In which we check whether your website has been beseiged by zombie content…

Are some of your web pages a bit slow? Do they make you moan or wail in despair when you see them? Are they a bit grey and possibly have words flapping loose? Do you have nightmares about them and fear they want to suck the living will from you?

*whispers* You might have an infestation of zombie content on your website.

That is to say your website might be a bit bloated because it’s carrying a lot of dead weight. Pages which have outstayed their welcome and which fail to serve any purpose at the end of their useful lifespan.

The information might be out of date, the campaign might have long since passed. The pages could be the unwitting victims of vanity publishing or a page that was once vital but the user or business need which spawned it has now disappeared.

This zombie content, pages that should have gone to their grave (or at least the archive) but haven’t are still hanging around your website. While they’re doing that they’re getting in the way of your visitors. Do I need to tell you that’s not good? Well, it’s not, not good at all.

Creating content, publishing content, even promoting that content are all pretty common activities and whether we get them right or not there’s a whole load of people busily getting on with these activities. Content management though, that’s got to include taking care of your content when it comes to the end of its life.

Stages of digital content lifecycle

There are a few different theories about how many stages content goes through in its lifecycle. Gerry McGovern proposes there are three – creation, editing, publishing and Bob Boiko argues in a similar vein in the Content Management Bible.

Others make cases for up to seven stages in lifecycle, with this longer cradle-to-grave pathway proposed by Bob Doyle recognising that there is an end to a piece of content’s useful life and action should be taken to actively manage this end point (he calls this archives).

You could infact make the chain even longer by getting tighter on activities within each point of the lifecycle. Kristina Halvorson suggested 15 steps to the cycle in Content Strategy for the Web – audit, analyse, strategise, categorise, structure, create, revise, revise, revise, approve, tag, format, publish, update, archive. This takes into account that getting content right isn’t an easy or quick process but also that the current way of working online requires more than just writing and publishing the right words – you need to make your content findable (tag).

Not all content lives forever

To my mind the number of phases in the lifecycle will depend on the piece of content – a tweet will have a different lifecycle to an organisation’s contact page on their website to a personal Facebook status update to a news report published on YouTube.

Self-publishing for pleasure or vanity (and perhaps this blog falls into both!) will likely have less phases than something official for an organisation’s website just because there are less people involved. This blog post, for example, will have the following lifecycle – created,edited, published, active (being promoted, visited and commented on),archived. That last bit – the archive, well that happens pretty automatically on a blog as newer content knocks it back and eventually it finds eternal peace in a month by month archive. You may need a more hands on process for your organisation’s web content though.

For a typical organisation web page I’d suggest the following lifecycle:

  1. Creation – this could be curation of existing content from other sources, original work or collaboration. I’d say that this first step can include gathering many content types together to form a page (words, images, documents, links) and also should include tagging and addition of any metadata.
  2. Editing – this may be done as part of the next step or may be done before. It may loop around between steps 2 and 3 a lot before moving to its next phase.
  3. Approval – possible two-step between an offline approval through organisation hierarchy and online through workflow processes.
  4. Active – like the blog this will be when you content is useful, in use, being promoted, visited, shared and talked about. During the active phase there should be several loops where the content is checked and possibly revised (so briefly revisting steps 2 and 3 again). At some point one of these visits will end with you moving to step 5.
  5. Archive or removal – this is the point at which your content has stopped being useful or in use. You may need it to remain in public view but it needs to be marked as out of date, linked to its successor and be embalmed – change its metadata to stop it getting in a users way when they search. You may be able to remove it from your website altogether however as a whole page or its component parts it may need to be stored somewhere to meet your organisation’s record management needs.
  6. Reanimation – your content may need to come back from the dead. Seasonal content in particular could be retrieved from your archive and start it’s lifecycle at step 2 again.

Lots of people are excelling at steps 1-4 and while they think of themselves as ‘content managers’ they’re really ‘content creators’. To be a content manager you need to see past your content’s hey day and plan for it’s demise, and be willing to take action at the appropriate point. Don’t allow zombie content to flourish on your website through failure to work out the right lifecycle and manage the content through all the phases.

*If your problem isn’t with zombie content but with actual zombies then I believe removing the head or destroying the brain is the way to go. Good luck.

Photo credit

Image by aeviin of Zombie Walk Warsaw 2008 published under a creative commons licence on Flickr.