On the Web, nothing is more damaging to your organization's reputation and brand than out of date content.
On Monday September 8, 2008, a story about a UAL bankruptcy began circulating on the Web. (UAL is the parent company of United Airlines.) Within hours of the story's being released, UAL's shares had dropped by 76 percent.
The story was 6 years old. For some reason, the story had been added to the "Most Viewed" link section on the homepage of a Florida newspaper. From there, Google News picked it up, and the rest, as they say, is hysteria.
It's easy to put content up on a public website or intranet. In fact, the content management software industry has made distributed publishing a key selling point. Basically, the more published, the merrier.
This is a totally unprofessional approach to website management. But the unmanaged distributed publishing model is attractive to organizations that do not value content. Such organizations want to find the cheapest and fastest possible way to deal with content. The cheapest way is to buy some software, give people basic training in how to use it, and then let them at it.
The easiest decision of all is to publish everything you have. Take all that print stuff and just PDF it. Take anything that's digital and put it up on that great big website. It's a "have gigabytes must fill" mentality. If you publish everything, nobody can blame you for leaving something out. It's just that nobody can find anything.
It's very hard to review and remove. Not alone does it take time, it also takes skill and authority. Anybody who can use a computer can quickly learn to publish a piece of content on a website. It takes real skill to review.
Organizations are in urgent need of professional review processes for their intranets and public websites. Out of date content is growing year by year, and there are many more UAL-type stories waiting to happen. It's time for management to get serious and professionally manage their websites.
One of the first tasks is to stop free-for-all distributed publishing. It doesn't work. We need some sort of basic editorial control that decides what gets published and what doesn't.
Anything that does get published must have an identifiable owner. That owner must commit to regularly (every six months at least) checking their published content. It is absolutely no excuse for them to say they don't have time. Don't let them publish if they don't have time to review and remove.
Some out of date content should be immediately deleted, some needs to be retained for legal or research reasons. This content should be placed in an archive. Archived content should be very difficult to get to. In particular, it should not appear in normal search results.
What the UAL story teaches us is that archives have the potential to do tremendous harm, whereas their value is often questionable. What it also teaches us is that professional content management requires real people and real skill.
At the bottom of the Google News homepage is a statement: "The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program". I'm sure that gave great comfort to UAL investors as they watched their investments lose 76 percent of their value.