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Book Review Part V: Content Strategy for the Web–Curation vs. Creation

April 9, 2010

Before I get to the last post in a five-part book review of Kristina Halvorson’s book Content Strategy for the Web, let me give you an opportunity to access the previous four posts in the series:

Part I: Introduction

Part II: On the importance and difficulty involved in content minimalism

Part III: A critique of her notion of content governance

Part IV: On the importance and complexity of content audits

In her book, Kristina takes a dim view of content aggregation.

Quality, relevant content can’t be spotted by an algorithm. You can’t subscribe to it. You need people–actual human beings–to create or curate it. (p. 24)

Though the statement is too strong (cleverly designed aggregation can work in certain circumstances), I agree with a weaker form of her statement. Aggregation is no substitute for home-brewed content. Your content is one of the key facets of your brand that differentiates you from competitors. Filling your site with feeds from other sources will not help you differentiate your brand, and might do more harm than good. After consuming aggregated content for the last decade, I can see why she makes such a strong statement.

Aggregation can also lead to a bad user experiences. The main problem with relevance on the Web comes down to context. Users need to know the context in which a piece of content was created and delivered to determine its relevance. Preferably, that determination happens before they click the link to access the content. Most aggregated feeds lack enough contextual cues to give users a sense of relevance before they click the link. If they click a link and find the content irrelevant, it’s a bad user experience. A page full of cryptic sentences with links just above them is not enough.

One of my issues with Kristina’s book is it is light on advice about aggregation, other than, “don’t do it,” which isn’t an option for reasons I will explain. This is surprising in such a new book on content strategy because of the emerging field of content curation. Content curation is a fancy word for developing better user experiences with aggregated feeds. It was a hot topic at SXSW by bloggers such as And it seems to be gaining momentum, and controversy. So I thought it merits a blog post just to sort out some of the issues and give a little direction. Besides, I’m an IBMer. It’s what I’m working on.

Before the break I said that just ignoring aggregation is not an option. I owe you an explanation as to why. Here goes: Your users don’t want to just consume your content in a vacuum. They want to see how it meshes with the thinking and conversations happening all over the Web on the same topics or issues, especially in social media. To gain their trust and to demonstrate your own credibility and openness, you have to link to these threads.

But you can’t just dump a bunch of links on a page and expect users to find the page all that relevant. Because of the variety of the links on the page, Google won’t find it relevant to the topic at hand either. As we say in our book, a good functional definition of relevance is whether Google deems a page relevant. Still, it makes sense to users to build highly relevant spaces devoted to linking to social media threads. The question is not whether to aggregate content, it’s how to do it well. That’s why content curation is an important emerging discipline.

As we say in our book, the value of content is directly proportional to how many linkages it makes to and from credible content. If you decide not to link users away from your site, but instead insist on creating all your own content, in some cases duplicating what already exists out on the Web, your efforts will be self defeating. That’s the old proprietary IP model of publishing that is largely a legacy of the print world.

Social media are so powerful because they manifest the social nature that the Web has always had, outside of a few companies who tried to turn it into an electronic version of print. In Tim Berners-Lee’s original Web concept, physicists wrote stub topics and allowed their colleagues to make comments and otherwise edit the topics until their collaborative efforts resembled something like a finished work. For more than a decade, this model did not see the light of day outside of academia, until the wiki phenomenon took hold.

Content curators are like wiki editors who build relevant pages using recognized subject matter experts from all over the blogosphere as their sources. Done well, these pages can be highly relevant experiences, as we see from Wikipedia. Wikipedia owns top position on Google for millions of keywords for a reason. That reason is relevance. I’m not saying all pages should look and feel like Wikipedia. But the basic content strategy for aggregation should follow the Wikipedia model.

What does this mean for content curators? It means you still have to build pages around your curated feeds–pages that do the following things to make your aggregation more relevant to users:

  • Tell the story of the conversation: Who are the leading experts? What is the consensus view? Where is the controversy? What is the volume of conversation around the topic? What is the significance or importance of the topic?
  • Connect conversants: A content curator is a relationship manager, helping to connect folks with similar interests  to maximize the value of their contributions. Sometimes this means refereeing contentious contributors.
  • Help users participate: It’s probably too much to ask to give users editing rights, as in wikis. But you can at least enable them to comment, rate, and share content within your pages featuring curated feeds using easy, readily available widgets.

The question is not whether to create or to curate. Curation is a form of creation. On the Web, it is the most effective form, as demonstrated by Wikipedia.

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