How to do a content audit

Posted by on Mar 12, 2012 in content management, content strategy | 0 comments

What exactly is a content audit, anyway?

There are two distinct activities called “content audits:”

  • inventory and assessment of Web content in preparation for a redesign or CMS; this article primarily focuses on this.
  • inventory and assessment of all content in preparation for a unified content strategy; the information contained in this article is relevant to this larger-scale content audit, but it is not complete.

(In addition to these, there are other definitions not relevant to this discussion: inventory and assessment of files on an individual computer to uncover viruses, inappropriate material, etc., or of newspaper articles to ensure fairness/objectivity/diversity in topics, reports, POV, conclusions.)

Synonyms

A content audit is sometimes known as a content assessment or content inventory, and sometimes there is a distinction between the cataloging of all content and the evaluation of content. (To quote user experience expert Christina Wodtke, an inventory is “what’s there” and an assessment is “is it any damn good?”) No matter what the label, there needs to be both a cataloging and an assessment done for the content; often, the assessment is done a bit later.

Why do a content audit?

Only after uncovering the full scope of what exists can you begin to evaluate it, see patterns, learn the processes.

When in the process should you do a content audit?

As early as possible; this should be one of the first undertakings in a project.

How do you audit content?

(Not a fun task, but there’s no substitute for what it can teach you!)

Examine everything piece by piece, as thoroughly and quickly as possible. Capture in a spreadsheet or database. Each row represents one Web page or piece of content; columns represent the attributes of the content; this is what changes the most depending on the particular project and scope.

Look at every piece of content only once, if at all possible – therefore, you’ll have to know the scope well before you begin. (Even so, it’s likely that you’ll have to redo some after the first group.)

Audit tips

  • Start with highest levels of the site before delving into the details. Try to set terminology for values that will go in the evaluation columns (type, condition, etc.).
  • Make an offline copy of the site, so you can conduct the audit from home, while traveling, etc.
  • Be careful when ordering columns in Excel: If you change the order of cells in one column, the other columns don’t reorder themselves unless you select all columns and then select data > sort.

Sanity tips

  • Get a second monitor – preferably a large one (saves about 25% time over a single smaller screen).
  • Automate for efficiency and to avoid repetitive stress injury.Get a mouse with many programmable buttons or use keyboard shortcuts, e.g.: alt-Tab switches between windows, ctrl-Tab selects browser’s URL bar.)
  • Stretch regularly and take regular breaks – for sanity, to save your eyes, save alertness.
  • Tune out distractions with headphones and music.

Tips adapted from Peter Van Dijk and Noel Franus.

Does all the content need to be audited, or can enough be gleaned from a representative sample? How do you choose a good enough sample?

Good questions. Representative content can work, if it’s the right sample – and getting the right sample requires editorial judgement from someone quite familiar with the content. If that expertise is not there, better to avoid a representative sample.

Another option is to start with one section of the site and use that as a “quick win” to engender understanding of the effort among senior management, as well as creating a success that will be contagious throughout the organization. This method is not sufficient, however, to create full business requirements for a content management system.

Who should do the content audit?

Usually, the content strategist or content manager sets the scope and starts the spreadsheet at the highest levels. If the project (unfortunately) does not have a content strategist or content manager, the task falls to the information architect or other team member.

If a great deal of detail is needed, sometimes an intern or administrative assistant completes it.

How long will it take?

It is possible to audit up to 500 pages/day. If the goal is to learn the most about each piece of content, volume will be much lower. However, if you need to do only one pass-through for each piece of content, it’s time well invested.

Can it be automated?

Unfortunately, not usually. For some sites, a programmer can create a web-crawler to list all the URLs – but that is just a start, and not always possible.

What tools are best to use?

The tool typically used is a content matrix in Excel.

Advantages:

  • allows you to group and sort content into sections
  • commonly known application, so clients or other team members can read it

Disadvantages:

  • doesn’t prevent you from entering bad or inconsistent data

Would it be better to use Access or another database program? That is up for debate.

Where should you store the content audit?

Where team members can access it and – more important – use its information to power their understanding. While not everyone can or should do the audit, everyone on the team needs to know what’s in there.

What is the content audit used for?

During the content audit, you ascertain content behavior, relationships, processes – the outcome is a set of content types.

This is a vertical and horizontal exercise: patterns should begin to emerge in, for example, the elements that comprise various types of content (newsletters should all contain the issue date, editor name and table of contents, and press releases should all contain a company description, release date and media contact information). If similar content doesn’t follow similar patterns, standardization is needed.

  • Content types
  • Workflow
  • CMS requirements
  • Staffing and responsibility alterations
  • Determination of governance
  • Validation of strategy
  • Validation of project plan’s feasibility

Caveats

A content audit won’t uncover what’s missing – what was never put online, what is in people’s heads, what was considered and not put online, what the organization never did). That takes interviews with stakeholders and skilled editorial judgment. And that’s where the content audit becomes the content assessment, the necessary next step.

Content Company has performed numerous content audits. If you are launching a new online product or site and need a content audit, contact us.

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Copyright 2012 Hilary Marsh