Structured content is content that is planned, developed, and connected outside of an interface so that it's ready for any interface. It is breaking down content into the smallest reasonable pieces. Each of those pieces holds the characteristics of the thing it represents. Most of the digital content created by organisations is a surrogate for something that exists outside the digital world: a person, a company, an event, a product.
Giving content more structure means giving it more flexibility and freedom. It is not tied to a single representation or delivery method. Think of it like Lego®. The bricks do not change, but they can be taken apart and put together over and over to make different things—or the same thing again. So it is when content is divided into meaningful pieces. It can be mixed and matched and styled over and over without changing the underlying content.
Structured content is needed so that content can be created once and published everywhere. (COPE). Today and tomorrow, whatever channels and devices tomorrow brings.
Content is substantive information that is expressed through a medium. It is more than just text on a screen. It is images, documents, files, videos, and more. Rarely is any given item of content delivered in just a single interface with a single representation. Take an event, for example. A single website has the event detail pages. It also uses specific pieces of the event to display as a card on the home page, a listing on the calendar, and an item related to a blog post. It also shows up in Google, on attendees' calendars, and in syndicated third-party listings. If all that event information were trapped on a web page, it would have to be recreated for each of those instances. Google might not understand that it is an event and, therefore, place it way down in search results instead of showing it at the top as an event entity.
Structured content is future-friendly. It is no longer sustainable to redesign websites over and over, recreating the content every time because it no longer "works." A single piece of information does not need to be recreated for every channel and interface and delivery method (screen or screenless). The semantic meaning inherent in content that is broken into its constituent parts allows it to travel through time and space to appear anywhere.
Content does not belong to only a website, it is an asset that needs to be tended, much like a garden. It is not single-use and disposable. Apply the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra to content as well as the environment.
When structured properly, content gets turned into data, making it reusable. Go beyond repurposing—turning a webinar into a blog post, three five-minute videos, and a downloadable slide deck—to reuse.
Reuse means that the actual title, date, description, metadata, and downloads for that webinar can be available for use on any number of websites and pages, search engines, calendars, email systems, and third-party feeds. If the same webinar is given multiple times, the structure can be such that new dates and times are added without having to duplicate the rest of the content.
Using the COPE methodology allows content to becomes more efficient to manage. Instead of having to update the same piece of information all 10 places it shows up on the website, it can be changed one time in one place and the change shows up in all 10 places. Think of the time that saves! It also reduces the risk of missing an update in one of those 10 places. What used to take an hour or more to do can take just five minutes with structured content.
The number of communication channels continues to expand. Because of the reuse possibilities and turning content into data, structured content makes it possible to have content repositories that any channel can pull from. A publisher can create content and connect it to any outlet, owned by anyone, through APIs and web services. The technology exists. But structure is needed to make the content available for computers and algorithms to consume.
Humans are good at interpreting what they see, hear, or read. Computers are not so good at that. They need explicit instructions. Structured content is a huge step toward enabling artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The structure provides the semantic meaning needed for computers to interpret what the content is about and connect it properly to related content. Machines learn by reading data, identifying patterns, and making decisions with minimal human intervention. Without structure, it will take longer—and more human intervention—for machines to learn and build intelligence.
Structuring content goes beyond breaking an HTML Body field into smaller fields or adding some tags to it. Structure is the arrangement and organisation of parts in an object or system. Similar to math, music, and built structures, information has structure that goes much deeper than the interface we view it on.
Thinking about the system—a combination of parts forming a unitary whole—in which the content exists expands understanding. A concept from early computer development, systems thinking is breaking things down into their component parts to understand them on their own as well as part of the bigger system.
All the parts of a system are interrelated. The very definition of structured content—content created outside an interface to be available for all interfaces—is a good reminder to think of the whole as a sum of its parts. A website might need different parts of the structure than a mobile app or a voice interface. All of the possible uses for content should be considered at the start. While it's impossible to predict all use cases, considering a variety of short- and long-term use cases will help a great deal.
Structure implies rigidity. However, the opposite is true. Structure creates more flexibility than amorphous blobs of text that stand alone unless manually linked together. On the other hand, chunks (to use the vernacular of structured content experts) are defined pieces of content devoid of any presentational styling. Chunks set content free. Words, images, videos, files, and widgets are all held separately, ready to be remixed and rematched.
Applying metadata to each chunk embeds meaning so that computers can understand what it is, what it is about, and how it relates to other chunks. When put together, the chunks provide a comprehensive understanding of a complete thing, or entity. The entity's metadata allows computers to read and understand the content in its constituent parts or as a whole.
The structure makes machine learning and AI possible because computers can connect content dynamically based on cues humans provide through their interactions. It is also makes planning websites easier because every it is not necessary to account for every single web page based on all possible combinations users might want does.
Reasonable and reusable are two important characteristics of structured content. Start by thinking about the resource, the real-world thing, rather than a single representation on a screen. For example, a song has a title, artist, genre, length, and year of release. Maybe it also has ratings and reviews. Those are all reusable and reasonably sized pieces.
But what about a large narrative part of a resource? Like a conference session. It has a title, description, learning objectives, presenter, date and time, room, and maybe a track or topic. It may make sense to separate the description and learning objectives so that one can be displayed without the other. Or it may not, if neither would ever get specific styling or ever be presented separately. What is reasonable in a given situation? It is important to consider context and relationships as part of the system and not just in the abstract.
Entities with little inherent structure do exist. It makes sense to have generic container like "Basic Web Page" that retains the flexibility of a big body field for times when there just is not much structure or the content is unique. But even generic web pages need to be viewed and read and accessed by different screen sizes, in different browsers, and by people with differing abilities. Content must be structured in a way that still makes sense when recomposed for a small screen or read by a screen reader. In these cases, create as many separate fields (aka chunks) as is reasonable.
Structured content makes your content better, longer lasting, and usable everywhere. To be successful in this endeavour, thinking needs to shift from "What pages go on this website?" to "How can this content be structured to represent this thing in a digital product?"
Structured content is one lens into content strategy. Applying structure early helps get the right information to the right people at the right time—without researching it time and again. Go beyond writing the right content to structure it the right way to be useful and usable.
Structured content is essential to make the switch to a headless CMS—a content management system that does not come with an out-of-the-box way to render content in a web browser. The work that needs to be done to put content into a single repository without an interface is the same that makes all that content available for any new technology that seeks to grab data and turn it into something useful to be consumed by humans.
Screenless interfaces continue to evolve and be adopted by more people. These voice-activated interfaces have no fancy visual design to fall back on. Content must be familiar and available to the computers that are working to match the spoken request to data from all over the world wide web. That means even further reliance on semantic metadata to provide relevant and useful responses.
Personalisation is nearly impossible without structured content. Much has been made about the prediction that personalisation will be abandoned as a marketing strategy by 2025. However, personalisation should be the future. It is what consumers expect and want. One reason it is dying is because there is not enough structured content to meet the needs. Chunking content into constituent pieces and applying appropriate metadata can make personalisation meaningful and a good return on investment.
No one knows what the next technology shift or disruption will be. But it is certain that it will involve more artificial intelligence and machine learning. The machines that need to learn to provide the promised AI need to have semantic data. Semantic data is much more accurate when applied to small pieces of content. Structure is mostly invisible to humans but it enables much of what humans want computers to do.
Structured content is not just a technical problem. It is also a people problem. Creating, using, and governing structured content involves a mindset and process shift for everyone from authors to design teams to software engineering. Instead of convincing everyone else to make the switch, it is best to approach the change strategically.
Whether a prototype with a coalition of willing colleagues who come together to experiment or a pilot project that gets the green light from the top, start with something all. Pick just one section of one website to see what you can do. Take a small microsite and test drive a new CMS that supports structure and entity-based content models. Choose something that is low stakes. Build common ground and learn from each other. Share successes more widely to gain early adopters and expand the scope.
Most people do not care about semantic metadata and content governance. But there are plenty of things they do care about. Speak to them about the things they care about. Some ideas:
More and more organisations are moving to a structured content framework. To illustrate the difference between non-structured and structured content, here are some examples from all around the world.
Before and after structure was applied to Microsoft tutorial content (now Microsoft Learn), Courtesy of Sarah Barrett, Microsoft.
Before and after structure was applied to a recipe on a recipe app. With structured content applied, people can find and organise recipes based on things that matter most to them. Courtesy of Ronald Aveling.
In GatherContent customisable templates make it easy for people to provide any type of content in the correct format, and style. This example is of a blog article template.
Here are some quotes from industry experts about the topic of structured content.
Colleen Jones, Founder of Content Science and author of The Content Advantage says:
“Structured content helps marketers do much, much, more with less time, money, and hassle to maximise your investment in content technology.”
This snippet is from Karen McGrane, Managing Partner at Bond Art + Science:
“Our content really does have to go everywhere. If you start trying to solve that problem now, you’ll be better off in the future.”
Natalya Minkovsky is a Content Strategist at Publicis Sapient and has this take on structured content:
“Think of it as a methodology that enables customers to find your content more easily online and employees to redeploy it more efficiently into multiple formats and media types. In combination with a strong content marketing and editorial strategy, structured content is an essential building block.”
Finally, here's some insight from Rahel Bailie, Director of Content at Babylon Health:
“In a nutshell, structured content matters because you can get so much more out of your content with a lot less work, and get better analytics for tracking effectiveness.”
Are you interested in learning more about structured content? Here are some additional resources:
Carrie Hane helps organisations create more effective content more consistently by coordinating the people, processes, and technology to build efficient content operations. For 20 years, she's been putting together cross-functional teams and creating processes that stick while untangling information to make it usable for today and ready for tomorrow. She is the co-author of Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow (New Riders, 2018). When not taming content, Carrie tries to tame her two boys. Content is easier.