Content Management: How to effectively overcome legacy content

Paul Boag

Content management is an enormous challenge for big organisations, especially when it comes to legacy content, much of which is owned my many content creators across the company. How do you deal with ageing content on a website with little central control?

I work with a lot of organisations who suffer from serious content management issues primarily brought about because of large amounts of legacy content and too many content creators. It is a problem exasperated by a lack of central editorial control and one that damages both the user experience and company brand.

The damaging impact of poor content management

With a lot of different people adding content to the website but few considering whether they should remove older content, it is not unusual for some site to have hundreds of thousands of pages. That creates problems with findability and inaccurate information.

Poor content management damages findability

With some much content on the website, it becomes increasingly hard for users to find the content they need. Navigation becomes verbose and difficult to navigate. The site search returns so many results that users struggle to find anything of value. In short, users are left trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Poor content management leads to inaccurate information

With so much content on the website, it is challenging to ensure that everything is up to date. Old news stories and out-of-date event listings are just the most prominent examples. But there is also content that is no longer accurate or now presents the organisation in the wrong light.

Although, in theory, each content provider should be responsible for ensuring that their content is up-to-date this doesn't work in practice. People leave, are too busy or simply forget to check the relevancy of content regularly.

In an ideal world, there would be a central content management team checking the pages on a regular basis to ensure the content is still relevant. However, there are rarely the resources to do so. Even when there is a central content management team they are usually too busy checking the new content to worry about stuff already online.

Site with poor content management and out of date content
Out of date content reflects badly on your site and clutters the user experience.

The other problem central content management teams face is that when they suggest removing content, they encounter political objections. Many content providers are defensive about their content, even if they do not maintain it properly. They don't like the idea of others telling them what they can and cannot have online. In other words, they don't like somebody telling them what to do.

The solution proposed by many content strategists would be a complete audit of the site. However, this involves checking every single page, and that is just not practical in most cases. It also doesn't solve the problem of politics. What is required is a solution that is automated.

An automated solution to content management

An automated solution to content management is good for two reasons. First, it doesn't need anybody to check all of the pages manually. Second, it doesn't require one person telling another that their content is going to be taken down. The whole thing just happens. People are much more likely to agree to an automated policy for content control than they are to being singled out as somebody who hasn't maintained their content properly. So how would this automatic approach work in practice?

Every page needs an owner

The first step is to ensure every page on the site has an owner. By default, this would be the last person who edited the page. Each owner would need to be contacted and informed of the pages for which they are responsible and that it is their job to keep those pages up-to-date.

At this point, you should give them the option to either remove the page if it is no longer relevant or transfer ownership to somebody else.

Once you have resolved ownership, you can set review points for each page.

Set content management review points

A review of a particular web page would occur when it meets certain criteria. This review could happen manually or automatically depending on your preference.

It is up to you what criteria you set. But two common examples are pages that have reached a certain age or content producers have failed to edit for an agreed length of time. I often pick these because they are not too difficult to get most content management systems to identify.

Another trigger you might consider using is a failure of a page to meet a certain level of traffic over an agreed period. That would indicate that the page is of little interest to users and is making it more difficult for the majority of people to find what they are after.

content management playbook
Your content management playbook should contain a policy for content removal that is implemented automatically so avoiding internal disputes.

This is a lesson Microsoft had to learn with its support pages. They had help pages for every conceivable issue. However, instead of helping users, most of this content just cluttered up the site and made it harder for them to find what they wanted. In the end, they removed less frequented pages, and their customer satisfaction shot up.

It is up to you how often you choose to review pages or how low you set the traffic trigger. That will depend on how often your site or organisation changes, and how much you want to ask of your content providers.

What happens when a review is triggered

When your system flags a page for review, an email will be sent out to the owner of the page asking them to check whether it is up-to-date.

The content provider can then log into the content management system and edit the page in question. The system can register them logging in and flag the page as reviewed.

If your content management system is not capable of this, you could create a manual alternative where the content provider could reply to the automated email saying they had checked the page.

Content Management Email Notification
Content providers should be emailed when they need to review a page. If they fail to do so the page should be marked for cleanup.

If the content provider has left the company or fails to identify the page as up-to-date within a set period, this flags the content for cleanup (see below).

Notice the default here. At the moment most content management policies default to content remains online unless somebody actively removes it. This approach turns that on its head. No action leads to the system flagging content for cleanup.

What happens when content gets flagged for cleanup?

How you choose to handle the cleanup of web pages is up to you. However, here is my recommended process:

Mark the page as being old content

The first step would be to mark the content as old and potentially out of date. That can be done by automatically inserting a banner at the head of the main content informing the user. Below is an example of how this might look.

Content Management Notification Banner
Pages that are not checked should be marked as potentially out of date.

You might wish to also send an email update to the content owner of that page saying that the system has marked the page as out of date. They can then cause the system to remove this banner by editing the page.

Remove the page from the site's navigation

If the content provider still hasn't checked the page after a set period, your content management policy might trigger a further event that removes the page from the navigational structure of the site. That will reduce the clutter users need to navigate through to find the page they want. However, for those who still want to access these pages, they will be findable via search.

Remove the page from the search results

Of course, there is also the option to prevent pages being returned in search results too. It can be hard to find the right page when searching a large site simply because of the amount of content that it returns. If a piece of content is out of date, then it makes sense not to return it in the search results.

When searching for an English Degree at the University of Bath prospective students are confronted with over 3000 results.

That effectively orphans the page but keeps it online. You may wonder what the point of this is. Surely you would be better deleting the page entirely?

Why not delete a page entirely?

There are mixed opinions about removing content. On the surface, it seems like the most logical thing to do. If the content is horribly out of date or users rarely visit it, why keep it online?

As I see it, there is no harm in keeping it online, if you label it as out of date and it no longer prevents users from finding the content they want. However, removing it can be damaging. For a start there maybe third party links to that page. There might also be in-page links on your website removing the page would break. The last thing you want to do is present a user with is a 'page not found' error.

The only time I would recommend removing a page is when you can redirect users to an alternative page that serves their needs better.

A key component in proper content management

I am not suggesting that this approach is perfect. Content providers can still abuse this system. However, we cannot afford to continue to ignore the legacy content on our sites. We need a proper content management approach that deals with these challenges.

What I am proposing forces content providers to maintain their content if they don’t want it to disappear from the site. That should automatically remove massive amounts of content without battling with each content provider individually. The result will be a better user experience and a much more maintainable website. Everybody wins!