Euthanizing Internet Content

Internet content gets no respect. Never mind the many Internet content companies now trading at market capitalizations less than their cash holdings; we are simply talking about the content itself.

Stale equals fail” has been a mantra of web publishing meaning that if your web site doesn’t have up-to-date content, you may as well trade the site in for an ox and plow. Web usability guru Jakob Neilsen has consistently listed outdated content as a very severe problem among the top 10 mistakes in web design.

Without question, all of us could do a better job at regularly updating our web sites. As the primary face for many businesses, an untended web site tells customers, business partners, and investors that the company behind it may not be much better. But there’s a considerable gap between updating time-sensitive information and eliminating perfectly good content just because it was written a year ago.

Most web sites only wish they had the “problem” of wondering what to do with all of their old content. But as more web sites evolve over time, they will accumulate aging site content and need to do something with it.

So what are the options?

  1. Leave it alone.

    This is, by far, the most popular option largely because it requires the least amount of work. However, aging content can start to accumulate like dust bunnies under a sofa, and it can quickly become unmanageable.

    Furthermore, if older content is not positioned properly, it can have an adverse affect on your web site’s usability. Users accustomed to looking for the latest information in a particular location may soon discover that the aging content unnecessarily adds to their download times or simply gets in the way.

  2. Remove it.

    The Internet and, in particular, the concept of Internet time has contributed to a restless mentality that deems anything older than last month to be irrelevant and useless. To avoid the risk of appearing out of step with the times, many sites remove older web content. This may sound like a more proactive approach toward managing web site content, but we’ve witnessed numerous cases where doing nothing would have been the better choice.

    There are some things that, with age, have no business on a web site, such as price lists for products no longer carried, bios of past executives who have since been fired for embezzling, and commercial endorsements by O.J. Simpson. But perfectly good content gets euthanized all the time.

    In the process of regularly validating and updating more than 2,000 bookmarks on the companion web site to our book, we’ve found links to hundreds of useful web pages that have been removed without a trace. Worse than relocating the content without a “forwarding address” is not being able to find any evidence of the content even when using the hosting site’s search engine. Poof.

    For example, MediaMap once published a useful monthly PR newsletter called Alert!. Earlier this year, MediaMap decided to blow away all its archived issues prior to July 1999. To destroy even more evidence of Alert!’s prior existence, with the May 2000 issue it decided to rename the publication Liquid Media and number it Volume 1, Issue 1. (Even China’s history-erasing Cultural Revolution didn’t renumber the years from 1!)

    By removing this content, MediaMap cut itself off from the qualified leads delivered by inbound links and the additional search engine referral traffic. We were forced to eliminate dozens of bookmarks to its (former) articles from our site.

    So how does removing content benefit MediaMap? Although few consciously think of the economic implications, content that’s removed from a web site is analogous to George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”: It must be worth more dead than alive.

  3. Place it in an archive.

    Content can be an expensive business. Web sites can be more cost-effective by finding multiple ways to amortize their content-creation costs. One way is to syndicate it. Another way is to extend its lifetime by keeping it accessible.

    What better way to distance yourself from the fly-by-night dot-coms than by demonstrating your history in the business? Newspaper sites have long understood the value of archived content, frequently charging users’ fees to access it.

    Of course, leaving old content on your front door isn’t the answer either. You should at least acknowledge your site’s aging content by placing it in an appropriate section. This presumes some level of upkeep and content management. So is the effort worth the returns?

    Jakob Neilsen, who once wrote an article titled “Web Pages Must Live Forever,” estimates that having archives adds about 10 percent to the cost of running a site but increases its usefulness by about 50 percent. (And, for the record, we’ve just referenced such an article in his archives!) Neilsen also acknowledges that most of the articles on his site get most of their visitors when the articles are “old.”

    A study performed last year by the Journal of Web Marketing Research provides evidence to support these claims. Using a statistical analysis of web sites and their traffic, the study indicated that a web site’s total number of pages and its number of years in operation more strongly correlated with traffic volume than all other factors combined. (How much the business spent on web design was the third factor that most affected traffic volume.) Viewed another way, one of the best ways to drive more traffic to your site is to host more unique pages and to leave them up for a long time.

Not that page views are everything, but what site out there couldn’t use the extra traffic? It has to beat cutting your site’s traffic off at the knees for the sake of looking like you’re brand new at this game. Where’s the return on investment in that?

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