Content Chaos and How to Contain It

Every organization experiences Content Chaos in some form, to some degree, over the course of a year. The question is how well they deal with it, either preventatively or when it arises.

Clients have raised this topic a lot over the past 3 months, so this is a short post about what Content Chaos is, what the dangers of it are, and how to prevent it or deal with it when it flares up.

How To Know If Your Content Is Chaotic

McKinsey estimates – in a so oft-quoted statistic it’s almost lore – that employees spend 9-10 hours every week searching for information they need to do their jobs. Worse is that the harder the information is to find, the less likely they are to trust it.

  • Email has become your intranet (“Can you send me that form?”)
  • Teams less likely to ‘self-service’ and instead rely on teammates to help
  • Intranet Search doesn’t reliably provide the right answer the first time
  • Multiple versions of the same document available on intranet
  • Obviously old information available on intranet (eg: created in 2016 by someone no longer at the company)

Three Main Causes of Chaos

Content Chaos has its origins in one of three areas:

  1. Complementary content
  2. Duplicate content
  3. Volume of content

The symptoms are usually pretty similar, and I’ll talk about those in a minute, but it’s really important to understand the root causes. Without knowing the ‘why’, you will never really be able to solve the problems (in fact, you might make them worse).

Complementary Content

What it is:

Complementary Content is two or more documents that are meant to either work together – like and Ops Man and a Training Manual that have similar information but a different purpose – or have the same information for different audiences. A regulatory guide, for example, may go into much greater detail on a subject than the standard operating procedures do because they are meant for different roles within the company.

Chaos from complementary items happens when you update the content in one document, but not in the others. It creates a discrepancy between documents and lowers user confidence that what they’re seeing is correct.


  • “Email Intranet” – Instead of self-serving, users email the topic owner asking for the most up to date version
  • “Word of Mouth Search” – When a group of users consults each other about where to find information, instead of self-serving from the intranet
  • Confusion, inconsistency with process, procedure, or policy
  • If this is consumer information (on a website), customers will call or email for assistance
  • If this is internal information, managers and subject matter experts will spend more time answering questions

Tips to Contain:

  • Assign topic ownership to a single person, responsible for reconciling differences
  • Inventory documents and channels by topic to understand interdependencies between documents
  • Create editorial and review calendar by topic instead of by document

Duplicate Content

What it is:

There are a couple of types of duplicate content. You might have the exact same paragraph in multiple documents for a topic. You might also have multiple versions – each with a minor change – available to users. Multiple audiences (Florida regulations vs Texas), localized for culture (Canada, Mexico), modified by role (PTO policy for union teams, merit, or contingent workers) will grow your library exponentially.

Duplicate content is the source of about half of all content chaos, and content gets duplicated for a lot of different reasons:

  • Missing or incomplete content strategy for multiple audiences
  • Cut and paste management of files
  • New policies get created, but never deleted
  • Different departments have a different spin on the same topic, creating their own documents


  • Again, informal and inefficient alternatives spring up: emailing documents instead of using intranet, groups sharing word of mouth self-help instead of an authoritative source
  • Intranet search needs to be more nuanced to distinguish between audience and intent
  • Users save PDFs to hard-drives, leading to outdated information being used on regular basis

Tips to Contain:

  • One topic, one owner
  • Content strategy to include localized versions
  • Use technology to facilitate content re-use across channels (web, PDF) and audiences (locale, role, purpose)
  • Audit, inventory, and schedule change

Volume of Content

What it is:

Let’s be honest, most intranets are like a garage or an attic. New items go in all the time, but we rarely remove things that are no longer useful. And if we’re not all that disciplined about creating new versions, retiring old versions, and sunsetting topics, the volume of documents in your fileshare/intranet/C drive will become overwhelming very quickly.


  • The search function is no longer helpful – you receive hundreds of results (usually by keyword, not by topic – which is a different problem), unable to distinguish the differences between versions
  • Directory structure is too deep – how many “clicks” did it take you to get to the right “folder”?
  • Realistically, when users can’t find information, organizations will re-create it. This makes even more duplicate content, adding to the volume of content, making finding information more difficult…
  • Which leads to creating more content

Tips to Contain:

  • Inventory and audit content on a regular basis – does a user need/want this information?
  • Content strategy to include localized versions
  • Develop disciplined content creation workflow
  • Develop disciplined content archival process
  • Create user flows, information architecture
  • Develop robust taxonomy/naming convention – tag each document to facilitate search
  • Topic-based search, not keyword based (there’s a big difference between the two in both governance and results)

Skills to Manage

Companies rarely set out to prevent content chaos. Most don’t realize that it’s an issue until they see if first-hand, and even then it can be hard to know why they can’t find the information they need. 

Truth is, good writers are important for a document, but many documents working together – or competing for space – require a broader skillset (and many writers have these skills, hard-earned over time). Simply publishing to PDF, posting to a common directory, only add to the challenges over time. 

Every document needs a purpose. Each one needs a place. And engineering documents to work together, re-using information, preventing duplication requires forethought, process, and discipline.