So, we've been covering content strategy through various blog posts. These have been augmented by talks at various events, too (and, it was great to see you at Rocket 'Conf, #channelshiftwales, and our autumn user groups.) We've talked about creating content for your messages, and how to make sure you're looking after the people who create, curate, and manage your content. Now, let's talk about the content audit.
To get to the point where we can start auditing our content, we need to get some context set firmly in our minds. So, let's start with a bit of philosophy.
Any Greek speakers or philosophy enthusiasts will be familiar with the word τέλος (telos). From my arm-chair expertise, I understand this word to mean purpose, or "the meaning for which..." It's the point, the reason for something to exist.
Thus, to give an explanation of something is to determine what about it is good. Its goodness is its actual cause – its purpose, telos or "reason for which" (Timaeus 27d8-29a). [Wikipedia: Teleology]
To understand something teleologically, you ask what it's for (why does this thing exist?) The best example I can think of is looking to understand a fork. What's it's purpose? Well, it exists to help us eat, doesn't it?
So, to best understand our content, we need to start at the end, the reason it exists, and work our way backwards from there.
Every piece of content exists for a reason.
The reason for this pop-philosophy introduction is that it's key to understanding what you've got on your websites. Everything you can see on your site is there for a reason. Sometimes the reason isn't very good.
That banner-like content box which people tend to ignore? Someone created it, and published it, and it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe your marketing team was under a lot of pressure when they published a whole bunch of blog posts on the same day – accidentally spamming people's RSS readers (does anyone use these any more?). Footer links, misleading link-text, ignored pages, and all sorts of microcopy: these are all there on purpose. It's our job to make sure they fit our current objectives.
We work to align our content with our current purposes.
There are different kinds of purpose.
I've thought of 4 basic types of purpose, which should be applicable to most any organisation. Given a few more coffees, I'm sure we could think of more.
Messages are discrete, meaningful concepts that your website conveys. There are tonnes of different messages, and various teams will have their own. Here are a few extremely broad examples:
- We want you to know what we do.
- We have something for you.
- We are part of your community.
- We exist in the real world – here is where you can find us.
Marketing teams will be the folk to talk to about the messages you're aiming at. They will have some temporary messages (come to this event), and longer term ones (we specialise in physics).
Audiences are the people you're looking to engage with. We can think of them as purposes, because they form a large part of the reason our sites exist. Here are a few starters for ten, but you can mentally fill in yours:
- Residents – for local government websites
- Really engaged users
- Not so engaged users
- Potential students
- People we might hire
- People who work with us
Audiences are vital to how we plan our content. They're the main reason we create stuff – and pay for a website – in the first place. It's important to know who you're talking to.
Tasks are the things your users want to get done. They come to your website with their own purposes. Here are a few:
- I want to find an answer to my specific question.
- I want to buy something.
- I want to read this article.
- I want to register to vote.
- I want to find out about your organisation.
- I want to tell you something.
Tasks inform the structure of our sites (the information architecture or IA), the content/messages, and how we engage with our audiences. Tasks give us important context for the functional bits of our websites: calendars, logins, comments, transactions, and the rest. They are what we think about when planning CTAs (calls to action) like links, buttons, and even advertising.
Tone is the impression beyond meaning that your message imparts. It's how our users feel when using our website. I've listed a few to illustrate, but we could look much deeper into tone than this.
- We want you to feel like we know what we're doing.
- We want you to feel like we are not remote, snobbish, or boring.
- We want you to feel like we care about your own purposes.
Now, tone is something which requires the context of our messages, audiences, and our own culture. The reason I've included it as a kind of purpose, is because tone raises questions we can ask about our content:
- Does this piece of content make the user feel welcome?
- Does this piece of content fit our tone of "being open"?
And, this leads us on to the very telos behind a content audit. An audit is nothing more than a tool to help us answer questions about our content.
Auditing is asking a bunch of questions.
So, we've talked about purposes, and discussed viewing content back-to-front (well, end-to-start, really). Now, we need to work out which questions we want to ask.
All an audit does is provide you with a framework to systematically answer a series of questions about each piece of content. These questions range hugely, so we need to create some scope.
First, what do we want to investigate?
If we want to find out some gross figures, we might want to conduct a complete audit. We'll look at every single piece of content we've got, and ask a set of specific questions about each one. A complete audit can tell us big things:
- How many pages have we got?
- Which pages across our entire website are redundant (i.e. they say the same thing as other pages)?
- How many sections of content have we got (e.g. navigation categories)?
- Have we got enough people to look after our website?
Bear in mind, that if your site is big, a complete audit is a lengthy piece of work. Many times, people actually want more specific information about a limited set of content. You can narrow the scope of your auditing by sectioning your pages logically:
- We're going to audit the user journeys of a select group of important personas.
- We're going to audit all the content you can get to from primary navigation.
- We're going to audit all the content in a specific category.
- We're going to audit all the content in a specific directory (folder, or url path such as: /en-gb/blog/).
To dig deeper than broad statistics, you need to ask more specific questions. Here is where you can translate your big questions (is our content any good?) into research questions. These are the meat of your audit: create a set of questions that you can ask of each and every piece of content in your audit.
Whether you're doing a complete audit – which is often only needed for big-bang projects like complete redesigns – or you're setting a scope, you ask specific questions:
- Which audience is this for?
- Is this piece well written?
- Does it conform to our in-house style?
- Is it written at an appropriate reading age?
- Does it contain too much jargon?
- Is this piece a good candidate for change?
- Can we cull it?
- Does it need a rewrite?
- Is it missing something specific (such as an image, a heading)?
- Is this content accessible?
- Do its images wear alt-text?
- Is the HTML semantically written (e.g. are its headings in the right order)?
- Who is responsible for this piece of content?
You can go as wide or as deep as you need to. But, you need to establish your research questions first.
Audit mechanics are simple – if you've gotten this far, you've done the complex stuff.
You might be wondering why I've written this much about auditing without actually showing you how to do one. I've started with some Greek words, and talked about purposes and research questions. Yes, I meant to do that. Actually doing an audit is quite simple – though, it might not be terribly easy.
First, you establish your content purposes. Then, you use those to let you create a set of questions you want to answer. Auditing is just putting these questions into columns in a spreadsheet, and answering each for every piece of content – one row per content item.
If you use a good CMS, you can export your content into a spreadsheet to give you a head start. Just add your question-columns, and start working your way through your rows.
In Contensis (Release 8.2 and up), you can use the search feature with filters to set the scope of your audit, then export the results to CSV.
Here, we choose the project, and add a content-type filter so we just get webpages back:
If we're looking at auditing a section of our project, we have lots of options. Here's how we might use the folder structure (the path) to filter out any pages that aren't part of the structure we're looking for:
From the results page, we can simply press Export, which downloads a csv file. (You can also sort them first, by pressing one of the headings, like Title or Date Created.)
Then, in your spreadsheet tool of choice, remove columns you don't need, and add your questions to new columns.
For some columns, I use data validated to a list (for example, a list of audiences or a list of page changes).
What you get is a snapshot of the content you're investigating, with some useful information for each. With your audit, you can:
- Create a list of tasks.
- Assign a complete list of pages your staff needs to review.
- Give your media teams pages (and topics) which need new videos.
- Do some gap analysis.
- List content by audience, and look to see if any audiences are under-represented.
- List pages which should have supporting media (images, video, podcasts...), but don't.
- Inform your next marketing campaigns.
- Compare pages with analytics to look for improvements.