The most important thing you can do to organize your Web content so that people can find it is to make it sticky. Making it sticky is more important than categorizing it or placing it in a hierarchy or taxonomy. It is even more important than linking your content set effectively. In fact, if you don’t make it sticky, neither of those other things are likely to matter much.
It is easy to think of the Web as simply a vast ocean of content. But if it were that, it would not work at all. What the Web actually is is a vast index of content. It is not a fixed index, like in a book, but a complex, dynamic, volatile, multi-stream index. For purposes of findability, how your content is organized on the Web comes down to how it appears in that index. And while you can definitely contribute to how it is indexed in small ways, its indexing is largely controlled by others. The Web organizes itself communally.
That index is made up of the indexes of all the search engines, but also of all the links on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social sites, and all the links in other content across the web. It includes all the references in all the forums, and every mention in a private or group email. Every like, every thumbs up, every +1, is a part of the index. Every time one entity on the Web points to another, it is part of the index.
You may also think of your content as static and permanent, and therefore having stable organization. But because its real organization is contained in the index that is the Web, and that index is volatile and controlled by others. The organization of your content is changing all the time, even if the content itself isn’t changing.
To put it another way, you don’t organize your content on the Web. You put your content on the Web and the Web organizes it. You can’t force how the Web organizes your content, but you can influence it. Your first concerns, therefore, should be to create content that the Web will organize in a way that is favorable to your ends. In other words, your first concern should be to make your content sticky.
Sticky content is content that sticks to other content. It is content people link to and select from search results. The stickier your content is, the more prominent it will be in the great index that is the Web.
Stickiness is not a general property, however. If it were, the entire Web would be one big sticky mess. Rather, stickiness is highly dependent on circumstances and audience. What sticks to one thing is repelled by another. Being sticky is all about being sticky to the right things. That is how your content will find its audience, by sticking to that audience and to the things that audience likes.
This business of stickiness is not unique to the Web. Stickiness was important in the age of paper as well. Unsticky manuscripts were repelled by the publisher’s slush pile; sticky manuscripts ended up on the best seller shelf at the front of the bookstore. The best way to make sure that people can find your novel or non-fiction book is to get it on that coveted shelf space by the door, and that is only done my making it sticky.
The Web is not merely the media, it is the marketplace. In the paper world, there were many gatekeepers along the way who tried to judge the potential stickiness of things before they were eventually submitted to the ultimate stickiness test of the marketplace. Many things that would have been sticky if given the chance, never saw the light of day, because the gatekeepers never saw their potential, or because their stickiness only appealed to a market too small or too distributed to serve profitably.
On the Web, though intermediaries do exist in some places, by and large the marketplace is open and direct. Put something genuinely sticky on the Web and people will find it. This has been clearly shown in the growing sales of indie music and obscure books that were never commercially viable in a world of atoms, but find their audience effectively in the digital world. The Long Tail exists because the Web organizes content based on its stickiness.
How do we make our content more sticky? Much of that is specific to your subject and to your audience, of course. But there are a couple of basics that should be universal.
- Make bite sized pieces. Content that the reader has to chew on is not as sticky as content that is easy to consume. Write Every Page is Page One topics, not books.
- Focus your energy on stickiness. Yes, relationships and classification also play a role, particularly in facilitating local navigation within your content, but they are irrelevant unless your content is sticky enough to draw an audience in the first place.