Structuring Your Content for CMS Sites

My last post I discussed how there can be benefits to using a CMS (Content Management System) beyond just basic content editing & updating. For those benefits to be realized however, content needs to be structured appropriately. So what is well structured content?

Well first we need to look at what a CMS really is — which is a piece of software that enables building a website around templated content and pages. In a static website, where the content and design & structure is merged into a single document, a CMS allows the separation of content elements and design & structure components by allowing developers to create a re-usable template (the structure & styling), that can be filled with content (usually from a database), and then displayed to the user.

Think of it like one of those baby toys where they push differently shaped blocks through the matching holes: where the CMS is the box, with differently shaped templates, and your bits of content are the blocks.

In order for the system to work, your content needs to fit the shape of the templates. When that happens, the CMS, now knowing the “shape” of your content (ex. Event, body text, staff bio) it can then begin to sort or transform it in powerful ways that a simple static website could never do.

Planning Your Content

The only catch with this approach is that it requires planning. If you don’t take the time to plan out how your content should be shaped, you can always just set up CMS templates with a basic catch-all WYSIWYG editor. That would give you content editing capabilities, but its not much different than how a static page is set up in that all your content is just a big ball of mush. It has no shape — and with no shape comes no ability to enforce consistency. Sites like these I like to call “Static CMS sites”. This is one of my gripes against Wordpress — you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get out of this pattern in a default Wordpress installation — but I digress. The point is we need to try to avoid falling into the trap that is “Static CMS” mush.

Instead you should decide ahead of time what each piece of content should look like, and then be consistent with it. For example, of your content, what can be boiled down into repeatable elements? Do you have staff profiles? Does each staff profile perhaps have a name, a photo, email address, and a short bio? There’s a potential template that can be used in the CMS. And now your CMS has knowledge of where to find the photos of all your staff, so now you can perhaps create a photo directory on one page, and maybe on another page you can show the full bios.

Or maybe there’s the class set of “feature boxes” where you list 3 different highlighted products or services your company offers. Each feature set can probably boiled down into common elements — perhaps a heading, a description, an image, and a link for more info. There’s another template, and this is what structured content is all about — a set of fields, grouped into a component, that is repeatable.

Repeatable Components

This is the end goal, content that’s broken down into repeatable components. This is what makes a powerful and flexible CMS website. I should clarify that I’m not calling for a all out ban on WYSIWIG text editors (I’m actually writing in one right now), but they should be reserved specifically for handling bodies of text (like a blog). If you find you’re starting to add tables, photos, and other similar display type objects into the WYSIWIG, or are struggling to maintain consistency of repeating elements INSIDE your WYSIWYG, you may have fallen prey to the “Static CMS” pattern.

If you’re a client and have hired a web developer to build you a CMS website, and you’re providing content to him/her to insert into the new design, you need to work together to develop your content in a way that fits this repeatable component model. That way you can maximized the benefits of a CMS, which in the end benefits your users, reduces future maintenance costs, and enables tremendous flexibility and capability.

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