use your SEO and social media to point to the good stuff, or craft your most important user journeys, or make sure that your top – most popular – pages of your site are well controlled and well written.

Sure, you’ll know that there will be plenty of places you wish you could put up a “there be dragons” notice, but your site can still have a good heart and a beautiful face, and only a few brave souls need ever venture down to the depths of the content monster.