Do You Know How to Deal With Legacy Content on Your Website?

Paul Boag

Every organisation needs a strategy for dealing with the retirement of legacy content. Failing to do so undermines the user experience and creates significant management overheads.

It is easy to take it for granted today, but one of the most revolutionary aspects of the web is that it has reduced the cost of publishing to near zero. Anybody can get their content out into the world without spending a cent.

Unfortunately, this wonder of the web is also its curse. We all know how hard it is for our content to gain people’s attention. However, there is another more insidious problem that most organisations are completely ignoring.

When the cost of publishing is nearly zero, we take a much more relaxed attitude towards doing so. We adopt a state of mind which asks “why not publish this? Somebody might find it useful.” When we should be asking ourselves “why publish this? Who will find it useful?”

You see, publishing content with no consideration about its impact or long term management has consequences.

Why Should You Retire Legacy Content From Your Website?

Legacy content damages an organisation in two distinct ways. First, it undermines the user experience and second, it has a significant support cost.

Undermining the User Experience

As I explain in my post on cognitive load, it doesn’t take much to overwhelm users to the point where they abandon a website. One particular frustration is when users are unable to get answers to their concerns or questions.

Addressing the concerns and questions people have about your product or service is fundamental for encouraging users to act. If users are unable to find the answers they are looking for they will leave frustrated.

The problem is that every piece of content you add to a website adds to the user’s cognitive load and increases the likelihood of them being unable to find the answer they need. It is like trying to find a needle in the proverbial haystack.

Example of legacy content
Legacy content reflects badly on your site and clutters the user experience.

For example, at one point microsoft.com had over 10 million pages online, over 3 million of which a user had never visited. That clutter only succeeded in damaging findability and lowering customer satisfaction.

The more legacy content, the more navigational options. Hicks Law tells us there is a direct correlation between the number of choices and the time it takes to make a decision. Ultimately this leads to choice paralysis where the user stops trying.

Graph showing Hicks Law.
Hicks Law shows us that the more choices we offer a user, the longer it will take for them to decide, so increasing the chance they abandon the site.

In short, too much content can cost your business in lower conversion rates.

The Cost of Supporting Legacy Content

Too much content will also cost an organisation in supporting that content.

Content posted online cannot just be abandoned. Doing so opens up an organisation to security threats or compliance issues in areas like accessibility and out-of-date information. Ideally, content should be reviewed regularly to make sure it is still accurate and conforms to organisational standards.

Of course, in reality, this rarely happens. Instead, after publishing content it is largely abandoned. Most organisations have published far more content than they can support internally. Unfortunately, this is costing the organisation money.

I regularly work with organisations when they are attempting some variation of a website redesign. These kinds of wholesale redesigns are rarely a good idea, but they are made considerably more painful when large amounts of content are involved.

Content migration quickly turns into a nightmare and inconsistencies in the markup makes introducing a global design language extremely challenging. The result is often a redesign that is only rolled out across top-level pages, creating an inconsistent user experience as people progress deeper into the site.

Even those organisations who have teams evolving their sites, often find themselves massively overstretched due to the sheer volume of content online. These teams find most of their time taken up with minor content maintenance, rather than the content optimisation work they should be doing.

The answer to these challenges is simple. Most organisations need significantly less content than they currently have online.

How to Approach Reducing Your Online Content

If you accept the premise that you probably have too much content online, then the question becomes — how do we go about reducing it?

Option 1: Start From Scratch

One option is to start with a blank slate. That is certainly possible if you are going through a redesign anyway. It makes little sense to migrate existing content without seriously challenging whether it all needs to be there. Redesigning without addressing content is like slapping lipstick on a pig!

Instead, start with the user need and only use existing content if it meets those needs.

This is exactly the approach adopted by the Government Digital Service when working on the beta for GOV.UK. They translated the content on existing government websites into a user need, such as “I need to report a lost passport.” They then passed these needs through a series of criteria to judge whether that need was worth addressing. They tracked this process through a small web app they created called the Needotron.

Option 2: Cull the ROT

The second option is more suited to an existing website, not going through a redesign process. In this situation, the focus has to be on removing the ROT. ROT stands for redundant, out-of-date and trivial.

Removing redundant content is always a good starting point. Typically this relates to campaigns that have long since ended or products that you no longer offer.

Addressing this content is often easy, too. Nobody much cares for redundant content and so you won’t hear many complaints when you retire it.

Trivial content is a trickier proposition because it can prove controversial. What you consider an edge case might be business critical to another member of staff.

In such cases agreeing a set of criteria by which content is assessed can often be helpful. Typically these involve some kind of combination of:

  • Analytics.
  • User needs.
  • Business objectives.

For example, pages that fall below a certain threshold of traffic could be marked as trivial.

Content could also be ranked based on what business goals they support and whether they aid a user to complete one of their top tasks.

What criteria you choose are up to you and your stakeholders. What matters is that the final policy is seen as fair and impartial. That will help defuse a lot of the conflict around removing trivial content.

Finally, there is out-of-date content, which can be harder to spot. It is that phone number that no longer works or a reference to a member of staff who has left; it is that event buried in the events calendar or a mention of a product that no longer exists. You can find this kind of content deep within pages or subsections on a site.

Digital teams could spend weeks tracking down this kind of content and still miss it, therefore a different approach is required.

Some time-sensitive content such as news or events can simply be archived after a certain length of time. However, for other content, we need a policy to enforce its maintenance.

Content Management Playbook
Your content management playbook should contain a policy for the removal of legacy content that is implemented automatically so avoiding internal disputes.

For example, you might require every piece of content to have a content owner. That person would be required to log in to the content management system every six months or so to review their content. If they fail to do that the content is flagged for retirement.

Example email that could be sent to a content owner.
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.

You might have noticed that I have referred to retiring content throughout. So let me end the post by explaining what retiring content actually evolves.

How to Retire Legacy Content From Your Website

One way of thinking about retiring legacy content is as a simple IF/THEN statement. For example, if a piece of content fails to generate a significant amount of traffic then it gets retired. However, what retirement looks like will vary depending on the type of content.

In some cases, retirement may mean completely removing that content from the web. However, that can often be an unwise decision.

First, it has the potential to damage an organisations search rankings if adequate redirects are not put in place.

Second, removing content can often meet significant resistance from the owner of that content. Indeed, they may genuinely need that content online for a niche audience or some role relating to their job.

A better option is to retire the legacy content but leave it online.

Typically this means isolating the page from the rest of the site. You remove it from site navigation and ensure it does not appear in internal search results. That prevents it from cluttering the experience for users navigating your site or stopping them from finding more important content.

The page would remain online and still be findable via external search engines such as Google. The content owner would also still be able to give out direct URLs to the page as required.

Pages that have been retired in this way are not typically updated and so will quickly become non-compliant. To mitigate the potential risk associated with this, pages can be marked as archived to inform the user the content is no longer supported.

Example of how a page could be marked as archived.
Pages that have been retired should be marked as potentially out of date.

A Problem That Cannot Be Ignored

Whatever approach you adopt, the critical takeaway from this post is that organisations cannot afford to ignore the growing bloat of their websites. Every year that passes adds yet more content that clutter the experience and that require support.

If organisations do not act soon, many will find their digital presences drowned by their own legacy content.

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