“Thanks to second grade, I know how to read and write, so I should be set. I’ll have this site filled with content in no time, and I can get rolling on that snazzy new blog and never look back.”

Managing online content with no experience is exactly like knowing how to ski and assuming you can learn how to snowboard before lunch.

What? Okay, okay, snowboarding has no direct relation to online content. But the point is that being able to write–like being able to ski–is one thing. Creating a navigation populated with static and on-going content with the goal of always working toward the best user experience is something totally different–like snowboarding. Or maybe like running a ski lodge. In any case, it’s a lot different.

Before you know what kind of content you need and where it needs to go on your site, you’ve got to learn about your unique online community–and, well, that can be a moving target. You’ve got to take the time to get to know what content works and what content doesn’t; when to try for one more month and when to just cut your losses and call it a day; what to change; how to change it.

And then you’ve got to be willing to acknowledge that user behavior evolves. What works like crazy this year might be ineffective a year from now.

SOC.org 1.0 Homepage

A perfect example of this learning process surfaced when we decided to freshen up the design for SpiritOfCaring.org.

This is a site that’s updated with at least 40 new pieces of content in over 30 categories every month. And after a year’s worth of visitor traffic, we were pretty sure there was a better way to be managing the site’s real estate and the visibility of that content.

At the time we were dealing with a homepage that didn’t have enough space tobreathe and interior pages that weren’t pulling their weight. But, the dirty secret is that, when you launch a brand-new site, you start with only the clothes on your back and (one hopes) well-educated expectations, and then after time, you know how to make it better.

In our original 1.0 design, we saw that the crammed-to-the-margins SOC.org homepage gave our site visitors plenty of stories to choose from but no clear direction about what to look at next, or much idea about the depth of the content on the site.

So here’s one thing we learned: people don’t spend much time clicking around on obscure navigational elements just for the thrill of finding out what might be there. Meaning, while the content on the homepage would get hundreds of pageviews on any given day, equally interesting and relevant content buried somewhere else on the site would get two views total–even though it took just as long to produce.

So we decided that, as a part of our redesign efforts, we were going to focus on effective and manageable onsite content exposure. We weren’t going to cut back on featured content, we were going to increase it.

Wait: wasn’t the issue too much content?

No. The issue was there wasn’t enough space in the original design. So we made plans to package and distribute the content throughout the site on new plots of prime real estate, instead of depending so heavily on the homepage. We cleaned up the homepage and made a series of new, complex interior pages to feature multiple, related pieces, which prevented new stories from becoming buried in an overworked blog.

It’s one of the coolest things about building and designing and redesigning a website–you never run out of space. A city can only fit so many apartments and greenspaces and restaurants, but online you can increase your square mileage and quality whenever you want. You just have to make it count.

SOC.org 2.0 Homepage

And in just one month we’ve seen a 50 percent increase in pages/visit, nearly a 140 percent increase in time on site, a 38 percent decrease in bounce rate–and all that with a 64 percent increase in total traffic. (If you don’t know those numbers for your website, you should and you deserve to.)

You can argue the logic, but you can’t argue those numbers. Users on SOC.org are finding more content, reading more articles, watching more videos, and completing more forms.

Snowboarding will never be the same thing as skiing but that doesn’t mean you can’t figure it out if you’re willing to take the time to ask the right questions and practice.

So we learned and we adapted. And we’ll do it again. And again. And again.