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.

Unmanaged Content: Whac-A-Mole or Many-Headed Hydra?

Regardless, it’s not good.

Don’t feel bad; you’re not the only organization out there with a less-than-complete handle on your content. For organizations that have embraced the web for years, it may even be a bigger problem than for newbies. Because the longer you’ve been in this business, the more likely you are to have some legacy systems that never got adapted into a content management system….you know, because:

  • We don’t use the information on that microsite much.
  • It works fine the way it is.
  • So-and-so is the only one who needs to manage it and he’s familiar with that old system.

But what happens when:

  • You do need to use that information?
  • It no longer works?
  • So-and-so doesn’t work here anymore?

Ah, but that’s what happens to other people, right? Ahem.

Unmanaged content — the content you can’t name, or place, have forgotten entirely or that no one ever told you existed — will continue to loom over your head, portending your coming doom, until you physically capture and catalog it.

Ideally, you can put uncorralled content into your content management system once you find it. But even if that’s not possible due to technical constraints, a complete catalog of what you have will make your life easier.

Don’t wait for your content to find you — Murphy’s Law will bite you every time. Get out there and find that stuff!