Differences Between Structured And Unstructured Web Content
Web Content Management – Structured vs Unstructured Content areas.
In the WCMS marketplace there are typically two types of approach to managing the content areas within a
web page. The first – and one used by most of the solutions that target the small to mid sized market place –
is to create ‘unstructured content areas’ within a predefined template that users can populate with
information. The second – and one used by most of the mid to enterprise level solutions – is to create
‘structured content areas’ within a predefined template (often referred to as content objects) that have
predefined locations within the overall page template – which users can populate with content.
This article aims to discuss the merits of each approach so that the customer can determine which is best for
Managing 'unstructured content areas' (aka Big Square Holes)
a) Gives the overall impression of being easier to use by non technical staff, as they can take entire word
documents and embed them into the page in one action (either via drag and drop or copy and paste) taking
the same layout in the word document and transplanting it to the web page.
b) Creates ‘big square holes’ of page real estate that can be freely populated giving the user much more
freedom to format the layout of the designated content areas.
a) There is no true separation of layout and content - which is arguably one of the core goals of deploying a
WCMS. If users can take an unstructured document and embed their own chosen format into a page then the
layout is not being separated from the copied content and the layout becomes controlled by the author.
b) CMS solutions that create unstructured content areas often hide the fact that if a user is given the option to
execute one function e.g. bold mark up or insert an image - then there is no way to restrict the user repeating
this process ad infinitum throughout the entire page - so one page could be entirely H1 text with 30 images.
c) Given the lack of controls over the layout of the unstructured area – more content is required to be
workflowed which puts a work load on the approvers.
d) Ironically CMS solutions that offer this approach are often accompanied with simple workflow tools that
assume one workflow for all actions and do not have the ability to cater for parallel as well as sequential flows
or offer e.g. escalation procedures.
d) A word document is not the same as a web page - and the ability to take a word document and simply splat
it into a web page often results in web pages that scroll for screen after screen. This reduces the usability of
the content and also encourages the author to be sloppy by not editing the content to be appropriate for the
medium (this becomes especially pertinent when web content is repurposed for e.g. for mobile devices such
as a blackberry)
e) CMS solutions that specialise in unstructured content management fail to demonstrate what happens when
the client selects that a document will have no more than e.g. 1000 characters and a user copies and pastes
the word document - the result is typically denial or a truncated migration.
f) For customers wishing to achieve personalisation - CMSs that populate pages with unstructured content can
only personalise whether a page can be seen or not - as its impossible to set up a business logic for content
which is unknown in structure and formatting to anyway close to the same degree as can be achieved with
structured content areas.
Managing 'structured content areas' (aka Content Objects)
a) True separation of layout from content - the customer can determine every aspect of the page design
ranging from styles applied to each component to what can be embedded in which area of a page to
permissions around the object itself - so that user one may be able to add content and not images before
passing to user two who can add an appropriate image.
b) Each object or component of the structure can have its own set of controls - in this manner a customer can
elect that a headline can only use one style - whereas teaser text can have other options etc - relating back to
the true separation of layout from the content – the customer has the total ability to determine exactly how a
page will look - or present a user with a number of template options each of which is as controlled as the
c) The ability to control content going into the content editing process reduces the need for extensive workflow
as the approvers do not have to validate layout as well as content.
d) As the templates can have layout and sizes that are appropriate to a web page - and any other output - the
customer can absolutely control the multimedia output in a way which is very difficult to achieve with
unstructured content areas.
e) With structured content areas - the customer can take a web page and personalise to the 'nth' degree - so
that each object within the structure can be controlled with permissions as to who can see it and
who cannot - this is simply not possible with unstructured areas.
a) As highlighted above, users are required to think less in terms of copying and pasting entire word
documents into a page and more in terms of populating a structured content area with individual components.
Whilst the ability to freely name the content objects and the ability to insert help text with each item alleviates a
lot of the uncertainty, it goes without saying that this is not as easy as dropping an entire word document and
seeing it replicated in the web page.
Comparing the advantages of structured and unstructured side by side
Structured Content Unstructured Content
Editorial simplicity Editors concentrate on the Editors can drag and drop
content itself and can largely whole documents onto one
disregard layout as this is content area. For basic
determined by the template. websites this is easier than
Editors can drag parts of complying with predefined
word docs or other office content areas being much
content into object areas. less controlled.
Separation of layout from True separation achieved Partial separation achieved
Style consistency This is enforced centrally Not as easy to enforce
using templates and centrally as a ‘global view’
stylesheets and delivered to has to be taken. Content
the content author as objects editors who are given the
that each have their own set rights to use a formatting
of permissions. option at any point on a page
can do so repeatedly.
Therefore style and layout is
more in the hands of the
Layout Change management If the site style must change, Unstructured content areas
this can be achieved simply cannot be given a format that
by changing the relevant does not exist
template / style sheet – the retrospectively. Layout
objects will re-align to the around content area can be
new layout automatically. changed, but unstructured
area remains in new layout
as previously presented.
Accessibility This can be achieved and As more of the styling is
enforced using style sheets controlled by the content
and templates. Easier to editor, more reliance is on
assign WAI guidelines to the editor or approver
objects than unstructured understanding cumulative
areas. WAI guidelines.
Workflow Less complex workflow Greater requirement for
needed due to ability to workflow needed to evaluate
manage each object and its layout as well as content for
associated formatting good copy to exist. Sites can
parameters look ‘messy’ if workflow steps