6 Things You Need to Know About Unstructured Content
Unstructured data. As a writer I hate that term. I remember the first time I heard reference to it; sitting in a meeting and technical people were talking about all the unstructured content that publishers produce. Huh? How could they be speaking about articles as unstructured? If anyone has made it through kindergarten they have learned that they must follow a linguistic pattern or "structure" in order to communicate effectively. But in the lexicon of geekdom, any article, picture, PowerPoint, video, song, user-generated content, even your kids' text messages are all "unstructured." Any "data" that does not fit nicely into a column or a row is considered unstructured.
Now, as much as I find the word "unstructured" ironic, there is a logic behind this. It was evident when classifieds first went online. Dumped from mainframes where customers paid by the character, people created their own short-hand to say 4BR House 4 Sale. Turns out though, that all that unstructure (which I prefer to say as free-form) makes it very hard to search on. Don't believe me? Go to Craigslist.org—which tries to impose structure on advertisements by putting it under broad categories and locations. Other than that, it is pretty freestyle. Nannies are caregivers or sitters (baby or otherwise, and plural or not). And search on one of those terms at the peril of not finding it under the other.
On the flip side are the sites that allow only structure: information fits neatly in a row or table and has descriptive titles like Type of residence, # of Bedrooms, Price, MLS #, etc. Having that structure makes it easy to query or search that information. You probably have heard of SQL, the acronym for Structured Query Language. Relational databases use SQL to find content, by looking in the appropriate fields—which is all well and good for content like financial information and inventory systems.
Now think about all the content that flows in and around a publishing company: The articles, books (and chapters), images, slideshows, Web sites, tweets, user comments … the stuff we refer to simply as "content." Now think about how tough it is to find it—so we can repurpose it.
So here are six things you need to know about unstructured content.
1. It's everywhere. Analysts, pundits and people in the know estimate that more than 80 percent of content produced in an enterprise—let alone a publishing company —is unstructured.
2. Content is containerized. Unstructured content resides in containers like .doc, .ppt, tiff, .html, and you must have the right software application to read or edit it.
3. Managing unstructured content is hard. Because content resides in containers, it is hard to know what it is in each one.
4. XML is crucial for reuse and sharing. Sometimes called atomic or neutral format, XML is a language used to transmit content—without burden of the container. Neutral content can be then "poured" into any template (Word, Web, PDF—mobile apps!) for easier repurposing. If you have unstructured content (and most likely you have lots of it), it should be stored in an XML format.
5. Good metadata is essential. Once content is in an XML format, enrich it with semantic metadata—contextually relevant information about the content, such as concepts, people, places and organizations. Having a strong taxonomy can assist with embedding semantic metadata. This article is obviously about XML, but it also can be classified as "Tools for Publishing." Creating semantic metadata—manually, by machine and ideally both—is a critical step so editors and readers can find the most contextually relevant information.
6. Native XML databases provide agility and efficiencies. Relational databases (RDBMS) are great for organizing and querying structured data—while XML databases rock for unstructured content. You can make an RDBMS work with XML, but you will lose a lot in database performance (upwards of 30 percent is estimated by Forrester). Heck, I will use a knife to tighten a screw, but sometimes I need to go and get the Phillips-head.
What does all this mean? You have tons of content that doesn't fit into tables and rows. Storing content in its original containers (PowerPoints, Word docs and PDFs) makes it extraordinarily hard to share and repurpose—since it's hard to search it—and cutting and pasting becomes the only alternative. And when we are talking about sharing and repurposing, remember all the great mash-up apps that your content might be perfect for—if only it were in a neutral format.
Look, I don't like the term "unstructured content"—but the acronym of CTDFWICAR (Content That Doesn't Fit Well in Columns and Rows) is hardly memorable, and way too long. In any event, while it may be "unstructured," this type of content is the lifeblood of all publishers and deserves its own special database to manage the XML and help keep it valuable. PE
Diane Burley has 15 years experience putting digital media brands, including daily newspapers, on the Web, and is the media strategist for MarkLogic Corp.