A few years ago I was at a conference – I don’t remember which one, to be honest – where a speaker recommended not dating your blog posts or articles. Since the beginning of blogging some variation on the “YYYY/MM/DD” URL slug has been around and posts are dated so the reader can easily see this was published today, yesterday or four years in the past. Part of that was because Google, the primary discovery engine before the emergence of social networks, prioritized recently published or updated webpages. The assumption was that those pages had the best, most up-to-date information and therefore would be of the most use to the reader.
But this speaker said doing so made your content less important. With social networks the emphasis was now, he said, on stories that weren’t easily dismissed because they were from last month/year. Everything needed to appear timely and the easiest way to do so was just to strip the date from both the URL and the page itself.
That may be a good approach for achieving viral takeoff speed – people are more likely to dismiss and not share something if it appears dated since it can make them look behind-the-curve in terms of the zeitgeist – but it’s bad for the long-term health of the web and creating a repository of trustworthy information.
This issue has come up for me a number of times in the past few years, most recently just earlier this week as I was engaged on a research project for a freelance client. While searching on a particular topic I found a number of interesting studies and research recaps. Some clearly stated the date of the story and the studies being cited, making it easy for me to either consider them for inclusion or dismiss them as being too old. Others, though, included no such date either on the page or in the URL and so left me scratching my head as to whether they were current enough to use or not.
This is a uniquely web-centric problem. Major metropolitan newspapers and national magazines would never consider forgoing date stamps on their stories. Those dates are in and of themselves significant information for the reader to consider and factor in when reading the stories. “Yesterday’s news” is a pejorative, meant to convey something is out of touch and ready to be dismissed. An accurate date is essential for understanding the context of the content, though.
Consider this: You sit in the dentist’s office and pick up a magazine that’s sitting there already open to a story. The date is visible nowhere on the page and you begin reading a story about a recent dramatic fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Index. You begin to panic until you flip to the issue’s cover and find that it’s from 2012 and that drop has long since passed. The health of your 401k today has not been impacted today by the events of that story. It’s outdated information that you can only place in the proper context by having access to the date of publication.
It’s just as important when we’re talking about studies on social media adoption, advances in data science or anything else. If you do a search and find an undated story about how many people are using Instagram you can’t be certain whether those numbers are from last month, last year or three years ago. In order to be of any value, though, you need that date. You need that information. If you were to shrug your shoulders and use that study in a presentation where you’re making the case for broader usage of Instagram by your marketing team you’d be woefully unprepared for someone who calls you out for using two-year-old data.
The stakes are high for information to be relevant and contextually accurate. There may be a case to be made for why “21 Reasons Why the Seinfeld Finale Was Actually Genius” doesn’t need a date on it, but when we’re dealing with topics and news that people are pinning their careers and reputations on, it’s borderline irresponsible to not make it clear when the information being presented is from. Eventually, it’s going to catch up with publishers of all stripes who have adopted this mindset as the lack of transparency on display hurts their own reputations, turning all that material into useless chaff.