Contents: Some kinds of content, like product descriptions or event listings, lend themselves easily to semantic structure. Unless you’ve actually done content modelling, though, the idea of “structured content” can seem antithetical to looser forms like news stories or feature articles. Should we bring structure to those forms as well? What do we gain? And will it make our stories or articles too uniform?
McGrane: It’s easy to see how data embedded in content benefits from putting some structure around it. Calendar listings, event locations, movie titles, book authors—treated as just plain body text, they don’t really do much for you. Encoding that information with metadata that tells the robots what it means gives you so many more opportunities to do things with it. Plotting events on a map, linking to author bios or related works—heck, even making the content more browsable and searchable—all that becomes possible with structured content.
The benefits of applying structure to things like articles can be a little more elusive. I think Tumblr is a great example of the benefits you gain from modelling different content types. Tumblr offers several different interfaces for you to enter your posts. While you can work with a regular text field (or “blob,” as I like to call it) the real magic happens when you use one of their structured interfaces for a particular content type. Want to post a song, a video, or a picture? The interface makes it easy, because all the right fields (and only the right fields) are all on one screen. Want to post a quote or a chat transcript? Sure, you could shove that in a text blob, but by using one of their custom content types, you have more options for how that text gets styled and presented on the front end.
Adding structure to content in this way does imply that we’re losing some flexibility and control. And any time we hand control over to the robots prompts dystopian fears of being forced into rigid conformity (in our templates, and in our unflattering futuristic jumpsuits). It’s a reasonable fear—a lot of bad content management implementations homogenize vastly different content types into the same bland template. The problem in those situations, paradoxically, isn’t too much structure. It’s not enough structure. By defining more content types and modelling them more fully, we can strike the right balance between flexibility and uniformity.
Contents: We’ve seen NPR do wonderful things using the COPE methodology and by publishing its content via an API. Do you have other stellar examples of structured content and the Escape from Pages allowing publishers to do better, more interesting work?
McGrane: BBC Sport promised to deliver coverage of every sport from the London Olympics, and boy did they deliver. The massive breadth of content they made available—a page for every athlete, mind-bogglingly extensive video coverage—extended across four different screens. They’ve put out a great case study of their user experience design process and how it was enabled by their new dynamic semantic publishing technology.
The hard work paid off—they saw astonishing, record-breaking traffic. Even better, the infrastructure they put in place for the Olympics will benefit their coverage of future events. Read more about their traffic stats.
Contents: This book of yours. We really really want to see it. Can you say a little about what it covers, when it comes out, and how we can get our hands on it?
McGrane: My book, Content Strategy for Mobile, will be available this fall (very soon!) from A Book Apart. In it, I talk about the challenge organizations face in getting their content onto a variety of different platforms and devices—not just smartphones, but tablets, refrigerators, in-car audio systems, you name it. The secret to surviving this next wave of mobile (and whatever comes after it) is adaptive content—content that has been created from the start with the intent that it might need to go anywhere. That means it has to be written for reuse; modelled with appropriate structure; presentation-independent; and have meaningful metadata attached. I talk about how to develop a strategy and a roadmap; how adaptive content may change your writing and editing process; how to create “content packages”; and how the people side of your process and editorial workflow will also need to adapt.
You can purchase the book directly from A Book Apart when it goes on sale sometime this fall. As a special offer for Contents readers who have a major credit card, I’m available to read selected sections of the book to you over the phone for a reasonable price. If you want me to use a sultry voice while I’m reading, that will cost extra.