How machine-readable content benefits content wranglers

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November 19, 2020


Structured content. Intelligent content. Adaptive content. These three terms all (kind of) mean the same thing. It's content that has been engineered to be reusable, structured, format-free and machine-readable. In this article, we’ll go deep into what these terms mean.

Labels aside, what's important is that structured, machine-readable content can set content wranglers free to create. How? Working with structured content means spending less time copy-pasting, searching through content, or last-minute formatting. That leaves more time to do creative and impactful content creation. Leave the handcrafting for your next scrapbooking project.

What is machine-readable content? 

We refer to content as “machine-readable” when it conforms to a set of structural and semantic rules. Your average image or video isn't automatically machine-readable. It needs to be engineered to be understood by your computer, CMS, delivery systems, devices and channels. 

Some people refer to this process as "content engineering." To quote Scott Abel's book, The Language of Content Strategy, "Content engineering determines how content travels through systems, what happens to it, and how it gets to the right person, at the right time, in the language they prefer, on the device of their choice." 

If you're like me and the only experience you have with engineering is an annual car service, the term "engineering" might bring up images of time-intensive manual labor with a big bill at the end. However, the process of making content machine-readable is neither time-intensive nor manual. There's no need to task your poor intern developer with tweaking every piece of your content. 

Instead, content engineering comes down to your content management system (CMS) and your content model. A smart content platform like Contentful takes a lot of the hard work out of creating, editing and managing structured and machine-readable content. It does this in a few ways: through a content model that structures your content into content types, and by keeping your content separate from code so that it's format-free. 

What are some of the elements of machine-readable content? 

  • It’s structured: While we say that content needs to be structured and machine-readable, it actually needs to be structured to be machine-readable. Structured content is content that has been broken down to components and meaningfully labeled. 

A home page displayed on the web isn’t structured content, it’s just a big blob of text, images and links. However, break the home page into smaller components (header image, tagline text, introduction paragraph, etc.) that are labelled, and it becomes structured content. 

The cool thing about working with structured content is you can mix and match the components to create new content — but we’ll talk about that later. 

  • It's platform-agnostic: Content is platform-agnostic or adaptive when it doesn't have any presentation or formatting information attached to it. Sometimes called format-free, this type of content is delivered seamlessly across all of your devices and channels because it hasn't been formatted for a specific one. 

  • It's semantically categorized: For machines to be able to read the content, our content needs to speak their language. Metadata is information that expresses the semantic meaning of your content. 

In other words, it doesn't describe what it looks like, it describes what it does. There are various types of metadata, including categories, tags and formats. At Contentful, content types are a type of metadata. They tell us what the content is, such as whether it's a header or a block of text. 

Whereas creating semantically categorized content was difficult with legacy CMSes, Contentful makes it easy. A lot of the work — creating content types and choosing fields — is done during the set-up of your content model. Once you've developed a process for creating semantically categorized content, it's the gift that keeps on giving. You'll find it makes a huge difference to your content operations and delivery processes. 

The many (many) benefits of machine-readable, structured content 

If you’re asking “what does this mean for me?” then you’re on the right track. Machine-readable and structured content sounds fancy, but its main benefits are both tangible and measurable for content creators.  

As we mentioned above, working with structured content gives content wranglers more time to create. How? When you engineer your content, it removes the need to manually handcraft each individual content piece to meet the needs of the device or channel. There’s no need to format manually, cut-and-paste, search through duplicate files or use multiple CMSes to deliver content. Instead, you can create it once, and publish it everywhere. And it’s not just about saving time — structured content means good things for your brand consistency, too. 

Scott, from The Language of Content Strategy, calls this “operating as a cottage industry.” He says “Content marketers cannot continue to operate as a cottage industry, handcrafting individual deliverables one at a time using their favorite proprietary tools. Such a manual approach doesn’t allow them to scale up to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding digital, global content economy.” 

The other big (BIG) benefit is that when content is structured and machine-readable, it also becomes reusable. With so many channels and devices, and more being introduced every day, it’s impractical to think you can create content unique to each one. Instead, structured content is made up of components that can be reused and repurposed. 

This is great because it also means you’re getting a bigger bang for your buck. Just ask the person in charge of your marketing budget — content creation is expensive! You need to create your content in a way that it can be created once and used anywhere — on the web, apps, digital displays and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Structured content means the content components can be easily reused on any digital channel or device. 

(Don’t) rage against the machine  

Don’t be afraid to embrace structured content and all of its benefits. Some people call the embrace of structured content the first step of digital transformation. It’s a perfect place to start because when you put your content first, everything else will fall into place. You’ll realize which tools, processes, services and support you’ll need to make it work. 

And when you do, you’ll have a lot more time on your hands — time you can use to create impactful digital experiences for your customers.  

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