Content optimization isn’t new. It started several thousand years ago when people began to organize content for discovery in libraries.
About 2,300 years ago, the renowned Greek poet and scholar Callimachus built the first Google – a topical catalog of the Great Library of Alexandria’s holdings.
No surprise – helping people find information today requires a vastly different approach.
A library’s organization offers a standardized way for people to search a large amount of information quickly when they know they’re looking for. But that style of organization makes less sense for content designed to engage audiences and introduce new experiences.
Think about it. You wouldn’t walk into a library with the goal of becoming smarter about the future of business. Yet marketers often default to organizing thought leadership like a hierarchical library.
Worse, many catalog it by content type. I’ve seen so many B2B resource centers organized at the highest levels as e-books, white papers, videos, and short articles. It forces audiences to pick their content experience before choosing a topic or question to answer.
Modern content optimization framework
To meet audience needs in 2023, you must optimize content for search engines, social channels, vertical channels, industry channels, and (yes) even the humans who ultimately navigate their way to your content. It’s a tricky balance to decide what to optimize for.
Historically, marketers optimized by the logical hierarchy because that was optimal for search engines. But with AI and other technologies, such as personalization and targeted content, coming to the forefront, I wonder if it’s not time to look at new ways of organizing your content.
A framework can help you think about each attribute of a modern content optimization model:
- Internal context
- External context
Let’s look at this one by one:
Understanding your audience’s intent is almost more important than who they are. Think about it. If you have 1,000 new visitors coming to your website, what’s the most valuable thing you can know about them? Is it who they are? Or is it why they came to surf your content? You must place heavy importance on optimizing your content in a way that helps you understand their intent – before you ask them who they are.
How do you do that? You can cleverly organize and create your content. For example, perhaps you organize by task or desired outcomes rather than content type. Or maybe you provide more detailed content titles? For example, you might have a white paper titled: “Visions of a New Future for Our Industry: What You Need To Know as You Contemplate Change.” I went over the top on that title to make the point, but you get the idea. Somebody downloading a white paper is NOT a qualified lead at this point.
At this point, the goal should be to make the information that matches their intent easy to find.
When you develop your content – whether educating, inspiring, entertaining, or simply providing directions – authority matters, and details matter. Depth matters. You cannot deliver authority in a single piece of content. Instead, it’s communicated through your library of content. These attributes include linking, attaching, and serving relevant details and more in-depth content, so your content consumer never needs to go anywhere else.
Instead of organizing your content to host a virtual box full of PDFs, images, PowerPoint presentations, etc., build cross-linked experiences that serve the “best next” experience so the audiences can go deeper.
The internal context attribute is about meaning. It might be your brand’s points of view about the world or its unique take or solution to a problem. It might be the information you provide in proximity to other information.
Organizing your content by points of view is similar to organizing it by intent. But you’re not doing it based on tasks or questions but rather by making a complete argument for the stories you tell. For example, a technology company focused on cybersecurity might organize its resource center by the brand’s point of view on the future of AI and include another section on the future of financial security in a digital world.
Your content’s clear, consistent, and differentiated point of view and/or meaning makes it stand out when people search for answers. How the content is displayed also communicates a context, which can deepen the engagement.
I call this the settle-the-bar-bet problem. Someone at a bar says, “What’s the answer to that question?” You answer. They search and find the answer to confirm what you provided. Usually, the questioner nods, puts their phone in their pocket, and moves on.
But what if your answer sparked further interest? It intrigues them, so they read it aloud to their friend, “Did you also know that …” Maybe, they even bookmark it for future reading. That’s the internal context you want to achieve.
Technology and AI-driven solutions also enter the optimization framework to assist with conditional contexts – how the content will temporarily be organized at a user or account level. Or it may be organized based on a mobile vs. desktop context.
You could determine that first-party data, such as location, buying history, content consumption, and device type, will inform the content’s organizational appearance.
Also, you could use this data to decide which content to put into social media, vertical sites, and other interfaces where you don’t control the display.
Directly related to external content, providing multiple ways to organize your content grows in importance today. If external context lets the consumer see content displayed based on their behavior, “described” organizations create content that describes your content – to help audiences filter (or automate), categorize, measure, personalize, and activate content. This content usually falls into three categories:
- Descriptive metadata – categorical terms about the piece of content, such as the audience persona, buyer’s journey phase, author, or supported product category.
- Administrative metadata– content management elements, such as publication dates, expiration dates, rights management, legal or compliance categorization, etc.
- Structural metadata– details that help connect one content asset to others, such as a set of data that reacts to a prompt like “If you like this, you might like this too.”
Go forth like a new Callimachus – the media company
I wouldn’t recommend attempting all these, but you can include multiple approaches to reorganize your content management. The web, search, and artificial intelligence will likely evolve beyond the static hierarchical, library-like means of providing information.
Start with optimizing for humans. When you understand your audience and their intent, you can optimize the content for findability. Once you create in-depth, valuable, informative, and engaging content with authority, you can bring out the best meaning in your content and drive better internal context.
With that achieved (or in progress), you can move to the tech side of optimization with external contexts, such as mobile, search, social, etc. You can describe that content so machines can understand and do more with it and use technical solutions to present it optimally.
Put simpler: You are Callimachus and the modern media mogul. Your brands are not only poets and storytellers; you are the media companies. You are here not just to provide a resource but to engage and guide people to the best stories when they need them.
It’s your story. Tell it well.
Updated from a June 2021 post.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute