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Paul Boag is the author of The User Experience Revolution and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing … More about Paul

How To Deal With Redundant, Out-Of-Date And Trivial Content ROT

Quick Summary

Publishing content to the web is expensive. I know what you’re thinking: no, it’s not; it costs nothing, especially when compared to print. And you would be right, from a certain point of view. The problem is that publishing is cheap. This seduces you, encouraging you to put more and more content online. In fact, the cost is so cheap that many organizations let almost any employee put content online. They install a content management system and give staff free rein. Even those who enforce standards for consistency and accuracy still produce a lot of content. After all, somebody might find that piece of content useful. But you will soon discover hidden costs. Costs that are crippling larger organizations.

Table of Contents

Publishing content to the web is expensive. I know what you’re thinking: no, it’s not; it costs nothing, especially when compared to print. And you would be right, from a certain point of view. The problem is that publishing is cheap. This seduces you, encouraging you to put more and more content online. [Links checked March/20/2017]

In fact, the cost is so cheap that many organizations let almost any employee put content online. They install a content management system and give staff free rein. Even those who enforce standards for consistency and accuracy still produce a lot of content. After all, somebody might find that piece of content useful.

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But you will soon discover hidden costs. Costs that are crippling larger organizations.

The Hidden Cost Of Content

Although there is a cost to producing this content in the first place, there is a far higher cost in maintaining that content over time. It costs huge amounts of money and time to review content on a regular basis and ensure it is still accurate and relevant. This is especially true when some organizations have millions of pages online. In the end, many companies just give up. We often forget content once we hit “Publish”, unless it is a particularly prominent piece.

The hidden cost is not just limited to maintenance. It also impacts the usability of sites. With so much content online it can be hard for users to find content that is useful. For example, at one point microsoft.com had over 10 million pages online, over 3 million of which a user had never visited. This clutter only succeeded in damaging findability and lowering customer satisfaction.

Content ROT
Large sites like microsoft.com have millions of pages, many of which are ROT. (View large version)

But there is a final hidden cost: a cost to an organization’s ability to evolve its site over time. Take, for example, a company that wants to make its site responsive. In theory we can do this with some updates to the CSS or, at most, the templates in the content management system. But when you have millions of pages produced over an extended period of time this is often not the case. Content producers will have marked up content in a variety of different ways making design changes hard.

Many digital teams give up on the idea. Instead, they redesign the core site and leave legacy content alone. This leads to a fragmented experience as users struggle to adapt to the changing user interface across the site.

How can this enormous challenge be overcome? It begins by addressing the ROT on your site.

What Is ROT?

ROT stands for redundant, out-of-date and trivial. Much of the content on our sites falls into one of these three categories. ROT is a huge problem on many larger websites.

The European Commission recently undertook a content audit. It removed a staggering 80% of its online content because it was ROT. This created a better user experience while reducing costs. It also allowed them to evolve their digital offering.

The European Commission removed a staggering 80% of its content.
The European Commission removed a staggering 80% of its content. (View large version)

Much of the content that organizations put online is trivial. It caters to edge cases that most users do not care about. Yet it takes time and effort to maintain and makes finding important content harder.

But even important content can become ROT. As an organization evolves so should its online content. Yet it often doesn’t and that content becomes redundant.

Finally, a lot of the content we put online has a limited shelf life. Events that have come and gone, or news stories from years ago that clutter up search results.

Sooner or later this ROT will need addressing. But how do you do that?

Start From A Clean Slate

Often the best solution is to start from scratch. On larger sites even auditing what content you have online is too expensive in both time and money. It is not uncommon for digital teams to be unaware of all the content that exists. In such situations the best they can do is migrate content. But that is like putting lipstick on a pig. It doesn’t address the underlying issue.

Instead, many organizations are starting from scratch. They are beginning with user needs by identifying top tasks and producing content around those. This allows them to migrate only the relevant content, often rewriting it as they go.

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.

Unfortunately, in many organizations the digital team would be unable to take such radical action. They often do not own the content and so do not have the authority to remove it. I could argue that this shouldn’t be the case but I doubt that would make any difference. Instead, let’s look at some options that might be more possible.

Removing The Redundant

The first area to target is redundant content: products or services that no longer exist; campaigns that have long since ended. These are easy to spot, appearing in navigation, search results and analytics.

Addressing this content is often easy, too. Nobody much cares for redundant content and so you won’t hear many complaints when you remove it. What is more, there is less of it so the digital team has the capacity to deal with it.

Out-of-date content is a trickier challenge.

Dealing With The Out-Of-Date

Out-of-date content is 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.

There is also a lot more out-of-date content than completely redundant content, too much for the digital team to track down. This is going to involve a degree of automation and the cooperation of content producers across the company.

One approach is to archive content such as news and events after an agreed amount of time. This removes the content from site search and navigation, but makes it available for those that want it. But what about content with a less obvious end date?

The best approach is to establish a policy to enforce content review. This will make sure content producers check their content to ensure it is not out of date. For example, this might need people to log in to the content management system once every six months to check their content.

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If out-of-date content cannot be removed it should at least be marked as out of date.
If out-of-date content cannot be removed it should at least be marked as out of date. (View large version)

Of course, there will need to be consequences if they don’t do that, otherwise they just won’t bother. This will involve removing the offending page from the main navigation and search results as well as adding a banner to the page; the banner will warn users that the content maybe out of date, a technique used by the BBC in the past.

It would be easy enough to use the last modified date in your CMS to trigger an email telling the person who created the page to check it. If that person has left the company and nobody else is supporting the content it needs flagging anyway.

You could go further and notify content producers if their content fails to reach a traffic threshold or a minimum dwell time. The possibilities are limitless. But be careful you don’t chase a false metric. Traffic and dwell time are not always the best measure for all content.

But What About Trivial Content?

The hardest type of ROT to deal with is trivial content, because you will face disagreement over what is trivial. What you consider an edge case might be business critical to another member of staff.

To address this problem you need a set of criteria to assess the value of content. These should be:

  • Analytics
  • Users’ top tasks
  • Business objectives

First, you should look at the amount of traffic hitting a page. Falling below a certain traffic threshold should flag it for review. This does not mean that the content is trivial, it is just a way you can find content that might be trivial.

Next, you should compare that content with a list of top tasks you know users want to complete. You do have a list like that, don’t you? This should be the major criterion for judging if something is trivial. If the content is not on that list then we have a potential problem.

Of course, a task might not be particularly important to the majority of users and yet be business critical to the organization. Only a fraction of users of a site go on to buy, but this is still considered an important action!

This means it is important to ask whether a piece of content supports one of the top two or three objectives of the business. Supporting some minor business goal is not enough.

If the content fails to meet any of these criteria then it is trivial. But that doesn’t mean you should remove it. Some content needs to be online for regulatory reasons or is of crucial importance to a small but valid user group.

The key here is to ensure it does not interfere with the findability of more important content. You could make it only accessible via search or maybe remove it from the main site completely. It is often much easier to point people at a specific page via social media, email or other communication channel. Easier than expecting them to navigate through the hierarchy of a site to find an obscure page.

A Difficult But Important Challenge

Dealing with ROT can feel intimidating on a large site. In fact, it can feel impossible. But it isn’t. Often it is just a matter of putting some processes in place to deal with it.

I would encourage you not to dismiss the clean slate approach out of hand. You may think it will be out of the question in your organization but you may well be wrong. If you create a prototype that gives people a sense of how much better the site could be, they are often more amenable than you think. Now is not the time to be timid. Now is the time to confront the ROT.

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