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Content Life: The Art of Archiving

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (18-May-2004)

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Magazines and newspapers, like intranet content, come in various shapes and sizes, each with their own distinct lifespan. Some publications, such as daily newspapers, are only relevant for a short period of time. Others, such as trade magazines, may contain information that will still be applicable months down the road—annual buyer's guides, product reviews, interviews, and how-to information.

You'll also notice that daily newspapers are usually kept close to the cash register to allow customers easy access without requiring them to walk through the whole store. After all when you're looking to pick up a newspaper, it's often a grab-it-and-go affair. On the other hand, magazines—grouped by topics of interest—are placed in a larger area to allow customers to browse through the issue before buying. When new editions and issues arrive, the previous day's newspapers are taken off the shelves while older magazines are moved to the back of the stands until they too are removed.

But what if store owners left all their unsold copies of magazines and newspapers on the stands along with recently released editions? Not only will customers find it nearly impossible to locate a specific issue or piece of information, but the shelves and racks would spill over onto the floor, their contents falling prey to all manner of mites and silverfish.

If bookstores don't mix old content with new content, why would you?


Content Types and Lifespan

Fresh content is the most critical ingredient to a successful intranet; perhaps even more so than technology and design. Without fresh content, everything else is irrelevant. But it's not enough to simply top off your intranet with new information; content owners need to make a distinction between just adding content and actually managing this content.

Far too many casual content owners take a lackluster approach to inputting content by piling more information onto an already crowded page. It's important to understand that as you add new content to the top of the list, you need to move (or delete, if the information in no longer relevant) content from the bottom of the list. Otherwise, you run the risk of turning your intranet into a scrapyard.

But this FIFO (first in, first out) method of archiving is fairly general and meant solely for the purpose of illustrating a point; it's really up to the discretion of each content owner to decide what stays and what goes based on its importance and relevance at a given time. And it's the responsibility of each content owner to understand the lifespan of his or her content, and that the value and usefulness of any piece of information will depreciate over time. This is key to keeping an intranet free of clutter and data white noise.

Although intranets and their content vary from system to system, you can usually classify intranet content into four lifespan categories:

A summary of these categories is illustrated in the following table:

Content Type Changes Life
Static Rarely Indefinite
Dynamic Frequently Can be limited or indefinite
Periodic Occasionally Can be limited or indefinite
Short-term Never Short (time-sensitive)

Fresh and Archived Content

An intranet's navigational system and structure is a reflection of content taxonomy. By classifying your content you're laying out an informational road map as well as establishing a relationship among the data. But as important as it is to distinguish content by its classification, you also need to distinguish between fresh and archived content within the context of those classifications.

Fresh content needs to be placed on your intranet with special emphasis in the same manner that store owners place impulse items in an area of high traffic. Older content can be filed deeper within your content structure where it can be retrieved through site navigation or a search engine.

Now, it's important to note that fresh doesn't always necessarily mean new content. A spreadsheet containing a detailed list of the last year's sales figures can still be considered fresh months after it's posted on the intranet because it has a fairly long lifespan.


Content Characteristics
Fresh Archived
Needs to be placed in an area of high traffic where it can catch the attention of even the casual user.

Should be emphasized and kept separate from older information.

Must be easily accessible—preferable no more than one mouse click away from the intranet's homepage.

Can be placed deeper in the site structure depending on intranet content categories.

Doesn't need to be "sold" as hard as fresh content.

Access to archived content needs to be supported by a user-friendly navigation system and/or search engine.


Automating Content Archiving

Many high volume, multi-disciplinary intranet sites have a dedicated area where newly added content is listed—with the most important and time-sensitive information placed near the top. But the real estate for such a page must be used wisely or the information you're trying to convey will get lost in a thicket of content.

In my last article, "Creating a Controlled Intranet Management Environment," I described the creation of an online data input form that would enable content owners to add information without having to worry about applying style and formatting guidelines each time. The advantage of this technique allows not only for the use of a black box script to process the input and format the data, but can also be used to embed document status tags to identify:

A script can then be scheduled to "sweep up" and file older content based on its expiry date. The frequency of this automated archiving run will depend on the daily volume of content being added to your intranet—the more content being added, the more important it is to archive older information. The goal is to maintain an uncluttered area where users can have an at-a-glance view of all the newest and most important content with minimal user intervention and minimizing the need for heavy scrolling.

It bears repeating that documents must always maintain the same URL regardless of whether it's fresh or archived content. Archiving content must remain a logical process, not a physical one. What this means is that a link to any piece of content can be moved around within your Web site but its physical location in your content structure must never change. Doing so will alter the document's URL, leading to link rot where bookmarks and other online references to physically relocated documents will no longer be valid.


Conclusion

Managing an intranet must involve more than simply adding new content. An intranet, unlike a brick-and-mortar store, is not limited in size. After a few months, the brick-and-mortar store would have to perform some housekeeping duties out of necessity and get rid of all the stacks lying on the ground or no one will be able to get through the door.

But content owners don't have this same size restriction and may be tempted to let information pile up. And when you fail to archive older content, you draw attention away from your new content and end up creating massive amounts of data clutter. One moment you're advertising some of the latest publications on the market, and the next moment you end up an eccentric pack rat trying to make your way through piles of yellowing paper.


Copyright © 2004 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.