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Collaborative Linking Strategy

November 6, 2010

As you know, I work for the largest publisher of original content on the Web–IBM. This makes for an extremely challenging environment for content strategy. The company has a lot of brands and business units, which regularly release new products and need to publish content for every stage in the buying cycle for these products. These organizations started developing their websites independently of each other, with separate content management systems, taxonomies, design systems, content standards, etc. Many of these differences persist.

Add to this challenge our knowledge of how the audience wants to consume the content. They don’t care about how our company is organized. They just want to understand how our interrelated products can help them solve their business problems. For this reason, over the last decade, we have worked to try to consolidate all these disparate publishing organizations into one unified system (or system of systems), with common taxonomies, standards, processes, and tools. It’s a work in progress, made more difficult because we continue to acquire new brands and build out the business globally.

It’s especially challenging for search-first content strategy. All these organizations are vying for attention from the same audience: IT buyers, decision makers and developers. Content owners who want to attract this audiences to their pages will learn to use words and phrases this audience frequently uses in their search queries. There are only so many of these phrases to go around–far too few for a one-to-one mapping of words to new pages in our environment, let alone the millions of old pages we have laying around. How do we share words across the enterprise, and otherwise give this audience cues into which pages in our environment are most relevant for them? This is the central question of my career at IBM.

This question can be broken up into dozens, or even hundreds, of smaller questions about audience intent, query semantics, link architecture, URL structure, page design, etc. I can’t say I have all the answers to these questions, but I am developing a strategy that will lead to answers to  some of the thornier questions. The question for today centers on links: How do we share links across the enterprise in a way that makes it easier for our audience to find the content they’re looking for?

If you are interested in this question, read on. Otherwise, feel free to explore other areas of this site and leave a comment about your most burning questions. I will be glad to answer them as time and attention allow.

The importance of link sharing

Before I start tackling this problem, let me get one thing clear: this is not an information architecture problem. Information architecture seeks to develop persistent navigation that helps users find content when they’re not quite sure what they’re looking for. Persistent navigation is the kind of thing you will often see across the top or masthead of sites (Home, About Us, etc.). These links appear on all pages within a site, or subsite.

The kind of linking I’m talking about is white-space linking, that is, embedded (aka, inline) links within content. These are the most valuable for search-first content strategy because they give search engines more information about the relevance of the page you’re linking to, or at least they should. Search engines just rely on text to parse links. So the text that appears in the link anchor (typically, the blue underlined text) helps users and search engines determine the relevance of the link to content on the page.

Tip: Rather than using “learn more” or “watch the video” in this link anchor, it’s best to match the link text to the title or heading of the landing page. Search engines give the landing page a lot of credit when links pointing to them contain anchor text that matches the keywords on the landing page.

Of course, if you use descriptive anchor text, it also helps users determine whether to click a link. So, once again, search engines give us clues as to how to build better pages for users. That’s the point of a search-first content strategy.

If you know anything about Google, you know that links into your content are the most valuable things you can attain in helping you to get your page ranked in search engine results. All things considered, Google gives you more credit for links from other sites into yours. But if your site has high value, it will give you some credit for internal links. Google gives a lot of value. So it is really important for us to create internal links that are optimized for Google. That means sharing information about the various sites and assets we publish across the enterprise, especially keyword information that will help content owners craft the best link anchor text.

With millions of existing pages and thousands more published quarterly, link sharing is a considerable challenge for IBM. But, simply put, there is no better way for us to help our users find relevant content when they know what they’re looking for. So we take the challenge head on.

Collaborative link sharing

What we are developing is a wiki resource that describes all the content in plan or onsite for each individual brand, business unit, and country. For each proposed new piece of content, owners will be required to create a wiki entry that describes relevant facts about the content: Audience, purpose, intent, keywords, metadata, etc. When content owners want to create a new piece of content, they can search the wiki for the keywords they have chosen for their target audience, and learn what is either in plan or in market.

In IBM, for each keyword our audience cares about, chances are there are a dozen relevant pieces of content on site already. In some cases, the content owner proposing a new piece of content might find that she doesn’t need to create new content after all, she can just reuse or link to the existing content. In other cases, she might need to create new content, but the wiki gives her a ready resources to which to send her users for more relevant experiences.

This wiki will not be built overnight. But when it is built, we can maximize the relevance of our internal inline links for our audiences. We think this will be a game changing aspect of our content strategy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Patty Gale permalink
    November 8, 2010 12:49 pm

    Fascinating. We are currently implementing a wiki for our product documentation, and I see that similar issues will soon arise for us.
    I like the idea of the wiki resource, a type of inventory or catalog of current and planned content. However, I wonder how you are tackling the problem of creating this information for all of the existing content? That sounds like a huge effort.

    • November 8, 2010 8:28 pm

      I thought someone might ask that question. We have a Content Governance Board that is building a complete inventory of existing content. Not all of it will end up cataloged in the wiki. Some of it will be targeted for deletion, consolidation, or archiving. The stuff that remains will be cataloged. But that’s still a lot. It will take time. But it will go quicker if we can convince all the content owners that it’s in their best interests to do the work. If they all devoted a week to the effort, it would get done.

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