Monday, November 20, 2006

CMS containers and content quality

A feature of most CMS platforms is the ability to break up content into 'containers' (or similarly named blocks) and then resue these containers in other areas of the site.

Container reuse can be highly beneficial as it allows for a single point of updates and/or correction etc.

However in a highliy decentralised and federated environment (for both intranet and/or web content) without good policies and direction around container reuse (or 'linking') the benefits of container reuse become nullified by major problems.

Context

The main problem around poor use of containers is context as containers can be (and generally are) used out of context. An author on one page has used a container in context with the other containers on the page. Another author then takes a partciular container to use on their page.

The potential problems here are obvious.


  1. The content is written in a different style (and potentially a different look) no matter how strong a style guide you have.
  2. The container has been written only for the context of the original page and thus does not take into consideration the context of any reusing page.
  3. The container of the original author may change without regard to any pages that reuse the container.
In terms of your site you may have several similar pages duplicating content making it very difficult for a user to navigate.

I feel it is also important to try and stop site-section or sub-site owners from taking the 'I want to keep all visitors within my own section and thus will republish other sections content to keep them there, wether this is good for the user or not' type of thinking.

What's wrong with a nice clear link to the relevant original page?

Search engines

Take a container published on a page. A search engine (internal or external) will not recognise that the content is within a container (unless your CMS is directly integrated into your internal search. This doesn't solve external search engines though).

Thus the search engine will index the container for every page it has been used on.

A user searching for the content within that container will be provided with a result to each container and depending on the page it may not provide them with the original context or because the search engine result is quite narrow the user has no idea of what result they should go for, thus breaking the content usability 101 rule of 'Don't waste your user's time'.

Avoiding problems
  • Content authors should have better consideration of context in regard to container reuse and ideally should let the originating author know that they have (or would like to) resue the original authors container within their page.
  • Ensure your CMS has good container control including container level security and ideally automate processes as suggested in the first point.
  • Provide support and guidelines around good use of containers (where they are appropriate and where they are not).
  • Consider major clean-ups of content and consider that users are still using your site/site on a page by page process and rather than simply republishing all containers provide logical related links and keep container reuse to obvious examples rather than an open slater policy of any author being able to do it.
  • Review your use of conatiners and question where the traditional model of a page by page structure is best until your use of containers in terms of content quality is reviewed.

Conclusion

While I think it is impractical and a bad idea to end the practice of container reuse I think it is important to ensure that strong guidance around it is in place to ensure that content is kept clean and focused and you don't end up with a mess of duplicated and republisjed content making it near impossible for a user to understand and navigate (especially across a large site).


It can be a highly sensitive subject in less controlled decentralised environments but the foucs should be on ease of use, content quality and findability rather than just provide a quick and nasty way for publishers to knock-up pages.

If anyone has any thoughts they'd like to share on their use of containers (and any ideas on how to implment them to avoid the problems above) please leave a comment.

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