Responsive design is the web development challenge of our time. With so many different screens and methods to access websites, it makes no sense to develop one separate site for each device. Responsive design solves the problem by automatically adapting a site's appearance for the device it's being viewed on.

Responsive design is gaining traction in web development, slowly taking over mobile design.

That's all well and good, because now it's easy to program a website to look great on any kind of screen or device.

But what about the heart of a website: its content? Can content be responsive, and should it be? What are the advantages of making content more responsive through structure?

Should content be responsive?

If you've ever had to write content for a website, here's what you usually look at: a big white window, a bit like an empty Word document, with basic formatting options at the top, again somewhat like Word. This, in content management terms, is called "unstructured content". The words, images and videos are mostly a big blob of information, minimally structured by paragraphs, header tags and a few items of metadata.

Unstructured content poses a problem for the responsive web. Why? Because browsers and devices can't display unstructured content as easily as it can responsive design.

Another problem: unstructured content is not adaptable. What does this mean? Depending on the context, some items of content may be superfluous. For example, someone on a mobile browser that doesn't support video might feel frustrated by text being cut off because of an inserted video. Unstructured content is difficult to adapt and transfer from one platform to another without disrupting or somehow warping the content itself.

So yes, content should be as responsive as the design that surrounds it. Otherwise, what's the point? Great design may be important for a website, but people don't click for design. They click for content. So how do you match your content to your responsive design? Simple: you adopt structured content.

What is structured content?

Structured content simply means that content is framed by metadata to structure, define and describe content. (If you don't know what metadata is, it means "data about data", i.e., information about information.) Basic content management systems already have a bit of structure: author, title, subtitle, "body", keywords and other types of metadata already work to make your content easier to classify and understand.

But soon enough, even this level of metadata will be insufficient. As websites grow more complex and devices more numerous, people will need to access information in a more flexible and responsive way.

What do I mean by that? Take, for example, the North Studio website. If I visit it with my computer, I can look at all the services in one space. If I want to know more about the company, I can click on the appropriate tab at the top of the site.

But what if I'm at a networking event, and I want to check something on the website or show it to a potential client? Here's the information I want: a short "about us" and a list of services. By structuring the content and using metadata to identify pieces of information like "about us" and "service", I can easily program the website to show that specific information under specific circumstances, like from an iPhone screen.

As a content producer, structured content has many advantages: I only need to produce each type of content once. Then, whenever the content is needed in a different context, the programming team can simply pull the content by using its metadata.

The advantages of structured content

Building structured content into your CMS has two main advantages: it saves you money and it ensures a consistent experience. It also avoids content duplication (a sin in Google's eyes) because the content is only present once in your website's database (even though it may appear more than once on the actual pages).

Let's start with the first. Saving money (or making more efficient use of it) is a constant concern for businesses. When budgets are tight, you can't afford to have the same kind of information rewritten 5 times for different pages. Short of copy-pasting for every required page (which, again, Google will detect and possibly punish), what can you do? Structured content provides the solution: you write it once, and then place it wherever necessary by using metadata.

The second advantage, branding consistency, may be of greater concern for large sites and companies that rely on a brand image. Structured content reduces the number of hands needed to produce, edit and publish content–because it is written only once. This ensures that every piece of content fits the brand and message of the organization. By letting your content go unstructured, you run a greater risk of content producers going off-brand, possibly damaging your image.

Because of these features, structured content is useful for SEO. Google can easily identify the purpose behind each piece of content. By ensuring the quality of your content, you will be able to withstand the increasingly sophisticated search engine algorithm updates. 

Structured content improves the user experience by understanding and considering the context of the viewer's access to your content: someone reading on a desktop computer screen has different needs than someone reading on a tablet or a smartphone. 

Think of content as the books in a library. You can walk in the library and simply start looking at random for a book. This can be fun, but not especially effective, especially as the library gets bigger and bigger, filled with more and more books and documents. Instead of hoping to randomly find what you're looking for by haunting the aisles for hours, you decide to look it up in the database. How do you find it? Not by typing a sentence from the book: the database doesn't contain that kind of information. No, you use metadata: author, title, subject, year of publication, etc. The role of structured content is to serve as a kind of library database for your content: it helps you identify certain traits of your content in order to classify, describe and find it more easily than roaming the website and clicking randomly until you find what you need.

How do you think structured content would help you? How do you describe and classify your content? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Photo by Janne Moren