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Publish me a River

20 June 13
A New Content Aggregation Tool

Social media platforms are a blessing for content creators, but they also present new difficulties. With such a vast array of publishing options available, content creators may find their material (and their time) spread too thin. Also, publishing on a social channel comes with the risk of isolating valuable creativity in a walled garden. Integration is critical for marketing, and not all social platforms make it easy. Another social publishing puzzle is that content on different platforms varies widely in the speed with which it is propagated. Contrast the ephemerality of a Twitter post with a showcase item on Vimeo. Before selecting a platform, content creators need to prepare a distribution strategy and be ready to track social objects moving at different speeds in multiple locations. This can be tricky.

One way to mitigate social publishing challenges is to try to centralize all content into one location. There are many off the shelf social content management applications to do that. These tools tend to include a lot of fancy features and cost a pretty penny. Another option is to homebrew your own content aggregation tool. Two years ago, I decided to take the more creative (and laborious) path. I thought that if I could create a new consolidation tool for my clients, it would increase the usefulness of their websites.

A popular, yet limited, way to extract content from social platforms is to use pre-built syndication tools. Most social networks include JavaScript widgets that webmasters can cut-and-paste into their site. This is an easy solution, but it has drawbacks. Web page load time may be adversely affected by content served from a remote source. And more egregiously, the plug-and-play approach to content syndication limits creativity. Page design becomes segregated. Social content tends to be isolated in a sidebar, or boxed into a feature. My goal was to break out of these restrictions by building a system where content from multiple sources would be cached, threaded together and then served into one stream. I wanted to publish a river.

River Publishing’s first creation was an app called ‘Interlacer’. This LAMP solution queried data from social platforms and stored the results locally. With content mirrored on our own box we didn’t have to worry about server response times (as much). Also, content managers could edit or delete articles after they had been imported. This system worked well, however, threaded content from multiple sources arriving at different speeds presented a new problem. Fast moving Twitter updates were pushing everything else off the page. To solve this we introduced a second app.

River Publishing’s second creation ‘Weighted Entries’ not only attempted to solve our Twitter problem, but it also sought to resolve a wider issue faced by web publishers. That is, how to prioritize articles displayed in reverse chronological order. If an editor wants to feature an item by bringing it close the top of the page, their options are limited. They might decide to reset the publication date, but this approach is time consuming (and a little misleading). Another option is to use the ‘sticky’ function available in most content management systems. With sticky, an article will remain locked on top of the page until its status expires, or until the editor remembers to pull it down. At which point, it might disappear off the home page entirely. Sticky is an all or nothing solution. It offers no flexibility to toggle the status of a featured item, and it often requires an editor to retouch already published work.

Weighted Entries introduced a new tool to the world of web publishing. We built a control that allowed editors to assign articles a rank that would gracefully degrade over time. We called this element ‘weight’. The idea was to get editors to think of different objects in their content channel as if they were pebbles tumbling down a river. Heavy content objects were like rocks, slowly rolling down the page. Lighter objects were like sand, swiftly flowing past the big stuff. By assigning weight, an editor could keep a featured item in proximity to the top of the page for a loosely defined window of time. Eventually, the Weighted Entries algorithm would return all rankings to the mean as the value for time balanced out the value for weight. This system created a more efficient workflow. For each content item, editors could set it and forget it. Also, with Weighted Entries we solved our Twitter dilemma. We assigned tweets a very low weight in the content river, so they flowed around heavier items like videos and press releases.

So far, the River Publishing system has been incorporated into three websites and my clients have been pleased. They appreciate that the tools make it easy to build a consolidated channel in which the value of their efforts on social platforms is returned to their own website. They also report that it’s easier for them to track engagement on social sites when they can start from a central point of reference. Furthermore, ranking content during the authoring process has saved them time. Lastly, there’s been a higher rate of engagement on the sections of websites that use our tools. The ForTerra news page has a bounce rate of about 20% as compared to the site average of 50%. You can see the River Publishing suite in action at and

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