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As a discipline, content strategy isn't suited to rigidly standardised processes. Different businesses have radically different needs around content planning, creation and governance.

This means that a successful content strategy will always be customised, using the best tools for the job at hand.

This lack of a standard methodology can make beginning a content strategy a daunting proposition - whether you're creating the strategy internally or hiring an external content strategist.

Fortunately, there's one step that almost all strategists agree should come first: a content audit

Doing a content audit means putting together a complete picture of your existing content: what content you have, and what state it’s in. It’s an incredibly useful exercise for any business that has existing content. That is, any business that’s not brand new.

What do I get from a content audit?

To understand the benefits of a content audit, think back to the last time you cleared out your personal filing cabinet. (If you’ve never cleared out a filing cabinet, maybe content strategy isn’t your thing!) You probably came across the following:

  • Documents that you could simply throw out (utility bills from ten years ago).
  • Documents that needed to be updated (an expired passport).
  • Useful documents that you assumed you’d lost because they were misfiled (an interesting set of conference notes, buried in your tax papers).
  • Documents that gave you ideas (a set of old photos that you could put up on Facebook to entertain or embarrass your friends).

You can expect similar results from a content audit. Just by looking at your existing content, you’ll realise that some of it can be deleted, some needs to be updated, some needs to be reorganised to make it more findable, and some of it sparks unexpected, useful ideas.

Beyond this, a content audit is an invaluable document for demonstrating to the rest of your organisation that your online content needs work. It’s a way to get the ball rolling on a strategy, even before you have official signoff.

How do I do a content audit?

The standard tool for a content audit is the humble spreadsheet. To make things simple, use Econsultancy's Content Audit Template.

The first step of your audit is to list every page on your website alongside its URL. You can do this manually for a small site, or get the data from web crawling software for a larger site.

(A content audit can and should examine non-website content as well, like Facebook Pages and printed collateral, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll stick with web content for now.)

As this point, you have what’s called a “quantitative content audit” or “content inventory”. This bare listing of pages is useful in its own right, because it’s impossible to get a sense of a website’s scale at a glance, and because the chances are there are whole sections you’ve forgotten about.

But the real magic happens when you start evaluating your content - turning a quantitive audit into a qualitative one. Just add spreadsheet columns for each of the criteria you want to use for evaluation.

The criteria you use might include:

  • Relevance (does your audience really need the content on this page? does it help fulfil a user need or business objective?).
  • Currency (is the content up to date?).
  • Quality (is it well written?).
  • Style (is it consistent with your business’s branding and tone of voice?).
  • Traffic (according to your analytics data, do many users actually visit the page?).
  • Metadata (does this page have a relevant, keyword-rich title tag and meta description?).
  • Opportunities (can this content be re-used somewhere else?).

If you have a large site, you might want to evaluate a representative sample of pages rather than every single page on the site.

Also, you might not be able to do all this evaluation at the same time: for instance, there’s not much point evaluating content for brand consistency if you don’t yet have a brand strategy worked out.

The content audit is a living document that you’ll keep coming back to throughout the journey.

What are the outcomes of a content audit?

You find out what content you can throw away

A list of content that can simply be deleted is probably the single most useful outcome of a content audit.

Deleting content doesn’t just declutter your website - more important, it makes it easy for users to find content that’s relevant to them. It streamlines the browsing experience, and it prevents redundant or out-of-date content appearing in search results.

Gerry McGovern relates that Microsoft once did a content audit and discovered that 3m of their 10m pages had never been visited! They went on a page deletion spree, and found that getting rid of unneeded content made relevant content much easier for customers to find.

Most businesses don’t have quite as much redundant content as Microsoft, but almost all of them have pages they could productively delete.

You find out what content needs to be updated or moved

As part of your content audit, you’ll also find content that is still required, but needs updating. This can be a quick fix: if you run a restaurant and the menu on your website is from two months ago, a recurring reminder in your calendar might be all you need.

But for larger-scale businesses, this can be a much bigger issue, with multiple types of content that need to be constantly reviewed in response to changes in the market, legislation, customer behaviour, and so on. That’s when you need to think about a web governance strategy.

You’re also likely to find content that’s useful in its own right, but is buried in the current information architecture. A classic example of this is a large, disorganised FAQ section. As part of your content strategy, you might want to think about relocating answers to the context where they’ll be most relevant to users.

Serendipity happens

Here’s a less tangible but equally beneficial outcome of a content audit: good ideas get sparked simply by the act of looking over your old content. You might find a series of old blog posts that can be given a dust-off and turned into an email autoresponder sequence.

You might find some old company photos that can help you start building a Facebook timeline. You might find long text instructions that could be better conveyed using video.

Write down these things as you think of them, and you’ll come to your content strategy already armed with ideas for improving your content and extending its reach.

Use a content audit to bring others along

As we’ve seen, you get a lot of useful benefits from doing a content audit. But it’s just as important to share this work with others. A content audit is a document that you can use to advocate for content work within your organisation - one that goes beyond the general perception that “our web content is terrible”.

Your content audit makes that perception quantifiable and actionable.

Econsultancy's content strategy consultancy services are delivered worldwide. Further details are available on our digital transformation page or contact transformation@econsultancy.com

Angus Gordon

Published 15 May, 2012 by Angus Gordon

Angus Gordon is Content strategist at Weave Web Communications and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

1 more post from this author

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Nick Stamoulis

Every site probably has a little dead weight hanging around. I would start with your analytics and see which pages have never drawn any visitors. Can you make those pages more user or search engine friendly so they provide real value for your website? If not, delete them!

over 4 years ago

Tim Aldiss

Tim Aldiss, Consultant/Director at ThinkSearch

Hi Angus

When I first read your post yesterday I really liked. However I was drawn back to it this morning as I felt something was missing.

How can you possibly do a content audit without looking at how well the content is being seen outside of the website?!

You mention traffic - good - but what about the primary factors to do with content online today - visibility and share-ability.

Would you not think to conduct a keyword ranking report to see if any of your pages were supporting keyword rankings? OK you've checked the traffic, but maybe your brand is competing right up there with your competitors for some terms that you may possible cull with a spring clean out of some pages?

And what about social sharing? Again there is no mention to which pieces of content have been found, shared, have citations on, have been liked, rated or commented on. OK you may not be talking about a site with these facilities, but really - can you make affirmative decisions without knowing this?

This is all of course ahead of even thinking about SEO. Are you aware of the importance of managing any organic back links that the content may have generated?

There's a lot more to this than you think. I like your editorial approach but it's just one part of the auditing process to my mind.

over 4 years ago

Greg Spence

Greg Spence, Managing Director at Connect4Advice Ltd

Hi Angus,

I agree with Tim there are other factors to consider. One key one you make no reference to at all is to consider what the objectives of your content strategy are.

Providing content to support every stage of the buying cycle, commonly known as the engagement cycle, is critical. Considering how content is moving prospects along the buying cycle and, therefore, meeting the objectives has to be considered as part of any content audit. Content is not just consumed from a website, social media engagement has also become more important and will continue to be so. Any audit should also take social media into account.

Anyone new to this process will be misled by your article and could delete content that is actually working for them.

over 4 years ago

Angus Gordon

Angus Gordon, Content strategist at Weave Web Communications

Hi Nick, Tim and Greg

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Let me clarify a few things.

I didn't intend my list of criteria for an audit to be exhaustive; sorry if I gave that impression. Social media sharing statistics are definitely something you would want to look at if your site is already set up for social media.

A content audit is only one element of a content strategy - one that is good to do first because it will help you clarify your objectives and the problems the rest of the strategy needs to solve. The overall strategy will take into account a whole range of things that have an impact on content, including SEO, social media and other sharing or re-use opportunities, business goals, the mobile web, user experience, writing and editing workflow, CMS issues, accessibility, internationalisation and more.

So I'm not suggesting people get trigger-happy and start deleting or changing content before they've been through the whole process. An initial content audit is about making broad preliminary assessments and recommendations.

A final comment about SEO: one of the benefits of a holistic analysis of content is that you can identify those instances where you might be ranking well for a given phrase, but the underlying content is poor from a readability and conversion point of view. In cases like this, you're not taking full advantage of the opportunity that the high ranking presents, so you should be looking at revising this content as a high priority.

over 4 years ago

Greg Spence

Greg Spence, Managing Director at Connect4Advice Ltd

Hello again Angus,

Thanks for clarifying your thinking.

I would suggest that the objective comes before the audit is conducted in order that one is not affected by content that no longer contributes towards achieving it.

It might have been clearer if you stated up front where in the overall process such an audit fits.

over 4 years ago

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John Ryder

With good quality content being so pertinent to SEO effectiveness (post Panda) I can't see how organisations can afford not to audit their content.

over 4 years ago

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Sanne Chinniah, Marketing Manager at Brewin Dolphin

Thanks for this post - as a generalist (non-specialist), I found the following books helpful: Content Strategy for the web by Kristina Halvorson and The Elements of Content Strategy. As Angus says, an audit is just the start, but one well worth it, and not only for SEO reasons!

over 4 years ago

Angus Gordon

Angus Gordon, Content strategist at Weave Web Communications

Thanks Sanne. I'd also recommend both of the books you mention.

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Angus,

Thanks for this - doing a regular audit of your content strategy is a must, as is using the output to define guidelines for ongoing content creation. Learn from the past, influence the future and evolve quality/relevance for customers.

One thing i've seen happen in the past is that content is culled with no wider appreciation of the impact on customers & SEO.

For example, pages are deleted because they are no longer relevant/being used - useful as search engines are putting more emphasis on recency and activity now.

However, these pages are likely to have some/all of the following:
* Bookmarks
* External links from other domains
* Keyword rankings
* Internal links
* Links in Sitemaps.

As alluded to by yourself and others, identifying which pages aren't really doing anything for your site KPIs is part one. Understanding the wider impact is part 2, and culling pages without this level of understanding is not to be advised.

I've seen Clients do this and then suddenly realise that they have shed loads of crawl errors e.g. 404s.

Thanks
james

over 4 years ago

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