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  • Writer's pictureClair Whitmer

The Content Vomitorum

Updated: May 22, 2019

vomitorium is a passage in an amphitheater or a stadium, designed to let crowds get in or out rapidly. The Romans invented the idea and the word, which refers to Latin for “spew forth”.

(Before you bring it up, I’ll tell you that some historians insist there was no actual vomit involved, at least not by design.)

Illustration of a vomitorium in a Roman amphitheater
This is an actual vomitorum.

As information architects, sometimes we need to move large numbers of people in and out of a grouping of content. There are a number of methods to do that: a search box, a landing page, a nav bar with or without dynamic content, a tag cloud, related content links.  

So, if asked, what does an information architect actually do? You could answer: we design efficient vomitoriums. Examples:

  • For a knowledge base, you want a big, beautiful search box.

  • A blog gets a landing page with tags to keep the reader moving forward.

  • News sites should dynamically embed related headlines into the body text.

That seems easy enough.

Sure, but the problems arise when you’ve got either multiple kinds of content or, most especially, when your content grows over time. This is where a discrete info mess can grow into serious intertwinglement.

Making sense out of years of accumulated content and persuading a stakeholder to pay for the necessary engineering heavy lifting are both daunting tasks.

I recently had a discussion with a potential client (who I can’t name Because Confidential). The company founder is an expert in his industry who likes to write; in fact, he’s so prolific, it’s hard to imagine he’s spending time doing much else. Writer gotta write. Let's call him Client Chatterbox.

Client Chatterbox's business model is based on the production of advice content: research paper briefs and research papers behind a pay wall, free blogs, then marketing materials about all of the above, including lists of links to content published elsewhere by the same company.

So his company is sitting on lots and lots of content assets.

The problem was that you could see them layered on over time in the navigation like layers of sedimented rock; a knowledge base plus landing pages about each of the company’s special areas of expertise plus six separate branded blogs, none of which was searchable.

The client was looking for an editor to help him with his proposed solution: creating a new magazine sitting on top of all the content that would provide more content with pointers into the content he already has. I suggested that maybe producing yet more content was not the best way to deal with his over-abundance of content problem. 

I wish this were a post about how I deftly persuaded him to redraw his content strategy to focus on efficiency rather than quantity. It's not.

He went off and found somebody who told him what he wanted to hear: a print magazine is a fantastic idea, Mr. Chatterbox!

This client was wed to the idea that high-volume content production is his value add. Stakeholders who create content are often convinced of this and it’s easy to understand why: telling a content creator to Stop Writing is like telling an actor to stop talking about The Craft.

So what did I recommend, just for giggles?

Instead of creating another content template, I would have wanted to spend time and engineering resources on creating more efficient vomitoriums.

First, I would have conducted user interviews to see which is most valued by their existing customers: a linear learning path, a knowledge base, or a marketing approach where customers are prompted through newsletters or social media to consume new content.

In the case Client Chatterbox, I would have directed all paid-customer traffic from the nav into a single “vomitorium” page instead of making the user meander through a mega-menu to find what they want.

Since this particular company had identified six specializations, this might have been organized by content subject or content type depending on the results of my user interviews.

The customer education team at A/B testing provider Optimizely has a good example of such a page dubbed the “Optiverse”. Here you can see they’ve organized it by three content type plus a prominent search for users who know what they are looking for and can keyword their way to the promised land.

The advantage of this approach is that analytics can clearly indicate if the funnel is working:

  • What percentage of users exit here?

  • How many flow into each of the four paths on display? (Three buttons plus a search box.)

  • Which path produces the highest pages per session and time on page?

  • Which path converts better for your monetization plan? In this case, for example, conversion to a one-off purchase of a research paper or a membership subscription.

A search results page is the ultimate in vomitoriums.

But if a content producer doesn’t plan for it from the beginning -- as Client Chatterbox did not -- producing effective search results requires tedious labor after the fact.

In this case, for example, I would have recommended combining all the blogs and research briefs into a single searchable taxonomy that would point to landing pages in search results.

I acknowledge what a drag this would have been.

Some of my least-fun hours over the past two years have been spent reorganizing the Makezine tag database, which had been allowed to proliferate into 6,000+ tags including at least six different spellings for one of our site’s top search words, “Arduino”. (Think twice before you let your authors create new tags!)

In the case of my reluctant client, as the content had never been tagged at all, this would have had to be done by hand rather than through conversion scripts and would have been an even more Herculean task. The payoff would have been is that this kind of effort is a two-fer: it will improve the page flow on your site and pump up the Google juice. But it’s not fun.

Plumbing jobs: yuck.

Clients are are always going to balk at the prospect of working on “the plumbing”: it’s so much more fun to redesign the kitchen than to dig a new sewer line to the curb!

So I understand why my byline-happy lost client found it much sexier to think about a glitzy new magazine instead of a vomitorium. Maybe it’s the name.

As a promoter of information services, I find it hard to convince clients that creating more doesn’t always need to be part of new.

If you have some Jedi mind-trick to make them believe this, please let me know.

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