Content sprawl: What it is and how to keep it from cluttering your intranet

Content sprawl: What it is and how to keep it from cluttering your intranet

No one intends for their intranet content to get out of control, but it can easily happen. Here are some steps you can take today to address content sprawl.

June 26, 2019

The first few months after an intranet launch are a glorious phase. People are happy, employees are engaged, the content is fresh and relevant, and everyone can find what they are looking for.

But then something happens.

Not overnight, but over a period of time, you start to notice things aren’t quite the same.

Those search results that had what you were looking for right at the top? Now you have to dig a bit more to surface it. Finding that PDF you need for that proposal takes multiple clicks, and digging down into the site IA (intranet architecture) has more twists and turns than a roller coaster.

Your intranet satisfaction survey numbers start to drop, as people complain that they “can’t find what they need” or “search doesn’t work." The path to that sub-page has since changed. You begin to wonder what the point of your intranet is if you cannot find what you need.

Welcome to content sprawl, content clutter, or otherwise known as “can’t find stuff on your intranet.”

While no one strives for content sprawl, it is an extremely common problem—particularly if your intranet is over two years old. Even we were victims to content sprawl, which is exactly what forced us down a complete intranet redesign a few years ago.

Regardless, if content sprawl is not handled correctly it can and will derail your entire intranet project.

Why does content sprawl happen? And how will I know if it’s happening?

Think of the last time you moved into a new house. Those first few months after you unpacked were likely very organized. Everything had a place, and you probably even promised yourself that you would never again leave dishes in the sink.

Yet, slowly clutter started creeping its way back in. Before you knew it, your house looked like it belonged on an episode of Hoarders.

Content sprawl often happens without us even realizing it.

It happens when there isn’t a plan to address outdated content, curate content, or a process to ensure new content is saved in the correct location. It also happens when there isn’t a dedicated intranet manager, or when a lot of employees have access to adding content. Finally, and most commonly, content sprawl happens when content is added organically, not strategically.

While some of us are well aware when content sprawl is occurring, others don’t realize until it’s almost too late. The signs of content sprawl typically include:

  • Users can’t find what they are looking for
  • Search results aren’t working as well
  • Users bother other people, and departments looking for documents
  • Duplicate forms, content, pages, etc.
  • Incorrect versions of documents
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Why fix content sprawl?

Some of you may be wondering why to bother fixing content sprawl at all. After all, isn’t that what the search functionality is for?

Not exactly.

To build an effective knowledge base, information needs to be easily discoverable. How we collaborate and manage information is at the heart of digital transformation. People want access to information anywhere, anytime, and on any device. And they want it quickly.

Even with a robust search engine, your content will eventually end up on the second page of search results. In our experience, the number one action item to improve search results is to address content sprawl.

If you don’t address content sprawl, your intranet will inevitably succumb to the following:

  • Employees stop using your intranet. When employees can’t find what they are looking they will start looking for information in other sources.
  • Employees find incorrect or outdated content. If incorrect content is there alongside the valid content, users are going to get incorrect information.
  • Data security risk. If the intranet isn’t meeting the needs of your users, they may switch to “shadow IT” and use less secure external systems. With less reliance on the intranet and more reliance on less secure cloud systems, security threats increase.

How to fix content sprawl

Just like cleaning out your garage, you can make it a big project once a year, or keep on top of it throughout the year and take little steps to put stuff in its right place immediately after using it.

Fixing content sprawl definitely requires some effort, but content sprawl didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be fixed overnight either. Here are some steps you can take to improve it.

Have a launch plan

If you haven’t launched your new intranet yet, make sure you have a plan. Our blog post on intranet launch ideas is full of great tips. Besides being packed with inspiration, it’s a reminder of the effort necessary to ensure the best possible outcome for your intranet.

Remember that launch day never really never ends

Managing content sprawl will be an ongoing process, not a single event. So while it’s important to invest a lot of effort into launch day, the reality is that launch never really ends.

'Be Bold'

When Wikipedia first launched, one of the central tenets of its success was its call for editors to 'Be Bold.' The key principle of Be Bold is “Go for it!”. If you are a new intranet manager tasked with cleaning up an existing intranet it can be daunting to go in and start editing, deleting, or archiving content that was lovingly crafted by previous employees. But just as a good pruning is critical for the health of a tree, regular and consistent pruning of the intranet content is critical for the health of the intranet.

Complete a content audit

A content audit is a process of cataloging all pages and files on your intranet (as well as your file server and other repositories) and determining the quality and usefulness of each piece. It’s great for finding relevant content, as well as identifying content owners. This process can also help you understand which posts or pages are ROT: redundant, outdated, and trivial. You can learn more in our article dedicated to content audits.

Have a dedicated intranet manager

No matter how small or large your organization is, you should have someone dedicated to refreshing your intranet and adding new content. If your budget cannot afford an intranet manager, make sure someone is tasked with overseeing the platform.

Make organization a habit

As we have learned, content sprawl is avoidable provided you take the right steps. Try setting an hour aside every week to sift through a section or two. When that becomes easy, make this a daily activity or allocate more time each week. Eventually the practice of archiving, deleting, and re-assigning content will become a habit—just like starting your morning pot of coffee.

Have a governance model

A well-defined governance structure can help overcome three common intranet governance roadblocks: politics, a lack of clear purpose and a lack of data. A governance model can involve restructuring content or rewriting a policy or procedure page. It ultimately reveals who is responsible for what content and who is going to assist in deciding what to do with content.

Ask for help

Finally, consider asking for some assistance. With years of experience, the ThoughtFarmer Professionals Services team can help you improve your navigational structure and determine which content can be removed.

If you are still feeling unmotivated to fix your content sprawl, remember that the benefits of a strong intranet architecture go beyond simply saving time, they can also save money. There is a cost correlated with finding intranet content: the faster employees can find your content, the less time they are wasting looking for it.

And when employees find what they are looking for engagement and overall intranet visitation rates soar.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness. 

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