Because I’m the Astronomy Guy at Elexicon, I’m once again going to use my work as an excuse to post about Space.
Here’s a breathtaking photo of the Orion Nebula.
This image of the Orion Nebula is one of the largest and deepest ever taken. It was done using the HAWK-1 infrared camera attached to the Very Large Telescope in Chile, an 8.2 meter telescope that can see celestial objects in extraordinary detail. This image is not exactly what was released by the European Southern Observatory originally; the observations were remastered by astrophotographer Robert Gendler to bring out more detail and to really shine a light (so to speak) on the phenomenal beauty of this immense stellar nursery.
There’s some important science lurking in this image, but there’s something I want to point out first. The glowing part of the nebula is actually just a small part of a much larger complex called the Orion Molecular Cloud. It’s a dense, cold cloud of gas and dust, invisible to the eye, and stars are forming in it. A clutch of stars happened to form near the edge of the cloud, and once they switched on after birth their intense radiation began carving enormous cavities in the gas, chewing away at the material in the cloud.
Because they’re near the edge, they eventually ate a hole on the side of the cloud. In a sense they popped the bubble, blowing out the cloud at their location, which happened to be on the side of the cloud facing us. When we look at the Orion Nebula, we’re actually seeing a dimple or divot scooped out of the denser material. The lower density and much hotter gas filling that dimple glows brilliantly, creating the nebula we see.
This image actually shows that extremely well. Redder material is denser, and the blue glow suffusing the nebula is lower density, hotter gas, tracing the shape of the cavity. It’s an extraordinary glimpse literally inside the nebula.
In other words, you’re looking at a star factory. This video from the Science Channel explains what goes on inside that factory:
The TL;DR version: when gravity clumps enough material together, pressure can build to a point that the atoms of that material fuse together. Those atoms then release their energy in a chain reaction that ignites as a star. A star is a perpetual series of nuclear explosions balanced by the contracting force of gravity—until the fuel runs out.
How star formation relates to content strategy
We sometimes see attempts to trigger website ignition by throwing all available website-y material together in one collection of web pages. Unfortunately in those cases, physics isn’t taking over just because staff bios, a company history, and excerpts from brochures about products or services are gathered together.
Without strategic planning and intentional organization of content, you can end up with a loose mess of material adrift in a nondescript corner of the universe—er, the internet.
Here’s the thing: those clouds of dust in the photo above are the same material that ignited to become stars. The clouds are reflecting light from nearby stars or radiating heat from those stars as light—they’re not giving off their own light.
A website that is similarly just a loose association of website-y stuff is also defined in contrast to other, ignited websites using similar material—competitors. And it won’t look as good as a cloud of space dust backlit by stars.
This applies at the page level, too. For example, efforts to make the homepage ignite can lead to unusable clutter that drives visitors away or leaves them with an unclear path to what they need. You don’t want a page like that standing in contrast to the ignited homepage of a competitor.
The lesson: you won’t get ignition with your website without some intentional arrangement of the material. You want the web equivalent of the atomic fusion that ignites a star.
But also remember: once you have ignition, you won’t have the balanced forces of chain reactions and gravity holding it together. You need a plan in place to keep the fires going.
We can help with that
Elexicon’s content strategy services can help you figure out what you have and what you need, as well as how it all should be arranged to achieve a stable, lasting ignition. Together with our design and development services, we can help you achieve a clear, usable, and human-centered experience for your users.
Your website can shine on its own. And, hopefully, outshine the rest of the stars.
I’m the kind of person who will immediately pick up any book of Hubble Space Telescope photos or read about galaxies in my spare time. I make Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog a daily must-read and have a sky map app on my phone’s homescreen. I’ve currently got two different space photos set as my desktop background on two monitors.
I don’t claim any real level of expertise, but I’m fascinated by this stuff.
I mean, look at this mosaic of the Andromeda Galaxy:
This post isn’t just an excuse to post some great space photos, though it’s at least partly that. Here’s another:
That’s our galactic center, including the region containing a supermassive black hole in the white area on the right.
But that’s just the stuff we can see.
My amateur interest in space recently got me thinking about how something we can’t see, a concept in astrophysics called dark matter, might relate to my professional interest in content and the work we do with it for our clients.
I’ll let Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain what dark matter is:
The too-long-didn’t-watch version: it’s something we know must exist, but don’t know much of anything about. Yet.
Phil Plait goes into slightly more detail:
Dark matter was discovered a long time ago, when it was found that galaxies that live in clusters were moving way too fast to be held by the cluster gravity. They should just simply shoot away, and clusters would essentially evaporate. This implied that clusters of galaxies were either very young and hadn’t had time to dissolve — which we knew wasn’t true; they’re clearly old — or there must be a lot more gravity holding them together. We can add up all the light from the stars in the galaxies and estimate their total mass, but what you get is only about 5-10% of the mass needed to hold clusters together. So most of the matter making up the clusters must be dark. Otherwise we’d see it.
It’s also what gives galaxies their rotation speed—without it, galaxies would rotate slower.
Dark matter is an essential piece of the cosmos. The problem is that we can’t observe it directly, which makes learning more about it difficult. But we’re working on that.
Cosmologist Sean Carroll recently explained why it’s important to study dark matter, despite the fact that we can’t see it:
Only 5 percent of the universe, by mass, is the ordinary stuff out of which you and I are made. So, if you care about understanding the universe, 95 percent of it is dark matter and dark energy. If you want to know how the universe works, you have to understand that stuff. (my emphasis)
Carroll went on to say,
It’s very annoying to us, as scientists, because we know it’s there. We know how much of it is there. We know where it is. But we don’t know what it is. We don’t know what is actually making up the dark matter. So the more we can study its properties, how it collects, how it evolves over time, the more of a hope we get to understand what it is made out of and why there is dark matter at all.
The team of scientists used computers to painstakingly study 2 million galaxies in a miniscule patch of sky, detecting tiny changes in apparent shape in those galaxies caused by dark matter’s gravity distorting their light.
The reason for making this map is that quest for knowledge about the universe Carroll talks about above. Maps like this help scientists make sense of what we see out there, whether it’s how galaxies form, move and evolve, or how they collect together in clumps. Maps like this helps scientists take dark matter into account.
What does this have to do with content?
At the start of many web projects, content is like dark matter. It’s something—text, data, graphics, video, audio—both agency and client know exists, but it’s not fully understood. We know it’s essential to the website, that it makes up the largest chunk of the site’s mass, that without it the site wouldn’t work or hold together very well.
Despite that, it’s easy to get caught up in what I’ll call the luminous material, the design and development. Those are the stars and galaxies of the web, the stuff that’s easy to see and conceptualize—and they’re essential pieces.
However, design and development without a full accounting of content is like cosmology in the days before the discovery of dark matter. At the time, scientists’ theories for galaxy rotation and clustering didn’t match up with observation. Model galaxies would fall apart, because dark matter wasn’t part of the equation. The models had to adapt for the presence of the stuff in order to work.
The same is true for websites: you need to understand your content if you want to keep your site from falling apart or spinning too slowly.
Fortunately, we can observe content directly. If we take the time, we can catalog it, organize it, adjust it, cull it, create it, plan for its future, and more. In other words, we can build a dark matter map. We call this map content strategy.
Content strategy is an essential component to any successful website project. A good content strategy will tell you what you have, why you have it, what you need, and where you’re going with it. It will align with and inform your goals, making them achievable from where you are now. It will turn your dark matter into a fully-known piece of the puzzle.
We’re interested in helping you discover what makes up your dark matter. Together, we’ll plot out how it collects and evolves. And we’ll help you plan for its future.
What can we map for you?
Last month, Matt Haughey of MetaFilter published a piece on Medium about the status of one of the true stalwarts of the internet:
MetaFilter is the little weblog that could, established in 1999 as one of the first community blogs. Over its fifteen year history it has expanded from a place to discuss interesting things on the web to include Ask MetaFilter as a community question and answer (Q&A) site, along with more subsections for things like music by members, completed projects by members, meetups among members, and most recently TV and movies.
While MetaFilter is relatively small (only about 62,000 have paid the one-time $5 for an account to date and 12,000-15,000 of those members come back to interact with the site every day), we have a great group of members, and I think we consistently have some of the best discussion on the web, with the sites attracting over 80 million readers last year. Our commenters are literate and thoughtful, and our site is watched around the clock by a staff of moderators. Despite the site’s modest stature its influence makes waves in the larger world (like mentions on popular TV shows: Tremé andMythbusters).
Unfortunately in the last couple years we have seen our Google ranking fall precipitously for unexplained reasons, and the corresponding drop in ad revenue means that the future of the site has come into question.
Haughey goes on to explain the situation at length.
His story is alarming for a number of reasons. MetaFilter is highly-regarded, with a reputation as a good citizen on the internet and has a community that is generally one of the best. The realities Haughey and his staff now face this are brutal and should have been avoidable.
However, the nature of Google in 2014 is such that determining where MetaFilter went wrong (or even if they went wrong) is difficult.
What we do know is that, as the company has grown over the years, Google has become increasingly opaque and monolithic. It has also become seemingly hostile to some of the principles it was originally known for. The famous but informal Google motto “Don’t be evil,” has become a punchline to some observers, particularly after the sudden shuttering of Google Reader and the intrusive full-court press on Google+. This MetaFilter story only adds to the narrative of a Google that is losing sight of the open internet, where the cream rises to the top.
At the surface, the MetaFilter situation is related to positive changes Google has made to their algorithm aimed at reducing instances of low-quality content and serving up high-quality content. However, if you do a Google search today, you still get content farm results and low-quality answers from sites like Ask Yahoo! If this were a case of MetaFilter losing out to quality competition, or utilizing unsavory SEO techniques Google is flagging, it wouldn’t be so disturbing—it would be expected. As it is, you have MetaFilter losing out for reasons that remain opaque to the outside.
Here you have an extreme case that offers a harsh lesson: you can do all of the right things and still lose out if you are too dependent on a third party company for your success. It’s true with Facebook and other social media sites, and it’s true with Google too.
MetaFilter, for example, is now pivoting to another, less ad-dependent business model, but it seems they should have done so earlier as a safeguard against the shifting sands of Google’s algorithm.
Our guidelines for customers remain what they were before: keep your SEO efforts clean and produce good content while striving to engage your users in a meaningful and lasting way. Just remember that what happened to MetaFilter underlines the importance of the engagement component. Search results can change, but a proper web strategy can minimize the damage to your business when they do.
For some more background on the story, check out this episode of the TLDR podcast.