Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Beyond ROT: Creating useful and meaningful content audits

I've been thinking about content audits a lot lately because, well, that's the stage I'm at in my current project. There's been quite a few discussions and write-ups about audits but I've found that, for the most part, they have a pretty limited perspective. The fact is that a content audit can provide a huge amount of insight into content strengths and weaknesses in the early stages of a project, and help to inform all content strategy and information architecture activities moving forward.

A content audit is simply a snapshot of the current state of content, on a page-by-page basis, before a web redesign or content migration takes place. Perhaps the most discussed way of auditing a website's content is to determine the page count and the ROT: content that is redundant, out-dated, or trivial. While this is essential information, there is so much more information you can gather. And since you're looking at every page anyway, you might as well capture the information that will really help to bring value to your client and the project.

Here are some other content characteristics that you may want to capture, and why they're useful.

Page layout

This shows how the content is laid out on a page. Simply capture a screenshot for each page that uses a distinct layout and give it a name of some sort. I typically use a combination of acronyms and numbers. For example, two different landing page layouts might be LP-1 and LP-2. The purpose of this is to help clients see the inconsistencies in how similar types of information are being presented. It's also extremely helpful when you're doing a content migration where you need to understand how the content works within existing templates and the implications that has on the migration. Finally, it can raise big red flags for content processes if you find that content developers are creating multiple layouts on the fly from a single template.

Content type

Here, you make note of the basic type of content, leaving topic or departmental focus aside. For example, some types of content include forms, contact info, product details, articles, landing pages, FAQs, document archives, profiles, events, etc. You'll develop your list based on your specific project requirements. Together with page layout, this really helps to highlight inconsistencies in how information is being presented. It also helps to raise awareness of pages that are trying to do too many things at once. When you complete your initial audit and sort it by content type, you can quickly scan through your URLs to identify even more redundancy and get a better understanding of the opportunities for content re-use.


Make a note of who the content speaks to on each page. If it's not obvious after a quick scan of the page content, simply put "unknown". This is a good way to find out if the target audience will be able to immediately identify that this content is relevant to them. If your client has developed customer personas you can use these as a starting place, but remember that the purpose of an audit is to create a snapshot of the current state of content, which may or may not fit well with tools that have been built to guide future changes.


This is your subjective expert opinion as to the quality of the content on the page. I'll typically use ratings such as excellent, good, satisfactory, or poor, and associate them with qualifying best-practice statements as shown below. If you prefer, you could use grade-scores and use any qualifying statements that make sense to your project. Here's some that are pretty typical for me:

  • Excellent = Content and writing style reinforces brand and provides a surprisingly good customer experience. 
  • Good = Content is reasonably on-brand and supports users in understanding and acting on content. 
  • Satisfactory = Users can get the answers they're looking for, though it may take some effort and the content may not reflect the brand. 
  • Poor = Content does not meet user or business needs. 

Quality Characteristics

This is where you list out the specific weaknesses in the page content. It's important to work with a limited set of characteristics, and to define them precisely. You'll develop your best-practice characteristics based on your project needs and area of expertise, and then indicate where these best-practices are not being met. Some that I frequently use include:
  • User-focused
  • Brand voice
  • Consistency 
  • Context
  • Focused message
  • Out of date
  • Plain language
  • Business relevance
  • Substance
  • Typography, or information design
  • Volume appropriate
  • Writing mechanics
This is an important tool to highlight writing and process weaknesses and can really help your client to begin to understand the skills and resources required to create high-quality writing. It also helps to focus writer's workshops or training on areas that are particularly relevant or high priority.

These are only a few of the things you can look for in an audit. Some other common factors to consider include SEO criteria, content format (video, audio, html, pdf, etc), metadata used, or topics and subtopics. The trick is to find the right combination of criteria for your project, resources, and timeline.

Once you've captured the data, be sure to leave some time to analyse it. It's usually very interesting to determine which areas of the site, or which content types, have higher or lower quality content. Or how many different layouts are being used for similar content types? Which sections of the site are the most out of date, and which  are the most user focused? Which formats are being used for which topics? This really begins to surface inconsistencies and problem areas. These findings give you a strong understanding of the current state of the content and provide key insights when creating the gap analysis that will be the foundation for further content strategy work.

While I'm not going to talk about how to create an audit spreadsheet here, I definitely want to mention one tool that I discovered recently (thanks to Jason Armstrong at the +autonomous agency!) that has really helped to speed things up. If you use Google Chrome, you can go to the Chrome Web Store and download "Pasty". It's a free multi-URL opener that allows you to copy rows of URLs from your spread sheet, click the "Pasty" button, and open new tabs for each URL. You can easily open 50-100 pages with one click, and get through them pretty quickly.

What other content audit criteria or tips have you found to be very valuable? Please share them in the comments below!