If you already have a website that you would like to refresh, you must first understand the quality, scope and structure of your existing content. This will help you make informed decisions about your new site.
- Do not start work on a website redesign without first committing to do a web content audit.
- Most websites have too much content. One of the most important outputs from your content audit will be to identify content for removal. Choose audit criteria that help you decide whether a piece of content is redundant, outdated or trivial (ROT).
- Aim to capture a mix of quantitative and qualitative data in your content audit so you can get facts about size, structure and performance along with opinion about quality.
- In addition to your audit, make sure you talk to internal stakeholders who are involved with the web to analyse the various organisational factors that impact content production and maintenance.
With many web projects the challenge is not to build a new website from scratch, but to rework an existing site. In these cases, you need to look at the existing content and decide what needs to stay, what needs to go, and what needs improving.
A web content audit will help you do this. It’s an essential part of the research / discovery phase of a web project when a large amount of web content already exists.
There is no set way to do a web content audit. The approach you take will depend on the time and resources available to you, as well as the size of the site that needs auditing.
What is a content audit?
A content audit is an index of every item of content on a website, usually recorded on a spreadsheet, and including factors such as popularity, currency, quality and editorial activity that can help inform decisions about how to develop the site.
Ideally and audit should cover web pages, uploaded files (e.g. PDFs), images, multimedia (audio / video), and any tools or interactive features such as web forms.
Why do a content audit?
It’s difficult to make recommendations for improving a website without first understanding the quality, scope and structure of the content that’s already in it.
The advantages of doing a content audit include:
- It helps identify the scope of material needed for a new site.
- It should help identify the value of each item of existing content so that a decision can be made about whether or not each item should be retained, removed or edited.
- Content production is often very time-consuming; a content audit can give you a good foundation for managing this process.
- If you include web stats (e.g. traffic volumes) in your audit, you’ll get some invaluable data about which pages your users are currently visiting, and what content they’re not interested in. This will help you plan the new version of your site with users in mind.
- Your content audit shines a light on internal production processes: who owns what content, how long it is since it was last updated, what condition it’s in, etc. This gives you a clearer idea of how your team or department has managed its content and the site in general. With these insights, you’ll be able to develop new systems better suited to your internal capabilities.
- Most websites are too big. This usually has a negative effect on the usability of a site and often makes it difficult to maintain. A key output of any content audit is to identify content for removal. You should tailor your content audit to help you spot the ‘ROT’ (content that is redundant, outdated or trivial).
Many sites are just too big to conduct a comprehensive audit of every piece of content. This is especially true with universities.
There are a few things you can do to make your audit easier:
- Try and automate the production of a site map. This will save you having to click through every page and write out the page titles and URLs as you go.
- On your site map, look for batches of certain types of content, e.g. news items, events, personal profiles, blog posts, case studies. It’s highly unlikely you’ll need to audit every single instance of these content types. Audit just enough to get a snapshot of that particular area of the site.
- You may want to divide responsibility for auditing between several people. If you do this, try not to split sections or types of content between multiple auditors. It’s more useful to have one person get the complete picture from a particular part of the site, so that their recommendations are not based on a partial analysis.
- Ideally, you’ll audit every content item (including uploaded files, multimedia, even images) separately on your audit spreadsheet. However, this can prove time-consuming. An easier approach might be to task one person with auditing all images, another with auditing all uploaded files, etc.
There are many aspects of content you can audit. You’ll need to choose criteria that are right for your project and easy for you to capture with the time and resources available to you. Aim to collect a combination of qualitative and quantitative data.
Here is a list of just some of the most common criteria for quantitative audits (not all criteria are valid for every content type):
- Navigation title – the title that a search engine uses to index a piece of content. When you open a web page in a browser this is usually the text then appears in the browser tab at the top of the page.
- Display title – the title that appears as the main header in the body copy of a piece of content.
- Content type – e.g. web page, PDF, video, audio, image, web form – this will be self-evident, but it helps to have a controlled vocabulary of content types to audit against.
- Content hierarchy – the level at which a particular content item appears. A convenient way to capture this is to list the ‘parent’ page of the content item in question, i.e. the page that sits above it in the site hierarchy.
- URL – the web address for a content item – taken from the web browser’s address bar.
- Page statistics – e.g. unique page views in the last 12 months – usually taken from Google Analytics or another web analytics package.
- Content owner – the individual, team or department who has final say over what happens to a piece of content and who is legally responsible for it.
- Date created – when a piece of content was originally published online. This data can often be taken from the content management system.
- Date last updated – when a piece of content was last edited or modified. This data can often be taken from the content management system.
- Password protected? – yes or no. Many UCL web pages are (often unnecessarily) hidden behind a login barrier.
- Metadata / keywords – a list of any metadata or keywords that have been added to a content item in the content management system.
Some of the most common criteria for qualitative audits are:
- General observations – the easiest way to capture qualitative data is a single field for general notes about the quality of a piece of content.
- Content messaging – notes on what a piece of content is about and whether the message is clear in the opening lines on the page and whether it is relevant to the strategic aims of the site.
- Content accuracy – notes on the accuracy of a piece of content.
- Content usefulness – notes on whether a piece of content is useful either to help an organisation achieve its strategic aims online or for a user to complete a ‘top task’.
- Content readability – notes on how easy a piece of content is to scan/read and whether the language is suitable for the target audience.
- Content structure – notes on how intuitively and consistently content is structured.
- Keep, edit, archive? – auditor’s suggestion about what needs to happen to a piece of content.
An alternative, quicker approach to qualitative audits is to grade each content item out of 5 against a standard set of criteria, then add notes at the end. For example:
- Is the language accurate?
- Is the language clear?
- Is the language appropriate for the target audience?
- Is the content readable / scannable?
- Is the content actionable (i.e. is it obvious what to do next)?
Some other elements you might consider capturing include:
- Features / functionality – in addition to the standard navigation elements and body text, does a page have any special add-ons, widgets or content items in either of the side panels?
- Design issues – are there any issues with the ‘look and feel’ of individual content items? Is the use of images consistent with the style and messaging of the site?
Analysing the content environment
For a content audit to be really useful, you’ll need to spend some time analysing the various environmental or contextual issues that have a bearing on content production. These include:
- Online business objectives, including brand and messaging guidelines
- Technology capabilities and constraints
- Time, skills and resources available to create and manage web content
- Digital governance – who’s in control? Who makes the big strategic decisions?
- Other repositories of content – beyond the website, what other sources of data or information does your team or department have?
These issues are best explored outside the content audit through in-depth interviews with suitable internal stakeholders. Take time to draft your interview questions carefully and select the right people to interview.
- For an overview of what constitutes good web content at UCL, see the UCL web style guide (PDF)
- For a thorough overview of auditing and analysing content, as well as developing a content strategy for your website, see Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach.
If you would like to discuss how best to audit or analyse your web content, contact Digital Presence: firstname.lastname@example.org