The ways users access and experience content online are quickly evolving as creators are given more opportunities to decide how their content should be experienced away from its point of origin. While this evolution can feel like a loss of control, an increase in distribution channels can also mean a potential increase in the number of people exposed to content they may not have been likely to see otherwise.
With distribution channels that range from social media to feed readers to search results, the likelihood of a user encountering content outside of its native environment is extremely high. This makes it imperative for content administrators and website creators to consider off-site user experience through the entire lifecycle of a website.
Planning Your Structured Content: Blobs vs. Chunks
Now that a content management system is, or should be, a requirement for practically anyone looking to maintain any serious amount of content, a key component of planning, building, and maintaining a website should be a logical, well-structured content model.
When it comes to content maintained in a CMS, you’ll find unwieldy WYSIWYG content blobs at one end of the organization spectrum and structured chunks at the other.
Blobs are the result of treating web pages as catchall repositories for any content that may cross the mind of a site maintainer. They most often manifest themselves as large multi-line text fields with some sort of WYSIWYG plugin attached to accommodate just about any style of content formatting that could be dreamt up. On the front end, this results in an unstructured dump of content that can end up being relatively meaningless to search crawlers looking to understand the context of this information.
By breaking these blobs into smaller chunks of content—each with a clear purpose—meaning and organization become a part of each chunk, resulting in a much clearer whole. Consider an event listing. By nature, this type of content has separate attributes, each conveying a significant piece of the overall importance of the event: date, time, location, description, and so on. If each of these smaller pieces of information is broken out separately, they can be manipulated and maintained as part of the whole event listing or as individual entities.
An ideal time to break content into chunks is in the initial planning phases of a web content strategy or web development project. Aside from making content more portable in the long run, this can make the development process significantly simpler due to the fact that all involved parties won’t be guessing at what the final product may look like. After all, content is the most important part of your website, why not plan design and development around it?
Content modeling is a great way to plan your structured content. There is no right or wrong way to build out a model, but the end deliverable should be something that communicates every type of content, the individual components involved and all of the relationships between them. Something as simple as a spreadsheet can get the job done, but a wireflow or similar method of diagramming is a great way to make visual connections and even see relationships that may have been missed otherwise.
At this point in the process, it’s extremely important to consider how this content will be experienced in different places around the web because this should inform some decisions about the structure and meta data associated with a good bit of the content. Some key distribution points to consider are search result listings/rich snippets, social media, and content aggregators. Thinking about these factors in the initial phases of planning is crucial in order to ensure content is structured in a way that it will most effectively take advantage of the benefits offered by the various distribution points being targeted.
The Experience of Sharing: Make It Easy and Worthwhile
Once all of a site’s content has been planned, modeled, and produced, take the time to consider how users may want to interact with and share it. One necessary piece of content production is taking the time to make certain you’re producing something interesting and credible. Almost equally important is giving readers a simple but meaningful way to distribute that content throughout their social networks and elsewhere on the web.
Social sharing is the most obvious place to spend some UX time simply due to the sheer number of people that can be reached through the most popular social networks. Once you have readers hooked with interesting content, point them in the right direction and show them how easy, or even enjoyable, it can be to push your content to their social networks.
Take, for example, an un-customized version of the AddThis social sharing plugin; users can be quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available, making it a gamble as to whether or not they’ll even find the service they’re looking for. On top of that, it’s nearly impossible to output your content in a way that it will display exactly as you want on all of the social networks available through the stock AddThis widget.
Instead, take the time to carefully analyze and choose where you’d like site content to be shared. Next, research any custom meta data or markup these services provide to allow additional control over content shared through their respective widgets. Facebook is a great example because it’s so widely used and their open graph meta tags make it relatively simple to send exactly the content you’d like to Facebook when it’s shared. The key here is research, as most popular social networks have some way for developers to enhance shared content.
With the popularity of feed aggregators like Feedly and Pulse, providing an RSS feed for content can be much more beneficial than a lot of site maintainers may realize. Initially, distributing via RSS can feel like you’re willfully turning down pageviews in favor of a third party reaping all the benefits of the hard work you’ve put into producing quality content. However, a well thought out and planned feed can bring in additional traffic and potentially get content in front of users who may not have a seen it otherwise.
The key to distributing content via a public feed is being mindful of what is and is not included. Feed readers are essentially a shell for users to quickly access the content provided by sites. This is a great opportunity to entice readers with well-crafted and interesting summaries that link through to the full content on your site, thus generating pageviews and possibly even gaining a new audience.
The Off-Site Experience: Take Advantage of Every Distribution Opportunity
When users encounter your content elsewhere on the web, make that experience memorable. Provide more than the baseline to create something rich that will stand out from the crowd. In some situations this can mean a little extra work up front, but structured, modular content is particularly well suited to this.
Google’s introduction of rich snippets into search results listing pages is a great example of an opportunity to stand out in a sea of seemingly similar content. Currently, Google supports rich snippets for eight different types of content, but you can always check out their documentation for the most up-to-date list. Supported content types range from reviews to products to video, each with a unique opportunity to make your content more visually distinct on search results pages.
Rich snippets are powered by additional markup that provides context and is used to clearly convey to Google what each chunk of content represents. Three different markup formats are supported, but Google recommends microdata. Each content type on Google’s list has a unique set of properties, which are suited to that particular use case. In order to take full advantage of the benefits available here, you’ll want to start considering this formatting and structure as early in the planning process as possible.
Social Meta Data
Once you’ve put in the effort to ensure your content is easy to share on social networking sites, it’s important to consider how it will actually display on those third party sites. There is some level of custom implementation involved for most social sites, but the payoff is a much richer way to display content.
Facebook and Twitter are both great places to start. Not only do they both have an enormous user base, they also provide meta tags that allow site builders to choose exactly which content will get displayed in a Twitter Card or Facebook post. With a little thought, this can give your already interesting content the edge in a sea of competing posts.
The possibilities are seemingly endless when it comes to optimizing your off-site user experience. It’s impossible to anticipate every scenario where a user may interact with your content, but with some thoughtful planning and analysis you’ll end up with a repository of nicely structured content that will be much easier to adapt as more opportunities to do so present themselves.
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