How to Create Open, Structured Content

Structured content refers to the concept of organizing and treating digital content like data. It’s a way of publishing content as modular, discrete pieces of information that are tagged with machine-readable descriptions. Structured content has the potential to transform how people find, understand, share, and use government information.

Why Structured Content Matters

Currently, most online federal government information is found on static HTML Web pages, which are usually unstructured content, designed to be viewed on a PC. This unstructured content doesn’t always adapt well to smaller screens, and it’s harder to discover, share, or reuse the information. Given the rapid pace at which new devices are introduced, you can no longer publish content and trust that your audience will only view it on a PC. With the proliferation of tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices, you need to publish content that is divorced from presentation, and structured so the content is available and consumable anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Create Once, Publish Everywhere

Structured content gives you the granular control over your information that you need to "Create Once, Publish Everywhere." Read about the COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere method from National Public Radio.

Image illustrating the COPE strategy. One content component can be published to a mobile device, a Web page, or a printed document.

Share and Re-Use Content via RSS and APIs

Structured content enables others to aggregate and reuse information via Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, which automatically publish frequently changing information, and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which enable websites, programs, and devices to interact with one another. RSS and APIs are great ways to share information, because they can automate many tasks and automatically present the latest information, even combining information from several sources. But you can’t use these technologies without structured content.

As an example, if you publish information about an event, and publish it as structured content, the same event information could be displayed as part of a calendar of events, or published via a news feed, or aggregated with other related events via an API. A short description of the event could display on mobile devices, and a longer description could display on a PC. The possibilities are endless.

Better Search

Search engines can also take advantage of structured content by offering more meaningful rich snippets, which are the descriptions that appear in search engine results. The more information you provide about your content, the more "machine-readable" it becomes, enabling Web services and helping search engines hone results to get your content to the people who need it.

Specific Policy or Legal Requirements

How to Implement

You can structure content by defining content types, and then publishing content so it conforms to the defined content type. You can also structure content by implementing a taxonomy, which is a way to classify information by attaching descriptive terms to each piece of content. Those terms might describe to what section of your site a particular page belongs, or what topics are discussed in a given blog post, or in what region of the country an office is located. The taxonomy should include pre-defined controlled vocabularies to describe and tag related pieces of content. Read this explanation of taxonomies (relates to Drupal but very clear and understandable).

Web pages are typically comprised of several common pieces of information, such as titles, dates, descriptions, or contributors. When you tag your content to identify and describe each of these elements, you’ve created structured content. This approach requires a significant shift from how federal agencies have traditionally managed content. The key is to think "building blocks" instead of "Web pages."

How you approach implementation will depend on your strategy for making information available to your various audiences. Once you understand and define your content types, and tag your content, it will be open, shareable, and reusable through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), RSS feeds, or distribution other methods.

Content Types

You can structure content with content types, which are essentially a pre-defined collection of related data fields. One content type usually has many fields with which it’s associated.

  • An example of a content type is a contact list. The list itself is the Content Type, and the pieces of information about each person on the list (first name, last name, etc.) are the Fields
  • Events are another common example of a content type, and the pieces of information about the event (title, date, location, etc.) are the fields
  • You can create different content types to meet different needs. For example, an event could have a short description to use in an RSS feed or tweet, and a long description to use on your Web page. This is a key principle of "create once, publish everywhere." You only create the event once, but you tag it so it's machine-readable, and include different pieces of information (e.g., both short and long descriptions), so you can use the same "event content" in many different places.

To take advantage of content types, developers should consult with Web teams to configure the CMS to collect information about certain types of content in a structured way, perhaps by creating a form with fields where each piece of information is entered.

Here's a simplified example of an "event" content type, and some of the standardized fields that make up this event.

Image showing part of a form for automating event publication.

 

Tagging

When you tag your content with common, standard metadata, it enables discovery and aggregation of common information types across .gov websites, and helps agencies, the public, and commercial entities access, expose, and re-use government information.

  • Tagging content with machine-readable descriptions helps search engines and Web services understand meaning and relationships in your content, opening up government information for re-use via syndication, APIs, or other technologies, and improving search results

Metadata Standards

Use industry standard pre-defined keyword vocabularies to tag your content. Two of the most common are Dublin Core and Schema.org.

Incorporate tagging into your routine content creation process. Determine your content structure, then follow the Dublin Core and Schema.org vocabularies to tag your content. Web teams should consult with developers to configure your content management system to automatically apply the proper tags to content elements as appropriate.

See the example below from the Schema.org website on how the HTML code looks for an address that's been marked up with Schema.org tags.

Example of an address marked up with Schema.org tags

Adaptive Content

Adaptive content is content that’s structured so it can be delivered in a variety of innovative ways, such as mobile or responsive design. A Mobile First approach means you design content for mobile devices first, and focus on those tasks most important for people to complete on mobile devices. You can then add additional features and functionality based on user priorities. Any content designed for mobile first can be scaled up so it also works on other devices and platforms. Responsive design is a way to construct content so that the same content scales up or down to fit the device on which it’s viewed. Only core or abbreviated pieces of information show on the small screen of your phone, but if you view the same page on your PC, you’ll see additional content such as expanded descriptions, sidebars, or related resources.

Image illustrating the concept of adaptive content, with content on three different sizes of digital devices.

Review the information and case studies below to learn more about structured content. Note that a content management system (CMS) makes it much easier to publish structured digital content because it offers a standard way to collect and present information. If your agency is not currently using a CMS, learn about the benefits of content management systems.

Case Studies

These case studies illustrate how configuring your CMS to structure certain types of content can save time and streamline business processes:

Examples of Agencies Using Structured Content

Resources

 

Content Lead: Rachel Flagg
Page Reviewed/Updated: July 29, 2013

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