Professional success in creative industries depends heavily on your confidence. With confidence, ideas take shape quickly, projects get delivered, clients are happy. Without confidence, creativity feels like a journey through a cloud of thick fog and produces results that lack clarity and direction.
Early in my career I worked with an experienced, outgoing and remarkably confident creative director Andy Hutchinson, who is now CEO of a brand and design digital agency called Incredible (Leeds, UK). Back then Andy asked me to make minor amends to the web design concept I developed, in response to client feedback. I made the changes, clicked ‘Save As’ and modified the filename to include ‘v2’ so that if we ever needed to go back to version 1, it would still be available. “We don’t do that here,” said Andy. “No need for confusion”. Sometimes, knowing what not to do is just as important as doing the right thing.
In web content management, versioning presents similar challenges. How many versions of content should we store, how frequently and for how long? Is it really worth storing every comma added, every auto-save created by the system? Are some versions of the content more important than others? What media types should we keep? And just as importantly, why?
Historically, content versioning was one of the core, out-of-the-box features in web content management systems. It was just there, switched on by default, with minimal or no configuration settings. Organisations used, and continue to use, content versioning for the following reasons.
- Legal and
Records of published web content are important in the event of a dispute over misleading or inaccurate information. For industries such as financial services and healthcare ability to restore content published in the past is a legal and regulatory requirement.
ease of use.
Rolling back to the previous version can be an easy way for content editors to remove the most recent edit. This can be useful for adding, and then removing, seasonal content or temporary announcements with a limited shelf-life.
Content versioning allows easy tracking of who has made changes when. This can be particularly important in media industry where corrections and improvements to news stories happen frequently and may need to be checked for accuracy.
Despite all the benefits, content versioning also has its limitations.
The most obvious constraint is storage space. The volume of web content that organisations push out continues to grow at a staggering rate, so keeping multiple versions of each content asset comes at a price. If versioning and rollback is important for your organisation, do not expect these requirements to be met through out-of-the-box, default configuration. Modern web content management systems started to impose limits on how much old content you can store.
- Impact on
For coupled Web CMS platforms versioning can cause website performance issues. Coupled architecture means that the admin, back-end part of the CMS that content editors use in order to create, manage and store content (along with all its versions) resides on the same server as the front-end part, i.e. the website itself (as viewed by the end users). For this reason, WP Engine, one of the leading providers of managed WordPress hosting, has versioning disabled by default for its customers. Versioning (which is called ‘revisions’ in WordPress) can be switched on by WP Engine support team but even then it is limited to 5 revisions per post, with old revisions automatically deleted after 60 days. WP Engine recommends to use a separate tool for managing content versions prior to publishing. (Source: https://wpengine.co.uk/support/platform-settings/#Post_Revisions)
- Lack of context.
Content versioning in most web content management systems (including for example Drupal, Episerver and Sitecore) is limited to storing and rolling back a single content asset. Whilst reverting one specific piece of content to an earlier state can be useful, it often falls short of reproducing a full snapshot of a webpage as it existed in the past. If other elements that make up the webpage such as the template, stylesheet, sidebar content, configuration settings and so on, also changed, then these will not be rolled back at the same time. Recreating what a webpage looked like in the past requires a lot more detective work than just using a content versioning feature.
For better or worse, we live in the digital world where web content can be updated, improved or deleted every minute of every day. Content versioning capability in web content management systems allows organisations to keep track of these updates and to view or revert to content assets saved at an earlier date. Whilst this feature is useful, it has its limitations. Reproducing the webpage in it’s entirely rather than reverting a single content asset isn’t easy, and the number of versions stored by default by modern web content management systems is typically limited. For long-term, reliable ways of storing legally binding web content organisations should consider record management systems, document management systems or archival tools specifically built for this purpose.