I had a really interesting conversation today with my friend, Cheryl Landes. For those of you who don’t know Cheryl, she is a content organizer extraordinaire. Cheryl has tremendous experience – particularly in the indexing arena. And for those of you who don’t have an appreciation for the fine art of indexing, well, what can I say? The professional indexers who I’ve worked with are the content equivalents to those people who go into the homes of hoarders, clear out the garbage, and make order out of chaos.

Cheryl and I discussed a number of topics ranging from findability, to Google SEO algorithms (we cannot keep up with them either), to tagging and taxonomy, and organizing content in a structured environment. We came upon an analogy that I want to share with you, in case it helps your thinking, like it informed mine.

Imagine you have a house with a decent-sized closet. But the closet only has a couple of hanging rods across the top and middle. Into this closet, you put all of your clothes, from shoes and socks, to suits and ties, sweatpants, your entire wardrobe.  And you try to loosely organize the closet – given that all you have are hanging rods. You have a hanger for all of your ties (hanging haphazardly across the middle), you have a pile of socks in one corner, your shirts are on hangers, but placed randomly on the bars. You get the picture. Your closet looks kind of like this:

Now, let’s think about content. Specifically a server and unstructured content. The server is like the closet with one or two hanging rods. It provides a little bit of organization, but nothing that you can really work with. And the content is like the scarfs hanging all over the place and the pile of shoes on the floor. It’s a big mess in a big heap. And as you add to your content (or, if you are like me, your shoe collection), the situation just gets worse and worse.

What if you wanted to reuse your black pumps to go to a party? You know, those same pumps that you wore to the business meeting in Las Vegas last month? You cannot find them. You have to go and buy a new pair of black pumps – who has the time to dig through that pile?

Reusing content is exactly the same thing. You know that someone else wrote an overview of the feature set that you now have to write an overview for. And you’d reuse it if you could. But you cannot find it and you don’t have the time to go digging through the pile. So, you write a new one that’s almost the same as the existing one.

Now let’s think about organization. Let’s imagine that you remodeled and brought in a company to install this beautiful closet:

Ahhhhh. Shelves, drawers, a place for shoes. This is your Clothing Management System, or CMS. It has a place for everything and everything has a place. It is your built in system with models for storing all your content. Just like in a structured environment, you need to create models for different content types. Your installation guide model is going to be different from your software setup model. After all, you cannot hang a skirt on a pants hanger.

You with me? I know, it may seem corny, but it is such an accurate analogy.

So, one final thing – and here is really the important part. You can have the best organization in the world – a place for your blue socks and a separate place for your white socks, a place for hats, and a place for coats. However, if you do not know how to categorize your clothes, you won’t be using your structure efficiently – and you still won’t be able to find the elusive pair of black pumps.

As you put your clothes into your new closet, you must come up with a system – a clothing taxomony – for organizing and storing your belongings. As you add to your collection, you need to stay within the system. If you start mixing your white socks with your blue socks, after a while, you won’t be able to find your red socks anymore.

Same with your content. No amount of modeling, style sheet development, tagging, and so on will help if you do not rework your content to fit the model. You cannot keep shoving your shoes into a pile on the floor and expect that you will be able to find the black pumps because your closet now has shelves and drawers. It simply doesn’t work that way for clothes and it doesn’t work that way for content.

So before you get really excited that your CMS is in, your authoring tools are selected, and your taxonomy has been completed, realize that the real work begins now. Now you have to work on the content itself, organize it, segment it, put it in its proper place with its proper metadata. And then you will have achieved your goals.

I’m going to buy a new pair of black pumps anyway. But that’s just the way I am.

Val Swisher

Val Swisher is the CEO of Content Rules. She is a well-known expert in global content strategy, content development, and terminology management. Using her 20 years of experience, Val helps companies solve complex content problems by analyzing their content and how it is created.

When not blogging, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.