If you are responsible for your organization’s website, you carry the responsibility of making sure your audience can find your site and do anything, anywhere, from any device. Besides making your site accessible for people with disabilities (thus making it available to all visitors), the best way to ensure your content is findable, usable, and useful anywhere is to use structured content.
You need structured content if you want to:
- Make omnichannel publishing possible
- More easily and cheaply scale content publishing
- Be findable by third parties, including search engines
1999 vs 2016: Are you stuck in the past?
In the good old days of the web, we knew that people were visiting websites on a desktop computer, and we knew how big a typical computer screen was. We also knew about how fast their connection speed was (let’s hear it for 56 kbps!). There were only two internet browsers (Netscape and Internet Explorer). This meant we could predict with much certainty what the experience would be. Search engines were barely a thing. Oh for those simple days!
Now most of us carry computers in our pockets (aka “smartphones”) and visit websites on desktops, laptops, phones, tablets, watches, and large-screen televisions. When we create a website, we have no idea where a visitor will be, what they’ll use to view it, what browser they’ll use, or what their connection speed will be. In many ways, the internet is way better than in 1999. But it is much more complex too. Yet many websites are still created for people sitting at desks using screens that are 13” or larger with a broadband connection and the most recent browsers. Thinking modularly is way past due. The answer is structured content.
What is ‘structured content’?
“Structured content” means content that is broken into smaller parts, or “chunks” that can be mixed and matched in multiple ways. Essentially, it turns content into data.
Figure 1 shows a typical web page with bits of information trapped in a content management system’s Body field as one big blob of stuff. Relationships between the speakers, their sessions, and the session’s time, duration, and location are only implied on this one page. This solution limits reuse across different interfaces because the information isn’t structured and is tied to this specific instance and use.
In a structured-content version of the website, the content is broken down into smaller chunks (see Figure 2), separating the content from the design. The chunks of content became data, with the relationships explicitly described in a way that both people and robots can understand. Because data is stored as an entity separate from any page-based representation, it is future-friendly – ready for any interface.
Advantages of structured content
Now that you know what structured content is, let’s look at a few reasons why you want to have structured content.
Structured content is omnichannel ready
Whether it’s desktop, mobile, tablet, TV, or things we haven’t thought of yet, it’s all driven by the same data . Semantic meaning and relationships are stored in the database and expressed through the interface. With relationships held at the data level, rather than just at the page level, you can design interfaces that allow readers to explore the content many different ways. You can also push the data out to different channels by choosing which fields you want to expose, in whatever style or format the external channels uses.
Structured content is robot-readable
Robots are everywhere. Artificial intelligence is becoming reality. Algorithms need data to work. But computers cannot extract meaning from documents like humans can. Structured content makes it possible for computers to make sense of the data. The robot you probably care about most right now is Google and the other search engines people use to find your content. For several years now, Google favors entities over pages for all the reasons noted here. It is becoming easier and easier for people to get the information they need directly from Google without ever visiting the website that provided the information. In 2015, it announced it would add a Buy button to some results. You need your content to be found, not just your website.
Here’s an example of how Google needs content to create its Knowledge Graph (which Google started using in 2012):
Structured content scales
You can’t know what your future publishing needs will be, but a content structure based on real-world concepts and relationships has a greater chance of remaining valid longer and supporting limitless instances. In one example, when the BBC switched to this approach to build pages for their TV and radio shows, they created a structure that supports 1,500 new shows being added every day. Maybe you don’t have that much content, but your inventory is probably growing constantly. You don’t have time to create multiple iterations of essentially the same content. Structured content allows you to create once and publish everywhere (also known as COPE).
Typically, the switch to using structured content happens during a complete overhaul of your website. But you don’t have to wait until you have the time, money, and approval for that. There are ways you can get started structuring your content now and preparing for the future:
- Model your content, without any implementation in the back-end. I did this for one client and they were able to update existing content by creating consistent formatting and using the structure inherent in HTML tags (even within the Body field).
- Work on one content type at a time. Model the content and its relationships and modify your CMS and design to work with the new structure. Then move on to the next content type.
- Make new content types structured. If you are creating something new, make sure it is structured. It takes longer and is more expensive to retrofit something than to create it with the proper structure in the first place. Just because the rest of your site is unstructured doesn’t mean it always has to be that way.
Want help making the switch to a structured content model for your website? Whatever phase you’re in, we can help with a facilitated workshop. You don’t have to think big project to get big results.