We Need a Longer View of the Content Lifecycle

Recently I’ve been trying to understand different content management strategies and the implications these have for the underlying technology. Most of what I’ve read fails to consider the long-term utility of content, considering only the newest to be useful. We need to develop a longer view of the life of web content. We should plan for content to live, not for years, but centuries.

There are no shortage of opinions about how you should be managing your web content. Most models of the content life-cycle focus on the generation and optimisation of web content. Typically this process focusses on the newest content, while older content is forgotten and allowed to sink in to obscurity. Unvalued and unloved, the effort put in to managing content is squandered in the first few weeks of it’s life.

If your site has been around for long enough, a quick glance at your analytics will show you that somewhere out there, people do still value your old content. People are asking questions and finding the answers you provided years ago. Strangely many organisations seem blind to the value their old content has down the long-tail of SEO.

Many modern CMS’ allow content to be shown at multiple locations in a site. A single content item can be combined with others and presented differently. When old content can be presented in new ways, it can attract new visitors and encourage old ones to explore new areas of the site. In this way old content can be re-purposed to serve new goals.

Clearly organisations should value their older content and redeploy it in support of their present objectives. But I want to take a longer view of the life of content.

Libraries and museums house books and texts that are centuries, even millennia, old. These are valuable records of people and knowledge that may otherwise be lost to history. And until a couple of decades ago most information was recorded in the same way, on paper, in books, journals and catalogues.

The ease that we can now publish online has seen an explosion in the amount of information we are making available to the world. However, the rate at which content is being created is likely only matched by the rate at which it is lost. Server moves, lost backups, incompatible file formats, budget cuts and wilful deletion are just a few reasons why organisations fail to preserve their old content.

Projects like the Wayback Machine and the UK Web Archive take snapshots of parts of the web. But we cannot blindly defer this responsibility to these organisations. It would be a real tragedy if future historians look back upon this time, when publishing was never more accessible, to find so few records of our lives. How sad it would be if an organisational archive were to hold decades of records from before the millennium, but nothing after. We have to take responsibility for the long-term life of our content.

This post is long enough, so I’ll save my thoughts on how we might approach these problems for another night.