By Jessica Coccimiglio published September 22, 2016

What Librarians Can Teach Marketers About Weeding Out ROT

librarians-teach-marketers-rot

Editor’s note: This article grew out of a post published on the Content Strategy Inc. blog May 16, 2016.

Librarians can’t keep everything; bookshelves have only so much space. As books come in, books must go out. Librarians call the process of removing books from their collection “de-accessioning” or, more casually, “weeding.”

Marketers may use the term weeding, or they may talk about getting rid of ROT (redundant, outdated, trivial content). Whichever term you prefer, you probably know that you should archive or delete content that hurts you more than it helps. Who’s going to land a good job today with career tips from the 1970s?

Archive or delete #content that hurts you more than it helps says @jess_604. #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Removing content from your site doesn’t mean it’s bad. It may have been perfectly good when it originally went up. But times change, and so should content.

Think of this process the way you think about buying clothes: Every time you add a piece, you’d be wise to consider removing something to make room in your closet.

Do you think of digital space (unlike closet space) as unlimited? Do you ever find yourself wanting to keep certain pieces of content because they could maybe someday be useful to someone — like that one user who needs to know a particular detail about the history of your organization or who may find a post helpful even if it talks about programs you no longer support? If so, keep in mind that just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it costs nothing to keep. Every link, paragraph, picture, and video that you keep — even though your priority audience doesn’t need it — makes it harder for that audience to find what it does need.

Just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it costs nothing to keep, says @jess_604. #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

If you’re a content professional, you owe it to your customers — just as librarians owe it to theirs — to regularly inventory and audit your collection and then weed out the ROT.

Decide what to pitch

Librarians take various things into account in deciding which books are important enough to keep on the shelf. A book is not necessarily irrelevant just because it gets old, and it’s not necessarily unhelpful just because it’s rarely checked out.

When you’re considering which content to retire, look not just at its publication date but also at its relevance. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do the tips work as well today as they did before? If they do, consider keeping the piece and refreshing anything that makes it look dated, like old screenshots or photographs.
  • Is something making your still-useful content hard to find? Maybe it lacks the metadata that search-engine robots need to find it. Consider retagging or re-categorizing that content or otherwise updating its metadata to support findability.
  • Are you promoting your content adequately? Maybe you can surface it on your company’s home page or social media.

Here are four more tips to simplify your weeding:

  • Can’t tell which section of your content needs the most weeding? To get a snapshot of how your content is doing at a high level, try the content scorecard template that Content Strategy Inc. has developed.
  • Have trouble deciding whether a particular piece of content is worth keeping? Ask a knowledgeable colleague.
  • Want to see how much your site has improved since you first started weeding? Check the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to see how your site used to look, and celebrate how much better it has become.

Create a weeding schedule

Your content team may want to create a schedule for reviewing pages or sections of your site. If you don’t weed your collection regularly, before long you’ll be buried.

You might schedule content reviews to align with the following:

  • Major updates or policy changes in your industry, company, or department
  • Product-development cycles – For example, if you write about software technology and your app developers make small updates on a two-week scrum cycle and significant updates once or twice a year, you might schedule minor updates of your content (revising or deleting old articles) every two weeks to stay on top of the small changes, while scheduling more significant updates every six months or annually.
  • Events – Let’s say that your company holds an event every month to attract new customers. Review your website content before every event to make sure that it hasn’t gone stale.

Make a schedule that addresses when different sections need to be audited. Some content rarely needs updating. If content on a page is likely to remain stable, such as a brand’s history (on an About page for example), you probably don’t need to check for accuracy and usefulness often. Other content may need to be checked for accuracy regularly.

Create an archiving strategy

Make sure that the right people can still find the content you take away from public-facing platforms. You don’t want your audience to feel abandoned. Even if your priority audience will be OK with the change, some stakeholders might not be.

To make sure that audiences who need the content hosted on your site don’t run into problems after you remove it, consider alternative homes for that content. Appropriate places may be intranets, wikis, shared file servers, or even print pieces.

Notify people who might need your archived content so that they know where to find it.

Pace yourself

When Jeff Scott, the director of the public library in Berkeley, California, pulled 40,000 books from the shelves in one year, patrons were so angry, they demanded that he resign.

To avoid outcries like that, librarians Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner (authors of the hilarious blog Awful Library Books) recommend weeding gradually. Removing a book or two a week keeps a library moving in the right direction, making space for new books without shocking the system.

Besides, it’s easier to audit content a little at a time than to audit everything at once. If you remove content regularly, you don’t have to tackle all your digital properties at the same time.

Audit content a little at a time rather than everything at once says @jess_604. #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Conclusion

Weeding out ROT isn’t easy. It’s easier to keep everything and avoid the following challenges:

  • Dealing with the emotions wrapped up in content — like the first post you ever published or the materials that helped one of your friends who isn’t part of the priority audience
  • Figuring out who is going to need those materials or miss them
  • Providing alternatives for people who may need archived content

For hundreds of years, librarians have taken on those challenges so that they could keep people coming back for more. Marketers can, too.

How do you keep the ROT out?

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Want more on managing your content strategically? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter, which features exclusive insights from CMI Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to his thoughts every Saturday.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Jessica Coccimiglio

Jessica Coccimiglio is a content strategist and freelance tech journalist. She's an amateur maker with a passion for design. She loves tea, and she finds plants and animals endlessly fascinating. You can follow her on Twitter at @jess_604.

Other posts by Jessica Coccimiglio

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  • Nancy Johnson

    Thank you for this article. I had never (ever) thought about content clean-up!

    How does removing digital content affect SEO ranking? Our main site has great SEO, partly due, we assume, to having loads of great content going back to the ’90s. If we did a massive delete of outdated posts, I’m concerned it could hurt our SEO ranking.

    On a related note, it would be a great service if bloggers and content marketers included the publication date on posts. Most don’t. That way, when content is old, readers know it and can decide if it matters.

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Hi Nancy,
      I would love to hear Nancy’s thoughts, but we are going through the process of cleaning up older content, so I thought my experience may help.

      I would look to see how much traffic is coming to each of the pages you are considering deleting. If you want to see what is specifically coming from organic search, in Google Analytics go to: Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels > Organic Search. Select Landing Page (under primary dimension), and then you can search for any page. You’ll see the traffic that is getting to that page via search.

      Once you know if certain pages are SEO magnets, you can then make better decisions on what to keep, update or remove as to not impact your rankings more than you need.

      Best of luck. It is a time-consuming process, but a good one!

      • Nancy Johnson

        Great advice, Michele. Thanks for the reply! I would definitely use this for an old piece that I suspected might still have value. But what about “overall” SEO ranking of the site? Won’t that slide if we wipe out a significant portion of our content? For us this would amount to hundreds of articles. I believe this was true at one time but I’ll admit I haven’t brushed up on SEO specifics in a while. …

        • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

          I am not an SEO expert, so I don’t know. But, I think it depends which pages you are removing. If they are pages that aren’t driving SEO traffic, I don’t think the impact would be that great. But, I’d welcome an SEO expert to weigh in.

    • Jessica Coccimiglio

      Hi Nancy, I’m not an SEO expert, but my understanding is that poor quality content can hurt a site’s SEO rankings more than its presence gives it a boost.

      I think if you hold the goal of getting rid of content that ISN’T great (meaning not helpful, not just old) as your guiding light, it’s hard to go wrong.

      Best of luck.

  • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/author/roger-c-parker/ Roger C. Parker

    Dear Jessica:
    Fresh topic combined with very helpful, specific advice–care to visit my office and help me reclaim some space?
    Roger

    • Jessica Coccimiglio

      Thanks for the compliment, Roger! What kind of content does your office have to clear out?
      -Jessica

      • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/author/roger-c-parker/ Roger C. Parker

        Dear Jessica:
        Thanks for asking.
        Too many marketing books, too many design books, too many railroad books, too many photography books, too many cd’s, too many 3-ring binders of blog posts I’ve written, one dog, one cat, and 2 flat screen monitors. Definitely not a Hollywood video studio.

        Problem is, each time I pick up a book to throw it out, I can find a reason to save it.
        I do donate a consistent trickle of books, primarily mystery and fiction, to the supermarket table where donations go to area Amal shelters.

        Moral: beware of minimalists with piles of used yellow legal pads on the floor!
        Roger

        • Jessica Coccimiglio

          Oh that’s tricky. I suggest you find a good place to sell or donate them to, so they’ll still go to a good cause, and you get the space in return.

          Good luck!

  • Greg Soltysiak

    good stuff, thank you,

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