Too Much Content?

By Samuel Bowles on 23 05 2012

Does your website have too much content?

It seems the common wisdom is there is never too much content – the more content published, the more search engines have to index, the fresher a site seems, and the more likely it is to be remembered and visited. But are there a limits to what should be on your site? And how should decisions be made about what's in and what's out?

There are two primary myths that drive organizations to adopt a kitchen-sink content strategy. Like all good myths they are firmly rooted in truth and can be easily confused with realities we all experience as working web developers. Also, like most mythology, they can inspire religious devotion making it difficult at times to rationally separate truth from fiction.

The Portal Mentality

Myth One:

Any content you add to your site (even if it is not directly related to your organization) offers benefits.

Remember "portals"? In July of 1996 Yahoo added a new button to their front page for a service called "My Yahoo" and the race began. The idea: become the start-page for people's internet experience and rake in the ad dollars.

The trend has yet to die despite Google's capitalistic demonstration that people prefer accomplishing a task to encountering distractions. Internet service providers, browser makers, even insurance companies to this day operate with a portal mentality, desperately trying to convince a few people to change a setting (for their browser's homepage) they either don't know how to change or made a decision about eons ago.

Gerry McGovern argues anecdotally that content unrelated to a users "mission" when they arrive at a site is at best an unnecessary distraction and at worst a distraction from their original goal. The insinuation is that users distracted from their primary purpose will often leave frustrated and dissatisfied.

His conclusion is supported by a large body of research on the effects of information abundance. In 1996 Paul Waddington published a survey of 1,300 junior, mid-level and senior managers on behalf Reuters (an organization that at that time was producing 27,000 pages of information per second). 47% of respondents in the study reported being distracted from their main tasks because of "information overload" and 38% said they "wasted 'substantial' amounts of time" seeking information.

In Yong-Soon Kang and Yong Jin Kim's study in 2005 they found that the "perceived quantity" of content on a site has a negative effect on navigability. This is a further problem as they also confirmed what most professional web developers have long assumed: regardless of how interested someone is in your content the more difficult a site is to navigate, the more negative a visitors' attitudes will be about the site.

Sure there's room for portals, but 99.99% of websites need to accept that they will not be one. Even a powerhouse like Google realized this when it decided to get its feet wet in the portal game. They paid Dell millions to preset new computers with their start page offering.

Your organization will probably be much better off focusing its energy on content related to your core business. But even if we throw in the towel on the portal race there's another myth that drives content proliferation.

The SEO Web

Myth Two:

You need as much content as possible to ensure people will find your site using search engines.

If you read the abundant advice of companies who perform Search Engine Optimization (SEO) you might get the impression that your website's success depends fundamentally on massive amounts of "content." Content in this sense is often a loosely-defined word which usually means a piece of text which serves as the vehicle for keywords.

These SEO outfits are right. When a machine is asked to measure a site, it will measure it based on the raw data it has available: your website's total mass, keyword density, number of inbound links, the presence and pertinence of meta data, etc. The data will be fed to an algorithm that attempts to make sense of it. And as any SEO expert will confess, that algorithm will change.

The problem with the Google dance is that it's an attempt to game the "system." It's an engineer's answer to a sociologist's problem. People designed the algorithm that attempts to rank, contextualize, and organize your website into a meaningful pattern and people will continue to tune that algorithm. In the end it's always better to write content for people (knowing they will attempt to organize it with machines) than to write content for machines hoping it will be meaningful to people.

As Google notes in their "Webmaster Guidelines," "Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit."

Signal to Noise

So how does one decide which content should or should not be included on a site? The question is nuanced and the answers will vary according to your audience, organizational goals, and available resources. However, a sociologist named Orrin Klapp gave us a good starting point for making these evaluations.

In his book "Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society," Klapp argued that there are two basic causes of information fatigue (or what he calls "boredom"): noise (highly varied, low interest information that lacks a meaningful pattern) and redundancy (too much information that is so similar that little is new.)

As many artists, including Andrew Wyeth, have noted: "It's not what you put in but what you leave out that counts." The choices made about what should and should not be included on a site are choices that create culture, and the culture a site presents will determine the experience users have. Klapp continues his social hypothesis by suggesting two escapes from boredom: meaningful variety (enough difference to allow learning and adaption) and good redundancy (continuity which increases memory and aids the creation of culture).

With Klapp's ideas in mind, let me suggest a list of questions that could be applied to each piece of content being considered for inclusion on a site:

Evaluate for a Pattern

  1. What is the relationship between this topic and others on this site?
  2. If the topic is new, what meaningful connections can be made?
  3. What percentage of my target audience would be interested in this topic?

Evaluate for Meaningful Variety

  1. Does this content contribute either a new perspective or detail to a topic this site covers?
  2. Does this content build a bridge between two topics of interest for this site?

Evaluate for Good Redundancy

  1. If this topic has been covered before, does this content add additional insight?
  2. Does this content present a new rhetorical device that will aid in remembering some aspect of an already covered topic?

The organization of a website does not begin nor does it end with navigation design. Information architecture runs much deeper in a good website than the directory structure, the navigation titles, or the headlines. It must permeate the decision-making process throughout the continued creation of a site.

A site's content is most effective when it is codified either by the de facto example of what is present (or not) on a site or by way of a written content strategy. These questions can help in building such a strategy organically.