The Internet is like the Bermuda Triangle. Content goes in but never comes out.

We’ve all had this happen. We search for something on the web, or on our organization’s intranet, only to find tons of outdated, irrelevant content. Old memos, outdated project information, past invitations to retirement parties, corporate news that’s years old, specs from discontinued products, budgets from the last millennium, personnel records for nonexistent personnel, training courses that haven’t been taught since who knows when, etc. You get the idea. It seems we find it too easy to publish content, and too bothersome to update or “unpublish” it. The result: a content curation mess.

It’s much easier to put content online than to take it off. I’m not talking about the technical side of this process, but rather the sense of urgency around doing it. Here are five reasons why this is so:

  1. Motivation. Too often we find that getting content online is what we’re rewarded for. “Finish the project,” “get it out there,” and “deliver the material” are drivers for many of us. We’re far less worried about what happens to the content after that, when it gets old and we’re off working on another project.
  2. Sense of accomplishment. Publishing content is something you (and your bosses and peers) can see. It is tangible and real. Taking something off the web may be valuable, but it feels more like simple maintenance than a significant contribution.
  3. The assumption that it will go away on its own. We assume that new content will bury old content, or that it magically disappears into some web black hole that eats it all up.
  4. The assumption that users will ignore bad content and easily recognize good content. If users have good research skills and good common sense, maybe they can discern good from bad content. But is this the case with everyone, all the time? Do you want to take this chance?
  5. No time or resources. Sure, we have people and money to create and publish content, but when it comes to reviewing and removing stale information, unfortunately it’s an uphill battle for the resources to get it done.

Content expiration

To combat this problem, you should consider content expiration as part of your overall content curation strategy. Here are four basic tenets of such an approach:

  1. Content ownership. Every content asset should have an owner, who may or may not be the content author. In other words, there should always be someone, or some group, that takes responsibility for the asset as long as it’s on the web, and their contact information should be linked to the asset. This person or group in charge makes decisions on the viability of the content and when to take it down. They can be subject matter experts, or they can be good content administrators who have ties to the appropriate SMEs. If a content owner relinquishes that role, you must assign another, or the asset in question comes down as a matter of policy.
  2. Shelf life. All content assets should have a specific life span with a specific expiration date. The content owner can set the shelf life at the time of initial publication and then revise it as needed. You can set shelf life for a week, a month, a year, or you can assign a unique expiration date. Think of freshness dating for groceries—it’s the same idea. When the content asset approaches its expiration, the content owners of record receive automatic email reminders to make decisions about the future of the asset. If no action is taken, you can archive the asset so that no one can find and improperly use it. Once the content is in the archive, the asset owner will have to make a decision on its future.
  3. Unlimited shelf life. There is an argument that because some assets, by their very nature, might never go out of date and will remain useful for a very long time, you should assign them an unlimited shelf life. Obviously, this makes it easier for content owners and SMEs, who have fewer assets to manage, but equally obvious is the danger that attaching this parameter to too many assets, or to inappropriate assets, will exacerbate the problem that the expiration strategy was set up to solve. If you choose to offer an unlimited shelf life option, do so very carefully.
  4. Renewal. As expiration approaches, the content owner or other authorized person makes a decision on the future of the asset and assigns a new expiration parameter. The process repeats itself. In this way, no content asset will linger on the web without periodic review.

The best way to approach expiration is to incorporate these tenets into a content and user metadata strategy so you can easily assign and track them through your knowledge management or content management technology. (If your system doesn’t support this, consider different technology or an upgrade.) Then, through the system’s analytics, you can evaluate and reward SMEs and content owners for how well they manage the knowledge under their care. Having a content expiration strategy as part of your overall curation approach can result in a leaner, more useful web.

Think about this: If you’ve ever run low on space on your personal computer’s hard drive, you’ve likely faced an expiration issue. You could get more storage hardware or move content to the cloud, but then you’ve just moved the problem elsewhere. Eventually, you will be overwhelmed. So look for content you don’t need anymore and get rid of it, or move it to a deep, long-term archive. You may have a good plan for doing this, or it may be haphazard, which unfortunately is more likely. The same is true for your organization, only the problem is bigger and the consequences may be more severe. In your personal life and in the life of your organization’s online knowledge assets, less may be more.

In the end, content curation is not just making sure good content is out there, but also assuring that you flush away the bad content on a regular basis. My wife, a librarian, calls it “decrapulation” (de-crap-ulation). Not a bad practice for how we manage the web.