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Technical Writing
March 30, 2023
xx min read

What Is Structured Content?

For large organizations, structured content is the key to smooth sailing. With dozens of pages, hundreds of employees, and thousands of pieces of content, keeping your content up-to-date can be a daunting task. But with structured content, changing a single paragraph that appears consistently across different endpoints can be done in minutes.

Structured content promises consistency and scalability across your organization’s digital experience. In this article, we’re covering everything you need to know about structured content and how it can ensure your business runs as a well-oiled machine.

Quick Takeaways

  • Structured content is content that is specifically formatted to be leveraged across multiple channels for multiple purposes
  • It has 5 main benefits: efficiency, findability, future-proof, content reuse, and technical quality
  • It helps large organizations can manage content as a high-value business asset
  • It is most commonly used for headless CMS implementation, personalization, and technology shifts

Whether your organization is small or large, getting started with structured content can ensure an efficient, future-proof digital experience of the ultimate technical quality.

What Is Structured Content?

Structured content follows a set of predefined rules. These rules are also called a “standard”, and they provide a consistent framework for content so systems and applications can interact with that content.

In one sense, this kind of content is everywhere. At the same time, the quality of that content varies widely.

Rather watch than read?

Why Should I Use It?

Structured content isn’t just a thing, it’s a key to some pretty incredible capabilities.

The structure allows organizations to manage content as a high-value business asset. With structured content, you can write content once and leverage it across multiple channels for multiple purposes.

You can replace words on a page with a component that you can add to your content asset library and deploy at will. Organizations regularly experience incredible ROI with the implementation of a structured content standard. This value comes in many forms such as:

  • Improved content management
  • Reuse (instead of copy and paste)
  • Interoperability between other systems
  • Longevity of content
  • Findability
  • Dynamic publishing
  • Full version control
  • And much more

Now that we’ve talked about the possible upside, it’s important to recognize that all structure is not equal.

Applications of Structured Content

The earlier you start with structured content, the better. Implementing it early will ensure you can create an information architecture that will scale with your business in the long run.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common applications of structured content that can make your content as helpful and usable as possible:

Headless CMS Implementation. If your organization is making the switch to a headless CMS, a content management system that separates the storage of information from its presentation, then you’re going to need structured content. Using a CMS allows content authors to edit once and then publish to multiple platforms.

illustration shows that content authors edit structured content using a CMS
  • Screenless Interfaces. As screenless interfaces continue to evolve, they rely on access to familiar, structured content in order to match spoken requests to semantic data.
  • Personalization. In 2023, consumers expect a personalized experience. Not to mention, personalization can increase user engagement by up to 55%. Without structured content, it’s almost impossible to deliver a personalized user experience – or at the very least, much more difficult.
  • Technology Shifts. As artificial intelligence and machine learning become more and more prominent in today’s society, we can expect future shifts in technology. Not only does AI rely on semantic data, but structured content makes adapting to these shifts significantly less tasking.

Creating, applying, and regulating it requires a strategic approach, but can make the creation process significantly more efficient for everyone – whether you’re an author, designer, or software engineer.

5 Main Benefits of Structured Content

As we briefly mentioned early, structured content has a lot to offer. Here’s a deeper look into its benefits and how it can improve your organization’s performance:

  1. Efficiency.  Since structured content can be published anywhere, the content creation process is simplified. This means less duplication, searching, maintenance, and updating of content. You have more control over its parts, ultimately allowing your organization to focus its efforts where it truly matters.
  2. Findability. Structured content is much easier to find, both within an organization’s database and on the internet. This means that users will spend less time searching and more time indulging in the information your company provides.
  3. Future-Proof. You'll be prepared for future shifts in technology or redesigns of your website. Structured content simplifies any moving or editing of content, making any restructuring projects much more manageable.
  4. Content Reuse. Possibly one of the biggest benefits is content reuse, which does away with copying and pasting content. Instead, authors can use and reuse content blocks, ultimately eliminating duplication and saving time.
  5. Technical Quality. Structured content makes it possible to provide accurate, conforming, and consistent. Free of errors and naturally regulated, it ensures the highest technical quality of your organization's digital experience.

Structured vs. Unstructured: The False Dichotomy

When talking about structured content, it’s easy to fall into a false dichotomy mindset.

A prime example is structured versus unstructured content. In many of our posts and all over the internet, you’ll see articles discussing it as if it’s a binary choice. On one hand, you have unstructured documents (bad!) and on the other, you have semantically rich structured content (good!).

illustration shows the difference between unstructured and structured content

The reality is that content’s structure is more of a spectrum than a switch. Most forms of content are structured in some manner, but the real distinction is the forethought, consistency, and efficacy of that structure.

All that to say that it’s not enough to use structured content – you need a structure based on a standard that is appropriate for your uses.

Containers of Content as LEGO® Bricks

The word content literally means “That which is contained.”

Making a decision about the structure of your content is actually a decision about how you want to “contain” your content. This structure — or container — dictates how you can organize, arrange, and leverage your content.

An effective analogy for this is LEGO® Bricks. They can be stacked, connected, rearranged, and reused. The blocks are akin to containers for ideas. You can build whatever you want with these pieces because they all abide by the exact same design specifications.

Have you ever used those off-brand bricks? These off-brand bricks don’t work because they don’t maintain the same exact design specs as LEGO® Bricks. Sure, they look the same. But they never quite connect or separate as easily. It’s the same with structured content and the importance of consistent standards.

Standards & All That Jazz

As we mentioned earlier, a standard is just a collection of rules. You can think of a standard like rules for playing a piece of music. If you sit down at the piano and you see this:

Sheet of Music

Then you might recognize that as Chopin’s Nocturne in the key of G minor and could play it. Or, if you could not, you wouldn’t blame the sheet music.

That’s how a standard works with systems and applications. The writer is just like a composer, and the content is just like music. The standard is just like the rules of musical notation (the treble clef, the accidentals, the trills, the triplets, the accidentals, and so forth), and the structured content is just like the music articulated through the use of said musical notation.

Now, if we push the analogy further:

The system or application that has to interact with the structured content is just like the pianist performing the piece. The publishing system is just like the piano, and the published content (whether it’s a PDF, a static website, or something else) is just like the beautiful music you hear. Standards are everywhere, and we all benefit as a result.

Music notation, in particular, is an example of an open standard. As an open standard, nobody can copyright music notation… even though some music labels try their hardest.

Rather than restricted and exclusive, music allows artists to grow and build upon one another. Expanding its capabilities without excluding. Collaborating through time and space.

The same musical standards used by Chopin in the early 19th century in Paris, France, are used by a jazz band at the Village Vanguard on 7th Ave in New York today.

Standards, whether in music or technical communication, pave the way to potential. For technical communications, standards enable things like:

  • Improved content management
  • Reuse (instead of copy and paste)
  • Interoperability between other systems
  • Longevity of content
  • Findability
  • Dynamic publishing
  • Full version control

How Do I Get Started with Structured Content?

Ultimately, the important thing is the end result. You want an architecture that improves the efficacy of your work. You don’t want busy work, you want a paradigm shift in your content development cycle so that your invested effort doesn’t pay off for years to come.

If that sounds like what you’re looking for, you have four ways to start with structured content.

1. Start with the Standard

Choosing a standard can seem daunting, but if you have an idea of the capabilities you require, you can start to make some informed decisions. For instance, you might want an open standard, with topic-based authoring and strong reuse capabilities. That significantly narrows your options.

2. Start with the System

There are many content management systems out there. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed, then perhaps the best place to start is to evaluate content management systems. Start by reading our article on content management systems. Then, you can go through the entire process of evaluating a content management system from start to finish.

3. Talk to a Solutions Expert

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, don’t worry. You’re not the first one on this journey, and there are many amazing professionals ready to assist you in your journey. Our team has years of experience guiding organizations through the structured content migration process and is here to help. Request a consultation with our dedicated DITA experts to discuss your content challenges, needs, and requirements.

Get Started Today

Reaping the benefits of structured content is effortless with the right content management system. Heretto is an all-in-one solution that lets you author, manage, and publish your content. Ready to get started? Start today by requesting a demo, or check out our one-pager to learn more!

Learn More About Structured Content

Want to learn more about migrating to structured content? Check out our in-depth guide 'Preparing for Structured Content' for a comprehensive roadmap and get started on your journey today! 

Read More

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