How to do a content audit: How and why

5 min read Grace Lau

Ah, content audits! If you need to work on a website redesign, information architecture revamp, or a site migration, one of the first things you’ll need to do is a content audit.

Most likely a website redesign project will need some amount of re-organization because users can’t find anything on the site. First, you’ll need to know who your users are. You’ll find out what it is that the users of your website are doing or looking for. You’ll conduct some preliminary user interviews to ask your project stakeholders what they think their users are looking for. Maybe you’ll get to ask actual users of your website.

Then you’ll realize that you could also find out if the website correlates with what your users expect to be able to find. If you only knew what was on your website in the first place…

You’ll need to do the content audit. You can’t avoid it now. The spreadsheet comes out. You start your inventory, add the metadata, and add columns to make sense of cells.

It was arduous, and it was worth it. Once you do the content audit, you’ll be able to conduct card sorting and affinity mapping to find out what your users are looking for.

It reads like a children’s book, doesn’t it? “And then content lived happily ever after…”

But, content audits are iterative, not a once in a project cycle activity. Like a routine checkup or a yearly exam, a content audit is essential to keep content relevant and valuable to your users.

Conducting a content audit is one of the first steps in putting together a card sort. You need words on a card, right? Your content audit is where you’ll find them.

Incidentally, “how to do a content audit” articles are plentiful, but this will be one that focuses on how a card sort makes use of a content audit.

What is a content audit?

Content audits start off as inventories. They tend to be massive spreadsheets that contain, among other things, metadata about the content you’re keeping track of. For example, an inventory may start as a list of companies, occupations, or cities. Then someone may come along and start collecting empirical metadata around these things. The list becomes a list of the top global brand companies, the best occupations for 2017, or the most dangerous cities in the world.

Maybe you’re keeping track of what books you have, what you’ve read, what you haven’t read. Maybe you’re keeping an inventory of your kitchen pantry. Maybe you’re collecting a list of movies and films you should watch or keeping a bucket list of places you want to visit.

Consider the scope of these three inventories:

  • A full content inventory. A complete listing of all site content, including pages, images, videos, and PDFs. If you consider a kitchen taxonomy, this includes everything in the kitchen, (including books, recipe binders, kitchen equipment, refrigerated items).
  • A partial content inventory. A subset listing of content slicing across the site. For example, most popular, site hierarchy, or items used within a defined period of time. A partial kitchen inventory would cover everything used in the past 6 months.
  • A content sample. A listing of example content from the site. For instance, a specific category or location. A content sample of kitchen inventory could cover the pantry or the spice cabinet.

Quantitative content inventories

Content inventories are the quantitative kind. The purpose of this list is to know how much content you have, and how many of each different kind. There are 12 countries I want to visit in Asia. I’ve already visited 10 of the 50 states in the United States. There are over 800 pages in the five websites that I’m consolidating.

Content inventories give you numbers to work with and provide a current state of affairs before you go making changes. You’ll be able to refer to this when you talk to content owners.

Qualitative content inventories

Content audits focus on the qualitative. You add an evaluation of the content (which is qualitative) to that initial simple inventory. The most common is ROT analysis: redundant, obsolete, and trivial. Another type of analysis looks at tone and voice. Kristina Halvorson, in her book Content Strategy for the Web, chunks qualitative data into six groups: usability, knowledge level, findability, actionability, audience, and accuracy.

The information you collect in your audit depends on what you want to know. If “easy to understand” is a KPI that you or the business wants to measure, then you’ll want to include readability scores. Every content audit is custom-fit for the purposes of each project.

In essence, content audits are lists of things you want to track and your assessment of that thing — whatever that thing is. Things can be physical content as well as digital. Are those spices too old and should be thrown out? Is that travel destination in the midst of political turmoil and should it be taken off the list (for now)? Is that movie now available for streaming? How many of those 800 pages are worth of keeping or updating and how many of those could we archive and take offline?

Content audits are pivotal documents

Content audits are living documents. They need to be updated on a regular basis to maintain a certain level of content quality and relevance. They are pivotal documents, shared across various disciplines, used for various purposes.

Search engine optimization (SEO) tools create site crawls that capture page titles, URLs, page elements, and position within a site hierarchy. They are spreadsheets that look and feel deceptively like content inventories. And they essentially are.

Content audits are converging:

  • SEO specialists conduct SEO content audits to identify thin content, accessibility, indexability, duplicate content and such.
  • Content strategists and information architects conduct inventories and audits to determine what content exists, where it lives, when it was last updated, and who owns it.
  • Taxonomists mine content inventories for categories and content terminology.
  • Search analysts collect keywords to supplement site search.

Content audits are pivotal documents that have many different uses.

Someone adds site analytics to the document, then readability scores, then BOOM! There are now even more ways to pivot the table — top landing pages, top pageviews, highest bounce rate, high word count, low word count, oldest content, newest content — where do you want to start?