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Gerry McGovernContent management: time to put content first

by Gerry McGovern

September 2004


When something is new, we need to approach it in an exploratory manner. We need to experiment and try things out. And so it has been with the Web. That period is now over. We need to move from seeing our websites as a series of projects, to managing them as a well-planned process.

We also need to move away from seeing our websites primarily from a technology point of view. Our websites are about content and the management of that content. Peter Drucker has talked about how we have spent the last 50 years focusing on the T in IT, and how we will spend the next fifty focusing on the I: the information.

In the early days of the Web, there was a great focus on web technology. People saw it as a major achievement just to get a website up and to keep it going. The responsibility for the website very often lay in the IT department. Content was an afterthought. The responsibility for creating and updating content was generally given to the most junior person in the organization.

Italy will be the 29th country I have given content management workshops in. I have probably been in half of the states in the United States. I spend my year talking to managers of large organizations with large websites. I can tell you that there has been a big shift in how content is being seen.

The purely software solution to content management has simply not worked. For many people I have talked to it has made their problems much worse. In some cases, it has allowed far too many people publish far too much poor quality content far too quickly. In other cases, it has ended up costing more than three times the original budget, and has delivered less than half the expected benefits.

Properly planned, content management software can work, but this is not what my workshop is going to be about. It’s going to be about the management of content. It’s going to be about helping you get the right content to the right person at the right time at the right cost. It’s going to be about treating content management as a process, not a series of projects.

The quality of search on many websites is awful. Most organizations would simply not countenance having their reception area in the mess that their search engine is in. Yet far more people pass through their search engine every day than through their reception.

One of the reasons organizations do search so bad is because they see search as a project. Someone decides a search engine is needed. A specification is prepared and software is bought and installed. Then, the team moves on to the next project.

In all likelihood, the search engine has not been properly optimized. It is certainly not being optimized on an ongoing basis, based on observed search behavior. Nor are people trained to write quality metadata when they publish content. Nor is the quality of this metadata monitored. So the quality of search gets worse and worse.

Everywhere I do a workshop I ask people what the killer application for the intranet is? The staff directory is the reply almost every time. And what is the problem with the staff directory? It’s out of date, is the chorus.

Again, getting a staff directory was treated as a project. The software was bought and installed. Nobody, however, thought about how it was going to be kept up to date. It was like the staff directory was seen as some marble statue that, once installed, would remain fixed forever.

Publish what you can manage is a fundamental rule of content management. That means managing the entire lifecycle of content. The lifecycle of content ends at removal, not publication. To be able to remove content you must first review it so as to ensure that it is indeed out of date.

Too many organizations don’t review their content on a regular basis. Thus, their intranets or public websites get bigger and bigger; filled with more and more out-of-date content. In fact, many organizations don’t know how many pages they have, let alone having reviewed them. Some organizations—believe it or not—don’t even know how many websites they have! Clearly, it is time we put some professional management into content management.

I sometimes come across organizations that every couple of years decide to redo the graphic design of their websites. They know that their websites aren’t working very well. Deep down, they know it’s not because of the graphics; it’s because content is badly organized and badly written.

However, creating a new graphic design is so much easier because it can be treated like a project with a nicely defined budget and timeframe. Managers can say they have delivered something and everyone can be happy for a while. It’s like painting over the cracks.

Seeing your website as a process creates a lot more challenges, yet it is the only way to go if you want to deliver quality results. Who’s going to update the staff directory? Will it be left up to each member of staff? What happens if a member of staff doesn’t bother to update? Who’s going to ensure metadata is of a high quality? Who’s going to ensure content is well written?

Approaching your website as a process requires a lot more planning and management. However, the results are much better. The objective of having a search engine is to help people find what they need as quickly as possible. A bad search engine wastes time and leads to dissatisfaction.

You’re better off having no search engine than a bad one. In fact, most websites would be better off having a lot less projects and a lot more process. Give people what they want, which is easy-to-find, accurate, up-to-date, well-written content. That requires a process, not a project.

What is also required it long term planning, particularly in relation to the design of your information architecture. Once you’ve identified great content, you need to organize it well. You need quality metadata and classification. You need a clear, simple, intuitive navigation. You need a search that actually works. You need a clean, fast-downloading graphic design.

Information architecture design is about standardization. It’s about simplicity, clarity and consistency. The last thing you want to be with your information architecture is different. You want to be familiar. You want to design an information architecture that you will not have to fundamentally alter for many years. That takes planning. It takes a long term perspective.

I’ve made my living from the Web since 1994. I have never been more excited about its potential. The Web is genuinely working for an increasing number of organizations. Intranets are improving staff productivity. They are keeping staff better informed. Government websites are serving citizens better. Commercial websites are helping sell more products.

If commerce is selling with people, then ecommerce is selling with content. My workshop is about helping you focus on content as an asset, as something that can deliver real value to your organization. It’s about helping you become a better manager of your content.