07 Dec 2012

What Does Fresh and Up-to-Date Mean to You?

freshIf we write content for a website, we’re often pressured to make sure that it is fresh and up to date. Likewise, if we work in the IT department maintaining technology, we may face the need to keep our hardware and software fresh and up to date. But what does that really mean?

There’s a certain irony to my writing this piece, as I’m working on my personal system, an old Dell laptop with Windows Vista – yes, Vista – installed. My word processing program is a reasonably up-to-date version of OpenOffice’s OpenWriter. I update my antivirus software frequently enough to put most security-conscious systems administrators at relative ease. These facts illustrate the point I’m going to make: what the terms “fresh” and “up-to-date” mean really depends on your situation.

For example, let’s consider Developer Shed’s family of websites. While they differ somewhat in focus, most of them deal with high-technology topics. Since high tech is changing and developing all the time, if I write a news story for one of these websites, I want it to be as recent as possible, conveying information that is a day or less old. If I’m writing a news piece that also expresses an opinion based on trends, as I did recently for an SEO Chat story on Yahoo’s purchase of OnTheAir, some of the information will be older to back up my theories. In some of my coverage of Yahoo, in fact, I’ve gone back years in time to give a true perspective of where they have been and where they’re going.

At the opposite end from news is evergreen content. If a dentist’s website posts instructions on how to brush your teeth, that’s evergreen; it hasn’t changed since I was a kid, and it’s not likely to change any time in the near future. Likewise, if a programmer posts a simple program in C that shows how to accomplish a particular task efficiently, that’s evergreen content; there aren’t a lot of new tricks in old programming languages, but if it’s useful, the target audience will appreciate reading it. And if it’s posted tomorrow, it’s still “fresh” and “up-to-date.”

Freshness Concerns: Technology and Timing

I’m not really talking about the SEO implications of “fresh” and “up-to-date” here, however. I’m thinking more about the technological implications. If you work in IT, you need to support whatever technology is “fresh” and “up-to-date” for your company, and for those who visit your company’s website. This could mean Windows 7 rather than Windows 8; it could mean the latest iPad; it could mean a plethora of smartphones running Android. It could mean using HTML 5, but it might just as easily involve developing native applications, perhaps even several different versions of your entire website. And sadly, all of them will need to be kept fresh and up to date.

There’s another wrinkle to think about when keeping something fresh and up to date, whether it’s technology or content: timing. It’s a common saying in the tech field that you never get the point-zero version of something; always wait until the item has been out for a while so that the early adopters find the bugs. That varies with how much you plan to invest in the new item, of course, and how likely it is to include serious bugs. But just like one company refuses to sell any wine before its time, it makes sense to not buy any new technology until you see how well it works and how it’s going to fit in with the rest of your company’s technological ecosystem. On the other hand, you can’t afford to be behind the times when the CEO wants you to support his new iPad and iPhone!

When trying to keep information and technology fresh and up to date, timing matters in another way. Say that you run a u-pick-it farm, or you’re a yarn shop getting in shipments from a supplier. You send out a regular newsletter to your eager customers. Depending on how often you publish that newsletter, you might not let them know immediately when the blackberries are starting to ripen or your supplier has sent the first shipment of yarn. You want to make sure you have enough ripe berries (or yummy skeins of yarn) to keep your customers from going home disappointed. So you may hold back on the information, just long enough to make sure you have enough supply to meet the demand – especially if you plan to run a special sale. But it’s still fresh and up to date.

Fresh Communication Styles

Here’s an interesting hurdle you might not have considered when thinking about what “fresh” and “up-to-date” means: how do your colleagues and customers convey information? Do they use e-mail, phone calls, text messages, or what? It may vary with the urgency of the information and the age of the sender…and worse, there’s no obvious way to answer that question correctly.

Say your boss requires you to make a weekly or a monthly report. Is it urgent? Is it a big formal thing or just a few short lines to let him know everything is still on track? Does he want it e-mailed or even (gasp!) printed out on paper and on his desk? You know it needs to be “fresh” and “up-to-date” regardless of the format, or at least as nearly so as you can make it. But you need to adapt to the style of communication with which he is comfortable (a point I may cover in a future post).

So what, exactly, does fresh and up to date mean? It means the technology or information you’re providing is as recent and reliable as it needs to be to provide the desired result. A news item or an antivirus program needs to be a lot more recent than a good jQuery tutorial can get away with, but the point remains. My favorite test is this: is it as useful to your company and your customers as it can be, or do they need something fresher to accomplish their goals? Answer that question, and you’ll know what “fresh” and “up-to-date” means to you.

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