As readers and content both go increasingly online, findability becomes an ever greater concern. The organization of content therefore becomes more and more important. Content can’t be effective if it is not found.
There are three components to content organization: classification, relationships, and stickiness. Traditionally, we have focused most of our effort on classification as a means of organization, but this needs to change.
Stickiness is simply the propensity of an idea to stick. Chip and Dan Heath wrote an excellent book about stickiness called Made to Stick. Still, it may not be obvious that stickiness is a form of organization. So let me suggest a definition of organization that will make the role of stickiness easier to see:
Content organization is a response to the activity of the information seeker, designed to make that activity more successful.
In other words, we organize content (or anything else) so that the reader’s attempts to find it will be successful. By this definition, anything we do that makes it more likely that any reader information-seeking behavior will succeed is content organization.Admittedly, this does turn the usual approach to content organization on its head. Traditionally the approach was: “I have organized this content for you. Now let me teach you how to find stuff according to my organizational scheme.” This approach says: “I have been watching how you look for stuff, and I have tried to organize my stuff so that your efforts are more likely to succeed.”
If we take this approach — if we start by looking at how readers seek information — we will notice that a lot of our reader’s information seeking behavior is based on stickiness.
Stickiness is simple. Stick your hand in a jar and the stickiest item in the jar is the one that will most likely come back in your hand. Any way you look for content on the Web, there are usually thousands if not millions of pages that relate to what your are looking for. The ones you will actually see are the ones that are the stickiest.
Google essentially works by measuring and recording the stickiness of content. Content gets sticky when people like it and refer to it and read it. Content gets sticky when it is chosen from search results, when it gets liked and tweeted and plused, when it gets referenced or voted up on social networks and Q and A sites. Readers make content sticky, not writers. Writers can only make content that is likely to get sticky, and put it where it can begin to pick up stickiness.
Stickiness, then, is a form of organization that you court, rather than create. But stickiness is also, in many ways, the most sophisticated form of organization, because it incorporates so many factors, and because it filters out individual judgement in favor of the judgement of the crowd.
SEO may be able to make your content a little bit stickier, though if you are too slick about it, it won’t stick. (See what I did there?) But what really makes content sticky is being good, and being useful. Sticky is hard to fake.
Relationships are all the navigable connections between one piece of content and another. Classification provides one kind of relationship. Even stickiness can provide a kind of relationship, because one piece of sticky content will tend to stick to other pieces of similarly sticky content. But there are relationships between pieces of content that are not a product of either classification or stickiness.
Content, in itself, describes the relationship between things in the world. Content on one subject mentions content on countless other subjects. Every one of those relationships between subjects is a potential relationship between pieces of content. Readers can discover these content relationships for themselves using search, or the author can provide them by creating hypertext links.
It may seem hard to think of hypertext links as a form of organization. For one thing, they tend to be irregular, capable of pointing off almost anywhere from almost anywhere in the content. The web of relationships they create often has no obvious order about it. Indeed, a visualization of a web of links often looks completely chaotic.
But again this is to confuse organization with classification. Classification creates orderly rows and columns. But the world does not organize itself in rows and columns. Indeed, the parts of the world that do organize themselves in rows and columns can be described very well by spreadsheets and databases. Content’s domain is precisely those relationships that are not regular: the bumpy, the lumpy, the unexpected, the counterintuitive, and the downright odd. To confine content to orderly classifications is to rob it of the ability to rule its own domain.
The purpose of organization is to help readers find information, and for the irregular relationships that content describes, and that readers may wish to follow, links fulfill that purpose.
Relationships shine as a means of organization on the Web. Footnotes and cross references provide relationships on paper, but they are so expensive to navigate that their value is minimized. On the Web, on the other hand, relationships are cheap to establish and cheap to navigate. Relationships therefore play a far greater role on the Web than they did in the paper world.
That leaves classification. It’s what we know best, and often what works best for us to manage the content we create. No wonder we tend to rely on it at the expense of stickiness and relationships. But genuinely useful classification can be hard to achieve.
The problem with classification is that its usefulness depends on how well the user understands the classification schema. One of the things our new definition of organization tells us is that if we are going to classify content, we had better observe how the reader classifies things and base our classification on theirs. Asking them to learn our classification scheme is not going to work unless their motivation is unusually strong.
One of the problems with trying to classify things the way the reader classifies them is that readers don’t usually classify things at all; they usually just name them. Classification is something you do when you have to manage all the members of a set. If you only deal with a few items from that set, you generally just give them names and ignore the rest.
Another problem with classification is that it gets more and more difficult, both to do and to navigate, as the number and diversity of items increases. The more different things you have to classify, the more arbitrary the classes become. As quantities increase, classes become too large and have to be subdivided, creating classification schemas that are more and more deeply nested and often more and more arbitrary.
In the paper world, classification was by far the most important form of organization, despite its drawbacks, because stickiness was so hard to measure and relationships were so hard to navigate. In many fields, it was accepted that you had to be educated in the field in order to successfully find information in that field, and a large part of your education in the field consisted of learning its classification schemes.
But on the Web, stickiness and relationships are far more powerful and far easier to use than classification. People are navigating much larger volumes of content, so the problems of classification are magnified. And people no longer accept that they have to study the classification schema of a field before they are allowed to look stuff up in that field.
The result is that classification drops to third place for most Web content, behind relationships and stickiness. The problem this poses for writers is that they are more familiar with classification, and their tools are built more for classification, than they are for stickiness and relationships. This needs to change.