The right way to do a content audit

At the wonderful Web Content 2010 conference this week, I heard a couple of interesting discussions about qualitative vs. quantitative content audits. Audits and inventories [here’s a nice discussion of the difference between audit and inventory] are the retail politics of content strategy. You’ve got to know what you’re working with or your effort risks being wasted or redundant.

And while few people seem to favorite this part of our work, most agree that it’s essential to figure out what you’re dealing with in existing content.

But there does seem to be a divide on whether or not it’s necessary to do a full inventory — a quantitative, page-by-page, item-by-item review and catalog of every piece of content you own. There is also a debate about whether it is better to do a cycle counting of your inventory as compared to an annual counting. While these Five Benefits of Cycle Counting Over Annual Inventory Counts would suggest that cycle counting is the better option, others would argue that it is not always necessary.

I hate to give you a wishy-washy answer, but I’m going to come down firmly on the “It depends,” side of the fence.

I got dragged into my first quantitative content inventory kicking and screaming several years ago. The site had several thousand documents, and my team and I had managed all of them from creation to expiration — so we knew in our heads exactly what was there. But the client wanted the comprehensive inventory, however redundant it seemed to me.

But [after the pain faded a bit] I can say that the quantitative was worth it. If key decisionmakers don’t know — and want to know — what’s there, you need a quantitative inventory. Even if you can describe what’s there, if you’re making decisions about direction and message and site design, nothing beats a full inventory.

We’re helping a client now with a smaller-scale quantitative inventory. They’re just moving to a real CMS for a new site, and there is some existing content, but it’s not in any one tool. So we all need to know what’s there — thus, a quantitative inventory is in order.

I do think there are places where you only need a qualitative review, though. Let’s say you’re working on a web project with some existing content. If your content is well organized in a good content management system, with great metadata, you may be able to simply do a qualitative audit — we have this kind of product description. Copy runs from X characters-X characters in length. Tone is technical. Etc.

I think this situation is rarer than we’d like to hope, but it’s out there.