This blog post is written by Tracy Playle, Founder of ContentEd and Chief Content Strategist at Pickle Jar Communications Ltd
Every so often we receive an email at Pickle Jar Communications (aka ContentEd HQ) asking our content strategists a question to which the answer really warrants a blog post, and not just an email reply. This is one of those times. Last week we were emailed by a university asking for our advice and guidance on how to decide if and when to archive news stories from an organisation’s website.
There are a few reasons why you might want to do this:
- You’re concerned about the sheer volume of content created by news stories. This carries the potential – years after their publication – to contain out of date or inaccurate content that leaves your school or university vulnerable to a formal complaint, legal case or reputation damage.
- You’re launching a new website and introducing structured content or another way of viewing content that would require you to alter thousands of old news stories in order to match a new content template or conform to your new structured content standards. Feels like a big job, right?
- You want to be able to do something with old news stories – a “from the archives” feature, or a new categorisation approach so that people can find older content easier, but to do so you want to streamline that content first so there isn’t quite so much to wade through.
Any of these – and more – are good reasons for archiving old news stories from your organisation’s website. But how do you make the decision regarding what to archive?
The brutal detox
There are a few ways of doing this that may seem vaguely brutal, but could help make the process relatively fast:
- Time limit
You decide to remove everything that is older than, let’s say, 3 years. But what about that story of the Nobel Prize awarded to one of your faculty members 5 years ago? Or the visit to your campus from the President of the UN that took place 3 years and 1 month ago?
- Visitor frequency
You decide to only keep news stories on the site that receive more than X number of visitors every month. You might decide to set this at something like 100 visits per month. Any stories with less get archived. But how will you account for fluctuating or seasonal interest in certain stories? And 1 visitor might seem low, but maybe that 1 visit led to a major donation to your fundraising campaign…
- Search engine ranking performance (SERPs)
You may look at the search engine ranking impact of specific pages, and decide that only those having a strong and positive impact on your SERPs should remain on the site. But this is not going to be as quick and easy to identify as options 1 and 2, and could be complex to assess.
While these solutions are tempting because they’re relatively simple, I question whether a hasty approach is for the best. When it comes to news, some stories quickly become outdated and irrelevant (that “campus closed due to heavy snow” notice you issued the other week is already irrelevant now), but equally there are stories from 1997 that still hold considerable value for your organisation and tell a major part of your institutional story.
Conducting a proper audit of your news content might be a time consuming approach, but it will be one that will deliver better results for you and help to inform governance decisions relating to archiving content in future too.
Designing your news content audit
Before you dive in and start working through each and every news article on your site, you’ll need to spend time designing your audit approach. This includes:
- Agreeing what content you will audit. Will it be all news articles? Will it only be content before or after a particular date? Will it include other topical-types of content such as events listings and notices?
- Agreeing the criteria through which you will make decisions about what to do with each article
- Possibly agreeing an audience lens through which you will review content. This would only apply if one of your criteria for making decisions about the content relate to audience relevance i.e. “this article is useful to a prospective student”.
At Pickle Jar Communications we tend to run stakeholder workshops to assess and define such criteria for content audits, and then run a small sample audit to test whether the criteria works as it should against real content. (Contact us if you want help with designing your content audit approach).
“It depends” criteria
I consulted a number of fellow content strategists on Facebook to get their views and thoughts on how they’d approach culling news content too to see if any had a magic answer in amongst my own musings. Unsurprisingly, we all agreed that a hatchet job wasn’t really the best approach:
(NB some of the comments below appear to focus on content audits more broadly, and not specifically on news content, but their views are valuable so I’m keeping them in)
“The key is how we identify the content whether it is ready to be archived. For example:
- Whether it is not relevant to the audience anymore, and even a repurposed and optimized version too will not serve the purpose.
- Whether it not accurate now [sic] and fixing it will be quite a challenge… when compared to planning the fresh content that can replace it.
In addition, there are factors such as cost (people, latest content marketability challenges, skills) that can strengthen the case for archiving. Or, the other way around.”
“I think relevance is a key consideration. If a news article no longer represents the opinion, viewpoint or strategy of the organization, it should be retired. But if it’s an announcement that adds important historical context/depth, it should remain (you may consider creating an archive that is searchable/accessible for this purpose).”
Mary Sabotkoski (who works in higher ed, so very relevant to our focus here):
“In our org, I take a 2 step approach in drawing a date line, for us 2 years plus relevance. Completely agree it needs to align to existing org strategy and related content depending on context (eg news about old product lines no longer available may cause confusion or old staff no longer at the org). Anything of historical relevant important enough to keep on the site should be repurposed into another content type such as a case study, interview or some other sort of evergreen content as long as it aligns with strategy, has a purpose and an audience.”
Types of criteria to consider
In defining the criteria for what stories to archive, you could consider a combination of the following. Try not use too many, otherwise your institution will be creating new content faster than you can audit and archive the old.
- Age of article
- Page views in a set time period
- Inbound links (and where they come from)
- Search engine ranking benefits
- Alignment to existing organisational strategy
- Relevance to current audience and their priorities/information needs
- Historical value-add of the story/reputational benefit
- Risk factor of content (e.g legal/regulatory risk of outdated information)
- Continued maintenance required (cost of continuing to keep that content updated and relevant)
What to do with it?
You could simply just archive and remove news stories from public view. However, you could also choose to move it across to a different space that is still live and indexed, but caveated that it is older content. I’m also a big fan of Mary’s suggestion above of planning content types for high value news stories that give them longevity and possibly a different status/profile in your content hierarchy and messaging. Turning old news stories into case studies, or a section on “stories from our past” or similar is a powerful way of showcasing great stories, and making them a strong part of your institution’s history. Forward planning for such reconfigurations of new stories that you’re working on could be an efficient use of writing time.
Hilary Marsh stressed the need to look forwards as well as back:
“The decisions about what content to keep and for how long need to be both backwards-facing and forward-facing.
Content decisions need to be made by content type or by topic, based on audience relevance as well as org need/priority. It’s hard to cherry-pick & save a handful of popular news articles out of a mass with most low usage without understanding why those were popular, where their traffic came from, etc. Once you know that, you might reassess interest in specific topics or content types.
The key to making the content decisions forward-facing is to document & share them and, ideally, build them into the CMS.”
In other words, this process should be part of content governance design as much (if not more) than it is considered an exercise in cleansing the site of too many pages. You’re not just doing this as a temporary detox to reduce bloat, you’re designing a whole lifestyle change for a healthier, happier news section of the future.
No right answer, but help on hand…
People often come to Pickle Jar Communications looking for a definitive answer. As with most content strategy work, the answer is often “it depends”. Our value is in helping you work through the criteria about the decisions that you’ll make, better understanding your audience needs and what’s relevant to them, and aligning your approach to content to your organisational strategy. While this post hopefully offers food for thought from us and fellow content strategists around the world who contributed their views, we’re also very happy to help you work this out more specifically for your individual organisation.
Get in touch if you’d like any help with your content decisions.
Pickle Jar Communications is the content strategy consultancy behind the ContentEd conference. Come meet us at ContentEd 2018 or visit the Pickle Jar Communications website to learn more about our consultancy, workshops and training services offered to the education sector.
This post came about because we were directly emailed a question from a university. What questions and challenges are bothering you right now? Let us know and it might even form the topic of a future blog post too…