Let’s pretend there is a right answer to the question of, “what is the next best piece of content I can serve someone to best help them after they just read an article?” And let’s assume it’s within reach to mostly get it right.
Categories and tags are probably not the way and “related content” is treated like an afterthought on most sites.
If you use a “related posts” widget, posts get randomly served from the same category. If you’re really fancy, they might be prioritized by pageview count.
And that’s about as high as any of us reach. But why?
Why are people so bad at organizing content?
At some point, the way we think about organizing things becomes rigid. Probably sometime after kindergarten when we’ve refined down the way we look at things. We know kindergartners run circles around adults on creative exercises because they haven’t yet been told a “right way” to do things.
Fun aside: If you haven’t done the 2 to 3 minutes exercise of jotting down as many creative uses for a paperclip as possible, try it. Most adults get 10 to 15. Kindergartners supposedly get 30 to 200.
So what it do?
Data goes in spreadsheets or database tables. Content goes in categories or gets tags. Like putting them in rows and columns, you pour your life into your content and then it gets filed away. I spoke a bit about this in a post on doing content one way.
Typical CMS taxonomies: the status quo
CMSs are designed to structure data a certain way. In the new world of relationships, this is where CMSs like WordPress really fall short.
I hear Drupal is better at relating content but only from Drupal developers, who are, of course, all really weird and probably like anime.
WordPress actually doesn’t have a built in method to “relate” pieces of content to each other, which would, you know, enable better related content recommendations with some ease.
So we fall back on the predictable rigid default methods provided.
It assumes your content, with all its nuance, evolving ideas, and meaning, is something you can lump into piles. The result? All your articles on a topic get treated as about the same.
Super limiting for everyone.
How content actually gets related to other content
Right now, content gets directly related through links. We draw those relationships ourselves, or let the rest of the web do it for us. This is actually really good news because these breadcrumbs can be used as little signals later (so link your related content when it makes sense!).
But, alas, we rarely add links from old content to new content, you’d have to go back and do that after the fact, and no one has time for that.
Or you could treat link relationships like they were bidirectional, but that has its own limitations.
It’s easy to start thinking about this as a funnel, but that’s also a bit too linear.
Don’t get me wrong, I love funnels. It’s a solid solution to mapping journeys inside buckets if you’re sorting your content into buckets.
But it still assumes that all people are the same. That somehow there is a structure, and if they don’t fit in your structure based on how you’ve forced them to self-select, it’s because they aren’t a “good fit.”
I call bullshit.
A stab at a couple better ways
Link them within the articles
Let’s say you have a few articles in a category. They weren’t designed as part of a series. But two of those articles are super related, like two pieces of a tough puzzle you’ve been working through.
For the user they’re the most natural fit. One leads into the next.
If the first piece of content resonates, it’s nice.
But if the second adjacent piece resonates, that’s a pattern. You have their attention. You’ve earned some real credibility. All good precursors to influence.
How many of you have a few miscellaneous high performing articles with the vast majority of the rest of your content underperforming? For whatever reason, we take this as normal, like the web is somehow random and that’s just how it is.
Even if our two related pieces of content do both somehow end up with the same tag, which isn’t a given, they’re no more “related” than anything else with that tag. Don’t get me wrong, you should annotate your content.
But it’s rare that someone writes an impactful piece of content, and then takes the time to write or find and link to the next most likely to be meaningful piece of content.
In 2011, Tracy McMillan wrote a viral piece of content for Huffpo called Why you’re not married. A year later she wrote another piece called Why you’re STILL not married and even created a simple quiz you can self-take at the bottom.
Did she or Huffpo take the two minutes to link the first post, which gets most of the traffic, to the second follow-up post? Of course not.
But she did take the labor-intensive go-to method for audience-first entrepreneurs to organize their content, she wrote a book about it.
If you’ve read this far, the whole point I’m making is that context and relationships influence and ultimately determine the value of your content.
Without relationships, your content is all but worthless. If a tree falls and no one hears it. With no context it’s just floating fragments of lines of thinking in space or buried in piles.
Without relationships to provide content, it’s unattached to any meaningful thread your audience (or Google and therein new users) could find and follow.
Next up: Your options for relating content (if you’re on WordPress).