At Sanity, we describe our offering as “a platform for structured content.” But what is structured content? Structured content is content that is broken into its smallest reasonable pieces, which are explicitly organized and classified to be understandable by computers and humans. Each of those pieces holds the characteristics of the thing it represents and can be combined, filtered, and reshaped endlessly to serve the ever-evolving needs of an organization and its users.
In this way, you free your content—words, images, files, videos, or any other substantive information represented in a medium—from being locked into a single representation or delivery method. Structuring content effectively turns content pieces into LEGO bricks. 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. For example, content that is used for a product listing can also be reused in the body of a marketing landing page, a newsletter, in the preview of a notification, or as material for printed flyers. Working with the pieces allows for greater flexibility as your need for end products changes.
The benefits of structured content are vast. We have captured 5 of them here.
- Efficiency – Content separated from presentation means less content to update in fewer places
- Findability – Google rewards structured content and internal search improves
- Personalization – Metadata accompanying structured content allows granular matching to customer intent
- No design decisions – Content is separated from presentation, removing the need for decisions about the visual design at the field level
- Future-proof content – Gain flexibility, expandability, scalability across your content ecosystem
Perhaps the biggest benefit of structured content is efficiency. All those fields that give your content structure are clues to their purpose. Not just title, body, description, image, and tag. But the real structure of the document: Title, Summary, Banner Image, Body, Topic, Author, Category, Project, Technology, Call to Action. These “extra” fields force the person creating them to think about how this article fits into the context of the organization. The information you put into each of those fields is semantic. The fields are references to what content means for your organization, rather than referring to where content is presented. This is what we mean when we say “content is data.”
This single repository of content allows you to create once, publish everywhere (COPE). Sanity calls this repository the “content lake.” Think of all this content as fish in a giant lake, swimming around and waiting to be discovered. Not just on a single website—which is pretty terrific—but every endpoint that makes a connection to your data. Ebooks created on the fly and saved as PDFs for distribution. Voice assistants answering questions that your data covers. Apps pull the data in and render it in the appropriate format for the device. An in-store display shows today’s specials or new items. Everywhere is quite literal in this case.
Because this content is able to be published anywhere and everywhere, you create less content. That means:
- Less duplication of content
- Less content to be searched when someone is looking for it
- Less content to maintain and govern
- Less time spent updating content
You get less content and more granular control of its parts. Content ownership has traditionally been based on organizational departments or audience segments. When you structure your content, ownership can be assigned to the pieces rather than the whole. Your marketing team writes an article and determines the call to action while your subject matter experts assign topics and technologies to it. This way you don’t end up with a blog post and an article and a press release that contain essentially the same information but written by three different departments and showing up three times on your website in three (or more!) different places.
The efficiency extends to governance. When you have to update someone’s name that appears in the article as well as team listings, you update it once and it gets updated everywhere it shows up. Faster and less risky! Because you only have it stored in one place, there is no worry that you missed one of the references to that person across multiple content types.
Structured content opens up algorithmic curation. No more figuring out what content is related to a topic or technology. Determine the algorithm once and it automatically gets updated. As you add articles, case studies, and projects about a technology, they automatically get added to the technology landing page that lists related content—in the order you specified originally. No remembering where the new article needs to show up and no going to each of those places to make it show up while also removing a reference to other articles!
The most useful content in the world is useless if people cannot find it. All the search engine optimization (SEO) pros use the term “structured data,” which is a great mixture of “structured content” + “content as data.” Whatever you call it, it is good for SEO as well as internal search.
Whether you use Schema.org schemas or make up your own, Google will reward structured data and use it to make your content more visible in search results. Search Engine Journal tells what that looks like:
Structured data has many benefits including higher click-through rates, greater search visibility, faster indexing, and voice search domination.
Sanity inherently uses schemas, but it is up to you to define them in a meaningful way. We have eliminated a top excuse—“the CMS doesn’t support it”—for not using structured content. What’s good for computers is good for humans these days!
In addition to helping people find you in the first place, structured content will help people find what they are looking for once they are on your property. Like all other computers, any internal/on-site search engine does what it is told to do. Structured content lets you tweak the search engine’s algorithm in many ways as well as providing great advanced search possibilities.
Not only is there less to search, as noted above in the “efficiency” section, but you can explicitly define the importance (aka “weight”) of content types and fields within them when you have structured content. If your events are more relevant to your users than press releases about the events, you can tell the search engine that. Same with the “date updated” versus the “date published.” And on and on. If someone cares enough about finding something in your content inventory, then you should care enough to help them find it. Otherwise, they will go somewhere else and you lose credibility.
Personalization goes beyond including a person’s name in an email or greeting them after login. Consumers want to be served content that they relate to. They want Netflix- and Spotify-level recommendations. When brands connect with their consumers in a way that matters to them, trust and loyalty grow. To get that level of personalization, you have to understand customer intent—why someone visited, watched, clicked. You have to understand what drew the person to take action. And that means that the content’s purpose needs to connect to the consumer’s purpose.
Structured content allows you to embed meaning into each piece of content and each component of the content. It has purpose and meaning all the way down. From semantic content types and field names to metadata embedded into each document. It’s a bit of a three-legged stool, so you still need to figure out what metadata and schemas are best suited for your purpose and do analysis to gain insights about customer behavior. But without the content structure, the other two will not provide what is needed to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace.
Won’t all that structure make content boring? No! Contrary to what you might be thinking, structure frees content to be delivered and rendered in endless ways. But the decision on how to render the content is made at a system level instead of the individual document level. It gets built into a design system or a style guide or pattern library. Because structured content is meant to be reused, the content and presentation are separated.
This might look like having a “Target Audience” field instead of “Banner Color” to determine what color to use when displaying a piece of content. For example, if Parents, Students, and Faculty were three target audiences that get a different banner color on your website, you decide at the system level that parents get a yellow banner, students get a black one, and faculty get blue. So when an editor is creating the content for students, they do not have to remember that the banner should be black. They know that they are writing for students and the website can be coded for a variable banner that knows that if Target Audience = Student on a document, then display the black banner, among other things you might decide about content for students.
At first, editors will feel like they have less flexibility because they don’t have a giant WYSIWYG editor with all the formatting buttons that allow them to add color and images and align content as they wish. But if the content model and platform schema have been developed with content and editors in mind, they will quickly adapt to the new way because it will be so much faster and easier.
It is also reasonable that editors will want to know what the content will look like in a particular application. The good news is that you can provide that for them too by matching the interface templates to the content structure. Preview can be set up for any endpoint—or all of them.
With thoughtfully structured content as the foundation of your content system, you are no longer beholden to the unsustainable website redesign cycle of tearing it down and rebuilding every 3-5 years. You can change (or add) any endpoint without touching the underlying content. From reorganizing into different menu and navigation structures to rolling out a new brand identity, it’s all in the representation layer, not in the content layer. It might be hard to imagine, but if you look at Apple, the New York Times, or ESPN, you can see that the main changes over time are in how they look and how they are organized. The underlying content patterns are the same. So next time someone says they want to be like Apple, you can do that for them!
When a new platform in your content ecosystem comes along, it won’t have to duplicate content that already exists elsewhere. Connect the new system architecture with your content architecture and you’ll be off and running in less time than ever before! It will be no one’s job to re-enter all that content just because you changed technology. You can extend your content system without burdening anyone with the task of entering content into multiple products so it shows up in all the right places.
Structured content also lets organizations scale easily. This goes back to the semantic and organic orientation of structured content. Structure and navigation should be defined based on what the content is about and relationships are determined up front in your planning.This allows you to populate each content type with unlimited instances of content without running into information architecture problems. No more trying to figure out where something goes when it’s created. No more all-hands-on-deck drills to add a new product to your website. Simply go to your content system, enter the information, and publish. Voilà! It’s everywhere it needs to be!
The argument for creating a structure for content and having content creators use it is fairly straightforward. But simple is not always easy. To get the benefits of structured content, investment needs to be done up front. It is a collaborative team effort to gain the full benefits. Structured content is a long-term investment. However, the time your team puts into the planning and execution of a structured content system will pay off for years to come. Like all good investments, the interest is compound and will be felt throughout the organization, not just in your content, design, or engineering departments.
Part of the initial benefit is changing hearts and minds. Many people who work with content think of it as an end product: a web page, a video, a brochure, a book. The goal of content is to get a message across to an audience through an end product. And so people create landing pages, produce short videos, design brochures, write books. Those things are the ends, not the means. Each product is only one way to represent the information that is contained within.
Start small with a single product instead of trying to do it all at once. Break a single content product into smaller pieces to be reused wherever they are needed to produce even more content products faster. Turn one team into advocates and share their success so the movement grows.
Sometimes the best way to get started is by bringing in someone who can apply their experience to your situation and teach your team to fish, so to speak. It could be worth hiring a consultant who can steer you through the process the first time. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to how to structure content. Consultants have been through many projects and can apply lessons learned to your organization for ongoing sustainability. They can serve as coaches until you get up to speed and regularly experience the benefits of structured content.
Aim for progress, not perfection. Small steps forward will allow everyone to experience the benefits of structured content and stay motivated to work through the challenges.