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23 Oct 2021 ~ 10 min read

Content Ranching

Managing a massive website is no longer a one-person gig.

Most web-savvy business owners know it takes emerging roles like Content Contributor, Web Content Editor, and Content Management System (CMS) Administrator, to make a content-heavy website function. Once upon a time, these roles were reserved for the lone gunslinger known only as “The WebMaster”. However, mastering content has taken on a whole new dimension, complete with a newsroom mentality that needs content pushed out continuously to stay relevant.

Yet, the production of content is not the only emerging role — especially in the age of mobile devices and mobile content consumption. Like the lone WebMaster of old, content curation is now becoming a necessary function to wrangle a website whose content quality and quantity have started to outgrow its online stockade. Like a rancher whose cows have broken through the fence in the back-40 and wandered off, the Content Curator — or content rancher, if you will, now has the added task of rounding up the herd. Due to the uncontrolled growth of each website’s many head-of-content, they must now continuously wrangle old content in addition to new content as an essential part of the content management team.

If we take our cattle ranch metaphor to the next level, we can then replace our website team with ranch hands: the Content Contributor adds the cows, the Content Editor brands the cows, the Content Administrator mends the fences and keeps the barn stocked with hay, while our Content Curator makes sure customers see all the new cows. What has not been added to our little ranch is all that content nobody cares about anymore. Who is putting all those old cows out to pasture or turning old cows into new cows again? Ok, the ranch metaphor is not perfect, but the idea is simple: somebody needs to be in charge of making sure every cow has its place on the ranch so that when the day comes — and it will come — all those cows need to be driven someplace new.

The Train Called Mobility

Once upon a time, a content management system and creation process would have been all you needed to manage our massive content ranch. But while you were sleeping, the railroad called “mobility” came roaring through your town and scared all the cattle. Now your customers are getting your competitor’s content on their newfangled mobile devices in ways you never dreamed of before. Worst yet, the competition’s cow content is mobile-ready, which is a far cry from how they see your massive website ranch: zoomed out, tiny, and unreadable without magnification.

Streamlined content management systems now need to take that whole “dynamic” part of dynamically driven in a whole new way. Now that we have gotten ranchers to decouple their content from their presentation, we need them to start decoupling their presentation from the “desktop only” paradigm. Presentation now requires a platform-agnostic design that content can be “poured” into so that it can be aesthetically pleasing no matter what screen is view it. But where do you start down this dynamic (i.e. responsive) presentation transformation if it requires that you retrofit a website that is still wrestling with its content curation problems?

Mobility is still the Wild, Wild West

Regardless of what you hear about standards, governance, and best practices for developing mobile-ready websites these days, mobile development in general — and responsive mobile website development in particular — is still the wild, wild west in the age of wireless devices. Unfortunately for your business website, consumers are not waiting for everyone to finish fighting over which mobile content delivery standard is the sheriff before demanding you deliver your content in a mobile-friendly way.

Most of these websites have similar problems: important content has to be zoomed in and out to be read, their sites are still populated with content that should have been put out to pasture months (or years) ago, and without adapting their content to work within RSS readers or mobile applications like Flipboard or Feedly, nobody comes to visit.

It’s at this point that these content ranchers realize that what once worked for an audience that was satisfied with big layouts and regular blogs posts, now only frustrates the growing mobile audience who want sites that conform to their given device, and a steady stream of new content that resembles a stampede more than a day at the pasture. What’s a content rancher to do?

Because of this demand, many business owners start to panic at this point. They order their content management team to provide a “mobile-ready” view of their website by implementing “responsive layouts”. It’s just another flavor of CSS after all, so what’s the big deal? It promises to make their website perform some kind of magical contortion dance and make all of their content new again, while also making it look great on any mobile device! Content ranchers line up by the dozens to prove a simple mobile-ready CSS view, expecting to see instant results after they apply it to their acres of old and new content. Within weeks, the new responsive fencing is up and the responsive new paint on the barn is dry.

When it comes to putting their content into new boundaries, the content ranchers quickly discover that not all their cattle fit every device, all of their pretty pictures don’t resize with each given device’s form factor, and most of their content is nearly impossible to read on a mobile device due to strange poorly defined layouts. It becomes obvious to their customers that it’s only new paint on the barn, not a completely new way of looking at the barn itself. As a result, the mobile version is almost as bad as if they hadn’t built one at all.

The Great Mobile Content Drive

The solution to making your website mobile-ready is to realize that presentation changes are not the only part of making your content work: your content itself needs to be mobile-ready too! Jakob Nielsen, a renowned usability expert, agreed when he stated, “Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what’s needed to satisfy desktop users. Two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work.” But the implementation of this process is key to understanding what should and should not go into a mobile website.

The following is your checklist for preparing your content ranch hands for the content drive between your full website to any mobile-ready website:

#1 - Count the Herd

The first step is to discover just how much content you have. In doing a content inventory, you not only discover just how big your “herd” is, but you also tend to discover all sorts of forgotten content you didn’t even know you had. The key during this step is to flag content that is important for your mobile audience to see. This usually includes new content, short and to-the-point articles, and content that can be consumed via an RSS or blog reading application.

#2 - Know the Path

Now that you know how big the herd is, how will you get it into the mobile website? The answer is a simple one: create a plan that categorizes the content that you flagged earlier as essential, stale, or missing. Having content priorities will help you focus your resources on moving the migration forward in bite-sized waves without getting overwhelmed.

#3 - Cull the Strays

Next, you need to consider what shape the content should be in when it gets goes mobile. Do you need to clean it up and make it more usable? Do you need to provide multiple photo sizes depending on the form factor? Have you determined the proper fonts or allowed the target devices to pick their fonts? Are headers the right size? Does your company logo look good when it’s tiny? Implementing a new mobile site requires you to take an honest look at your content and consider the new forms it could potentially take.

#4 - Prepare the Fences

Make sure to designate where old and new content will be shown on the mobile site. Screen real estate on mobile devices is at a premium, which means that there may not be room for all the content categories you want. Some content will be an easy one-to-one mapping, while other content will not match up cleanly, if at all. This is where some hard decisions have to be made. The result should be a complete guide that shows where all of your mobile content will go, what content will not go, and where a user could get content if they wanted to find it.

#5 - Assign a Trail Boss

Make sure all migrating mobile content has an owner. By getting in-house editors to make decisions about priorities, locations, and mobility, you delegate the responsibility to those who care the most about it. After all, these ranch hands will become essential to keeping the herd alive and well long after the migration is completed.

#6 - Drive the Herd

Now it’s time to migrate, or in ranch-speak start yelling, “Get Along Little Doggies!” You should begin by moving your mobile content in small, prioritized waves. This method gives you the flexibility to quickly clean the content as you go and easily adapt to your new production processes. Unfortunately, the only true way to migrate content is to get your hands dirty with cut-and-paste. But since you’ll be cleaning your content as you go, manual migration is the best way to accurately get your mobile website up and running correctly.

#7 - Life on the New Ranch

Once all your mobile content is at home within the new fence line, the final step is to find a content rancher who will shepherd the herd, enforce participation and timely contributions, and keep your content from wandering off again. Content curation is just as important as content contribution. Content is king, but if customers cannot find it, it does not exist!

Have you planned your next drive?

Embracing Jakob Nielsen’s concepts on separate mobility site creation and curation comes with some controversy associated with it.

However, to be a true content rancher, one must be in control of all the content cows before any fully blended mobile website can work. The above strategy puts you back in the saddle when it comes to understanding how much content you have, what content is best for the new mobile-ready site, and how you should create a plan for curating content that may have not seen the light of day in years.

Only when you have THAT level of control over the curation of your content can you effectively manage and implement an effective content migration strategy.

Or as they say on the content ranch, find a way to keep all your prize cows in one barn!

Headshot of Kyle Bondo

Hi, I'm Kyle. I'm a UX Designer, Software Engineer and Podcaster based in Fort Worth, Texas. You can listen to me on War Yankee, see some of my work on GitHub, or read more about me on my website.