By Ahava Leibtag published January 24, 2011

Why Traditional Content Audits Aren’t Enough

I had the strangest thing happen to me last week.  I was talking to the lead on a big website project, and I asked him, “So what types of content do you plan to include?”  He told me, “Written, video, message boards, podcasting and downloadable documents.”

However, when he sent me the design specs for the site, there was absolutely no room on the page for video. When I pressed him on this issue, he responded, “We’ll worry about that later.”

Huh?

It’s what’s inside the box

Remember the movie Splash?

She’s a mermaid; he’s a lonely guy in New York looking for love.  They meet and begin a passionate love affair.  He brings her a beautiful music box one day, wrapped in a Tiffany’s box.  Now, remember:   she’s a mermaid.  She doesn’t know from Tiffany’s, as my Yiddish grandmother would say.  So, when he presents her with the box, she looks at it lovingly for a long time, kisses it, looks at him and says, “It’s beautiful.  I love it.”

Clients act like mermaids sometimes.  They think that a beautiful design will bring success. However, content professionals  know that what’s inside the box is what ultimately brings digital communication success. Understanding and cataloging what goes in all those boxes on your site is the first step toward providing your users with excellent content and satisfying the business strategy of the organization.

Three ways to start thinking about your content

While thinking about content may be tedious for some, it is absolutely critical to squeeze out as much information as you can about your content before design. When facing a redesign or migration, any content strategist will immediately plan a content audit.  He or she will also:

  1. Create or modify existing user audience personas
  2. Analyze any data, including user analytics, customer call center data, surveys, etc.
  3. Read the business plan (if there is one)

Are traditional content audits enough?

While a content audit is necessary, it’s not a silver-bullet solution.

As we speak, there are two popular forms of content auditing: quantitative and qualitative.  The first is basically an inventory: URL, page title, what is on the page. This is useful, but only to a point. It doesn’t help you address these kinds of issues:

  • The site has been neglected for years.  The content is outdated and the analytics do not reveal useful information.
  • There is so much legacy content that a full-scale content audit would take months.
  • The persona creation process reveals so many different personas that it seems pointless to narrow it down to three to five.
  • The data are confusing, distracting or contradictory.

The second type, a qualitative audit, is an in-depth dive into the content—not only the URL and page title, but an assessment of the content—how good the writing is, what the page says, how it relates to other pages.

Moving toward multidimensional content audits

As I’ve been strongly advocating for moving toward multidisciplinary groups for your digital strategy team, I’m going to make the same recommendation for your content audits.  Instead of spreadsheets that list out your content, use a multidimensional group of documents to tell the story—not just about the content, but about the design formats you are using as well.

Here are some examples:

Combine your analytics and content audits on a spreadsheet
Sort according to actual IA order or by page views.  This might look like an Excel spreadsheet that has the following columns:

  • Page title
  • Page name
  • Notes
  • Page views
  • Absolute unique visitors
  • Bounce rate

In this way, clients can understand the full story of the page, not just one aspect of the content.

Pull out interesting notes from your analytics
Display these kinds of notes in graphical format:

  • Peak user times
  • Top pages by entrance and exit
  • Whole sections that are basically ignored by users.  Powerpoint is a useful tool for creating graphics of analytics because you can easily export into Excel and create pretty charts.

Have your developers count the number of design templates or databases you are using
This can be sticky, but if done properly can inform both your IA and visual design.  Imagine side-by-side comparisons, or better yet, a snapshot of the template with basic analytics information listed below it. Request information from the call center about the top 10 issues or concerns they deal with on a daily basis and looking at the analytics on those pages.  Try to see if you can spot what the customer is struggling with on the page.  Better yet, see if your clients can spot it.

Compare your mobile and desktop analytics
See if there are major differences in the way people consume that content.

Count the top types of content you post regularly
For example, does video score high? Downloadable PDFs? Podcasts?

The goal of a content audit is not to simply collect data but to have the information you need to make good decisions. Creating and using multidimensional content audits will help you move forward into the design phase of the redesign.  Knowing what goes inside the box will help you avoid having to scramble and “just deal with it later.”

But, feel free to buy me something in a Tiffany box.  I promise I’ll love the box and what’s inside.

Author: Ahava Leibtag

Based in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Ahava Leibtag is a Web content strategist and writer. She leads AHA Media Group, a Web and content consulting firm, and authors the blog Online it ALL Matters. She thinks 60 words is way too few to communicate why she’s interesting. You can connect with Ahava on Twitter at @ahaval.

Other posts by Ahava Leibtag

  • http://conversionscientist.com Brian Massey

    Personas! Yay! This simple tool is SO effective in identifying and PRIORITIZING content development that I have almost lost the ability to provide content recommendations without personas.

    If I was to change one thing, it would be to move personas to step 3 in your flow. The business plan, call center data, analytics, market research, etc. are summarized by the personas. The personas ALIGN business goals and visitor content needs so that writers, designers and marketers are all doing the right things for the business and prospect.

    Thanks for the content spreadsheet columns. Analytics really are an effective way to see what is working and what is not.

    Very helpful post. Thanks.

    Brian

    • Ahava

      Hi Brian,
      That’s a good point about the flow–however, I didn’t see it as a 1,2,3–I saw it more as a “let’s do this all at the same time”. I don’t know which one should inform the other–what if the assumptions you made about analyzing the data turn out not to show up in your personas? What is there was something really critical there that was missed. Definitely something to think about.

  • http://twitter.com/ubudgetdesign u’budget design

    Hey Ahava,

    Thanks for the insightful look at the process of auditing web content.

    As a web designer, I agree with your early point about addressing content prior to design. In fact, it inspired a tip I wrote and tweeted this morning.

    I was wondering if you could expound on that a little. How do you advise managing website owners or stakeholders that consider (perhaps insistently) web content an afterthought, succeeding the look and feel of design?

    Thanks,
    +Ralston

    • Ahava

      HI Ralston,

      It’s a really tough conversation. I’ve had clients tell me people don’t come to the Web for content, they just come for “experience”. What does that mean?

      It’s best to sort of play on their own experiences–I’ll typically ask questions like, “when’s the last time you went to the Web? What were you looking for, etc” to try and draw out of them how important content really is.

  • Debbie Williams

    Great insights Ahava. Figuring out content needs BEFORE design is so essential, but as you know, often not the case. Thanks! (love the Splah reference too ) :)

  • Ahava

    I agree Zak. However, I think one has to be careful about auditing all types of content, because very often the medium the content was designed for is very often about the medium and changes the nature of the content. So as long as you make it clear in your audit that it’s a podcast, brochure, PDF vs. a written page of text on a website, then it’s an excellent idea.

  • http://In-The-Flow.com Jim Campbell

    Pretty much everything people want to accomplish should have a strategy, created with overall goals in mind. Going back is tough. We believe the important thing is to make sure our behavior going forward is correct. Thanks for this!! Linked over from another great article published today (2/21/2012)….